Monday, October 30, 2006

Back to Work or Ah, Steroids...

Back at work today for the first time in over a week. I hadn't really made a clear plan of how to explain to people what had happened. I had made blueberry-banana bread, thinking that would somehow be explanation enough; but I overmixed it, so it didn't taste like I thought it should. I decided not to bring it. In the end I just told various versions of "I was in the hospital. Very sorry for the trouble. It's not MS." 'Not MS' is about the clearest explanation of ADEM I think people have the patience for. Though of course, as they didn't know that I was even diagnosed with MS to begin with, I doubt it has much meaning for them either way.

I'm sure at some point I'm going to react to a small annoyance with a steroid-induced rage, causing me to 'Hulk out' on everyone. Faced with today's first bad rejection, I had expected to push my bloodied and bruised inner elbows against the visa window and scream, "I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT! YOU CAN DAMN WELL TRANSIT THROUGH EUROPE!" In this scenario, I also had one of those mad, cave-dwelling hermit beards, which would become flecked with frothy spittle as I was yelling and gesticulating wildly. Ah, steroids... Instead, my rejection speech rolled out flawlessly. Good to know that particular cognitive path was uneffected. Though I might try and add some frothy spittle in the future, just for fun.

I only broke down once, and that was trying to explain to the FSNs what had happened. I know that they were worried, and likely curious, and I wanted to reassure them (but also warn them about fun steroid side-effects like possible seizures and the afore-mentioned irritability). I never even cried about things in front of my parents, but for some reason attempting an explanation for the japanese staff made me weep. Go figure. It sort of undermined the 'I'm fine, no need to worry, I can carry on with work just like before' message I was hoping to send. Maybe I can chalk that outburst up to steroids, too.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Home Again and Comfortably Numb

Mom and Dad come down with me to Kansai, which was pleasant. I'd been wanting them to see my apartment, to get a sense of where I'm living... though perhaps hadn't intended it to be under these circumstances. Their visit happened to coincide with the compound's trick-or-treating night, which was actually a lot of fun. We decorated some, handed out candy, I made cupcakes:

It felt normal.

I can't figure out if I'm supposed to feel normal. Everything seems so anticlimactic -- I'm sort of embarrassed to talk about it*. Not because of the drama, but because of the real lack of it. This thing happened, it was treated, and now I'm back. In some way I feel like a fraud. It's not a big deal, but it's not NOT a big deal, and so I don't know how to think about it. What's inbetween those two things? Just life, I guess.

My hands are still numb, and a bit out of my control. I have little tremors, and occasional shooting pains, hopefully the nerve fibers coming back to life. I find I'm spilling things, making little messes. At night, my body feels so strange and otherworldly -- I picture my limbs beneath the covers, huge and porous like giant Cheetos with live wires running through them. Roger Waters would be proud: my hands feel just like two balloons.

I put Mom and Dad on the bus for the airport this morning. This is the first time I've gotten to be really alone with everything. I can already tell that I'm going to want to be alone with everything for a long time.

*Uh, though apparently not here in this public forum.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cancer for the Cure

The difference between the first and last series of MRIs is rather dramatic: whereas before my brain looked like a snowglobe, now there are no white spots to be seen. So ADEM it is. Not MS. This could never happen to me again. I should be obscenely happy.

I don't know why I'm not obscenely happy.

There are still two lesions on my spinal cord, albeit reduced dramatically in size. I'll be on oral steroids for the next 5 weeks in the hope that they'll go away completely. An MRI six months from now in April should give the final say on things, though my parents are already blithely emailing everyone to let them know that now I'm fine. I think the neurologist comprehends my sense of unease at the nebulous nature of everything, however. With ADEM, about 30% of the cases go on to become MS; this usually happens in a 4 to 8 year window after the first attack. With relapsing-remitting MS (what I was originally diagnosed with), the second attack usually occurs in a 1 to 3 year window... Psychologically, I don't feel one is all that far removed from the other. But at least med won't be able to hold a firm MS diagnosis over my head. And other than this round of oral steroids, I shouldn't have to take any MS meds, which can apparently be quite horrible.

So, hopefully a clear MRI in April, and no relapses during the steroid treatment. And no MS. Just normal me again. Probably.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hygiene and 100 Yen Coins

Moving on to an indelicate topic, I have to say that personal hygiene issues are the absolute worst part of numb hands. I can't tell if anything is clean, no matter how long I spend washing my hair and face, or trying to work the little bar of hospital soap into my underarms (which are also numb). Something called Uhthoff's Syndrome means that heat heightens the MS symptoms, so the hot water of the shower -- clearly a rather necessary component of attempts at cleanliness -- only exacerbates the problem. I try to move very deliberately and carefully, covering all the proper body vectors, even though I can only feel them in the most remote, cottony way. It takes so long. I'm going to have to get up at least half an hour earlier than I used to do to make it to the train on time for work.

Out shopping with my parents yesterday, money exchange was also hampered. I can't feel things in my bag, or fish for change in my wallet -- all the coins have to be dumped out on my palm and inspected before I can be certain what I'm handing over. Plus, having no sure sense of how much pressure I'm applying with my grip, I've lost all confidence in my ability to hold things. Just buying a cup of coffee last night, trying to carry it back to the table... I could sense the staff watching me, concerned. 'This isn't me!' I wanted to tell them. 'This is just some freak thing.' I'm not sure what I'll do if it doesn't go away (a possibility no matter which diagnosis the neurologist settles on). Learn to cope, I guess. I can tell I'm going to want a lot of time alone with the idea, to deal with it -- I suppose to internalize it to some extent. Right now, I just don't feel whole.

But at any rate... three more fancy MRIs, one more IV, my final eye exam, and then maybe I can finally go home. Though first, a shower! I'll just take my time.

And maybe by this afternoon, my diagnosis won't even be MS.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Lack of Enthusiasm for a Possible Happy Turn of Events

As predicted, the steroids are making me very restless. My mind won't settle for any long amount of time on a single topic, but flits about from one thing to another with a disconcerting detached-from-reality speed. Apparently it's Tuesday. I couldn't tell you where Monday went. I vaguely recall making the trip into Tokyo to pick up my backpack from Catherine at the embassy, Mom and Dad in tow. Catherine's been wonderful, and I hope she forgives this daze I'm in. I'm so tired, and I can't focus. I really want to focus.

Today: eye tests, more MRIs, more IVs. The IV restart takes 5 sticks, and burns so badly afterwards that I ask for it to be removed rather than leaving it in till tomorrow. My arms look as if they've been attacked by rabid bees. Just one more steroid dose, and then they can recover. I dread the last IV. I think the vein expert does, too; he's nervously talking about trying something with lidocaine, maybe adjusting the timing... Quite honestly, if he suggested cutting off my arm with a grapefruit spoon so he could take the limb into the better lighting of his office, I think I'd agree. I would do anything for this man, I feel so indebted to him. If anyone else even points a needle at me, I start to quake in fear.

The new MRIs take place at a hospital here in Yokosuka, though off-base. I have to go out there after the eye exam, necessitating the wearing of flimsy wrap-around plastic sunglasses to protect my dilated pupils. The first thing you give up when you're ill is any sense of dignity; trundling about the waiting room in dark glasses and a hospital dressing gown, I look like some sort of bed-ridden albino yakuza moll. Luckily, I'm able to find this amusing rather than embarrassing or insulting. Dad says the glasses make me look like Badtz-Maru.

The new MRI is enhanced by some sort of inert metal they injected so as to give a clearer image; the lesions should 'glow'. Instead, it reveals all the lesions to have lessened, perhaps even to have gone away entirely. The neurologist is now hopeful that this is not MS, but something called ADEM ('Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis' or 'Acute Demyelinating Encephalomyelitis', your pick). This condition resembles MS in all ways except:

1. It is monophasic (i.e., does not represent a continuum of flare-ups);
2. The lesions don't hang around to form scars.

Or in other words, ADEM is a one-off event, probably a reaction to a virus (I can recall having somewhat of a cold a few weeks ago), and might never happen to me again. Obviously a much better diagnosis than MS.

Dad seems ready to call it faith healing; I'm more reserved. There's one more series of MRIs to go tomorrow. I'll wait for that to give us a better idea of things. My body feels so tired, so violated by random physical affronts. I just want to be home in my own bed. I just want to sleep.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Flush and Puffy

I woke up this morning and couldn't remember why I was in the hospital. It came back to me gradually. Everything is very surreal.

Both my parents are here now, but thus far we've avoided the mushy emotional stuff I've been dreading. Mom'll go back to Osaka with me after my hospital stay; Dad happens to have meetings in Tokyo on the 30th, so we'll work out tomorrow whether or not he wants to make the four hour trip down and back just to stay for part of the weekend.

The reflexes in my legs seem to have returned, and though my hands and torso are still sort of numb, the strength of the numbness has definitely abated. The steroids are making me warm, and I've a constant red blush across my nose and cheeks. I'm told to also expect some puffiness*. As long as I can still fit in my jeans, this should be okay; otherwise, I'll be wearing my newly purchased pink plaid pajama bottoms on the train back to Kansai. But at least I won't be gracelessly staggering about, clutching at the metro walls and railings the way I initially was when trying to get to the MRIs and base. Another weird gaijin creeping through the public transport system... I'm sure the Japanese just take it in stride now.

At Dad's suggestion, I've emailed my union rep at AFSA to get a sense of my rights. With the time change, I don't expect to hear back for about a day and a half or so. The Physicians Assistant at the embassy health unit called to tell me he's sending a cable to med in DC to alert them to my new medical status. I don't like this. I don't trust med. I told the PA that I was hoping to go to Africa or the Middle East after Japan... He said Africa would be no problem, but made no comment on the Middle East. I didn't press him -- it's not like this is his fault. I just hope I don't have to spend the rest of my career in DC and Europe. I don't want to be restricted. If I go blind in Iceland rather than Iraq, does it really make a difference? It's not like there's a cure. Just meds forever and steroids during a flare-up. Steroids are pretty much everywhere. I could take them orally. Or give myself shots. Or maybe even rig up a transfusion with a coconut, a rubber hose, and a bike needle like Jackie Chan in 'Who Am I?'.

Speaking of which, they've just told me that they'll have to change the IV tomorrow. I hope I handle it better. I hope my parents aren't around to watch.

I spoke to my youngest sister on the phone. "Katie, are you going to be in a wheelchair?" "No girly -- don't pay any attention to what you read online." I hear myself reiterating for her what the neurologist told me. I know she's worried and I don't want her to be.

*Wow, they weren't kidding! Where's my waist? I could have sworn I left it right here... To shamelessly quote Lewis Black, I've taken on the appearance of "a dumptruck in heat."

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Small, Deep, and 'Rolly'

I never thought of myself as being a bad patient -- actually, never thought of myself as being a 'patient' -- but yesterday when they were trying to draw blood I writhed and kicked and howled in ferocious animal pain. Something about the stress of the recent diagnosis, coupled with very small, deep, uncooperative veins, and a freezing cold hospital room... it was a rather embarrassing display on my part, and doesn't bode well for the future. They had to call in the the hospital vein expert. He is good at 'sticking' -- I was able to keep my response down to stifled moans while he prodded and jabbed the inside of my elbow and forearm. They made over 10 punctures to get a single phial of blood; I think they need 8 total. At the current rate, only 70 more jabs to go.

At least the IV is finally in (though it's going to take me some time before I hear the letters 'IV' and don't automatically respond "No, you can't have a B2 visa."). It'll stay in for the entire week, and they'll be using it to give me steroids to combat the lesion. I've been making myself look at where it enters my arm, to inure myself to things. This will be a constantly recurring part of my life now, right?

It's 7am... I wonder if they have a coffee IV...

I think what disturbs me most is not the abrupt nature of this, but rather the sense of it being sort of matter-of-course. Where's my melodramatic Lifetime Feature Presentation soundtrack? The closeup as I am informed of my life-altering new fate? The cut to commercial while I try to shampoo my hair, one unbendable IV-laden arm stiff at my side, and the other half numb, struggling to feel my scalp...

I'm concerned about work. Never in my wildest imaginings would I have predicted craving a return to the visa window. I didn't bring anything to study. I'd really like to be reading about E and L visa regulations instead of wasting my time staring at the hawks circling outside my 5th floor hospital room window. A trip in November was supposed to set me up with the ability to assist with TDYs in hardship posts, something I've been really wanting to do. I doubt they'll let me make that trip now. I doubt they'll ever let me go to a hardship post. I'm afraid they'll yank my medical clearance. I'm afraid I'll lose my job. What will I do? You can't make picture frames if you can't feel your hands.

I am thankful, though, that this is just a spinal lesion, just a matter of motor-control -- at least, so far. It's one thing to be numbly stumbling about like a drunken mummy, but a frontal lobe lesion would effect cognitive function. This alarms me greatly; how would I recognize that MS was the source? Now, whenever I can't remember a kanji or can't work out the spelling of an English word, some part of me will wonder... But maybe I'm just being paranoid. I need to do more research before I let myself worry.

My friend Sharon called from Hawaii, and managed to set just the right tone. She half-jokingly suggested taking advantage of my time on base to find a Navy guy... and actually, having some sort of partner now seems more immediately important than before. I've even thought of a great pick-up line: 'Hey sailor, I may not be able to feel my body, but maybe YOU can.' Heh heh. Surely someone out there has a stumbling fetish...

Sigh. I need my ipod charger.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Power Out

So. Okay. Well, the diagnosis is MS. 'Multiple sclerosis'. I have 'multiple sclerosis'. I can't even tell if I'm spelling it right. Guess I'd better learn. Fuck. fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

Cosmically speaking, perhaps I ought to be flattered. Uniqueness confirmed. Really, I'm not one for this sort of drama. At worst, I'd thought maybe it would be a benign tumor. That would be the afterschool TV special. MS? That's like something you'd see on Lifetime. This just isn't the sort of of adventure I'd ever anticipated. Let's get back in the car and sing 'Africa'.

So, this is my home for the next week or so. I don't really need to be hospitalized, but even Tokyo is kind of far to be coming every day for treatment, forget going back to Osaka. Oh, and see that white packet on the table to the right? Yeah, that's a 'lumbar puncture kit'. Big fun.

I held together pretty well while the doctor explained the MRIs, pointing out the spinal cord lesion that was the source of the numbness, and the white spots here and there on my brain that made a diagnosis of MS almost certain. Some crying. Composed myself enough to go and eat dinner on the base, and buy some pajamas and a toothbrush at the NEX. I didn't exactly come anticipating a hospital stay.

When I got back, I sat on the hospital bed and waited for things to happen. I thought about how this would effect my job. I thought about how much I hate needles. I thought about having to call the people at work and explain. I didn't want to explain.

Eventually, a nurse came in. "So," she asked, after pointing out the lights and the call button. "How long have you had MS?"

I tried to sound nonchalant. "I just found out a few hours ago."

It was shortly thereafter that I started a slow, insipid weeping.

MRI #2

I've got the second MRI scheduled in an hour, this one for my neck. I feel perhaps stupidly calm. I'm sure this is all related to too much computer use at work and home -- neither computer setup is exactly ergonomic. Any other explanation would be too akin to one of those afterschool TV specials, and I just don't see myself as unique enough to warrant something that melodramatic. An OSHA workplace safety feature, played on reel-to-reel... that seems more my speed. I wonder if they'll let me keep the MRI pictures after they're done with them? Maybe I could frame them. Proof of brain presence or somesuch. Or maybe that's gross.

It's tempting to text people from my cell phone, but what would I say? 'Hi, I'm in Tokyo for a series of MRIs, but I'm sure it's nothing. How're things with you?' Instead, I write a friend and ask about bidding results for his onward assignment. That seems more normal. And I am genuinely curious.

Going through the wickets to get on the train this morning, I noticed that in order to insert the ticket to open the gate, I curled my hand around the ticket in the way you see handicapped people do. So I'm already learning coping strategies. It's interesting.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Insurance and MRIs

The FS Benefit Plan works like this: you pay for healthcare out of pocket, then present the receipts and receive reimbursement. One small wrinkle -- you can only exchange $2000 worth of cash in a single week through the mission. I'd already written a check for $500 worth of yen on Monday to supplement what little I had left after the weekend, $300 of which immediately went to pay Sara for our trip to CostCo. $50 to a train fare card, $25 or so to an unplanned dinner, $120 to vitamin fees, leaving me with $130 worth of yen, and the ability to withdraw only $1500 worth more. Or at least leaving me with the theoretical ability to do so -- I'd left my checkbook at home, so had no access to cash whatsoever. $130 worth of yen won't even cover the one way train fare to Tokyo, much less the fees for two MRIs. I don't know what you're supposed to do if your health care bill comes to more than $2000; I'm sure there's some contingency. It's not like japanese hospitals take credit cards or foreign checks.

Sara loaned me back $100, so I could at least get to Tokyo. I called my friend Catherine, who offered me use of her spare room at the embassy compound. Catherine is one of the kindest people I know. When I arrived at 11:30 at night, I found the door unlocked and $800 worth of yen lying on the guest bed. Apparently, there was some question about the embassy's cashiering hours due to the SecState's visit, and she wanted to make sure I was covered. The best I could do to repay her in the immediate sense was to try and not wake her up while I got ready for bed.

This morning, the physicians' assistant at the health unit poked at my hands and feet with a bent paperclip. I couldn't distinguish between one prong and two at 4mm, which is not normal. But at least my back and shoulders had stopped tingling like I was about to sprout wings. Trying to fill out the forms he gave me, the pen flipped out of my hand. Chopsticks at lunch also proved a slight challenge. I couldn't tell if this was due to figurative nerves, or literal ones. Maybe a little of both.

Luckily, the cashier at the embassy was open, so I'm able to pay Catherine back in full. $1500 comes out to 178,455 yen. Is there any other country in the world where I'd feel this comfortable carrying around $1500 worth of cash? Is there any other country where I'd need to?

The MRI itself was interesting. Like being in your own personal rave, complete with bad techno music in the form of noisy beeps and strumming robot sounds. I tried to lie still, but could feel my feet twitching. The PA had said my foot reflections were 'hypersenstive'*. I'm not sure how this squares with lack of actual sensation, but I felt like a fish on a hook, my head trapped inside the MRI torpedo tube with my feet jerking and flopping about. It took 20 minutes. At Catherine's suggestion, I kept my eyes shut. I'm not claustrophobic, and have no wish to become so.

Prior to the event, I made sure to inform them that I have a tattoo; apparently, an MRI can wreak havoc on tattoo ink. Low-key panic ensued among the staff. This was ultimately resolved by having me translate a statement from Japanese to English releasing the hospital from any culpability in the event of tattoo damage, then signing this statement myself. A nurse dictated:
"If my tattoo changes shape or color, or begins to yakudo..."
"Sorry?" I stopped her. "'Yakudo'?"
"Yes, yakudo..." she searched for an explanation. "Uh, in English maybe... 'burn'."
"Burn?!" I can't tell you what sort of horrible imagery this conjured up; naturally, my tattoo would be on the one area of my body where I have full feeling.
"Do you still want to do this?" asked the nurse.
I looked up at them from the waiting room chair. No, of course I didn't want to do this. 'Shikata ga nai,' I said. 'It can't be helped.'

Tattoo pulled through fine.

*in retrospect, perhaps he said 'hyposensitive'.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


After a brief discussion with the embassy health unit, the decision is made to have me come to Tokyo for tests. It's Wednesday. They want me there Thursday, 10am. Over the phone, the japanese secretary describes what will happen, and in which clinics. "How will this work with my insurance?" I ask her. Suddenly, I'm overwhelmed by stress and have to fight back tears. I can't feel my hands.

There are a lot of logistics involved, and not much time to act. My desk is piled with cases. I'm on tap to adjudicate our 100 some odd afternoon interviews. The appointment calendar needs edited due to an unexpected staffing shortage. I'm in the midst of coordinating an FSN training visit with Tokyo's consular section, and a related travel agent luncheon, both to take place next week. I'm the duty officer, and don't hand off the phone till tomorrow. I told Chris I'd carve a jack-o-lantern with his girls tonight. I'm supposed to go back to my japanese hometown this weekend. I have a Korean lesson, and a DVC with the other mission JO's who went to Seoul. We're already two people down in the section, and leaving will mean Jerome will be all on his own.

I can't feel my hands.

I decide to take an early lunch.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pretty Pills and Near Naked Men

Last Thursday or Friday, I started to notice a sort of tingling sensation in the tips of my ring and pinky fingers; by Monday, it had spread up each arm and over my entire torso, eventually making its way up my neck to cover a portion of one ear. There's a Ray Bradbury story in which a feverish boy slowly loses control of his body to a virulent entity, starting with his right hand; I couldn't help but think of it as a novocaine-like numbness snaked over one breast and around my ribcage. When the top of each leg and part of my calves felt deadened, I thought a trip to the physician might be in order. We won't talk about how the Ray Bradbury story ends.

The first doctor I went to was a general practitioner within walking distance of the consulate. As it so happened, the ACS section was in the midst of updating its list of recommended clinics, so they were able to quickly suggest one nearby. I rushed out after work, Sara kindly accompanying me for moral and (worst case scenario) possible physical support. At this point I was bracing myself for a future of adult diapers and eating with the assistance of one of those trained service monkeys... but, you know, trying not to panic. The doctor that shuffled out into the waiting room had six teeth in his mouth, two on top and four on bottom, one for approximately every 20 years of his life. He spoke no English. After a few general questions and tapping -- literally tapping -- my chest and back with his stethoscope, he informed me in a jovial way, "I'll give you some medicine; after a week, you'll be fine." At the tiny front desk I asked the receptionist, "What kind of medicine is this, anyways?" "Vitamins," she answered, managing to sound simultaneously jaded and apologetic. "That'll be 3,362 yen." Alright-y then. I forked over the cash, and left gripping the vitamins in my insensate fingers. I don't think that clinic will be remaining on our list.

This morning the intensity of the symptoms had abated, but had far from disappeared. In fact, it seemed my middle fingers wanted in on the act as well -- it felt like a rubberband had been wrapped around each one's first joint. Mid-morning, Sara let me know she'd located a neurologist only a few train stops away, so I dropped everything and took off for this second clinic. I had rehearsed my explanation all the way there while fidgetting nervously with the magazine I was pretending to read (Yubi ya ude ya doutai ga shibireteimasu. Haisha no chuusha no eikyou to onaji kanji desu. Gen'in zenzen wakarimasen.); when it turned out the doctor had excellent English, I almost couldn't talk to him, I was so keyed up to speak Japanese. After a thorough check of all my reflexes, drawing of various fluids, discussion of any possible injuries, infections, family history and so forth, the verdict: he could find nothing neurologically wrong with me. "But," he continued, "I'm going to give you some vitamins, some B2." Ah, yes. Another 8,835 yen later, and I'm still numb -- though I've got enough little pills to open my own clinic.

And that's my story. Bottom line, don't get sick in Japan. Or if you do, just skip the doctor and go buy some Flintstone's Vitamins. If you never hear from me again, it's because I've lost all motor function, and my service monkey hasn't yet mastered typing on the keyboard.

In other news, this weekend I had the pleasure of attending the "Fighting Festival" in a small village near Himeji. Rather than just waking up numb, festival participants like to incur a similar state of being by stipping down to loincloths, forming teams to carry about heavy portable shrines, and ramming them into one another like a huge rugby skirmish. This goes on for hours. I took a video of the red team performing its rally cry, which you can see here:

Nice that I was able to go out and enjoy the Autumn weather one last time before being bedridden for life.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

An Uneventful Adventure

Over the weekend Sara and I took a short road trip from Tokyo to Osaka. I think we both expected it to be a bigger undertaking than it actually was: that we'd have some amusing mishap or grand adventure we could talk about back at work on Tuesday; a 'Mr. Toad's Wild Ride' across Honshu, as my mother put it. We'd stopped by the base first -- where I couldn't believe how in my element I felt, leading my two colleagues confidently around the commissary and exchange -- so her tiny car was packed with groceries and Halloween pumpkins. We followed the highway around Mt. Fuji and past the 'Japanese Alps', stopped at a little mountain town to eat lunch and buy omiyage for the office, sang along to an '80s mix CD... and that was all, really. 8 or so hours later, and we were home in Osaka. Very pleasant, but hardly the stuff of drama.

It surprises me how much of life is like that. You get onboard expecting a 'Fantastic Story', when all you're really getting is a bus ride. But why should trying to remember the words to Toto's "Africa" while playing with the car's navigation system be any less fantastic than a flat tire or a narrowly escaped car wreck? I'm not going for profundity here -- I was just thinking about the importance of little things. Back in the office on Tuesday, everyone wanted to know 'How was the trip?' "Good," I told them. "Nothing big happened."

And that's really alright.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Good to Know...

If your telephone bill arrives in a pretty green envelope, it's not because the phone company is trying out a new 'look' -- it's because you forgot to pay last month.

And speaking of green, wouldn't Greenpeace be excited to see my latest grocery store find:On sale for only 208 yen a can!

The side view is even better:Who knew whale meat looked so much like Alpo...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

October Rain Makes No Demands

Saturday's event was, by all accounts, a success. As it was the first thing I've organized for the consulate -- and actually more in keeping with the PD role I'll supposedly be filling later on in my career -- I'm grateful. Though perhaps more grateful to have woken up this morning, remained lazily in bed listening to the crows chattering on the roof, and thought 'I don't have a single blessed thing to do today.'*

The event was for the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Program participants living in one of the prefectures covered by our consulate; JET was how I first entered Japan back in 2000, and fully half of the American officers working in the Osaka consulate are JET alumni. Given that it's such a common FS background, and given the panic I know most JETs feel toward the end of their tenure in Japan when they look around and think, 'Ack! I've got a BA in Philosophy and Anthropology! What does a person with no appreciable skills do in the real world?!'**, it only seemed right to have them over for a little pizza and soothing discussion. After the FS officers went around the room and made their AA-esque introductions ("Hi, my name is Katie, and I was a JET in Okayama-ken from 2000 to 2002."), we put in the requisite plugs for registering with the consulate, encouraging their students to study in the States, and signing up for the FS exam. But what I had really wanted to talk to them about was the importance of being grass-root diplomats in their own right. The JET program has people in it from English speaking countries all over the world, the majority of whom -- despite having no direct experience with America -- tend to dislike the United States on principle. The opportunity there to make a real difference in salvaging perceptions of the US is an amazingly rare one, and something I didn't fully appreciate myself until some time into my JET experience. I have a great story about a New Zealand friend who worked in the same town with me that highlights this: We had known each other for a while, and once I'd even taken time off of work to translate for her at the hospital when she was ill (resulting in a rather comic episode where the doctor who was palpating her stomach asked, "Does it hurt here?," and waited patiently for me to translate my friend's strangled response of "AAAAA!! OUCH OUCH OUCH!!"). But I guess the subject of nationality never really came up. When I made some comment about going back to Florida after JET, this look of pure astonishment came over her. "You," she said, "are AMERICAN?" She turned to her boyfriend, another New Zealander, who confirmed this. After a few moments of speechlessness, she explained, "But Katie, you are much too nice to be an American. I always thought you were from Canada."

So my challenge to the JETs was going to be: 'Be too nice to be an American'. That's pretty good, don't you think? Sort of memorable.

But instead, of course, I get up in front of 40, perfectly friendly, perfectly congenial people, and begin immediately to feel flush. I have no idea why this happens, but it is extremely irritating. I'm not a stupid person, I occasionally have worthwhile things to say, and I think could even be a somewhat engaging speaker if I could just get past the need to push all the words out of my mouth as quickly as humanly possible in order to speed my escape from the spotlight. Usually towards the end of moments like that, I'm not even aware of what I'm saying. This even sporadically occurs during smaller social interactions. So maybe I told the JETs my story, but I really couldn't say for sure. Most frustrating.

I could speculate as to the reasons for this quasi- social anxiety, but those sorts of musings too easily become navel gaze-y and ridiculous.

At least the Japanese talk went well. There, when I started to go all 'deer-in-the-headlights', the FSN who was with me leaped to the podium, pulled me down into a chair, explained the next powerpoint slide while I collected myself, then handed the reins back over when it was clear that I wasn't going to pass out or throw up. God bless her.

It's starting to rain now, but only on one side of the house. I can't believe it's already October.

*Not actually true. But I am a master of maintaining sanity-saving delusions, when necessary.
**Not that I speak from experience or anything.