Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Divorce Calculator

Via Digg (I know, I shouldn't be looking at Digg), I came across a link to a divorce calculator. The calculator uses census data to determine the likelihood that people who share the same background, characteristics and history as you will divorce. I guess the idea is to shake people out of the lala-land mindset they tend to have when they marry. After all, no one ever marries thinking that divorce is likely... at least they don't if they're sane.

While I'm sure people will say everyone feels they are an exception, I'm certain I will never divorce. The CH and I are just too compatible and into each other to ever part. Hell, I hate it when he has to leave the house for work and we're apart for hours. I'm not even very happy with the fact that he has to leave the room to go to the bathroom sometimes. ;-) I'm probably the only person in Japan who feels one of the "up" sides to living in a tiny apartment is that I can see and talk to my husband almost all the time when he's home because neither of us has any privacy.

At any rate, the interesting thing about these calculators isn't so much that they tell you the chance that you will divorce, but rather how changing a few variables effects the outcome. The stats that are used are:
  1. gender (Female)
  2. whether or not you have children (if you are female) (No)
  3. the year you married (1989)
  4. your education (university graduate)
  5. your age when you married (24)
  6. how long you've been married (19 years)
For a person in my situation, the chances of divorce are 32%. However, if you answer "yes" to the children question but leave all of the other stats the same, the chance of divorce drops to 23%. This would seem to point to the idea that women would divorce more often if they didn't have kids. If I leave all the stats the same as my original information, but lower the educational level to "high school graduate", the chances increase to 39%. The biggest difference though comes if I, again leaving all the stats the same, lower the age of marriage to 22 or younger. If I do that, the chances shoot up to 66%

I did truthful stats for my husband and it said his chances are 22%. I'm guessing this is mainly because he's 2 years older than I and the older one marries, the less likely it seems one might divorce. When I increased the age (for a male with his stats) to marriage after 33, the chances of divorce dropped to 12%.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn't met the CH. I'm guessing there's a decent chance I might have ended up divorced since that seems to be what has happened to about 1/3 of women in my shoes. There are two things of which I'm absolutely certain that can be said about my life if I hadn't met my husband. One is that I never would have ended up living in Japan. The other is that I never would have known such happiness with someone else. Of course, fact 1 has had no effect on fact 2, but both are the direct result of having met the CH.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


If you follow any blog for any period of time, you'll see that the frequency of posts sometimes drop off and then the excuses start popping up. I'm not one for offering such excuses because I don't feel obliged in any way to keep blogging. The fact of the matter is that I've often had things to say as of late, but have felt unable to say them. I offer an explanation of the situation not as an excuse, but rather as a bookmark in my personal history to tell myself what has been going on.

As of late, I've been experiencing more issues with my back than I had been and it's been draining my energy. Unless you've lived with pain day-in and day-out for years, you can't imagine the toll it can take on your ability to live a full life. Enduring pain, even when it's low-grade or bearable, taxes you in ways those who have not been in such a situation can't imagine.

Imagine a normal person's daily stamina as a fully inflated tire that loses air as the day goes on and refills to full capacity each morning after a night's rest. A person who is in pain everyday not only loses air at a faster rate, but finds that the tire never fully inflates no matter how much rest they get. This is because the pain represents a few extra holes allowing air to escape which make full inflation impossible no matter how hard you try to pump air into it.

As of late, I've felt like my tire has been near flat all the time and it's been difficult to raise the energy to type out my thoughts. It just feels like it's not worth the expenditure in effort when I have other things to do which are more immediate. Hopefully, this will pass and I'll be back to normal soon. One can hope.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pronunciation Matters

When you're teaching a foreign language, explaining why pronouncing a word correctly is important is often a rather abstract concept for students. Often, they think you're being overly fussy or pedantic. The truth is that this impression is not always a false one. I've heard teachers who are from other countries go out of their way to correct an accent because it represents the pronunciation of native speakers from another country. Particularly, a lot of British people want to "correct" North American accents when the student's speech patterns would be comprehended just fine anywhere in the world.

My feeling has always been that, as long as what you say can be understood, it doesn't matter if its the pronunciation a native speaker would use. However, sometimes it's very important to get it straight so that you are not a laughing stock. If one ever needed a more perfect example of this, one need only turn to the very well known (amongst expatriates) Japanese Self Defense Force Navy commercial:

The words on the screen are telling you what they mean to say, but what you hear if you're not reading along is "semen sip for love." Seeing a bunch of dancing, prancing sailors say "semen sip for love," does not conjure up the intended image of peace-loving protectors so much as gay sailors who enjoy nothing more than some round robin acts of fellatio.

So, if you ever need to prove how important it is to get the pronunciation of words correct, you can just show this video to the students and explain the meaning a native speaker is going to get.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chances Are Very High

There was a story recently in the Japanese news about a 15-year old girl who stabbed her father to death. The papers reported that she was scolded by her mother for poor grades and then stabbed her father "in the chest and other places". The girl was sentenced to 4 years in a reform school for her crime.

In response to this news, a few foreign commenters speculated that there was more to the story than was being offered. One person noted that it didn't make sense for a girl to commit murder over being yelled at for bad grades. Personally, I think it's also odd that it was the mother who reportedly yelled at her but the father who was killed. Also, the vague wording of the details of the crime, particularly the "other places", got someone speculating that those places might be indicative of something inappropriate going on between the father and daughter. In essence, he speculated that the motive for the murder may have been molestation. This speculation caused an uproar among other commenters who felt that this way off base and came out of thin air.

The speculation that she may have been molested and it was not reported is not out of line for Japan. People who disagreed with the proponents of the theory that this dark bit of data was hidden said that it would have come out because he was dead and there was no reason to hide it. This is Western thinking. In Japan, the opposite is often true. The thinking is usually that, if the person is dead, there is no reason to reveal it.

I asked some students about this to get their opinions and they all told me that Japanese papers do not like to speak ill of the dead. One of my older, more experienced students told me that he felt that chances were very high that newspapers "self-censored" frequently and that many facts were missing in cases where it'd be embarrassing to the family of the deceased or appear that the memory of the dead person was being disrespected.

The way death affects criminal cases is very different in Japan than in the U.S. as well. Often, crimes committed by a person who commits suicide will end an investigation into a particular crime. That is, if a man embezzles money and he had associates involved in that crime, his death by his own hand will end all investigation. The feeling is that justice is satisfied when he chooses to take the ultimate responsibility. In other words, he liberates his compatriots from paying for their crimes with his actions and spares his family further embarrassment.

So, between a desire not to speak ill of the dead and the crimes of the deceased ceasing to be an issue, it wouldn't be a huge shock if the girl who murdered her father was molested, but the fact remained hidden by the press. His death closed the book on any crime he committed and not speaking ill of him would keep the lid on anything that smacked of speaking poorly of him. I don't know if the girl was molested, had a family problem which was not revealed, or was mentally ill. However, I do know that the truth is unlikely to ever be known and that you can't apply Western thought processes to how the information is offered. This is part of how people come to misunderstand Japan and Japanese culture. You can view it through Western eyes using Western logic, but you're going to see a distortion.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's Okay to Bitch, But Not to Praise

Nearly two decades ago when I was working at Nova, I worked with a lot of teachers from a variety of countries. Near the end of my first year, a couple in their 30's from Canada started working there. Both of them held Master's degrees and were pretty smart people so I was surprised that they'd settle for work at the likes of Nova. This was before the teaching bubble burst and jobs became scarce and lower paying, though it was during the start of the slow ride downward for teachers in Japan.

At that point in time, I had only been with the CH for about two years in person and was extremely hungry to spend as much free time with him as possible... which is actually not appreciably different from now, but that's rather beside the point. At any rate, when we sat around the teacher's lounge area and talked about what we wanted to do, I would remark on occasion about how I preferred to spend as much time as possible with my cute little husband. While I did not remark on this to the female half of the married Canadian couple (who I believe was named Angela) probably overheard me talking to other people about the CH on occasion.

At one point, somehow my attitude toward the CH came up when she was taking part in a group chat and I showed my usual restraint in enthusiasm toward him, which is to say little to none. Well, that's an exaggeration. I do try to keep my remarks within socially acceptable boundaries in person, though I am pretty straightforward and don't go out of my way to hide the fact that my marriage is a very happy one if there is a topic at hand which may include something related to my relationship with my CH. At any rate, I said something, and Angela snapped back nastily saying something about how we all didn't have to spend as much time as possible with our husbands.

Considering the fact that I rarely or never spoke with her because she disliked Americans on principle, I felt her response was pretty out of line. It's not like I was "over sharing" with her. In fact, I'd never directly shared anything at all with her, but, even if I did, I'm not sure why my happiness ought to be so antagonistic toward her that she'd find it necessary to lash out at me.

Angela approved of British folks on principle and buddied up to them before teachers of all other nationalities. I think the pecking order was something like: U.K., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Americans (but only if she held her nose near one). Since she wanted to be BFF ("best friends forever") with any Brit on the premises, she confided in my best friend at the time who happened to be from England. Angela told my friend that her husband was seeking an "open relationship" now that he'd spent some time in Japan and was finding that many delicate flowers were willing to open up to him. Their marriage was stressed because she didn't have a desire to stray and was angry about his attitude. In the end, she went back to Canada alone and I transferred to another branch of Nova in Kichijoji so I don't know if her husband went about pollinating all the blossoms on offer or if he kept it in his pants while his wife was an ocean away.

When I started working at my former office, I encountered another bitter woman who grew irrationally angry at me for my attitude toward my husband. This woman was American and married to a Japanese man. She hated living in Japan and felt trapped here because her husband couldn't work in the U.S. and make a decent living and she had no appreciable skills for getting work back home. She almost never spoke about her husband and was vague when anyone made polite smalltalk which involved asking her about him (e.g., what his job was). She also took a dislike to me because I was pretty gung-ho to expand my skills on the job in my down time and she preferred to read magazines and write letters in hers and she felt I was attempting to show her up. I must say that it was a pretty good indication of her self-preoccupation if she thought I spent hours cultivating skills just to make her look bad rather than doing something of use and interest to me. Between her growing resentment in my interest in gaining skills on the job and dislike of my mentioning anything about my personal life, the hostility reached a point where she simply stopped speaking to me altogether.

After those two memorable experiences with women who were openly snotty with me for being so openly happy with my husband, I realized a few things. First and foremost, unhappy people hate to be around someone who isn't experiencing the same type of unhappiness as they are. Misery loves company, but moreso if that company is miserable about the same things as it. The second thing I realized is that people are open-minded and sympathetic about any complaints people have about their spouses (at least up to a point). They can bitch about how lazy, selfish, stubborn, childish, etc. a spouse is and people will not think less of them unless they do it too often or too irrationally. However, they are far less tolerant or accepting of praise of one's spouse.

Sometimes we hear that many developed cultures are cultures of whiners and complainers. I think that the lack of social acceptance and, indeed, frequent social censure of people who are talking about their happiness is part of cultivating cultures full of people who focus excessively on the negative in their lives. It's cool to sneer, be snide, or deride people and everyone is more than happy to jump on the bandwagon for a bitch session (especially about spouses), but it's trite, childish, and possibly seen as bragging to focus on the positive. We get the cultures full of the types of people we earn through our actions.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Misplaced Anger

Several days ago, one of my students related a story to me which had a familiar sense to it. Though she's Japanese, her experience transcended cultural boundaries and emphasized for me how some human responses are a common part of our psychology.

She told me that she had had a car accident where her car had been side-swiped by another car. The accident was entirely the fault of the other driver and he admitted it. On that day and at that time, she hadn't planned on being out driving some place. She told me she had a sense that something might happen if she did so, but also she had other plans for her time which included studying English. The reason she was driving was that her husband had an appointment and insisted that she drive him to it. She wanted him to take a cab because the appointment was a professional one and he could write it off anyway, but he complained about the timing and how a cab may not pick him up in time to get him to the appointment on time.

When the accident occurred, my student was upset by what happened, but she was angry at her husband, not the man who hit her car. She blamed him for the accident because he pushed her to drive him. While it is certainly true that she wouldn't have had the accident if she hadn't been driving, it's not as if her husband was responsible for what happened, nor could he have reasonably expected such a thing might occur. What she was really angry about, and the accident provided her with an opportunity to focus and express that anger, was that her husband had pressured her to do something she didn't want to do. She felt she couldn't reasonably refuse his request or complain about it so she didn't show her frustration with him until the accident provided a better excuse to be mad.

This pattern is one I'm acquainted with mainly as a victim and also as the "abuser", but far less as the latter than the former. My mother was the queen of misplaced and displaced anger. Any time she grew frustrated or angry with one thing in her life, she picked a convenient target and let loose with verbal abuse. If she was late, it wasn't because she had misplaced her purse and wasted time finding it, but because she had to "waste" time rounding up us kids and getting us in the car. Never mind that we were ready to go before her and sitting around waiting for her to locate her carelessly placed handbag and eventually wandered back to our rooms to play with something while we waited for her to be ready. As the years went by, my mother's logical connections for misplaced anger became increasingly far removed and ridiculous, but the pattern of always finding a way to blame someone else when she was frustrated by the normal and unpredictable ebb and flow of daily life remained firmly in place.

When the CH and I first got married, I'm sure I did a similar thing where I blamed him because he made a choice, recommendation, or asserted his preference and I followed his lead and something bad happened. I don't recall any specific instances of doing so, but given the nature of these things, it would be no surprise if it happened on multiple occasions. Some time in the first five to ten years or so of marriage, either with his feedback or on my own, I realized how wrong this was and made a conscious effort to feel my anger and frustration and even express them in various ways, but not to use the CH as a target. At the very least, if I'm going to be upset, I'm going to be upset for the "right" reasons and not blame him for an unpredictable consequence. Of course, it helps that the CH does not force his choices upon me or attempt to coerce me into doing things I don't want to do.

I consider it quite the blessing that I no longer am the frequent victim of misplaced anger now that I live away from my family. The CH, and this is one of the many reasons I praise him so highly all of the time, is not prone to anger, let alone getting angry with me for something which isn't my fault. In fact, it is so rare that he shows anything approaching actual anger that it's always a great shock to me when I see such a look on his face. I'm sure that his calm nature has paved the way for me doing a much better job of controlling my anger and becoming angry less often and I'm immensely grateful.

When I consider my upbringing and my married life, I'm profoundly struck by how the people you live with and who interact with you on a regular basis can bring out the worst or the best in you through their behaviors. My mother role modeled a lot of bad behavior for me which I brought to my marriage. Fortunately, the combination of my husband's behavior and my insight and self-reflection allowed me to overcome that and grow in a better direction.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pop Culture Icons

This morning, I ran across a bit of the new Star Trek movie trailer on (Edit: There's a better version here.) You don't have to be a geek to like it, but it doesn't hurt. One of the things that struck me about the trailer was that the scenes of Kirk and Spock as kids were refreshing to see. The series has been around long enough that the characters have become iconic. In fact, they may actually be better known internationally than most iconic superhero characters, with the exception of Batman. Everyone who has been exposed to American entertainment culture knows the Batman, and everyone wants to be him. ;-) If you search YouTube, you can find some knock-off versions of the original Star Trek made by other countries. Some of them are rather hilarious, but it's clear that even those who never saw the original show know the concept from their own bastardized versions.

Anyway, most iconic characters are pretty fleshed out, but J.J. Abrams seems to have found a few nooks and crannies for the characters to showcase in the trailer (if not the movie itself). It looks pretty exciting, but then I am a fan of the original Trek. And, no, I'm not old enough to have seen the original series when it aired, but I am old enough to have seen it in syndication before Star Trek: The Next Generation aired.

Times are tough, for sure, but most of us can still afford to play video games online (I recommend Guild Wars because it has no monthly fee, or Diablo II because it's the most awesome game ever), take a walk, make yummy homemade food from scratch, or see the occasional escapist movie. Life is still pretty cool even when things seem to be crashing down around us. Seeing that trailer and looking forward to the movie reminded me of that.


A few weeks ago, I took one of those on-line "sustainability quizzes". If you've never taken one, it's a series of questions which asks you about your lifestyle and then tells you how many planets it'd take to sustain your life if everyone lived at your level. The idea behind such quizzes is to encourage people to live lower on the hog in order to improve the environment.

This is the second such quiz I have taken and it always turns out that it'd take between 2-3 earths to sustain my lifestyle. Both times, this shocked me because I do not live high on the aforementioned hog. In fact, this year, I was considering my wardrobe and pushing myself to tough out the mild winter with no heavy sweater, no coat, and only 3 long-sleeved shirts. I didn't want to buy new stuff if I could get by with layering what I still have because I didn't want to waste money or resources if it wasn't absolutely necessary.

To be honest, hearing that it'd take 2.8 planets to sustain my lifestyle made me angry. I live in a very small place which uses little energy to heat, cool, and light. In fact, I daresay that few people in developed cultures live in less square foot per person in the household than my husband and I do. I don't shop as recreation, I conserve water and energy, I cook most of my own food from basic ingredients, and I recycle everything possible. I can't compost, but the city does that for Tokyo residents anyway.

After taking the second quiz, I wondered what it is that I'd have to do to require only one planet for my relatively modest and unwasteful lifestyle. Is my coffee, dairy, and chicken consumption really that destructive such that it requires 1.8 more planets than this one to support? I discussed this with the CH and he said that the problem isn't that we are wasteful, but it's rather a matter of math. If everyone on this planet lived as we did, it wouldn't be sustainable. In other words, past a certain point, it's about the number of people, not the position one lives on the hog. If the population keeps ballooning, pretty soon the only way that we'll be able to meet our needs with only one planet will be if we all live in dirt huts, eat rice and beans, and share the same book with our entire community. The resources are finite (or shrinking), but the population just keeps growing so everyone's sliver of the pie keeps getting narrower and narrower. We all have to use less and less as the division keeps whittling down each person's share to an ever smaller amount.

Several months ago, I was reading a blog where a woman wrote a piece about "breeders". She was essentially asking if it was irresponsible for people to have a lot of kids in this day and age and she got a lot of comments from mothers who, of course, said they felt that it was not a concern. One of them said that she had six kids and felt that, if she didn't have a lot of kids who would put a strain on resources and therefore more resources would be available for the rest of the planet, everyone else just would consume more. This sort of attitude seems based in naivete, or willful ignorance, of the seriousness of the problems at hand.

It's pretty clear that it's reached the point where everyone is facing a serious degradation in lifestyle if the entire population does not begin contracting soon. It's not a matter of lowering lifestyles or living with less, but a matter of everyone (and I mean every single person) adopting a standard of living that many would find unacceptable and/or some people dying because there's not enough to go around and they drew the short end of the stick resources-wise. By U.S. standards, much of my current lifestyle is already unacceptable - no car, hanging laundry out to dry, no central air, limited water use, very small living space - and it'd require 2.8 planets for everyone to live at my relatively modest level.

The situation seems pretty hopeless to me because the solution clearly is going to be for no couple to have more than 2 kids for the foreseeable future, and that's not a factor I personally can do anything about. No matter how much I freeze because I question the absolute necessity of new clothes or how much time I spend showering by turning the water off and on to conserve resources or how many winters I shiver through or summers I sweat through, it's not going to be enough. About the greatest thing I can and have done for the planet is to remain childless.

So, I'm buying a sweater and some new clothes. I'm done actively suffering for the planet and debating every purchase as if I were personally responsible for every tree that is cut down and every strip mine that is dug. Though I'm still going to do the best I can not to be wasteful, I see no point in putting myself through any real hardship for a problem to which I'm powerless to control the main contributor.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Bitter Pill I Didn't Have to Swallow

This is hopefully the last page of the "magic English pill" woman saga in my life. I'm happy to say that I never taught her and will never have to teach her again and it again happened without my looking like the "bad guy".

This student was scheduled for a lesson on the 7th of November but canceled because she said she caught a cold. She was rescheduled for yesterday, but the agency called to tell me that she hadn't been in touch with them so they couldn't be sure when she'd ever take the lessons she'd requested, if ever. Their phone message said essentially that she hadn't paid for the lessons yet anyway, so they couldn't really expect much of her.

In the follow-up e-mail from the agency about this student, the referral agent essentially said that he didn't feel she was really all there. He didn't say those words exactly, but he did mention that half her mind was on something concrete and tangible and the other half didn't know what it wanted. He also said that he felt that "normal people" couldn't understand what she was thinking and encouraged me to flat out refuse if she were offered to me by anyone else who didn't know her history with both me and the agent.

So, I'm pleased to report that that particular issue is a weight off my mind. I had reconciled myself to dealing with her and viewing doing so as a challenge to my spirit and teaching skills. However, I'm just as pleased not to have to take on this particular challenge.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Doctor Swag

Among the items are super soft micro cleaning cloths for eyeglasses, tons of ball point pens, a pass case, white board markets, correction tape, cable organizers and a dehydrated dish towel that plumps up to full size once you get it wet.

One of my students is married to a doctor and, on occasion, she has handed off portions of gifts that have been given to her husband. Some of the gifts she shares with me are from patients who give him case-size portions of various food items. She's given me fruit jellies, melons, and dried sweet potato. She's also give me notepads and pens before. A few weeks ago, she also gave me some facial tissues that her husband had been inundated with by companies selling allergy medication.

I mentioned to her that I could make use of the items she gave me and would be glad to take her "cast-offs". Today, she brought a small shopping bag stuffed with the assortment above. All of these items are freebies given to the doctor by various companies that want him to prescribe or recommend their products to patients. While this may look like bribery, I'm guessing it's more about brand name recognition.

One of my other students works for a pharmaceutical company and she spends a lot of her time visiting hospitals, clinics, etc. and hawking her company's wares. A lot of what she's encouraging nurses, doctors, and medical professionals to recommend are nutritional supplements. Her company spends a fair amount of their resources taking beneficial components of naturally occurring substances and extracting them to put into pills, powders or liquids so people can ingest them more efficiently on a regular basis.

After receiving this bag of doctor swag from my student, I couldn't help but wonder just how much her husband receives and how much is wasted. He's a single doctor with a single clinic and the amount of stuff he gets overflows such that he, his wife, her family, and his staff couldn't possibly use it all. My student gave some of it to me, but I'm guessing there is far more piling up in a corner somewhere. The way in which business is done in this way must contribute greatly to the wasting of resources in developed countries. How much oil is used on unwanted pens? How many trees are cut down to make gift boxes for those pens? It's a shame, really, but there's not much to be done about it. Still, I feel a little better knowing that I can either use these things or pass them along to someone else who can.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Caramel Cake

Last year, I made the CH an Elvis cake for his birthday. It was good, but a little weird, so I asked him what special cake he wanted this year. He told me he wanted a caramel cake. I believe I only made one twice in the last 6-8 years, and the original recipe came from a Penzey's spices catalog which has long since been tossed. I searched Penzey's site, but they didn't have this recipe listed so I had to try and recover the recipe (or one like it) somehow.

I have very few cookbooks these days because the whole world of cooking is open to me with a search on the web. Most of the time, that works out pretty well, but not when it comes to certain recipes. Finding a caramel cake recipe, for instance, is very hard because there are many variations and few simple recipes. Those that are simple go too far and have ingredients like "cake mix" and instructions like "make cake as instructed by mix." Also, I didn't want chocolate caramel, cinnamon caramel, apple caramel, banana caramel, or tres leches. I wanted something straightforward with two flavors - cake and caramel.

I don't make cakes from mixes, and even if I wanted to, I couldn't find a good one in Japan without sifting through import shops. Finding a good, plain yellow cake recipe for a cake from scratch is very hard. It's as if everyone figures a plain cake is best produced from a mix or homemade ones are indistinguishable from those made from Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. I can tell you for a fact that this is not true. Fortunately, some years ago and after some trial and error-based failures with cakes that disappointed (too sweet, too sticky, too flat), I found a good plain cake recipe and had the foresight to print it out and put it in my personal recipe file so I still had the basic cake recipe on hand.

Unfortunately, the caramel part of my old caramel cake recipe was long gone, but I turned up a recipe that seemed to fit the bill. The yellow cake in this recipe is like a pound cake, though not quite so heavy. It's moist, light, and sweet and the best homemade yellow cake I've run across. The caramel is easy to make and requires no exotic ingredients. The cake looks a little funky because you have to poke holes in it to allow the caramel to creep into the cake, but it's very good. I don't even like caramel, but I enjoyed this.

Yellow cake:
  • 2 C. all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/3 C. sugar
  • 1/2 C. shortening (I used "cake margarine/keiki magarin", but you can use Crisco)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 C. milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
Cream the sugar and shortening together. Add eggs, salt, milk and vanilla and beat until thoroughly combined. Sift in the flour and baking powder and beat until the batter is smooth. (Note: my sugar and shortening were lumpy so I took a Braun multi-quick hand mixer to it and it didn't have any bad effect on the result)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F./175 degrees C. Grease and flour a 9 x 9 baking dish (I used glass) and pour in the batter. Tap the edges to even it out. Bake for about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Note that your cooking time may vary depending on the type of pan you use. Metal pans will require a shorter cooking time than glass.

Allow the cake to rest in the pan for 15 minutes. Gently loosen the edges and turn it out on a rack for cooling. Allow it to cool for at least 30 minutes before the next stage.

Caramel sauce:

  • 1 1/2 C. brown sugar
  • 4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 C. boiling water
  • dash salt
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. cream
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
Add the sugar, salt and flour to a heavy bottomed saucepan and mix together well. Add the boiling water and heat over medium heat until it starts to bubble. Turn the heat down a bit and cook for about 5 minutes until thickened. Stir it very often and monitor the heat carefully to make sure it doesn't burn. You want the final result to be slightly thicker than you'd like for the cake because it'll be thinned out a little by the butter, cream and vanilla.

Remove the cooked sauce from the heat and stir in the butter. Once the butter has been completely melted into the sauce, stir in the vanilla and finally the cream. You want the sauce to have cooled a little before adding in the cream, but it shouldn't be cold.


Take the cooled cake and poke holes into it with a straw or chopsticks. I usually poke the holes closer together at the edges, but you can choose any pattern or number of holes you like.

Carefully pour the sauce over the cake filling in the holes as you go. You'll notice dimples forming as the sauce penetrates the cake. Once you have covered the whole cake once, go back over it and pour more sauce into the dimpled areas. There is plenty of sauce so you shouldn't have any problems totally filling in the holes even if you make quite a few (which I did). Any remaining sauce can be poured onto the center. If you run low on sauce, you can always spoon up the spillover and fill in any dimples.

This cake keeps very well for 2-3 days because it's moist and the sauce keeps it moister than usual. In fact, it is actually better the second day as more of the sauce penetrates into the cake as time goes by.

I think we were fortunate this time around to have both U.S. butter and New Zealand dark brown sugar to use for this. I've made it before with Japanese ingredients and it's good, but Japanese brown sugar isn't as deeply flavored. Also, and I hadn't noticed this until very recently as I haven't had American butter in about 2 decades, American butter is sweeter than Japanese butter. It's not that sugar is added, but rather that they use a different type of cream in U.S. butter. The U.S. butter, incidentally, was imported and sold for a hugely inflated price (about $17 for 2 cups) because of the butter shortage in Japan.

My husband and I didn't buy it. He was given it by a student who picked it up for 100 yen (about a dollar) because it was set to expire too soon. The butter we were given was equivalent to 2 cups of butter and doesn't expire until the end of this month. I'll be sad to finish it off. It's so good.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Most Important Day

I've tried to approach this post from various angles and have written and deleted several paragraphs, but the truth is that some things are nearly impossible to explain in a way that others can relate to. Forty-six years ago today, the person who has transformed my life in more positive ways than I could have conceived of was born. This day is more precious to me than any other because he is more precious to me than anything.

Lots of people say that unconditional love does not exist, but I know it does because I've experienced it and it's nothing short of a miracle. Living with that miracle everyday through my husband is the greatest gift life can give a person. I can't begin to celebrate this day in a way which suits its importance to my life, but I'm going to try.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


In an earlier post, I mentioned that we nearly made it through the summer without any cockroaches penetrating our inner sanctum. That was on October 19th. I figured that the roach had sneaked in on my clothing which had hung on the line, but I did find it odd that it was crawling high across our white living room wall rather than lurking in the shadows or wedging itself behind furniture. Roaches like to be wedged between two narrow areas so they are touching something on both their tops and bottoms. They don't like being high and in the open.

At the time, I recall thinking that I was glad that it didn't show up in a similar place during one of my lessons as it would be horrible for me to be teaching a student and to have a roach crawl by where a student could see it. I know that people who live in Tokyo are aware of the inevitability of roaches, but I can't help thinking that they'd believe I was a really dirty person or that they couldn't feel comfortable in my apartment if a roach might amble through.

I saw what I hoped was our first and last cockroach of 2008 on October 19. Now that it's November, I figured the likelihood of one showing up was pretty low, until two days ago when one of my worst scenarios played out. Several nights ago as I was teaching a student around 7:20 pm, something dark and high up on my whitish walls caught my eye. A roach was slowly crawling across the wall on the left. When I saw it, it was behind my student, but I believe it made it's way over the wall and out of my field of view.

I don't know if the student saw it once it passed my peripheral field of vision, but I did notice her eyes dart to the left several times (though her head didn't move). Of course, a lot of people look to one side or another while thinking as we naturally look to the side of our brain that we're utilizing while concentrating, and I didn't know if she saw it or if she was just thinking. By the time the lesson ended, it was nowhere to be seen and I figured it had crawled behind the bookshelf that is at the end of that same wall.

Since I didn't want that thing running around after my husband got home as they creep him out rather fiercely (and I'm not too great a fan of them either), I tried to hunt it down. I rocked the bookshelf in the hopes of scaring it out, but it didn't show. I took apart the bookshelf which was chock-a-block with heavy books and pulled it away from the wall, but it wasn't there. I got a flashlight and searched a lot of darkened nooks and crannies including under the bed, behind the sofa, behind the T.V., etc. and I couldn't find it. I was already tired and all of this searching was the last thing I needed. Finally, I gave up, turned off the kitchen light and at that moment it scurried from a dark corner and I nailed it with roach killer.

Though I was mortified to see a roach on my wall during a lesson, its presence as well as that of the other one was educational. It's no coincidence that both of them showed up late in the summer after the air conditioner in the living room was no longer used. Though I've plugged every hole that I know of in the apartment, there is one I can't plug and that's the one's related to the air conditioner itself. My guess is that they are coming through a hole that was made during the unit's installation which is a less attractive route when the AC is used. The reason they are high up on my walls is that that is where the entry point is. I don't know if they can crawl through the tubing which water drips through or if it's some other hole, but clearly I'm going to have to try and lock off this point of entry when the air conditioner is not in use if I want to avoid them with more certainty.

As for my student, I'm hoping she wasn't freaked if she saw it. She's a pretty level-headed person, and a nurse, so she's seen some pretty gross stuff. If she shows up next week, I'll be in the clear. If not, well, I'll know what happened.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Stuff and Happiness

I'm not the type of person who finds much happiness in "stuff". I don't shop for amusement. I don't collect anything (at least not anymore) and I don't expect (but do appreciate) gifts. That doesn't mean I'm utterly immune to the charms of material possessions in life. While, the thing that makes me happiest is attention from my sweet little hairy hubby, there are objects that give me pleasure. I think that's part of the nature of corporeal existence and that we can embrace the pleasure we get from things as long as our lives are not defined or totally fulfilled by them.

Lately, I've been feeling pretty down for a variety of reasons. One is that I seem to be slowly succumbing to a cold. Another is that some of the discussions and circumstances surrounding the recent election were a bit depressing. For instance, when I learned that 69% of black California voters voted to support the ban on gay marriage, I was greatly disheartened to see a formerly oppressed minority act so strongly to oppress another minority, particularly in light of Obama's victory. I also was not happy that a student I hoped never to see again was heading back into my life, albeit for a temporary stint.

Bad times can often be lightened unexpectedly though. The student I didn't want to see canceled her lesson today as did another student so I get to rest a lot today when I feel under the weather. I also got two big surprises yesterday in unassuming packages which really brightened my day.

The CH went to Costco 3 days ago and he picked me up a few surprises. Ferrero Rocher is one of my favorite candies and he procured a large box of them for me in addition to some gorgeously yummy almond roca. I haven't broken into them yet and, in fact, will be hiding them in the closet for awhile so that I'm not overly tempted to indulge. Ideally, I'd like to save them such that I have an appreciable amount left around Christmas. However, the thought he put into buying things he knows I like is warming weather I get a sugar high off of them immediately or not. Also, frankly, with a looming cold, good sweets are wasted since my sense of taste may be diminished.

The second gift came from my sister and that was Adobe Creative Suite 4 Design Premium collection for Macintosh. I'm extremely happy to get this update. I'm looking forward to learning how the new stuff works and installed it on my aging Mini yesterday. There's a CD with the discs with two hours of tutoring. I'm very, very grateful to her and one of her associates who are responsible for graciously giving me this.

So, even though I don't focus excessively on material items or tend to use them to make me happy, they do sometimes shine a little light into my darker days, and yesterday was a very good day in that regard.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes, I'm Happy

I know that people are sick to death of the American election so I won't go on about it. I'm happy with the results, but cautious about my expectations. What happens from now depends on how the American people respond to future proposed changes. Since the end of World War II, Americans have been reluctant to buckle down and do without and I have to imagine that there's going to have to be a lot of that in the future if things are to get better. The pendulum is swinging back to the left after lingering for what felt like an eternity on the right.

The thing that resonates most with me today is that:
  • 146 years ago, slavery ended
  • 44 years ago, Jim Crow laws which mandated "separate but equal" ended
  • 41 years ago, anti-miscegenation laws ended
  • Today, a man who was born of a union between an African man and a Caucasian woman was elected president of the United States by a sizable margin.
The next time someone responds to the topic of Japanese racism with claims of how the U.S. has problems, too, I'm going to send them a psychic punch in the teeth. Yeah, there are still problems in America, but clearly they can't be that bad.

Honestly, I got teary thinking of the progress in thought processes that have been made to obtain the result of today's election. Most Americans may still see color, but clearly, it doesn't matter that much to them in estimating a person's value, intellect, or ability.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What's Shaking?

Back when I was living in Pennsylvania, we lived near a coal mine and a railroad track. Large trucks full of coal would go rumbling down the dirt road next to us and large mining machinery would excavate from not too far away. The railroad was extremely close and my childhood was spent at times exploring the rails for discarded ties. If you don't know what a tie is, it looks like a nail with a serious thyroid problem. It's huge and heavy and for some reason, I though picking these big, dirty, rusty, heavy nails up and carrying them home was really cool.

On a few rare occasions the trucks would go around the turns of the road too quickly and turn over. This resulted in quite the racket as this massively heavy truck and all of its sooty cargo thumped to the ground. It wasn't unusual for the trucks or equipment to send shock waves through the ground as they did their thing. This would result in some small shaking in our house from time to time. Also, no small amount of dust was kicked up on the road, particularly in the summer. The dust would come in through our open windows and leave a film all over our furniture on a regular basis.

An office affiliated with the mining operation was about a mile or so behind our property and the people who worked there would sometimes fly in helicopters over our house. Because the approach was relatively near, the helicopters often came in or went out low and we could hear them loudly overhead. Despite growing up in a rural area and in relative isolation from other people, we heard our fair share of noise from the loud train whistles and engines to the rumbling trucks to the sound of distant explosions on occasion from mining operations. And even though we lived in an area where there were no earthquakes, it wasn't uncommon for our house to shake.

Now, I live in a place about as far removed from my rural upbringing as possible. I've gone from living in a house where visiting the nearest neighbor required a 15 minute walk or a hop in the car to a place where my neighbors are so close that their conversations in front of their homes sound like they're taking place in my living room. I don't even need a car for life in a metropolis. While I used to live with a huge lawn both in front and behind my house and woods nearby, I now see nothing but concrete punctuated by the odd gingko or osmanthus tree.

Despite all of these differences, some things apparently remain the same. I don't know why, but low-flying helicopters seem to pass over my apartment. Sometimes, they are low enough that they cause my building to vibrate and the glass doors in the living room to rattle. Also, Tokyo smog and my proximity to a major road seem to leave my apartment coated with dust on a near hourly basis just like the dust from dirt roads did back when I was a kid. Lately, there has also been construction going on not too far from my apartment. I can hear the banging of heavy machinery in the distance and my kitchen scale, which rattles a little when shaken, seems to be rattling on a regular basis these days. If I lived a little closer to JR and could hear the train, it'd be just like growing up all over again.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

We Don't Need to Be Paragons

Some time earlier this year, I decided it was in my best interest to stay away from the news-based or impersonal English language sites that cater to people living in Japan. The reason I made this decision was that most of those sites seem to be ran by and commented on by people who are so deeply steeped in being a foreigner in a foreign land that they have a worldview entirely shaped by it. Many of them have extremely rigid views of what a foreign person should do while living in Japan and have disdain for anyone who doesn't fit their definition.

A recent discussion with a student about the Yamanote line Halloween party compelled me to revisit one of those sites (it ends with "Probe" and starts with the name of the country it's about). For those who don't know, the Yamanote line is a train line which travels around central Tokyo in a huge loop. It's often packed with commuters, shoppers, etc. and trains arrive at stations at very frequent intervals (about 3 minutes apart). She told me that she'd seen on the news that police were gathered to deal with the party this year, but she was unclear as to why that was the case. In the interest of clarifying the situation for her, I ventured into hostile territory.

I'm not going to debate whether or not the party is a good or bad idea, because I've never attended one of them and only have second hand information about how disruptive or festive it is. And frankly, I don't care. Just because I'm a foreigner, it doesn't mean that the actions of other foreigners have to be of paramount interest to me.

When these sorts of controversial situations come up, there are always people who assert that the people who behave in ways they view as inappropriate for Japanese culture are making us all look bad. Their viewpoint is that we should all be paragons so the natives won't generalize the bad behavior of one person or party to all of us. They say this knowing that this standard doesn't apply to Japanese people, who are far from all acting perfectly in public (very, very far).

The notion that we must behave well so as not to make others look bad by association is based on a very real mindset among some Japanese. That is, they see one foreign person causing trouble and nod their heads and say that's what you have to expect from foreigners. Many of them already believe we're all ill-mannered and bad behavior from one person confirms their prejudice. The crux of my point is that people who already hold a prejudice and are just looking for confirmation are never going to view foreigners differently, no matter how perfectly mannered they are.

Being the most obedient foreigner you can be isn't going to change any one's mind about how foreigner's in general behave. They'll see you as an exception to the rule, not as an example of the rule.