...from out on the branches, fifteen feet above the ground, i could see a larger horizon, i could further imagine the vastness of our many landscapes...

07 June 2010

spring has consumed me. in all the good ways that spring does: hiking, cooking with the windows open, reading in bed in my underwear, tending my little balcony garden, plotting adventures, taking pictures, jogging.....it's been lovely to have warmth return to this valley although i know the heat that lingers ahead.

14 April 2010

snippets. that which has (been).

reflections on home

there's something magical about the place, or places, we call home. in many ways home, to me, is a state of existence more than a physical place. it is more than my literal birthplace, although this too is of course home. but the very concept of birthplace, a place of creation, reflects my sense of what it means to be home when birthis considered as transformation, growth, and renewal. so, maybe what this means for me is that home is a birthplace and, as i have in many ways experienced many different "births," (both small and large) i have also lived in (temporarily and long-term) many different homes. there are instances is my memory where i became instinctually and viscerally aware that i was home. some of these memories are wrapped up in intuition more than a physical image of where i was. some of these memories, these feelings of being home, came from the pages of a book or the spices in food. i experience moments from time-to-time where i know, with all the certainty i am capable of believing in, that i am where i am supposed to be. this is home. as a firm believer in free will i have to clarify that this sense of being where i am supposed to be is not wrapped up in pre-destiny. for me it is a simple reflection of choice. and through my conscious decision-making i have found another place where i am reborn. this is home.

17 March 2010

This Japanese Life

One of my most enjoyable (and successful) forms of meditation involves turning the kitchen upside down: pots and pans pile up in the sink, smatterings of spices dust the counter (and floor and sometimes my face), water and oil splatters my apron, pieces of what I am cooking and with what I have cooked are strewn about the kitchen....Our apartment is small and our kitchen can barely pass for a kitchen by any Western standards: tiny and counter space the size of a cutting board.

Our stove is a glamorous camp stove at best and the oven nothing more than a 4-setting toaster oven. When I cook a real meal the table is my staging area, the counter where I chop, the floor has a burn from where I have had to place pots and pans bubbling with various nibblings...It gets messy and cooking usually means vacuuming because of the mess I have created, and the stress I have released!

The process usually starts like this: 3:45 rolls around and I have nothing left to do at work so, until my 4:10 release, I scroll my cooking applications in my iPhone. By 4:10 I usually have enough ideas and ambitions to feed me and Matthew for months but the reality of the Japanese grocery store quickly puts me in check (and demands major flexibility and creativity). I bike to the grocery store imagining our late night meal (unfortunately, Matthew isn't home until about 10 each night) and once there stroll the isles, thinking of alternatives to what the recipes call for and the store undoubtedly lacks. Will we drink tonight? Should we have whiskey, wine or sake? What will go with the meal? Most nights....water.

Once home, I dump the groceries into assorted piles: that's for salad, main dish, side dish, and there, dessert.....(most of the time I don't go that fancy though).

As a compliment to this meditation, I plug in my phone and pull up a story from This American Life. Although my mind wanders from this to that while I chop, sauté, puree, boil and fry, I enjoy the background words of a good story. Depending on the extravagance of the meal, I will listen to two episodes. If you've read my other posts, the other obvious alternative is Nina Simone. Honestly, if you're ever in the need for a serious mood lifter put on a Nina Simone album, open your fridge, take out some veggies and chop. You don't even have to make anything....but I promise you that by the time you have an onion sautéing and you're into song three on any of her albums, you'll not only want to make something edible, but you'll be calling someone over to join you (have them pick up some red wine!).

Tonight's menu: apple squash soup ( a solid staple), garlic roasted asparagus, arugula salad with honey vinaigrette and beets with a hazelnut garlic dressing. Itadakimas! (although, as the cook, I technically wouldn't say that, but it's the closest thing to bon appetit the Japanese have...it means I will receive).

17 February 2010

becoming a teacher

What do you think of when you imagine the United States? Maybe you think of New York. Maybe San Francisco. Picture these cities. The image in your head is probably of crowded streets, bustling shops full of people black, white, Asian….

This was not the United States of the 1960s, 1950s, 1940s….all the way back to the beginning. Try to imagine instead a New York that is divided: a white half and a black half. Imagine this written on restaurant doors, bathroom doors, school house doors: BLACKS OUT, WHITES ONLY. Imagine a street where blacks and whites don’t walk together.

A student in the back of the classroom covered her mouth as she choked back her tears. I stood at the board, holding a worksheet I had made to teach about Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr. I had to stop, take a deep breath and hold back my own tears. I asked her if she was ok, not sure whether I was.

How do you teach something as complex and multi-dimensional as the Civil Rights Movement to a class of low-level, non-native English speakers? I had been toying with this dilemma all week, trying different variations of my lecture/activity with my different classes. In the past my students would quickly doze off or start chatting with their classmates if I spoke for more than five minutes straight. Textbook activities have always been torture for both parties in the classroom: I’m not sure how to teach them and students just regurgitate sentences while their brains fall asleep. Teaching this activity was a huge risk: the vocabulary was high-level, the material emotionally stirring, and the students were required to sit and listen rather than move around the classroom. I really wanted to teach this topic though, if even for only one fifty minute class period. All of the Japanese teachers with whom I work were skeptical, some even a little unenthusiastic. I sold the topic as a good listening activity for the students who take a lot of oral dictation tests.

Indeed, the vocabulary was a struggle. “Please repeat, se-gre-ga-tion. Good. Okay, dis-crim-in-ation.” The students were captivated…and tongue-twisted. Not all of them, of course, but there was a level of interest and curiosity in the classroom that I had yet to experience after almost six full months teaching. Students found it challenging—they told me after class—but they enjoyed the lesson, they participated, they asked questions, one student almost cried.

I was moved and encouraged. I was also frustrated that there are so few opportunities to actually teach these students, rather than simply have them repeat after me, their live English tape recorder.

During the next month (students are preparing for their final exams and my classes will not be held) and during the student’s summer vacation, I will be thinking about these lessons and searching for the loopholes that allow me to teach topics that get students to raise their hands, choke up, ask questions…and of course, use English! I am not sure that this is the norm, expectation, or goal for a typical Japanese classroom (I know it’s not). But, they were the ones who sought an American English teacher!

04 February 2010

Setsubun, the bean-throwing festival

February 二月 (nigatsu)

Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi...evil out! good luck in!

February 3rd marks the beginning of spring according to the traditional Japanese (or rather, Chinese) calendar. Japan follows multiple methods of tracking time. There is the relatively modern use of the Gregorian calendar that was adopted in 1873, and the Chinese lunisolar calendar that has been employed for centuries. Additionally, there is the measure of the imperial year which reflects the ancient and mythical traditions of the founding of the country beginning around 660 BC. Japanese time is also tracked by the ever-confusing "era name" that revolves around the current emperor's enthronement. It's 2010. Or, as my bankbook refers to it, Heisei 22. When I came here only six months ago, it was Heisei 21. My birthday is June of 1986 but it's also Showa 61, I believe, reflecting the later years of the Showa era. Confused? Try doing business here. (Actually, there are cheat sheets for reference when the Japanese nengo is needed).

Back to February 3rd. Yesterday was Setsubun, the beginning of spring, and the opportunity to cleanse your home and life of the evil oni, demons. Part of this cleansing process involves throwing beans around your home and garden, putting dried sardines on your door (the smell scares away bad spirits, and your foreign neighbors who might be the equivalent to demons), and visiting local Shinto shrines to make good wishes. Families gather and each person eats the equal number of soybeans as their age.

While I was told by my students and coworkers that this tradition is beginning to fade, it is still popular for families with younger children to visit shrines. I went to see what this bean-throwing ceremony is all about.

As I approached a major shrine in nearby Kofu city, I was confronted with nearly dozens of men wearing demon masks, devil horns, and crazy wigs. A dense line of families formed in front of the shrine and all around me stood parents thrusting their screaming, crying, and terrified children into the arms of these demon-masked men. While these "demons" were gentle and quiet, they looked rather intimidating and the thought of being thrust into their arms as a young child was a little unsettling. But to my left and right amused mothers and fathers dropped their children into the demons grasp, stepped back and snapped their digital cameras. Cheese? It seemed to me a bit like a child initiation ceremony.

07 January 2010

Staving off "what the hell am I doing in Japan" depression

In an effort to feel like I have my feet somewhat-firmly planted here on this earthquake-prone landscape, I have taken on several projects, all of which, I imagine, will be written about at some point on this blog.

These projects include gastronomic experimenting, photography (I just built a twin-reflex camera and am anxious to develop the prints!), some writing, mastering the New York Times website, and attempting to get through my mountainous list of books. All pretty nerdy---------

Tonight it's cooking to my custom-made mix of Nina Simone. My current favorites are Love Me or Leave Me, No Me Quitte Pas, Wild is the Wind, and Mississippi Goddamn.

Dinner tonight:

**Kabocha squash, leek soup (I threw in a sweet potato that I needed to use)

**Stove-top corn bread with grilled onion and pepper
(we have no oven in our Japanese-style apartment so I spent a good 30 minutes researching how to successfully make corn bread on the stove-top without a cast iron skillet)

**Steamed greens

Matthew and I are preparing for our anti-candida diet which will probably last multiple months. That means an end to meals like this which, although healthy, give a lot of fuel to candida.

Bye to my morning cup of coffee........walnut and raisin snacks.......
.........chocolate indulgences.........whiskey.........an apple with my lunch.......luckily for me I am already gluten free, for that has to be cut too. I am afraid of shriveling into nothing in Japan!

I've been doing a ton of experimenting with pretty simple recipes and would be happy to share!

Meanwhile, I am burning my veggie sauté while trying to blog.

There's a lot more to come. This is a slow start to what I anticipate doing with this blog, so if you're reading, keep checking back....and please, leave me comments!

04 January 2010

There's something to be said about a culture that appreciates spicy food. Food that derives it spice from chili, the kind of spice that you can smell before tasting, the kind of spice that heaves with intensity as the oils release and absorb into your taste buds. Spice that does not shy away with water or disappear as soon as a swallow lowers your food through the stages of digestion. This is the spice of Mexico, India, Thailand, Israel. This is the spice of the jalapeno, serrano, habanero, ghost, and rocoto. It is the spice, as I've recently discovered, of the Korean peninsula.