30 April 2012

On shitty first drafts

What to write, what to write, what to write.

That’s how it begins, usually. Those exact words. I’ll stop, take a sip of coffee, and turn on This American Life or surf over to Orangette or Smitten Kitchen, surround myself with some great writing (osmosis has to work, right?). You can do this, I’ll say. All you need to do is invite people into your kitchen. Invite them in, and say hello. Chat awhile. 

Amos leaves for work bright and early, and I begin to stir shortly after. I mosey into the kitchen and boil water for coffee. I usually stand and zone out, staring at the drying dishes that I should put away. Almost always deciding against that, I go back to staring at the teakettle. I tap my fingers gently on the white countertop, and I think to myself: What do you do today? What’s on the docket? 

Writing, that’s always there. So is basic housekeeping: laundry and dishes and groceries. I try to study Japanese every day, if only to keep up with Amos, who seems to be making much more progress then me (lesson learned: marry dumb. Smart husbands keep you on your toes). Most of the time I’ll have a couple of puzzles to figure out, like how to get futons delivered to our place before the in-laws visit or double checking how insurance reimbursements work abroad.

Writing, though, that’s the big one. It’s what I center my day around and what brings me the most joy. Back home, my writing almost always took the form of short stories and literary fiction. Putting characters on paper and watching them go. They develop, unexpectedly and unpredictably, and I let them run, run, run, all over the page. That’s my shitty first draft, to quote Ann Lamott. Then I take a comb and I run it over the story and straighten it out as best I’m able. I go over it again and again, working towards some semblance of order before I switch tracks and its all run, run, run, run again. I comb it out. I tease, I straighten, I add bits here, I take away bits there. I write things that are unbelievable, utterly believable, bizarre, mundane, and sometimes not half bad. I put it away for weeks before pulling it out again to see if it was really any good at all. It’s private, all happening behind the scenes. 

But that process? It requires me to be in my head, to shut out the world, to isolate myself into my crazy little non-reality. I stretch as I come out of it, and I crave people. I go and visit friends, run, check into work, plug back into the world. 

You see where I’m going with this, right? I can’t do that in Japan. Without meaning to, by moving over here, I’ve found myself in my own head every day, for much longer than I’m used to. I’ve begun talking to myself, much in the same fashion as my Grandmother, except she was 77 and I am 27, so it’s less social-acceptable and a bit more worrisome. 

As I sit and watch the water boil and grind coffee beans, I find myself turning away from short stories and toward Jackson Riley. When I’m here, I am decidedly out of my own head. I’m sitting in my kitchen, and – for a couple minutes, for a couple hours – my friends are sitting with me. My mom and aunts are laughing as I break eggs on my bike and nodding as I process pausing a career to be a expat trailing spouse. For the first time in years, I’m commenting on blogs, reaching out, asking people if they would step into my life, take a look, stay awhile. I’m opening up my kitchen door. I'm hoping people show up and simultaneously freaked out if they do.

The blog is a strange beast. It’s such a unedited voice, a (way too?) personal story sent out into the world wide web. It’s a collection of my best and worst shitty first drafts. I actually hate that work ends up being read before it gets to simmer and be reworked. Far too little is thrown away, edited out. But, but!, I remind myself, it’s a deadline, and it’s something I love. I’m reaching out to a world beyond what is right in front of me. My writing is sometimes good and sometimes (quite) ugly; it reminds me of a favorite quote from Ira Glass:

“What nobody tells beginners – and I really wish someone had told this to me…is that all of us that do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is a gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, and its just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but its not. 
“But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, that’s still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work didn’t have the special thing we wanted it to have… 
“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure this out then anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
So here's to that: to youth, to inviting people in, and to shitty first drafts.

Image: Moncrief London by Silja Magg

27 April 2012

On Being a Writer

A couple of weeks ago, shortly after we moved into our apartment, Amos and I began our Japanese lessons in earnest. We have a tutor, Kiyomi-san, who comes to our house twice a week. I have to admit that I ruin all her carefully planned lessons with incessant questions and phrases I just need to know.

“Kiyomi-san,” I’ll say, “How do you say ‘Coffee for here, please?’ and what about ‘No bag, thanks’ and how do you make a reservation at a restaurant? 

Sumimasen, Kiyomi-sensei," I'll say, not five minutes later, "How do you say ‘May I have a glass of red wine’ and what’s the kanji for pork and beef and chicken, and what IS bean milk? Oh, and where can I get baking soda ... and whole bean coffee?” 

Needless to say, we’re really lucky to have her; Japan is much more navigable with her help. She’d qualify for sainthood based on her patience alone. 

In our first lesson we were talking about professional titles. I learned the words for banker, office worker, student. I learned how to say ‘My husband is an engineer.’ Then, ever so casually, as if she was unaware of the personal crisis she was about to unleash, she casually said “Sarah-san, you’re a housewife, so you would say Watashi wa shufu desu.” 

If you had looked at my chest at that exact moment, ever so closely, you could have seen the outline of my heart as it tried to escape from my body. 

I am a housewife.

Housewives in Japan are much more common, accepted, (and, I’d argue, respected) then they are back in the States. I won’t go into the cultural differences right now, though – rest assured – I have pages and pages in my journal sorting out my feelings. 

Watashi wa shufu desu.

Here I was, smugly thinking that I left all my angst back in my early 20s, only to find it took two seconds and a pithy four words to bring it rushing back. I had never imaged myself a housewife. I always thought there would be a little person or two running around, needing constant care, before Amos and I decided that one of us should stay at home (and we never assumed it would automatically be me). I never thought I’d be ushered into the housewife status at all, let alone as a 27-year-old newlywed. This is 2012, not 1952. What’s more, I really like my career. Like, really like it. Like, I can't wait to be back in the swing of it again.

My husband, as we were doing the dishes one night and I was processing shufu and what I thought my life would look like and what it does look like, he gently and quietly disagreed with me. “You write, Sarah,” he said. “You write every day. Haven’t you always said it would be a dream of yours to have a set time in your life when you could just focus on writing?” 

Shit. I guess I did. (He was listening to that?). 

The thing is, I feel so uncomfortable saying that I’m a writer. Who is reading my work? Who is paying me to write? I’m not freelancing; I’m not published; I have a small blog, a drip in the ocean of a million Bloggers and Wordpresses. I am not a big fish. I’m not even a little fish. I’m a fucking tadpole. 

As much as I hate the word shufu, it seems almost easier to attach that label then to call myself writer. (Ug, did I really just say that? Honesty blows). To call myself a writer is to publicly acknowledge what I want, what’s important to me, what I care about, and what I might not be great at. Shufu is a silly, funny, gut-wrenching title that can be easily chalked up to our expat status and the fact that I don't have much desire to teach English and freelancing in a different timezone is near impossible.

But I’m a writer. I write every damn day. I write short stories; I write long stories; I write here; I write in my journal; I write thoughts down on scraps of paper. I know it sounds silly, especially considering the quality of my posts earlier this week, but I’m getting better at writing. My writing has made leaps and bounds since studying Literary Fiction at UW when I was an unfulfilled CPA. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and it’s only in my adulthood that I’ve let that dream be pushed aside by its failure to meet outside definitions, like ‘readership’ and ‘payment.’ I mean, of course, I’d love those two things -- I’m too self-centered practical not to -- but those do not make a writer. Putting pen to paper makes a writer. 

I’m not thrilled with everything I put up – a blog, by definition, is too close to a shitty first draft for me to feel entirely comfortable – but it holds me accountable to be diligent about my process. In a life that lacks structure, Jackson Riley functions as an account-a-bil-a-buddy to my writing, keeping me honest and out of bed and off the sauce (Hyperbole! Look at me, being a writer!). 

Perhaps, one day in the not distant future, I won’t need to post so frequently, and I can just publish what I really like. I can expose less and edit more. Here in Nagoya, sitting alone at my breakfast bar, I just can’t. I have to push and put those posts up because it keeps me going, keeps me pushing through to find my voice, holding my feet to the fire in a way that my journal and my short stories cannot. This space forces me to speak into the megaphone and put my voice out there, into the great beyond and acknowledge that today, I am a writer. 

Watashi wa sakka desu. 

25 April 2012

Amos' thoughts on (my) Japanese Fashion

Me: Hey, I look what I got today!

Amos: Those are some crazy pants.

Me: I think you meant to say I looked good in them.

Amos: I think ... that MC Hammer would be proud.

Excuse the photos. We don't have a full length mirror, so I'm reduced to checking out my reflection in the glass. And, apparently, I make quite a bitch face when I'm trying to take a photo.

24 April 2012

Hello, from Here.

Friends. I almost, almost, posted another recipe for you today, even though this is most certainly not a cooking blog (though I would forgive you for being confused with all the talk of lemon curd and sashimi tuna and frozen chocolate). As it so happens my head was completely, absolutely, entirely, out of sorts yesterday, and my hands needed something to do. Something involving butter and eggs. Perhaps some flour. Definitely the mini pans I picked up last week.

I saw Molly's Pistachio pound cake, and it looked so good. Wouldn't that just be wonderful with iced coffee on a spring afternoon on a blustery but sunny balcony? I think so, too. However, Sun Grocery, right down the street from me does not carry pistachios. Macadamias, yes, but I have my doubts on the ability of those to substitute. (Those or the wasabi flavored peas I ended up getting. Those are for snacking while drinking beers on the patio later, while bemoaning the dearth of pistachio pound cake.)

You see, and I know this isn't an Earth shattering revelation, but it's sometimes hard to be here when I want to be there. Yesterday, I didn't so much want to be back home as much as I felt like I needed to be home. I didn't need to be back in Seattle, the city that is my adult home, the home of sweet friends and where I married Amos. The home I'm craving is Colorado, where I was born, with the high desert and Rocky Mountains and friends I've known since I was six years old, when we rocked Minnie Mouse sweatshirts and mullets.

One of these friends, a soul friend, if you will, is going through a hard time. A doozy. Perhaps more for my heart then hers I want to be there. Not to fix the problem -- I know I can't -- or to say any brilliant words or wisdom -- I don't have any -- but simply to hold a hand and take a walk and just be, the kind of contact that silently says I'm here and I love you and you know that right?

That's very hard to do when you're here and not there.

It's such a funny concept, this here and there. My friend Tim put it rather well when he emailed the other day, when we were discussing Seattle and Japan and tigers in Thailand: The thing about being here is its neutral. That's not to say its bad but when you're here you're not "there." I commend you both for being "there," if that makes sense.

I think it does makes sense, and in the last 24 hours, I've also realized how quickly here and there change. There is where the action is; a place that is different, unknown. Here is a different beast. Here is sitting, waiting, the usual routine. Here is expected. Here is, as Tim says, neutral. At times they can flip rather quickly. My there just became a here.

Holy schmoley. This is a lot of adverbs, and it's first thing in the morning. I'm so sorry. Do you see where a slice of pistachio pound cake could have been just the clarity I needed?

Since that isn't in the cards today, nor is a last minute flight to small town Colorado, I'm making do with fresh pour-over coffee and roasted grapefruit rubbed in sugar and cinnamon. I'm going on a run, studying Japanese, soaking up the spring weather, and making the most of my time here which includes being patient with my heart, who seems so preoccupied with there.

23 April 2012

Things I learned over the weekend

Drinking games slay me much more at 27 then they did at 20.

(On a related note, ramen tastes really, really good when you're hungover.)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Wind storms are not good for geraniums. Or any plants in a light plastic pot.

(You would think I would have figured this out the first time it was blown over, but nope.)

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God, I really wish I could come up with a third thing, but I just can't.

(Happy Monday.)

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20 April 2012

Alice Waters' Lemon Curd

I have a confession.
I am obsessed with lemon curd.

I'd never given lemon curd a fair shake because of its name. Lemon curd. Curd kind of sounds like crud, especially to my dyslexic brain, and who wants to eat that? Subconsciously, it made me skip over curd entirely, which is just so silly because I love bright, citrus flavors, not to mention bright, citrus flavors with a bit of sweet. And don't get me started on how I feel about things you can put in tarts or smear on scones.

It all began while I was sitting in my kitchen (a kitchen without an oven, if you remember, but with a teeny fish grill and a toaster) flipping through Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. This cookbook was a gift to us from dear friends for our wedding, and, in the 8 months since, it's become my absolute favorite. Waters doesn't just (just!) give you a fantastic recipe collection, but she takes you through how to cook, the basics of everything from vinaigrette ratios to how to grill, pan fry, souffle. At the end of each recipe are substitutions and variations and if-you-don't-have-this-put-in-thats. These were things that, as a self-taught cook, I kind of knew, but I kind of didn't. I have read it cover to cover, several times, and flip through it often. This book has given me the confidence to waltz into a farmers' market and buy whatever is fresh and know that I can figure out how to cook it. I know. I'm amazed, too.

When one combines Alice Waters with beautiful photos from Pintrest and places that on the breakfast bar of a certain lady who is craving some sweets but doesn't have much in the way of ovens or pans that fit in fish grills, you have a recipe for discovering, and subsequently obsessing, about curd.

Curd, people. Not crud.

Listen, this is easy. Super easy. There is no need to buy bottled lemon curd every again. In the time it takes you to get to the store and back, this will be done and in your belly. It's lemons (or any kind of brightly flavored fruit), sugar, butter, eggs, a careful eye, and constant stirring for 10 minutes. That's it.

I've made this twice now, and the last time I put it into little premade tartlet shells, which were quite good. I've mixed it in yogurt with granola and called it breakfast. I've smeared it on toast and called it lunch. I dalloped it on strawberries and called it dessert. I ate it straight from the jar and made resolutions to stop cooking and go to the gym.

In my next take, I'm going to try Heidi's Ginger Grapefruit Curd or Smitten Kitchen's Mango Curd. It'll be my third batch in as many weeks, and I can't even bring myself to say that I'm sorry.

Adapted from Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food 
with input from Two Tart's lemon and grapefruit curd.

(Note: Two Tart might have the cutest red nails in all of food blogdom.)

Waters' recipe calls for milk, and I've substituted water, simply because I don't usually buy it and recycling milk containers here is ridiculous (it involves a walk back to the grocery store). My curd has turned out fine each time. I also never strain it, as Two Tart's suggests, and so far, I haven't been overwhelmed with any errant egg curdles. I do whisk right when I take it off the store to break it up and make it super smooth. The thing to remember here is to stir and pay attention when its on the stove. This is not the time to mutitask. No refilling you water glass, no answering text messages, no doing the dishes. Just stir.

3 lemons
2 eggs
3 egg yolks
2 tbsp water
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt (skip if you're using salted butter)
6 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces

Zest 1 lemon and then juice all 3 lemons. You should have about 1/2 cup of juice. (Waters says 4 lemons, but I always seem to have enough juice with 3).

Beat the eggs, egg yolks, water, sugar, and salt straight into your saucepan. Stir in the lemon juice, zest, and plop in the butter.

Place on medium-low heat and stir constantly, just until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Do not boil or the eggs will curdle (No multitasking!). When it's thick, take it off the stove and place in a bowl or jar right away. (This usually takes about 10 minutes for me, but my stove runs warm.) Cover and refrigerate.

To bake a tart, place in shell and set in preheated 375 degree oven until the curd is just set, about 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of your tart. My itty-bitty tartlets took 8 mins in my toaster oven.

Yield: 2 cups

*I know. Our friends have a geneology blog. How cool-slash-interesting is that? I love it.

19 April 2012

hanami :: a party to watch the sakura

This post is late. 

About two weeks late. 

Here I am, finally telling you about sakura season and it's already over. Gone! I'm so sorry, but you see, during this time, I wasn't able to tell you about sakura because I was outside looking at the sakura. I'm sure you understand.

Wait, let me back up, and begin at the beginning.

Near the beginning of April, I began to hear whispers of hanami and sakura. People were fluttering on about parties and dates and weekends and something called a "bloom watch." I mean, I knew that Japan had cherry trees, and the blossoms were supposed to be beautiful. I didn't really think much of it. I've seen cherry blossoms, and they are quite pretty. That's all I thought of them: quite pretty. I wasn't so sure what all the fuss was about. People sit in a park to watch flowers? All day? There's a nightly update on the news to follow the blossoms? I naïvely thought that, perhaps, the Japanese needed some more excitement in their lives. Cherry blossoms certainly couldn't warrant this much attention, for crying out loud. I mean, they even had a special word for it: hanami. Hana means flower and mi means to watch. All day flower watching parties. Really?

Surprise, surprise, was I wrong. On so many levels. (Isn't this how most expat stories go? I had an idea, and it was wrong.)

A friend aptly summed it up this way: You think its going to be so dumb, sitting around in a park, under cherry trees, looking at flowers all day. But it's not dumb. It is awesome.

When the sakura bloom people take to the parks and the canals. (Sakura means cherry blossoms, did you catch that? Sorry, my Japanese is just so advanced these days!) They bring bright blue tarps to put on the ground; they bring little tiny tables to set extensive and delicious lunches. They bring stoves and wine glasses, large bottles of sake, birru, wain, tea. I even saw a man with jamon and it's own carving station. In suits and in sundresses and tights, as the Japanese are not one to underdress, they will remove their shoes, sit on the tarps, and commence eating, drinking, and being, decidedly, merry. It's festive, a national holiday of sorts where everyone gets outside and soaks up the sunshine, the sakura, the friendship, the alcohol.

It is awesome.

We had one very blustery, cold hanami, where we didn't so much sit as walk around because it was frigid. Nagoya has had a chilly spring, and this day was no exception. Once we thawed out from that hanami, we went to two more the following week, which were thankfully warmer. We laid on my blanket from Morocco and drank wine from Gonzaga cups, and we ate homemade pulled pork sandwiches, and bought a comical (and, for Japanese standards, obscene) amount of beer and Chu-Hi.

Hanami is the only time I've seen it be socially acceptable for businessmen leave the office before 10PM (this is Japan; there are not many businesswomen, though more than there used to be). They would fill up the park, sitting in their expertly tailored suits, drinking and eating and clapping (clapping signifies the end of a party, or the end of this party and the chance to go to the next party). In more popular hanami areas, lanterns are hung in the trees, so at night, there is a festive, pink glow and the party can continue. (I apologize for the crap iPhone photos, from the bottom of my SLR forgetting little heart.)

During the next week, there was a big rain. Then wind. The air was full of pale, pale pink leaves, looking like snow circling and then softly falling, filling up the street gutters. The blooms are almost all gone now, a scant twelve days after their bloom. Sakura come and quickly go, and you must be willing to stop right when they show up and celebrate them. Blink and you'll miss it.

Perhaps that's why the cherry blossoms over here are the most beautiful I've seen. They seem to be a lighter pink, the very lightest pink before white, and they look like snow covered clouds, suspended in air between thick, evergreen trees. Ethereal is the best word I can use to describe them. They look like heaven, like a bit of it somehow ended up down here, and you finally notice how beautiful they are because you are invited to pause your life, sit down, grab a sip or two of sake, and watch.

18 April 2012

a post on Japanese toilets

Do you know how to say toilet in Japanese? Toi-re. So easy. Sometimes, when I ask people how to say words, or when I hear a Japanese person say something to me, I'll assume that they are adjusting their vocabulary, gaijin-ing it up if you will, making it intelligible for Western ears. This is what I assumed when I went into a coffee shop and was asked if I wanted hato kohee. Yes, yes I would like a hot coffee, arigato gozaimasu, but how do you say it in Japanese? Oh, just like that? Well, I'll be... 

Oft times, foreign words here are not changed; they are just given a Japanese pronunciation and adapted into the language. It goes back to the 3 alphabets I was supposed to be studying on Monday when I ended up writing a blog post. Glass is grasu, wine is wain, radio is rajio. I'd spell these out for you in katakana, the alphabet used for foreign words, but I've been a terrible student and only know 10 of the 40+ characters.

Where was I before this tangent? Oh, right, toire.

I try and stay away from judgements on culture while I'm here. I focus really hard not to compare everything to back home and rank the two (Japan does this better, America does this better, Japan is so dumb, America is so dumb. You get the picture). I know doing this would act like a filter, sifting out nuances and experiences before they really got to sink in. I just want to live here, to be here. I'm trying diligently to accept -- not question -- the way things are done and not make a value assessment on differences.

Now that I've said all that, I'm going to go and break my rule. Japanese toilets are better. 

Sorry America. Sorry other developed countries. Japan wins this one, hands down. In fact, their bathroom set-up on a whole is pretty great, but I'm sticking to the porcelain goddess today. The whiz palace, to quote Leslie Knope. The little girls room, to quote my Grandma. The WC, to quote the Brits.

I think most people were like us before we arrived in Japan. We had heard of Japanese toilets, and we had had a bit of fear around them. They were mysterious, confusing, complicated. What does one do with all those buttons? God, what if I press one I don't like?

It turns out that you can do just about anything with those buttons (and the STOP button is orange and large and easy to hit quickly). The seat can automatically open and shut, the flush can be automatic, you can increase the seat temperature, decrease the water pressure, deodorize a stinker, mask sounds with a fake flushing noise... and those are just the buttons I understand.

I'll jump to my favorite part. The heated seat. The HVAC systems in this country leave a bit to be desired (shoot, there I go again, making judgements). Bathrooms are usually not heated. Or cooled. At all. Japan, or at least Nagoya, has four distinct seasons, including a pretty cold winter and a brutal summer. Sitting down on a warm seat when the room is frigid... well, it's just, so, nice. Its gotten to the point, in my two short months here, that I don't so much notice when the seat is heated, but you bet your ass (sorry) that I do notice when it's not. I think it's barbaric. Yup. Barbaric. I know that's a big word. A fightin word. I've conferred with my tush, and we're sticking by it. A cold toilet seat is barbaric.

With Japanese toilets, you can deodorize, should the need arise. In public bathrooms (not in ours) you can even press a button that makes a flushing noise, if you need to toot. There is no reason to lose face in a Japanese bathroom due to flatulence. There's a low and high flush, for number 1 and number 2. (The Earth is also a fan of Japanese toilets.)

They, of course, have a bidet system, which I don't quite get. I think it's one of those things, like slurping to be polite (ahem, Japan) and standing very close to another person while speaking (ahem, Italy), that will never take root. The cultural divide is just too wide. But, from what I've heard, the bidets here are more precisely aimed then their European counterparts. In fact, they have three different bidet systems, and nozzles to adjust the water temperature and pressure. Oooh, la, la.

Are you sick of talking about water spurting up your booty? Because I'm sick of writing about it. Moving on.

We can adjust the seat to rise when we come in and lower when we walk out of our toire closet. (We don't because it it's a bit delayed. You end up waiting for the seat to open, which feels weird.) It can automatically flush when you get up. (We opted against this because I don't want us to get out of the habit of flushing. That would be bad when we return to regular US toilets.) The faucet is automatic; it is over the toilet basin, and the water fills up the tank post-flush. Waste not, want not! (Ug, sorry again). Speaking of washing your hands, one could, conceivably, never touch anything but the toilet paper while in the WC. In addition, your toothbrush is safely tucked away in the bathroom down the hall (bathroom sans toire, that is). Is your germaphobe side breathing a sigh of relief? Mine is. No poop particles on my toothbrush, and I am so okay with that.

One of the most practical reasons I like the toilet set-up (besides my clean toothbrush) is that it makes it so much easier to share one bathroom with two people. Our toilet is completely separate from our shower, and our shower is in a different room from our bathroom. It allows us to get ready at the same time so much easier... or it would if I got up to get ready at 6AM when Amos leaves for work, but to date, that hasn't happened yet. The Japanese set up makes the American "need" for as many bathrooms as people seem crazy and excessive and just... so... American. Sorry for the value judgments, and sorry, America (I really do love you). The Japanese won this round.

And there, ladies and gents, is a long post entirely on toilets. You're welcome.

16 April 2012

Welcome to 29, Amos.

I should be studying Katakana right now. That was the plan this morning, friends. Wake up, make myself coffee, and learn another Japanese alphabet. There were two things that was making this plan seem especially feasible: a celebration that I finally found non-ground, non-instant, coffee beans (three cheers to that) and I mastered Hiragana last week (please note, I'm using mastered extremely loosely). Japanese has not one, not two, but three distinct alphabets. Hiragana is used to phonetically spell Japanese words, Katakana is used to phonetically spell foreign words, and Kanji are the characters that you think of when you think of Japanese. Amos can read both Hiragana and Katakana and is beginning to learn Kanji. I need to catch up... and yet, I keep finding myself, sipping coffee, sitting on this blog instead of learning Japanese.

I hope you'll forgive me.

I hope the people of Japan forgive me.

I hope Amos forgives me, as we go around and I ask him to read everything.

I'm sitting here, and I do have so much to tell you: Amos' birthday weekend (awesome), hiking Mt. Yoro (so fun), hanami and sakura season (beautiful), my feelings on roles in marriage being an expat wife (complicated), on being here, sans my career (conflicted), on joining Twitter (wtf... so confused). I haven't even shown you our remote control toilet or our bathtub that you can fill up from the kitchen (I know!), and, for that, I sincerely apologize.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed, being here, with so much going on. I am blown away by the beauty of this country and so thankful and grateful for all that I get to experience while I'm here. I mean, you guys, I LIVE IN JAPAN. Holy hell, is that cool or what? I loved taking the train up and hiking a mountain this weekend that had botany like nothing I'd ever seen, then coming down and eating rice balls covered in miso before catching the train home. It's as if amazing, wonderful, exciting things are continually flowing, no rushing, towards me. Do this! Experience that! Now this! Make time for this... and that! I am, and constantly remind myself to be, very, very grateful. Profoundly grateful. I want to share all of this wonderfulness with you, and I seem to always have a list of things that I need to write about (that's why my draft folder has 15 as we speak I type).

There's another side that I want to share as well. It's a side that's harder to write, to put down in words. It deals with cultural values, and stereotypes, and what I thought my life would look like and what my life does look like and deeply held beliefs. I can't share it with you yet because I haven't successfully sussed out my feelings on it. But it's there, it's real, and it's complicated. Hopefully, if the writing gods are willing, I can share it with you one day. I'm working it out in my journal and doing my best to get it out in the open. I truly believe that things in the open are more real and infinitely less scary and less powerful then they are when they are alone in your soul.

This weekend was Amos' birthday and, if I do say so myself, we did a damn fine job of saying goodbye to 28 and hello to 29. We smoked Cuban cigars, ate tuna poke and hamburgers and egg sandwiches and Nachos (not all at the same time, thankfully). We drank whisky and caught up on Mad Men; we hiked Mt. Yoro and saw bonsai trees and met delightful older Japanese folk who take hiking lunches more seriously than anyone else I've ever met, complete with stoves, blankets, and beer for a day hike, and for that, they will hold a special place in my heart. His birthday gifts included a 3D dinosaur card, wishing him a Happy Birthday in Hiragana, which, thankfully, he can read.

We're extending the birthday weekend a day and having a nice dinner at home tonight, drinking a bottle of wine we got at his last birthday, when we were on Whidby Island, and he was running a half marathon and I was talking him into walking around Langley and wine tasting. Today is technically his birthday is the States, so it feels only right to celebrate it one more night.

You guys, this weekend was so good. Exploring a country with my new husband has to be one of the best things life has thrown my way. Turns out I really like him. I want to share the beauty of our life here and the funny stories that come our way (like, instead of explaining where we're from, we just say, Se-at-tle ... like Ichiro! because then every Japanese person instantly knows where we live and is so excited that THEIR guy is our cultural touchstone.) I want to share the flip side, like how, for as excited as I am about Fridays (Amos gets to come home and plaayyyyyy), Mondays are a far lonelier beast. Mondays I miss my husband and I miss my career, and I miss my life back home, and I wish there was a reason I have to bound out of bed because I HAVE THINGS TO DO. Because, as lovely as this place is, it's not the home-home-home that I find back in the States. I don't mean to whine or bitch, my life is really good and I wouldn't change it in a heartbeat, but for every ying there's a yang and for every good there is an equal and opposite bad. That's what I've found to be true in the world, a hippie dippy take on the laws of thermodynamics (yea, I took science class in college.) Doesn't mean you should stop doing what you do, just means you should be grateful and remember that neither the good moments, or the bad, last forever. Both are important; both are real, and the sum of the two, I guess, is what we call life. If I might be so bold to take a stab at defining life for you this morning.

Happy Monday, my friends. Or, perhaps more accurately, happy and not happy Monday, all rolled into one.

13 April 2012

A Rookie Mistake

You know what a rookie mistake is? 
Buying too many groceries to fit in your basket when you're 3km from home.

Damn it.

We have a teeny-tiny, little grocery store in our 'hood, and it's become my habit to swing by there almost every other day. I'll plan out a meal or two, pick up some snacks, call it good. The store basically stocks fish, meat, rice, and veggies, with the occasional dairy item thrown in. It's super basic, and I really love it.

There were always a couple items that I couldn't seem to quite find at this store: mustard, vanilla extract, non-instant coffee. Today was beautiful outside, so I decided to bike to the nearest "big" grocery store, called Aeon, but everyone here insists on pronouncing it E-On. (Come on, Japan!)

It might be a very good thing for our waistlines that I don't make it to Aeon very often. I not only picked up the mustard and vanilla, but also got sucked in by the frozen pizzas (they are Amos' favorite), the yogurt, the fig jam, the English muffins, the tart crusts, the candles that say 'Happy Birthday' in hiragana (it is Amos' birthday this weekend. Hey Oh!).

Only once I left the store, with my very full bag, did I take a look at Lily's front basket size. Eeeps. It was a little... small. I tried to place my bag in the basket. It didn't go well.

Seriously. At this point, I stopped to take a photo, which I sure made me look even more ridiculous.  I then wiggled the bag in on it's side, smooshed what I could in the basket, tied the handles across the opening, and biked ever. so. slowly. back to our home.

Lucky for me (and the pedestrians on the sidewalk), all the groceries stayed wedged in the bag. I wish I could say we made it entirely unscathed, but there was one little casualty. WAH, WAH. Sumimasen, chiisai tomago!

Now I know: measure the basket area first, buy groceries second, and skip the eggs when the basket is nearly full. Happy Friday.

12 April 2012

Meet Lily Amos

Last Sunday, Amos and I went on a hunt for some bikes. We'd been looking for awhile and were having difficulty finding a pair of granny beach cruisers that weren't terribly expensive. We needed bikes that could scoot us around town, and we wanted them cheap enough that we wouldn't have a heart attack if they disappeared, or if we wrecked them, or when we eventually sell them. (The bikes here have no gears and we live in Seattle; it would be nothing but an ill fated love affair).

On a meandering loop of the city, we happend to pass a bike shop (or jetensha-ya... yeeeeaaa Japanese lessons!) that was having a sale. There on the corner were two bikes - one bright blue and one bright green - that would soon become the newest additions to the little Amos family. (This is the part of the story where Amos rolls his eyes. Never has stopped me, not once).

We got each for ¥8900, which is just over $100 (stupid exchange rate, grumble, grumble, grumble). Still, this is the best deal we found by far. Our bikes came with all the trimmings: baskets, ring locks, bells, lights. We are going to be travelling in style.

I named mine Lily, because she is green like a lily pad (duh.) And I call that: Lily, or Lily Pad, or sometimes Lily Allen, when I feel that she is channeling her most bad ass self. Amos named his the Blue Whale, which, to me, doesn't quite roll off the tongue, but he wouldn't hear of any other options. (What is it with him and names: When I ask him about future baby names, he always says Chiquita. Like the banana.)

Nagoya, and Japan as a whole, is a bike friendly place. It's bike friendly in a way that puts every American city, even stuck-on-themselves Portland and Seattle, to shame. In this Japanese neck o' the woods, bikes are ridden here out of necessity, not because of some Statement. It's just how it's done. As such, it's delightfully practical and no nonsense.

For a country that wears helmets for everything (I'm looking at you, utility man that came to check our breaker and you, parking attendant enforcer), it cracks me up they don't wear them to ride bikes. I may be blaspheming my American indoctrination, but riding a bike without a helmet is AWESOME. It also makes it so much easier to hop on your bike and just go.

The kickstands are 3 sided and go around the back wheel, and it parks your bike more upright. You can park bikes so much closer like this. Not many people carry a lock - there is a permeant ring lock around the back tire. You just close it and remove your key when you park it. No more awkward lock luggin'. Did I mention how much easier it is to ride a bike here?

We have bells on our handles, though we never use them. It's one of those things that is Not Polite in Japan. Here, you pass people on the sidewalk only when there is room to maneuver (bikes are on the sidewalks, not the streets). If the sidewalk is full, you ride very, very slowly until there is room. It is not just about you here, bucko.

Yesterday was a truly rainy, rainy day, so I tried to be the ultimate Japanese-woman and ride with an umbrella. Yes, that's how it's done here. One hand on the handlebars, one hand holding the umbrella. It looks so easy, so classy, so effortless. The riders stay dry in their khaki jackets and wool suits. The clear umbrellas glide above the wet sidewalk.*

Me? When I did it? Oh, I failed so miserably. I wobbled when I pushed off. I couldn't go in a straight line. The umbrella kept falling in front of my face (thank god it was clear). A little, old Japanese lady was watching me from across the street and trying so hard not to laugh.

I was hysterically inept.

I was also quite wet when I finally made it to my destination.

It's okay. I still love Lily Allen Amos, and we'll just keep practicin' with that umbrella. Or stick to riding on the sunny days.

* I know... I really should have a photo of the umbrella / bike action for you, but it was raining so hard, really, buckets and buckets, that I wussed out. Next time, pinkie swear.

11 April 2012

Call me a money spending machine.

My 3 class trial membership to Yoga expired, so I opted to buy a 4-class punch card. I had a reasonableish idea of what it would cost.... or so I thought.

I was somehow quite off base. It ended up being a crisp ¥10,000. 

That's $30 per class.

"Are you effing kidding me?!" has not been covered in my Japanese lessons so far, so I was pretty much stuck. I signed the papers; I am now a member of the yoga studio.

I sent a text to Amos as I left the studio.

Granted, I had told him that I was going to spend the ¥10,000 on other things. Things like groceries.

I would normally be so pissed at myself.  For some reason, today, I cannot stop laughing. I laughed until I cried. I am laughing as I write this.

Japan, you won this round. For real.

10 April 2012

How to be an Expat Wife :: Lesson #1

#1.  You need to brush your teeth. Every day. Preferably in the morning.

Seriously, this is my number one rule. When Amos and I were applying to live abroad, his company made us go see a psychologist to talk about what living abroad was like and how we were going to cope. The company didn't even try to cover up the reason for this: failure is expensive. If we got over to Japan, hated it and moved back to Seattle, that would cost them a lot of money. Failures almost always occur because the family is unhappy (me), the family doesn't adjust (me). Enter the corporate-required shrink (to talk about me... just kidding, we talked about Amos too. He loved it. Every minute).

Honestly, and this is coming from someone who has a very fond place in her heart for therapy, the appointment was pretty lame. She recommended we buy linens and things in the States (they are cheaper), stock up on things like toothpaste and shampoo (she said it helps homesickness), bring deodorant (hard to find in Japan). She told us it would be a roller-coaster of emotions. That we would get homesick. Super high highs. Super low lows. Etc, etc, etc.

Now that we're here, with Costco sizes of Crest and Aveda, I have to say that I don't think it has impacted my homesickness, positively or negatively. I miss people regardless of my minty fresh breath or the familiar smell of my hair. I lost our cheap American comforter cover in a freak balcony laundry-line-drying accident, so we already got to experience Japanese priced linens.

I will, however, give her the deodorant one; the supply of that has certainly helped me make friends.

There was one thing that our therapist said that really stuck me. We were discussing my work life and my leaving my job, and I mentioned that I had worked from home for quite a while before I transitioned into a flexible office environment. "Oh good," she said. "That means you already know how to get dressed every day!"


She went on to explain that the working spouse, in our case Amos, has to get up, shower, and get dressed every day, homesick or not. He has a purpose. People are depending on him. He has THINGS TO DO. The trailing spouse? Not so much. Things to do are flexible and squishy and one has to seek them out. Yoga with a friend? Easy to blow off. Calligraphy class? Just won't RSVP this week. Cookings, cleaning, and laundry? Meh, I've let those go for weeks back home when I was busy. We can last a couple days. Why yes, I would like to surf the internet a little bit longer and look at more Mormon Mommy blogs, thankyouverymuch.

But when it gets to be too much, and I find myself in a sour, snarky mood, I almost always stop myself and ask a very deep, important question: Have you brushed your teeth today, you lazy fuck missy? If the answer is No (and it usually is if I'm in a terrible mood and hating life), then I have to get up, right then, and brush them. Usually that leads to me brushing my hair too and trying to do something with my face once I see how I really look in the mirror. Then that will lead to me getting dressed. Which will lead to me making food or leaving my apartment. Which leads to me being social. Which leads to me not being a huge B.

Lesson Number One: Brush your teeth.

09 April 2012

Dear Pintrest :: NO.

You know this is just chocolate chips in a banana peel, right?


This looks like a five year old did your hair.
Step away from the bobbie pins.

Mustaches. On your nails.


I don't even know what the fuck this is!

A giant owl pillow IS NOT A NEED.

You need a pin to remember to print this?

It's stick figures. Spend 2 seconds and sketch it out yourself.

For the love of....

Your coffee mug does not need to be bedazzled, okay?

Food and water is a need.
This is a gold watch. 

There is a subtle difference.

Simply brilliant?
The laws of thermodynamics are simply brilliant.

This is sharpie on a water bottle.
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