Friday, December 29, 2006

Article: Happy New Year!

The holiday isn’t over for my family. We eschew the standard celebrations to focus on the turning of the calendar. As the glittering ball falls in Times Square--delayed one hour--we blow horns and pop poppers. By 12:10, the floor is completely covered with confetti. Then we sit down to exchange gifts.

It wasn’t always this way. I was raised non-Christian. By that I mean that while we didn’t believe in any gods or supernatural phenomena, our heritage was Christian. My mother’s family was some sort of German Protestant and my father’s was Greek Orthodox. My grandparents even had me baptized. But neither my parents nor later my stepfather were religious. Still we put up a bright aluminum Christmas tree every year and celebrated in the Christian manner.

I continued the tradition with my first husband who hadn’t given religion enough thought to know what he was. When Coral was born on December 23rd, I put her bassinet under the tree for a Christmas photo. The kids’ father didn’t have much of a sense of humor about social norms and Christmas was on the boring side while we were together. After our divorce, it got more fun. One year I hid the presents and told the kids Santa was sick. The Easter Bunny stood in for him but didn’t understand that the presents were to be left under the tree.

Then I met Rick who is non-Jewish. He is, however, more Jewish than I am Christian. He said it made him uncomfortable celebrating Christmas. He was raised Jewish and his mother and sister are followers of the religion. They wouldn’t like him celebrating Christmas. It didn’t matter to me so we switched over to Chanukah.

Chanukah is a beautiful holiday. The kids loved eight days of gifts. Candle races were a big event each night as we tried to guess which would last the longest. But most nights of Chanukah fall on workdays and Rick’s work ethic is warped. He couldn’t make it home at dusk for Chanukah dinner. After a few years I told him we weren’t celebrating his holiday if he wasn’t there. We were switching back to Christmas.

Rick couldn’t get home in time for Chanukah but neither could he celebrate the Christian holiday. We examined our options. I loved the thought of celebrating the solstice. The official start of winter, to me the solstice symbolizes its end. The days grow longer bringing the hope of summer Coral opposed the move since December 21st, two days before her birthday, seemed no better than two days after. Even when she was small she resented the proximity of a major celebration to her special day.

The solstice was out anyway because it falls before Christmas so we’d have to face awful crowds while shopping. Also, it could fall on a workday--we knew that didn’t work.

The logical choice was New Year’s Eve. Gift shopping could be done the week after Christmas, taking advantage of sales, and New Year’s Day is a holiday. We set up our own unique tradition. We decorate the living room top-to-bottom with ribbons, streamers, New Year’s banners and a silver ball hanging from the fan in the middle of the room. While we wait for midnight we play games, have silly string or marshmallow gun fights, race windup toys and other crazy stuff.

At midnight we shoot off as many poppers as we can. We clink glasses full of champagne or sparkling cider. We yell and hoot. We turn the fan on and start the ball spinning--normally trailing a heavy cargo of silly string and streamers. Then we get down to the serious business of present opening.

Everyone spends the night at our house. It keeps them safely off the road and allows us to continue celebrating in the morning. The new year dawns on a day of play and family fun. It’s the perfect holiday for us. I hope y’all enjoy yours as much. Have a happy and safe new year!

Photo: New Year's decorations before the comencement of celebrations.
Photo: Everyone has to wear a silly hat. Here are Coral and Celeste comparing choices.
Photo: Monica and Celeste divide up the poppers for the big moment.
Photo: Every year I take a photo of Philip and Coral holding the photo I took of them the year before. The new photo then goes in front of the old photo in the same frame. If you look deeply enough, you can see all the way back in time.
Photo: I'd like to think Celeste regrets her part in the making of this mess but I'm sure she doesn't.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Article: The graduate

December 23rd marks a big day in my daughter Coral’s life. It’s her twenty-sixth birthday but that’s not it. It is the day she officially graduates from UT Austin with an M.A. in Linguistics. She’s not going to her graduation ceremony but she has already started celebrating.

Since she officially finished all school related activities on Monday, Coral has made two broad pronouncements. The first is that I should allow her to wear her lip ring in my presence. I will never be happy about that lip ring so I don’t see how that’s going to happen. The second is that she will resent me forever for making her complete her degree. She says the only thing the degree is good for is to allow her to write M.A. after her name. Like all mothers where education is concerned, I know she will thank me in the end.

Coral has had an interesting academic career. She started kindergarten a year early due to the timing of her birthday and our financial situation, I couldn’t afford another year of daycare. She attended kindergarten at a private school where age wasn’t the only criterion for entry and started public school with the first grade. I remember it like it was yesterday.

In the weeks leading to the big day, I explained to Coral about what the first grade would be like. I bought her new clothes and school supplies. We visited the campus with her brother serving as tour guide since he had just finished the first grade and knew all about it. “Don’t worry” I told her, “I’ll drive you the first day and help you find your class.” She humored me for a while but eventually dealt the death-blow of five-year-old independence: “I’d rather take the bus.”

I looked into her steely blue eyes and saw no fear, no uncertainty and no dependence. On her first day of public school, Coral boarded the school bus with other kids from her daycare and went off without a backward glance.

Although the youngest child in her class, she was usually the tallest during those yearly years. School was easy for her. She did well and had lots of friends. The first hint of trouble came between the second and third grades. At that point she announced that she’d decided to take a year off. Since she was a year ahead in school, this would not be a problem according to her reasoning. It was a blow when I explained things didn’t work that way.

After Coral graduated from high school, she wasn’t particularly interested in college. She went to live with her dad, working a little and partying a lot. Then at nineteen she went to Venezuela to do a Spanish emersion program. She came back with a goal. She began attending junior college and got straight A’s. After that she attended UCLA where she received a B.A. with a major in Linguistics and Spanish, graduating with honors.

When Coral started the Ph.D. program in linguistics at UT Austin, I was the happiest mom in the world. She got an apartment near campus and continued to get straight A’s. But gradually her attitude changed. Her enthusiasm for linguistics began to cool. She no longer believed linguists applied scientific methods or critical thinking to their field.

She dropped her plan for a Ph.D. and decided to go for an M.A. Without the love for the field she had felt earlier, even that came into question. The last couple of quarters were particularly hard, not due to the material or the work but for lack of motivation. That’s where I came in. Mothers are made of motivation for their children and I’d been coasting while Coral supplied her own.

Finally it's over. Time to party. Time to reflect. Time to lament the worthlessness of the degree. I don't agree, over the course of her carerr, I'm sure her M.A. will bring opportunities and better pay. In fact, it will s tart paying off soon as she collects her graduation gifts. She's not going to be resenting me then. I'm hoping she'll thank me, if not for the degree then at least for the gift.

Photo: Five-year-old Coral graduating from kindergarten.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Article: Where the action is

I was driving up I35 in southern Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago when I spotted an intriguing sign. Traffic was crawling due to snow and ice so Sheldon and I decided to follow a whim and headed for Pauls Valley.

Pauls Valley is a cute little town though I’m not sure where the “Paul” or the “Valley” comes from. Part of the town’s charm stems from its many brick streets, more than any other city in Oklahoma. But the real attraction is the world’s first and only Action Figure Museum. The allure of such an unique museum drew us like a magnet.

We drove the snow covered brick streets to the museum eagerly but painfully slowly. We found our destination easily but were intensely disappointment to discover the museum was closed. Closed! Lousy snow. I knew I hated that stuff, all fluffy and sparkling and dangerous to drive in. “Closed due to weather” read the sign on the door.

But what goes up must come down, so Sheldon and I dropped by the museum on our drive back to Texas. Luckily it is open Sundays from 1:00 - 5:00. As we walked up to the door, Sheldon commented that our visit would take all of five seconds. Admittedly neither one of us owns a single action figure, but I knew Sheldon was wrong. What I didn’t know was how wrong he was, we spent about three hours in the museum. Sadly, during that time they had not one other visitor. Maybe it was the weather.

After paying the $6 per person entry fee, we were treated to a guided tour by an extremely well informed man. We saw thousands of figures and he knew what each one was, what year it was made and how many points of articulation it had. Points of articulation are a big thing for action figures, an indication of their value and collectability. Primitive figures have shoulder and hip joints that allow the limbs to swing back and forth and not much else. A good figure has movable wrists and elbows--possibly a posable finger or two--and can grasp a weapon or other talisman.

We marveled at the “Bat Cave” with its multiple versions of Bat Man, Robin, the Bat Mobile, even trusty butler Alfred. There was one of those ride-on toys that you see in front of grocery stores too. When I was a kid I always wanted to drop my quarter into the horse version but here I forked over the money for a ride on the Bat Mobile. It played the music from the old Bat Man TV Show.

The main attraction was the “kid’s room.” Our guide explained that it looked like the room of a 27 year old “boy” who still lived with his mother. Sheldon and I nodded knowingly, we were sure he was describing himself. This display contained more action figures than I imagined existed. The floor was completely covered with an intricate tableau of good verses evil action figures. The wall plastered with figures still in their original packaging. The most interesting item to me was “The Robot” from the TV Show Lost In Space. It rotated, waved its arms and said, “Danger Will Robinson!”

Along with several of those grocery store ride-ons, kids could enjoy a table set up with loads of figures they can play with and a dress-up area with masks, capes, feet or hair of cartoon and comic strip characters. Annoyingly, everything was kid-sized but Sheldon and I cobbled together primitive costumes.

We had a great time and only left because of the long drive we faced and the fact that the museum was closed. If you’re in the Pauls Valley area or you love action figures, I highly recommend a visit. You can find out more at: Click on the poster to get to the actual web page.

Brick street in front of Action Figure Museum. Notice the snow and ice. Those are my tire prints.
The front of the Action Figure Museum. That's Sheldon taking video of something that doesn't move.
Part of the big room display. The whole thing was cramed with action figures so thickly that you couldn't even grasp what was going on.
This is "The Robot" from the Lost In Space TV show. He waves his arms and says "Danger Will Robinson!" when a light is flashed on him.
This is a balrog from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This is one of the action figures they are most proud of.
Another shot of the Balrog action figure, this time fighting a Gandalf action figure. They are all to scale according to the movie. The Balrog even lights up and makes some kind of roaring noise.
This is me dressing up as some kind of action figure. Note how many points of articulation I have.
This is Sheldon trying to look "super." Good luck with that!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Article: Oklahoma is not OK

Sometimes I think I’d like to move to the area of the country north of Dallas and south of Oklahoma City. Probably not many people think that way but it’s something that crosses my mind periodically. Living here on the edge of the Hill Country, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would fancy the dreary, unadorned planes that lie along the northern border of our state. There’s only one explanation: horses.

Of course, horses and ranches abound in Texas, it’s not like north of Dallas has any monopoly there. I’ve got my little plot of land in Buda and a small herd of the critters myself. But, much as I like Hays County, it’s not the center of equine activities that the Red River valley is and sometimes I long to be closer to the action. That happened again earlier this month as I contemplated my drive up to Oklahoma City for the National Reining Horse Association finals.

If you haven’t seen a reining horse in action, you really should check it out. Go to to find out more about reining and when and where upcoming shows will be held. But the thing is, it’s no coincidence that the finals are held in Oklahoma City. That northern edge of Texas and southern boundary of Oklahoma is where all the big reining horse trainers are. Towns like Aubrey, Pilot Point, and Tioga Texas along with their Oklahoma counterparts are home a disproportionate number of great reiners. I’m not in that league but, well, sometimes I think that if I lived in the right place things might be different.

I know it’s just a crazy dream and my trip last weekend made that blatantly clear. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the show. It was great. Beautiful horses, lots of action. But the weather! Can people really live like that?

The drive started out well enough. My friend Sheldon and I left work early, around 5:00 on Thursday evening and headed north up MoPac expecting to be slogged down in rush hour traffic. It was windy and bitterly cold but the traffic just didn’t appear. When we hit I35 just south of Round Rock, we breathed a sigh of relief. The worst was over and it wasn’t that bad...or so we thought.

We made good time all the way up to Ft. Worth. We stopped for dinner in the northern suburbs and it was there that we got our first real sign of trouble. A thin dusting of icy snow covered the median and lawns. Dallas and Ft. Worth don’t seem so far away, it always amazes me that it snows there. Sheldon was for turning back, even though he lived in Minnesota for three years he seems to be afraid of the snow. I pointed out to him that it wasn’t snowing now and probably hadn’t snowed since the morning. The roads should be cleared.

The drive from Ft. Worth to the Oklahoma border probably took us two hours even though it’s only about fifty miles. The roads became progressively more and more icy. We assumed that, as a state, Texas wasn’t prepared to deal with winter weather. Things would get better once we entered Oklahoma. Again our expectations proved false. The eighteen miles from Marietta to Ardmore took another two hours. We were now traveling in a caravan of mostly eighteen wheelers and going a whopping five miles an hour. We decided to stop for the night.

The morning dawned crisp and very cold but the sun was shining and I thought the ice would soon melt. It didn’t. Another five long hours passed before we reached Oklahoma City. We left the freeway and traveled on some smaller highways after leaving Ardmore. Most drivers don’t have any qualms about tailgating even when they’re driving on ice and can’t possibly stop. It seemed safer to drive on roads that weren’t as clear of snow but had a lot less traffic. We mad a couple of short stops too, mostly to gawk at “winter.” The snow and ice made for a beautiful landscape.

That drive was all I need to remind me of why I live in Central Texas. Pretty as it is, I can't stand the snow. And while I saw some horses out romping in their snowy pastures, the one time it snowed here my horses huddled beside the barn just waiting for it to pass. If I ever do achieve the level required to participate in the OK City NRHA finals, I know now that I won't be able to go. As bad as it was driving a car, I can't imagine pulling a horse trailer.

An ice-encrusted tree at a rest stop near Ardmore, OK.Close-up of the tree. It sparkled like glass.
An ice-coated barbwire fence.
Sheldon loves the snow. However he wore his riding boots which don't give much traction on ice.
My little vehicle, Grisie. She hates the snow too.
This is what Grisie and I saw on Friday morning. Trucks and cars stacked for miles and hardly moving at all. You'll notice that I took this shot while driving.
Once we left the main highway, we saw some interesting sights. Like this stack of old cars outside a junk yard in Lexington, OK.
How clever to make an old Volkswagon into an enormous black widow spider!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Article: Enchanting day at Enchanted Rock

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, saw some of the most beautiful weather of the year. I can’t understand anyone spending that day shopping. Since my son Philip’s nuclear family went to his fiancĂ©’s grandmother’s house for the holiday, he was free to spend the day with me. We decided to get up early--though not as early as the shoppers--and head to Enchanted Rock State Park.

Enchanted Rock is a gigantic granite dome located on RR 965 north of Fredericksburg. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife website (, the dome rises 425 feet above the ground and is one of the largest batholiths in the United States. A batholith is an underground rock formation that has been exposed by erosion. There’s a lot of impressive erosion going on at Enchanted Rock. The rock looks like it is sloughing its skin.

Since the weather was so nice, Philip and I decided to take my little Jeep Wrangler with the windows off. We used the back roads, traveling through such towns as Sandy, Willow City and Eckert. The miles wore by in a shifting tableau of cattle, small streams, goats and live oaks. This area is spectacular with wildflowers during a good spring but it’s a very nice drive any time of the year.

Eventually we wound our way to the park. Our fantasy that everyone else would be shopping or sleeping off their Thanksgiving “cheer” was shattered immediately. There was a line of cars waiting to get it. Luckily it moved fairly quickly. Once parked, I got my camera gear and water packed up, and off we went to climb the dome. Unfortunately everyone had the same idea. A long trail of colorful dots, the bright shirts of fellow climbers, wound up the side of the great rock.

In my opinion, the point of hiking is to get some time alone with nature. Given the number of people on the so-called Enchanted Rock, that wasn’t going to happen. But there was another granite dome right next to it, not quite as large but way less populated. We decided to head up that one.

The domes are not hard to climb. They’re fairly steep but the rock is rough and there’s plenty of traction if you have a good pair of sneakers on. I stopped at multiple places to take photos of the jumbled rocks that litter the smaller dome. It was at one of these stops that I focused my camera down slope. This reminded me that I’m afraid of heights. Suddenly the rock did not feel secure at all. I might plummet to my death at any moment. Luckily Philip has absolutely no such fear. With his guidance and occasional hand-holding, I made it to the top.

The view was wonderful. The air was clear and cloudless. Scrub forest stretched over the hilly countryside below us with little sign of human disturbance. Some trees even displayed a Texas version of fall color. We sat on a boulder and watched a spiny lizard while butterflies and birds flitted by.

Later we made our way carefully down the least steep section of the rock and into a canyon with a small stream. Dragonflies danced above rippling water. We continued our hike around the back of the dome, past a stock pond and a scenic overlook and finally to the parking lot. We’d spent about four hours in what Philip jokingly calls “the tawdry beauty of nature.” Now it was time to head back home.

We used to go out to Enchanted Rock all the time when the kids were little. Now it seems we don’t have time to do things we used to enjoy. As we left, Philip commented that he is going to bring Celeste, his eight year old daughter, out as soon as possible. Maybe all we need is a little reminder about what is important in life.

A train of people heading up the official "Enchanted Rock".
The view looking up the rock we chose to climb. Notice the two standing rocks. I had Philip climb those for a photo.
Here are the standing rocks up a little closer.
Now there's Philip on top of one of the rocks!
Taking this photo reminded me of my fear of heights.
Our rock had a lot more boulders on it. This is looking toward the Enchanted Rock.
Here's Philip on the top of our rock with the back of Enchanted Rock in the background and a view of the Hill Country.
Some of the boulders congregated on the back of Enchanted Rock.This shows how the skin of the rock is being sloughed.
A bit of Texas fall color.
A dragonfly we saw near a stream at the base of the domes.
This is the stream where we saw the dragonfly.
The sun sparkling on the water of the pond. It looks late but I think it was about 2:00 pm.
The forest around the base of the granite domes.
Philip admiring the view from a scenic overlook on the loop trail.
It was around this area that my brother Stephen and I caught three water snakes one day. Stephen made me catch them because water snakes always bite.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Article: Cephalopods

I visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science recently. There’s a lot to see there, including the amazing Body Worlds exhibit which shows partially dissected human cadavers in various poses. The cadavers have been plasticized so they don’t smell. That was what brought me there in the first place. It was interesting but I’ve already seen my share of cadavers.

What really got my attention was the Strake Hall of Malacology. I didn’t even know what malacology was, although I was somewhat familiar with some of its members. Malacology is the study of mollusks. The most familiar mollusks are, of course, snails. Or maybe it’s oysters or clams. I suppose that depends on whether you like seafood.

There are over 100,000 species of mollusks and the museum had a fantastic display of their incredibly beautiful shells. With over 100,000 species of mollusks there are a lot of shells to display. The thing that interested me most in the exhibit was a small aquarium housing two very cute mollusks. How can a mollusk be cute? Have you seen a cuttlefish? They are amazing animals. These two were swimming placidly, their eight arms streaming down from between their eyes and their two tentacles holding them stationary. They followed my movement with big, intelligent eyes.

Cuttlefish belong to the group of mollusks known as cephalopods, made up of four groups of animals, the cuttlefish, squid, octopuses and nautiluses. Most people only know cuttlefish from cuttlebone, the calcium supplement provided to pet birds. The cuttlebone is the last remnant of the ancestral shell shared by all mollusks but now only obvious among cephalopods in the nautiluses.

The cuttlebone is not what fascinated me as I stared into the aquarium. What most amazed me was the way the two captives were changing colors. Cephalopods are known as “the chameleons of the sea” but this does not do them justice. Chameleons can display some impressive color changes but they take minutes to accomplish. They are totally outclassed by animals such as these two cuttlefish. They changed colors so fast they were actually flashing. And each was trimmed with a narrow strip of neon purple.

On the wall of the museum was a mural showing a sperm whale battling a giant squid. Giant squid get up to about 45 feet long but at least half of that is in the tentacles and arms. They don’t weight much and will always lose a battle with a sperm whale.

As I watched the two little cuttlefish, I was saddened by the knowledge that they couldn’t be very old. The very oldest of cephalopods, those that live in nearly frozen artic waters, are thought to live up to six years. Most other species live between one and three years. Amazingly this includes even the giant squid and its slightly larger relation, the colossal squid.

Cephalopods are possibly the most intelligent of the invertebrates, animals without backbones. They have been shown to use their incredible color-changing capabilities to communicate with each other. Associated with their chromatic abilities, cephalopods have very good vision and large brains. If it weren’t for their short lives and generally solitary habits, they might someday rule the world! Well, maybe not. The lack of bones and the inability to function on land will probably save us from a cephalopod take-over even if the overcome their other obstacles.

Web information:

Mural at Houston Museum of Natural Science of a giant squid and a sperm whale.
One of the two cuttlefish at the museum.
I believe this is a face everyone can love.

The second cuttlefish showing a darker pattern.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Article: Adventures in medicine

When I broke my wrist last year I thought I had a standard condition. Haven’t doctors been fixing broken bones since Hippocrates? If they can’t get that right, how can they possibly do complicated procedures like organ transplants? I was in for a rude awakening.

I suppose every break is a little different and mine was particularly bad. I broke off the distal end of my radius and shoved the broken shaft of bone into my wrist. My hand twisted and the palm collapsed in on itself. Still, I’d heard of worse. I was in shock when I got to the ER but that doesn’t explain my confidence in the medical profession. Brain washing by such TV shows as ER and Marcus Welby explained that.

It took several months before I realized things weren’t going well. How long does a broken wrist take to heal anyway? My physical therapist recommended a medieval-looking device called a supination split. I was to wear it while sleeping. How could anyone sleep with that contraption of metal, and Velcro wrapped around their arm? You have to be very tired.

Four months of the split convinced my doctor that it wasn’t working. Time to try something new. How about a surgical procedure called a Suave-Kapandji (SK)? How about cutting my ulna in two, pinning the wrist end to my radius and letting the section attached to my elbow just ‘flap in the wind’? “It takes some getting used to,” my doctor said. I was worried. Is it okay for a bone not to be connected to anything on one end? You don’t really need it, the doctor explained, it’s extra like your appendix. Call me skeptical, I decided to get a second opinion.

I went to a doctor recommended by my doctor. You wouldn’t go to your mechanics best friend for unbiased advice would you? I assumed doctors were above that kind of thing. Even so, Dr. #2 did not completely agree with Dr. #1. Could do an SK, he said, or could just cut a section out of the ulna and pin it back together, a procedure called an ulnar shortening.

I needed another opinion, someone who would agree with one of the previous doctors. But Dr. #3 came up with a completely new procedure--radial reconstruction. He would take out the pin Dr. #1 put in, cut the radius apart and restore it to its original length using a bone graft from my hip. I was stunned. How did my hip get involved? Time for another opinion.

Dr. #4 took a cat scan of my wrist. He examined it closely and proclaimed there was nothing wrong that a good shot of cortisone wouldn’t fix. Dr. #1 had already given me cortisone but Dr. #4 said he didn’t do it right. He must not have done it right either because it didn’t work again.

There was only minimal agreement in the diagnosis I’d gotten. Drs #3 and #4 were both adamantly against an SK. Both said an ulna shortening was possible but probably wouldn’t help. Since I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life getting more opinions, I decided to go with Dr. #3. His procedure could be done in two parts, first remove the pin then reconstruct the radius. Removing the pin sounded reasonable.

Dr. #3 examined the cat scan taken by Dr. #4. Diagnostic tests are nice, he said, but have no correlation to symptoms. People with good diagnostics can have debilitating symptoms while people with no symptoms might have terrible diagnostics. Then why do they call them “diagnostics?” They don’t diagnose anything.

During surgery, Dr. #3 noted extensive scaring involving the pin and the tendons and other tissues surrounding it. A week later I was able to rotate my arm freely. Two weeks after that, I got full range of motion back in my thumb. Within two months all of my major complaints were resolved. My doctor expressed surprise but gave me a clean bill of health and discharged me from his care.

Turns out I didn't need a radial reconstruction or ulnar shortening or the horrendous Suave-Kapandji. But I might have had any one of those. In science there's usually a right answer. In medicine you just have to cross your fingers--if you can.

X-Ray of my wrist right after the break.X-ray of my wrist with the pin installed.My pin lying on top of the wrist it once held together. I'm thinking of making it into a bracelet. Me the day I broke my wrist. That "cheese" really helped support my arm so I could sleep.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Article: A child's story

If pride comes before the fall, my niece Tiffany is in for a long plummet. Who can blame her? Her six-year-old son, Harlan, is an extraordinary kid. Oh, he’s a handful alright! That boy can run from dawn until dusk and not be winded. But he’s got moments that more than make up for it. A couple of weeks ago his face might have been framed by a halo. After reading Tiffany’s blog on Harlan’s recent angelic behavior, I decided to interview him for this column. At a family gathering, I dug out paper and pencil and sat down with Harlan.

I’d never interviewed a six-year-old before. It is quite an experience. Harlan’s energy level is through the roof. He couldn’t sit still--on the couch, on the floor, demonstrating the actions of his story by running across the room--it was hard just to follow him with my eyes. Luckily I knew most of the story from Tiffany’s blog...or did I? As the interview progressed, Harlan’s version differed from his mother’s on several counts.

The basic facts were consistent. Local firefighters visited Harlan’s school to teach fire safety. Impressed, Harlan came home to quiz his mother on various safety aspects, for example where their emergency meeting area was and when the batteries were replaced in their fire alarms. He remembered everything the firefighters told him with some help from a check list.

Along with the list, he had some crayons and a sheet of paper with a fire engine and a firefighter on it. The paper explained that it should be colored and entered in an art contest at Buda Fire Fest a couple of weeks later. Harlan set to work making his coloring the best ever. Since the original paper had writing on it related to the festival, Harlan cut out the relevant pieces and glued them to an identically sized white poster board. Using the crayons provided (and some markers of exactly the same colors) he filled the sheet with a dramatic scene illustrating fire safety.

“Why did you want to do such a good job coloring?” I asked Harlan. “I wanted to win a bike,” was the unabashed answer. Harlan did, in fact, win the coloring contest and a bike. I asked if he didn’t already have a bike and he said yes, but it had scratches on it. He wanted a new bike.

“But your mom told me you were giving the bike away,” I said. “Yeah, that was her idea,” Harlan replied. His halo seemed a bit tarnished. “No, no, no,” Tiffany interjected. She proceeded to have a long debate with Harlan about exactly whose idea it was to give the bike away. Finally Harlan said, “Yeah, it was my idea. I wanted to sell it...” The halo vanished. Tiffany jumped in. He didn’t mean sell, he meant donate. A silvery glow framed his face. Harlan, bouncing on the couch, added he’d rather have the video games anyway.

This was the first I’d heard of any video games. They became a major source of contention. Tiffany insisted Harlan’s dad brought them up after Harlan, on his own, decided to donate the bike. Harlan was vague on exactly when the games entered the picture but seemed sure it was his mother’s idea. Finally both agreed on Tiffany’s version of the truth.

The next issue was whether Harlan rode the bike. His first story was that he’d ridden around at the Fire Fest. Tiffany refuted this so he changed his story to he walked it around. But he also fell off. How could he fall off when he wasn’t riding? Thus began a long, confusing story. It didn’t help that Tiffany constantly interrupted in order to “clarify.” I could see why criminal investigators only talk to one person at a time. I asked my niece to just let her son talk. I was interviewing him after all. Realizing she couldn’t restrain herself, she graciously took her two-year-old outside to play.

After much questioning and many stories I determined Harlan did not know the difference between sell and donate. Money doesn’t mean much to most six year olds. His halo fit solidly back on his head when I realized he wanted to call the fire station to find the exact right person to give the bike to: it should go to a child who lost his bike in a fire. What a sweet kid! But then why does he have such a devilish grin?

Harlan with his drawing and prize bike.

Harlan's more devilish nature is exposed.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Article: Traveling for work

There are good things and bad things about having a job that involves travel. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this past week as I find myself in Kawasaki, Japan. Looking out of my hotel window, the city stretches on forever, blending seamlessly with Tokyo—the largest city in the world—to the north and with Yokohama—the second largest city in Japan—to the south. It is not a pretty sight.

Of course, the fact that I live in Buda is a good indicator that I’m not enamored with cities in general. But Kawasaki is particularly ugly. It would take some time to count the number of smoke stacks I can see from here. Kawasaki is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guides to either Tokyo or Japan. No tourists come here; the city has nothing to draw them. In a way that’s nice. In all of its ugly, industrial squalor, Kawasaki is authentically Japanese. But it is also boring and depressing.

Each morning I travel from my hotel to work on the extensive and efficient train system that circulates the citizens of the metropolis throughout its great expanse. I am lucky to be able to travel a little after the main pulse of rush hour. Still, the station is so densely packed that it is difficult to move. The Japanese walk quickly, efficiently, not bothering much about what or who surrounds them. I find myself dodging constantly. On a crowded street in the US, I think people would move out of my way. In Japan, this isn’t true. I have been bumped many times.

I arrive at work around 10 o’clock in the morning and enter a building that is a patchwork of many industrial buildings each grafted onto the next through a series of long, narrow hallways. In order to find my way, I keep track of the colors of the floors: gray, then left at the dark green, up the speckled stairs, right to the blue carpet hallway, turn left onto more dark green, down the long hall with the parquet wood to more dark green, across an enclosed bridge with flowers on the window ledges, more dark green, left at the patched up brown floor, through a sliding door onto gray carpet and finally I am there. Across the street the company has two brand new 50 story towers. I wonder what they are like.

I work with six Japanese engineers here. They all seem nice. I am giving them a tutorial on how to use the tool our company provides. Only one does much talking. Even though Japan is an industrialized nation, and even though these people are highly educated, they don’t speak English. Even the best English speaker of the group has a lot of trouble conveying his questions.

The thing that makes this at all possible is that many of the engineering terms have no Japanese equivalent. As they talk among themselves, I can hear these words, complex and multi-syllabic, weaving patterns through their speech. The Japanese language is composed almost exclusively of single consonants followed by single vowels, like the word Kawasaki itself. When an English word such as processor or software enters the sound stream, it is obvious.

By the end of the day I am tired and it is already getting dark. The train is packed, I am lucky to find a seat. I wander around near my hotel looking for someplace to eat. The streets are packed. This is the shopping district and everyone is out shopping. I open a wooden door and enter a tiny restaurant. The entire establishment would fit in a child’s bedroom at home. The proprietor almost certainly does not speak English. I use the few Japanese food words I know and sit patiently waiting to see what will appear. So far I’ve been lucky, The Japanese eat some things I would refuse for ethical reasons but I have yet to be offered anything like that.

Next week I am taking a few days off to go to Hiroshima and visit a national park. I am going to see things that tourists see and do things tourists do. I will see the other side of Japan. Unlike most tourists, I will carry with me something of an understanding of the life of Japanese working people.

View from the Kawasaki Nikko hotel.The Kawasaki train/subway station during a bit of a lull.