Category Archives: Musings on Culture et al

Where Do We Begin?

Today, like many others, I am walking on the razor edge of complete despair and profound hope. Deep in my heart I am trembling with fear that tomorrow Mubarak will order his thugs to massacre any protesters. In my bones I am certain–just as the quivering voice of Salma speaking from Tahrir Square declared–that if Mubarak remains in office until September (or November as PM Shafiq later mentioned) many Egyptians who had the courage, nerve, and dignity to demand their human rights will be rounded up, tortured, and imprisoned–if not assassinated.

How have we created such a world? How is it that so many of us move along happily ignoring the numerous injustices plaguing the planet. I just cannot stop caring. Where do we begin to build peace? Where do we begin building cultures and societies that simply do not allow such atrocities to take place. This is not an Egyptian crisis, nor is it simply an Egyptian uprising. This is a global crisis and in my opinion it is a very private crisis too. All I can come up with, all I can grasp, is this: We must each make it our foremost duty to actively build peace in this world. I’m not talking about going to Yoga class and claiming bliss–I mean action. Action at home, action at work, action in our communities. Each one of us holding ourselves accountable and honestly reflecting on our own behavior, choices, and thinking.

This massacre is not being carried out by Mubarak alone but by many people. There are the thugs, of course, who have fallen in love with their power and have lost touch with their humanity. Hell-bound sycophants who eagerly assault unarmed innocents so that they may hold their grip on their positions. Some people enable the massacre by hiding away in their flats and growing revolution fat. Others enable the brutality by leaving the country and trying to forget about the chaos. Further away, some of us simply ignore the atrocities and justify our apathy in various ways: I am so busy, I have my own problems, that’s just a crazy part of the world and I don’t get it. LOOK INSIDE YOUR HEARTS!!!!!!! What is there! Aren’t you aching for this man above?! Aren’t you aching for Egypt? Aren’t you aching for this entire human mess? Look into your heart and pull aside that dark curtain that prevents you from seeing, from feeling. Look inside your heart and recognize–finally–that there you CAN create infinite space and hold within it every being on this freaking planet.

I cannot stop caring and I am praying that you will have the same affliction.

In honor of the brave Egyptians protesting in the dangerous streets, I am reposting this article so that you may be aware.

Here are the signals I picked:

Omar Soliman claimed the youth in Tahrir now are NOT those honorable ones on 25th! ( A BIG LIE )

Then all int’l reporters started getting calls to leave the square tonight ‘as gov. Can not guarantee there safety!!!’

And all live camers (at least from one side of tahrir have been confiscated!!)

Earlier the military police stormed the Hesham Mobarak center for human rights (not related to Mubarak) and detained at least 24!!

And a probaganda plan started about a foreign groups behind the protests continuing till now!!

I feel They are keeping (who are the foreigners! behind it?) open so they choose later who will not side with the reports after massacre is over by the mafia of Mubarak (US cia or HAMAS or Israili intelligence)

I tried to suggest protestors now to be aware and hide or leave and choose another form of protesting NOW suddenly like hanging a black cloth from each balcony but idea was turned down



Will you begin caring now? Will you look into your heart? Will you make this commitment to yourself and to your community? We must begin building peace in ourselves and doing that requires us to look into our hearts and realize that it DOES hurt to witness atrocities. It is our duty to bear witness, it is our duty to care, it is our duty to take action.

Please share this.

Deep Sea Raccoon

Image source.

A little known fact about me: I’ve got a soft spot for hyper-corny Americana. Another surprise: I love boats! I’m on a boat! Everybody look at me cuz I’m sailin’ on a boat!

It all started with a family tradition. My grandfather, whom we all called ‘Pop,’ had a small boat that he kept in Cape May. When we were little, he would take us ‘down the shore’ fairly often to hop a ferry ride and go out on the SS…good God, I’ve no idea what the heck my Pop called that little boat! I’m going to call it the SS Awesomeness and here’s one story that will make it clear why that modest vessel deserves such a name.

It was a typical day. Pop took three of his grandkids, my older cousin Chris, my younger sister Michelle, and me down the shore to go on the boat and take in a bit of deep sea fishing. Sounds fancy, right? Wait, in order to really visualize this there’s another important crew member that joined us on this particular trip: Chatter, my pet raccoon.

FINE! Back story! Pop was a bit like Dr. Dolittle (and he did do little in terms of medical science but he was one with the animal world). Squirrels would eat out of his hand, he had dogs, goats, a monkey at one time, horses when my mom was a kid, and who knows what else. Anyway, one day Pop found a baby raccoon crying in the middle of the street surrounded by his squashed mother and siblings. He didn’t have a chance. So, reasonable and soft-hearted man that he was, Pop scooped up the little critter and took on the task of ‘taming him.’ The taming process went a bit like this: Pop sat in his seat at the head of the kitchen table holding the baby raccoon in one hand and petting him with the other while my Grandma cooked a bottle for the new baby. Pop then fed the baby with a bottle and talked to him. He named him Chatter because he cried a lot in the beginning, “He misses his mom, that’s right” Pop told us.

Soon, Chatter graduated to cereal and then to table scraps. I would ask to take him for walks and Pop would remind me not to walk too close to any trees. So I’d put the little collar around Chatter’s neck, attach the leash and head out for a stroll. Soon after, “Pop! PAHHHHHHPPPPPP!” I’d shout while pulling my weight on the leash. “Chatter’s in the pear tree!” And Pop would shuffle from inside the house or away from his ‘shanty’ (where he worked on fixing neighbors’ lawn mowers and riding mowers) and help get Chatter out of the tree. Soon enough, Chatter was a sturdy playmate and a necessity on any trip to the shore.

You know, there was also a midget alcoholic living in my grandparents’ attic but that, as they say in academia, is beyond the scope of this article.

We all piled into the boat. Sun screen: check; cooler with sandwiches and stuff: check; cool Def Leopard caps with ear flaps: check; pet raccoon: check; fishing bait: on our way. Pop and Chris fired up the engine and we headed out into the bay. Chatter was hanging out just in front of the cabin doorway on the landing situated at the base of the three steps leading from the deck.

It was a beautiful day. We swung by the bait shop on the pier and got some supplies, filled up with some fuel, and headed back out into the water. The shops on the pier slowly faded into the distance when suddenly my grandfather shouted, “QUICK! Everyone run to THAT side of the boat!” The engine was smoking and water was finding its way into the boat. I put saucers in my eyes like Orphan Annie’s–metaphorically, of course–and watched the scene in Slo-Mo.

My sister bent her neck and threw her face skyward, “WAHHHHHHH!!! WAHHHHHH!!!” My cousin was diligently following Pop’s directions, which I’m sure were hilarious and I wish I could remember them verbatim. Chatter, thank God he was with us, was running with ever-increasing speed in very small circles just before the cabin door. Soon enough a tugboat arrived and pulled us in the short distance from the great open raging sea with its sharks, its lochness monsters, and raccoons to the safety of the bait and fuel shop. Though, I do remember in the midst of all that pure mayhem stealing a look at my Pop who, is it possible(?), was chuckling.

Update: According to my mom, “Pop’s boat (that caught fire) was called Rock ‘N Rye for the fruit filled whiskey Pop used to drink. David [Chris’ younger brother] named his boat Rock ‘N Rye II in honor of Pop.”

Flashback to Fuji-san

In a few weeks (October 6th) it will have been exactly four years since Laco and I climbed Mt. Fuji for the first time. We had just moved to Japan less than two months before (August 2006) and just couldn’t bear to wait until the following summer to climb it. These photos and captions are taken from an old blog that I made at the time but never updated.

Laco and I arrive at the 5th Station, elevation 2400 meters, where we will begin our climb. It’s approximately 9.30AM and we have driven past the clouds into a clear and sunny day. We are psyched!! The sign behind us translates (rougly): White people beware, you think you’re strong but Fuji-san will destroy you!

Expression of strength? Drunken air-guitar? Or is it simply the early stages of altitude sickness? This bizarre moment was captured somewhere between the 5th and 6th stations.

Let me see…I think we should go this way.

(Laco practices navigation WITHOUT his handheld GPS. What a stud!)

What do you mean this isn’t the summit?!

(Kelly summits a large rock at the beggining of the climb. Phew, it’s kinda hot for October isn’t it?)

Crap! Where did we park the jeep?

(Just one more step back, one more, almost a perfect shot!)

Laco and our new climbing buddies put rabbit ears on their invisible friends at approximately 2700 meters. I just realized we never exchanged names with these kids who we crossed through the last arch and onto the summit with.

Laco negotiates with Kelly to please haul ass a little, there’s still some climbing to do.

But I’m tired and it’s getting windy…

Seventh Station! Only three more to go!!

There’s more?!!!!!!!!!! THREE more?!!!!!!!!!!!

I forget the Japanese word (or the more appropriate English word) for the temple gates…these are found surrounding temples; they work to keep out the evil spirits. I don’t really think evil spirits have the chutzpah to climb this high but I guess it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Calling in an exorcism team would not only take FOREVER but would also just cost a fortune!!

I did it!! Er…what? This isn’t the top? What’s up with all these rocks posing as the summit? Zenith envy. There’s no other explanation. I feel a little dizzy and I wish whoever that is would stop squeezing my head.

Fine! You’re right, this isn’t the top. Gawwwwd.

(Kelly painfully dissolves a small bit of denial.)

Why are all these pictures of Kelly? Only Laco has enough strength to carry the camera.

(Laco’s shadow and Kelly napping.)

We’re almost there!!!

Kelly looks down at the ground covered. Oy.

It’s much steeper than it looks…

Laco is on cloud 9…

Hey! Grab me some yen for the vending machine!

Yen coins wedged into the posts of the wooden gates. Maybe for good luck…or alms for the needy climbers.

This is it! Check out the snow!

Our Japanese friends waited for us just before the threshold to the peak. We all four walked through the last gate together (too bad we didn’t get a photo of that). This map charts the Fujiyamora trail that we followed up the mountain. There was just a tiny bit of snow. It took us a little less than four hours to climb up. The descent was very painful and increasingly cold.

Laco’s anticlimactic summit: So where’s Mt. Fuji???

Is this where they keep the lava?

Climbers can hike the perimeter of the peak (which is said to take a half hour to one hour depending on how many supplements you imbibe) but the trail was closed and we were too too tired to circle round. We also wanted to get off the mountain before the sun went down.

I’m SO over this…

Seriously, this trail is super steep in most places. At some points we climbed rocks that were more like jagged stairs. As we climbed up and down Japanese men in their sixties and seventies breezed by us on the trail wishing us a happy afternoon and good luck. This is a serious climb! In total, it took us almost eight hours to reach the peak and descend. We were both pretty dehydrated, headachey and exhausted. We said to ourselves: let’s get lost on the way home! And we did! It was a blast.

Beer and Cheese Pairing

I’m not a beer drinker…in fact, I’m fairly certain that I’m allergic to beer. Several years ago–seven and some to be a bit more precise–I decided that since I’d be turning thirty soon, now would be a good time to take a big, long walk. So I did. I took my first trip across the ocean to southwest Ireland and I hiked the entire Dingle Peninsula, alone. It was gorgeous! Of course, being in Ireland, I felt well, er, obligated to drink a pint of Guinness and so I ordered myself a tall warm pint of the stuff–of which I managed to imbibe maybe three sips before being overtaken by a terrific gripping sensation in my throat. It was as if all the colonial ghosts were working to strangle the Irish out of me. Well, as it were. And so, I determined, after a few more choke-y experiences with beer that it just wasn’t meant to be. That’s right. Beer and I called it quits. (One of my oldest, dearest friends used to call me ‘one beer Johnston’ but in fact the less catchy ‘two sips of beer Johnston’ would be more accurate.)

Cheese of course is splendid. Sometimes creamy, sometimes brittle, sometimes smooth, sometimes sharp–always an enormous tax on my digestive system…but it’s cheese. And I love it.

The thing is–it’s neither beer nor cheese that really matter here. Indeed, the real focus is my effort to integrate into this new environment. The beer and the cheese, well, they’re just props.

There’s a great local magazine in St. Louis called Sauce; they’ve a print and online version both of which are filled with great reviews of local restaurants and bars but most importantly they keep a calendar of events taking place in the city. All kinds of cool events. So…when I landed on the “Beer and Cheese Pairing” class to be held at a local fancy-pants cheese and wine shop I thought to myself, “OH, behave.” So we signed up and took a swig at it.

My mom used to drag my dad to wine tasting events when she was in the thick of her effort to pull our family up a few rungs from our inherited social station. My dad used to refer to the events as “walking J-Crew catalogs” but I do suppose he enjoyed the drinking.

Needless to say, I’ve never ‘stuck my face’ into a glass of beer to see if I “smelled the coriander” and I never did stop to take a few minutes to reflect so deeply on my tongue–that is, how the taste of one beverage changes after matching it with another flavor…and I didn’t have the language to run with the serious folks…oh but I did enjoy the two young men–chiropractors in training–with whom I found myself in a lively conversation about the mind-body connection interrupted only by one of the two identifying the most peculiar flavors in his beer: “Hmm, tastes like yogurt”; or later, “yes, definitely carrot cake.” I did mean to double-check his cervical spine but I digress…Too, we were very impressed by another young man (only 22 years old) who seemed to know a lot about beer–history, types, people making it and how they make it, all the breweries and micro-breweries in town and the new ones on the horizon–and this is a guy who has only been legally permitted to drink for one year and change.

When we arrived at the tasting about 6 others had already taken their seats. Everyone was very polite and quite reserved. We waited a bit until the rest of the party arrived–there were 12 of us on the final count. I immediately shared that I really don’t know anything at all about beer and another woman at the table quickly added, “I’m here for the cheese too” and she certainly was–in fact, let me tell you…she was actually scolded by the teacher for taking such large pieces when the cheese passed her way!! “Could you please take a bit less so there’s enough for everyone?”

“What?!” she snapped back, “I’m being GENEROUS! I usually take MUCH bigger pieces.”

Wow, she really was there for the cheese.

Soon, very soon, the event got sort of rambunctious. The thing is we tried–I know we did–to taste the coriander and to explore the ways in which the sharp I-forget-the-fancy-pants-name of the cheese “interacted” with the I-forget-the-fancy-pants-name of the Belgian sixteen-dollars-a-half-liter beer but soon, very soon, it was all: BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH HA HA BLAH BLAH ME TOO! BLAH BLAH REALLY? HA HA HA YOU ARE SO INTERESTING AND FUN BLAH BLAH BURP…

So, in the end the beer and cheese ended up pairing us with ten other strangers with whom we laughed, shared stories, and simply connected. It was a blast! Okay, okay, I think I got a bit drunk.

Cracker Barrel with a View

(Can’t decide where this post belongs, so I’m posting on both my blogs 🙂

We see different things. It sounds so simple and so trite but I don’t know if personally I have ever really sat and reflected on this truth and the enormity (or simplicity) of its implications. We see different things because we look from different angles but too often forget that our perspective gives more space to some elements and misses other elements altogether. We become accustomed to our seat—our view—and we settle there and convince ourselves that what we see is the world, that it’s reality.

Yesterday I was in rural Missouri at a Cracker Barrel restaurant off Highway 44 on my way back to St. Louis. When the waitress came to our table to take our order I asked for clarification about ingredients used in the macaroni and cheese (because the menu warned me I should!) and told her that I’m vegetarian. Soon after she left, I noticed that a young man wearing a T-shirt that read “Got Freedom” on the front and “Compliments of the US Army” on the back had turned around in his chair to look at my husband and I and was telling his wife (I could hear him clearly) about my being a vegetarian. His parents were also at the table and all four of them spent the next ten minutes scowling and griping about vegetarianism. I was baffled; it started me thinking:

What do I assume about these four people when I look at their physical appearances, the message on the young man’s shirt, the morbidly obese and visibly angry (assumption?) father? What do they assume about me when they look at me, my husband, hear that I am a vegetarian who has pitched herself into rural Missouri for some unknown reason.

The funny thing is, on some level—and I think that this assumption is present in a lot of conversation related to language politics—I really think I expected that being in my ‘home’ culture and surrounded by people with whom I share a native language (for the most part) that I would feel connected, some common ground, a similar perspective. The fact is we see different things but easily forget that the history of events; the tragic-comedy of politics, its demagogues, its victims, and its flocks; and the spiral of ideas is not wholly contained in what we can personally grasp, experience, or even begin to comprehend. This human experience is vast—as vast as we are many—but somehow it is still one connected, continuous experience. How then, do we even begin to embark upon evaluating education—every aspect of education from teaching to learning to expectations to outcomes to policies to financing to testing to on and on—with any sort of authority when we represent just one tiny bit of perspectival real-estate from which to view this massive and wholly organic enterprise that is tied up in personalities, economics, power struggles, the bureaucratic power of social systems and the social institutions that remain dedicated to their own continuing existence…

This quarter I deliberately chose to write a paper from a theoretical perspective that I found annoying, counter-intuitive, and lacking. What I found is that the more time I spent thinking from this perspective, the more it began to make sense to me—the more I managed to fit information into its form.

(This was my final reflection on a graduate course I recently completed. During the 10 week course I moved from my house in Japan, to a hotel in Japan (for one week), to my parents house for a 2 week visit, to Maine for five days, and then–nearly on a whim–relocated to St. Louis Missouri. I am deeply culture-shocked in the country in which I was born.)

Translating Pat-a-Cake

Kelsey is now fourteen-years-old and has been lucky enough to have traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. She and her brother lived with her father, Laco, and me for one year in Cairo, Egypt. Just like anyone else her age, Kelsey has already had many experiences that have helped shape her worldview and her personality. When she was nine, we shared an experience together that I still remember fondly.

The four of us had left Cairo for a long weekend in Dahab, a small town in the Sinai peninsula that is situated directly on the Red Sea. One afternoon, we were hanging around The Blue Hole, where Laco and Alex were having an adventure snorkeling and identifying various fish and other marine life. Kelsey and I had decided to get out of the sun and hang out in the open cafe, which was wall-less but nonetheless afforded us some shade. We were lounging around on the thick blankets and cushions that served as seats and which required us to either sit cross-legged or to stretch out completely and eventually snooze off. While we were waiting patiently for the waiter to bring us two glasses of cold lemon juice, we were each reading from books we had brought with us on the trip. Soon, four young Bedouin girls ranging in age from about six-years-old to twelve approached us and began to show us their bag-full of hand-crafted bracelets. Some were made of beads and others were made of colorful, knotted string.

Immediately, I recognized how open Kelsey was toward these girls and how she happily looked through their bracelets not as a customer would, but as a young person appreciating her friend’s artwork. It didn’t take long for the girls to respond to that receptivity and forget their work of selling goods. They all filed in around the table alongside us and began to play what appeared to me as their version of what I grew up calling Pat-a-Cake (or Patty Cake).  The three younger girls explained to her, in Arabic and a tiny bit of broken English how to play the game and she made a strong effort to pick it up and play with them. As I watched them, I thought to myself: How beautiful and amazing this is. Is learning culture–or not being side-railed by cultural differences–similar to language learning in the sense that younger people are better able to wrap their heads, non-judgmentally, around what is new? I was so impressed by Kelsey’s intelligence, openness, and sense of adventure that day–I will never forget that experience.

As the younger girls and Kelsey were teaching and learning from one another, the older girl in the group had scooted up next to me and engaged me in conversation. She had a very strong grasp of English and seemed very mature and intelligent for her age. Her clothes were dusty and didn’t fit her properly, her face and hands were dusty–as one might expect since the girls were wandering around in sand all day–, and her eyes were bright, intelligent, and curious. She told me that she loves to speak English, she can’t wait for the school year to recommence, and that she plans to be a doctor one day. “The first woman doctor,” she beamed “in my town.” At that moment her face, her wit, and her intelligence made a deep impression on my heart and I sent a prayer to the universe that this girl would indeed have the opportunity to go to university and then on to medical school. How would she manage, I asked myself. And Then I looked at her again, her eyes filled with excitement, confidence, and hope and I glanced at Kelsey and the three younger Bedouin girls sharing, laughing, and playing together. At that moment, the sun seemed to shine even brighter, I perceived the breeze more keenly, and the taste of my lemon juice was intensified.

I bought a round of lemon juices for all six of us. Let’s drink girls and dream about our futures.

To your health!

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment! ;-)


%d bloggers like this: