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“Exchange rate” does not mean much in our workaday lives.  But we develop a functional understanding in short order when traveling abroad.  There it hits home that “exchange rate” is “money,” a term so meaningful that it runs a close second to whatever is in first place.

Any shift at all in the exchange rate seizes the traveler’s attention.  A favorable shift can bring a bonanza: I was in London on Nov. 18, 1967, when a devaluation of the pound suddenly enabled me, a strapped student, to check into the Regent Palace Hotel and buy a fur hat I’d wistfully admired.

By the same ephemeral token, an unfavorable shift may require that funds earmarked for the unfettered consumption of material goods be diverted to survival.

Touring in Tokyo these days provides a basic functional understanding of a ghastly exchange rate getting worse.  Tangling with a sumo wrestler must be a similarly stunning experience.  My husband and I went through the especially notable week of July 21-28, 1978, when the dollar plunged through the psychologically significant 200-yen barrier.  This performance is part of an overall decline of 21 percent since January.

All the horror stories that you may have heard about prices in japan are true.  Some museums charge an entrance fee for each exhibit.  As we heard an American sigh, eyes round as zeroes after another startling computation on his pocket calculator (which he ruefully noted had been made in Japan), “It makes you appreciate the high prices back in the States.”

But hang the expensiveness!  With some economizing in lodging and eating, coupled with a return to the basics of traveling—walking and watching—a good time can be had in Tokyo without declaring bankruptcy afterward.

To find a hotel to your liking and budget, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization (624 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles 20017).  Many hotels boast of their Western style, so specify if you wish accommodations identifiably Japanese.  Arrangements can be made at reasonable rates to stay at minshuku, private homes that take in guests.

A stay at a ryokan, a Japanese inn, can be the quintessential Japanese experience.  After some budget massaging, we freed $50 to reserve a room at a ryokan whose name rang with authenticity.

Imagine our surprise when we were welcomed by the hostess wearing a sundress, not the expected kimono.  In lieu of the traditional tea ceremony, she served iced tea.  And in our room we found a TV set, a hair dryer, a massager—all coin-operated! Whereupon we buckled onto the tatami mats.

Eating in Tokyo can lead to all manner of cost and cuisine—French, German, McDonald internationale.  Good eating is always assured in the popular Chinese restaurants.  As for Japanese food, our most pleasurable eating experiences were simple fare in the backways.  We ate well and joined in the human spectacle.

Poking around the Ginza’s backways led us to our favorite find—Yakitori Torigin—where we were soon hailed as regulars.  All our senses were quickened there by the smell of charcoal and beer.

Finding Torigin does take hunting, since addresses are assigned not according to linear sequence but by construction date of the building.  This tiny old hole-in-the-wall is in an alley off the alley directly behind the sleek, enormous Sony Building.  Nice irony.

If we may offer an outrageous economy tip: In the basement of the Mitsukoshi department store is a market with colorful displays of every Japanese food imaginable, set in motion by spirited vendors hawking their free samples.  Properly managed, an entire meal can be assembled, beginning with a seaweed appetizer, proceeding to the smoked pork entrée, followed by a chocolate trifle, all washed down with green tea.  Enough said.

Next, transportation: Though walking is recommended, for the purpose of discovery and economy, getting around this metropolis of 11.5 million requires faster means, such as the subways and the oh-so-fast taxis.  Both are reasonable.

Not so the Shinkansen, the “bullet train” that can make the trip from Tokyo to the western end of japan in seven hours.  Example: Two round-trip, coach-class tickets Tokyo-Kyoto, altogether a six-hour trip, cost a princely $180!  A far less expensive alternative is the Old Tokkaido Express, the “student train,” which, however, takes 10 hours to chug half that distance.

Some economy advising that won’t pertain much longer: Upon our late-afternoon arrival in Kyoto, we hopped the trolley that circles the city.  At 50 cents apiece, it was an excellent 2-hour introduction to Japan’s cultural capital.  And at dusk it was quite romantic.  Unhappily, the trolley line is slated for removal within the year.

Finally, Japan’s generally astronomical prices notwithstanding, we can report a goldmine for lovers of contemporary Japanese graphic art, though we are loathe to speak of art as investment.  We refer to the Tolman Collection.

Former American diplomats Norman and Mary Tolman personally know the artists they represent and carry their best works in limited editions.  Prices of these works acquired in Japan are about half what the Tolmans must set when they periodically bring the collection to the United States.

Impressed with the Tolman Collection and mindful that original art is duty-free, we came away with more prints than we planned.  Our wildly unfettered consumption of material goods was made possible, however, only after rigorously “ricing it” on the services.

Seaquist is an equal opportunity officer for the City of San Diego and lives in Coronado.

The toughest job in the world isn’t being a mother, it’s being a stepmother.

I’ve weathered a divorce, reinvented myself as a “new” woman, and even survived a fat childhood. But nothing compares with the rigors of my improvised role as stepmother to two teenage children. However, let’s insert “stepparent” for “stepmother.” From what I’ve seen, stepfathers don’t have it much easier.

According to the Stepfamily Association of America, there are 35 million stepparents in the nation. Considering our numbers and the difficulties of our task, i.e., caring for someone else’s kids (and one out of five children is a stepchild), surprisingly little conventional wisdom has emerged about how to renew our most important resource. But maybe that’s because each stepfamily is unconventional in its own way.

As an eight-year veteran who’s done some things right and, well, sometimes the last thing we know is what to do first, I want to alert prospective stepparents to the complexities of their undertaking. (And to the risks: Fifty-seven percent of second marriages fail, the chief cause being problems with the children.) You’ll be improvising, too, within your own unique circumstances. For further information, consult your neighborhood stepparent.

Unpacking emotional baggage

The hope that springs eternal and accounts for remarriage itself is also the hope that blinds couples to something else springing eternal: a living, breathing past.

Reconstruct that past together and focus on the all-important question: In the hearts and minds of the children and their parents alike, is the divorce old business or is it still unfinished?

Regarding your own heart and mind, are you prepared to commit your best efforts to the children, knowing you can never supplant the absent parent? And how well do you know the children? More important than learning their preference in food is learning how they came to be the people they are, which means discussing character, child-raising techniques, etc. I include the “etc.,” because what you don’t know can lead to wedded blitz.

Defining your terms

Too many stepparents flatten themselves trying to please the children while requiring little in return. Remember, adjustment is a two-way process. Besides, wimps get no respect from kids.

You are shifting from observer to full participant, so make known early your preferences, values, idiosyncrasies. And know when to compromise. I learned to share my clothes and function on less sleep, but I stood by my ban on BB-guns and ethnic jokes.

Close encounters with the absent parent

For their own emotional health, children need the unobstructed love and attention of both their mother and father. Going against natural loyalties by bad-mouthing or blocking the absent parent can be your undoing. Be advised that this closeness may fuel the children’s dream of their parents’ reunion, but so does a forced separation. For you, if dealing with a former spouse is difficult, look on the encounters as isometric exercise.

Instant love takes time

Of all the myth-conceptions surrounding stepparenting, the most compelling is the expectation that, with the exchange of vows, mutual love will overwhelm you and the kids like a sea of honey. But, as Pascal knew, “The heart has its reasons which Reason cannot know,” especially young hearts that have been ruptured.

Just hope to like each other, but be prepared for the times when you won’t. Love, if it develops, must be earned. And, most likely, it will be glacial-paced in coming.

Priority no. 1: the marriage

To say that children rank second to the marriage sounds awfully harsh. But this is, after all, a remarriage, and a pledge of allegiance between the principals is in order. You must be assured that, if the marriage is not always first (and it can’t be), then at least it is not always and forever second to the children.

It is cruelly unfair to the stepparent to be used as nothing more than another pair of hands around the house. Being No. 2 won’t mean you’ll keep trying harder; you’ll be walking out the door sooner.

The great playoff of parents

Just as in biological families, children play parent against parent to get what they want, with the difference being that in a stepfamily there are more combinations to work.

Such manipulation, in which the child is really the loser, has less chance if uniform guidelines are established and enforced by all parents involved, including you.

Dare to discipline. And prepare now your response to the line that sooner or later crosses the eyes and dots the teeth of every known stepparent. It is: “I don’t have to do what you want because you’re not my [parent].”

Relax, relax, relax

New stepparents typically are bent on “succeeding” rather than simply “being,” the way biological parents seem to go about their mission. Relax. Kids don’t much like zeal, either. I cringed, and so did the daughters, when Dad’s girlfriend in the film Shoot the Moon asked breathlessly, “How’m I doing?” only seconds after being introduced.

Again, relax. Keep your sense of humor and put it to use daily. Most important, be yourself—in clear focus, not soft.

Speaking of focus, the clear eye of a stepparent can be invaluable when everyone biological wears blinders. You can bring out a special quality or talent in a child, while also spotting the problematic.

Since messengers who blurt out bad news frequently come to a bad end, take care how you tell the child’s parent about any problem. If outside help is needed, by all means get it. And if revised living arrangements are dictated, such as boarding school or reversed custody, do consider it. We did. In the long run, we hope the breather will be beneficial.

If all this seems hard-boiled, it is also hard-earned, imparted by a stepparent who has wrought a degree of order out of chaos only after inducing these axioms and applying them.

Though I doubt our outcome could ever have been different, getting there would have been less difficult for all had I gone in, not as a savior, but savvier. Now I know.

Carla Seaquist is a freelance writer.

 

Washington, D.C., writer Carla Seaquist wrote this essay after an evening spent in an emergency room waiting to be treated.

So I say to the man seated next to me in the emergency room, “This isn’t so much Bedlam as ‘Bad-limb.’”

By some strange symmetry, appropriate more to a daffy British comedy than unstructured life, all six of us awaiting treatment tonight are leg cases—shins, knees, ankles, toes. Pain does indeed throb—intensely—but the spectacle of everyone in wheelchairs pierces through. Usually the venue of worst-case scenarios, the E.R., for once, amuses.

“‘Bad-limb’? That’s a knee-slapper.” My neighbor, a musician, chuckles and studies his toe soaking in a brown solution. Somebody stepped on his foot, which loosened a toenail, which produced an infection. “And the thing is, last month I was in here for a broken toe.”

Next to him sits a boy about 12, his right leg extended on a board, an ice pack on his shin. A soccer casualty. “I kicked this guy, see—it was an accident—and then he kicked me back—on purpose.” He fidgets anxiously. Seems an important tournament is scheduled this weekend, so the question becomes, Will he play? “And you’re the star, I presume?” He blushes but says nothing. “And the team is on tenterhooks waiting to hear from the hospital, right?” He smiles and blushes again. His mother nods yes.

At the far end of the adjacent wall, a teenage boy, ankle swollen, hassles with his homework and, perhaps because he’s outside the locus of lightened spirits, snaps at his mother. Next to him a young girl, freckled and blonde and about 12, with an ice pack on her shin, talks quietly with her father and shoots shy looks at our soccer casualty. She’s one, too.

Closest to me, in turquoise sweats and high-top Reeboks, a teenage girl proudly tells how she got hers. “Tore up my knee playing tackle football with the guys.” “No kidding?” I tell her in my day I played touch football, then wince at “my day”; I sound historical. I ask her if it hurts. “Nah,” she says, then corrects herself. “Just a little.” She shifts in her wheelchair and sighs. “I suppose they’ll put me on crutches again.” “Again?” Her mother nods and rolls her eyes.

Meanwhile, orderlies wheel by us a burly guy in his 20s, his entire leg packed in ice. But of course.

Me? I’m here because a toe I’d rammed, to no apparent injury, was the toe that later snapped in my hand as I toweled down after exercise. Thoughts of fainting were superseded by mental anguish: My husband is flying home next week after two months away.

Of course, we tell limb stories. I tell about a friend’s adventure in a parking lot: With her right leg in a cast, Shirley prepared to back out, using her left foot for the gas while resting her right leg on the hump. As she looked left to check for cars, her right leg, the one in the cast, slipped off the hump and onto the accelerator. Shirley crashed into the car behind her and, recovering herself, shot forward and hit the car ahead. “And this was in the hospital parking lot.”

We giggle, shaking our heads.

Suddenly, an ambulance screeches to a halt outside the door and we sober up. A knifing, a car accident, a heart attack? Mortality in the balance. We brace ourselves.

And what do we see? A woman in her 40s lying pale-faced on the gurney, her leg twisted at a grotesque angle, the offending roller skate still on her foot.

Some of us maintain decorum, but the younger ones cannot resist guffawing. And I cannot help wondering: Who is writing this stuff? The Marx Brothers?

As with comedy, the ending is happy. Turquoise Sweats gets her crutches; the soccer star will play the tournament; Freckles gets a smile out of the star; the musician saunters out jauntily; even the homework gets done. And my toe is only dislocated, not broken. Chances are I’ll make the airport rendezvous under my own power.

As I limp out, bandaged and booted, I pass another emergency case on his way in, trailed by his mother.

The problem? A rusty nail in the foot.

Winning isn’t everything, football coaches likes to say. It’s the only thing. But music is supposed to be different. With music, if you don’t make it to Carnegie Hall, there’s a consolation prize—you can still play for your own enjoyment. Music, after all, has charms to soothe. But in the province between competence and genius, enjoyment is elusive. If you can play 22 of the 24 Chopin preludes, as I can, you know, as I do, precisely what you lack ever to play the other two. Music can also torment.

This problem of getting to enjoyment once reality has mugged your dreams is peculiarly American. It’s the painful side of our passion for equal access, the democratic answer to the snobbish European policy of “Only geniuses need apply.” Who gets more lessons than the American kid? From gymnastics to art, from tennis to piano, middle-class children are exposed to every cultural form. Many of us get good; some of us get better than good; and in becoming the local whizzes we hear ourselves hailed as prodigies, headed for a place called Carnegie Hall (and we hear the parentheses draped around the idea of enjoyment if we fail). But audiences don’t want competence; they expect a miracle of nature, a Mozart, a Midori. In music, finally, only genius does apply.

Starting out, I displayed signs of genius. When I first heard the piano’s siren call I was 9 years old, visiting cousins, listening upstairs while downstairs they played duets—it did to me what poetry did to Emily Dickinson: It took the top of my head off. Within hours, at Grandma’s, I was breaking the code of middle C, teaching myself to read music. Weeks later, back home, I began lessons with Miss Petersen; unlike ballet, which I battled, this was a natural form, bodying forth what I intuitively knew. I didn’t have to hunt for the notes; my fingers homed in, with a touch producing a melodic line that sang. In the first year I mastered the rudiments, with counting the only one requiring effort. By my second recital I was playing works by the serious composers—such as Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor—and that was when I heard myself called a prodigy, bound for New York. Performance, then, seemed the point, a notion reinforced when I heard my first professional pianist. Presumably also a former prodigy, he became my model and, in moving me to tears—sobs—with Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, my mystical guide. I was called.

I kept the mystical part to myself, as well as the intimations of vocation. In the ‘50s girls didn’t have vocations. Meanwhile, I advanced con brio. By Year 3, my teacher, Mr. Schultz, declared me ready for the city. Even the rigors of advanced training didn’t dispel my illusions, not those first years. Handed music I judged waaay beyond me, but abiding by his injunction to conceive the whole as well as parse the measure, I’d astound myself to find the piece in my hands, mine. Soon I embarked on entire suites—Schumann’s Fantasiestuecke, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Brahms’ heavenly Opus 118, Six Piano Pieces. I was building a repertoire, a very encouraging word; you build a repertoire not for home use but for a career, oui? Also encouraging were the superior-plus ratings I won at my annual adjudications. But most of all it was Brahms who confirmed I was special. Playing his ballades and rhapsodies—for me, pure passion on tap—a “nice” girl could express, legitimately, all the rapturous feeling otherwise proscribed. So it was settled: My Carnegie debut would feature Brahms. Next: What to wear?

Looking back now, I see it was with Brahms, when I was 15, 16—before I realized I was not a prodigy—that my enjoyment at the piano was purest. Recognition of my mere competence came gradually. In studying various suites, I bumped up against the one piece (or two, as with the Chopin preludes) that, because of its rhythmic complexity—my problem rudiment—I saw I could never play. Worse, in group recitals in Seattle, I encountered a girl who could. Foursquare music I could parse, but with sixteenth and thirty-second notes I was more approximate than precise. Finally, I connected the dots: (1) Since music is the art of sound in time, my flaw was central; and (2) genius would not be so flawed. So I was not undone when my teacher suggested, but did not urge, that I consider the conservatory. I did consider it, and I rejected it.

I was a pretty good sport, considering that the Dream had evaporated and I had no Plan B. In college I declared several majors, taking piano as an elective. I gave a senior recital—Bach, Schumann, Poulenc, and of course Brahms—more to vindicate all the lessons than to rekindle hope. With the pressure off I played well, had a good time. (I wore crepe.) Then, in graduate school in Europe, much too late, the Dream revived itself, fanned by European classmates who “adored” my playing. Europeans know, yes? What if….what if I specialized in the Romantics, big on passion, not so big on counting, might I yet make a career?

Returning home I took a job with a concert management agency to soak up ambience—and got a very rude awakening. Observing the towering greats—Rubinstein, Horowitz, Michelangeli, Watts—I sank back in humiliation, chastened by a level of playing leagues beyond me. What had I been thinking of, sneered a hypercritical voice that, as it happened, sounded a lot like Jerry Brown’s.

So the question became how to get back to enjoyment. It meant making a friend out of a lover, a recovery process all the harder if you can play all 24 Chopin preludes brilliantly and still not make it. It’s then that many musicians quit altogether. Those who do not quit, who remain in the foothills of music—as teachers, orchestra members, Sunday amateurs—must first somehow come to terms.

For my part, I could not quit playing; things still happened to the top of my head whenever I heard the piano. But was I enjoying myself? Not really. With my inner critic firmly ensconced (proving as tenacious as the real Jerry Brown), for 20 years I played with a bad “Who cares, anyway?” attitude. Practicing less—I was searching for my genius elsewhere—I let mistakes into my repertoire, and with new pieces, I skimmed rather than parsed.

Once pleased to play for others, I now wouldn’t touch the keys without a petition. I’d comply eventually, because to know me was still to hear me play. But not if there was a student of piano in the house, and not without serving plenty of wine to soften criticism. This was not joy.

My breakthrough, finally, had less to do with joy than with guilt. The guilt came when my husband and I took out a very big loan and bought a very grand piano. Hyperventilating at the expense, and not sure I wanted my piano anyway, I had to put our acquisition to use, not just dust it. Plus, a huge instrument in a teeny apartment makes for acoustics unforgiving of sloppy playing. I had to get good again.

So I began to play daily, limbering up with Czerny exercises, then hacking away at my repertoire’s undergrowth with measure-for-measure parsing. This stimulated the first wave of pleasure: playing the right notes. In turn, getting good again activated a second factor: my neighbors. Rather than asking me to keep it down, they opened their doors when I played. They became lyrical expressing their enjoyment; now they actually make requests. And the enjoyment spreads: The handyman likes my “tunes”; tenants from other floors cruise the ninth, “where the music is”; a construction crew shouts “Encore!” after a mighty Bach. My, my, my, this is very nice.

This time, though, I was prepared. Getting good again had to be accepted not for its promise but for its pleasure. I wobbled at first. When my neighbors asked, “Why aren’t you playing at Carnegie Hall?” I had twinges. And when a couple new to the floor exclaimed, “Whoa, we thought you were a recording!” I had a bad week. But then another voice emerged in my head that put to me the key question: “Do you really count yourself unlucky that you play like an angel? Give it a break!” This voice, sounding less like Jerry Brown’s than Murphy Brown’s, introduced a long-overdue note of asperity, freeing me up for a policy review.

Why, indeed, should enjoyment be had only atop Parnassus? If only titans can experience music’s joy, those of us in the foothills are, well, screwed. On equity grounds, I object. We Americans tend to think that if you’re not a winner you are therefore a loser, that if life delivers few of its glittering prizes—or, poor sap, none at all—yours is a benighted existence. In its premise and conclusion it’s a merciless formulation, fatal to self, to contentment, certainly to any joy, and I reject it. Also fatal is an inner critic. I fired mine.

How had I gone so far astray? Mostly I know a hawk from a handsaw, but our culture’s approach to Culture (and to Life) is driven not by love of craft but by tests that rank and compare. My teachers surely transmitted the counsel to enjoy music for itself, but I, working my secret scorecard, was not receiving. “Are we having fun yet?” is bumper-sticker rhetoric with deep implications.

These days I play for friends even if they have studied the piano, and I don’t try to knock out their critical capacity with wine. When a Russian friend sighed over my Scriabin, saying “I feel I’m in a conservatory,” I sighed too: “That good, eh?” And when we went to hear the young pianist William Wolfram perform, I felt no twinge of resentment. Okay, so I liked my interpretation of a Gershwin piece better, but to save my life, I couldn’t play any of the rest of his rhythmically stupefying program, and rather than get melancholic, I admired him for it.

But best is the change in the core relationship between me and the music. The yipping inner critic is gone, as is the static, and my contact with music is direct. And what makes contact into communion is that, in getting good again, I now play better than ever. Expressive as my playing was in my early years, I was playing from feeling imagined, projected; now I play from feeling experienced and authorized.

And after much struggle I understand this: If you can play only a fraction of the 24 Chopin preludes—and my grip on the 22 has loosened; I play with greater feeling but also with less dexterity—pleasure yourself with the preludes you’ve got.

Carla Seaquist is a writer living in Washington. Her play, “The Washington-Sarajevo Talks,” premiered recently at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. This piece is adapted from one that appeared in Lear’s magazine.

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