Monday, January 18, 2010

A Day Off of School

On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought I would spend a relaxing day with the kids. I always have this idea in my mind that we will play a few games. I might even sit on the couch for a few minutes. Maybe we'll read books.

I have these ideas.

When the kids and I finished breakfast this morning, I gave them a number of options.

"Let's finish our volcano!" I declared. "All we really need to do is have it erupt." The truth is that it has been in our basement for a long time, ready to erupt any minute. It took us hours over multiple days to do the paper mache and paint it.

They shrugged their shoulders. We played with baking soda and vinegar a few weeks ago.

"Do you want to play a game? We could play Blokus," I hoped they wouldn't say Monopoly. It takes incredible patience for me to wait for them to calculate their own transactions, and I always lose (yeah, never won Monopoly with the kids, what is up with that?)


I sighed.

"We could make ice cream," I offered. We have a quart of cream that expires next week.

"I have a better idea! Let's make spinach tortellini!!" Andrew cheered.

"Yaaayy!!" Gladys agreed.


The real insanity about "pasta for the insane" is that it never goes away. And, what is worse, it is the only way my children will eat spinach.

It is the old Mom-if-you-let-us-put-flour-on-your-floor-and-play-with-raw-egg-dough-make-you-fold-tortellini-for-an-hour we'll eat spinach!!

"Oh, alright, at least it smells better than Playdough."

Of course, after making tortellini, we went on to make even more paper snowflakes, play with Playdough, paint with watercolors, work on a book report, and fry chicken. I shouldn't have opened my mouth about the Playdough. What was I thinking?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Awesome Eyeballs

I’m not sure I’m smarter than a second grader.

When I visited MIT back in September, I spoke with Professor Woodie Flowers after his presentation on FIRST Robotics & Lego League (Lego League is the ‘little league' for the Robotics challenge). After his very inspiring introduction to the program, I went up to say ‘hello,’ express my general admiration (he is a demi-god of mechanical engineering after all), and ask some questions.

In his friendly sort-of-way, he threw down the gauntlet. I had made the mistake of thanking him for something. I should know better. No, he didn’t say ‘you’re welcome.’ He smiled broadly.

“You owe me, then. Start a team.”

Oops. I should know better.

I was thinking about it when I ran into an old friend outside of the 10-250 lecture hall. A short conversation made it clear his kids were only slightly older than mine, and he was starting a Lego League team this year. The third member of our conversation gushed about her experience.

“It was so incredible. You’ll never, ever regret it,” she went on emphatically. “My kids love it. I really have no choice now that I’ve started it.”
Within a week of returning to Ohio, my team was fully registered, Legos were on the way, the calendar established, and my fate was sealed.

I didn’t think it would be that inspiring, but it would be fun. I would take it for what it was and see where it went. I was sure she was exaggerating.

Except for one thing, I was wrong. It was that inspiring. It was just as awesome as she had described, except the parts that were even better.

The kids were amazing.

Oh, yes, they were jumpy and noisy and a little wild on Friday afternoons, but you’ve never seen kids more excited about learning. I was very prepared for the sessions, of course, but I was never prepared for where the kids would take the sessions.

Have you ever brainstormed with second graders??

I can assure you, I had nothing to do with the name “Awesome Eyeballs.” In fact, if I had taken the time to look, I imagine the mothers were rolling their eyeballs behind the kids. We shrugged our shoulders and all gave three cheers for the “Awesome Eyeballs.”

I also had nothing to do with the subject we studied.

The task was to decide on an object and learn about how that object moved from wherever it was made or grown to where the kids were now. I started by drawing a value chain of a pretzel on freezer paper across my dining room wall.

Did you know that kids understand value chain analysis? They understood it. They added to it. They thought about it. And, while I was busy scribbling all the kids’ thoughts across my wall, someone ate my pretzel (and the rest giggled uncontrollably).

So, we brainstormed ideas for things to analyze. One of the kids suggested electricity, and there was no going back. A mother gave me a look of mild horror. Electricity?? But, it was electricity: too late.

And so I spent a little time contemplating how to explain electricity, “electrons in motion” to second graders. They wanted to know all the details so badly. I wasn’t going to get off easily with this crowd.

We started from the beginning. I gave them magnets and safety pins to feel how magnets pull on the electrons in metal. We talked about how magnets pull electrons in wires to start them in motion. I made up a game in which the kids were the wire and they passed Duplo block “electrons,” but only one at a time, and the electrons could not pass and had to stop if one stopped and their circuit was broken.

They understood everything immediately.

They asked smart questions and made even smarter observations. We easily brainstormed the electron value chain on a new piece of freezer paper, and each child went home to investigate his or her own piece of that chain on the internet.

At the next meeting, they each presented their newfound knowledge to the rest of the team. You could tell they were proud. You could tell they understood it. They brought in pictures and hand-written notes. One of the mothers brought in a circuit with a battery and a lightbulb. Another mother confessed to finding electro-magnetism interesting.

Oh, yes, and we used Legos too.

At one of the early and boisterous sessions, I asked them to build the strongest tower they could out of Legos. Except, of course, they only had ten minutes and they were absolutely not allowed to say a single word or make a noise.

For ten beautiful minutes, I heard nothing but the sound of clinking Legos. I’ve never seen second graders so focused and quiet.

They used Legos at every session, but towards the end we focused on building our electrical grid – wind mill, substation, high-tension power lines, etc. The creativity was astonishing. They worked in teams of two or three on each piece.

As time went on, the parents came up with more and more eyeball themed items. I had always planned on making them t-shirts for the expo, but as time drew near I felt increasingly compelled to make it a truly “awesome” eyeball. They deserved it.

They needed a shirt that would match their pride. The logo designed itself. I just happened to be holding the pencil.

The day of the Expo, they all arrived promptly wearing their t-shirts and eyeball glasses. They were prepared to explain their work. They took turns speaking. They answered the judge’s questions and provided additional information. They were truly an awesome team.

On the way into the auditorium to receive their trophy, they started high-five-ing the other teams as they passed.

My cheeks turned pink with pride.

Now I’m one of “them.” I’m committed, and gushing, and the children will require me to coach them again. Two of them even sent me 'thank you' notes, with hand-drawn pictures. I have "no choice." My fate is sealed.

All of the sudden, I want to thank Woodie Flowers all over again.

Maybe I will. I just don’t learn my lessons as well as those second graders.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Japan #2 Almost Famous

On our way out of security in San Francisco, I paused by the baggage conveyor to zip up my boots. I looked up to see a familiar face. Have you ever seen someone so out of context that you couldn’t discern why his face was familiar? Since we made eye contact, standing face to face across the conveyor belt, I instinctively said ‘hello.’ He returned the greeting and we both moved on. A minute later, I realized that he was the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

“Mom, that was Jesse Jackson,” I said a minute later.

“What?” she asked.

“Never mind. That was Jesse Jackson. I’m sure of it,” I said again. The man next to me agreed.


We shrugged our shoulders and sought out breakfast. I had honestly forgotten about it until I wrote this episode.

Our first stop in Japan was with Kawa-san and his family. I knew I would be welcome in his home. I have known him for 20 years and remember when his college-aged son was carried on his mother’s back. Kawa-san’s children are as wonderful now as they were the day that I met them. His oldest is a handsome father, with a beautiful wife. His daughter has outgrown cute and has become a lovely and confident young woman. And his youngest son is now a chemistry student and rock star. Okay, a budding “rock star,” but if you knew him, you would know what I mean.

I realized I felt at home when I returned to Kawa-san’s home at the end of our trip and went straight to the sink to “freshen up” before giving proper regards. I apologized, of course, but the transgression was taken for what it was.

I forgot to be nervous. I was home.

On the way out of Kyoto (our first time), Kawa-san’s youngest son was pressed into service. The young man had been convinced to carry our baggage as far as Osaka, at which point he was free to continue to his university in Hyogo prefecture. He is a polite young man and appeared to have no hesitation in fulfilling his duty. Of course, my mother and I suspected that at his age he probably had better things to do. We would arrive at Osaka before noon.

My mother is especially clever.

On our train ride to Osaka, we spoke English to Ryo-chan. I would have translated if he needed, but he didn’t require my help. I was twenty years old when I met him (he was just a baby) and we were busy convincing him to come to America, because, after all, he was already twenty. My mother asked him some key questions.

“Have you ever tried American food? Have you ever had a hamburger?” she asked.

“No, no,” he replied, “never tried hamburger.”

“You must come to America and try a hamburger,” my mother explained.

There was a pause. My mother leaned to me and asked me.

“Do you remember when we were in Osaka in 1994? You and your father required that we eat at the Hard Rock Café Osaka. Do you remember that?”

“I wouldn’t have remembered if you hadn’t mentioned it.”

“Well, I remember it because I came all the way to Japan and there I was with you, who had been living here for six months and your father who had been living in India for over a year and you both wanted a hamburger. I come all the way to Japan and I have to eat a hamburger!”

“Sorry,” I replied (and probably rolled my eyes too).

“We are taking Ryo-chan to Hard Rock Café. He is a rock star and has never had American food. It is perfect!” my mother exclaimed.

We briefly explained the plan to our Japanese friend and he began researching it on his Internet phone. He studied his phone carefully. After awhile, I couldn’t help but ask.

“So, do you think we can get there, Ryo-chan?”

“Oh, yes, we can get there,” he replied with great certainty. “We can get there. No problem.”

“Great. Then you know where it is.”

“No, I have no idea.”

He didn’t have any idea. He had never heard of it. But, he could tell by the description that it was an American oasis. It would be very cool. He found it. My mother fed him like any mother would feed a starving child. It is the international language of love. She fed him like she knew Kawa-san had taken care of me so many years ago.

I think it was after 3:30pm when we finally left lunch.

Those are the lunches that count.

And, those are the people that count. Of course, we managed to spend several days in Kyoto and never see anything famous. Well, except a budding rock star, and what is better than that?

Mom with 'famous rock star' from Rad Bandary.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy 2010 !

This is our annual New Years' cake. The children make it on Dec 31st, and then enjoy eating 'year old' cake the next day. We also listen to everyone's New Years' resolutions.

Andrew will bike the entire length of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park trail.

Gladys will eat foods from all different countries.

George will eat cake.

I will cheerfully haul three children (many times) to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park trail, make foods from different countries and, of course, eat more cake. (George is such a sweet boy).

Yes, I have other resolutions as well. Since my glass seems is neither half full nor half empty, but rather 'overfloweth,' I think I will focus on doing less.

In fact, I think I'll start right now.

Excuse me as I go giggle myself to sleep.

Friday, January 1, 2010

MIT Mommy, this is your life

This was my life – as it re-appeared in 2009.

I found my best friend from high school.

I suppose with Facebook this is not a huge shock to anyone besides me. I found her on Facebook. There she was. I hadn’t really spoken with her since 1993. I feel like we are friends as if the past 17 years were merely a week spent in Florida.
Did you ever see that show?? That was 2009 for me. My past came up and grabbed me by the neck.

Thankfully, I have had a rather nice life so far. It turned out to be a rather shocking bear hug.

I remembered that feeling of giddy love.

Do you remember that feeling of falling in love? Can you put yourself back there? The truth is that I can’t really shoehorn myself into the jeans I wore then. But, somehow, driving down the same road, and breaking a Ford truck, brought me back. Yes. It was very nice, and now I am back in Ohio reminding myself that the best smoke comes from long-burning coals. (smile)

I said ‘goodbye’ to my host father (and enjoyed the laughter of my host mother)

When I was 17 years old, I spent 12 weeks in Japan with a host family in Kobe. As I explained to my children, I went back in the day when we didn’t have things like email. I spoke to my parents once all summer. We sent letters. Do you remember letters? My host family didn’t speak English particularly. Those were incredible days, and even more rewarding now that I can know my host mother as an adult. Since my host father passed away last September, I could only visit his grave. There is something poetic about pouring water over someone’s grave in a drowning rainstorm.

It needed to be done and it felt good.

I visited the most beautiful view in the world with my host aunt and uncle.

Yeah, she was the beautiful one in the pink kimono at my wedding. She is the woman who mentioned to me in my kitchen in Hiroshima that I should stay in Japan to have my children, where it is safe and she could help me. The sea in front of her home bore the first fish that I ever ate raw. I remember playing a counting game with my ‘cousins’ at her home because my Japanese was poor, but at least I could count. That was part of my summer in 1987.

I returned to ‘home base’ in Kyoto.

When I was in college, I spent a summer in Kyoto. From my small apartment each morning, I would lace on my Nike’s and explore the city. My boss’ family, Kawa-san’s family, became my second host family in Japan. They welcomed me as if I had never left. I strolled in with such comfort I nearly forgot my manners.

I visited my work friends in Hiroshima.

I should really say that they visited me. The young woman who picked me up at the ANA Hotel Hiroshima in February 1994 now has a child the same age as Gladys. We have kept in touch a little and she arranged a dinner for me at a restaurant in Hiroshima. I thought that maybe one or two old friends might appear – there were 9 of us. In 1995, the director of our technical center died of cancer. We all remember him well. Everyone in the room had worked with him. Unexpectedly, the son of our former director appeared at the restaurant and joined us.

I rediscovered the world’s biggest smile at the world’s most beautiful shrine.

In Hiroshima, I also worked with clients. Two of them (and their families) greeted me like a lost friend. The one family and my husband and I used to go camping together in Japan. We would tent came by the sea and then enjoy the local hot springs and spas.

My other client and I worked together for a number of years. I recall one particular trip when he and I traveled back to America together on business in November. Since I did not have family in Michigan as most ex-pats did, we stayed in the same hotel and socialized after work. One evening, he joined me for dinner and complained that his children were nagging him about what he would bring them from America.

“Oh, that is easy,” I laughed, “tell them that you are a busy man and you haven’t the time for such things on this trip.”

He raised an eyebrow, and then he laughed too. The next morning he greeted me with the news that his children understood that he must work hard to support the family. He hasn’t time for shopping! The next day, we visited Walmart. He and I carted a full artificial Christmas tree and all the trimmings back to Japan, just in time for Christmas. I only wish I could have seen their faces.

I visited my mentor at MIT.

I hadn’t been back to MIT in about 10 years or so, but in so many ways it hasn’t changed. After a brief email exchange a few weeks before my trip announcing my intention to stop by, I searched for her office on campus. When I arrived at the top of the stairs, the rooms stood recently abandoned. I found her, finally, and enjoyed a morning of good conversation and introductions to colleagues.

That was my life that re-appeard to me in 2009. The very best of that life, I will bring with me into 2010.