Farewell, Maria -- We'll Miss You

It's been almost a month since we moved into our cozy little hotel room and, sadly, our stay is coming to an end: We finally found an apartment. Some might hate the transiency of it all, or feel that a hotel room could not possibly ever feel like home, but I beg to differ. Hell, if my husband's company had offered to pay for a longer stay, I would have happily prolonged our search. The bed is big and so comfy, they put out a basket of the best cookies at the front desk in the evenings, and then there's Maria, of course. Maria always makes sure I've got enough coffee, microwave popcorn, and kitchen paper towels. I love kitchen paper towels; I find them incredibly extravagant--not that I go crazy and abuse my unlimited access to the paper towels in an environmentally unfriendly manner, of course.

In any case, my husband's company gave us exactly a month to find a place. Thus, in the end, we were kind of forced to settle. The place we're moving into is way WAAAAAY too expensive. It's one storey above a busy eight-lane thoroughfare. And...there are these weird clouds of flies that permanently hang out in the lobby. My husband mocks me for objecting to the flies. They're just flies, he says. Okay, no, they are not "just flies." Flies are ordinarily drawn to garbage and things like that, right? But these flies--these massive dark thunderclouds of flies--just hover in the air, in a very scene-out-of-a-Stephen-King-novel-made-into-an-HBO-made-for-television-movie kind of way. Seriously. It's ominous and plain freaky. What do they want?

All that aside, really I should be very grateful that we found anything at all. Palo Alto shop people might be nice about dogs but the apartments people are not. And, hey, after the dog pee at Macy's incident, I can't say I blame them for not wanting all the potential hassles.

Also, I had forgotten how crazy Americans are about the whole "credit history" thing. Which is unfortunate--since my husband and I don't have any! We actually had our apartment application rejected initially. Totally humiliating experience. One second, the leasing agent was all but clasping me to her pillowy bosom, crying, "Welcome home!" (seriously), and the next, I was getting ear frostbite after an extremely chilly phone call informing me that our credit check had come back with unsatisfactory results. Duh, woman, we just moved here from Japan.

Not to get into the nitty-gritties, but eventually, we were rescued by a real estate company that will act as a guarantor of sorts--for a small fee, of course. Which we very gratefully agreed to pay. Makes me wonder though how other foreigners deal. AT-&-Bloody-T refused to give me a stinkin' phone line because I didn't have a social security number or a driver's license--one or the other; no substitutes. And Verizon demanded a $400 deposit from my husband for cell phone service, after another of those pesky credit checks came back with not much to show. I'm telling you, I was practically holding my breath when I called the electricity company, wondering if they'd actually grant us impudent aliens a little light in our new home. Thankfully, they were nice, so at least I won't have to head over to Wal-mart for candles.


Somewhat Unreal

Sorry, sorry. Everyone now thinks I'm in San Francisco because of my last post and and then my lack of follow-up for weeks. Remember that evil editing project that was sucking the life out of me right before the move? Hmm, maybe I was being too life-sucked to even blog about it. Well, it was taking up my time and it has continued to take up my time, since I got here. Which is why I haven't been as free to blog and, oh, say, search for a place to live as I should have been.

Anyhow, we're not in San Francisco, but close. Well, 45-minutes-ish close. Palo Alto? You know, Stanford University, Google, Silicon Valley, etc. So, we've been here almost three weeks now and will probably be here for three years, at least. Then back to Japan.

Perhaps it's because I'm living in a hotel. Or because I'm coming from a place that is so radically different, but Palo Alto feels...unreal. Not in a good or bad way. It's just... Take the weather: flawless blue skies and blinding sunshine, all day, every day, until about 8pm at night, when the sun finally begins a very languid descent. And it doesn't change ever, we've been told, except for like a month of scattered clouds and drizzles in December. Unreal. Also, with this kind of weather, you'd think the place would be nothing but scorched earth (I, myself, am in fear that a few more months of walking under this unrelenting sun and I'm going to bear a striking resemblance to Clint Eastwood). But no, everywhere you look, there are the lushest, sweetest-green lawns you could imagine. You know the movie "Toys" with Robin Williams? Sometimes this place reminds me of the outdoor scenes for that movie (remember the giant toy elephant perched in the grass, blowing soap bubbles out of its trunk?).

Right now, we're searching for a home, but we haven't had much luck. As I mentioned, we've been staying at a hotel, one that accepts dogs, and life is pretty luxurious at the moment: heated pool (if you don't mind that it's permanently roiling with wee noisy munchkins on summer vacation and, combined with that, is permanently heated to a disturbingly warm temperature), free breakfast, and a very nice lady named Maria who cleans our room. We like Maria, my husband especially. He's always pointing out to me Maria's exemplary cleaning habits: "Look at the way Maria organizes the shampoo and conditioner bottles," he says, eyes glowing with approval. And, "Ahh, it's so nice to come back to a clean house. I wish we could live here forever." I try to point out how exhausted poor Maria looks some days, but that part doesn't seem to register with him. Maria has one other problem: She's scared of Edward. It doesn't help that he squeals and struggles in my arms like a rabid pig to get to Maria so that he can get some lovin', but, essentially, I have to keep Edward out of the room while she's cleaning. Unfortunately, Maria always comes at the hottest time of the afternoon, and so a walk is impossible. Edward and I have thus taken to hanging out in the deserted hotel dining area, me working at my laptop, Edward stretched out under the table while furtively lapping up crumbs embedded in the carpet.

This is another unreal thing about Palo Alto: You can take your dog just about anywhere. We recently visited the Stanford Shopping Center with Edward in tow, and were peering through the window of the Pottery Barn, when another couple cooly strolled inside with their dog. Another time, a security guard actually asked me to come into the store when he spotted Edward and me waiting outside for my husband.

How nice, right? But then...

Recently, still smiling at the sight of a bull terrier trotting through Macy's with its owner, I walked over to a counter and stepped right in a huge, sloshy puddle--though it was more like a small lake; no, a sea; the Parting of the Yellow Sea is what it quite literally felt like--of said bull terrier's pee. Needless to say, it was totally gross. And so I now fully understand the pros and cons of a pet-friendly society.


Welcome to California

Well, we made it to and through San Francisco International Airport, Edward and I. My husband headed out separately, commanded by the head of the US division of his company to go to New York, say hello, grovel a bit for this grand opportunity bestowed upon him, and then turn around and come back to California. It's an old-fashioned kinda company.

The part I was most worried about--flying with Edward--turned out to be a breeze. Because it was a nine-hour trip from Tokyo, I didn't want the little guy in cargo but I stressed a bit about the idea of him being stuck in his carrier bag for all that time. Thankfully, he's small and quiet, and I don't think the flight crew even noticed he was tucked under the seat in front of me...so, I made quite a few bathroom trips, lugging a rather large "totebag" with me each time. I wonder if I looked a tad suspicious to my fellow travellers. Ah well, at least Edward got to stretch his legs every few hours in the little airplane lavatory. It was quite funny, just seeing him there.

Going through US customs with Edward was also ridiculously easy. They asked me if I had any dog food, I said I did, they took it away from me, and then they told me I could go. I was like, "Don't you even want to see my dog? Or his health certificate?" And they were like, "No. Hey, say congratulations to Bob, here. He just got a promotion." Congratulations, Bob.


One Week to Go

Looks like I won't be able to blog at length until I get to California, and it has nothing to do with being busy preparing for the move and everything to do with a cruel, unsympathetic colleague who's putting preposterous work demands upon me before I leave Japan.

Quick summation: mad daily deadlines aside, we're pretty much all set, thanks to my wonderful husband, who has had to handle almost all the arrangements. As payback, he says I have to handle everything once we're on English-speaking soil again. He's taking advantage of my currently apologetic state. And I feel bad enough to let him.

Last week: Got Edward microchipped. To enter Japan, your dog must have a microchip that's ISO 11784 or 11785 compliant (in case anyone's confused, we had to get this done in preparation of our return to Japan in a few years). Got a bit worried the night before the chipping, but a quick online search reassured me that it's nothing worse than getting a vaccine and most dogs don't seem to mind. Then we got to the vet and she started saying things about big needles, blood, and it being best if I stayed out in the waiting lounge while they inserted the microchip. After an increasingly tense 45-minute wait, the vet, face strangely flushed, finally stumbled through a door and ushered me into one of the rooms. My eyes instantly fell upon Edward, who lay in a defeated slump on the examination table. (His normal response to those tables is to climb the nearest available person to get off it or simply take a flying leap, never mind that for his height, that must be the equivalent of a free-fall off the Brooklyn Bridge.) Another nurse was pressing some gauze to a spot near his shoulders and it came away bright with blood. Then I saw the needle itself. It was big--2mm wide, the vet said. I think Edward thought so too and tried his best to protest--hence, the red-faced vet. We then had to wait another hour, back in the lounge, with Edward collapsed on the couch beside me like a deflated soup dumpling. When a fat corgi waddled in and Edward's ears didn't even prick, I almost thought they'd drugged him. He remained in this shell-shocked state the rest of the day.

When I took a break from work in the evening, I turned to find Edward huddled against the couch
and finally had to launch a vulture hand puppet (one of his toys) attack, to coax him out of the Land of the Impossibly Betrayed.

He's fine now. And he beeps, like an item getting price-checked at Walmart, when you hold a microchip scanner over his back. It's rather funny in a totally exploitive way.


I promise that the next post will be about the move to California. Unfortunately, I'm going to be up yet again (see previous post) at 5am tomorrow, this time for an interview to get my American visa, so I have to finish up my work and try for at least four hours of sleep tonight. Since there's no barium involved, I'm almost looking forward to getting grilled.

What Happened with the Barium

I wanted to blog about what happened with the barium-drinking yesterday after I got home, but was totally monopolized by work. Okay, I was also monopolized by the couch for a while, because I'd woken up at 5:30 that morning in order to walk Edward and then get to the clinic in time for the health check. Which meant I'd only had two hours of sleep, half of which I lost to in-bed agonizing.

I was slightly comforted when Edward and I stepped outside to discover the most gorgeous weather in full bloom. Although I'm never awake to enjoy it, I love the slow, private feeling of early morning. I decided then and there to make a habit of waking up at 5am after I turn 60.

The hour-long train ride brought all the stress right back. I was with my husband, whose "Don't be a baby" pep talks only confirmed that I'd be getting no assistance from his corner. I hunkered down, feeling tense, alone, and really quite thirsty since I'd been told not to drink anything after nine the night before. I waffled for a little bit, telling myself there had to be some way out of this, then trying to talk myself into accepting that I had to do it. But inexorably, my fear gained firm and total control. The barium-water suspension (in a now Super Big Gulp sized tankard) I kept trying to picture myself swallowing had morphed from the consistency of milkshake to plaster of paris. I'd once made a mask of someone's face with plaster of paris and I remember how fast it set. I imagined the barium congealing halfway down my throat.

I could do this. I had to do it. But then I thought: No, I bloody well do not have to do it. People have died from refusing blood transfusions and chemotherapy, and maybe refusing was the wrong choice, but it was their choice to make. Suddenly the expression "pick your battles" popped into my head and, worthy or not, I picked: There'd be no drinking of barium for me today.

A dozen scenarios played in my head as I tested out my limited Japanese, trying to formulate the most articulate, effective argument I could present to the staff at the clinic. I quickly nixed the idea of sobbing out a heartrending plea and prostrating myself before a stony nurse. (I don't know why, but all the nurses I've ever encountered in Japan have been stony, both in heart and facial expression, which utterly baffles me since why would an uncaring person choose a line of work in which it's practically your job to care?) I tried out calm, lucid, and reasonable, but found it difficult to maintain this facade when my only defense was: "I can't swallow thick, creamy drinks." Eventually, I stopped rehearsing and just told myself I'd stick to my guns, no matter what. I wouldn't worry about being polite and accommodating for once. I would stand up for myself.

Finally we were exiting the train, me all grim-faced determination. And then, after a short wait in the clinic reception area, my moment arrived, my battle, and I made myself squarely face the nurse holding my chart.

Me: [Pleasant but firm] Excuse me, is the part of the exam that requires drinking barium absolutely necessary?

Nurse: No.

Husband: [Surprised, almost disappointed at my reprieve, the stinker] Really?

Nurse: Totally up to you.

Of course since the nurse was speaking in formal Japanese, her response took several pages longer to get out. But the above was the essence of it. God, you would not believe the relief that just about caused my chest to cave in at that moment. Admittedly, as far as battles went, it was a pretty pitiful one. Not even sure one could call it a "battle." But I'd won. I wouldn't have to choke down, or puke up, barium. I was the happiest girl in the whole world.


Rescue Me

I'll be leaving Japan at the end of this month and living in California for a few years. Husband's getting transferred. Before anyone starts screaming "Why didn't you tell me before?"--we were only informed about the move last week. And it's been a bit 'o madness around here, what with procuring all the necessary documents, sorting out our apartment, deciphering animal import/export regulations, and everything else.

That news out of the way, all I can say is: I don't want to drink barium! (Just so you know how upset I am about this, I almost put three exclamation marks at the end of the previous sentence.) I've never liked my husband's company for all sorts of reasons, but I've, as much as possible, withheld my opinions because he gets rather sensitive when I defame that hallowed establishment. Well, this time they go too far. I honestly do not understand why--since I sure as hell am not one of theirs--but they are insisting that I get a full health check before we move, and this health check includes a Barium Swallow. Without knowing much at all about the procedure, all my life, I've felt this is something that I would avoid at all costs. Now that I have to do it (tomorrow), I've of course tortured myself by reading everything I can find on the ordeal.

My husband--and probably many of you, upon reading this post--thinks I'm being a sniveling, wussy cocktail wiener. What he doesn't realize is that this isn't me being what he categorizes as typically contrary, noisy, and difficult. This is me trying my best to tamp down full-blown terror.

I can, in fact, quietly and calmly withstand a fair amount, in terms of medical tests: needles, invasive procedures, all that good stuff. I'm also unfussy where food is concerned. But what I cannot handle is drinking thick, creamy substances. It isn't just the gag factor, the roiling nausea; the thought of it actually makes my innards squidge and my throat close up in a serious panic. Insects, animal entrails, heads, hoofs, claws--fine, serve me up a plate. But mayonnaise, banana smoothies, creamy yogurt--*shudder*. And still, if I took it a teaspoon at a time, I could manage to down those things.

But tomorrow's x-ray is going to require fast gulping of large quantities (two to three cups) of barium mixed with water to a dense, "milkshake-like consistency," some of it done while lying down.

I can't do it! All of a sudden, I'm recalling those fluoride treatments at the dentist that used to make me all but hyperventilate with fear as a child. The dentist would insist that I bite down "harder" on the trays filled with creamy, sweet fluoride, and when I obeyed, the fluoride would gush over the sides and start filling my mouth, flowing toward the back of my throat. Breathe. Deep breaths.

This must be a phobia, right? I mean, if I step back from the situation, I can see that my reaction is verging on extreme. But, A phobia of what?, you might be wondering with some derision: Too much sour cream with my borscht? Strawberry malts? As unappealing as such things are to me, it's more... a fear of being choked, of drowing in viscous substances. It's a phobia--it's not supposed to be logical.

Why, why do I have to have a health check, I ask you? If the company is worried about liability, I'll happily sign a release form, promising I won't cause them any trouble if I fall sick and/or die while overseas. Why am I even their responsibility? I'm just a wife, and a non-Japanese one at that. Who gives a damn about my esophagus and intestines? If I start screaming when the nurse advances on me with a large tumbler of barium, will the doctor put a big red X on my report, deny me permission to leave Japan? For the love of god, this seems so antiquated--surely they could come up with less-crude methods. Well, obviously not in time to save me from tomorrow.