Tag Archives: gratitude

Beautiful and Ugly

I’ve always loved dolls and the delightful escapism I can find in their tiny world. This lovely if somewhat tattered display case resides in my living room.

doll case

I found the case, wet from rain, by a tiny shrine many years ago. The dolls are my own; I made some of them. I spend time staring at them, thinking, “What if you were real?” No more than that. That’s enough.

I also love fairy tales, but not Disney extravaganzas. While I love the music in Fantasia, I’ve always found hippos wearing tutus disturbing. I also have to admit I’ve never seen Bambi and don’t want to. Those aren’t the tales I’m talking about. Sometime around high school, I discovered Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books of Many Colours. This was one of my favourites (British spelling by courtesy).orange fairy bookIf you thought ballet dancing hippos were weird, there’s a whole universe of strange in these books. They’re fairy tales collected from all over the world. According to Lang’s preface, “cruel and savage deeds have been softened down as much as possible” and most “take the side of courage and kindness and the virtues in general.” Still, there’s enough weird in these pages to satisfy…well…me.

In the Scandinavian tale The Enchanted Wreath, there is a couple, each bringing to the union a daughter from a previous marriage. The man’s daughter is beautiful and good, no doubt a virgin (spoiler alert!) until the prince has his way with her, while the woman’s daughter is cross and ugly and the prince will never look at her twice because beautiful men don’t marry ugly women, at least not in Hollywood or the pages of fairy tales. Ugly men can marry beautiful women, however, (Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, love them both despite their looks) and we’re meant to accept that as a social norm. Check Google if you don’t believe me.

Both daughters are asked to go out in the rain to fetch the man’s axe after he’s been woodcutting, although why the dumb-ass can’t remember to bring it home himself is beyond me. Each daughter finds some cold, wet doves sitting on the axe handle. Beautiful feeds and pets them and is rewarded with a wreath of eternal rosebuds adorned by invisible birds that never stop twittering, which sounds a bit thorny and annoying, but I didn’t write the story. Ugly, on the other hand, shoos the doves away calling them ‘dirty creatures’. Her reward is that she can never say anything but, ‘dirty creatures’ for the rest of her days, which seems to be giving those doves an awful lot of  power and outweigh the crime, but again, I didn’t write the story.

Just imagine.
“What do you want for breakfast?”
“Dirty creatures.”
“Um…we’ve got some stale corn flakes. Will that do?”

Long story short, a prince happens upon Beautiful in the woods, falls in love and proposes on the spot. The king is displeased but gets over it; the kid had always been headstrong anyway and the girl is just so darned pretty. Ugly and her mother are also displeased but don’t get over it. Instead, they indulge in some unethical conniving, including drowning Beautiful who somehow turns into a ghost and then a slimy snake that writhes in the prince’s hand until he lops off its head with his sword and Beautiful is returned to him intact, complete with thorny roses and twittering birds. There’s no explanation of how he knew he should do that; I rarely use a sword to lop off the heads of people I love, hexed or not. Ugly and her horrid mother are banished to a desert island and everyone else lives happily ever after. And that’s how it works in fairy tale land.

In real life, the hexes are more straightforward and less easily dealt with. Since the curtain came down last October, I’ve made it through surgeries and chemotherapy, more needles and bandages than I can begin to count, mostly delivered with caring and professionalism but also half-lies and brick walls and indifference. And there’s still a long way to go. Leaving home for the final chemo session last week, I put my hand on the knob to open my front gate and thought “sixteen.” Sixteen times I turned that knob, opened the gate, walked to the station, got on the train. Sixteen times I opened the door to the doctor’s office, sixteen times I sat in the chair and went through the procedure, sometimes easily, usually not. Sixteen times I got up again and came home. Sixteen.

With all of that, the past year has sucked in more ways I can name, but at the same time, it has brought so much love into my life. I am finding it not only in other people but also in myself. I find a capacity for giving and sharing that I didn’t know existed, a mutual need for human touch, for connection, but also to let go of the people who, intentionally or not, cause me nothing but pain. I hope this is a form of wisdom. I’ve got my people, all of us perfectly imperfect, all of us on a journey, all of us in the same boat, whatever form it may take, wherever it may be sailing, to paradise or to a desert island or just to the  convenience store on the corner.

I have found the strength to trust myself, to make decisions and live with the consequences, right or wrong, to feed the doves or shoo them away. I’ve never had to face this kind of challenge before, never really been sick before. The surreal world of Cancerland has posed such contradictions, such questions, offered so few answers and I am the kind of person who needs things to be straightforward. I am only now beginning to realize how much this has changed my life, not just my body, but also my mind, my outlook, my overall perspective. Forever, I will have this threat hanging over me. The old normal will never return; I have to learn to live with a new normal. The collateral damage is still unimaginable to me, the snake still writhing  in my hand. I can never know which way he will turn his slimy head and I seem to have left my sword somewhere, perhaps next to dumb-ass’s axe.

This journey is both beautiful and ugly and that’s real life, unadorned by the good or the bad, the dancing hippos or perpetual roses or slimy snakes or jealous stepmothers. Despite all that, or maybe because of it, somehow we find a way to keep going.

three princessesw


When I was born, I had bright red hair, just like my grandmother. Or so I am told. In one of life’s petty cruelties, nobody bothered to take any baby pictures of me. On the other hand, my mother says I came out bright red and screaming, covered with a rash to match my hair. Several of the delivery room nurses ran away screaming. One of them fainted. Maybe I should be grateful that there aren’t any pictures.

Six months later, my mother picked me up out of my crib and my flaming hair remained on the pillow. I am told I was bald for a few months, then my hair grew in pale blonde and straight as a board. By high school, it had started to darken and curl and by my late twenties it was its current somewhere-between-blonde-and-brown. A few years ago, Mother Nature started tossing in grey as well. Tokyo humidity gives it a texture that varies from corkscrew to afro. Most of the time, I like my hair.

Now it’s falling out again, thanks to the toxic waste being pumped into my arm each week. Knowing this was coming, I got it cut very short a few weeks ago, thinking that would make the transition easier to handle. It didn’t. The change is devastating. It’s not just vanity; there’s more to it than that. They’ve taken so much from me already and they’re still not satisfied. Now they want to take my hair and, along with it, the last shred of my privacy. Unless I get a few tattoos and some extra piercings, I don’t have an exotic enough look to pull off bald, so the fact that I have cancer will follow me around like a spotlight on a darkened stage.

Sharing that stage with me is Anne Frank. Her story is currently in production and opens next week. I spent Sunday making aprons for her mother and the other woman who shared that spartan attic in Amsterdam.


As I sat there stitching and shedding, I thought about Anne and her family and the millions of others who were devastated by that war. I’ve seen pictures of women in the camps, naked, their heads shorn. I have no business likening my situation to theirs.

My yoga teacher started our last class with a quote from Richard Bach: “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.” I am a firm believer in silver linings, in trying to be positive, in always looking for the good, even if it means having to look really, really hard.

I also believe in gratitude, in reminding myself each day how lucky I am. I have so much: plenty to eat, a warm bed, family, friends, money in the bank. And it was not so very long ago that a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence. So I should be grateful for that, too. I should be grateful for the bounty in my life and that I was born as who and what I am, grateful that in my life, at least, there has always been peace.

I will try, but deep inside me there is a red-headed, red-faced baby banging her fists and heels against the floor and screaming in protest. I think I’m entitled to that.

My Pasmo Pal


When I got off the train at Shibuya this morning, I noticed that my Pasmo prepaid train card wasn’t in its usual pocket in my backpack. After a moment of frantic scrambling, I realized I must have dropped it on the train. I scurried back and spotted my card lying on the floor just as the doors were closing.

SHIT! I said out loud.

It wasn’t a great monetary loss; there was only about 1000yen left on it. And in this honesty loving country, there’s a good chance I would eventually have gotten it back. It has my name printed on it and I registered my phone number with the train people when I bought it. But I would have had to go to the ticket counter, explain the situation, fill out a form, pay an extra fare, inconvenience throngs of other morning travelers, be late for work and get myself into a foul mood.

As all of that passed before my eyes, a young man on the train must have seen my expression and followed my eye line, because he immediately bent down, picked up my card, and waved it at me with a big smile. I nodded and smiled back with enthusiasm. Then we had a “what now?” moment and came to the same conclusion at the same moment. We both stepped toward the window, which he opened and passed my card to me just as the train started pulling out of the station.


I hope the unicorns of destiny did something particularly nice for him today. Grasping a moment to do something kind without thinking twice is a mark of all that is good in humanity. I have felt warm and fuzzy all day.

The River Flows On

Big River closed last Sunday. While a major production like that is never easy, it was a joy and a challenge which I welcomed.

full cast


All through high school I was in a theater group called Guerilla Theater. The group was all high school students but our directors were grad students from the theater department at Carnegie Mellon University. They were very good: young, creative, energetic. In my first production with Guerilla, I played a sacrificial virgin in Dracula. For the opening scene, I lay down over Dracula’s casket looking at the audience backward and upside down, then someone cut my throat with a fake knife and fake blood dripped down the side of my face. One night, a piece of makeup fell into my eye, and being dead and all, I wasn’t supposed to blink. But the makeup hurt and after a few seconds, a tear fell out of my eye and slid down my cascading hair. A friend was sitting in the front row; I saw her eyes go wide and her face turn pale. Now that’s good theater.

We did a lot of productions. I once played a character named The Richest Girl in the World. We also did an acted-out radio show and some Moliere farces. Cool stuff. The group was vibrant and the productions challenging. But by my senior year, the community center that hosted us suddenly veered toward the conservative and chose some kid’s mother as our director. Most of us quit when she announced that the next play would be You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

I did a little acting and a lot of costuming in college and always enjoyed the camaraderie of the costume shop, but once I left the States, I never went back to the theater. All these years, I had imagined the Tokyo International Players were a group of bored expat housewives with nothing better to do; thoughts of them evoked frightening visions of Charlie Brown inside my head. But then a friend was in their production of Avenue Q. I went to see it and was astonished. I’ve seen several other productions since and they’ve all been really excellent. Not a bored housewife in sight, these are dedicated, talented professionals who do these productions not for money but for love of the stage and everything that goes into bringing a play to life.

Theater people tend to be a tad kooky, but usually in the best sense. I loved interacting with the actors and crew, our hearty laughter and quick moments of reaching out, the gentle companionship of fellow costumers stitching away under the stage as we listened to the singing and dancing going on above us.

Hannah and Lensei

This is our director, the lovely and talented Hannah Grace, with her charming husband who shall remain nameless and faceless because he’s secretly a member of AKB48 or something like that; I didn’t really understand the explanation of that. I didn’t understand the explanation of the pink jackets, either, but Hannah is the reason I got involved with the production in the first place and I hope she knows how grateful I am.

All in all, it was a great experience. I managed to connect with a lot of wonderful people. I reconnected with parts of myself I had nearly forgotten about and found strength I didn’t know I had. I was reminded that there’s more to life than work and getting paid. And, as icing on the cake, I got to see how cute my monkey looks when he’s wearing a mop cap.

Monkey Mop Cap


Finding Balance

Give me tuna or prepare yourself for the consequences.
 Give me tuna. Now. There is no “or else”.

There’s something going on in the balance of the celestial energy and it’s having a perverse effect on me. I think it began in June when Twitchy arrived. I’ve lived with cats on and off for most of my life, but had never taken on a feral one. Neither of us had any idea what we were getting ourselves into. People who have recently quit smoking should not be expected to have this amount of patience, but six months later, we’ve come a long way. I have very few scratches on my hands and arms, she hasn’t peed in the bed in ages, and when she’s in the mood, she’s almost aggressively cuddly. This is GOOD.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERALast week, Karlina came to visit. We’ve known each other for about fifteen years but had never met, I had never even heard her voice. She was my main contact at Sesame Workshop when I was liaison between New York and NHK. As she put it, she inherited me when Veronica (who it turns out is NOT Jewish) got promoted and we were in nearly daily contact by email. She’s been going to Cambodia, where she does good things, now and then for the past ten years and decided to drop by on the way home. We had a grand time, as I knew we would. This is GOOD.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve also started going to the theater again. I love the theater but had been badly disappointed and painfully overcharged a few times in recent years so pretty much gave up. I knew there was English language community theater, but assumed it was a bunch of ex-pat housewives with zero talent and too much time on their hands. I was wrong. There are some truly gifted actors out there doing it simply for the love of the art and I’ve been lucky to see a good bit of it in the past year. Pictured above is the lovely and talented Rachel Walzer who recently appeared in God of Carnage. I’ve had the pleasure of directing her in narrations but had never seen her perform live. She was GOOD.

A friend and I had a discussion about whether there is energy because there is life or there is life because there is energy. I’m a supporter of the former; I believe energy is created when life begins. My friend believes energy continues when life no longer exists. I’m starting to think maybe he’s right, but not in a reincarnation sort of sense. Maybe when life is gone, its energy goes someplace else. Maybe it does create new life. That’s possible, but maybe it does something else. It might become an idea or inspire someone to do something great. Maybe it makes the bread rise or the rain fall or the flowers bloom or the sun set. Or maybe it inspires just the right amount of empathy and kindness at just the right time to make a difference in someone’s life. That would be GREAT.

Gratitude 2015

I'm the one in the orange sheet.
I’m the one in the orange sheet.

We made it through our first smoke free holiday season, and I find myself profoundly grateful for a lot of things.

I’m grateful for the wonderful new people who have come into my life. I’m grateful for Kelly, who is not only teaching me to trust my body but also to look inside myself to try to understand my place in this universe and my attitude toward it.  I’m grateful for Rob, who can keep me both thoughtful and laughing for hours on end.  I’m grateful for all my quit sisters, particularly Jan, Leanne and Susan. Our cyber-hand holds and hugs have helped to make this journey bearable in ways I can’t begin to explain.

I’m grateful for Twitchy, for the irony of being given a chance to share my home with something more beautiful than the greatest masterpiece of classical art yet more evil than the darkest specter of hell. I’m grateful for understanding that the world is often as out of focus as she is.

I’m grateful for whatever it was that at long last helped us find the strength we needed to stop smoking. Working through the whys and wherefores of all that continues to be one of the greatest challenges of my life, and the most fulfilling.

I’m grateful to the Dalai Lama for helping me understand what happiness really is. I’m grateful for the Christmas dinner we finally had time for last night. I’m grateful for the people who shared it with us. I’m grateful for being able to care about people. I’m grateful for the interwebs and the air in my lungs and sunlight and kerosene and smiles from strangers and oatmeal cookies and shoelaces.

dessertI’m grateful for being given another year to stumble through. I’m grateful for whatever gifts and challenges it will present. I’m grateful for knowing I have the strength to handle whatever those things will be, and for having the sense to know just how great a gift that is.

Drawing by Renaissance Man Rodger Sono. Used with permission.
Drawing by Renaissance Man Rodger Sono. Used with permission.

Batter Up

You never know what the universe is going to throw at you until it does, and when it does, you’ve probably left your catcher’s mitt in the other room.

People keep asking me why we finally decided to stop smoking when we did and the only answer I can give is that the time was right. Something in the stars aligned, the divine consciousness came out of its comatose slumber, kismet stuck a foot into the aisle and I stumbled over it. As this year draws on, I become more and more aware that the universe is trying it tell me something. I’m trying to listen.

After boxing class the other day, I had some time to kill, so did some yoga and stretching. Sensei was softly shuffling papers in his little cubicle and dopey love songs were playing in the background. I spent the last fifteen minutes meditating and when I opened my eyes, just for the briefest of moments, I didn’t know who or where I was. I think that means I’m doing it right.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERASo when lovely Kelly invited me to a yoga nidra class at the studio she goes to, I thought the universe was once again whispering in my ear and I went. The yoga part was challenging but fulfilling. The movements of the woman next to me were poetry, especially compared to my awkward fumbling, but instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt inspired. She flowed more smoothly than a river and each pose was a transient moment of pure beauty.

The nidra part is a guided meditation that is supposed to be a form of conscious sleeping, but I guess I didn’t do it right because all I could think was, “I wish the silly woman would shut up so I can focus on not focusing on anything.” She did say, though, that we could send out a little healing to someone who might need it. I did. You know who you are.

While this has so far been an astonishing year, I am finding I need to look deep inside myself to find the strength to cope with the obstacle course that is laying itself out in front of me. Each day offers new joys and challenges. I remind myself to be grateful for all the good things in my life, grateful for the roof over my head and the food in my fridge, grateful for the good people who touch my life every day, grateful for my body as it carries me through my days, grateful for every breath I take. I can’t possibly be prepared for the unknowable, but I can keep my catcher’s mitt handy and at least try to catch a good game.

The Tale of the Little Green Monster

I’ve never met most of the people who read this blog, so you can’t know this about me, but I was a heavy smoker for more than thirty years, Rochi even longer, both of us for our entire adult lives. I’ve always been careful not to mention smoking here, fearing people would think less of me because of it. (Yes, I’m that much of a weenie.) Add that to the lengthy list of reasons to quit.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAnd quit we did, just over a month ago. I have a lot to say about that but it may take some time before I’m ready. The little green monster who lives behind my left ear still jabs my brain with his pointy pitchfork every now and then, giving me a “Ka-Pow!” moment. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and send out thoughts of gratitude for dopamine replacement therapy.

Wish me luck. Or better yet, wish me strength.

Amy and Me

Back in December, my old friend Amy was in town, however briefly. We had been roommates freshman year in college, and lived together pretty much all the way through school after that, except for junior year when I was abroad. Sophomore year, a group of us shared Pine Tree House. Pine Tree House 1983 That’s Amy at the upper right.

I’ve since lost touch with most of these people, except for Darrell. He’s sitting next to Amy.

After college, Amy went on to become a lawyer and then some kind of big cheese with the United Nations. She jets around the world doing her part to make it a better place.

She had flown in from Doha or some such and was supposed to be in town just for one night, but arranged to stay an extra day so she could hang with me, then fly three quarters of the way around the world in the wrong direction to get back home. That made me feel pretty special indeed.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAShe was staying at The New Otani, a posh hotel in a business district. The only time I’d ever been there before was when a wealthy student of mine took me to a hotel restaurant called La Tour D’Argent and I got the menu without any prices on it. Oh, my.

The first day, Amy and I spent a couple of hours just wandering around the neighborhood, catching up. We’d both been through some similar challenges in recent years and had a lot to say. I can’t tell you how good it felt to be able to open up like that. I’ve had wonderful friends here over the years, but one problem with being an expat is that people leave, and as you get older, it gets harder and harder to replace them.

The day after her meetings, Amy wanted to do some shopping, so I suggested that she come to my neighborhood, and when she got here, she said she’d really like to have a massage. “Sure,” I said, “there’s a place by the station that’s quite reasonable.” I hadn’t been there but had wanted to try it. The place was on the third floor, and as we were climbing the steps, she suddenly stopped, turned to me and asked, “This isn’t going to be one of those…sex kind of things, is it?” I just laughed and said, “Nah. This isn’t that kind of neighborhood.” I liked that she didn’t have any way of knowing that.

An hour later, both semi-comatose, we were re-arranging ourselves, and she said, “That goes on the list of one of the best hours of my life.” Yup. It really was.

After a Really Great bowl of noodles for lunch, we hit a couple of stores. She started running out of cash and asked where there might be an ATM. “No problem,” says me, “there’s a Post Office around the corner.”

One of the oddly third world things about Japan is that the banks are not on the international banking grid, but the Post Office ATMs are. That still amazes me. I’ve gotten cash from my US bank account at ATMs in Luxor, Egypt, and the Middle of Nowhere, Cappadocia, Turkey, but in Japan, an otherwise (sort of) fully developed first world country, you have to go to the Post Office. (I’ve heard they’re thinking of rectifying that in time for the Olympics, so they’ve still got six years to dither about it.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI promised I wouldn’t tell the umbrella story, so I won’t. Let’s just say that Amy was inadvertently naughty, and it didn’t occur to either of us to give it back.

Amy wanted to buy a Really Great Knife, so I took her to the Really Great Knife Store, but on the way warned her that my knife vocabulary is rather limited.

“Suck it up, kiddo,” she said. “You know more than I do.” So I did, and we managed to procure a Really Great Knife as well as some other stuff. Amy has always been a fan of tools.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAHaving had about all the shopping either of us could take, and still having some time before her flight, we came to my house. Here in the study, I noticed her looking at this shelf. “That’s my vanity shelf,” I said. “It’s all stuff I’ve published.”

She stared at me for a moment and then said, “So you’re kind of famous?”

That one surprised me. “I guess, in a very small way and a very small world, I am kind of famous. But you can’t begin to compare what I do with what you do.”

And then she was gone, but it was wonderful to get a fresh perspective on my life by sharing it with someone I’ve known so well for so long. I loved that I could use my language and experience to make things happen for someone I care about. Sharing memories of people we both knew, and things that we did together, and all that’s come between then and now, and the people that we’ve become isn’t something I get to do very often. Most likely, neither of us will ever cure cancer or invent a better mousetrap, but I think we both turned out pretty well.

Thanks, Amy. It was a great day.

Amy and Me, December 2013
Amy and Me, December 2013

A Tale of Universal Appeal

140117_0938~01I learned my lesson from the morning train ride on Wednesday. It is worth being at the wrong end of the train to take the women only car. It was still packed but I didn’t have a bunch of smelly men towering over me, jamming their briefcases into my back.

We finished Soness’s recording early and I had about 45 minutes before the next voice would arrive. She needed to get her hair styled and invited me to go with her, which sounded like a perfectly girly, fun way to kill some time. I sat in the chair next to hers and we chattered about facial feng shui and how changing your looks changes how you feel about yourself.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERABack to the studio, another break between voices. One of my colleagues commented on the pink mouse and I said it’s not really me. The kind of person who has a pink mouse is the kind of person who dots their I’s with little hearts and covers their cell phone and fingernails with sparkly things. I have NEVER dotted an I with a heart, not even when I was 13. I abhor sparkly nails and my phone is unadorned. My colleague suggested that the next time I go to the office to test software they’ll give me a pink headset covered with sparkles so it looks like a tiara.

I think not.

That job done, I had three hours to kill, and having had such fun at the historical museum, I decided to check out the fire museum.

What I learned at the fire museum:

Fire is a big deal anywhere, but especially in Japan where for generations, buildings were made of wood and paper. Unless one lived on the banks of a river, there was no infrastructure to provide adequate water for firefighting, so when the town lookout sounded the alarm, fire brigades came running, not with buckets and hoses but with metal hooks attached to spears.

Fire brigade standards

Each brigade’s standard bearer would leap onto the roof of a house surrounding the burning one and dance around with the standard until his feet started getting hot. (There was a great deal of honor, and machismo, surrounding how long the dancer could maintain his position.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAMeanwhile, the fire brigades would proceed with tearing down the surrounding houses so the fire wouldn’t spread. This was called “demolition firefighting”.

Fires could start for any number of reasons. Perhaps someone tripped over a kerosene stove or a charcoal cooking brazier got knocked over by an earthquake. Perhaps Mrs. Ohara’s cow kicked over a lantern.

There was no insurance in those days, so people kept their valuables in big wooden boxes on wheels so they could bug out quickly. Unfortunately, those boxes also blocked the streets and impeded the fire fighters and were eventually banned. So if you were the unfortunate slob who started a fire, not only did your neighbors lose their houses, they lost everything else. I wouldn’t have wanted to be him.

I didn’t get a personal docent this time, but I really wanted a silly picture to go with this post, so I asked the reception desk lady and she gladly obliged.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERALeaving the museum, I ran into Kan, a freelance director I’ve worked with a few times over the years. It’s almost spooky how often I run into people I know. There are 12 million people in Tokyo and I don’t know that many of them. Maybe I’m connected to people on some plane I’m not aware of.

The final studio job went fine. I got to direct, which I enjoy, and the voice was Matthew, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 10 years. We bantered. It was fun.

Leaving the studio, I was greeted by a gorgeous, orange-tinted full moon. I stared in wonder as my warm breath clouded the frosty air.

I don’t know what’s going on with my karma these days. It feels like something is trying to fill a void that has been empty for too long. Maybe the universe is reaching out to me; maybe I’m reaching out to the universe; maybe it’s mutual. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for it.