December 8, 2011

Superheroes & Angels

Grief is a weird thing. It's strange, unpredictable, terrifying, and sometimes awkward. 

It's easy to feel comforted by family and by laughter of happy memories, but on a moment's notice the laughs quickly turn to tears. Maybe it's an expression in a photo, or a memory lingering in your mind that reminds you things aren't the same. For me, the moments when I notice the absence of a laugh or the spark of a story are the ones that weigh most heavy.

My aunt passed away on Monday after bravely beating back cancer for six years. Without a doubt, she is the bravest person I've ever known. She lived her best life; loving with all she had and enduring unimaginable pain with a gracious smile, all so that we could enjoy her for as long as she could possibly handle it.

She was a superhero, a warrior...and over the course of the last few years, she made people around her believe she was unbeatable. Incredibly, she did it all with grace and acceptance. She could have been bitter or angry and dwelled on the unfairness of it all, but that attitude would have killed her a long time ago. Instead, she proceeded with her kind reserve and spunk for which we all knew her best. Along the way, she inspired all those around her to live more intentionally, boldly, and graciously.

I knew before I even answered my phone at 5:45 Monday morning. As soon as I saw my mom's caller ID, my brain rushed through a panicky thought I know what this must be, but if I don't answer the call maybe it won't be real. Maybe my mom forgot about the time change? I hope this isn't what I think... "Hello?" I said in a groveled, half-asleep voice.

And so the week of tears, hugs, plane tickets, work arrangements, and missed calls with accompanying voice messages of love and support began... 

As much as I knew I needed to be home, part of me was terrified. It's almost as if being in a faraway place keeps the gravity of the situation off in the distance. It's scary anticipating the wall of emotion that you know will inevitably hit you the instant you're physically in a place in which your loved one spent a lot of time.

Awful as they may be, they are emotions that need to be felt, recognized, and healed through the love and support of family and friends.

Three years ago, my aunt, uncle, and cousins came to visit me during my last week in Rome. We stayed in a rented apartment just a block away from the Spanish Steps and I proudly paraded my family around the city I was head over heels for. We cooked beautiful, huge dinners in the apartment and haphazardly slept on pullout couches and mattresses. (And nearly every night I had something outrageous to say in my sleep, which gave everyone a good laugh in the morning).

I cherish that trip so much. It was during that period when I realized that even though cancer has the power to eat through a body, it can't come close to a soul. Even as my aunt's disease spread, shrunk, grew, and morphed inside her body, she was transforming her life outside her skin. She was living in exultation, genuinely cherishing her family and friends and soaking in the scenery and smells every single day. 

She was perseverance, grace, kindness, and love. Those are things that no disease -- not even cancer -- can ever, ever take away. 

November 30, 2011

A life's report card


Growing up, society tells us to dream big dreams, believe in the impossible, and work until we've "made it." The reality of it is that we all manage to "make it" at least somewhere, but often the destination is more tarnished and average than expected. No one really wants to believe that though, not even the people who know better.

Last month, David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, posed a challenge to his readers over the age of 70 to evaluate their lives. People could express themselves however they wished, but ultimately Brooks was searching for a brutally honest report card on how people felt they lived in career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge. (Read Brooks' column here)

For the past week or so, he's been sharing some of what I presume to be 1000s of submissions. The stories are gripping, tragic, and laden with heavy acknowledgement of past decisions. Everyone was successful by some regard, whether it be with their children, their career, or community. Some even achieved the kind of success that allowed them to be immortalized by book or by invention.

Successes aside, everyone was critical and all too aware of the bad or wrong decisions in their life. No, these weren't the kind of decisions that went so epically wrong that they garnered a 60 Minutes special. Nor did any of the decisions leave anyone destitute for a life on the street. They were simply life choices that every single one of us makes, which is what makes these stories so riveting.

The one thing that was missing from most of the posts? Regret. There was a general acceptance that although life didn't turn out to be as expected, every decision -- good or bad -- added character to the journey.

This is an ongoing series, so be sure to check out Brooks' blog through the next few days for new posts.

I want you to meet some of my favorites.

This is B. Clewly Johnson. Born in Shanghai, Mr. Johnson has hopscotched continents picking up and putting down his life contents as he went, and certainly picked up a lot of life lessons along the way.

Meet Gilda Zelin, she lost her husband a few years ago and is still learning how to fully embrace her life without her better half by her side.

And finally, this is Neil Richard Parnes. Admittedly unconfident, Neil has traveled the world as an architect and spent several years in Tokyo and China. Ultimately the differences between east and west drove him back to the US, estranged from his wife. Overall, he gave himself an F. Neil's post is pretty long, but it's worth taking the time to read -- his poem at the end is pretty powerful.

November 21, 2011

Taste of memories

eat. laugh.

No other season’s foods and smells evoke such clear imagery and sentiment in Western culture than the delights many will be consuming in the next six weeks.  Think about it, the mere sniff of a Douglas Fir scented candle or the sight of a pumpkin pie generally send one into a tizzy dreaming of holidays past.

Stop for a second and try to think of how you would describe what hot cider tastes like to someone who has never heard of such a thing. What words would you use? What images would you try convey as you described the flavor?

I would bet a scene of a chilly night, a cozy and comfortable softly lit room with a Christmas tree twinkling in the front window might creep into your mind. Well, that’s a little specific, but no doubt some sort of Norman Rockwell-esque wintery scene comes to mind when describing hot cider.

For me, I think of the day after Thanksgiving at “Light-up Night” in my hometown. (It’s Crosby’s family-friendly, enjoyable, and delightfully nostalgic anecdote to Black Friday). Stores stay open late (as in 8 or 9 p.m.), there are sleigh rides, student carolers, and Santa hands out candy canes. Growing up, that was usually the first night of the winter that I would have a glass of hot cider.

Those images flood my mind and along with them come the feelings and memories that have inherited a soft gauzy glow with time… all as a result of a cup of a seasonal drink.

But they wouldn’t be as clear and distinct if it weren’t for years and years of traditions. Americans would like to think that they’re staying tried and true to the celebration the pilgrims had a couple of hundred years ago celebrating their first successful harvest.

Aside from the faux cornucopia overflowing with gourds and maize gracing your table’s center this season, there aren’t many staples left over from that first feast. ,

Though we’ve strayed a bit from the dishes a la 1621,  arguably the year of the first Thanksgiving, holiday foods have blended themselves deeply into Americans’ cravings for savory delight and nostalgia. Year after year, families and friends cook up the same meals, sit at the same table, have the same spats, and tell the same jokes – and none of it ever gets old because it’s tradition and that’s just what happens every third Thursday of November in America.

The most vivid imagery and memory of food has got to come from the signature spin each group of family or friends puts on the menu. Tuna casserole, garlic bread, sticky rice, cheese soup – the misfits always seem to be the most closely linked to the quirky scenes from the dinner table. I still giggle when I think about my cousin having green jello melt into all of his food when he put a big slice of ham on top of his already overflowing plate… I guess you had to be there.

My family has two traditional dishes, one is fairly standard and common for Midwesterners’ holiday tables, the other isn’t so much… I’m referring to lefse and green jello, of course.

Maybe it’s the tradition that weighs heavy on the recipe cards, or perhaps it’s the grand production and orchestration of holiday meals that leaves us with such clear memories associated with our plate of Thanksgiving dinner. Most of all I think it’s associating the foods with the people we always share them with. After all, turkey and mashed potatoes are only just that until they’re accompanied by a boisterous and jovial group of friends and family.

Whatever you’re eating this Thanksgiving, eat it with love and a grateful soul. Cheers!

November 13, 2011

Meet your match

explore. I can't believe I'm admitting this on my blog. I've worked hard to keep it a secret for the last month or two, but this morning I read an interesting article in the New York Times that prompted me to come clean about my not-so-dirty little secret.

As a averagely attractive twenty-something with oodles of ambition and plenty of outrageous stories from around the globe, I had to swallow some serious pride to do this. 

I joined an online dating site. 

There I said it. 

I was too embarrassed to tell my friends right away, but I was encouraged by their reactions so I've become more open to it... so much so that I'm proclaiming it on my blog. Here's the deal, it's hard to meet people after college. I joined not because I'm necessarily looking for Mr. Right, but because I wanted an opportunity to meet people I have things in common with but wouldn't have a chance to run into otherwise.

A few years ago, online dating carried a greater stigma of "desperation" with it, but now it's a perfectly legitimate way of meeting people. In my post-college days it seems like the easiest places to meet people are in either bars or at a church. Subsequently, you're left with phone numbers from people you may or may not have accidentally kissed or a relationship that will quickly culminate with wedding bells (depending on which venue you choose). Quite frankly, I'm not looking for either outcome at this point in my life.

I justified my choice of joining the site by comparing the cost of going out to a bar a few times (and hoping that I would make friends that I'd want to hang out with in a sober situation) with the potential of meeting people that I would probably get along with well.

The site I joined is one of the fancy, monthly payment sites (I won't tell you which one, I don't want you to track me down). I've since canceled my subscription... the online dating world is pricy! But this experience has certainly been an interesting little social experiment that has let my inner communication geek shine.

In the article from NY Times, scholars talk about the things people lie about most on their profiles: height, weight, and age. However, if you have any intention of actually having a face-to-face date, it's important not to lie too generously. The academics noted that most of the made up information were just little fibs so people wouldn't have to explain themselves later on.

My favorite nugget from their research? People were more likely to admit to being fat than admitting they were politically conservative.**

From my experiences, I've noticed people amp up things that make them appear interesting or mysterious (I'm guilty of that too). They post adventurous-looking photos and promise they're one of the "last true gentlemen left in the world" in their self-descriptions. 

After a few seconds of reading through a profile, it's usually easy to discover someone's motive for joining. There are several people genuinely looking for a dating relationship, others are wife-shopping, some are broken-hearted and are trying to hide their desire for a rebound, others are slaves to their job. Many are newbies like me who don't know even know where to start to make friends.

One of the more interesting findings from the scholars cited in the article is that caucasians usually stick to caucasians online, there are fewer interracial  relationships than expected. The same doesn't hold true for other ethnic groups, who frequently intermingle in the online singles' sites.

I wanted a wide range of compatible matches, so I said I was open to any ethnicity, religion and income scale. As a result, I have quite an array of men to pick and choose from. It's like grocery shopping -- if an item looks good on the shelf, I'll pick it up and check out the nutrition facts and ingredient list.

I hate to put it that way, but it's the truth. Online dating isn't three dimensional. If a photo looks promising, I'll scroll down to read basic stats then onto their self-description. If they have poor grammar, several spelling errors, over-usage of slang, or several long under-punctuated paragraphs, I won't waste my time reading.

It's horrifying how many assumptions people can make from something as arbitrary as a typed paragraph. Unlike meeting someone in person, it's easy to quantify a person when they exist only on your computer screen. Only when you meet someone in the flesh do things become more authentic.

I've gone out in real-life with a handful of people from the site. It's hit or miss. Everyone has been very nice, and I've gotten introduced to new neighborhoods of the city. But there's always an inherent awkwardness that comes along with meeting someone who has only been an arrangement of digital pixels inside your mind. Will they be like you imagined from their description? Will I match the persona I exude on my profile? What if they're horrible conversationalists?

Of course, the grand-daddy awkward of them all: does this person want a relationship or a friendship? 
At my age, it's hard to tell. If I were 35, I think the boundaries would be drawn a lot clearer.

When it comes right down to it, no one really knows how or why attraction works or doesn't work. The scholars from the article admittedly are thrilled about all the new digital dating data they have at their disposal, but they still can't peg why some people merely get along while others just click.

Perhaps it's best left a mystery.

**(this gives me a little more hope for our country's future)

November 11, 2011


"On the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour..."

Today, the famous proclamation of Remembrance Day (Veteran's Day) can add another line to its introduction.. "on the eleventh year." 

Ok, so the 11th year may be a bit of a stretch, but today marks a lot of perceived numerical importance for people around the world. There are reports of a huge influx of weddings around the planet, especially in Asia. According to this Wall Street Journal article, thousands of couples wed in China and Malaysia because this date is auspiciously romantic. 

"The numbers rhyme with one husband, one wife and on soul in Chinese and signifies a marriage that would last a lifetime," said nurse Pua Kim Giok, 25, who tied the knot with engineer Lee chin Siong, 27. They were among 460 couples who got married at popular Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur. (Wall Street Journal)

In contrast to all the weddings in Asia, 11/11 marks the antithesis of Valentine's Day, it's singles day. Last year all my students congratulated me when they found out I was single and they even gave me a standing ovation in one of my classes. Some of my Chinese friends even invited me to KTV to sing away my sorrow at karaoke. Friends often give each other small chocolates or flowers, just like Valentine's Day, except all the gifts go to single people in an act of solidarity. The guys don't really get in to it as much as the girls, some of the ladies get quite upset they're spending the day solo. It didn't have much effect on me.

In Egypt, the auspicousness (is that a word?) of the day brought fear that unauthorized rituals might be held in the Giza pyramids. Officials were concerned that certain groups may be drawn to the pyramids to gather any special energy that would be sent to them on this special date. They closed down the pyramids today because of concerns, but told the public it was due to "maintenance" work, according to this Huffington Post article.

And finally, I have to give a nod to Spinal Tap. Today is "Nigel Tufnel" day, in honor of the rocker whose amp went one past 10, so he could take his sound to 11. Watch your ear drums, folks.

For other 11/11/11 goodies, check this top 11 list from ABC News full of random facts about today.

I feel like every triple-digit date since 2000 has been full of special significance. 07/07/07 and 08/08/08 were especially big wedding dates -- "Lucky Number 7," and 8 as the sign for infinity. Next December is bound to be loaded with all sorts of meaning generated from numbers: 12/12/12 and of course, the day the world is supposedly going to end 12/21/12. 

If you do nothing else today, make a wish at 11:11 (for good measure) and please, thank a Veteran.

November 7, 2011

Giggle for good health

Here's a little nugget to get your Tuesday started off right. Try not to smile (or laugh) while watching this.

LAUGHS! from Everynone on Vimeo.

Doesn't this video kind of make you want to join this class? 

Cheers to Tuesday!

November 6, 2011

Breathing room

Eeek! It's been nearly a month since my last post. I've left all you loyal readers little incentive to keep visiting my site. Essentially it came down to me spending too much time commuting to/from work, searching for new work, and trying to spark a social life in my new city.

I'm happy to report that I indeed found new work (that I love), my commute about half as long as it used to be, and my social life is starting to blossom... so that means I have no more excuses not to blog. Truth be told, I missed writing. The Farlang Lady has kind of become my alter ego and my way of working through the messiness of the world.

So much has happened since I  last logged on -- the leaves changed, the Occupy movement went global, in response China banned "occupy" in search engines, Trader Joe's got pumpkin butter back on the shelves, Herman Cain became the GOP frontrunner (uhh... WTF?), and the seven billionth person was born.

Phew. Told you a lot has happened.

Seven billion people. Seriously. That's almost two billion more people on the planet than there were when I was born in 1988. I found out where I rank in human population history with this nifty interactive graph The BBC put together; it also has a live clock of births and deaths for each country on the globe.

It's easy to feel the strain of population in places like Canal Street in New York City. On the edge of Chiantown, it's where all of the Asians pawn fake designer goods that snuck off the factory lines in China.

"Gucci gucci gucci! Prada prada! Handbag for you! Special price for beautiful girl!"
The chaos is inescapable.

Two years ago I was there with two of my friends, we were tired and hungry and not in the mood for people. I'll never forget the look on my friend's face once we finally reached the end of the road. It was like he had finally come up for air after being suffocated by the sounds, smells and lack of personal space.

Canal street is crazy, but it's got nothing on China or India. Meet the world's most typical person. I swear that he was my neighbor on at least 10 of the 16 floors of my apartment building in Hangzhou.

How did we get so crowded? Watch this visual from NPR, in three minutes it explains how and why we've exploded as a species in the last century.

It doesn't take statistics and scientific proof to know that being so crowded isn't healthy. When you're constantly crowded, you feel uncomfortable, dirty, and the air is more stagnant. Being on the short end of average, there's nothing more aggravating than standing at a concert or in a crowded bus with people armpits falling directly at nose level.

Population goes beyond discomfort and inconvenience. It's posing serious threats to all of our planets resources. We're straining to find enough water, oil, trees, coal, and space to sustain our greedy little selves. In our most basic nature, we humans want to do as little as possible with as great amount of comfort, (don't believe me? Watch this documentary, it's about food but talks a lot about basic human instinct).

In order to be comfortable, we need to use crazy amounts of resources to keep our houses warm, our cars driving, and to grow enough food to claim the title of the fattest era in history.

During my sophomore year at NDSU, my geology professor gave a lecture that has stuck with me. For years now, scientist have been doing population experiments with bacteria and micro-organisms in petri dishes to see what happens when things get super crowded. In every instance, the organisms begin to secrete a toxic substance when they have no more room. When ingested by their neighbor of the same species, the substance is deadly. The secretion is designed for self-defense, but when everyone's personal alarm goes off, the plan turns out to be suicide.

What will finally be the breaking point for humans? Surely we won't completely run out of space -- there will always be mountaintops and oceans. But I wonder what will finally push us to the brink. Will climate change negatively impact food production? Will we run out of oil? Will we run out of water? Or perhaps we'll mirror the lab organisms and start emitting a creepy substance with a phosphoric glow.

Personally, I'm betting on water and climate change.

At any rate, "happy birthday" to the seven billionth baby who was ceremoniously proclaimed to be so last week in The Philippines.

October 9, 2011

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

improve. explore.

And now for a little Sunday essay...

A year ago right now I was doing exactly what I'm doing in this moment: sitting on a bed with a laptop in my lap, trying to process all the ideas swimming around in my head. The considerable difference between this year and last is that my bed now is infinitely more comfortable and I'm 15 stories closer to the ground. 

Well, I guess things might have been a little more dramatically different last year... This very same Sunday night in 2010 I was scrambling to throw together three hours' worth of lecture for my first day of teaching in China, literally only 24 hours after I had landed in Asia.

It was a terrifying adrenaline rush. Looking back on it, I can now be sentimental and focus on the absurdity and humor of the situation. But at the time, I was horrified. I didn't know how to teach, I didn't know the language, quite frankly I had no idea where I was. The smoggy silhouettes of smokestacks and the dark outlines of highrise buildings glowed hazy orange at night and there were fighter jet flyovers every 10 minutes (for reasons still unknown) -- those first few nights were anxiety laden. And I still don't wish on anyone a first month of China as Alex and I initially experienced it. But the lessons I began learning exactly a year ago have impacted me in ways I never anticipated. 

I want you to watch this video. It's 15 minutes long and worth every second of your time. Perhaps you've seen it, or at least portions of it. It's been all over the news this week after Steve Jobs died. We lost a brilliant, unconventional, and feisty individual this week. This speech spoke to my soul. I hope it speaks to yours, too.

I feel like he took all the ideas and fears and uncertainties of potential-seeking individuals and compartmentalized them in a way that we can relate to in the most basic, human sense. 

He talked a lot about trusting your instinct, if something feels right then it probably is. Like most people over the age of 50, he reassured the young, naive set of folks like me by promising that things will work out. We're only be able to understand our journey's route when we look back on it.

But at 23, I have zero hindsight. I mean, beyond embarrassingly looking back at some of the, uhh, gems from high school, I have very little substance to draw from. And no one my age does. When you're in your 20s, it doesn't matter if you've seen the world, landed an outrageous job, or started a family with the man (or woman) of your dreams -- you're still young, and some things like hindsight can only be acquired with age. 

The real beauty of not knowing an outcome is that if you really listen to yourself, you'll know in the moment whether you're making a good decision or not. I don't care if you believe you get that feeling from Jesus, Allah, meditation, Mother Earth -- it doesn't matter, what matters is that you listen. If you follow that feeling in the pit of your stomach, it can only lead you to good things. 

Really. I mean, you might not be financially successful. You may get punched in the gut. And at points, I'm sure you'll convince yourself you made the dumbest decision of your life. But as an idealistic, possibly naive 23-year old, there is nothing more inspiring to see than someone decades my senior who has done nothing but what they love their entire life; they radiate happiness.

This Sunday's essay is as much of a pep talk for myself as I hope it is for you. Quite frankly, I'm scared. I'm scared of the state of our country and our world. I'm scared about hating a job. I'm scared about not finding a better half (let's be real, at this point I have no hope of ever celebrating a 64th wedding anniversary like my grandparents will celebrate this February). These fears can be crippling, but we should opt to use them as sparks for action and for changing what we don't think is right. 

And with that, I'll leave you with my favorite line from Steve Jobs' speech:

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

October 4, 2011

An elegant future

Wise words from a book of daily Tao meditations (a light respite from yesterday's heavy words):
Let us go forth an make [the future], but let us make it as beautifully as we can. The degree of elegance is determined by our will and the perfection of our own personalities. Therefore, do not sigh over misfortune or adversity. Whether you are happy or sad is entirely up to you.
Remember that today when something really irks your or disappoints you. Chin up and smile, friends. 
laugh. improve.

September 22, 2011

The many hats of justice

Yesterday the news was dominated by a theme of justice. Depending on which side you fell on, justice either prevailed around 7 p.m. EST for Troy Davis or around 11 p.m. EST for advocates on the side of the murder victim's family. Then after following a twisted and often perverse trail lasting 26 months, the two American hikers imprisoned in Iran were finally freed through messy international diplomatic negotiations and a $1 million bail.

The news this week gave us good insight into soft spots in our country's justice system and when it works and when it doesn't work so well. The Troy Davis case gained a lot of traction yesterday with social media and the international community, including Pope Benedict, called for the execution to be halted because of evidence that was weak and contradictory. Since 2007, Davis has been scheduled for execution three times, each time the execution stopped because of new evidence or recanted statements from witnesses. 

Early yesterday evening, Davis' supporters celebrated when the US Supreme Court said it would review the case. Less than three hours later, the Court decided that they wouldn't intervene. Just after 11 p.m., Davis was executed. His last words? 

"I am innocent," Davis said moments before he was executed Wednesday night. "All I can ask ... is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight." (from this CBS story)

Justice was achieved in a very different way for the two American hikers. Using Swiss diplomats and the Omani government, $1 million bail was paid to the Iranian government and the hikers boarded a plane for Oman and left Iran for good. 

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

Throughout the past two years, several people have weighed in on what the hikers were doing along the Iranian border. What were they doing there by themselves? Do you think they were spies? Why didn't they have a guide? Why on earth would they go to a region the US is at war with? 

Though I can't speak on behalf of their motives for hiking along the border, I can somewhat relate to their desire to explore the region. Kurdistan has been at war for most of the 29 years the hikers have been alive, and only recently the region became somewhat safer for people to visit (remember that Anthony Bourdain episode I wrote about a few weeks ago?)

The best way to explain it is that some people crave exploring uncommon (and sometimes dangerous) parts of the world that few tourists go. In a super globalized world, adventuring into those areas is often the only way to see truly authentic and pure culture as it was prior to Lady Gaga and KFC.

I heard a story on the BBC last week about one of the last Gaddafi strongholds in Libya, Bani Walid. The reporter was talking about the battle that was likely to ensue and was interviewing locals about their opinions on it. By some extraordinary luck, the reporter interviewed an American who was living in Bani Walid. He was a college student from California who went to Libya after his spring semester ended. He said he wanted to be a part of that country's revolution, to see it fall apart then become united again.

Now, he's back at school in Cali, pending he was able to find a flight out of Tripoli.

He didn't have any Libyan descent in his family. He had no special interests or ties to the country. He just wanted to be part of a revolution.

Just as I imagine those hikers wanted to discover the Kurdish people and ancient Iraqi culture when they unintentionally slipped into Iran. To travelers, experiences like these are fulfilling and adrenaline pumping in the same way that demolition derbies, hunting expeditions, or mountain climbing are to others. All of which are hobbies that are hard to understand the motivation unless you share the same passion.

Regardless, more than two years of these hikers' lives were spent in hell. And now they're free. I'm thankful for their freedom, but I don't envy their reintegration into their formerly "normal" lives. 

Justice has very publicly taken on a variety of forms this week, and according to some it was served in all the right ways. According to others, it was grossly enforced. But these were just the public stories, just think of how many times each day these kind of situations are played out in prisons worldwide.

think. improve. 

September 19, 2011

Hotdishing at potlucks

The past week or two this blog has taken a sharp turn towards the serious and highly political, so I'm going to reconnect with my favorite (and dare I say your favorite) pastime: eat.

About halfway through the second verse of the closing hymn is when I would get antsy and eager to go downstairs. Inviting smells of casseroles and crockpotted delights crept into the chapel during the last 15 minutes of the church service, courtesy of whichever ladies' aid was in charge for the event. 

Church potlucks everywhere have their staple items, and in northwest North Dakota those items rarely vary. There are open-faced buns with butter and one slice of turkey or ham, and half the sandwiches would have a slice of cheese (or cheese whiz). A dozen "salads" dressed heavily in mayonnaise or coolwhip always make the lineup, too. The regulars are usually potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni salad, snicker salad, cookie salad, and marshmallow salad (don't be distracted by the name, the latter three contain little to none nutritional value). And there are always crockpots filled with scalloped potatoes, tator-tot hotidsh, macaroni hotdish (NOT the same as the salad), and slushburger meat. 

(If you're questioning what a "slushburger" is, clearly you grew up out of the small pocket of NoDak where we lovingly refer to the more commonly named "sloppy joe" as a "slushburger.")

Cream of Mushroom soup, potatoes, ground beef, cool whip and mayonnaise were the star players at our church potlucks. 

Almost everyone in the congregation would go to eat, drink watered-down coffee, and mostly to enjoy community eating. There's really nothing better than eating together with others and having a good talk over a meal. One of the most basic ways humans can bond is over food. 

Why do you suppose most important meetings offer a meal? Or many of the most successful fundraisers are community benefits or pancake feeds? And on a familial level, look at how many family recipes have been handed down for a few generations and appear at every single big holiday. In my family, it's green jello. As a nation, it's a ham or a turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, some form of corn, and bread. 

By our nature, we love communal meals. 

A few weeks ago, someone my age looked surprised when I said I loved going to potlucks. 

"You mean, those things for old people? Where like everyone cooks some sort of casserole?"

"Yeah, those things. I love them! They're not for old people. And it's a hotdish, not a casserole, you fool." (Ok so the hotdish line was just something I wish I would've said in retrospect...) 

Yesterday, I went to the most fantastic potluck -- it was the first time I was able to eat two of my favorite foods on the same plate: pork dumplings and [homemade] pesto pasta. No restaurant would EVER put those foods together (and no good restaurant would simultaneously offer both on their menu). And to finish it off, we had a delicious homemade cranberry-pecan pie. 

The food was great, certainly prepared with love. But the conversation was even better.  The dinner turned into one of those two and a half hour affairs that leave you painfully full, and thankful, for the deliciousness and delightful company.

September 15, 2011

Geek out

A nod to my hipster post from a few weeks back... I think I fit under a pseudo-food geek, somewhat of a political geek, and a travel geek on occasion. What's your geek?

The Evolution of the Geek
Flowtown - Social Media Marketing Application

September 11, 2011

Coming of age after 9/11/01

think. I was wearing a new purple and pink striped shirt, a birthday gift from one of my brothers, and sky blue insulated sweat pants as I sat impatiently waiting for my mom to finish getting ready for work and drive me to school. I was 13. It was a quarter to 8 and I was watching the Today show, just like every other morning. 

I watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Within a minute or two, Katie Couric got one of her friends on the phone who lived in Lower Manhattan to get an eye witness perspective of what was happening. Was it a small plane? Had the pilot had a heart attack? While the woman was on the phone, the second plane hit and I remember there being a few moments of horrifying recognition that this in fact was no accident, no grave error on behalf of the pilot or flight control, we were amidst something unfathomable and terrifying. 

A few days ago, I posted about how my generation doesn't know what real sacrifice is, for the most part. Today, I wholeheartedly rescind that statement. We have made sacrifices. No, they don't necessarily look the same as the WWII generation or the Great Depression, but our lives and perspectives changed that day whether we're conscious of it or not. And since the moment the first plane hit, 9,192 people have been killed, 2,977 on September 11 alone and 6,215 military personnel in the two wars that followed. In addition, 2,300 government contractors, 1,192 foreign coalition soldiers, and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians died consequentially because of what happened on 9/11.**

Teachers didn't know what to do at school that day, many who had first period history or government classes started watching the news and didn't stop watching it for most of the day. Some teachers taught on, Mr. Lervick attempted a geometry lesson and Mr. Overbo pressed on with P.E. PhyEd was our first class of the day with the other section of 8th graders, and they had geography first period where they watched the plane crash into the Pentagon. 

As we were jogging laps, it's all we could talk about. Someone said that Osama bin Laden had been on the plane that hit the Pentagon, survived, and was currently engaging most of our nation's nuclear weapons. My friend could have said Satan was on the prowl and I would have been less scared. Bin Laden was a real-life villain to my adolescent self, someone that only a superhero could take out. A modern-day caveman with an AK-47,  hauntingly warm eyes and a sinister smile.

In the days following the attacks, there was talk of war, a draft, fuel and food shortages, and follow-up attacks. Things instantly changed living along the border, and suddenly helicopters and 3 a.m. patrols along gravel roads and trails became the norm. Customs agents at the border, many of whom were our neighbors, interviewed each vehicle coming into the US regardless if they knew the occupants personally.

The obvious changes our country has faced are being spelled out in the news today and are easily identified by each of us: strict security for airlines, borders, and government buildings. The omnipresent reminder that we're involved in two wars. The gaping holes left in the NYC skyline. 

But it's the other changes I'm more interested in, nuanced shifts in attitude and action that aren't as quantifiable. As a nation, we've become both isolationist and more open. Isolationist in the sense that we're not exactly welcoming to foreign travelers, the US visa process is one of the most difficult of any country in the world. As a nation, we've become unsure of anyone who looks sort of bin Laden-ish, we assume that Muslims are inherently extremists or "radicalized." We've created an "Axis of Evil" and tried our damndest to destroy it for the pursuit of liberty and democracy. Words such as "terrorist," "jihad," "suicide bomb," and "treat level," have become common in our rhetoric.

That's not our entire country, though. September 11 brought out a lot of amazing things in people. It was the event that helped my generation gain a sense of nation. My grandparents had both World Wars, my parents had JFK and the moon walkers, but my brothers and I had 9/11. Once the panic stopped and the events were better understood, we gained a sense of resolve to try make this place better than it was before the attacks.

Sure, there is the aforementioned paranoia, but the the positive effects are undeniable. Subconsciously, I think the 9/11 attacks played a huge role in my enthusiasm to explore the world. And I think the same sentiment goes for many of the friends I've made living abroad. I realized the best way I can personally contribute to our world is through understanding the perspective of people who come from dramatically different cultures than my own.  

The 9/11 attacks motivated others to join the military and embark on a war strategy that had never been tested out before. Sure, there were/are plenty of bombs and gun battles, but there is also a greater outreach to local culture and communities, soldiers trying  to gain a better understanding of the circumstances that prompt people to join groups like the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Maybe this is a consequence of 9/11 (or maybe 20-somethings of every generation have been like this) but I'm surrounded by friends who demand social change and equality. Americorps volunteers helping abuse victims, Peace Corps volunteers working hard to build communities and schools in the far corners of the globe, healthcare workers demanding reform to give care to those who need it most regardless of income, I could go on... these are the people who don't just talk about change, they live change. And I think 9/11 is a subconscious motivator for us.

I didn't know anyone killed that day. Though I've had many friends serve in both wars, I don't personally know any soldier who has died in Iraq or Afghanistan. But that doesn't stop goosebumps from creeping down my arms when I read tragic stories or tears welling up in my eyes when I hear about a soldier coming home to his or her family. 

We live in a dynamic and sometimes scary world, but we have to embrace the lessons of September 11. We can't fear what's out of our control. And instead of looking those different from ourselves with skepticism, we ought to look with warm curiosity. Our world is different today than it was 10 years ago, but that doesn't have to mean it has changed for the worse.

**Source: The NY Times with credit to,,,  and US Dept. of Defense

September 9, 2011

Will good words lead to good action?

The gaping three hour time difference got the best of me yesterday and as I rushed home to try stream the President's speech, I managed to catch the very last of the applause when the speech was over. Too early to catch a full video recap, but to late to watch the speech, I resorted to reading it via transcript. 

Reading it rather than listening to Obama speak gave me an unusual perspective. Most times when I listen to the President, I'm caught up in the grandeur of the chamber and the weight of the tradition Presidential speeches from there hold. Not to mention, we have the most fantastically talented orator in the Oval Office since Kennedy. Regardless of whether you agree with his policies, it's hard to deny that our President is downright poetic when he speaks. 

The poetry and pomp and circumstance was missing from the transcript. Rather, I was reading only words while trying to imagine just how the President sounded. By reading the speech, I caught onto patterns and word usage. I keyed into cliches and could sense the parts of the speech that moved along quickly and the parts that demanded to be read slowly and deliberately.

The Politico transcript even had one of those speech graphs so I could see which words the president used most. The phrase that I kept noticing was "you need to pass this immediately." 

For the most part, I thought the speech lacked solid information about what exactly the President planned doing. Yes, he explained tax breaks and revamping the tax code so Mr. Buffet can finally pay in more than his cleaning lady. He promised the bill was paid for, but it's hard to imagine that a $450 billion package comes pre-paid. Then again, I'm no expert on the issue.

This morning, I sought out reaction from the speech and found this great little piece from The Christian Science Monitor. The article reviews news from Britain, France, and China, each of which had dramatically different interpretations of what the President's speech meant. Leave it to China to   extrapolate from an editorial, written by our VP Joe Biden,  that China will be the sole solution to make the US more prosperous. 

At any rate, I'd like to hope that the President's delivery was good enough to inspire a few companies to have faith that Congress can get this act passed, but I have my doubts. 

I must say though that I would give his speech writers a high-five if I saw them today, they can string words together that anyone can relate to, from long-term unemployed manufacturing workers to CEOs of midsize companies. That takes skill. Especially when the words still stand strong even when they're read by someone like me rather than our President.

September 7, 2011

Oh what a mess

think. Job creation is on the front of the tongues of our nation's leaders and media with new lackluster statistics and both a Republican Presidential debate and a primetime speech from President Obama, in which he is expected to roll out his plan for job growth.

We all talk about how we wish Washington would come up with a long-term solution, rather than a quick fix. But our attention spans are that of fruit flies, so how can we expect our leaders to implement long-lasting policies when we're demanding that our economy is back in order for next year's Christmas season? 

In tonight's debate, I heard too much from the candidates describing the economic troubles as a direct fault of President Obama, when really the problems started years and years ago, spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations. 

Thomas Friedman, a brilliant man who makes statistics and societal trends digestible to those of us who have a tough time scrounging giant stacks of data (i.e. me and most likely you as well), has a new book out in which he explains how and why the US went from being the golden superhero of the planet to a tarnished statue of its former self. 

This story from NPR's All Things Considered summarizes Friedman's theory. Each generation, prior to the post-Cold War era, made tangible sacrifices in order to move our country forward. (Friedman also wrote this fantastic column for the NY Times).

But since 1989, for the most part any middle-class white kid (like me) doesn't know what real, legitimate sacrifice really is. Sure there are plenty of things my family can't afford and there are lots of things I want but don't have, but I have never had to miss a meal because of empty cupboards. I've never gone a winter without a warm coat. And if I'm sick, I've been able to go to the doctor when necessary. 

However, I'm willing to sacrifice things if it means it will make my country stronger. I'll happily pay higher taxes to ensure those people who can't afford the doctor or can't put food on the table, have the chance to pay for what they need. I’d willingly pay more at the pump if I knew the added tax was going to sustainable energy investment.

There was a lot of talk tonight about climate change and whether it’s manmade or some silly scientific theory. Gov. Rick Perry (Tex.) made remarks in the past few weeks that showed blatant skepticism to the validity of whether we trash-mongering humans have begun to influence the climate.

Mr. Perry said tonight that he doesn't want our nation to suffer "monstrous economic effects," from being limited on our usage of fossil fuels. 

Ok. Well that's one way of looking at it.

Or one could look at environmental regulation as incentive for innovation, which is something Americans have always held near and dear.

Throwing aside all things scientific, as a God-fearing, Jesus-believing, good-hearted human being, one would think that Mr. Perry (and his fellow friends) would want to be environmental stewards because it’s a good thing to do.

Instead, we have a gaggle of Presidential hopefuls vying for super cheap gas ($2 a gallon in Bachman’s world), egregious spending cuts (which would eliminate jobs) and extensive deregulation (possibly to balance out the jobs lost from funding cuts with new ones created from less corporate rules?)

Well friends, deregulation alone doesn’t create jobs. Neither does government investment. Here’s to hoping tomorrow our President spells out a plan that may not be super popular, but will be a big first step in the right direction. As a post-cold war kid, I’m ready to sacrifice, are you? Tune in tomorrow night.

September 6, 2011


improve. In the advent of HGTV, I've watched hours and hours of home decorating and improvement projects played out beautifully on the TV screen. They make it look so flawless and easy, not a drop of paint is splattered and all of the construction projects (even the ones they need to "scrap at the last minute") all look straight out of a furniture store. Each episode the designers become flustered and panicky, as if worried they're not going to finish in their 23-minute time slot. 

Now I'm trying my hand at DIY projects in my new house but I am doing them much less glamorously than on TV. Last week I bought a very cheap Ikea desk off of Craigslist. The top was damaged, but the design of the desk was exactly what I wanted. Putting my creative hat on, I decided it would be cool to cover the desk in newspapers and cover the top with a clear resin.

Pike Place Market has a fantastic newspaper stand that sells papers and magazines from around the globe, so I snatched up Thai, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, French, Italian, and English (The NY Times) newspapers for my project. I went to the art supply store in my neighborhood and bought a huge bottle of Modge Podge and a few paintbrushes and set to work.

My hands had forgotten what it felt like to have glue on them. And I hadn't used a paint brush for anything in years. But back in my tween days, I was a decoupage queen, covering shelves, tables, and stools in whatever I thought was neat. Each summer, I brought 4-H projects to the county fair that showcased my talent (or lack thereof) for the creative world of crafts.

As I've gotten older, I suppose my hobbies adjusted and I became a little bit intimidated by my friends who have real talent. Among my closest friends I have a graphic designer/sketcher, an architect/print-maker, and a singer -- those are just the artists by profession. There are plenty of other hobby painters, photographers, creative writers, and visual artists that I call my friends. It's scary trying my own project when I see so many incredible things they create, mostly because I'm concerned about their critiques.

But today when I was elbow deep in Modge Podge, tossing around cut out stories from papers I can't read, I forgot about the constraints holding me in and I reconnected with the 12-year old version of myself and embraced the stickiness under my nails.

Tomorrow I'll put the finishing coats of lacquer onto my desk and will have created something that I think is pretty dang cool. As far as my friends who know how to reupholster furniture? Well, I'll still be seeking their advice and assistance when it comes to doing projects that involve more than a paintbrush and glue.

September 1, 2011

People skill

Humans are the single most successful species on the planet. (Obviously). No, we don't have the hunting abilities of a leopard or a shark. We're not so great at climbing trees and jumping from branch to branch, and we're really bad at moving through water with speed and agility. We can't fly, we don't have fur to keep us warm, and our eyes can't see very well in the dark. We're slow, we have blunt teeth, and our "claws" look best when trimmed and polished.

We lack many of the qualities that make other animals so intimidating, cute, or stealthy. But we've managed to overcome these challenges with our intelligence and ingenuity. 

We've impacted the landscape to build our towns and cities so much that it's easy to forget that we're animals. All of you reading this are lucky enough to be comforted by insulated walls, soft beds, and a big box that keeps your food conveniently chilled. When you're hungry, you go to the store. When you're thirsty, you get a drink of water. When you need to get somewhere, you get in that odd four-wheeled contraption of yours to drive down asphalt roads to your destination.

It's easy to forget what we're capable of.

Most of this week I've been enthralled with the BBC's "Human Planet." It's a sister series of documentaries to "Planet Earth." Each of the episodes feature humans doing crazy things to live in some of the most extreme places. The Grasslands film features bushmen stealing a slain wildebeest from right under lions' noses. The Arctic episode profiles natives of Greenland who not only rock polar bear pants (seriously, you have to watch this) but they can also catch ginormous Greenland sharks while ice fishing. How many of you have caught something that's 12-feet long out of the Lake of the Woods in January? Probably no one.

Seriously, these films are nothing short of enthralling. I particularly enjoyed the Oceans episode, it showed villages that are built over water (many of the residents become "land sick" if the go ashore). Jenn and I passed a few of those villages off the coast of Borneo when we were en route to our tiny dive island. The episode also featured compressor divers in Palawan in the Philippines -- the very island that I spent an entire week.

The compressor divers each grab a rubber tube that is haphazardly connected to a spitting and barely functioning air compressor and use that as their breathing device 40m beneath the surface. On the ship, a big crew continually works to try keep the hoses from tangling up with the 20+ divers swimming under the ship. 

The divers bring down giant fishing nets and work together to garner a catch of one ton or more for their villages. The work is extremely dangerous, many divers suffer from the bends and nearly everyone knows someone who was killed while diving. Not to mention, the job is one of the worst paying ones on the island...

The films are incredible and leave you feeling both empowered and semi-worthless at the same time (I mean, some of the people they feature seem to be superhuman). You should definitely check them out, though. They might make you believe in superheroes.


And on a different note... I talk a lot about connecting and communicating on here, and one of my favorite magazines/news sites ( just launched a month long challenge to connect with people. You know, connecting the "old fashioned way" with our voices, rather  than just sending a text or an email. It's September 1, I'm going to try out this challenge. I dare you to as well.

August 30, 2011

Birthday wishes

In high school, I knew every single classmate's birthday and a fair chunk of other birthdays a few grades above or below me (granted, I only had 27 other classmates). This was during the final era before Facebook, the days before my train of thought jumped to a potential status update whenever something cool was happening around me. Remember those days?

Birthdays in a small high school were awesome. By the time senior year hit, nearly everyone knew your birthday (of course, it was a good way for underclassmen to suck up a bit). Birthdays made one feel uber-popular. My birthday, along with one of my other classmate's always happened to fall on the second week of school on the eve of Labor Day weekend. My classmate's birthday was on the 27, and for three short days he was two years older than me. Joking about it year after year never got old. As the baby of the class, I was always thrilled to finally be the same year as everyone else.

Elementary school birthdays were even cooler. Up until grade seven or eight, most people brought the class treats if it was their birthday. We had cupcakes, frosted cookies, and extra special homemade chocolate suckers late in February, courtesy of of Mrs. Roland. And then of course there were the elementary birthday parties. Guest lists were carefully chosen and highly dramticized. 

Cut in front of someone in the line for the slide on the playground? You're off the guest list. Caught gossiping? You might as well cross your own name off.

Despite all of the hullabaloo, party guests remained pretty consistent throughout the years. Except one time I got invited to an extra special birthday party... a (gasp) boy's birthday party in the third grade. This was no ordinary party, I mean I was a regular at Derek (my cousin) and Cody's parties, but this one was different: I was the only girl invited. I was one among eight or nine stinky little third grade boys.

I had a blast, we played Power Rangers and ate cake. The boys got their party favors, then my friend's mom brought me mine: a beautiful rainbow colored necklace from India (where my classmate had just moved from). I felt so special and then I felt bewildered, shortly after the party favors, I was politely sent home while the boys had a slumber party. It took me a few years to figure out why I didn't get to stay over.

Now birthdays are a little different. It's almost 6 p.m. here in Seattle and more than 100 people have sent me birthday wishes on Facebook. It feels like high school all over again. In fact, my phone stopped sending me notifications if someone wrote on my wall. 

I can't decide if Facebook has made birthdays better or worse. Nowadays if you forget someone's birthday,  you look like a total jerk because it's posted for all to see. On the other hand, Facebook increases birthday wishes by ten-fold or more. People I haven't talked to in far too long have sent me messages today and I'm excited to catch up with them, if nothing else Facebook birthdays are a good way to reengage communication.

Aside from my virtual birthday wishes, I'm grateful for the mellowness that birthday parties have assumed with age. No longer am I concerned about who to invite or uninvite to my parties, my mom doesn't need to bake three dozen cupcakes, and I'm not worried about how many "happy birthdays" I get in the hall. And thankfully, I'm past the rough stage where everyone was turning 21 and birthdays were hazardous things to endure. (Being the baby in class helped me out a bit and prevented me from attending too many crazy shindigs).

Nowadays, my friends and I are coasting through our twenties and birthdays are great excuses for a great dinner and a happy hour of drinks and ice cream. 

Cheers to being 23, and here's to hoping it's much less tumultuous but just as interesting as 22 was.

And with that, I leave you with a fantastic song that has a verse about turning 23 (cheesy? yes. But listen anyway, it's a great song). 
Favorite line: If you're gonna get made, don't be afraid of what you learned... Almost too fitting for the awkward post-college, career-building stage my friends and I are in. 

p.s. Thanks Kristen for sharing this song a few weeks ago :)