Friday, December 21, 2007

don't be negative

That's B-, my blood type.

When I first visited the doctor at about week seven of my pregnancy, he told me that since my Rh type is negative I'd receive a Rhogam shot after 24 weeks, and then another one after I gave birth. I filed this information on a growing mental list of fascinating and unknowable pregnancy mysteries. I hadn't, at that point, even begun to consider all the ways I might disagree with the medical establishment about what is and is not necessary during pregnancy... but given my disposition in general I should've known I'd have to butt heads at some point.

My doctor in Japan said the same thing about the Rhogam shot, but since I wouldn't be seeing him beyong my 23rd week, it wasn't on my mind at all while I was in Kyoto.

So I looked into it a little more with my best friend (who happens to be in medical school and could look it up in her pharmacology database) before I went for my routine prenatal earlier this week. I was prepared to ask a few questions about it, but still didn't have much by way of analysis. Doc said the risk of my blood mixing with the baby's blood is higher during the third trimester, so they advocate the Rhogam shot to prevent my body from developing antibodies in case the baby turns out to have Rh-positive blood. Like a reverse vaccination.

What are the risks that necessitate the shot in the third trimester? Doc didn't elucidate. In the clean efficiency of the examination room, in the strange hypnotic power dynamic between doctor and patient, I lost what resolve and reservation I'd had. I figured he knew what he was talking about and scheduled a shot for the following week. He also recommended that I get a flu shot, which I accepted on the spot with little thought or hesitation.

Then my mother-in-law, who is a nurse, sent me an article about how Rhogam shots contain mercury and do, in fact, warrant some reservation. Since she is usually one to do things by the book, I took it with that much more weight. The article offered information not only about the mercury, but about the controversy of the shot and whether its benefits are significant enough to offset its potential risks. I looked at some more articles about Rhogam, and found myself suddenly mired in a glut of conflicting opinions and fretting about the statistical hall of mirrors I had so casually entered into.

I also read that the flu shot has the highest mercury content of all vaccinations.

I felt like I'd been duped. Some sources will tell you to ABSOLUTELY get a flu shot during pregnancy, and others will tell you not to bother. But mercury-based preservatives? Isn't this about health?

Apparently there are mercury-free versions of Rhogam (under different brand names) that I could insist upon, but by that point I felt disillusioned and disempowered. I skimmed more online articles, drilled recently pregnant friends and relatives about their choices, scoured my midwifery books, but eventually I saw that none of that could assuage the uncertainty. I would have to make up my mind and choose for myself. I would have to assert myself, based on scant research and copious intuition, and enter into this bright confusing world of mother and nuturer and choice-maker.

I cancelled the Rhogam shot.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

the circumcision descision

I found myself at the periodical rack at a book store the other day, guiltily thumbing through a pregnancy magazine. Just to remind me what I'm not missing, I told myself. An article about a father deciding whether to circumcise his son caught my eye, and I glanced through it, first with dismay, and then outright disgust. Basically, he read a lot of stuff about how circumcision isn't medically necessary, is really painful for the baby, and doesn't represent significant health benefits -- and then decided to go ahead and circumcise his kid anyway because "chicks dig a cut guy," and "hey, it worked for me."

Then came across a blog on the New York Times homepage recently about circumcision. I read through the piece with curiosity and proceeded to also read all 167 comments. What a hot-button issue!

Cut men, uncut men, gay men, Jewish men, Muslim men, atheists, straight women, righteous parents, resentful children all weighed in on the topic, and their opinions varied accordingly:

"It's tradition!"
"It's barbaric!"
"It looks better!"
"It looks painful!"
"Cut him now and spare him later!"
"Leave him be and let him decide when he's older!"

And on and on. My, how we get worked up about what others should do with their bodies.

I knew that having a baby would catapult me into a new dimension of decision-making, even well before the baby made its appearance into the world, but I'm still astounded at the fervor on all sides. One of the major dilemmas where circumcision is concerned seems to be how on earth a circumcised father is going to explain to his uncircumcised son why their penises look different. Fellas, is this really an issue?

Fortunately J and I agreed, with little debate and little soul-searching, on keeping our boy intact. I don't want to stray into righteousness here, but I feel a certain pride that J won't need his boy to "look like him" and won't be shy in talking to him about it.

I won't tell you what to do with your boy, but I think we owe it to them to think carefully about these kinds of decisions and what influences them: culture? caution? cognitive dissonance?

I liked best the comment that said, about the religious tradition of circumcision, "If we were made in God's image, why would we need to cut anything off?"


Thursday, December 6, 2007

liquid lunch

I've had my fair share of airports for the season.

On Monday I bid farwell to Kyoto, trying to soak it in last minute from a cab to the station, and then from the long bus-ride to Kansai International. We travelled for more than 24 hours, all told, and we still arrived in San Francisco before we left Osaka.

I spent a few days in the Bay Area, catching up with friends and eating tons of beautiful kale and collards and other things you can't find in Japan.

By Thursday morning, I was back at the airport, prepared for a long "frequent flyer" day -- you know, the kind of flight combination where they route you through Dallas no matter where you're going, and it takes you 12 hours to get where it should normally only take 4. I brought an ample lunch of leftover greens & rice, fruit, yogurt, crackers, and hummus to sustain me through terrible airline snacks and even more terrible airport food.


The sleepy TSA lady (and I do mean sleepy, she was yawning the whole time) stopped my bag through security check, and called over another officer to examine it. He took my lunch bag out, and told me I couldn't take the yogurt or the hummus with me.

"But it's food!" I protested.

"The rules say we can't allow anything liquid."

"But it's packaged and sealed... it's food!" I repeated.

"If you want, you can take it outside and eat it right now," he offered, trying to be helpful.

By that point, I had 20 minutes to get on my plane.

"I'm pregnant," I blurted, "They won't feed me on the plane, and I have to eat!"

He appeared to be sympathetic. He took me and my lunch over to a more official-looking TSA Agent wearing a sweater-vest, and said, "She's pregnant."

Sweater-vest looked at me over his glasses, looked at my belly, and said, "Oh."

He reiterated the rules about not allowing liquids through security, but perhaps he sensed the coming storm of panic by the look on my face, and miraculously waved me through.

I thanked them both and hustled to my gate, feeling somewhat guilty for pulling the pregnancy card AND for being really whiny about it. But I admit I have been particularly vexed by the "no liquid" rule, and the whole principle behind this kind of reactive airport security. For a while I was sure it was a ploy by the Artisan Water people, who charge $3 for bottled water from the liquid-less legions after we get through security check. Then articles abounded about women who weren't allowed to bring on board their own breast-milk that they'd been pumping while they were away from their babies during travel (now I think the rules have been changed). Compared to that, I got through easy! I'm surprised they didn't have a female officer pat me down to make sure my belly wasn't really a bomb belt! At this point, I think you might have an easier time trying to get actual bomb parts on an airplane than food.


But I swear, that's the first time I've used being pregnant to address an otherwise unrelated grievance.

Welcome back to The United States!


Saturday, December 1, 2007

giving thanks

The omamori are piling up around here:

The pink one was a gift from J when we went to Jingoji Temple last weekend, the red ones are from friends; all charms to bless my pregnancy and wish me a healthy baby and safe delivery.

They've been hanging on a peg above my futon, bright little satchels of prayers I don't understand but nevertheless feel compelled to honor.

When I first came to Kyoto in 2005, Japanese Buddhism struck me as terribly superstitious: Students line up at Kitano Tenmangu, a Shrine dedicated to a deified (and once-exiled) scholar, to pray before their entrance exams; at Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine in Gion, lovers climb through a tunnel in a strange stone sculpture, plastered by years of omikuji, in order to initiate or terminate a relationship (depending on which way you go through); once a year at Sanjusangendo Temple you can get hit -- okay, touched -- on the head by a sacred willow branch to prevent and cure headaches. Then there are all the charms, the fortunes, the rubbing of bronze statues that will alleviate physical pains... Do people really believe all this stuff? I wondered.

But then, Christians do some pretty wacky stuff in the name of healing, too.

Is superstition just faith in charlatan's clothing? Believing in anything you can't see or prove is bound to strike someone as superstitious, right?

Still, I have faith. I have my patchwork religion, culled from childhood Bible stories, Annie Dillard, and long walks in the woods. I'm keen on coincidence, sure that god makes god-self known through fortuitous glimpses.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, J and I went to visit with a woman he'd interviewed for his research on spirituality and aging last year. She's a smart, lovely woman of 84, with lots of stories and a thick Kyoto dialect. I can barely understand her, but I wanted to go along anyway, be a good wife. She hosted us in the middle room of her home, a beautiful old machiya in Nishijin, the textile center of the city, where she still helps run a silk tie-making factory. After a while, as we started making motions to leave, she suddenly suggested we walk over to a nearby altar to Jizo, the Buddha who looks after children and travelers, to do a blessing for the baby. We obliged, and walked with her a short distance from her house, to an odd little clothing shop with the entrance to a house at the back. We followed her inside, and she greeted the elderly couple who lived there.

I have often walked into situations in Japan where I knew nothing of what was going to happen, and have learned to just open up to it. This is what happened:

Our friend took us to the open garden in the middle of the house, where there was a small altar around two ancient-looking stone Jizo -- actually, they looked like worn and faded rocks, not sculpted figures, distinguished only by the red bib that Jizo sometimes wears. They looked as though they'd been there far longer than the house itself, which sort of awkwardly accomodated them in a corner of the courtyard.

The elderly man followed us, and gave us candles and incense to light. Not quite knowing what to do, I followed J's lead and knelt at the altar, saying a silent thank-you. The man then had us sit behind him as he stood at the altar. We bowed heads and pressed palms together as he lit incense and began to chant the heart sutra: maka han ya ha ra mi ta...

I started to cry. Huge, urgent tears spilled out on to my hands before I knew what they were for, my body was shaking, my breath coming in short gasps. I couldn't stop it -- it was too big, too fast. When he was done, we got up and I tried to compose myself but couldn't. I was so moved, so amazed by the strength of the feeling. I fumbled with some syllables to articulate how grateful I was, but it came out all blurry through the tears. We went back to the front of the house, and I tried to say thank you some more.

The man decided to give us the prayer book he'd used for the chanting, and at first J tried to refuse, but the man explained that Jizo-sama wanted us to have it as a gift. He told me to rub my belly with it, and to put it under my pillow when I go into labor. It wasn't superstition, it was god, it was grace, it was the generosity of human spirit manifest inside a prayer book.

I cried on my bicycle all the way home. I felt as though I'd been lifted and struck like a bell, and was reverberating with the intensity of it. I hadn't understood anything that had been said, and I don't really understand that much about Buddhism; but despite that, and despite the fact that it all happened in less than five minutes, the power of the ceremony cleaved directly to the heart of me.

Since then, I am more grateful for the sentiment in the omamori; I stop and pray whenever I see an altar or a Temple for Jizo. I don't think I fully understood before what motivated people to have faith -- to pray before something and really believe. How often are we called like this?

I'm still trying to figure out how to say thank you.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

when in Rome...

One of the cardinal rules of pregnancy in the States is "Don't Eat Sushi." I remember waiting tables at a sushi restaurant in San Francisco, and more than a few times it happened that there was a pregnant lady in a party of four, looking resentfully at her companions as they gobbled hamachi and maguro while she feasted on cucumber rolls.

The Japanese have no such rule. I've asked several women about it, and they've never heard of abstaining from raw fish during pregnancy; in fact, my maternity handbook even lists sashimi as a recommended source of protein in the "food pyramid" scheme.

Last weekend, J and I accompanied Shohei and Tomomi to Kanazawa, a lovely city on the coast of the Sea of Japan -- home of the 21st Century Art Museum, and famous for its fresh fish. We planned to partake of both.

A recently pregnant friend of mine spent part of her pregnancy in Spain, where she heard it was just fine for pregnant ladies to have a glass of wine a day. I'm not saying this to flout doctor's orders, or to suggest that alcohol really has no affect on the baby and those mean male obstetricians just don't want us to have any fun during gestation; I just want to point out that different cultures have different um, wisdom about pregnancy.

It's up to you to decide which rules to follow when you're pregnant, but I was in Kanazawa, and I figured, When in Rome... And the suzuki sashimi was delicious.

The next day we spent playing in the museum, which was truly delightful with its bright open design and interactive installations. It seems that 21st century art is not about looking at a painting or a sculpture, but about being enveloped in a concept. Many of the exhibits took up entire rooms, some even required us to stand in line and view the piece two, three, seven people at a time.

Here's a wall hand-painted in the particular pattern of Kanazawa yuzen.

One of our collective favorites was The Swimming Pool, by Leandro Erlich. From above, it looked like a regular pool, but actually the water was a 10cm layer at the top of a glass-ceilinged room below.

From outside, it looked as though a crowd of people had sunk to the bottom, fully clothed and heavy as rocks. Once inside, you could look up at the blurry figures of people standing poolside, and imagine that you were looking up from the blue watery deep end -- but could still breathe!

Shohei loved the Blue Planet Sky exhibit: a vast empty room with a high ceiling and a square hole open directly to the sky. The idea was so simple, but its effect so enchanting -- a great box of light, a three-dimensional sky painting, of changing texture and hue, dappled clouds and passing crows -- that we went back a couple times to experience it both in the sun and in the pouring rain.

Shohei snapped this photo afterwards, catching the framed sky in a puddle.

My favorite exhibit was a room lined with panels of cardboard, each one bearing a giant painted seed, a catalogue of a variety of plants in Japan. The center of the room was occupied by three large cardboard ships, round and tall and sort of pointed at one end. Seeds are ships, the exhibit explained, traveling far and wide with their information and influence.

I was struck at once by the parallel of having a little seed of my own growing inside, and how amazing it still is to me that from the moment of his conception he contained all the information for his development in a tiny cluster of cells. My breath caught in my throat and I wanted to cry a little, but I fought back tears because it seemed silly to be so moved by cardboard.

But I was moved. I am moved by the potential in things; by growing things, things that start small and seem inconsequential, but unfold and unfurl and astound you with their complicated beauty. All that happens, all that is possible, comes from just a little seed.

We stopped for oden after the museum, warming our bellies on daikon, tofu, eggs, chikuwa, and seaweed before getting on the road to drive back to Kyoto.

It rained the whole time, as it should on the way home. I felt happy and sleepy in the back seat, basking in the richness of friendship and the exquisite satiation of art and food.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007

in the dark

We finally made it to "the womb" at Kiyomizudera. I'd been telling J about it, and trying to arrange a trip with K, too, since before we left last summer.

I first went with my dad and his wife when they visited Kyoto -- my dad had read about it in his guide book and it sounded sufficiently weird and mysterious: enter the womb of Zuigu Bosatsu, little-known Buddhist Goddess, find your own light in the darkness, make a wish by turning the stone at the end. Or something to that effect.

This time was slightly different; I knew what to expect, and was preoccupied with what my companions would think. But the experience is nevertheless memorable, no matter how many times you go through (skip ahead if you think you might come to Kyoto to do it in person):

You take off your shoes and descend a short staircase, keeping your left hand on the banister, which becomes a succession of large wooden beads along the wall. You pass through a hanging noren curtain, and are suddenly in total and utter darkness. The wooden beads disappear and all you have is your hand on the wall, which has been worn smooth by thousands of hands doing the same thing. The floor feels smooth too, gentle but uneven, like slabs of stone; and the darkness itself has a presence, a thickness that feels at once close and expansive. Waving out with your right arm yields nothing; you keep to the wall. And when the wall turns abruptly to the left, it feels like the floor dropped away, like you might lose your balance... your senses are heightened, you feel almost giddy in the not-knowing, wondering is this what it's like to be blind?

Voices are closeby, but direction is skewed. The space is probably no bigger than your basement, but has the boundless feeling of the inside of your mind, the inside of your own womb. So you wonder, too, is this where you are, little one? Warmer, of course, and without language -- without having been to the bright world out here -- but in the boundless space inside you, in the dark.

Soon enough (maybe too soon), the darkness diffuses around a pool of dim light, illuminating the the sanskrit character, "hara," on the top of a great round rock. It reaches to your breastbone, and is mounted on its axis so that it just takes a gentle, steady push to turn it around. It feels like an ancient ritual, somehow. Your hands come into view, other faces. You turn and walk through another curtain, you see the stairs, the bright day; you walk out into it and put your shoes back on, amid other tourists jostling eachother on the stairs and looking at omamori. Entirely surreal.

It occurs to me later when I get into bed, nestle into blankets and curl around my expanding belly, that we replicate this feeling of being in the womb, night after night. Safe, warm, dark. I feel closest to my baby then, compelled to talk to him and conspire behind closed eyelids.

I haven't written much about this internal world of being pregnant, perhaps because it's hard to say exactly why it's so magical (or because I'm hesitant to use words like magical...). But really I can't talk about it enough -- there's a sentient being inside me! He can hear sounds! He is capable of coordinating brain and muscle and nerve, he kicks and digests, he maybe has eyes like mine, hair like his daddy's... this stuff is obvious, even mundane, but is it not still a miracle? He is utterly mine, part of my body, and yet he exists in a space much bigger than me, already teaching me so much about how we unfold according to our pattern.

It reminds me of a poem written by a friend from years ago in San Francisco, which included something his friend overheard his young daughter say to their new-born baby: Tell me what god looks like, I'm forgetting.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Montauk: closing party

Saturday night I hosted a closing party for the kami kami show at Montauk. It was small, but lots of fun. Lots of friends came out, brought their friends, ate, drank, and listened to me wax cultural about Japanese hair and paper.

I got a little repetitive in my description of the work, but I figure this is bound to happen with my limited vocabulary. It would be amusing to hear a direct English transliteration of what, exactly, I said... I think it was something like this:

"I go to used book stores and find? look for? different kinds of paper. If I like the color, or the pattern. Then I put it together. With old maps, and train time-tables, the collages have a travel feeling."

"I don't know why I'm interested in the Japanese hairstyles. There's a museum? in Gion, for the hairstyles. I went there and sketched. You can see Japanese culture and history in these hairstyles, I think."

You try being articulate in another language!

But, people got it. Thank goodness. I sold two of the title pieces, and several of the smaller postcards. Of course the hand pieces were the most popular, and went quickly.

I know Tomomi and her husband, Shohei, especially love the hands... so I made two pieces for them, to thank them for providing such a great space for my art, for and such sincere friendship and support, to boot.

It's remarkable how people instantly gravitate toward such a familiar thing as hands... I fumbled a bit with an explanation of these, as well -- the lay-person's mudra? the language of hands? what? -- but J summed it up simply and gracefully: it's the "ah" and the "om." At the gates in front of many grand temples, there are statues guarding either side; one statue has his mouth and hands open, the other's are closed. Ah, om. Birth and death.

Perfect. Just what I meant.


Friday, November 9, 2007


During the day, I hang out with Tomomi at the Atelier, and despite my halting Japanese, we've managed to have some great converstations. The simple reward of making yourself understood cannot be underestimated.

So I've been learning lots of fun new words, one of my favorites is ochokochoi, which is sort of like messy or clumsy. Say it, it's fun!

It came up because I was describing how I've become quite clumsy lately -- loosing my balance when I get up out of my futon, or when I go to put on my socks. I've always been a pretty coordinated person, but it's literally throwing me off to have all this extra weight.

The funniest moment came the day my butt got big. K and I were in the kitchen, on round two of banana bread (we have to use all those bananas somehow), and she had the hand-mixer plugged into the wall. To understand the following configuration, you have to appreciate just how small Japanese kitchens are: the space between the range and the refrigerator is about three feet, and the refrigerator is so small that you must crouch down on the ground in that three-foot space to get into it. The electrical outlet is positioned at about belly-button height on the wall between the range and the fridge, which means the cord hangs inconveniently right in the middle of that space during use. Underestimating my new girth, I turned to put something back in the fridge, and was in mid-squat when I realized I was sitting on the cord and pulling the mixer down with me.

I don't know if K was laughing harder at my awkward squat or the look of utter surprise on my face as I shot upright and apologized -- the whole thing no doubt looked like some unpracticed or unwitting slapstick. To say the least, it certainly made an impression. The next week, when we were about to watch the Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin movie on Halloween, she was waiting in my room didn't waste her chance to say, "Hey, get your fat ass in here!"

I know it doesn't look like much, but 15 pounds have really made a difference... believe me, I'm wasn't happy about being a waif-ly 110 at the outset of the pregnancy. I've never been able to gain weight, and I'm not saying that like an annoyingly self-congratulatory sorority girl. It's just in the genes -- me & my mom & my siblings are all wiry and tiny. I'm actually enjoying the extra meat immensely: I'm hoping I can keep the butt and the boobs after the baby comes.

What's the secret? It's the appetite. I've always been a healthy eater, but I'm astounding even myself these days. I've begun combining first and second breakfasts, so that one just blends right into the next. Eggs, cheese, toast, potatoes, then oatmeal? Sure! Pancakes? Don't mind if I do. And how about a slice of banana bread, too.


Monday, November 5, 2007

the show

At last! Pictures from Kami Kami.

The pieces fit beautifully at Montauk, Tomomi's Atelier, and of course she has an impeccable eye for design touches, like the sweet tamoe-bana branch hanging from the ceiling. (Those are her works to the bottom right, which she's been busy making and selling since she opened last month.)

Despite my limited Japanese, we've managed to have great conversations about inspiration, making art, and the way things always turn out differently than what you originally intented.

I explained that most of the time I can't think too much about the meaning of a piece before I start, otherwise I get too hung up on that and there's no flow. But then sometimes I worry I didn't think enough, and and maybe there's no meaning... That's when it's gratifying to show my work to other people and get their ideas.

Today a friend stopped by to see the art, and offered the kind of articulate reflection I'd been craving. We talked about how it's harder to see your own culture, and sometimes it takes a foreigner to show you the things you take for granted about what's all around you. She was thrilled that I'd taken pages from cast-away books, like old maps and train timetables that Japanese people might have simply overlooked.

She went on about different historic travelers who have come to this island and been influenced by its aesthetics; how art can be like a conversation between countries, and how the maps combined with the kami no ke illustrated this exchange. Perfect! Exactly what I meant.

I also created smaller post-card sized pieces that look like this:

And this:

The brown paper is ever-popular, as are the hand drawings. Let's hope they're a hit!


Thursday, October 25, 2007

pants and "pan-tsu"

I've been living in K's sweatpants lately, as none of my pants fit anymore. I know I'll be able to find decent clothes once I return to the States, but pickins are slim in Kyoto.

I was downtown with my friend Joseph the other day, and I thought I'd stop in at the Gap to see if they have maternity wear. I didn't see anything, but asked a sales clerk just to be sure.

Mataniti no fuku utte-imasu ka? I asked, Pan-tsu toka? (Do you sell maternity clothes, pants and such?)

Nai, the clerk said, waving her hand in front of her from left to right in that characteristic Japanese way.

When we left, Joseph reminded me that pan-tsu is what Japanese people call underwear. Zubon is what we would call pants, or trousers. Oops!

Shortly after we announced our pregnancy to J's parents in August, I made a point of saying I wouldn't be caught dead in pants with that dreaded belly panel. Allow me now to eat my words, and say: Halleluia for the belly panel!

J found a maternity extravaganza store in Osaka, where I bought both pants and pan-tsu, which go nearly to my armpits and are the most comfortable thing I've worn in weeks.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

18 weeks

Nearly half-way through my pregnancy, and this is what I have to show for it:

But I'm so proud. We went to the clinic again on Monday for our monthly check, and it turns out I've put on 1.6 kilos and about 6 more centimeters in diameter. The baby has almost doubled in length, and has a big ol' healthy cranium.

The doctor remembered to weigh me and take my blood pressure this time, but I still think he's not very good at taking stills from the ultrasound monitor. There were several opportunities to capture hands with fingers extended, waving, long legs kicking out... but no. Here's the peanut looking rather like a teddy bear giving you the evil eye:

And if you can guess what this is, you win $100:

I'll give you a hint: it's a boy!

It looks like static to me, but we figure the doc knows what he's looking for. Or, as my sister-in-law put it, "it could be a sneaky lil' Miss..."

J and I had decided pretty early on that we wanted to find out the sex if we could, and I was grateful that we were both on the same page about it. Some folks are adamant about not finding out. I'm too curious, and terrible with secrets.

The funny thing is, now that we know, it feels like the flood-gates have opened up and a river of Culture is rushing toward us. I don't regret finding out, but it's strange to think that this baby has gone from just Baby, to Boy -- to a whole slew of assumptions about gender and biology. I admit I was kind of hoping for a girl, but mainly because I assumed they are "easier," not as rowdy or raucous or violent as boys. And they have cuter clothes. I feel shallow for confessing this; I should be beyond this kind of social conditioning. But I figure it's better to lay bare my expectations and misguided pre-conceptions than to let them fester and corrupt the kid later in life, which he would rebel against by becoming a Televangelist or an Investment Banker.

It's also interesting to me to watch how life brews from a tiny point of vast possibility -- "God is punctiform," says Annie Dillard -- and then it gradually acquires a body, a sex, a gender, a name; its identity hewn by these parameters. Of course, this is inevitable, we are all marked by culture.

Watching the baby move around was mezmerizing: he waved his fingers! How marvelous, how utterly human. And I instinctively waved back to him.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

one bridge, two views

I love it how Kyoto goes from rural: urban:

in the same panorama.

I biked out on Friday afternoon to sketch the nearby rice fields after harvest, feeling rather Van Gogh-like (that's me, just another Dutch artist fascinated with Japan...), though I don't think he had to render telephone poles and power lines in the background.

If you've ever been here, you know it's just part of the quirky charm -- ramshakle corrugated tin add-ons to a hundred year old wooden house; neighborhood shrines sharing street corner space with vending machines. Farmers tilling fields right next to the Circle K.


Friday, October 12, 2007

golden poop

Ahh, poop.

Perhaps some of you are already familiar with Japanese toilet-training videos, where poop is cute and cartoon-y and accompanied by songs and ancient wisdom (I've heard that it does wonders where the tots are concerned, and plan to try it myself when we get to that phase...) But aside from kid-jokes and lots of other bizarre things being cartoon-ized, there seems to be a strange preoccupation with poop here that I can't figure out.

Here's the packaging for a pointer-stick with a swirl of poo on the end that J bought at a home furnishings store called Loft:

It extends to 70cm! I think it's also a ball-point pen.

Here's the cartoon on the back:

As best I can translate, "Unchi-kun Tanjo," or Little Poop's Birthday: he pops out (sound effects: pon!), says "Ta da!" and introduces himself, saying, "Nice to meet you, I'm poop! I was just born, won't you all be my friends?" In the last frame, as the people are digusted by him ("Gross! Stinky!"), he's saying, "Pleasure's mine!"

Next comic: Gambare, Unchi-kun," or, Good Luck, Little Poop.

Well, novelty is one thing, but then there are the golden poop stickers:

Yes, that is a poop on a red cushion in the middle. If you look hard, you can see that the poop in the second row from the bottom is even smiling. When I bought these stickers, I also bought a golden poop key-chain for J, and noticed a display statue of golden poop (on a red cushion) about 3 inches high, for $30. I love it, but Why?! What is the meaning?

Last night at dinner, J was telling me about an exhibit of butsudan (Buddhist altars, for use in the home) that he'd just seen. Some of them were incredibly elaborate, with delicate carvings, tons of gold leaf, and big enough for him to climb inside. He said they can cost up to $100,000. That's dollars.

"Isn't that kind of ostentatious? I thought Buddhism was about simplification," I said, naively.

So we talked about butsudan being like any other consumer item, appealing to people's tastes, appreciation for craftsmanship, and desires to display their status. J said, "Maybe people think of it as a little paradise for the Buddha."

"But didn't the Buddha transcend his attachment to worldy things?" I went on, "Why should he care what the butsudan looks like? It could look like crap for all he cares."

"Yeah," said J, "even crap has Buddha nature."

Perhaps this is the mystery behind the golden poop.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

fingers, folded

A postcard from J, to honor the finger-folds:

They're like gang-signs from the Buddha: mudras that convey the divine powers or emphasize the nature of a particular diety. They are an external expression of 'inner resolve' that give meaning to the sculpted images, communicating more powerfully than spoken language.

The name for this blog was taken from a letter written to us by one of our elderly Japanese friends, who always painstakingly translated everything into unwittingly poetic (and mysterious) English. I forget now exactly what he wrote, but it was something about how he was looking forward to our return to Kyoto, and would wait for us, finger-fold.

What it means -- prayer? twiddling of thumbs? -- I'm not sure, but am entirely captivated by the idea of it.

Also, I love to draw hands. I especially love the y-shaped crease the pinky makes when it's curled against the palm. I can't explain this, the satisfaction I get from rendering it, but I never seem to get tired of hands. These folds are so delicate and so expressive. Mudras for the lay-person.

I felt the baby for the first time the other night: lying in bed, reading, and suddenly a pushing from within. It felt like a hand or a foot, sweeping out from right to left. And again. And then some less distinct and fluttery motions. What are you doing in there, little one?

I read that babies will start to suck their thumbs around this time -- 16 weeks -- and it made me think of Italo Calvino's short story in Cosmicomics, 'The Spiral.' In it, he tells a story from the point of view of a mollusk, that is to say, not much of a view at all. Nevertheless, the mollusk is capable of a range of feelings, yearning, loves, with which it interprets its environment. (It eventually creates a shell for itself to express its love as beauty for another...)

I remember being struck by the vividness of that sightless world, and thought, Perhaps this is what it is like to become aware of yourself in the womb: warmth, movement, vibration, and, what's this? a hand to suck on.

Fingers, folded, sucked. Hands are important from the first.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

kami kami

I'm having a show at Atelier Montauk (beautiful jewelry and handbag designs by my friend Tomomi) at the end of the month, and I finally decided on a name: kami kami.

Kami is a homonym for both hair and paper, which I thought was appropriate.

Last week Monday, J took me to a Hair Parade (kushi matsuri, actually 'comb festival') in Gion, where the Maiko-san were on display with their kimono and kami no ke.

"It's like jidai matsuri, but for hair," said J.

I'd already completed the pieces for the show, based on the sketches I'd done, but it was really cool to see the hair up close and in real life. On real heads.

The styles were flawless, sculpted and glossy, defying gravity but looking fantastically heavy, too. They held all manner of ornaments, flowers, and pom poms, the different configurations relecting the styles of several eras.

The sketches I made for the show are somewhat similar, with obvious differences between Heian and Meiji styles. It's an evolution of hair! I tried to explain to someone the other day how I can see the influence in how some women do their hair today. It's a more punk and loose interpretation, but nevertheless...

Here are a couple of examples of what I'm putting in the show

For these pieces, I collaged the background and then pasted the kami no ke, which I'd inked by hand and outlined in white gesso, on top. I only had about five or six different kinds of paper to use in the collages -- old calligraphic text, train time-tables, go game board strategies (?), tissue paper, funky old atlases, and the beloved brown paper -- but actually I found that limitation to be a fun experiment.

It was like painting with only six colors, focusing instead on composition and the possibilities of combination.

You'll have to come to the show to see all 8.

At the end of the Hair Parade, here's my hairstyle, unshowered and sweaty:

Wow, raw and evocative!


Monday, October 1, 2007


Last night I went to a friend's house for dinner. She's Filipina and made a delicious batch of Adobo. She asked if I'd ever had Filipino food before; apparently I'd neglected to tell her that J's mom is Filipina, and she and grandma make Panak Bet and Opo and Halo Halo and other things... We laughed about that -- it seems such a glaring omission now -- and informed the part-Filipino baby to get ready for the food of its people. Ahhh, delicious, thanks Joon!

Tonight I made a dish that J and I lovingly call "the favorites" : sweet and sour fried tofu, with stir-fried broccoli. This is a labor of love, but is so so worth it. Tonight I burned the bejesus out of my middle finger while deep-frying the tofu, but it was still worth it. I decided to make it as a way to pay K back for making AMAZING lasagne over the weekend (even after me saying I hadn't ever really loved the food of her people). Being pregnant has rearranged all my food rules.

I've noticed in the past week an almost inhuman ablility to pack food away. And then continue being hungry.

Tonight as I cooked, I complained about my stretch pants, how they were binding at my waist and generally uncomfortable. K laughed at me for thinking I could continue to wear pre-pregnancy clothes and fetched me a looser pair. Ahhh, thanks friend. I guess it's about time I gained some weight.

I read that right about now -- the 16th week -- I can expect to experience "quickening," the fluttering feeling of the baby's movements. I might have, I'm not exactly sure what to be on the lookout for. But for sure I've got some thickening going on. Alright!


Saturday, September 22, 2007

mystery advice

I heard about a thing called a "Maternity Pass Book" that they give to pregnant ladies in Japan -- it's a little booklet for your personal and medical information, with spaces for your doctor to fill in the necessary records of each prenatal visit. I also heard there were coupons & other valuable tidbits included. I went to the Neighborhood Ward Office to seek it out, and after some very confusing instructions from the lady at window #24, I took the map she'd given me and made my way to a different building, which I finally realized was the place for Mother & Child Health and Welfare Services. Sheesh -- why didn't she say so?

I got the Pass Book, which did in fact include coupons, and a voucher for a free dental exam, as well as a supplemental guide with advice for a healthy pregnancy. My favorite was in the dental hygiene section, where among the usual reminders to brush after every meal and stop eating so much sugar, was this: "Avoid Eating Lazily."

What could it possibly mean?!

Lazily is the only way I eat lately. I take two hours to eat breakfast, after which it's usually time for lunch.

Here's the cool keychain I got:

It says, I have a baby in me! Give up your seat, ya jerk!


Monday, September 17, 2007

solo project

I haven't mentioned yet that J and I aren't living together here in Kyoto... that was one of the conditions of being able to come at all. A strange sacrifice, but one we were willing to make, so intense was the longing to return! Sounds like a fairy tale. Actually it's a Study Abroad Program: J is the program assistant, helping to shepherd 20 American students who wanted to study Buddhism in Japan for a semester.

They are all staying in a Temple downtown, waking at 5:00am to meditate, perform soji (temple cleaning), and eat their breakfast, before taking classes in Japanese language and Buddhist theory. For many it is their first trip to Japan, so J is the go-to guy for all inqueries. It also means he has his hands full during the week, running countless errands and preparing for trips and in general being an assistant.

I'm staying with my friend K and her husband, in the North-Eastern corner of Kyoto. They live sandwiched between Takaragaike Park and Mt. Hiezan, along the Takano River. It's gorgeous up here, but quite a hike from Shichijo where J is staying. He gets Saturday evenings and Sundays to be with me.

Consequently, weekends are a whirlwind of visits with friends not seen in ages, to dole out omiyage and catch up; while the days during the week stretch out unfettered, and unaccompanied by husband. It's a difficult transition to make, coming as we did from spending nearly every day together, but it's not entirely foreign: we spent years being long distance, he in San Diego and I in San Francisco, writing letters and only seeing each other once a month.

Still. This is Japan. And I'm pregnant.

I find myself caught up in an effort to prove myself, similar to the last time we were here, except this time I really am doing things by myself. I'm not sure yet if this independence is good, for my recouperating artistic self esteem, or bad, for my needing lots of attention. I want to tell J about my days so he can marvel at how adventurous and brave I'm being.

I took a long bike ride yesterday in an attempt to explore the western side of Kyoto, which I haven't done much of. It was excruciatingly hot and humid, and the temple I was searching for remained stubbornly evasive at the foot of Mt. Funayama, a valley away from the labyrinth of streets I got stuck in. I huffed and puffed and finally gave up and made my way home.

If I were with J, we could have found it, I chastised myself.

But, I thought, I'm alone. And this can be okay. This time around I'm not going to judge things as Good or Bad, I'm going to pay attention instead to all the nuances in between. This is the right place for nuance.

So after lunch I set about inking the cool Geisha hair-do's (from last week) on brown paper, surrounding them with billowy pillows of gesso. A great effect, though I don't know yet what I'll do with them.

We'll see what happens when I'm left to my own devices. At first I'm fantasically lazy, but eventually the work comes out. What do you do when no one is telling you what to do? Sounds simple enough to fill a day with activity, but I swear it becomes existential very quickly.

And it's only week two!

I just finished reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel -- at least I'm not a shipwreck castaway in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger.


Friday, September 14, 2007

13 weeks

One of the major logistical concerns about being pregnant in Japan was how and where to find good prenatal care... both J and I are here on tourist visas, and don't have insurance. Neither did we really know where to start looking for hospitals and doctors. Fortunately he is resourceful and his Japanese is way better than mine: he did lots of legwork from the States before we left, looking at websites, comparing prices, determining what will happen at a routine check-up (you'd be surprised at how much this varies from culture to culture). Also fortunately, we have lots of friends here who are willing to help out. One friend recommended an OB-GYN who speaks English and is a friend of hers, so to him we went.

The check-up mainly involved showing the doctor my records from my initial visit in Michigan, which included all my blood work and medical history, and then an ultrasound, and a reminder not to smoke, drink, or overexercise. He didn't weigh me or take my blood pressure, something I didn't even think about until later. What I did say to J right afterwards was, "He didn't palpate" -- and I meant to say 'my uterus,' but it came out 'my universe' -- and so we were laughing too much about the slip to be really concerned about it. I guess if they do an ultrasound, they have a good idea of the size of uterus and baby and all.

Here's the baby in its universe:

That's the head on the left, in a profiled and reclining position; to the right, the round midsection and spindly little leg. Of course, ultrasound prints always look more like snow on the TV than any discernable likeness to a human; but in his office, watching the monitor, watching this little creature tumble around and kick its legs out, I was utterly impressed with its wholeness and complexity. We could make out its spine, its tiny hip-bones, even hands with fingers. I was also amazed at how active it is -- I still can't feel a thing.

The doctor pointed out the presence of a nose bone, which apparently is a sign that it does not have Down Syndrome. "Nice baby," he said, "Healthy baby. Congratulations!"

I don't know what this check-up would have cost in the States, but I do know that Medicaid kicks in for a reason, namely, prenatal care can be prohibitively expensive. We found out that pregnancy is not covered by Japanese National Health Care -- which makes sense when you consider it's not a sickness, a categorization I find annoying in the States. I don't know what's better: instant medical coverage for pregnant ladies, or super cheap prenatal care with no insurance necessary.

This visit cost us all of $30.

That night we celebrated with dinner at Kerala, delicious Indian food, and coconut ice cream for dessert. Here's to nice babies with nose bones!


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

hair and other fibers

A couple of days ago I went to the Tetsuo Ishihara Museum of Traditional Japanese Hairstyles, in Gion. I'd read about it in the Kyoto Visitor's Guide, which cryptically provided no address or directions. I found the website linked above, and pedaled down to Shijo with a vague notion of how to find it. I was assuming that, like all other things in Gion, it would be hidden to those not in the know, so I was prepared for a bit of a treasure hunt. Turned out to be easy to find, but no less delightful in the discovering: up a narrow staircase from a darkened rear-entrance, into an equally narrow u-shaped room with display cases on either side. I'd say it hardly qualifies as a museum, but for my purposes -- sitting and sketching -- it was perfect.

The configurations of shapes and loops and ornaments ranged from sublime to outrageous, all of them great fun to draw.

Afterwards, the woman who was working behind the counter played a video for me, which showed Tetsuo Ishihara creating three of these hair sculptures on a live model. He still does the hair for many a maiko, and apparently it's somewhat contentious that he has gone as public as he has. It was fascinating to watch him work, though, with deft precision and a rakish disregard for the poor girl's scalp. I had no idea how much scaffolding goes into some of these styles, although I don't know how else they'd defy gravity so gracefully.

Then the woman explained to me the contradiction of Japanese hair being so straight and flat, and yet pliable into these kinds of dimensions. It's the same with kimono, she said, on its own it is flat and straight, just square shapes; but wrapped just so around the shoulders, draping elegantly on the arms of a woman, it transforms into a curving and sensual line. At least I think that's what she said.

That's what I love about art here -- there's always some kind of underlying philosophy, a metaphor of relationships that seems to cut right to the essense of things. It's not just a pretty hairstyle, it is a coded message; a signifier of age, of status, of position in time. I want to achieve the same meaningfulness in my art, but without appearing contrived or pretentious. This, I surmise, is a life-long process.

On the way home I stopped at yet another furuhon-ya-san (used bookstore) to gather materials for collaging. I got a couple of pocket atlases and a pile of worm-eaten maps, sensing an emerging theme...

Now it's time to conjure images and feelings from flat surfaces: off to the drawing board!


Sunday, September 9, 2007


Here at last! Through lines at airports, cramped seats, 3 times Spiderman 3, and the fog of jet-lag: Kyoto.

The humidity is thick, the cicadae are deafening, and the smells of summer have once again enchanted me... ripe, tangible smells, like musty tatami in a jumbled store-front, sandalwood incense coiling out from a doorway, fried sweet things and fresh fish odor wafting down alleyways. I tuck them all into familiar pockets, riding along on my bike.

It feels as though I never left, and it also feels as though I've returned to a dream. Yes, I'm sure this street leads to that one, and that there's a darling cafe on a side street where we once at lunch... it's all hazy and delightfully real at the same time. I've even surprised myself by remembering a decent amount of Japanese. The sounds come first, their meaning second.

Not a great sketch at all, but an attempt at the marvelous tangle of wires and buildings that is Kyoto, with the Kamogawa in the foreground. On our bikes today, J and I slowed on a bridge across the river to look north toward the layers of blue-gray mountains, growing pale into the distance, as far as the eye can see. How will I capture them?

I met a woman the other day who has synesthesia -- her senses overlap -- she can see music, taste shapes, and letters have colors. (She told me that my name is mostly green, with blue toward the end... how lovely!) I had never heard of this before, but it strikes me now that Kyoto is a particularly lush place to experiene such a phenomenon, as a place where even those of us with linear senses can smell things and practically see their vibrancy. The air lingers on the skin and feels charged with possibility. The moss in the gardens is too extravagant to enjoy with eyes alone.

All of this means good things for art-making, I can tell. The trick is to let it come to me, to meander, to explore and experiment; to be, as Milan Kundera says, Not Afraid of Not Arriving.

(But I have arrived! At last.)


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

square peg

We're staying with my husband's parents for about a week before we head off to Japan. We've actually spent the whole summer at home in Michigan, shuttling between his folks and mine, which is a glorious kaleidescope of memories and tensions. I love the humidity, the fireflies, the blueberry picking; I hate not having my own house, my own groceries, my Sunday morning paper, privacy... but these are things I willingly sacrificed, so no complaining.

We're in the suburbs now, though, which makes me feel even more like a square peg than usual. What is it? The uber-green lawns, the chatty gossip, the quiet sameness? In general I tend to dislike the things that large groups of people like (or are supposed to like) -- if there are large groups of people heading in one direction, I'm more likely to veer off the other way. I say this not to be self-righteous, but to somehow figure out where I belong. Here, it's sort of a process of elimination: for example, I know I don't belong at Target or Ikea on a Sunday afternoon with the rest of the hoardes. What ever happened to Church?!

I also feel it -- the square peg-ness -- acutely in the "pregnancy/child care" section of the book stores when my curiosity gets the best of me and I have to browse. I remember going through the same thing when we were planning our wedding: the sudden crushing pressure of glossy-paged advice from an industry defined by trends and categories like "bridezilla" and "anti-bride." Spare me! It just doesn't have anything to do with my life.

Granted, most pregnancy books have useful medical information, but that says nothing for the dearth of "pregnancy journals" and "planners" and "your changing body" books -- you know, the ones featuring a genteel-looking white lady on the cover, usually wearing all white and holding flowers. I've sort of come to expect that mainstream media like this won't really reflect my lifestyle or the choices I'd make, and I realize most women probably feel left out of the generic stereotype too, but that still doesn't keep me from being annoyed by it. Best to just avoid that section altogether. Talk to real people.

I'm almost 11 weeks along. I read that the embryo becomes a fetus at this time, an exciting graduation, but still not a whole lot of sensation within me. I'm one of the lucky ones that is not suffering through morning sickness (halelluia for my prenatal vitamin), or debilitating headaches, so some days it's easy to forget I'm pregnant at all.

Next week we depart for three months abroad, in Kyoto, my enchanted city. My husband is working for a Study Abroad program, and I get to tag along, explore and make art. We lived there for a year and a half, from early 2005 to mid-2006, and ever since our repatriation I've been campaigning for visit. The gods have listened and have granted us a full-length tourist visa stay. Cheers! I can't wait. It's much easier to feel like a square peg in Japan.


Monday, August 13, 2007

to do

The list of things to do perpetually includes Write Emails, Make Phone Calls, Organize Things -- all of which seems to take days and weeks, and I'm not even employed. How do we get anything done? Especially in these first tender weeks of pregnancy, when it feels like someone is pulling the plug every afternoon at 1pm and then again at 5pm. And again around 8pm.

We're staying with my dad & step-mom for the next couple of weeks, and I've set up a little studio space for myself in the basement. My list of things to do now features Draw Every Day, so that I don't atrophy. Since I'm occupying dad's work room, I'm sharing space with tools and hardware and art supplies galore: racks of solvents, mediums, adhesives; cabinets of nuts and bolts and sandbelts and washers, drawers all organized and labeled (now I know where I get this from); dad's old canvases stacked neatly in the corner; archives sharing shelf space with slides reels from my childhood.

So I'm anthropomorphizing and drawing tools: here, a mama pliers and her baby.

We spent the weekend at the Lake, where the list of things to do was pitched entirely and revised to read more like Bask in the Sun, Read Lazily, Kayak out to See the Shipwreck, and Eat Constantly. I know, life is certainly rough. Here's J reading Harper's in a beach chair with a funny head-wrap:

The weather was glorious, the water a perfect 73 degrees. We caught part of the Pleidean meteor shower after dark, and later woke to a humdinger of a thunderstorm. All of this is exactly why I wanted to be home in Michigan for the summer. To do: Slow Down and Enjoy.


Thursday, July 26, 2007


On our way from California to Michigan, our car broke down in the middle of the desert on the first day. We stayed the night in Baker, CA, just south of Death Valley, while a new fuel pump made its way from Barstow to our engine. We checked in at Arne's Royal Hawaiian, a cheesy-horror-flick kind of motel surrounded by an ominous graveyard of busted-up cars. We grumbled a bit, then shrugged our shoulders and made the most of it: glad to escape the 115 degree heat in the pool, and watch bad movies on TV with the A/C cranked up. It was a full moon that night, also a blue moon -- June 3oth.

Turns out it was a fortuitous and fertile detour. Like a hand reached down and interfered as if to say, The Time is Now!

Weeks later, with my cycle being officially late, we went on a whim to the store for a pregnancy test. I'd been imagining getting pregnant for so many months before this day that I was completely shocked by the reality of it. The jarring merge of my fantasy with the actual moment sent my heart pounding and my hands shaking wildly. I burst out of the bathroom, my eyes bulging out of my head, and showed the test stick to my husband. Now what?? The moment after the discovery was never scripted in my imagination...

I sat quietly, in awed shock, for the rest of the evening, while J and my mom made greens and tofu for dinner. Mom got the "Being Born" book off the shelf, and we tried to determine what stage of development the embryo was at. At five weeks it already has a heart the size of a poppyseed. I'm amazed at that -- our utterly tiny beginnings, and the remarkable ability of my body to grow this poppyseed into a life that breathes and loves and prefers one thing over another.