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.