Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Repatriated Routine

The boys are home. They arrived after 36 hours of travel and processing.

Repatriation is a dicey business when living overseas as a Department of Defense dependent. The boys had to have orders that authorized their travel. Multiple forms were completed, reviewed, and completed again. Security checks were done at multiple points, and finally they boarded a plane filled with other dependents, most of which were under age 10. Also on board were 60 family pets and 46 baby strollers.

The evacuees flew to Denver Colorado, where they disembarked into a hanger and were processed again for their connecting flights. At the hanger representatives from the American Red Cross, the USO and Military members from local bases handed out snacks, carried bags, and assisted weary travelers. I heard one story of a full bird Colonel who walked one dog after the other so they could "do their business." Soldiers bounced babies, and played with young kids while parents napped, and a Sergeant-Major changed diapers. My younger son received a hand knit hat from a member of the USO and bags of snacks.

Finally, after another eight hours of processing they were able to get on their connecting flight that would bring them home.

They miss Japan. They miss the culture and the food, their friends and the routine they have become accustomed to. Now we have a new routine: I pamper the boys and makes all their favorite foods. They do about 3 hours of homework a day, catch up on American TV and talk to their friends online. We all go for walks on local trails, do housework, run errands and try to simulate some temporary form of normal.

I like having them here, but they can't wait to get back to Japan.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jack Can Keep his Limbo Stick! Kids evacuating from Japan

It has been more than a week since my kids experienced the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japanese history. They have weathered the disaster fairly well.

First of all, they have been reasonably safe the entire time. Being on a U.S. military base has it's advantages: power, gas, clean water, and an unbroken supply line. But as much as they have tried to go on as though it's situation normal, that is of course impossible. Continued aftershocks, cancellation of base activities and rumors of evacuation permeate their existence. Meanwhile I'm about 6000+ miles away simmering with concern and wanting them home.

Voluntary evacuations have begun, but getting them home is a challenge, even with a friend willing to escort them across the Pacific. So for the moment they wait. Their bags are packed and paperwork is completed, but they have to wait for the powers that be to figure out how to get hundreds of U.S. Government dependents, military and otherwise to multiple destinations. While they wait today, they will go back to school which has an increasing number of empty desks of other kids who have already managed to get out with their families.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Family in Japan - What happens next

I'm not entirely unfamiliar with crisis. I was a soldier for 9 years, and one thing you learn rather quickly is if you are unexpectedly recalled, turn on CNN to see where you are going. I can still remember the night they started bombing Baghdad in Operation Desert Storm. I was in training at Fort Harrison, Indiana, and all we could do was hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

That's a mantra for the military and their families. After 9/11, we did the same thing. I was admittedly was out of practice then. I allowed myself to develop a false sense of security when my husband wasn't immediately recalled from the Inactive Reserve. Just as I had convinced my self maybe it wouldn't happen, it did, and he was gone for 2 years.

There have been other crisis since then. Their dad is no longer on Active Duty, but a Department of Defense Civilian. It doesn't change much. We generally just go with it. But this one is a little different. Usually my kids are with me, and it's my job to maintain a sense of normal for them. When they ask questions, I always answer as truthfully as I can, and tell them, "sorry guys, this is just how we live."

But this time, it's my kids who are in danger.

In truth I know that the danger is subjective. They are currently about 150 miles from the failing power plant. At the moment, their air is good, they are well supplied, and surrounded by well trained, well equipped professionals. They are also among friends, kids their own age who have experienced some of the things they have, and are experiencing this crisis with them. I think it's important that they have peers.

But I also know that if there is a melt down, that they are at the mercy of the wind. While the radiation would surely dissipate before it reaches them, there is still a threat, and that leaves me very uneasy. But it's out of my control.

So what's next? One of two things: at present the President has authorized evacuations for dependents of US Personnel. I don't know if my kids are among those who are authorized. I suspect that they are. Their dad will likely have to stay. It's his job. I get it.

If the kids aren't evacuated then I'm on a plane late next week.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The new normal in Japan and at Home

It’s closing in on a week since tectonic plates moved Japan eight feet to the west in what is now classified as a magnitude 9.0 earthquake followed by a 30 foot tsunami.

The initial relief of “OK it’s over, lets move on,” didn’t even have a half-life. This disaster started as the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, went on to cause a wall of water that tore a 6 kilometer path in the north, and is now posing a threat to poison thousands more with radiation from a failing nuclear power plant.

This is the new normal for everyone in Japan, including my family who is currently living there. It’s also a new normal for me, who is currently half a world away, unable to get there for at least another week. Why not drop everything and just go? Well, I was originally scheduled to go and stay about this time anyway. There’s a lot to do when you are leaving the country for a fair bit of time.

So, my new normal is based on a few things: Skype, TweetDeck, cable news and online news streams from Japan. I follow the story best I can without becoming obsessed. I talk to my kids every morning before they go to school, and stay up late so I can see them when they get home from school as well. At the moment they are on their own a lot because their dad, understandably is working a lot of overtime. I like that I can be there with them to be sure they are ok, ask them about their day, and make sure that they are eating.

The base is making its best effort to have relatively normal operations, although many activities have been cancelled. Kids are still going to school, but sports activities are currently suspended. Mandated standardized testing however is not. So as these kids watch disaster relief stream through their base and hear about the possibility of radiation plumes, they also get to be sure to use a Number 2 Pencil and avoid making stray marks on the page.

Meanwhile, I am making lists of things to get done before I leave, finding foster care for my pets and wondering what will happen next.

Friday in California, Saturday in Japan

I called the boys the next morning, their time, which was about 3:00 p.m. my time. I tried to avoid calling to early. I wanted them to sleep. The worst I hoped, was behind them.

When I finally did call, I was able to get through on the land-line. The kids both woke up antsy. Wyatt hadn’t heard from his (not) girlfriend who was on a field trip with the school band. He called her phone repeatedly, but couldn’t get through. Nolan, who is a little high strung anyway, was pacing the room. I myself, was still a bit shaken from what I had seen on the news. The full gravity of the initial reports were starting to sink in.

It’s hard to be away from your kids who are stuck in a situation that is completely out of your control. But for the moment, I did what I would have done if I were there.

“You know what would make mom feel better?” I asked Nolan.
“I’d like you to make a survival pack with everything you would need to survive for a day or two, like we do on the Playa.”

My kids have been attending Burning Man since they were 8 and 5 years old. They know how to survive in extreme conditions. I gave them a quick list of what we normally carry: water, electrolytes, enough snacks for 24 hours, something warm to wear, bandanna, hat, flashlight, multi-tool, etc.

My husband made a trip to the commissary to get a few essentials that they didn’t have on hand, and each of the boys assembled their own pack. It made us all feel better knowing if they needed to, that they could grab it and go. It also reminded them that they have skills for stuff like this.

The rest of the day (for them) was spent at home. I did some work and then went out with a friend for drinks at a local tavern. Wyatt finally heard from his friend after several tense hours and dozens of calls to her mobile phone. She and the rest of the band members were on the bus working their way back through Tokyo traffic.

It wasn’t yet clear what would happen next, but for the moment I knew my family was safe, and for the moment that was enough.

Witnessing Japan's Disaster by Skype

When I saw words “Major Earthquake in Japan” appear in my TweetDeck window, I reached for my phone. But before I could even find the right number to call, a Skype window opened on my computer. It was my family calling me to say that they were OK.

My husband, who works as a Department of Defense civilian, is assigned to Yakota Air Force Base in Fussa which is a suburb of Tokyo. They have been in Japan for about 7 months. They live on base, in military housing and the boys attend American schools there with other DoD Civilian and Military dependents. For them, it’s been like living in small town USA, except in Japan. The schools are smaller, and everyone knows each other. Kids still get excited about Homecoming during football season, hang out at the bowling alley, and have the freedom to roam the base without concern about violence or random crime.

It was late afternoon there, when the ground began to move. My kids had just gotten home from school. My (going on) 16-year-old, Wyatt was famously peeing when the quake hit. At the time, he was quite proud that he didn’t miss the bowl. My other son, Nolan, who will be 13 in June, said he was lying on the floor presumably watching TV, when the house began to move back and forth.

We knew it was bad, but had no idea how bad it would get. They were shaken up, but there was no damage. Their dad, who had come home to check on them, went back to work, and I stayed on Skype with the boys. We chatted nervously about the quake and their school day. Wyatt was trying to reach friends to find out about a soccer game that they planned to attend, but phone service, including mobile phones was down. Internet was the only means for communication on base and otherwise.

I flipped through cable to see what was happening and as the pictures began to stream in, I warned Wyatt that the soccer game may be cancelled. “They’re not going to cancel soccer,” he said incredulously.

We decided to watch TV together, and just as we settled on a news channel that we could watch simultaneously, the first live images of the tsunami began to emerge. I didn’t even identify it as water at first. It looked like a black blob oozing across a Japanese countryside. Denial immediately set in as I told myself that maybe there would be a minimal loss of life since the destructive wave seemed to be in a rural farming area. But the water kept coming. It swept up cars, and semi trucks and then houses and buildings.

As we watched the tragedy unfold, I also watched over my kids as they sat together on the couch, and I realized how lucky I was to live in such an age where such things are possible. Had I not been able to do this, I surely would have been far more upset than I initially was.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Giving up Lent, kind of...

As a recovering Catholic, I find that one of the things I miss most about Catholicism is celebrating Lent. Lent is the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Good Catholics are supposed to forsake something they enjoy to commemorate the suffering of Christ, and not eat meat on Fridays. At least that's how I remember it.

How I really remember Lent is like a game. First you strategize what your going to give up. It must be something you truly will miss or it doesn't count. The first year I celebrated Lent, I gave up chocolate. All during the Lenten season I pined, and looked longingly at chocolate rabbits at the store. M&M's seemed to be everywhere, mocking me, and even the comfort of a cup of cocoa was verboten. Finally, on Easter morning I got a basket brimming with my previously forbidden treat. As we celebrated the belief that after the third day, Christ rose from the dead at mass, I celebrated a small personal victory over chocolate.

The other part of Lent, giving up meat on Fridays, always meant interesting dinner choices: Cheese Enchiladas, Mac & Cheese, Quesadillas and of course my favorite Fish and Chips. In high school I can remember going to the cafeteria and seeing the trays normally brimming with burgers and hot dogs, replaced with big trays of macaroni and cheese tuna casserole and fish sandwiches. Even though I had given up giving things up by then, it was still kind of fun to be deprived.

These days, I am typically more inclined to celebrate Mardi Gras, than Lent. I don't go to mass on Ash Wednesday, don't really celebrate Easter, but still enjoy making baskets for my boys who are quickly becoming young men.

But that doesn't replace the ritual of giving something up, so I decided to give up french fries for Lent, and to try and give up meat on Fridays. I think of it as an exercise in self-discipline.

I didn't think that through very well though, because now I've screwed myself out of Fish & Chips. Obviously, I'm a bit out of practice.