Sunday, July 31, 2011


We are very much concerned with doing The Right Thing. Yet, in our present society, so often characterized by intellectual one-upmanship and relentless rationalizations that drive us incessantly further into ambiguity, The Right Thing is ever elusive. I look around and see many of my friends and others my age in the same condition as I: stagnant, without any especial sense of confidence about where we are or where we are going. If we look to national lawmakers at the moment, we are given little reassurance of our capability as humans to move beyond a battle of thoughts and into any kind of real action. Republican Representatives may have gotten elected for the ideals that they promised to hold firm to, but they were also elected to do a job, and right now doing that job effectively requires that they adhere to the desires of the majority of the American people, and compromise on a plan to raise the debt ceiling. As Theodore Roosevelt once cleverly put it, "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."

For me, this is a year that has been characterized by indecision and inconsistency. The person I have become, or rather the person I have shown myself to be, is far from embodying the simple Christian practice to "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No,' 'No'" (Matthew 5:37). When I came back from Japan, I had some ideas of things I'd like to do, but I hesitated to pursue any of them. I created this blog, announcing my intention to update it daily, but quickly relinquished that discipline. Around November I sketched out a grand Plan and announced it to those closest to me, but allowed it to disintegrate less than two months later. And even now, as I type these words, I am tormented with uncertainty over whether decisions I've made in recent months have been the right ones, and I consider whether, for the sake of my own comfort, it would be alright to go back on my promises.

Writing specifically about the time I spend in prayer would seem too personal, too open to misinterpretation by those who read it. I have always found it impossible to express to others the things that I feel God has been "placing on my heart," at least as far as they are understood as such. But I do believe, with utmost certainty, that God speaks to us in ways beyond our normal capacity for perception. And, despite the uncertainties and ambiguities of this last year, God has been persistently building in me an awareness of a Love that persists and prevails through all situations and all time. But it is a Love that, in its very essence, demands response. The grouchy acquiescence to inactivity into which it is often so easy to fall is not only incompatible with the Gospel message, it is impossible if I, in the core of my very being, truly believe that God is Love. But to live with that kind of knowledge, we must relinquish the fear that holds us immobilized by the shackles of "what if?" and step forward in the confidence that Love will be there to greet us.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shakespeare Spirit

This week and last I attended two separate productions for the 2011 Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe in Balboa Park. Last Wednesday was The Tempest; tonight, Much Ado About Nothing.

Watching a Shakespeare production, especially one as well-acted and well-directed as the one I had the pleasure of viewing this evening, I am overcome by the giddy sensation that language is imbued with unbridled possibilities. Though, for my own purposes, I often find language a bit cumbersome, struggling for the right words in conversation and constantly consulting a dictionary while I'm writing to ensure that I'm using terms correctly and that no undesirable connotations are riding piggyback in with them, Shakespeare harnesses, manipulates, and invents words, stringing them together in such ways as no other person ever has. I am so in awe that I come home and pull out my own copy of Shakespeare's complete works. I heave the hefty tome open on my lap and skim through the text of Much Ado About Nothing, slowing down when I get to my favorite parts. I want to find one good line or two that exemplify Shakespeare's genius, but, to my slight disappointment as much as to my utter delight, I cannot chose just two. Because they are all good.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Day With A Friend

Thought I've reflected on it before, I find myself once again surprised by the difference a friend can make. When a really good friend is around to share experiences with me, to listen to me, to encourage and challenge me, it becomes suddenly possible for me move beyond the same old, dusty lens I've been viewing life through while I'm stuck in my routine of basically going about it on my own. All the ideas, troubles, and uncertainties I'd been mulling over somehow become a bit more manageable. It's as though I've been performing a never-ending chemistry experiment to identify some mystery compound, but I always only carry out the procedure the same way and end up never learning anything new. Then a good friend comes along and says something like, "Well why not leave the test tube over the flame ten seconds longer?" And suddenly everything changes.

It's been a weird day. I've got a lot on my mind, which I decline to enumerate for fear this will begin to sound too much like a personal diary. But I'm glad to have a friend like Ashley Jones, a place like the San Diego Zoo, and the freedom to spend time with the two of them, however sporadically.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good Life

It was an unprecedentedly fine day.

I slept in, had fresh blueberries on my cereal, and watched two episodes of Rebound, which, despite the fact that it makes me feel a little insecure about my body, is so incredibly ridiculous that I can't help but love it to pieces. I made my new favorite pasta sauce--avocado pesto--for lunch and enjoyed it alongside fresh homegrown tomatoes.

I was behind the cash register at work when I overheard the next two customers in line conversing with one another in a familiar tongue. I could not let the opportunity slip by. "Vous êtes françaises?"

They were very sweet girls, in town to study English for the summer, and they told me that I spoke French well. It was early in my shift when they left the store, but the encounter was enough to put a spring in my step for the rest of the evening.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My First Evening in the South of France

As promised, it is shortly after five o'clock when my phone begins to ring. When I answer it, I am surprised to detect a seriousness in his voice that I had not anticipated from the picture on his Couchsurfing profile. Jean asks me if I can meet him on the steps of the Amphithéâtre in five minutes. I step outside the Internet café, where I have been updating my parents on my on my safe arrival in Arles, and I am already there.

I approach the Roman arena just in time to see a tall, blond man take a seat on one of the steps and begin fiddling with his mobile phone. I walk up and say, "Jean?" When he gazes up at me, his eyes are a shockingly crisp blue. Though my observations of Southern French people have been limited thusfar, I have noticed that most of the people I've encountered have been generally darker complexioned and more Latin in appearance than their Gaulishly fair-toned countrymen in Paris. Jean, however, looks like he could be Scandinavian. He greets me in heavily accented yet fluid and easy-to-understand English. Rather than offering the traditional three-kiss greeting of the South of France, he shakes my hand.

As evening falls we walk up the hill, down a boulevard straight out of a Van Gogh painting, to a bar where he says he and his friends often congregate. Conversation flows naturally. He apologizes again, quite unnecessarily, that he cannot host me tonight, explaining that his new roommates are less keen on the whole CouchSurfing concept than he, but that he at least wanted to meet me for a drink to be sure I felt welcome in Arles. He tells me a bit about his travels in New Zealand, and I share with him a few details of my life in Japan. We somberly acknowledge the strange coincidence that we should both have a strong personal connexion to two countries that had just suffered catastrophic earthquakes, and then allow the discussion to move on to lighter matters.

Jean is unmistakably good looking, and I fight back a tinge of disappointment when he promptly lets slip a mention of his girlfriend in New Zealand. Throughout my travels in France, I am repeatedly surprised to find myself falling in love with every French man I meet. Back home, I'm never so quick to bestow affections on a stranger. It's not that I necessarily have anything against American men. It's just that, in relation to their French counterparts, they are noticeably less adept at dressing themselves and comparatively poor at speaking French.

Some of Jean's friends enter the bar and, at my insistence, we go to join them at their table. They are very friendly and as the evening progresses and additional rounds of drinks are ordered, they become even friendlier. More friends trickle through the doors, in pairs or on their own, and tables are pushed together and more chairs pulled up to accommodate them. Some of Jean's friends speak some English, but most of them don't. Still, it's no matter, since once I've finished my third beer I find that my French is much better than I had previously surmised.

Jean says, "Meghan, I have to go now but you can call me if you need anything. And," he gestures around the table, "now you have many friends." I glance around the room and I know he is right. Whoever warned me before this trip that the French were rude and standoffish had no clue what he was talking about. The spell has be cast: I am deeply and head-over-heels in love with the South of France.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Japan, when I first arrived there, was so immensely foreign. With everything to the broadest cultural concepts to the cryptic labels on cans of food seeming entirely inaccessible to my uninitiated mind, I began building emotional and and intellectual defenses around myself to ward off the ever-impending threats of culture shock, homesickness, and public humiliation. These little psychological protections, however, had the ultimately adverse effect of hindering me from truly absorbing and appreciating my surroundings to the extent that I might of had I not been so concerned with the security of my ego. I seldom allowed myself to enter into situations where I would not have control over myself and my reputation. Resultantly, I seldom found myself in situations where I might be subject to any real learning opportunities. Oftentimes in conversation, people will mention something they admire about Japan, and I begin to feel quite stupid and vulgar that I, who lived there for two years, never thought about that before.

Perhaps this is all sounding rather cryptic; I will try to be more explicit. I regret that I did not delve further into learning the language. I took classes, but, when I was with my friends who spoke English, I was all too comfortable allowing the conversation to proceed entirely in English. I did not put much effort into learning about the arts in Japan. I refused to watch Japanese television. I resented the "American bubble" I lived in, but I made close to no efforts to break out of that bubble.

The positive side to all this is that I can still have the humbling yet exciting experience of continuing to learn wonderful new things about Japan and Japanese culture. From people who have never even set foot in Japan, I learn to observe and appreciate a Japanese design aesthetic, with its clear lines and minimalist attention to detail. Out of an impulse to retain whatever language abilities I haven't already lost, I flip through some manga and watch some anime...and discover that I actually like some of it.

Despite my general aversion to anything mainstream Japanese media while I was living in Japan, there was one particular J-drama, a one-season romantic comedy by the name of Zettai Kareishi (Absolute Boyfriend) that I fell in love with. The ridiculous premise--a rather dweeby hopeless romantic with aspirations of becoming a pastry chef is unknowingly selected to receive her very own robot boyfriend--was irresistible. And Hiro Mizushima, who plays her bad-boy boss who ends up falling for her, is pretty darn cute.

Tonight, I was thrilled to accidentally discover that Saki Aibu and Mokomichi Hayami, who portray the main character and the robot, respectively, have been reunited in a new ten-episode drama, Rebound, that just concluded earlier this month. It's the story of a woman struggling with her weight who falls in love with a pastry chef, and even though after watching the first episode I'm not instantaneously endeared to it as I was to Zettai Kareishi, it is still a quirky comedy with a contrived romantic plot. Toss two beloved actors into the mix and I'm hooked. I'll do my best to resist the temptation to watch the entire show in one sitting.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

America's Finest City

If I were to live in the city (as opposed to the suburbs), I could probably live here forever. San Diego is lively in the summer with the frenetic enthusiasm of thousands of vacation-goers. They are here for the perfect weather, sunny beaches, world-renowned gardens, and--this weekend--Comi-Con, the world's largest comic book and popular arts convention.

I won't be making it to Comi-Con this year, but I did spend the day downtown and, everywhere I went, evidence that the convention was going on abounded. When the trolley stopped at the 12th & Imperial Transit Center, the masses who disembarked bore a noticeable distinction from the types of individuals one normally encounters using public transport: I observed a green-haired Joker propping what appeared to be a rocket launcher over his shoulder, and his companion was a furry-faced creature that looked like she might have come off of the Planet of the Apes. A number of unusual and vividly colored hairstyles stood out above the sea of comic-book-themed-t-shirt-clad convention-goers of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities. As the crowd shuffled out toward the street, the few of us left on board the trolley turned from staring at them through the windows and faced one another, beaming in mutual amusement.

No, I ventured downtown today not to browse dozens of yards of manga, not to go celebrity-spotting in Hall H, and not to geek out on the latest "4-D" video games, but to volunteer at the farmer's market in Little Italy. I spent my morning at the Mercato, standing on a hill overlooking the bay, people watching and enjoying the pleasant aromas wafting my way from the flower vendors and tamale purveyors. I wore a badge reading "Mercato Volunteer," and shoppers would occasionally approach me with questions--usually regarding local businesses of which I know almost nothing. Occasionally, if the intersection where I was posted became especially congested, I would direct traffic. When the market began to close down at 1:30, I was awarded for my efforts with $10 worth of "Mercato Money," enough to procure some fresh goat cheese and an ounce of arugula micro-greens.

The afternoon was spent shopping for shoes in Hillcrest (alas, when I made my ambitious New Year's resolution to not purchase any clothes all year, I did not anticipate the torture this would inevitably inflict on my poor feet and back when I found myself in a job where I had to spend most of the day standing, and without any comfortable, work-appropriate shoes to do so in) and strolling through Balboa Park. It was as I walked across the Cabrillo Bridge that stretches from 6th Avenue over Highway 163 to El Prado that I was struck with the realization that I really like my city. I mean, it truly is an exceptionally beautiful place. And I spend quite a lot of my time debating inwardly whether I should move to another part of the country or the world so that I can see new places and have new experiences, when the reality is that I can easily see new places and have new experiences every day in San Diego.

Another city would have its own ambiance and pace of life, and, depending on where it was, it might even come with built-in friends from college. But San Diego is a perfectly suitable place to call home. Maybe some day I'll be able to convince some of my friends to call it home, too. Or maybe I'll eventually be able to make some new friends who are just as good as my old ones. And, regardless of how content I am to be here at the moment, there's still always that possibility that I'll move away again, either temporarily or permanently. But, for now at least, I'm pleased to be living in "America's Finest City." Very pleased, indeed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Writing About Writing About Nothing

It's one of those days. Where there really is nothing--nothing--for me to write about. So I convince myself that browsing blogs constitutes as research and that a bowl of Almond Dream Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert with almond butter and chocolate chips constitutes inspiration. But still, nada. Woe is me.

I'm currently reading Nicole Krauss' most recent novel, Great House. She spends a lot of time, especially in the first chapter, depicting the writer's creative process and the dreaded experience of writer's block. Though I find some commiserative comfort in the neuroses of the character Nadia, an anti-social novelist who is suddenly overcome with inexplicable fits of anxiety whenever she thinks of her work, Krauss' narrative also alerts me to how horribly self-absorbed and utterly useless my lamentations over my lack of inspiration must sound: "Wah, wah, wah. I can't think of anything good to write about, so I'm just going to write about not being able to think of anything to write about."

Um. Sorry about that.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Keeping Idle

One of the good things about my job is that it's not full-time (though, I admit, the enhanced income of a full-time job would be welcome). Most weeks, I get three full days off in a row. Three days off in a row is immensely rejuvenating. Waking up in the morning and knowing I don't have to go to work that day--or the next day, or the next day--feels exceptionally good.

Lately, when people ask me what I've been up to and I say, "Working," they often respond with something like, "Well, at least you're keeping busy." And, in a way, I sort of agree with them. But, oh! I cringe at the sentiment that a single day of precious life ought to be wasted on "keeping busy." Through the drudgery of a full shift at work, I reminisce inwardly over the lovely, educational, uplifting times I had throughout this last year of intentional unemployment and conclude that I will never again underestimate the value of "keeping idle."

The other good thing about my job is that the hours I spend confined behind my cash register allow me to better appreciate, and maybe even better utilize, my hours of freedom. It's been a while since I've played a video game or spent countless hours browsing the Internet in search of nothing in particular. I fill my free days with writing, reading, cooking, and pleasurable outings like a trip to the zoo or taking in a Shakespeare play in Balboa Park. In a way, "keeping busy" helps me to "keep idle"...better.

Even a nastily mundane, soul-leeching, minimum-wage-paying job like mine can have its good points.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

One Year to the Day

As cliché as it may be for me to say so, I can't believe a year has already gone by. Certainly, the distance between me and that salmon-colored concrete schoolhouse surrounded by rice paddies seems vaster than ever before, but a year? It hardly seems possible that my ongoings, since leaving my job and my life in Japan, have been plentiful enough to fill 365 full days. The facts--that I took a trip to Vancouver, Canada, watched both my sisters get married, spent two months in Europe, worked a month at UPS and am now nearly a month into a new job--seem negligible. Years are supposed to feel grander, more substantial, than what has passed between this day and the day I stood up in front of a swelteringly hot gym full of 200-some students and their teachers, all of whom had contributed so significantly to my experiences and perceptions of their country, and choked out a goodbye speech in a language I have since all but lost. Referring to what has passed between now and then as a year seems ridiculous. If years can slip away so quick and easily, then what use have I for them?

I wanted to do something special--commemorative--to mark this day. I thought about making Japanese food for dinner, maybe driving up to Kearney Mesa and visiting some of the Japanese retailers in town. Watching a Japanese film was also taken under consideration. But I realize that any of these activities, even if I were to invite my parents to participate, would be imbued with a tinge of loneliness and remorse. It is more than an ocean that divides me from the country that, when I left, was just beginning to feel familiar. Japan and I are separated by a full year of experiences. We have both changed a lot in that year. I feel particularly estranged from the pain that that country has suffered in the aftermath of March's natural disasters, and know that my separation from these events has rendered me more of an outsider--more of a gaijin--than ever before. In this sense, a "year" seems hardly sufficient to describe the span of what has elapsed between me and my life in Japan.

I'm getting worse and worse at coming up with titles

There's a realization that's been growing in me lately. A ripening awareness that the thing I've always known I wanted to do, the thing I keep siphoning of into some immaterial ideal for my future life, the one thing I know I would regret not having done more of were I to die tomorrow...well, I should probably just haul off and start doing it.

I'm speaking, of course, about writing.

It has to go beyond this blog. This blog--when I've been disciplined enough to keep up with it--has served its role well. But it's like going to the gym every day and always only doing the same exercises. The muscles don't atrophy; but they don't get stronger, either. I want my writing to start on some heavy lifting. I want it to get into marathon shape. And I don't mean some day when I have more time or when I've got my metaphysical shit together. I mean, like, now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The enemies of creativity and prayer

The enemies of creativity and the enemies of prayer are one an the same:

* Lack of sleep or else too much of it
* A cluttered space
* The seemingly sensible notion that there are other things that ought to be attended to first
* Laziness
* Men
* Tomorrow
* Disinclination toward creativity
* Disinclination toward prayer

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Listening Exercises

I wonder if it's something about my face. Or if, perhaps, I simply have an aura about me, an inexplicable vibe that gives strangers the impression, "Here is someone who will listen." Maybe I smile too much. Frown too much. Make too much eye contact. It's usually not a problem. Except for when it is.

When I was in Paris, it seemed I was approached constantly by people asking for directions. French people. And I suppose Paris is always full of tourists and visitors and, even as a local, it's quite possible to get lost sometimes. And, at the end of my three weeks there, I probably knew the subway system and the language just barely enough to be of minor assistance. Even if I could not help the people who approached me, it was never a nuisance to be momentarily engaged in conversation. But I could not help but wonder, in a crowd full of other commuters looking no less lost than I, why me?

It's when I'm working as a cashier in a bookstore that my inexplicable approachability can sometimes prove a difficulty. I don't usually attempt to engage people in conversation about the books they are purchasing, simply on account of the fact that most of the books people are buying are not anything I'd personally be interested in reading. If a customer is getting one of my favorite books of all time, yes, I'll probably say something. If someone is buying a travel guide to France, yes, I want to know when the trip begins. But, for the most part, nearly any conversation I have with a customer concerning the the process whereby she came to make her selection is going to involve me politely feigning interest while other customers, standing in line, glare at me impatiently.

Yesterday, a girl was buying a book on the Kama Sutra--definitely no desire for me to jump into a conversation about this purchase. I was finished ringing her up and was about to greet the next customer in line when she said, a little sadly, "Yeah, last night was our first night together and it know...not great. Not bad but, you know, not what I was expecting." I feel myself going red. I force a sympathetic smile, say, "Ah..." and pray she won't keep talking; but she does.

I've expressed in a previous post my enthusiasm for the ease and familiarity with which Americans speak to strangers. In most cases, I enjoy being able to converse cordially with people I encounter at work and elsewhere. But perhaps, at least in these last few days, I've had a bit too much of it. I'm ready to crawl in bed, pull the covers over my head, and not have to listen to anyone's thoughts but my own.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cooking is the Cure

Though I may come home exhausted, feet and back aching, grumbling about how I hate my job and feeling anxious over the lack of sleep I've been getting these last few days, an hour in the kitchen and the happy discovery that a mixture of pureed prunes, applesauce, and nut butter does indeed make a suitable "wet" base for granola bars brings a whistle to my lips and enough spring in my step for me to leap into bed with the confidence that, when I arise, I will have the strength that I need to face a new day.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Most Important Stuff

Since several weeks ago, when Ashley Jones first alerted me to its existence, I've been occasionally looking at the blog The Burning House and attempting to assess just what possessions of mine have the most immediately practical or sentimental value to me. Besides the obvious choices of my wallet, which contains credit cards and pieces of personal identification, and my back-up hard drive with all my pictures and documents from the past ten years or so, what would I choose to take with me if everything else I owned were about to be destroyed?

For all my pondering and walking around my room, looking at my stuff, here's the best I could come up with:

1. My high school yearbook
2. A bottle of wine
3. My big backpack

If you're surprised to see that my high school yearbook made it to the top of the list, you're not alone. It was, by no means an object that immediately jumped to mind when I began inventorying my most prized possessions. I hated high school. By the time I reached my senior year, I was of the mindset that this was just a necessary evil I would have to suffer through before moving on to the much more desirable state of being known as college. But riffling through the autograph pages of my yearbook and reading the things that past friends and acquaintances wrote to me provides a very self-affirming reminder of my best and most basic character traits--the stuff that people were noticing about me even when I was seventeen. I'm deeply encouraged to read one girl's note: "You made me feel the most welcome out of anyone in our class." A few wrote that I was probably the nicest person they knew. If people saw me as a nice person when I was seventeen--when I was, for the most part, much more insecure and much less willing to extend myself on behalf of others than I am now--then maybe I really am a nice person. The possibility of such just makes me want to work even harder and being kind and welcoming to those around me. My high school yearbook proves itself to be a memento worth hanging on to.

The bottle of wine and the backpack are, of course, practical choices. I need the backpack to store and carry my stuff and the wine to wash away the pain of losing my house to a fire.

Would anyone like to start our own little Flickr page to share which few possessions of ours we consider worth hanging on to before all others? I believe Ashley was the one who suggested the idea first, but I'd really be interested to see what my friends would choose. Let me know.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Today's the Day

This morning I woke up and it felt like Christmas. “Tonight’s the night!” I told myself before opening my eyes. For months now, it seems, I have been anticipating this day. The day the Harry Potter saga ends.

In keeping with tradition, I will be attending a midnight showing of the final Harry Potter film in the company of my sister, Lindsay, and her longtime friend, Melissa. But, before we hurry off to the cinema to stand in line for hours and then sit in the theater for another hour waiting for the show to start, I think this would be an appropriate occasion to help ourselves to a sweet, decadent (and vegan!) slice of...

Butterbeer-Flavored Golden Snitch Cake

***Warning!!!*** Before starting this recipe, please see the update at the end of this post!


One round cake pan for the snitch one non-round cake pan for its wings. I used a heart-shaped pan, but I envision good result ensuing from the use of a rectangular pan.


for the cake
•1/2 cup soymilk
•2 tsp apple cider vinegar
•2 cups flour
•1 1/2 tsp baking powder
•1/2 tsp baking soda
•1/4 tsp salt
•1/2 cup (1 stick) non-hydrogenated vegan margarine, softened
•1/2 granulated sugar
•1/2 brown sugar, packed
•3/4 cup plain soy yogurt (I use WholeSoy & Co.)
•1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
•1 tsp butter flavoring
•1/2 cup cream soda

for the butterscotch sauce
•4 tbsp (1/2 stick) non-hydrogenated vegan margarine
•1 cup brown sugar, packed
•1/3 cup plain soy yogurt
•1/3 cup soymilk
•1 tsp vanilla extract
•1 to 1 1/2 tsp salt

for the frosting
•1/2 cup (1 stick) non-hydrogenated vegan margarine, softened
•1/3 cup butterscotch sauce (see recipe above)
•1 tsp vanilla extract
•1 1/2 tsp butter flavoring
•1/4 tsp salt
•3 cups powdered sugar
•2 to 3 tbsp plain soy yogurt


Grease and lightly flour two cake pans. Preheat oven to 350° F.

In a small bowl, combine ½ cup soy milk and apple cider vinegar. Whisk together and then set aside to curdle.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine dry ingredients, from the flour through the salt.

In a large bowl, whip the margarine—by hand or by electric mixer—until light and fluffy. Add sugars and mix well. Stir in yogurt, vanilla, butter flavoring. Add soymilk mixture, cream soda, and dry ingredients. Stir until smooth. Pour into prepared cake pans and bake in preheated oven 24-28 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, prepare the butterscotch sauce:

In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium-low heat, melt the margarine until just melted. Add sugar and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture is somewhat smooth and not grainy. Add the soymilk and soy yogurt all at once, lower the heat slightly, and combine thoroughly with a whisk. Let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes, whisking regularly. After ten minutes, remove from heat and place in a heat-safe bowl. Mix in vanilla and salt, to taste.

Allow the cakes to cool completely. Then, transfer to a large flat surface, such as a big cutting board. Cut the non-circular-shaped cake in half to form into two wings. Do your best to arrange the pieces so that they most closely resemble your idea of what a golden snitch should look like.

Now it's time to make the frosting. In a large bowl, whip margarine (again, by hand or by electric mixer; whichever you fancy) until light. Mix in butterscotch sauce, vanilla extract, butter flavoring, and salt. Whisk until well combined. Sift in the powdered sugar, one cup at a time, adding the soy yogurt intermittently as well, little by little, until desired consistency is achieved.

Frost the cake and decorate with remaining butterscotch sauce. If you're lucky, you'll have better quality cake-decorating tools than I've got and, if you decide to write any words on your snitch (say, for instance, "I open at the close"), they will be a bit more legible than mine were.

Serve alongside a cold glass of fresh pumpkin juice.

Tuck in!

***Update! 07/15/2011***

Though this cake was certainly very tasty, I do not, after all, recommend that you make this recipe as directed unless you have an exceptionally high tolerance for sugar! As it turns out, I and every one else who had a slice of cake last night had a yucky sort of tummy ache this morning. Too bad.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Family Vacation Videos

There’s the sudden realization that my sisters were always cooler than me. Way cooler than me. Simply because I, throughout my adolescence, tried too hard to be cool and they, in the tenacity of youth, didn’t have to try. And yet, though they always seemed deny it adamantly back then, they now attest, unashamedly, to the many ways that they admired, even idolized me. We are watching an old family vacation video and Lindsay says, “I remember that swimsuit. I couldn’t wait for you to grow out of it so that I could have it.” I am shocked. I never knew back then that either Ashley or Lindsay liked or coveted anything I had or did. I wanted them to. I really, really wanted them to. But they always seemed so confident and secure in the unyielding sisterly support that they, as twins, offered one another and I, as the non-twin, was generally exempt from. The news that they, at that age, did indeed see me as someone to look up to is thoroughly surprising.

The debate regenerates from time to time and we still are at an impasse as to who was the more injured party. I felt ostracized by them, the twins, and they felt ostracized by me, the older sibling. At least, as I cannot help but point out whenever the argument arises in conversation, they felt rejected together. I had no ally. In my family, my parents had each other, my sisters had each other, and then there was me.

In the video, a little girl is swinging in a hammock. She is playing with a plastic toy dog and she is singing to herself, a song that she is making up as she goes. I am so outstandingly jealous of that girl, jealous that she doesn’t worry about being too old for her toy, jealous of her unconcern for how much sense her lyrics make and who might hear them. The camera spans right across the family campsite and I can see her older sister, examining her reflection in the minivan’s windows, feeling restless.

I forced myself to grown up too fast, obsessed with winning the approval of others. But part of growing up--as once said a young nun with an uncanny ability to put into words the self-examining questions I had hitherto been scared to ask--is learning to simply accept what is an not obsess over what could be or might have been. No one can ever truly know what others think of her. Slowly, very slowly, I am digesting these truths and learning to apply them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The First Time I Stole Something

My friend reached into the box, took out two bright-papered tootsie pops. She put one in her desk, and, without saying anything, slipped the other into my desk before passing the box along.

I didn’t want the candy. I hadn’t earned it. It was supposed to be fore the students who had received an A on their homework. I never received A’s--only did my homework about half the time--and I didn’t even really like candy. A horrible sensation materialized heavily in my stomach: I had never stolen anything before. But my friend was really cool and I wasn’t sure whether I was cool or not, so I said nothing.

The plan was to wait until my next Algebra class and discretely return the tootsie pop to its box, but I forgot. Or the teacher was looking. And I forgot again. After two weeks of sitting in the front pocket of my backpack, squishing up against sandwich crumbs, eraser dust, and used Kleenex, the piece of candy had been rendered clearly non-returnable.

The guilt I felt over my misdeed followed me around along with the linty lollypop in my backpack, a talisman of contrition. Every time I saw it, I felt a pang of self-repugnance. I had never before imagined myself perfect--I picked arguments with my little sisters and was a miserable student--but I had always felt some comfort in the knowledge that I was, ultimately, a morally upright individual. But now I had committed a blatant offense against another person, against an authority figure. I had taken what was not rightfully mine. I longed for purification, but feared reproof. I never confessed.

Until now.

This has always been part of who I am: I’m obsessed with doing what's right. I recall hiding in my room one Fourth of July because my parents were breaking a local statute by lighting sparklers in our backyard; if the cops showed up, I wanted it to be clear that I’d had nothing to do with this flagrant violation of the law. As an R.A. in college, I felt deeply incensed when friends would commit minor infractions in my presence and expect me to overlook them (I did overlook them, but I resented it deeply). I never drank alcohol until I was twenty-one.

And yet, I’ve always been a little embarrassed about this aspect of my personality. I pretend to others that I’m naughtier and worldlier than I actually am (an ironic conflict in my all-encompassing impulse to comply with what’s expected of me). I think that my improved self-confidence in recent years and an increasing acceptance of the fact that I’ll never be perfect has helped to alleviate some of the guilt and freed me both to make mistakes and to take responsibility for them. But in many ways, I’ll always be a closet goody two-shoes.

In many ways, I’ll always be carrying that tootsie pop around with me.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Makes the Difference

It is very important not to become too ingrained in a certain approach to self-reflection. Over-scrutinizing and never discussing my thoughts with another person can become just as unproductive as constantly talking about everything with friends and never drawing away to a place of personal contemplation.

I've spent so much of the last month by myself. And it is strange how quickly I can, when left in relative isolation, reach an impasse in my personal growth without even noticing it. The idea of being open and honest with others sounds more and more undesirable, and I turn increasingly reticent.

And yet, how many times have I been surprised by the enormous strides I have taken toward enlightenment in just an hour's conversation with a good friend! I come as far in solving a problem in an afternoon as I had in several weeks of concentrated private meditation and reflection.

Tonight, I have so much joy, so much pain, and I have so much gratitude for the loving, understanding people who help me to better understand who I am, simply by being who they are. I love my friends.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Brief Defense of Journaling

Almost as long as I've been able to hold a pencil in my hand and scribble out legible words, I've been keeping a journal. Yet it's rare that I open my diary without being reminded of a quote of C. S. Lewis' I read several years ago, condemning the practice of keeping a personal journal as self-absorbed and essentially unproductive. To clarify, he was speaking not of the habit of jotting down notes or reminders for organizational or memory-aiding purposes, but of the type of diary that is intended for no one else's eyes, that enables one to dwell and reflect on one's own anxious hopes and disappointments, into which one siphons raw, unedited emotions. Of course, it was Lewis' later decision, however much he questioned and berated himself for it, to take up the habit of journaling about his feelings after his wife's death that formed the foundation for him to go on to write A Grief Observed. Yet, still, his criticism of the habit constantly lingers in my mind, demanding that I call into question my motivations for expressing my everyday thoughts and perceptions, however mundane, in writing.

Though most days the only writing I do is for my blog, I do try not to treat it like a personal diary. I don't do any free-writing here. I generally try to scribble out or at least imagine a structure for each post before I sit down and type it up. I self-edit. I don't publish everything. Though I strive for honesty and candor, I always try to remember to protect my privacy and fortify a secure inner life.

It is toward this process of securing a safe and healthy inner life that journaling becomes so valuable. In addition to prayer, meditation, and talking to friends, writing is how I process things. I believe that there are certain personal dilemmas I've encountered in life for which journaling was the most effective possible approach. Lewis spoke of journaling as a "drug" that might serve merely to "confirm the monotonous, treadmill march of the mind round one subject." And, certainly, at times it has been that for me. But more often, journaling is not a drug but a tool: a scale whereon I place a thought or a grievance to be measured. And sometimes, once I have placed it down there on the page, I am able to see that it is not really such a grave matter as to be worth pining over as I have been, and I can move on. Or, as is usually the case, I will write a sentence, and it is getting it out of my head and into physical form that frees my mind to take the next logical step along that line of thought.

I believe that everyone should journal. And though this will take different forms for different people, what it essentially results in is transferring your thoughts and experiences from their place inside your head to a place outside your head, where they may be better scrutinized, organized, and managed so that, hopefully, they don't develop into neuroses that begin to manage you. Journaling, ultimately, is more a rehabilitator than a drug, more effort than opiate. As a deliberate, creative exercise, it allows us to perform our "treadmill march of the mind" more efficiently, so that healing can take place.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Science Rules

This morning I participated in history. Or at least witnessed it. But the fact that I attended a local public radio event to observe, commemorate, and discuss NASA’s final shuttle launch, rather than just watching on TV alone at home (or, even more likely, sleeping through it) felt at least nominally participatory.

The momentousness of the last ever shuttle taking off into space gained especial poignancy when I observed it, via live satellite feed, in a room filled with amateur rocket scientists, run-of-the-mill science geeks, inquisitive youngsters, and kindred spirits who simply could think of no better way to spend their early Friday morning. As the flames began to shoot from the rocket and the craft left the launch pad, the entire room erupted into jubilant applause. A glance around the audience would have found several people rubbing the goose bumps on their arms or whipping away a tear. It was, understandably, a very emotional moment to be a human being.

Also in attendance at the event in Pasadena this morning was none other than childhood educational television icon, Bill Nye the Science Guy. I must say, in the face of several challenging and even far-fetched questions posed to him from audience members this morning about the future of the space program, the Science Guy lived up to his title. He proved himself very knowledgeable, yet personable and relatable, and the entire event was immensely satisfying and enjoyable.

Though I understand the melancholy nostalgia that many associate with the retirement of the space shuttle, I am more excited than ever to witness the new directions our space program and the space exploration programs of other countries begin to take in the coming years. There is still so much to be explored! So many conundrums to be solved!

When I was seven years old, my life’s ambition was to become the first person to walk on Mars. And though I’ve since set that goal aside to make room for slightly more realistic ones, the eminent possibility of such an event (once, of course, scientists have devised a new type of craft that can transport humans safely for longer durations and it is an economically viable mission for the country or company that commissions it) within my own lifetime is something worth feeling enthusiastic about.

I Like My Friends

I have friends. I sometimes forget that this is the case. I also forget just how wonderful--how encouraging and affirming--it is to be around people I love and who love me; not just family, whom I also love and care about deeply, but people I choose to be around, with whom I have much in common.

It had been a while since I'd seen any of my friends. I hadn't made a trip up to the Azusa area since before leaving for France and, to be honest, I was a little nervous about seeing these people again. I had been away from that crowd for several months and a lot had happened in between. I know that I, at least, had changed. I worried that social interactions might be awkward, strained.

But, oh, I need not have suffered concern! My friends are wonderful people: hospitable, generous, easy to be around. It's no wonder that they became my friends in the first place! I am an introvert; being around people is seldom as easy as being on my own. But there is something revitalizing about being around these people. I'm up here for two nights. I considered not making the drive. But I'm so glad I did.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Granola Bars

Slowly but steadily, I am eliminating processed foods from my diet. It seemed only natural that the next step would be for me to ween myself off CLIF and start making my own granola bars.

There are some excellent, ethically run, organically focused granola-bar producers out there. CLIF and LUNA Bars are my favorites. What hinders my enjoyment of these products is the waste inevitably incurred through the commercial production, shipping, and packaging process. However, granola bars have become a convenient and reliable option when I need a little extra energy before a trip to the gym or if I simply don't have the time to sit down to a full-course meal; I'm reluctant to find a replacement for them in my diet. Hence, my interest in the more economical and eco-friendly option of making my own.

Last night I tried a granola bar recipe that had received several rave reviews. Indeed, the results were tasty, but that was because the "granola bars" were really more like cookies, very high in fat and sugar and certainly not suitable as an emergency meal replacer if I wasn't looking for a sugar high and subsequent crash. I searched on.

Tonight I experimented with a recipe that takes a much different approach to sweeteners. The natural sugar from mashed bananas makes the granola bars sweet--but not too sweet--without the need for added sugars or sweeteners of any kind. I adjusted the recipe slightly, using a total of one cup's worth of dried blueberries, cranberries, and chopped apricots, about half a cup of chopped almonds, a tablespoon or so of ground flax seeds, and some shredded coconut in addition to the cup of oats and the wet ingredients originally suggested. The results were, I'm happy to report, chewy, yummy, and more than satisfactory.

I wish I could conclude that the second recipe is one I can now add to my repertoire and revisit often; but I can't. Ever since reading Barbara Kingsolver's persuasive argument in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle against buying bananas, I hesitate to purchase fresh fruits or vegetables that I know have traveled tens of thousands of miles before appearing at my local grocery store. I was happy to put to use the browning bananas that my dad purchased over a week ago and were sitting in the fruit bowl, about to go bad. But I don't think I'm going to be buying bananas on a regular basis in order to make my granola bars. No matter how delicious they may be.

My search for the "perfect" granola bar recipe persists. Meanwhile, all this experimenting has given me a bit of a tummy ache.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Beyond the Boat

A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

Matthew 8:24-27

In Matthew’s gospel, we have a sense that the disciples understood by now that Jesus had the power to protect them; in Mark’s account, their plea to the sleeping Christ is not one for salvation so much as exasperation at his indifference toward their seemingly impending doom. Only in Matthew’s gospel do the disciples implore, “Lord, save us!” It seems that, whereas Mark’s disciples still seem to be missing the point altogether, Matthew’s disciples have at least grasped that their Master has the ability to rescue them.

And yet, when he calms the tempest, they are amazed. As the footnote in my Bible helpfully points out, the ability to control the sea was a characteristic attributed to divinity (The psalmist marvels, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” [89:9]). It appears that the disciples, having already witnessed Jesus healing the sick and diseased, believed that he would miraculously preserve their bodies in spite of the storm. The possibility that he would be able to rebuke the very winds and waves that threatened them had probably not even entered into their minds. Thus, Jesus criticizes them for having “little faith.”

Often I find myself slipping into this same fallacious line of thought. Though I’m aware that God has the power to free me from my troubles and concerns, I stubbornly attempt to confine that power to my own relatively narrow point of view. I struggle for solutions, wondering why God isn’t intervening in the ways that seem most obvious, forgetting, for all intents and purposes, that the one I serve has absolute authority over the entirety of space-time.

Christ was aware that God’s ways are beyond the obvious and the immediately relevant. In the desert, he was faced with the temptation of demonstrating evidence of his divine heritage rather than placing absolute faith in God’s Word (Matthew 4:1-11). And yet he chose to let God be God. To the tempter’s seemingly harmless proposal that Jesus “command these stones to become loaves of bread,” Jesus invokes scripture that points to his unwavering faith in God’s preeminence: “One does not live by bread alone; but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Through Christ’s example, we are challenged to not be misled by easy or “obvious” solutions and to remember that God’s word is sufficient.

At Taizé, I entered into silence hoping that God would use that time to provide me with specific guidance as to what I should do with my future; but I came out of it, instead, with an abounding sense of freedom from worrying about the future or the past and with the hope that, despite my circumstances, I could always find peace in God’s unfailing Love. In the middle of the chaos and anxieties of our jobs, our relationships, our personal struggles for meaning and purpose, we cry to God for redemption. And God replies, “Why are you afraid?” Though we may believe, in principal, that God has the power to rescue us from anything, we are called to expand that belief beyond our own grasp of the situation, to have faith in a Savior who operates outside our realm of understanding and to know that he can not only protect the wellbeing of the people in the boat; he can calm the storm.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I Like America

I recall having had, throughout my childhood and adolescence, a nagging sensation of my own cultural inadequacy; I perceived myself to be at an acute disadvantage in comparison to my friends whose parents or grandparents had immigrated to this country in the last half-century (a demographic that--growing up in San Diego, a port city with a military base right on the boarder with another country--described a considerable number of the kids I hung out with). I still recall how once, in kindergarten, there was a day on which we were all supposed to wear the traditional dress of our ethnic heritage. I came to school dressed as a cowgirl. Even at age five, I knew that this was a bit of a cop-out.

My middle-class, American, White, Protestant family seemed thoroughly estranged from our distant Northern European heritage. We celebrated American holidays, such as Thanksgiving and American Christmas, and we had our own little traditions surrounding these get-togethers, but the origins of such rituals could be traced back no further than a couple of decades. In middle school, I was profoundly jealous of my peers who got to celebrate bat-mitzvahs and quinseañeras; not because I envied the attention or the presents, but because I was deeply, terribly covetous that they should have such clear evidence of belonging to a specific cultural identity and community.

It was my deep-rooted sense of cultural inferiority--or, should I say, my perceived lack of culture altogether--that, at least in part, fostered my desire to travel and experience other countries. As much as I learned about being a Kenyan, an Englishman, a Japanese, or a Frenchman during my escapades in Kenya, England, Japan, France, I learned just as much--if not more--in each of these countries about what it means to be an American.

If you're having trouble understanding your culture as an insider, go overseas and observe the juxtaposition of your own culturally conditioned tendencies, opinions, and mannerisms with those of people who operate within a different cultural paradigm. It was during the two years that I spent living in Japan that I began to observe, more fully than ever before, evidence suggesting that I did, indeed, belong to a culture: American culture. (And even more specifically, Southern Californian culture. And, more specific yet, San Diego culture!) And, thank goodness, American culture is more than just Big Macs and 64-ounce soft drinks; it's a way of perceiving our individual selves and the ways we relate to others. In a grocery store in San Diego, for instance, it seems entirely normal to find myself spontaneously engaged in friendly conversation with an employee or fellow shopper. As Americans, we don't need to know each other to be friends. This is entirely not the case in Japan. Strangers' dialog with one another is comprised mainly of stock greetings employed at the beginning and end of nearly all interactions. Polite, not familiar. An old woman in the supermarket gave me some unsolicited advice once about what bread to buy, but that was unusual. I guess old people, in any culture, are allowed to operate within their own paradigm.

It's empowering to belong to a community and to have a cultural identity, but it's also healthy to be aware of the positive and negative aspects of that community's way of understanding and explaining life. I think it's great that Americans, in general, are so friendly and outgoing; but, I think we also need to focus on having more genuine interactions and not become obsessed with always giving off the image of being "great!" I like that we value personal identity and individual capacity for success; but, I think we work too much and are generally too focused on money and possessions. And I love how diverse America is; but, we still have a ways to go in ensuring equal rights and social securities for all citizens.

Our preference for and allegiance to a certain thing mean very little if we've never had anything to compare it to. I may like bananas, but if I've never tried another fruit, I will neither fully understand my own tastes, nor be able to relate to a person who says she prefers apples. Living in Japan helped me to see that I do, indeed, like America and being an American. As I climbed up on the hill in my parents' back yard to watch the fireworks shows this evening, enjoying my first Fourth of July in this country in three years, I felt happy and proud to be part of something good. Not better, certainly not perfect, but good. While the fireworks displays finished off, each with their own grand finale, I joined in the chorus of neighbors standing outside their houses and chanting, "USA! USA! USA!" I admit, it was a bit silly, but we were all being silly together, and it felt great. We were all enjoying the evening. We were all Americans.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I want to live in Portland.

Someone may need to help me out a bit on this one: I'm still not sure exactly what a hipster is or why, whenever someone around me uses that word, I get a yucky feeling inside.

I was talking to my sister, Ashley, tonight and somehow we got on the topic of hipsters. I've been pretty hazy up until now as to exactly what a hipster is, knowing only that the term carries a negative connotation and is generally applied to people who have good fashion sense and like interesting things. So I finally looked it up and found this definition on Urban Dictionary.

Perhaps I'm reading into it too much, but is there not typically a nasty, scathing air of superiority imbued in the use of this term? A term that, in practice, serves only to denounce wonderful things like Toms shoes, girls with dreadlocks, environmentalism, bikes, and the Slow Food movement?

Should we stop making fun of hipsters and start making fun of the people who make fun of hipsters?

No. We should just be kind to one another.