Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I got the browns.

After sitting through five hours of paid training this morning, I was issued a company regulation uniform, to be worn in my service over the next month as a seasonal employee of the United Parcel Service. Swimming in my men's uniform, I look and feel unusually tiny, and worry a bit that, should I meet my driver/supervisor tomorrow, he or she will take one look at me and wonder, "Is this little tiny person really going to be able to assist me in delivering heavy packages at a fast pace during the busiest time of the year?"

My position title: driver helper. Of the thirty new hires who attended the employee orientation at the UPS distribution center with me this morning, I was the only female. This didn't make me feel insecure or discouraged, but it did have the effect of drawing my fuller awareness to the fact that this is a job with a reputation for being highly physically exacting. In the event that I do start work tomorrow morning (my start date being determined by the current demand for driver helpers in my area), I will be riding in a UPS truck, helping the driver to make hundreds of deliveries within a highly constrained slot of time. This job has a potential to be extremely stressful and almost certainly completely exhausting.

So why do it? Though a paycheck is always helpful, living with my parents puts me in a position where I could very easily continue to live off my savings for quite some time. Why work if I don't have to?

For starters, it's part of the Plan (the full extent of which I am still emotionally unprepared to disclose). And yes, sitting around the house watching old shows on Netflix day after day has been wearing on me for well over a month now. But, most importantly, it's a new experience, a new opportunity to learn and see and do things outside my normal realm of existence. And, if I'm really going to "live twenty-five to the fullest," I want to have as many of these types of experiences as possible.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Breaking Code

A few days I reread the self-stated mission of this blog and felt a sickly sense of malachievement. Somewhere along the line (undoubtedly, it was when I realized that some of my friends were actually reading and keeping up with my posts), my focus shifted and I became less concerned with the task of pounding out my best writing for the day every day regardless of how I feel about it, and more concerned with the task of not disappointing my readers with my incapacity for consistent pizazz.

The condition is exacerbated by my recent development of a merciless case of writer's block. I simply can't seem to have a single original thought that is interesting enough to write down. I blame it on the generally uneventful nature of my life at the moment. It's all too easy to blame the former condition on the latter. And yet, when life is eventful, I excuse myself by saying that I am too busy to write.

I find myself dancing precariously close to being in violation of one of my self-imposed regulations regarding this writing project--the prohibition against berating myself in a manner that could be interpreted as "pessimistic drivel." That isn't what I want to do. It is so much contrary to what I want to do, in fact, that I just spent the last hour trying to use this paragraph as a springboard into a much more optimistic exploration of the beauties and joys of life. I wrote several paragraphs toward that effect, but, upon reading what I had written, felt immensely unsatisfied with it and forced myself to stop.

What happens to a blog when its author has writer's block? I guess we'll just have to see.

Disappearing Days

"What did you do today?"

It's the most anxious moment of my day. My mother sits behind the family computer, eying me with half-interest. It's the part of the day when I must make an account of my idleness. Another uneventful day. I usually respond with something like, "I did all the dishes. And I read." But today, when my mother asked me that dreaded question, I drew an unexpected blank.

"I can't remember," I told her. "It seems like the whole day just evaporated."

It did seem that way.

Today I read a little. I practiced the piano a little. And I...I...

I lost a day.

And so I approach the second most anxious moment of the day--writing time--with a tinge of regret.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Nabe Flop

According to the cookbook, Japanese Cooking: Contemporary & Traditional, by Miyoko Nishimoto Schinner (from which I derive most of my Japanese recipes), nabemono (hot pot) dishes "are designed for communal eating" (120). Indeed, in light of my experiences eating nabe in Japan, it never would have occurred to me to think of it as a dish that could possibly be enjoyed without a group. Everything about the way it is prepared and served indicates that it is meant to be partaken of communally. So, to me, the very thought of eating it by oneself is laughable.

Yesterday, as it drew near dinnertime and the hour for my family members to begin returning from their respective jobs, I enthusiastically began to chop vegetables and tofu in preparation for a dish I was sure would truly impress. Nabe is the perfect autumn meal; the entire process of preparing and enjoying it warms the body and the spirit. Typically, all the ingredients are cooked together in a large earthenware pot over a portable burner that sits in the center of the table and continues to warm the soup throughout the meal. Generally, this meal lasts a couple of hours.

I don't own a nabe pot, nor do I have a portable burner that can be used indoors. But I figured--no bother--I would simply prepare the soup in a ceramic pot over the stove and bring that to the table. My family and I could keep a lid on it to retain warmth and even reheat it on the stove intermittently, if necessary.

However, much to my dismay, each member of my family, upon returning home, informed me that he or she had a prior engagement that that evening and could not stay for dinner. And so I was left to eat my nabe by myself. Nobody in my family could understand why this should make me laugh and shake my head so much. They, never having partaken of an authentic nabe experience, could not possibly grasp the absurdity of the present situation.

I ate my nabe alone. Kimchee nabe: The best kind. It tasted good, yet everything about it was...wrong.

I need some San Diego friends.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Best Day

But it didn't start off that way. I awoke at 7:30--a good two hours earlier than my unemployed self has lately become accustomed to--feeling groggy. I was up late the night before, turning my room upside down in search of a manila envelope that contained the important personal documents I would need to have on hand for my job interview this morning. I lost a good hour and a half of sleep and was ready to call off the search before the obvious place finally occurred to me. All that for a tiny little piece of paper with my social security number written on it? I went to bed in a foul mood.

This morning, I was assembling my usual breakfast of yogurt, granola, and raisins, when Lindsay, running out the door on her way to work, explained apologetically that the dog had "puked his guts out" all over the living room and, though she'd tried to clean it up a little, she didn't have time to finish the job. I looked at the clock: I was intending to head to my interview in half an hour, but I still needed to eat, get dressed, blow dry my hair, and write down directions. "Okay," I told her, "I'll do my best to clean it, if I have time."

I cleaned up the dog's vomit (which resembled, much to the misfortune of my gag reflex, the granola I'd just eaten), slipped into a half-ironed shirt, skipped the blow dry, jotted down what turns to take after the freeway exit, and dashed out the door about fifteen minutes later than I'd intended. I made it to the interview location exactly on time.

Fortunately, it was a group interview and the group was large, so nobody took much notice of my lack of punctuality. It was mostly an information session for a seasonal position with UPS, which, as it turns out, I may or may not qualify for on account of the area where I live. We'll see.

Gloriously, however, the interview location was in Kearny Mesa, a part of San Diego that is a veritable heaven to a recently repatriated former English teacher in Japan (like me). Immediately west of California 163, off Balboa Avenue, is a more than satisfying conglomeration of Japanese shops and restaurants, including a discount variety store and a used book shop that also had locations in Moka, Japan! Immediately after leaving the UPS warehouse, I headed down to Daiso, where I simply basked for about an hour in the familiar foreignness of it all, reading labels in Japanese and listening to small children speaking to their mothers in a language that I am remorsefully rapidly forgetting.

I left Daiso without purchasing anything and headed next door, to a Japanese market. After perusing the aisles, my mouth literally watering the entire time, I concluded decisively that tonight is definitely going to be a nabe night. I bought the soup base, tofu and vegetables I would need--including five kinds of mushrooms--and went across the street to lunch on fresh authentic hot udon noodles at Kayaba in the Mitsuwa Marketplace. As I headed back to my car, I couldn't help but dance a little through the parking lot from the utter joy that this noontime excursion had brought me. True, it's not the same as a trip to Japan, but, for a fraction of the cost, it comes delightfully close.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Best Hummus Recipe Yet

After years of trial and error, at last: a hummus recipe worth sharing. I've yet to perform a side-by-side taste taste to gauge whether it's as good as my favorite store-bought brand, but if you were to throw a few toppings on there--say, some pine nuts, roasted red peppers, and chopped parsley--it would likely surpass the competition.

The main problem with a lot of hummus recipes that I've experimented with in the past is that they call for crushed raw garlic--an ingredient that gives the finished product a flavor that I personally find too intense and spicy. And if I, a devout garlic lover, feel that way, imagine how a picky eater like my mom would respond to it. I've tried substituting fresh garlic with powdered, or using garlic salt instead of regular table salt, but it seems the end result lacks a certain dimension in freshness and texture.

Roasted garlic to the rescue! Yes, roasting the garlic beforehand requires additional time and preparation, but the outcome, I believe, is well worth the effort. This recipe is excellent as is, but it also works well as a canvas for additional flavors and mix-ins.

Triumphant Roasted Garlic Hummus

• 4-6 cloves freshly roasted garlic
• 1 can chickpeas or 2 cups cooked chickpeas
• 1/2 cup liquid reserved from can or cooking pot
• 2 tbsp tahini
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• juice of 1 lemon
• salt and pepper to taste
• paprika and additional olive oil for garnish

Allow roasted garlic to cool before proceeding so that you don't burn your fingers. Combine all ingredients through salt and pepper in a blender or food processor and pulse until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and garnish with paprika, olive oil, parsley, pine nuts, roasted red peppers, jalapeƱos, or what have you.

Enjoy immediately, with some nice crunchy carrot sticks. Or, cover and place in the refrigerator for a few hours. I don't know if this is really a thing; but, in my head, this allows the flavors to "set."


I was just updating my blogger profile and noticed that my location was still set to Moka, Japan. I changed it to San Diego, United States, and instantly felt less interesting.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Evening with the Janssens

It's a quarter to seven. Mom just got home and she's sitting in front of the computer. I'm in the kitchen, carefully watching the clock. Dad walks in the front door, carrying the tell-tale bags from Grocery Outlet ("I can't not stop by when I'm in the neighborhood, because they've always got insanely good deals on cheese and outstanding prices on vegetarian meat analogs."). If Grocery Outlet were a human, my dad would leave my mom for her, no doubt about it.

Now that both parents are present and accounted for, I swoop in and immediately begin administering the finishing touches to the dinner that's been in process for the last hour or so. Dad comes into the kitchen, reaches for the roasted pumpkin seeds from the night before that are in a plastic container on the counter and munches on a few. I tell him, "Don't snack! Dinner is in the process of being served!" He looks up at me sheepishly, throws his hands in the air, and backs away from the seeds.

The table is piled with grocery bags, so we eat on the couch. I can tell my mom is pleased with dinner, because she tells me I should open a restaurant. This is what she tells me every time I cook something that she likes. Tonight I made sandwiches, so she says, "You and your dad should open a sandwich shop!" Then she and my dad agree, as always, that owning a restaurant would be an overly time-consuming enterprise, better left to those who are truly passionate about it. I bring out dessert, and it is greeted with further exultations of entrepreneurial potential.

I suggest that we watch a movie together. I make popcorn. Dad watches the first two minutes and then goes to the other room to watch hockey. Mom watches the first eight minutes and then begins to snore. I watch the next hour of it by myself until Lindsay comes home from work and watches the ending with me.

After that, Lindsay and I retreat to our respective bedrooms. I round out the night with a few TV comedy episodes on Netflix and, if I'm up to it, some light blogging.

I feel like I'm stuck in a rut. I'm keeping an eye out for ladders.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dear Meghan teacher,

I’m sorry that it took me so long to write a letter. Meghan sensei, how are you? We are all fine. How is it being back in your hometown? In Japan, it’s the season of beautiful maple leaves. And, it’s becoming cold. What is it like now in America?

Do you remember me?

[purikura of Eri and some of her friends from school]

We all miss you, Meghan sensei. I’m sad I can’t see your
cute smile in English class anymore.

At Yamazaki Junior High School, we just had Rindosai
[the school festival]. All of the classes did very good in the chorus competition and at “Yama-chu LIVE[the afternoon talent/variety show portion of the program] and, altogether, everyone was able to make good memories.

And that’s what’s happening here!

I’m waiting for a letter from you, if it pleases you to write one.

From Eri Genta

I received this letter in the mail on Saturday and it certainly succeeded in making my day, if not my week.

Friday, November 5, 2010

To Barbie, or not to Barbie?

Back in our day, my little sisters and I used to play a mean game of Barbies. And, between the three of us, we had quite the collection of dolls and accessories. There was an unspoken agreement that the most handsome Ken doll was Baywatch Ken (although, in my opinion, Aladdin could have taken the prize if it weren't for the annoying fact that his fez was permanently attached to his head). As far as which female doll was the prettiest, I think we each held our separate opinions. My favorite was Camping Barbie, whose dishwater blond hair and tan skin set her apart from her more generic platinum blond counterparts.

In life, there are few occurrences more irritating than when a well-intentioned adult attempts to join in your game of Barbies. This is due to the fact that adults, when they play "make believe" games with kids, tend to assume that the make-believe world is more innocent than it actually is. They try to make the Barbies behave like little kids; Barbies, clearly, are not little kids. At six, seven, eight, or nine years old, my sisters and I recognized that the dolls we were playing with represented adult people, and we, accordingly, imagined adult scenarios to place them in. Our Barbies would fight and even kill each other. They would get drunk. They would have sex. Of course, none of our enactments of the aforementioned events were at all realistic, but they were our speculative attempts to make sense of the befuddling grown-up world. And we enjoyed it immensely.

Of the various games and scenarios we would continuously revisit in our playtime with Barbies, one stands out to me in particular on account of its absurdity as well as its especial popularity: weddings. Our Barbie and Ken dolls would get married all the time. We were constantly partnering them off with new people (hey, it was only fair that all the ladies should get their own crack at Baywatch Ken). We had two wedding dresses and plenty of other formal gowns that would be appropriate for a bride in a pinch, but, alas, we only had one tuxedo; so, our dolls were constantly performing costume changes throughout the duration of our play in order to accommodate the multiple couples who were being paired off that day.

But even more interesting than the wedding wardrobe was the marriage ceremony itself, particularly the last part (and, more interesting yet, what happened after the ceremony). Follwing the officiant's pronouncement of Ken and Barbie as "Man and Wife," he would always, always, declare conclusively: "You may go and get naked!"

At this point, Barbie and Ken would fly (yes, you read right, fly) off into the air together to another end of the room where they would be stripped of their clothes and left alone to do as they pleased. This was the formula for make-believe marriages that we stuck with, and we stuck with it because it worked: it gratified our need to make two wedding dresses and one tuxedo satisfy the fashion demands of half a dozen couples, and it complied with our firm knowledge (gleaned from a ubiquitous comment made by our mother) that men and women saw each other naked after they got married.

Last Sunday I found myself engaged in a riveting conversation about Barbies with two friends whose ideas and opinions I always respect and enjoy. One of these friends has a baby girl and considers carefully the possible concerns of permitting or not permitting her child to have or play with certain types of toys. The other friend was not allowed to play with Barbies when she was growing up. The three of us agreed that, in retrospect, we find the practice of little girls playing with dolls that have adult bodies to be somehow troublesome, if not downright distressing.

But, in the end, what is the real impact of allowing one's daughter to play with Barbies? Or of withholding them? A child in contemporary society will still be exposed to plenty of unrealistic adult bodies on television or screaming from the magazine racks at the supermarket. How much of a difference does it make if the unrealistic adult body is not just in an airbrushed photograph, but is that of her own plaything? Would I have a different self image today if I'd never met Camping Barbie and Baywatch Ken? Would I have a healthier understanding of my own body in relation to others' bodies? Would I have healthier views on sex?

I just don't know. But what I do know is, I can't wait to get married.

Wedding Shower Invites

These are the postcard invitations that my sister Ashley and I created for Lindsay and Mike's wedding shower. Ashley and I devoted nearly the entire day to gathering materials for and then assembling the cards. Was it worth it? The jury is still out.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bad Habits: A Food Confession

In her book French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, author Mireille Guiliano invites her American readers to adjust the cultural lens through which they view food in order to acquire a healthier, happier, more "French" way of thinking about eating. Recently I read Guiliano's self-purported diet book that is not a diet book, and her words had their intended effect of getting me to think more intentionally about the food I consume; lately I’ve been creating diverse and well-balanced meals for myself and my parents and enjoying wine and cheese with greater titillation and joie de vivre than usual. However, as per the opinions of Professeur Guiliano, I also seem to have adopted a rather supercilious disapproval for anything that could be labeled as “American” cuisine or food culture. And it's clear that I'm in need of an attitude adjustment.

This has sort of been a problem of mine for a while now: I believe my views on food are ethically and gastronomically superior and I have a bad habit of scolding close friends and family for eating fast food or buying tomatoes out of season. I realize that I certainly don’t need someone like Guiliano--who clearly feels that the French woman is socially and culturally superior to her American counterpart--egging me on. Sometimes, when you sense that your beliefs and values are truly good and that the actions of your loved ones directly conflict with those beliefs and values, it’s tempting to assume that it’s your duty to educate them.

I never want to give the impression that I view others' beliefs and actions as inferior to my own. And creating divides between us and others over food is a tragic offense because perhaps nothing in the world has greater power to bring people together than food. As L. Shannon Jung says in his book, Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment, “Eating together is one antidote to individualism; sharing is a school of sociability” (42). The way we relate to and share with one another around the table is a microcosm for the way we relate to everyone, from our close inner circle of family and friends to our much broader global community. The things we eat with one another and the manner in which we eat them (for example, a home-cooked meal or a microwaved one; around the diner table or in front of the t.v.) speak volumes about the nature of our relationships. The foods that we choose to purchase may have direct impacts--either positive or negative--on the people who produce those foods or on the countries where the foods are produced.

How can I spread love through my food choices? According to Jung (and I wholeheartedly agree), one of the ways we are able to eat with the greatest amount of pleasure and satisfaction is by knowing that no people have been mistreated or taken advantage of in the process of bringing that food to our table. We might achieve this by purchasing as much of our food as possible directly from local farmers or by growing and preparing it ourselves. These, certainly, are important practices that we should all, to the extent of our ability, strive to adopt.

But, for me, I see especial importance in always reminding myself to spread love among those I am sitting down to share a meal with. And that is inevitably going to mean toning down this food-snob persona I've recently come to identify so strongly with. It means saying thanks to the people who provide, serve, or sell me my food--regardless of what that food looks like or where it came from. It means saying a blessing before each meal that reminds me to pass the goodness I have received on to others. And it means sharing meals that I have prepared out of a spirit of generosity and sociability rather than out of a desire to indoctrinate or impress.

My bad food habit may not look the same as the bad food habits of many Americans: I don't consume soft drinks or Big Macs and I'm not addicted to sweets. But, nevertheless, it's a nasty habit that I'm determined to break. Eating is an inextricably social act, and insisting on furthering one's own personal agenda in any social arrangement may eventually jeopardize the community. If the dinner guests in the film Babette's Feast had succeeded in their pious resolve to ignore the taste of the rare delicacies and expensive wines that were placed before them, then they would have missed out on the relationally redemptive and unifying joy the feast! Food is love and love is food. Let us never attempt to separate them.

*** If you want to know more about either of the books referenced above, you can read my reviews of them here. If you haven't seen to movie Babette's Feast, rent it now! Or, even better, check it out for free from your local public library! ***

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Plan

How I feel about the fact that I haven't updated my blog for a while:

About two weeks ago, I discussed my intention to attend Prospective Student Weekend at Fuller Theological Seminary in order to learn more about their Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies. I prayed eagerly before attending event that my experience that weekend would instill me with a strong, unequivocal feeling of either "Yes!" or "No!" Instead, however, I walked away from the weekend with an enlightened yet unsatisfying sense of "Maybe..." It was the inconclusiveness of my emotional response to the experience that contributed to my hesitancy to report about it on this blog. I resolved, instead, to take some time to think about it.

Today I spent a couple hours at the San Diego Zoo. I love the zoo. Yes, certainly, seeing wild animals in cages can be a bit depressing. But knowing that the revenues collected from park entrance fees go toward benefiting wildlife conservation projects helps to alleviate some of those ethical concerns.

The polar bear exhibit is one of the most potentially discomforting (giant predatory creatures, who in the wild range hundreds of miles hunting seals along the rim of the polar ice pack, here confined to a relatively minuscule enclosure where they bake all day in the relentless San Diego sun); but it is perhaps my favorite place to visit in the park. Standing nearly face to face with the world's largest land predator is, in any respect, existentially impressive. Even gazing through several inches of glass, one can't help but pause and marvel at the construction of this beautiful, enormous killer, and feel a little nervous quickening of the pulse as you imagine, without intending to, just how quickly you would be dead if this creature were to take a swipe at you with one of his colossal paws.

Today's visit to the polar bear habitat was the best one I've ever had. Kalluk, the zoo's male polar bear, was standing up in the water, gnawing intently on a cow femur bone when I arrived. As I stood gazing through the glass, he gave up on the bone and launched himself full-tilt into a game of swimming energetically around the enclosure and playing with a large purple ball. As I stood there, I put the normal anxious chatter of my brain on hold and allowed myself to simply be mesmerized by the movement of his giant body in the water, the graceful rippling of his dense fur coat, the powerful thrashing motion of his great, terrifying paws. For about half an hour, I was fully engrossed in the activity of watching Kalluk play.

Having that time to clear my mind was helpful. Though my discussions with friends and family over the past two weeks have been pointing me slowly toward the formation of a short-term plan for my life, it wasn't until today that I at last mustered up the will and soundness of mind to take a pen in hand and write out a rough plan for the next five months. And it is a good plan. Every aspect of it not only makes practical sense, but also congeals beautifully with my personal interests and long-term goals.

All that being said, I'm not going to tell you what The Plan is. At least not yet. Because, knowing me, as soon as it's been "officially" announced, I'll start to doubt myself and the silent expectations of others will drive me to anxiously overhaul everything I've been scrupulously and prayerfully working out. But it is a good plan. I'll just have to tell you about it later.