Saturday, December 24, 2011

When Machines Turn Rogue

I swear some mechanical devices have it in for me. I always take it personally when something I’m trying to use stops working or, even worse, simply refuses to function correctly for me in the first place, even though other people don’t seem to have similar problems.
Computers always have minds of their own. I worked for seven years in IT, and whenever I’d call the Service Desk with an issue, it seemed as though my machine had it in for me, since no one else shared my experience. But most people already know that those particular devices have quirky personalities. They’re like friendly dogs who suddenly turn and bite without warning. Cell phones are a similar breed.
But computers and phones are not alone in selecting targets and attacking.
I’ve always been very mechanical. When I was about twelve, I took apart a broken toaster and fixed it. I still can’t tell you how I knew what to do, but I did. And that’s been a pretty common experience throughout most of my life. So why is it that some specific mechanical items are determined to make my life miserable?
One of the vilest of these was the little station wagon Larry insisted on buying many years ago. Our old car had reached over 100,000 miles and, although we’d had no real issues with it, was beginning to show its age. Repairs were clearly in our immediate future. Expensive repairs. At that time, I was playing Super Mom, doing PTA, Girl Scouts, etc. I needed a car with more room to stow gear and kids, so a mini-wagon seemed like a good idea. Just not this particular one.
I hated it on sight. It was yellow. Larry bought it because it had faux wood trim reminiscent of his old 1954 Ford Country Squire woodie. That particular vehicle tolerated me and behaved pretty well when I drove it. Not so the yellow beast!
I ran out of gas twice before I figured out that the gas gauge was defective. Then I used the trip meter and always filled up at least fifty miles before I knew I’d run out. Years later when Kim was driving the car, she used the gas gauge, and the dumb car ran on fumes, even when the gauge read ‘Empty.’
And that was not my only difficulty. The back lift gate never opened for me. Larry and Kim could open it easily using only one hand, but when I’d try, it stubbornly refused to budge. I asked them for the secret, but neither of them could tell me what I was doing wrong. The car just hated me. The feeling was mutual.
Because the body had apparently not been undercoated correctly, it soon began to molt yellow paint, followed by rusty chunks. My brother dubbed it the “Yellow Rust Bucket” or YRB for short. I swore it was trying to escape from me, one small piece at a time. Unfortunately, we owned this car longer than any other we’ve ever had.
My experiences with mechanical revolt aren’t limited to the United States, either.
Our washer and dryer in Japan were supposed to be the best in the world, made by a highly-respected German company. The washer took nearly an hour per load. And sometimes it would overheat, ruining several favorite pieces of clothing over the time we lived there. It was also a ‘one-sheet wonder’ since it would only hold a maximum of one sheet at a time.
The dryer was a different story, but a beast of a different genus. It worked like a salad spinner, capturing the water in a reservoir. When that filled up, the machine would stop until it was emptied. One load of clothes took hours to dry. The dryer didn’t heat, but the washer did—and overheated. To top it off, there was no heat adjustment on either machine. We had it serviced and were told it worked as designed.
I called these monstrosities many unpleasant names—especially when yet another favorite garment had been melted by the washer or when I needed something and it wasn’t dry. I also took the refusal of these monsters to work properly personally until a friend from California visited and attempted to use them. “How in earth do you live with these things?” she asked after trying to do a small load. The answer was we formed an uneasy truce. But the mutual loathing was always just beneath the surface.
When we returned to California after nearly three years in Japan, I hoped my days fighting rebellious household appliances were over. Wrong! I had not anticipated dealing with the new top-of-the-line double ovens we bought when we remodeled our kitchen.
We chose this particular brand because we were assured by the salesperson that it was the best. WRONG! Although installed per the manufacturer’s instructions, whenever I tried to use both ovens, the breaker tripped. And the heat was so uneven that nothing I baked turned out right.
I called the store, and they told me to contact the manufacturer since the appliance was still under warrantee. Unfortunately I was never actually able to talk to a real person on the manufacturer’s Customer Service line. Instead I was fed into a continuous loop of recorded suggestions, none of which addressed my problems. I finally called the manufacturer’s authorized service number in our area.
The service person arrived and checked the oven. When I asked why the breaker always tripped, he responded, “You’re supposed to use only one oven at a time.” WHAT? Why would I buy a double oven if I only intended to use one at a time?
When I questioned the twenty minutes required to get to preheat, his answer was,  "I recommend at least half an hour.” HUH?
And when I asked why it didn’t keep an even temperature, I received a long lecture on how ovens determined temperature. He told me everything was working as it should. Yeah, maybe in his warped parallel universe! He charged me a small fortune and left. Nothing had changed.
The worst happened when I had about eighteen people for dinner and tried to use the ovens to reheat a frozen entrée. The breaker tripped three times. The oven never came up to temperature. Dinner was eaten an hour late after I removed individual portions and heated them in the microwave. We ate in shifts. And I stopped cooking.
A couple of years later, I replaced the nearly-new ovens with another brand recommended by a friend who is a gourmet cook. I no longer have cookies with raw tops and burned bottoms. I can now prepare a meal for twenty and have everything on the table at the same time using both ovens simultaneously. And preheating now requires only five minutes. The best thing is that the previous unlamented ovens have gone on to that great appliance graveyard.
My most recent nemesis is the sewing machine. This one belonged to my mother. When she moved in with us over twenty years ago, there were three in the house. My daughter took my old Singer Featherweight, a little workhorse that still functions beautifully. My other portable was the same brand as Mom’s, but hers had all the bells and whistles. When a friend gave birth to a little girl and mentioned that she’d like to make clothes for the baby, I decided to give her my portable. Big mistake!
This mechanical demon loved Mom, but it hates me! I’ve never been able to get it to function properly doing even the simplest tasks. I’ve had it refurbished several times, but needles and thread still break with painful regularity. It knots and refuses to zigzag. The stitches are uneven; the bobbin comes loose; and the bobbin never holds enough thread to finish a project. It’s nearly impossible to thread the needle because the mechanism prevents grasping the thread from the back of the needle.
I spent two days in an all-out war with this devil recently and ended up throwing a full-blown tantrum A huge cloud of cursing hung over the room. My husband took refuge well away from the battle. I finally struggled through the nine simple seams. Casualties: two needles, one bobbin, many broken threads, lots of knots, two destroyed days, one vile temper.
But in the end, I won. No mere mechanical device will get the better of me. At least not for long. But the sewing machine has been given notice. It’s next on the destruct list.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Let the Decorating Begin!

Yesterday I put away Thanksgiving. Today the marathon Christmas decorating effort begins.
I’m an unrepentant Christmas junkie. And I want it all: the Bible story, nativity, Santa, cartoons, the Hallmark channel movies, and the music—all the music.
It’s in my genes. I inherited the passion from my maternal grandfather. He adored the holiday!

This was my grandparents’ house in West Hollywood sometime in the 1940s. Grandpa built the sleigh after he brought the reindeer home from the Broadway Department Store in L.A. He worked there, and they were going to be thrown out. I remember them well. They were made of concrete over rebar and were heavy. I ‘rode’ them when I was little. One of them survived in our garage through much of our childhood until it finally disintegrated.
I suspect Grandpa cut out the Santa on the roof from the same wood as the sleigh and painted it himself.
On the low wall behind the sleigh, you can see three of the ‘little houses’ he and my dad made. They eventually had nearly a dozen in various stages of completion, many of which were replicas of real places. Their ultimate intention was to create a miniature Christmas village on the lawn.
The grass was covered in Ivory soap flakes. I’m not clear how they removed them after New Year, but it must have been messy in the days before blowers. And I hate to think what happened if it rained.
Eventually, Grandpa and Dad made yards of miniature white picket fences they intended to put around the little houses. They were like the larger one in the photo, but only about three inches tall.
The two of them spent months in the garage together shredding their fingers cutting up tin cans and fashioning them into tiny street lamps. This was long before the days of strings of twinkle lights. Somewhere or other, they found miniature bulbs and wired each tiny lamp separately.
Unfortunately, nearly all of these decorations were lost in a garage fire at my grandparents in the early 1950s, caused by a frayed wire on a radio. The greater loss was of Grandpa himself when I was twenty-six months old and then Dad when I was seven.
But the Christmas gene survived in my mother. She loved the holiday, and even on a very limited budget, she decorated. Every year, she used Glass Wax to add ‘snow’ to the corners of our windows. Later, we had Glass Wax stencils and created trees, snowflakes, and other designs.
So today, Larry will reluctantly put up the tree. It’s fake since, although I love the scent of fresh pine, my allergies don’t. A couple of years ago, he replaced our ancient tree with a new one. The appeal was that it had the lights already on the branches. It opens like an umbrella, so his job is pretty easy.
His other job is hanging the outside lights. For years, he put them up on Christmas Eve and took them down the day after. Now that he’s retired, he doesn’t have a really good excuse for putting it off. But that doesn’t mean he won’t.
We have hundreds of ornaments, and it takes hours just to find spots for all of them. That’s my job. Each one is unique, and many are hand-made. Not a single plain glass ball among them. Every year I vow to downsize, but I haven’t figured out which ones I’m willing to part with. Maybe this year…
I don’t wait until after Thanksgiving to start playing the music, however. I have hundreds of Christmas albums, and all the music is on my iPod. If I select the shuffle mode, they show up from time to time in the over 9000 songs I have loaded. (Nearly all of them are from my CDs—another addiction.) Of course, I can only listen that way when Larry’s not around. His preference is to wait until after Thanksgiving. So let the music begin!
I don’t want to miss any of the stories, either. The Christmas movie marathon has begun, and I’m thrilled. In addition, we have to read the Bible story from Luke. Actually, I don’t read it. I recite it.
When I was about six, our Sunday school class memorized the entire passage for the church Christmas pageant. Each of us was responsible for one verse. But, overachiever that I am, I learned it all. And I still remember it. When we visited Israel at Christmas in 1984, the verses all came back as I tried to picture the story in the actual locations.
Another family tradition is reading Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It is some of the most beautiful writing in the English language, and we all adore it.
I’m too excited to sleep. I can’t wait to haul out all the old, familiar decorations and put them in their accustomed spots. I wish all of you could stop by and see them. Since that’s unlikely, I can wish everyone a blessed and joyous Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering Our Veterans

Today is November 11, Veterans’ Day and I started thinking about my dads, both of them: Larry’s dad, whom we lost on January third of this year, and my own who died fifty-eight years ago. Both were veterans of World War II.
I think of Larry’s dad often. Make no mistake about it, he was mine for forty-five years, and he was my Dad as well.
I don’t think of my own father often. He remains something of a cypher in my life. He died when I was seven, and like most men of his era, spent a great deal of his time working. I have very few actual memories of him, and those that remain exist mostly in old photos.
I wrote about him once, though. In 1993, I wrote a Christmas musical, The Giving Season, which I was blessed to see performed five times at our church. During the story, a young man pauses to reflect on his recently-deceased father. This particular song was the first-act finale and always made everyone cry. That may have been because it was written not for the play specifically but from my heart about my own father.
I share the lyric today for everyone who has lost a father who was a veteran.
The Man I Never Knew
©1993 by Lorna Collins
Who was this man, this stranger,
                This man I never knew?
I called him ‘Dad’ and ‘Father’
                But Father, who were you?

Did you ever have a special dream
                That never did come true?
Did somebody break your heart?
                Did someone prove untrue?

What were the things you cared about?
                What goals did you outgrow?
What were your childhood wishes?
                And how could I not know?

What special songs could touch your heart?
                What beauty pleased your eye?
Did you ever shout for joy?
                And did you ever cry?

Why did you always try to hide
Yourself behind a mask?
And why, in all the years we shared
                Was I afraid to ask?

Who were you my father,
                And what am I to do,
To try to find the secret of
                The man I never knew?

I hope all your memories of the veterans in your lives are sweet today. Honor them and all the other brave men and women who served our country so that we could enjoy all its blessings.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


This has been a year of loss—many losses. From Dad’s death on January 3 through the loss of my mother on July 26, and so many others in between and since, the year seems to be whittling away friends, family members, and the families of friends. I had counted 28 of those deaths before the end of February, when I stopped counting. But it didn’t end then. There’s been at least one a week since.
Losing those I love provided some powerful reminders for me.

Don’t take anyone for granted. My father died when I was seven. I went to second grade one morning, and when I came home that afternoon, he was gone. Forever. It was a powerful lesson I never forgot: People die. You never know when or how.

This is the reason that Larry and I tell each other, “I love you” on awakening each morning. We try never to part without a kiss, and reunite the same way. And we can’t go to sleep without another kiss and the words, “I love you.” When Larry traveled, he’d usually call home just to say goodnight. On a couple of occasions when he didn’t, I’d call him. If we couldn’t get through or were unable to make contact for some reason, we didn’t sleep well.

Youth doesn’t insulate you from death. People can die at any age. My father’s death taught me that one, too. He was thirty-seven. His mother was twenty-three. His grandmother, thirty-eight. And my maternal grandfather was fifty-four. All far too young. 

This point came home last year when our dear friends’ daughter died very suddenly at forty-two. Erin practically grew up in our home. I used to tease her that even though her parents thought she was theirs, she really belonged to us. On my birthday last year, among many other notes was one from Erin which said, “Happy Birthday Mama! Have a great day!” It told me that she knew she was loved. What a gift that was the next day when we received word that she was gone.

I was creating a movie for her folks’ 50th anniversary this week and added family photos including Erin. I wept when I saw them. I miss her very much. But at least I knew that I loved her. And she knew it as well.

Tell the people you love that you love them—often. Years ago, another daughter of dear friends died at thirty-one after an illness of a couple of years. Several months before her death, I saw Peggy. Our conversation ended with a hug and my saying, “I love you, Peg.” She stepped back, looked me in the eye, and said, “I know you do.” What a gift!

Far too often the people we genuinely care about either don’t know it or don’t believe it. I keep hoping the repetition of the words will eventually reinforce the very genuine affection I have for the people in my life.

Many years ago now, another dear young man died in his early thirties. Looking at the large assemblage at his memorial service, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had any idea how many people cared about him. I doubted it. John just never seemed able to accept that others cared about him. And that has always made me sad.

There is a ritual I indulge in with many of the people in my life. Whenever we part, I always tell them I love them. I mean it. I wasn’t able to say goodbye to my father or to tell him I loved him. As long as I have breath, I want my loved ones to know without a doubt that I do.

My niece and goddaughter both caught on to this early. Whenever I talked to them on the phone, I’d end with, “I love you.” And they’d answer, “I love you, too.” However, as they got older, both of them would try to sense the end of the conversation so they could say the words first. They still do, and I love it that it still matters to both of them.

Life goes on. Even with the pain of loss, life continues for the survivors. Hopefully it is richer for the presence of all the special people in our lives—including those no longer living. My personal belief is that we will see them all again when we join them and that the love we shared in this life will remain between us. In those moments of grieving and sadness, this confidence is a great comfort.

Everyone suffers loss. Everyone grieves. The only way we can honor those we have lost is to live the remainder of our own days well. And that’s what I’m attempting to do now.

Remember, friends and family, I love you.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reunion Blessing

I hadn't seen my cousin, Margaret, for at least fifty-five years! Her parents were abusive and she had a terrible childhood. My parents had absolutely nothing to do with hers. But a couple of summers when we were kids, she and her brother were sent from their house in Redding to visit relatives in Alhambra where we lived. They stayed with us a few days. It was clear that Mom loved 'Margie' (pronounced with the g as in gag).
After those two summers when we couldn't have been more than ten, we never saw the cousins again. I had four other cousins on that side of the family I hadn't seen since I was three. Their mother, my aunt, Mary Evelyn, tracked us down about twenty years ago, and I adored her. So did my Mom, as I discovered when they met again. But I had still not reconnected with any of those cousins.
I finally located Mary Evelyn’s four through Facebook! And Suzanne, the one closest in age to me, re-connected me with Margaret. (She's not on Facebook.)
On Memorial Day weekend, I actually got to meet two of the four cousins at a barbecue Roger and his wife, Ingrid, held at their house. Roger, Suzanne and I had a wonderful reunion, and discovered we had a lot in common.
Margaret was supposed to be there, too, but she had to come to Fountain Valley for a family crisis. I invited her for a visit the following Sunday. We were finally able to answer long-standing questions about our lives. Because of Margaret, I finally discovered why my mother had kept us away from some of my dad's relatives, even though they lived in the same town. We didn't even know about them until we were adults, by which time they had died.
I'd always believed that Mom's prejudices were the reason. (They were Catholic, and she was anti-Catholic.) Now I believe she was actually protecting us from them. (The empirical evidence that supports this is that my dad also kept us and himself from them when he was alive.) Suddenly, many of the missing puzzle pieces fell into place for both me and my brother, Ron.
Margaret enjoyed worship with us, and then we went to visit my mother.
She has been under hospice care again for the past few weeks. (She had hospice a year ago February but was removed when she dramatically improved.) She’d been sleeping most of the time, and we were often unable to rouse her when we visited. When we were, she’d mostly opened her eyes, obviously without understanding anything we said. When my aunt and uncle went to see her about a month ago, they were also unable to wake her.
But that Sunday, after a little prodding, she stirred. One of her caregivers had put lipstick on her as if in anticipation of Margaret's visit! (They don't usually do this.)
She opened her eyes, and I said, "Your niece 'Margie' is here to see you." She smiled! She always said she loved 'Margie' and had babysat her before I was born.
Margaret began to talk to Mom, telling her how much she’d always loved and admired her. Mom smiled again. Then Margaret told her she hadn't followed her dad's abusive religion, and Mom actually laughed! She doesn't make any sounds these days, but it was clear that she not only understood but was amused and pleased.
When Margaret told her she'd married a younger man, Mom grinned. I explained to Margaret that it was because she, too, had married a much younger man. My stepfather was sixteen years younger than Mom. They were married for six years, and then divorced. But the age difference had absolutely nothing to do with their separation. The marriage was a total disaster, but the divorce was a smashing success! They remained best friends until his death about twenty years later. And as far as he was concerned, the divorce never happened. She was his wife until the day he died. And they loved each other very much.
We were both able to reassure Mom (again) that when it was time, she could let go, we'd be okay, and were confident that she'd be with God. I hoped the reassurance from Margaret might have been the permission she needed. Larry and I have both told her this several times, but so far she hasn't been ready to give up on life. She has little quality left and it’s painful to see her continue.
As we left, we each gave her a kiss and told her we loved her. When it was Margaret's turn, Mom turned to her and mouthed the words, "I love you, too."
What amazing joy for all of us. Margaret's visit brought a huge ray of sunshine into Mother's seemingly perpetual darkness.
I can only pray that perhaps seeing Margaret again was necessary for her to feel that she had completed her job here with us. But the gift of the time we spent with her that day was absolutely priceless and an amazing gift.
We enjoyed lunch with Margaret and then spent several hours looking at pictures and comparing stories. I called my brother, and he was able to have a chat with her. He called back later and was obviously thrilled to have talked to her.
It may have taken all of us many years to reunite, but what a joy that reunion has been! And what a terrific blessing!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Reunion Celebration - Continued

Saturday, March 31, 2011

At the end of our special day in the park, we looked for an exit gate with a hand stamp, but were unable to find one. We went back to the helpful gal at Customer Service. She instructed us to follow her to the exit gate, where she politely asked the young man working the gate to stamp our hands for reentry into the park. (She had been at the desk in the morning and was already aware of the team plans for the day.)

Apparently, they no longer routinely allow hand stamps for park reentry. We were aware that there have been quite a number of days when park capacity was exceeded – and the currently-allowed capacity is well over the original intention.

After returning to the hotel and gathering up our presentation materials for the evening’s event, we returned and made our way to Lombard’s. This location is not used as a regular venue, but is reserved for special occasions. At the entrance, we ran into more of the team, also waiting for the doors to open. The laughter and shared memories we had enjoyed all day, continued.

Yutaka Izutsu and her staff arrived to explain the arrangements. Then we all trooped upstairs to hang our coats, pay for dinner, and get ready for the party.

A great buffet was arranged on tables at the perimeter of the room. Japanese-style stand-up tables were set up in the center, with a podium and screen at the front. Larry started setting up the computer and projector, while I gathered our books and my notes. Yutaka found a couple of small tables for the projector and the book display.

She even called in the park audio/visual crew to connect the projector into the sound system. Everything was handled efficiently and with a smile. She is really amazing, and a huge asset to Randy!

Once we were set up, we decided to start showing our movies until everyone had arrived and was ready for the toast.

I’d put together a short movie of the highlights of the project. (You can see it on YouTube at:

We also updated and expanded the PowerPoint with highlights of our book, 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park, and made it into a movie. (It’s also on YouTube:

Finally, Tomoko Ohara created a great movie of the construction photos. She even had some of the team photos we’d asked for but never gotten from the teams. (See it at:

I had agreed to act as MC, and Tomoko had said she’d translate. Felt like old times!

We finally were able to start the evening with the toast. This is what I said:
Konbanwa – Good Evening and welcome to the ten-year anniversary of the opening of USJ.

As we gather this evening, we are aware of the suffering of the Japanese people in the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami. So let us begin with a moment of silence in honor of all those affected.

Tonight we offer you the opportunity to contribute to Japan Earthquake relief. Since we were able to enjoy a wonderful day in the park, thanks to Randy Barnett, Matt Jones, Yutaka and others at USJ, please consider donating the cost of your ticket.  

We also brought a few copies of our book, 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park, for sale. All the gross proceeds from those sales will be our contribution. We have commitments for three books, but the rest will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

In 1994, the city of Osaka approached Universal Studios about building a theme park in this city. In August of 1998, Larry and I were the first members of the USI construction team to relocate. On this date in 2001, the first paying guests entered the park.

USJ still holds two records: We are the first and only park ever to be completed ahead of schedule and under budget. And the first year attendance of eleven million still stands as the highest of any park in the world.

And we did it!

Thanks to Randy, Matt, Douglas Gordon, Tomoko, Yutaka and everyone who made today possible Now, let’s enjoy being together again. We have good reason to be proud!

To USJ and the team that built it! Kampai!

After the toast, the meal began. Unfortunately, I was working most of the evening selling and signing books, starting the videos, which ran continuously during the evening, and talking. I got to eat very little, but what I had was delicious. Larry had the same problem. He’d take a plate, eat a couple of bites, then put his plate down to talk with someone. By the time he tried to retrieve it, the crack wait staff had whisked it away. He did get two full plates of dessert, though. (The first Japanese word he learned was ‘desaato’ – dessert!)

It was delightful seeing old friends and sharing wonderful memories. We’d all enjoyed our park experience during the day and were once again reminded of what we’d all accomplished together ten years before.

In order to get to the parade site, we had to leave before any of us really wanted to. But we knew we’d still have time to talk before the parade began.

We saw the basketful of cash for Japanese Earthquake Relief. It appeared that everyone had given generously. We requested that our contributions be added to the official Universal Studios donations since we were, once again for that night, representing Universal. (We hope to get a final count of our gift from the folks at USJ.)

The USJ folks had reserved a special prime seating area along the street for our group, so we had a great view.

The Magical Starlight Parade was a bit of a surprise. It was very much like the Electric Light Parade at Disneyland. (We’ve loved it since it was the Main Street Electrical Parade years ago.) The Universal parade is very well done with awesome costumes and floats. It’s also a long parade. I watched the kids across from us completely mesmerized by all the color, music and action.

The parade began with enormous lighted images of Snoopy, Elmo, and Hello Kitty. Next came a group of characters and floats from Alice in Wonderland. Next was Arabian Nights, followed at the end by Cinderella.

At the end, though, I turned to the American team members near me and whispered, “Am I the only one confused? Aren’t these Disney images? What do they have to do with Universal?” They were equally baffled.

Actually, when it comes to branding, the Universal brand is nearly gone. I could actually envision the name of the park changing in a few years to something far more appealing to the Japanese like “Best Happy Experience.”

I wanted a special souvenir of our magical celebration and looked everywhere in the park for something with just the tenth-anniversary logo. NOTHING.  (I’d also looked in the CityWalk and hotel Universal stores with the same results. I’d even asked Vernon McGugan about it. He said he didn’t think they carried anything with just the logo.)

As a matter of fact, I couldn’t find anything with just the Universal logo on it. When the park opened, we were able to get hats, t-shirts, and sweatshirts with the USJ logo. Not now. Everything is character-branded. The only places where the anniversary logo showed up was in the background of a couple of images of the characters.

I did find an Elmo t-shirt that said “Happy 10th Anniversary.” However the name of Universal Studios was nowhere to be found. (So, ‘happy anniversary’ to whom and for what? Oh, and Elmo wasn’t even in the park ten years ago…)

I did find a small metal image of the logo, mounted on black velvet in a shadowbox frame, for about $35. There were also metal ‘puzzle pieces’ of some of the attraction logos that fit around the center image – each for an additional price. All I wanted was the ten-year logo. I should probably just have bought the thing, but at the time, I was worried about suitcase space.  (We gave Toshi and Kae back the three pieces of their luggage we’d been storing and had used on the way over, and were planning on using a nylon bag on the way home for our dirty clothes.) Not getting that is my only regret.

Exhausted, but still on satisfaction overload, we returned to the hotel. Kae and Toshi were supposed to leave on the 9:00 train for Yokohama, but Kae wanted to see the parade. They had already checked out of the hotel, but Toshi scrambled for another room and tickets for early the next morning.

Friday, April 1, 2011

When we awoke, we found a note under our door. The kids had left at 4:45 a.m. to head back. Kae had to go into her office to work. Toshi didn’t. We were so happy to have spent a couple of days with them and to have been able to share the anniversary with them. They had attended most of our parties while we were in Japan, so they had already met some of the team members. They said they had a great time.

I wrote a bit and tried to answer email. The dial-up cable was SO slow! We’re really spoiled at home since we’ve been on cable for several years. With our new computers, connection is even faster. We kept getting timed out of our email accounts.

We walked to McDonalds again for breakfast, then took another stroll around the park, once again admiring our handiwork. We checked all the external Universal stores for tenth anniversary logo items, once again without success.

The evening before, Dote-san had told us that he had a meeting in the morning and asked if we’d like to do something with him afterward. He was staying at the same hotel, so we agreed. We looked forward to having some time with him since he hasn’t been traveling to the US in the past few years.

About mid-morning, I hit the wall. I hadn’t slept much for the two weeks prior to the trip, both from the excitement about going and trying to take care of all the crises with Dad’s house and the remodel of our own, wrapping up work, dealing with setting up the new computer, etc. Once we arrived, we’d gone non-stop, not wanting to miss a thing.

I slept for about three hours while Larry read, finally waking sometime after noon. We decided to eat protein bars from lunch since we had plans to meet some of the team again for dinner that night.

I was still sleepy, so we took a long walk down by the ferry dock and then around by the beach as far as we could go. It felt good to finally feel more awake.

Dote-san never called, so we assumed that his meeting took longer than planned.

We arrived at the restaurant to find Douglas and Tamaki Gordon, pus Tomoshige Inoue and two of his friends we hadn’t seen the night before. Terri Igarashi and her kids, Yukari Hinode and her son, and Randy Barnett and his family got there soon after. And John Erickson, who had finally made it to the party very late the evening before, arrived. We were so glad to have a little time with him.

Before we left, Tom gave me a lovely memento of this special visit to Japan: a pendant made from a fifty-yen coin. He explained that the word for a five-yen coin meant good relationship, so this represented ten times the friendship. I hadn’t been able to find anything to keep as a remembrance of our trip, and now Tom had given it to me. I was touched and grateful.

Enjoyed a great dinner and shared many memories. After dinner, Tom had this photo taken. The perfect reminder of another great day with good friends:

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Day in the Park

Wednesday, March 31, 2011 – Universal Studios

We woke early, excited about finally seeing the theme park to which we’d devoted nearly three years of our lives.

We’d been told that our passes would be ready at Guest Services after 8:30, but we wanted to be at the park entrance at 8:00 to watch the guests arrive. Seeing families pouring through the gates, kids hyper with anticipation, reminded us of our dream when we arrived. We wanted to create a place where families could come and where they could have fun. Our hopes were more than fulfilled.

One surprise was seeing fathers with their children. The guests were predominantly mothers and children, but fathers with their kids and entire families were not uncommon.

As we approached Guest Services, Tomoko Ohara who coordinated the notification and responses from the Japanese, arrived with her daughter. She recognized us instantly. As we would hear throughout the next two days, we were told that we hadn’t changed. The hugs from her were only the first of the many we would enjoy during the next forty-eight hours.

The young lady at Guest Services called the USJ offices, and soon Yataka Izutsu arrived with all the information and tickets. She was the major organizer of the events for the team reunion, and she is a darling young lady. This special day could not have happened without her and her crew!

While waiting to enter, we got to see the opening show inside the gates prior to park opening. Then the announcement was made and the gates opened. We joined the other guests and entered.

It looked as though every cast member in the park had lined the entrance and Hollywood Boulevard to welcome guests. I’m sure they do the greeting every day since this is a requisite Japanese formality.  However, we ran into Vernon McGugin who told us there were more than 300 cast members on the street!

Wearing our USJ team clothing, we were easily recognized and treated as minor celebrities. Kae and Toshi enjoyed the attention we got so much so that Kae began telling everyone that we had a part in creating the park. Seeing so many enthusiastic young Japanese representing the park helped to start our celebration on the right note.

As we entered, we also ran into Randy Barnett and Matt Jones, both of whom played a role in bringing this event to fruition. They were also taking part in the ‘meet and greet’ on the street.

Our first stop was the new Spiderman attraction. Well, actually it’s not that new since it was built a year or two after we left.  We’d heard all about the attraction when it opened in Florida, and it was very well done.

After the ride, we walked around the lagoon to check out our windows. They are still there. We’d wanted to see Raouf’s plaque, but it is currently hidden by a temporary stage on which the big anniversary show is being performed.

Leaving the San Francisco Wharf area, we proceeded towards Area 3. On the way, we checked to see that Cathy Pechstedt’s classic cars were still outside Mel’s Drive-In. She will be happy to know that they are being well-maintained. Groups of guests posed for pictures near their favorites.

Next we went on JAWS. Mark Kuskowski will be happy to know that his plants are all thriving in the queue area. It is cool and green and should provide some relief from the summer heat. It also hides much of the garishness of the adjacent water slide.

We joined the other guests to take the trip around Amity Island. All effects worked as designed, and our ‘pilot’ displayed the proper level of fear at the attacking sharks. Seeing all the beautiful work on the buildings of the island carefully preserved gave us a great deal of satisfaction. Larry amused the kids by telling them about walking barefoot on the ‘sand’ of the island’s shore – in the dead of winter in the wet cement – to create the appearance of footprints. They enjoyed hearing this and many other ‘behind-the-scenes stories throughout the day.

On to Jurassic Park. All torches were lit. The Lost World Restaurant was closed and it appeared to be permanent. We wondered if it’s used for special events. (Some of the other eateries – like Boardwalk Snacks and Amity Ice Cream - were also closed, but they are seasonal and only open during the summer.)

Time for lunch at Discovery Center. Gene Nollman’s beautiful art direction remains to set the atmosphere. The food was more than adequate and not outrageously expensive – by Japanese standards. We ate on the patio behind the restraint fronting the lagoon where we had met Berj and Aida Behsnalian on the photo op day in December 2000. We remember remarking how amazing it was that we’d actually finished the park on schedule. We are happy to report that it looks even better today!

Then on to JP, The Ride. Again, Mark’s foliage has matured and provides the jungle ambiance we had originally intended. Apparently the maintenance crews finally understand the look required.

The ride effects worked perfectly. But we were in for a surprise since many of the dinosaurs now sport brightly colored skin. Perhaps the intention was to make them less threatening. Or maybe they want to sell more of the Paint-Your-Own Dinosaur souvenirs.

The T-Rex, however, remains intimidating.

Splashdown was fast and nearly dry. However, the spitters had already soaked several of us. Overall, the ride is exciting and gorgeous.

We observed the other guests as they emerged, and they obviously thoroughly enjoyed their experience.

Next, we had to see the WaterWorld show. First, however, we photographed Larry’s benches, shaped like surfboards. We still have the model for the one without the back. We originally had both models in Japan, but the other one was larger, and we only had room to bring one home.

We especially wanted to see the Infinity stickers – and they’re still in place. Larry rides Infinity boards, and Steve Boehne provided lots of logo stickers. So did quite a few other shops and manufacturers (Stewart, Harbor, Robert August, and others). The benches look appropriately worn, but sturdy.

Larry’s bicycle wave maker is long gone, but his standpipe still creates small waves in the entry pool.

The show remains a special effects masterpiece. Still my personal favorite attraction in the park. Even without understanding the Japanese language, the story and physical humor are accessible and easy to follow.

The seaplane splashed down with the usual audience reaction. And the fire-fall went as planned. (Of course, Casey Yadon took the first jump from the platform on the day he left Japan!)

We strolled back down Rodeo Drive and were somewhat taken aback by all the pink. The Outfitter is now the Pink Panther store painted bright pink. Across the street is the Hello Kitty store – also in the same bright cotton candy hues. And the trim on the Brown Derby matches, as well. I was sure the art directors would be appalled, given their meticulous attention to authenticity. But it does appeal to the Japanese asthetic sensibilities.

On to Boulangerie for sweets and coffee. The beautiful deco statue still guards the doors, and my favorite pink and green tile still punctuates the walls.

Then it was time to ride the Hollywood Dreams coaster. This is a huge ride that starts near Monsterfest, travels across Hollywood Boulevard, loops at the park entrance, then its path, diving and climbing in a quick series of undulations and high-banked twists at the main lagoon before returning to its starting point.

We’d seen this in operation on our arrival and it is beautiful at night. All that is visible are the sparkling lights, making the vehicle appear to be a comet, streaking across the dark sky.

We were very impressed with how well this ride was incorporated into the landscape without compromising the overall effect of the areas through which it passes.

Kae was reluctant to go on this attraction, but finally decided to join us. The vehicles are the most comfortable and the ride is the smoothest we have ever experienced. I’m not a huge coaster fan, but this one is especially appealing. It didn’t seem as intimidating as some, despite the height and drops it takes.

Unfortunately, Kae was not as happy at the end of the ride. She’d been truly frightened and was in tears. None of us stopped to think about the effect the g-forces might have had on her following her aneurism a couple of years ago. I’m still a little concerned, but Toshi said he’ll have her checked out now that they’re back in Yokohama.

We decided to walk back along Hollywood Boulevard to check out the shops. Our timing was perfect since the Tenth Anniversary Show was about to begin. What a great source of entertainment, featuring lots of dancers, singers, and athletes! Special music was written for this production, and it was a fitting tribute to ten years of park operation.

After looking everywhere unsuccessfully for a keepsake with the gorgeous tenth anniversary logo, we headed back to the hotel to grab our equipment and get ready for the evening’s celebration.