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Thursday, February 26, 2009

To set the records straight

First off, can I just say that I've lost 10 pounds and it feels great?! Sorry, completely unrelated to the topic at hand. But still. 10 pounds! Go. Me. Now I need my shopper friends to go jeans shopping with me...

Ok, it occurs to me that I might be sending the wrong impression about my experience in Japan. I usually don't think much of the complaints I so freely dish out on various forums. I mean, life is never perfect, right? No matter where I live, I'll always have something to complain about. With that in mind, I've been sharing my frustrations with work, Japan, friends, motherhood, health, etc., not really taking my audience into consideration. But here are the demographics of the people who listen to/read my complaints:

1. Family who want us come home.
2. Friends who also want us to come home.
3. Friends who want us to work where they work, or live where they live.
4. Friends who have worked here before, and know what life can be like.
5. Friends who live here now and are either worried that we might leave, or want to know how in the world we've lasted here this long.

So typically, friends and family read into everything I say and think, Wow she sounds miserable, they should really come home or come work with us. Why are they staying there if they're so unhappy?! Funny, but nobody asked us that when we were living in Kansas, even though we were infinitely more miserable there. Maybe I just wasn't as vocal then. Living this far away, I feel like I need to speak louder in order to communicate. If I had been open with my feelings in Kansas, you would have heard this:

I just found out my husband lost his job. Some crap about him not being "confrontational" enough. Bull sh#%. His supervisors didn't like him - maybe he was a threat, being such a nice guy. No notice, no warning, just "as of now, we are terminating your employment." Apparently the world doesn't value compassion, kindness and a soft heart, but rather a cut-throat, I'm-better-than-you attitude. I cannot believe that Hans' cheery disposition is a weakness. I won't believe it. There must be some good left in the world. . . I admit that I'm a little hurt that he wanted to keep something so important from me. He was trying to protect me, I guess. Am I that fragile - that easy to upset? Maybe I am. I wish I weren't - that I could just press forward despite affliction, and with a smile on my face. No. No smile. I don't want to create a facade. Nobody is happy all the time - though some people try to be, or at least they pretend to be. It's ok to get upset, to be sad, to cry . . . just so long as I don't let that keep me from moving. Forward.

So maybe I'm overly dramatic about my lot in life. But when haven't I been? It's how I cope. It's how I move on. I know it isn't perfect, but it's something, right? So when you hear me say "my happiness in Japan is hanging by a thread" or read my status as "Suzie is worn out from work," or hear me complain about the illogical complexities of my boss and Japanese culture, I don't need a solution. I don't need an alternative to living in Japan. I don't need a new job, a new home, a new life. I just need to be heard. That's all. The truth is, I'm happier now than I ever have been in my life ("har har Suzie, that must mean you haven't been very happy in your life!"). I'm sorry I complain. That I don't talk about the beauty around me. Writing is my outlet - my stress reliever. So naturally, I usually do it when I'm stressed, worried or upset. I'll try to improve on this. Because Japan has been such a gift and a blessing. There is no where we would rather be right now.

Truly.

Mood boosters

For those times when I just need to feel like a woman again...

1. Take a hot bath with bubbles.
2. Exfoliate.
3. Use aromatherapy lotion or oil.
4. Brush your teeth.
5. Paint your toenails.
6. Clean your mirror and say "Hello, gorgeous!"
7. Drink a glass of water
8. Write something down that you've already completed, just so you can cross it off.
9. Tear up all those crumpled receipts in your wallet.
10. Eat an apple.
11. Make your bed.
12. Pluck your eyebrows.
13. Clean out your junk drawer. Throw away all dried up pens.
14. Read a chapter of a good book.
15. Make birthday cards for all the birthdays this month.
16. Turn off cell phone and computer. Enjoy 30 minutes of solitude and quiet.
17. Plan the week's meals.
18. Hand write a letter to a friend who lives far away.
19. Update framed pictures.
20. Go on a walk. Alone, if you can.
21. Turn up the music and dance.
22. Throw away or compost all the expired food in your refrigerator.
23. Make yourself a healthy, satisfying lunch.
24. Make a slide show of the past year of photos.
25. Take a nap.

Take a deep breath. It'll be ok.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Naked

I thought the February rain would be a good excuse not to go to the outdoor "Konyoku" (co-ed) onsen, but naturally I was the only one put out by the weather. Even Hannah's lack of a nap failed as a deterrent. She was unbelievably cheerful, just a little sleepy. Ok, fine. I'll go.

I have the choice to either undress in a communal smokey shack with the men, or in a musty women's locker room. Shyly I choose the locker room. I am greeted by the heady steam of old women in control top underwear and knee-high stockings. Their flushed faces and twinkling eyes attest to the healing effects of the Konyoku. I smile as (topless) they laugh with Hannah and touch her soft cheeks. I touch them too. You will grow up comfortable in your own skin, little girl.

Making my way to the bath on the rainy roof of the hotel, I smile at my friends and show a bold confidence that I don't feel. Hannah squirms under the cold raindrops and I ease her into the hot water next to her father. Having lost my only cover, I quickly follow. We sit there in our 2-foot deep bath of boiling water, rain pelting our faces, skin blushing from . . . the heat. While making small talk about the weather and work we watch pigeons bathe in puddles among the rocks and boulders . I'm only half-listening.

"...wonder if they ever poop in the pool."

"...really would be nice if all those buildings weren't there."

"...guy is showering again. Will he never leave?"

"...think they'll stay another year?"

"Not a chance."

"...you getting out Suzie?"

I am outside of myself. I see a woman who is self-conscious and hates herself for it. She's trying to make a statement - to prove that her body is nothing to be ashamed of. She feels the burdens of Eve, Knowledge, and thousands of years of patriarchy weighing on her naked shoulders, and she wants to crawl under one of the boulders and cry. She wonders what the other men are thinking. She nearly despises their silence.

I take Hannah's wiggling body back into my arms. My warm rosy baby splashes with delight at the freedom of no diapers or onesies. She's in her element, and I envy that. Don't grow up baby. Stay young and dimpled and innocent. Shake off the stereotypes and body-images the world will try to press you to accept. Splash naked in the water forever.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hannanigans II

In light of Hannah turning 1 year in a month (!!!), I've been editing some of her videos. Here is how we spend our time. Here is why we wake up smiling every day.

video video video video

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rice Cooker Bread

Between the time the bread came out of the cooker and when I grabbed my camera, this was all that was left...
This turned out kind of dense, like panini (which I love). It's also fun to experiment with. The second time I made it, I added wheat germ (since you can't buy whole wheat flour here) and basil flakes. I also used plain yogurt because I was out of milk, which made it a little sour-doughey (nods to Travis, the sourdough master). Next time, roasted red onions...

Click here for a highly entertaining instructional video with English subtitles. ;)

Ingredients (sorry they're all in metric...who makes bread in a rice cooker outside of Asia??)

350g Bread Flour
21g Butter
21g Sugar
35ml Milk
180ml warm Water
5g Dry Yeast
6.5g Salt

These instructions are from another blog; beg pardon for weird grammar...

"1. Mix some of the 180 ml of warm water with the yeast and set aside.
2. Mix remaining ingredients except butter in rice cooker pot. Knead until all the ingredients combine together and you can shape it into a ball.
4. Take the ball of dough and put the butter into the center of the dough. Knead the butter into the dough until it combines together and the dough becomes less oily and less sticky. Shape into a ball shape again.
5. Leave the dough in the rice cooker pot and cover with a cloth, let it rise for an hour in a warm area(primary fermentation).
6. After an hour, lift the dough and drop it from a height of 50cm to release the air trapped inside the dough. (DO NOT punch the dough, they were very adamant about it in the video!)
7. Put it back into the pot, cover and let it rise again for another hour(secondary fermentation).
8. Put pot with risen dough into the rice cooker, set timer for 1 hour.
9. After it finishes the 1st cycle, turn it over using a spatula. Start the 2nd cycle of 1 hour.
10. After the 2nd cycle, turn it over again. Start the last and final cycle(weee!)
11. When the 3rd cycle has completed, remove the bread and leave it on a wire rack to cool.

Notes:
1. I poured out 180ml of warm water and used part of it to mix the yeast, because I read somewhere that someone had problems with a sticky dough, so I didn’t want to add too much water.
2. In the final cycle, I would suggest that you check on your rice cooker because for my case, the thermostat kept shortening the overall cooking time because the rice cooker was hot inside and didn’t need the time to heat up the food that was inside."

Chocolate Zucchini Cupcakes

Absolutely sinful. But, like my sister-in-law says, sometimes we need that. :)


Ingredients:

2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 cups all-purpose flour (or half and half whole wheat/white)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
*3 eggs
1-3/4 C packed brown sugar
**2/3 C vegetable or canola oil
2 C finely grated unpeeled zucchini (2 small)
3/4 C finely chopped walnuts or pecans

*I hear vegans often replace eggs with mashed banana. Sounds like it's worth a shot...

**Haven't tried this yet, but next time I'm going to experiment replacing all or part of the oil with apple sauce

Melt chocolate. In small bowl, stir together flour, baking power, baking soda and salt. Set aside. In large bowl and with electric mixer, beat egg and sugar for 10 minutes or until thickened and pale in color. Blend in oil and cooled chocolate. Add flour mixture, mixing at low speed until just blended. Stir in zucchini and chopped nuts. Spoon batter into 24 paper-lined or greased muffin tins, filling each two-thirds full. Bake at 350 F (180 C) for 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean. Let cook in pans on rack for 10 min. Remove and cool completely before icing. Garnish with pecan and walnut halves.

*Icing:
1/4 C melted butter
3-4 Tb cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla
~2 C powdered sugar

Mix butter, cocoa and vanilla with fork until smooth. Add powdered sugar until desired consistency.
*Still waiting for Samantha's avocado frosting recipe. ;)

So excited!

Look what I found for 500 yen:

Oh the possibilities! Banana bread, banana smoothies, mashed bananas for Hannah...any other ideas?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Back to Earth

Sorry I've been ranting and raving so much lately! Here are some much needed blog-cheering recipes.

Pita bread! This recipe is from About.com. Click here for an instructional video.

Ingredients:
  • 1 package of yeast, or quick rising yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 teapsoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
Preparation:

Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Let sit for 10-15 minutes until water is frothy.

Combine flour and salt in large bowl.

Make a small depression in the middle of flour and pour yeast water in depression.

Slowly add 1 cup of warm water, and stir with wooden spoon or rubber spatula until elastic.

Place dough on floured surface and knead for 10-15 minutes. When the dough is no longer sticky and is smooth and elastic, it has been successfully kneaded.

Coat large bowl with vegetable oil and place dough in bowl. Turn dough over so all of the dough is coated with oil.

Allow to sit in a warm place for about 3 hours, or until it has doubled in size.

Once doubled, roll out in a rope, and pinch off 10-12 small pieces. Place balls on floured surface. Let sit covered for 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 500 deg F and make sure rack is at the very bottom of oven. Be sure to preheat your baking sheet also.

Roll out each ball of dough with a rolling pin into circles. Each should be about 5-6 inches across and 1/4 inch thick.


Bake each circle for 4 minutes until the bread puffs up. Turn over and bake for 2 minutes.


Remove each pita with a spatula from the baking sheet and add additional pitas for baking.

Take spatula and gently push down puff. Immediately place in storage bags.


Here's the finished product. For yummy Indian sweet potato filling, see Aileena's blog.Ok Katie, your turn!

What. a. mess.

Note to self: don't feed baby prunes before bath time.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Dream

I wake up and gulp water from my plastic water bottle, slip my feet into plastic slippers, and walk across the plastic floor to the plastic computer. I type a plastic message on my plastic keyboard and read news about plastic faces and plastic breasts. The baby is crying so I pop a plastic pacifier in her mouth and shake a plastic toy in her face before proceeding to my plastic shower with plastic containers of soaps and scrubs. I dry myself off and step onto the plastic scale, brush my plastics-straightened teeth with my plastic toothbrush. I apply plastic tubes of makeup to my not-so-plastic face and dry my hair with a plastic hairdryer. I bundle up in plastic clothes and ride my plastic bike to work, where I teach English on a plastic board with a plastic marker while sitting in a plastic chair. At the grocery store I buy crackers in individual plastic wrappers and plastic sponges and specific government plastic bags into which we throw our plastic garbage. I drop my purchases in a reusable-but-still-nylon/plastic bag and admire the wooden vinyl houses on my walk home in my plastic shoes. As the sun peeps through the smoggy plastic-polluted clouds, I stop and think to myself,

I'm melting.


I drop the the plastic bag with its plastic food and my plastic lenses fall from my melting face. I can see. My bubbling, brittle clothes shatter. I am free. I begin to run. I run to the the ends of the earth for one piece of soil that hasn't been raped by our plastic existence. I want to lay on the ground and make love to that one piece of Earth, to tell it that everything will be ok - that no one will exploit it for money or suck out its very essence to feed our gluttonous lifestyles. I want to say these things knowing they aren't true, because words are all I have now.

They aren't enough.

Friday, February 6, 2009

You come before the sunshine

Dear Hannah,

You and Daddy have been sick this week, and it's taken its toll on me. Cook dinners, make tea, make runs for more tissues and throat drops, start baths, wipe noses, stay up all night, change diapers, force feed carrots and sweet potatoes, clean house, clean house, clean house again, do dishes, do laundry...all the while I can feel those little festering germs permeate my defenses. I feel like I'm doing all that I can, and it's not good enough. Need air. Need to breathe. Need sunshine. Need peace.

Of course, it hasn't helped that almost every day this week has been sunny and 50 degrees. I'm drawn to the sunshine. I itch for fresh, clean, non-germ-infested air. When I'm blessed to sneak in such an escape, I experience a release that bears away all fear, anger, frustration, anxiety and depression, and brings back some sense of normalcy. I revel in the cool brisk air, I close my eyes and turn my face to bask in the warm sun, and life becomes livable once again.

Today I was not so fortunate. Circumstances beyond my control shortened your morning nap (namely a political campaign truck blaring its loud speakers throughout the neighborhood - don't they know the only people home this time of day are mothers who are desperately trying to get their little ones to sleep longer than 30 minutes?!), and made you as cranky and irritable as I was. This led to a kitchen that looks like it's been hit by an h-bomb, cheese sticking to the floor and walls, spoons, pans and tupperware strewn about the house, clothes pulled out of drawers and sprinkled like evil fairy dust across the bedroom, books torn to shreds, and fistfuls of hair (mine) scattered like fallen heroes in a war zone.

What happened to our walk? Our trip to the grocery store? Visiting Daddy's baby and mom class? Eating and rolling around in the grass? Feeding the ducks? All of it, gone. The sunshine taunts me through the window as you attempt your second nap. And I am left here, claw marks engraved in my neck, dried snot on my shoulder, and gray hairs replacing the brown you savagely ripped from my scalp.

And I am better for it.

When you finally fell asleep in my weary arms, damp hair plastered to your round little head, flushed and tear-stained face turned up to me in silent, conciliatory bliss, boogers crusting your upper lip and hand resting peacefully on my breast, I began to weep. Not for lost daylight. Not for a missed chance at exercise and fresh air. I wept for you, and the pain and discomfort you've been feeling. I wept knowing my anger added to your stress. I wept out of relief that you were finally getting the rest you needed and deserved. Because you come before the sunshine. You come before the fresh air, the clean house, the answered calls and emails, the unfinished books, the brown hairs, the dinner, the laundry, the shower...none of it matters if you're not feeling well. You are my fresh air and my light. I'm lucky to have such a patient teacher of humility. Get better baby, so we can play again.


Love,
Mommy

Fat Spread and Junky Jack's

In the spirit of trying to live a healthier life, I’ve started cooking low-fat vegetarian meals, going for walks or jogs every day, and replacing the candy bowl with the rice cracker bowl. I’ve also sworn off McDonalds, which is next to our apartment wafting its gloriously gluttonous scents of deep fried everything. I haven’t seen “Supersize Me” or read “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” though I’m sure they would just solidify my choice to become vegetarian. No, I want more energy to write and travel and keep up with my daughter. I want to achieve my goals and boost my self confidence. I want to live to see my great grandchildren.


Learning to read hiragana and katakana has been a revelatory experience to say the least. I can see the world (or at least Japan) a little more clearly than before. It also means I can read ingredients and fat content, which makes me REALLY wish I liked sushi, miso and seaweed rather than chicken nuggets, chili and bread.


My recipe book says a lot about my life and the stages and changes I’ve gone through while in Japan. There’s the homesick section which has all of my favorite recipes from Mom – chili, chicken curry (which I’ve modified to veggie and tofu curry), hamburger rice skillet, chicken broccoli casserole, vegetable soup and oatmeal scotchies. These are all things I can’t make without 1) a trip to an import foods store, 2) ordering ingredients from Foreign Buyer’s Club, or 3) asking Mom or Amy to send stuff (thanks for the butterscotch chips Sis!). Then there’s the cookie section, which is me counting the things I CAN bake in my pint-sized microwave oven. This includes gingerbread, Greek wedding cookies, chocolate chip, apple crisp, and peanut butter chocolate oat cookies (thanks to Rick and Aileena for the deliciousness). I stopped baking so many cookies when I learned to read katakana. Picture me, a 1st grader in Japanese (according to “My Japanese Coach” on Nintendo DS) sounding out the following in the dairy section: Fu-a-tto Su-pu-re-ddo. That’s right folks. Fat spread. Pass the rice cakes.


Then there’s the section I’m currently expanding – The Size 6 Section - by far the tastiest, cheapest and most diverse chapter in my life of recipes. Here come the whole wheat corn muffins, rice-cooker lentil soup, Indian sweet potato wraps, garlic ginger tofu, Masoor Daal, vegetarian chili, Potato mushroom soup, Persian basmati rice pilaf, and fresh baked figs topped with plain yogurt and sliced almonds. Mouth watering yet? I know!! I have Aileena to thank for the majority of the recipes in this section. She’s been at the vegetarian thing longer than I have. I am humbly following her example.


You know, I’ve spent 2 years as a fat American complaining that none of the Japanese “jeans” fit. Small oven, small apartment, small clothes, small portion sizes (there’s a connection there), small cars, small roads, small grocery carts, small drug doses, small life! But look at what they’ve accomplished. Japan is one of the only first-world countries without national debt. Their elderly live to their 100’s. They conserve what little energy they have. They protect their forests and wildlife. They garden on every spare inch of land. They live minimalist lives because they have no choice, but they are better for it. There is much to be proud of in this small humble country, and coming from a place where bigger is better, I forget that a lot. What’s sad is seeing fast food chains like “Junky Jack’s” pop up like weeds among the rice patties. Hummers and SUVs crowd the narrow roads of country life. Expressways scar the mossy mountains of Shikoku. Bigger. Faster. More. It’s a disease that’s clogging the arteries of this fragile habitat. Japan has survived this long. Will it survive American-style consumerism? Will America?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

25

This birthday isn't about me - about the 25 years I've lived. It's about my mother. It's about a woman who gave birth at 37. It's about salt playdough and playing dress up. It's about buttered popcorn with lots of salt and fights over half-eaten dinners. It's about prom dresses and poetry, journals and dolls. It's about music and gardens, healthy food and taking care of the chicken pox. It's about 10 years of orthodontic appointments and long drives to piano lessons. All-day shopping trips. 96 colors of crayons. Crochet and sewing. Carrot cake and chocolate pie. The color green. Voice lessons. Feminism. Faith. All gifts from her.

4 Generations of Payne women - Grandma died on January 16, 2009.

I love you Mom. Thanks for what you did 25 years ago, and what you've been doing ever since.