Marie Antoinette's pastry slave
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2nd-May-2014 04:03 am(no subject)
was sleeping
I swear I am more surprised every time I browse a shelf of books translated into Japanese from the English. I can't believe how many books have made it over!

All the teachers in the school have to write a 2-line blurb about one of the books in the library. This means that I needed to go and thoroughly check out their foreign section. (I've read many books in Japanese, but my all-time favorite books are still almost all English.) I'd never done that before-- I'll borrow a Japanese book, sure, but I usually prefer to read English books in the original English.

The foreign section is three 2-meter long bookshelves, front and back. If it were one set of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves it would be some nine meters long. That's huge-- way more books than I own. They have plenty of obvious classics (Harry Potter, all of the Narnia books, some Christopher Robin). Also a lot of my favorites: all of the Earthsea books, the His Dark Materials series, even about six Meg Cabot books. (The librarian said that most of the girls knew Meg Cabot.) Then there were a bunch of books that I'd sure enjoyed, but was still a bit surprised to see in translation: Hoot and Scat, Lionboy (the librarian said that that one was popular about ten years ago), Artemis Fowl. Not only Treasure Island but also The Bottle Imp.

I always feel like the trade is a bit unfair: there are plenty of Japanese authors who are at least as popular in Japan as Carl Hiassen is in America. Most people have probably read a couple of Higashino Keigo books even if they aren't big mystery readers. Every woman in the country knows Hayashi Mariko. You don't need to be big into sports books to read Asano Atsuko, either. Tsujimura Mizuki's story about a medium was made into a popular movie, as was part of one of Onda Riku's supernatural mystery series. A bunch of my kids like Yamada Yusuke, though I don't much like his brand of gross-out humor. But hands up anyone who doesn't know Japanese who knows any of these authors. Granted, the only author in this list who tends to write books classified as middle-grade here is Asano Atsuko, as opposed to, debatably, every English book listed above. But I'd be surprised to see translations of any of them in a library in America, and certainly not in a one-room school library.

When I found the collection of Diana Wyne Jones translations, I just stopped looking. They have all three Howl books, all six Chrestomancis, and even Hexwood and A Tale of Time City. My middle school library in America didn't even have all of those! (Please ignore that when I was in middle school there were only two Howl books and four Chrestomanci ones.) The only question is which: most of them know the Miyazaki film that shares a title with Howl's Moving Castle but not the actual book; and as an introduction to the Chrestomanci books, I can't decide whether I prefer the one written earlier (Charmed Life) or the one set earlier (The Lives of Christopher Chant). I am currently rereading those three in an attempt to decide.
7th-Mar-2014 05:25 pm - Graduation etc
was sleeping
A lot of the things here that seem weird to me are weird to me not because I'm in Japan, but because I'm in a school. I suspect that graduations are one of those things; I've never been to an American graduation, so I wouldn't know.

Anyway, a Japanese middle school graduation is like an American high school graduation in that it marks the end of mandatory education, and high school, for those who choose to apply, is the first place you have to fight to get into. (Entrance exams are pretty brutal.) And a graduation here requires about two weeks of practices and preparations.

There was such a practice today. The assistant vice principal explained to everyone how to stand up, how to bow (at the moment that he says"bow" or else when someone on the stage bows to them, held to a count of two), and where to look. Then there was song practice, because they have to sing the school song and the graduation song.

It's hard to explain the atmosphere even at the practice-- super strict, super formal, happy and sad as graduations are, but with an undercurrent of highly repressed hilarity. It's just do formal that some people just end up laughing. Imagine a workshop where the instructor tells everyone to make their bodies into a square. Then imagine he tries to make everyone more square: "You, tuck your head in more! You, make your torso wider! You, make your butt more cornery!". Of course people would end up laughing.

Naturally, laughing is strictly prohibited at the graduation itself.
6th-Mar-2014 10:03 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
It's super embarrassing that I should mess up on chocolate chip cookies with such a simple mistake, but I think I figured it out. I reread the recipe (the Martha Stewart version of Toll House cookies), and converted everything into metric and weights. (I could've saved a lot of time if I'd just googled "metric chocolate chip cookies" instead! But FYI, the amount is 115 g unsalted butter, 150 g light brown sugar, 1 egg, 5 ml vanilla, 2.5 ml salt, 1.25 ml baking soda, 140 g flour, and 150-170 g chocolate, and if you make it into 30 cookies you will bake them at 170 for a scant 10 minutes. But I know you all knew that.)

Anyway, I was rereading the Martha recipe, and saw she called for all-purpose flour. Now, on Monday, I used cake flour, because that was what my friend had, and I wanted to try it. But of course a recipe that needs the chew and density from gluten won't work with cake flour! Alton Brown even goes farther, and says you should just use bread flour, though I didn't know that then.

So I went to the supermarket, intent on buying AP flour. It was really hard! Most of the flour was cake flour. There were probably some 15 types of flour, and I swear, I thought I looked at all of them (yielding 14 thin-strength flours, eg cake flour, and 1 strong-strength, eg bread flour) before I gave up and asked an attendant.

"All-purpose flour? What's that?" she said.

"It's stronger than cake flour but not as strong as bread flour," I said. (In fact I'd only learned the word myself, literally "middle strength flour" from a friend the previous day; I hadn't known that Japan even had it.)

"Let's see," she said, and started going through the same shelves I'd just examined. About 5 minutes later, after asking me if 2 different brands of cake flour were OK, she unearths 1 small bag, which had "middle strength flour" clearly written on it in small letters.

I bought the flour, and using my landlady's assistance (and kitchen scale), I made chocolate chip cookies. Her oven is very small, so I baked them 4 at a time, but they came out absolutely perfect: golden outside, chewy inside, you can taste the vanilla and brown sugar and salt.

I think I shouldn't be surprised at the proportion of soft flours to hard flours in the supermarket. The traditional Japanese food that everyone makes using flour is tempura, and for that you not only want a very soft flour, you might even add some rice flour to increase the starch content even more and make the perfect crispy crunch. And tempura is definitely an everyday thing. They also might use flour for croquettes, for breading meat, and of course for cakes. But that's it. Pretty much no one makes bread. And even I can't think of much of anything other than this that really requires AP flour. Maybe I should've just got bread flour.

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4th-Mar-2014 01:29 am(no subject)
was sleeping
Today was the last day I visit the 6th graders at the local elementary school before they come up to my middle school, so I was asked to explain a little bit about middle school English for them. The sentence I'd been asked to practice with them in the lesson part of the class was "What do you want to be?" and its answer, "I want to be a _____." (FYI, _____ is usually spelled ~ in Japanese. It has many pronunciations in Japanese, but if I'm speaking English, I pronounce it "blah blah blah". Also FYI, Japanese elementary school students and middle school students think the word "blah blah blah" is hilarious.)

Anyway, I started by asking them, "OK, how many of you thought that this was super-easy? How about how many of you thought it was kind of hard? It's OK if you did. Here's another question. You will study this sentence in middle school, but what year? Do you think you'll study it when you're a 7th grader? When you're an 8th grader? A 9th grader?"

The answer is they don't do it again until fairly late in 8th grade, because in middle school, the hope is there's less plain memorizing of target sentences and more actually understanding the grammar that goes on in them. The sentence "What do you want to be?" is a bit complicated if you break it down, and they don't cover the parts until well into their second year. Most of the students could read the first two sentences of the middle school textbook when I wrote them on the board. ("I am Sakura. You are Becky.")

Anyway, my schpiel was about 10 minutes long, and I swear I could see eyes glazing over from the very beginning. In the end, there were only 2 questions: "Is there English homework?" (To my "Yes, you have to write one page a day in English, and you can just copy the textbook if you want, but I promise you it's also really good practice to make up your own sentences!" I saw a number of horrified looks.) And, "How many hours a week do we have English class?" I saw more horrified looks when I said, "4 hours." I do hope that my effort to make middle school English less scary was not counterproductive!

Also. I am feeling like a cookie failure now. I promised all the students on my first day here that I would make them chocolate chip cookies someday, and as a representative of America in a country where good chocolate chip cookies are a rarity, I feel like this is a good idea at least as much now. The vice principal said that I could not make them for the students, because of liability issues, but he had no problems with a local baker making them. The local baker was fine with making them, but given that most Japanese people have no idea what properly gooey-in-the-middle American chocolate chip cookies are like, he asked me to make him an example first and bring it to him along with the recipe. So I made chocolate chip cookies at a friend's house today, and I swear I followed the right recipe, the one that's on the back of every bag of chocolate chips in America (only I chopped up some nice 48% French chocolate myself here), and they just didn't come out right. They were fine, they both said they were delicious, but they just didn't have that proper chew to them. They came out fluffy/bready instead of having that almost candylike quality they should. I can't imagine what went wrong-- too much baking soda? Wrong kind of brown sugar? Not enough butter? (4 ounces is 112 grams, right?) I don't think I can bring these to him, because tasting these, you probably wouldn't understand what the fuss is about.
24th-Feb-2014 12:05 am(no subject)
was sleeping
Do not ask me why on Earth I thought today would be a good day to go to the gym.

My city has a few gyms, and the closest one is a place about an hour and a quarter's walk away if you walk very fast. (Google says it's about 7.5 km.) I see it from the bus every time I go downtown. The buses aren't running regularly yet because of the blizzard last week, and I think it's silly to take a bus to save an hour's walk if your goal is to work out anyway. And the sidewalks where I live are all traversible if not clear. Plus it's been a long time since I've taken a yoga class.

I called them up this afternoon to ask them about rates and hours, and they said that they were open until 10:30. So I put on my walking shoes and headed out. The sidewalks were all not too bad in my part of town-- sometimes they were deep valleys cut into mountains of snow taller than me, sometimes they were that funny lumpy icy-snowy mix that you get when there was a couple of inches of snow left before it got trodden on and refrozen, often there was a completely clear path about a foot wide. I can't walk at my usual pace there, but I can walk.

About half an hour in, I hit a couple of patches of black ice, but again, a little black ice is OK if you walk carefully and you know to look for it. But I should have turned around as soon as I hit it, because from there on, the sidewalks got steadily worse and worse. There were still patches of clear, but there were also places where you had to either trudge through a foot of snow or walk in the street. There were a number of places where you had to walk in the street, because not only were the sidewalks completely unshovelled, they were blocked by five-foot-high snowbanks. There were places where it looked like the sidewalk was clear, but then the path disappeared after 60 feet or so, so you had to backtrack to get to the crosswalk to walk on the other side of the street. (This was a busy road; crossing it at dusk while wearing black was not an option.) By that point I kept up, because I knew I was so close, and I thought it would be so silly to get so close and then turn around. And if nothing else, the gym should have a place where I could wait for a taxi.

Finally, about two hours after setting off on what should've been a 1-hour walk, I arrived-- at an empty parking lot. The gym was closed. Nothing was lit up either. I called them again, but of course there was no answer. I could've sworn that the guy on the phone said that they were open until 10:30, and that weekdays they were upen until 12:30, and their day off was Thursday. I was absolutely positive of this. But it was absolutely, unquestionably closed.

I did remember, though, that there was a very good restaurant in that part of town. I went there with my coworkers a few months ago; it was the place where I had the first meat I had after quitting vegetarianism. It's just off the main street, so I would never have found it if I hadn't been there before, but I knew exactly where it was.

I was the only customer; the owner was watching a cooking show. He said that because of the snow, no one wanted to come out. He also said that at this time of year, almost none of the vegetables he normally grows are in season-- only bok choy from his fields and carrots from his friend's field. He said he had to buy the rest of the vegetables. Now, like any self-respecting white person, I go a little gooey when I hear that the farm where the vegetables come from is connected to the restaurant. I asked him how he cooks bok choy, and he mentioned boiled tofu. The dish is simply vegetables and tofu boiled in water until the vegetables are tender. Then you dip them in citron vinegar flavored with soy sauce, scallions, and grated daikon. So I just ordered that.

It was very good.

Then I took a cab back and swore I'd confirm the hours at least three times before trying for that gym again.
18th-Feb-2014 02:04 pm - Really, Nagano?
was sleeping
We just had a staff meeting. The verdict? The buses still can't handle the streets, but it's not ok to have 3 snow days. (Snow days here are just school csncellation; graduation will still be march 17th no matter what. Spring break is only 1 week anyway, and the teachers are all busy then.) So they're having school as normal. The kids who normally come by bus will be driven by their parents. Teachers are on the phones calling up the parents to explsin that as I type this. The students will not be penalized if they are late or absent. Also, this wasn't decided early enough to tell the place that makes school lunch, so lunch tomorrow will be just rice. The strangest part? The buses may not run for the rest of the week, because this part of Nagano really doesn't get much snow. They'll just do the same thing.

In Boston, buses probably could run a couple days after a big storm like this. But if they couldn't, schools would just be shut down for as long as it takes. I really don't get this.

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17th-Feb-2014 06:55 pm - snow
was sleeping
It is now Nagano's turn to get a lot of snow. Nagano is indeed famous for mountains and snow, but I live in a valley in between mountains. The mountains usually catch all the snow before it can get here, so even though it gets cold, we don't usually get much snow.

Until Saturday, that is. This Saturday, the skies opened up, and 70 cm came down. That's about two feet. It's tall enough so that people had to carve little paths through it. The snowdrifts are taller than I am.

Naturally, the whole city shut down. I was scheduled to give a speech, but it was cancelled, because no one could get to the venue. I went to the supermarket, being incredibly grateful that there was one within a few hundred meters of me (it only took me two or three times longer than normal to get there) and it was a total warzone inside-- absolutely nothing left. No fresh vegetables, not even cabbage, only a few packs of strawberries left, almost no natto, no tofu, no onigiri, no baked goods-- massive bare shelves, since everyone had got terrified and bought everything, and the trucks couldn't get there to restock.

I was fairly sure when I went to bed yesterday that in the morning, I'd get a call saying that it was a snow day, but no such call came, so I went to school at the normal time. Thankfully, most of the sidewalks already had paths carved out, so I was able to get to school. When I got there, all of the teachers were outside, with shovels.

It turned out that today was a snow day for the students. My city never gets this much snow, so the roads were pretty much undriveable, and the buses were deemed unsafe. This doesn't matter for the teachers, though; we are contractually obligated to either come to school or use vacation days. Road conditions were so bad that some teachers ddin't get to school until 9:30 (their contracts say 8:00). When they did, I clapped and cheered for them with the rest of the teachers by the gate. The work that needed to be done was clearing the snow so that the students would be able to come tomorrow. Hence everyone out there with shovels.

As is, tomorrow is the same: they decided at about noon that the buses still wouldn't be safe tomorrow, so it's another snow day for the students, and teachers are welcome to take one of their vacation days. I can't very well take a vacation day, because I've already taken a lot, and I'll take more when I travel during the spring break (that's a week between the semesters when the students do not come to school but the teachers must take vacation days if they want the time off).

I am somewhat grateful for the snow day. I have 4 elementary school visits next week that I'm barely prepared for at all, and this does give me more time to get ready for them. But I do wish that after I finish the work, I'd be allowed to come home!
13th-Feb-2014 02:41 am(no subject)
was sleeping
So working as an assistant English teacher means a lot of things, but you know what the biggest part of my job is? Making trivia quizzes. Now, I can tell you the fastest bird, the biggest animals, the distance to outer space, and the length a chromosome would be if you unwound it. I know what animal is as long as your intestines are (killer whales, at about 6-10 meters), and whether paper clips or locomotives were invented first. (Locomotives by a good 50 years. Crazy, right?)

My first-year students are doing "When can we...?" and "Where can we...?", so I made a trivia quiz for them. E.g: "Where can we see the Colosseum? A: In France; B: In Italy; C: In America." The Social Studies teacher assured me that they didn't know, so I went with that question, but it was way too easy; everyone knew. So right now I'm revising it to make it harder. E.g: "Where can we see the Colosseum? A: In Liguria; B: In Lazio; C: In Sicily."

Btw, I was a bit surprised that everyone in that first class knew exactly when Frozen opens in this country (March 14th--Japan, why do you make me wait so long??) but that no one knew when the new live-action version of Kiki's Delivery Service opens.

It's really hard to do things like this, because nothing is ever singular enough, and everyone already knows all the really unique things. Everyone knows where the Easter Island heads are, for instance. I thought about "Where can we eat goat's head?" except it turns out that there are many cuisines all over the world wheere goat's head is a delicacy. Black sand beaches exist in Hawaii, California, New Zealand, and Iceland.
8th-Feb-2014 04:37 am(no subject)
was sleeping
So the super-nasty JLPT I was whining about the other day? I got the result yesterday. I got 68.3% right. The passing score is 67%. I squeaked by.

I'm super-happy about this: JLPT1 is a really great level to be at. It means that you more or less have the Japanese skills of a Japanese high school freshman. It is a minimum requirement for many jobs.

But even though I'm relieved, and happy, I'm not as happy as I thought I would be. Yes, I now have a nice shiny certificate, but I know exactly where my Japanese ability sucks. I know I can't read faster than I speak even for easy things, and for newspapers, not even that fast. I struggle with news reports or even following a conversation if there's more than about two other people. I know lots of kanji, but there's still plenty of very common ones that I don't know. Having the certificate that says that I'm more or less at this level doesn't change those.

Since I do have the certificate, I'm not going to take the test again in the summer. I'll take it again in December, a year after I took it last. Even if I don't do much vocab drilling or practice tests, I can study by watching movies and reading books too. I expect that my score should be higher in a year.
24th-Jan-2014 02:16 am - gratuitous random info
was sleeping
I'm doing comparatives with my 2nd-years, and this year I'm making a quiz so they can practice. Sample question and answer: "Which is colder, the North Pole or the South Pole?" Right answer: "The South Pole is colder than the North Pole."

For this quiz, I got a table of metal melting points, so I could make questions like this: "Which is hotter, red-hot platinum or lava?" (Btw, this sort of question requires pictures, because they don't know "lava", "platinum" [which I chose because the Japanese for it sounds alike ("platina")], or "red-hot".)

I remembered this xkcd What If, which says that liquid tungsten is so hot that if you dropped some of it into molten lava, the lava would freeze the tungsten. I thought that that was so cool! But looking at that table, I see that that is true for many much more commonplace metals. Molten lava would freeze molten iron, steel, platinum, silicon, nickel, titanium, and iridium. Depending on the type of lava, it might also freeze copper. People work with temperatures far hotter than the 700-1200 C that lava is at every day.
16th-Jan-2014 10:35 pm(no subject)
me frosting
I was having dinner with some friends at a local greasyspoon (being non-vegetarian is so convenient!) when I got a call from the manager of a local grocery store. I'd been craving a Twix, and although you can get Snickers in every grocery store and every convenience store in the country. I haven't been able to find Twix even in massive Tokyo international groceries. So a couple hours before, I'd asked the manager if he could order some for me. He was calling me back to let me know he'd called the company, and it turns out that Twix aren't distributed in Japan.

I told my friends this, and described Twix, and they said, "Go to Riverville's. They make all kinds of confections, and he'll probably be able to make some for you." (I am taking the liberty of translating Japanese names here.) Riverville is the name of a local confectioner, and he has his own shop. I'd even herd the name before; another local friend had recommended them, and the name had also come up when teachers were talking about local places to buy goodies.

So today after school I googled the place, and it turns out it's only about a five-minute walk away from my apartment. I've even almost walked past it-- it was just aroound the corner from an intersection I've walked by many times.

I walk in, and the first thing I notice is the smell-- the warm, toasty smell you get when you bake cookies that have a lot of butter. You can't fake it, and the shop is permeated. To my left is a display of beautifully formed traditional Japanese bean confections, dyed an array of colors and in an assortment of shapes; in front is a table piled high with pre-wrapped cookies, slices of cake, and dorayaki (sweetened bean-filled pancakes). In front is a refrigerated display case filled with the most gorgeous cakes-- chocolate mousse, mont blanc, some red globes, many others-- and to the right of that display case was another one filled with chocolates.

A bunch of people were making things in the back, but one of them came out as soon as I stepped in the door. I asked him if he could make Twix for me, and he couldn't. But I am not the kind of person who can easily walk out of a shop like this empty-handed. I asked him about the chocolates, if they select a different kind of chocolate for each kind of truffle. They do. Thye had green tea and white chocolate, Earl Grey and milk chocolate, lavender honey and dark chocolate, praline, framboise, orange, and a few others. He had me at "Earl Grey"-- that might just be my very favorite flavor for a truffle, and I haven't had it since college.

I asked what the buttery smell was, and they were baking green tea financiers. Financiers are a type of cookie that I have never even made. He also explained to me all of the cakes: the red domes were straberry mousse atop a cake made with ground pistachios, and what looked like a plain chocolate mousse was actually Earl Grey-infused chocolate mousse around a core of Earl Grey and vanilla flavored creme brulee. They had buttercream-filled French macaroons in many varieties (lemon, strawberry, chocolate, coffee caramel, and black tea) and they even had a type of pie filled with caramel and nuts that he said might be a bit similar to the Twix.

I only got a few things-- if I bought everything I wanted there I knew I'd spend hundreds of dollars and eat myself sick. The Earl Grey truffle was a tiny little one-bite morsel, but the ratio of chocolate to cream on the inside was a not-quite-gooey perfect, the tea and milk chocolate flavors balanced perfectly, and the shell wispy thin and instantly melt-in-your-mouth. (It is difficult to get a chocolate coating so delicate; I can't do it. Heck, I can't even temper chocolate on my own.) The nut pie was vaguely, vaguely reminiscent of a Twix-- the caramel filling was about the same consistency, maybe a bit stiffer, but you could taste the not-quite-burnt sugar and the butter that went into it, and the crust was the kind of brown and flaky you get when you use a lot of butter, you are careful to leave some of it in large chunks, and you bake the whole thing in a perfectly super-hot oven.

His things are expensive, but they are worth it. I can tell what sort of work went into making them. My only regret is that I didn't discover the place sooner! I've been living here for over a year now, and this was my first visit! I don't think I can ever go to any of the other sweets shops, or ever buy them from the grocery store, ever again.
1st-Jan-2014 12:46 pm - Happy New Year, Japanese style
forgot to sleep by amaralen
"It is a happy thing that the new year has dawned. Please treat me well this year too."

That's a super-literal translation of two of the set phrases people say to each other in Japan around this time of year. (Oh, and you bow after saying it.) A better translation would probably be just "Happy new year!"

New Year's is the biggest holiday in Japan-- something like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. All the stores shut down for New Year's day, many of them shut down for three days or a week after, it's one of the only breaks I have from school, and the supermarkets were all war zones yesterday. Most people spend New Year's Eve with their families, but many people do what is called a ninen mairi, or a year-spanning visit to a shrine. If you visit a shrine on New Year's Eve, it counts as two visits, one for each year, hence the literal meaning, "two-year visit."

I got to the park with the shrine nearest to my house at about 11:30. The streets were totally deserted; it was like a ghost town. I knew I was on the right track when I saw a bonfire on top of the hill, but when I got to the top I saw less than a dozen high school kids and no one else. Something must be wrong, I thought. Where are the crowds? The food? When I lived in Nagoya, I did a ninen mairi to a local temple, one that was maybe a fifteen-minute walk away from the international dorm I lived in. There was a long avenue of food vendors. I remember having mitarashi dango, literally handwashing dango, which so called because they are sold at shrines and temples, where you perform a ritual handwashing, and the sauce is made with lots of sugar and soy sauce. I remembered waiting with a massive crowd of locals, and just around midnight, I was one person who helped pull a rope that would ring a bell once of 108 times.

I was standing around awkwardly, wondering if I'd made a mistake and should just go home, when one of the kids said, "It's Mark-sensei!"

"Yes, it's me. I came here to do a ninen mairi. Where is everyone?"

"They'll come here soon," they said. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later, people started arriving. One of the other teachers from the school greeted me and said, "Please treat me well again next year," which is what you say before midnight. I asked her precisely how you do a shrine visit, and she said that she wasn't clear on the details either. I think you bow twice, clap twice, then bow one more time, throw your money into the collection bin, and ring the bell, but I don't remember the sequence. The teacher's daughter wanted to do it again, but the teacher told her to wait until after midnight. So we waited by the bonfire, and meanwhile a few other students had also wished me a happy new year, and another local lady who I know who was waiting in line told me the correct sequence of a shrine visit (although I have since forgotten it again). She also told me you can actually go inside the shrine.

By midnight, the line had become a fifteen-minute wait. I performed the sequence, probably wrong, and stepped inside. You could make an offerring inside the shrine itself-- they gave you ritual leaves for that purpose-- and gave you a few sips of sake.

One the way out, I was spotted by some more students, who said, "It's Mark-sensei!"

"Yes, it is me. I came here to do a ninen mairi. Please treat me well this year too."

Them: "What did you wish for?"

Me: "You're supposed to wish for something?"

"You didn't wish for anything? What a waste!"

Their mother explained, "Normally you make a wish when you visit a shrine like this, like "May I have good health this year," or "May I meet someone special this year.""

Anyway, happy 2014!
16th-Dec-2013 01:22 am - JLPT again
was sleeping
This summer, on the advice of mousapelli and deralte, I took the JLPT2. Since I passed, I took the JLPT1 too this winter.

I have never taken a test so hard. The problem wasn't the kanji. I'd thought you'd needed to know all 2136 daily use kanji, but the 1800 or so I knew were more than enough. There were only about 10 questions that asked for the pronunciation of the kanji anyway-- they expect you to be more or less past that level by the time you go for the JLPT1,

Most of the vocab questions gave a word, then gave four sentences using that word, and asked which sentence used it the best. Fine for some words, but if it's the kind of word that you'd just kind of grok by context, then you fail. You need to know lots of words that are made by the kanji, not just the kanji and a few of the common words it's used in. To give an English equivalent example, if English were spelled with kanji, the words host (all 4 meanings), hostess, hotel, hostel, hospital, hospitable, would all include the same kanji, and for JLPT1, you have to know all of them.

Next, the reading section: any of the individual questions wouldn't be too hard.
What is the irony that the author refers to in the third paragraph?
What does the author most want to say?
If Sally already has her own seeds, which gardening class should she take?
Which sentence best fits into the blank?

The problem was that there were just way too many reading sections and way too many questions. Given unlimited time, I'd probably have been able to do OK on that (though the vocabulary level, not the kanji, still would have made things a bit difficult), but within the time limit, it was absolutely impossible. I left three questions blank and had to guess on a lot of questions anyway.

The listening section started with easy things, stagey-sounding dialogs, and you had time to read the multiple-choice questions. Then they only asked the questions at the beginning of the skits instead of letting you read them. Then they only asked the questions at the end of the skits. Then the skits switched from skits to TV broadcast jabbermouth speed monologues, and I totally lost it.

Anyway, I will be very surprised if I passed. I'm now studying more to take it again in the summer.
15th-Dec-2013 05:01 pm - ex-vegetarian
was sleeping
I feel incredibly silly that I never mentioned it here when I went vegetarian in the spring of 2010, but I'm mentioning it now. I stopped eating meat 10 years after reading Diet for a Small Planet, which explains how much feed it requires to raise even a little meat, and 1 year after finding a recipe for dal, which finally let me cook a whole meal without using any meat. If I were still in America, maybe I'd still be a vegetarian.

But being a vegetarian in Japan is about as difficult as it might have been in America in the 1950's. Or gluten-free in maybe 1980, after people started adding gluten to yogurt and slim-jims but before anyone had ever heard of gluten. They use so much, it's invisible. They have no idea how much of it they eat.

I had intended to at least make the concession for shaved katsuo bushi (flakes of a certain type of cured, dried tuna), because they are used in about 95% of Japanese cooking. But my first day in Nagano, I had soba, which are buckwheat noodles you dip into a broth that includes a lot of katsuo. I could not believe how rotten and vile it tasted to me-- I could tell that there was lots of meat in that broth, and it had rotted for months. (It takes about 6 months for the katsuo to dry out fully, I later learned.) So I figure, if it's bad for the environment, and I don't want to eat it anyway, why bother?

I ended up eating a lot of things made with katsuo bushi or related fish things anyway. For instance, a dish I ordered at a bar called "smashed cucumber and plum", was smashed cucumber and sour pickled plum drizzled with soy sauce and covered generously with those shaved flakes. Pretty much any time I visited a friend's house, I'd be served miso soup. (It did taste rotten and fishy to me for the first several months.) Boiled vegetables are either boiled in a katsuo broth or soaked in one afterwards. Pickles and salads are sprinkled with the flakes.

Side note: if you have not eaten meat in over two years, katsuo bushi taste as bad as week-old roadkill smells. If you are Japanese, it tastes delicious, somewhat like chicken broth but with a fishy tang. If you have not eaten meat in over two years but are gradually getting accustomed to katsuo, it tastes more baconey than bacon, more chickeny than chicken, and more fishy than tuna. In the quantities that many of them use it in, it still tastes rotten to me.

Anyway, I finally decided about a week ago to just not worry about it. Being a meat-eater doesn't mean I have to eat meat every single day. But it would mean I could go out with friends easily, and I'd be able to go to Japanese places instead of Indian ones. It means I'd be able to get more than two or three recipes out of every cookbook I buy. It means I could have soba, which Nagano is famous for. It means that when I visit a friend's house, I can quiz her about the food she's prepared out of curiosity rather than suspicion. And if I travel, I will be able to eat easily in meat-loving countries such as China, France, or Italy, and honestly enjoy everything they have to offer.

I was not sufferring brain fog or thinning hair or weakness (any more than is normal for a night-owl who has to get up in the morning) or cravings. I swear I have never, ever craved bacon or hamburgers. I'm doing this for cultural reasons: it's so I can get along better with the people around me and the country in which I live.

So last Friday, there was a semi-formal work party at a nice restaurant. This almost always means massive amounts of meat, so whenever possible I called ahead and ask them to make me something specially with no meat and no fish and no shellfish. (The word for "meat" does not include fish, and shellfish are not fish either, so I had to specify all of them. The usual reply was, "Fine, but we can't cook without katsuo.") This time I only asked them to leave out the shrimp, because shrimp have the highest bycatch rates, and the beef, because beef has the worst feed ratio. I told this to the assistant vice principal beforehand, so right when food was served, he said, "Mark has an important announcement to make."

"Yes. I've given up vegetarianism. I'm going to eat everything." Massive applause all around. A few people asked for the reason; a few people congratulated me on finally being willing to learn about Japan's food culture.

Pretty much everything that was served had meat in some form. Slices of sashimi, raw tuna as soft and delicious as can be. Oysters baked with butter and garlic. Whole deep-fried shishimon, salty and fishy and somewhat crispy on the outside, and you couldn't even tell there were bones. Raw red spinach, tossed with crispy chicken skin and the rendered fat. Soup with bok choy, ramps, fish, and pork meatballs. Everything was so good! I can't believe I've lasted this long!

I don't intend to eat meat every day. But for every once in a while, I was missing out on so much!
28th-Oct-2013 11:51 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
I finally got rid of all the dressing bottles in the school refrigerator.

Lunch is served at all of the schools every day: there is always rice, a soup (either a clear soup with vegetables or miso soup), a meat dish, like a piece of fish, and a vegetable dish (which is often mixed with fish). I happen to be a vegetarian now-- not the easiest choice in Japan, which is probably the most fish-obsessed country in the world. But it means that I cannot have school lunch, so I bring my own. And since salads wilt, I keep a bottle of salad dressing in the staffroom fridge. Then, when there's only a few drops of dressing left, I bring another bottle.

You can see where this is heading: fourteen months in, and there's like six little bottles of dressing, most of them with about three drops of liquid dressing and a sort of crusted-on scum. The school nurse and the assistant vice principal had been telling me to get rid of them for about the last two months. Anyway, I was finished with work early (miracle! the contract says 4:30-- I consider myself lucky to be out of there at 5:30-- and today it was 3:45 and I was done!)-- so I just headed for the staffroom sink. I had to ask the assistant vice principal where to put the glass bottles, since he deals with the glass recyclables and metal recyclables generated in the staffroom. (I already knew where to put the staffroom burnable, non-burnable, and three classes of paper recyclables.) He just keeps those recyclables in bins by his desk.

After several trips to his desk to deposit another freshly-clean bottle, he said, "Is that all of them?"

I said, "No, not quite. Actually, this is kind of embarrasing, but a while ago I bought a bottle of lemon dressing, and it was really gross, so I never had it again. I left it in there hoping someone would end up eating it."

"Throw it out!"

"I know, but it's a whole bottle! I feel so bad just ditching it."

"Let me see." He goes over to the fridge, and there just happen to be some sprouts someone left sitting there anyway, so he tries a drop of the lemon dressing on on the sprouts. He pours a drop of the dressing over the sprouts, pops them in his mouth, chews. Thirty seconds later: "You're right, that's really bad."

"I know, right?"

"Straight lemon juice would be better than that. Don't feel bad about throwing it out. --Wait, look at the expiration date. When does this expire?"

"October 29th-- that's today! Sweet! I don't need to feel bad about ditching it all! Shoot, I'm so sorry! I just made you eat almost-expired really gross dressing for nothing!"

"It's OK. Just wash out the bottle and don't worry about it."
25th-Sep-2013 07:59 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
Is there any chance any of you could email me a scan of a couple of pages from the official English translation of Hikaru no Go? I want the one about halfway through the fourth chapter, with super-angry Akira with go stones flying through the background. If any of you could do this, I would be super super grateful.
24th-Sep-2013 11:10 pm - easy pumpkin recipe
was sleeping
Monday was a holiday here, so I spent the long weekend with some friends who live in Tokyo. It was wonderful, since they live right near a subway station. I could sleep as long as I wanted, and I could even go out during the day, and go back and have dinner and freshen up before going out for the night-- something I can't even do in Boston. I only did a few things-- I got a teaching game from a professional Go player, I checked out Akihabara and had lunch at a maid cafe, I did some shopping-- but I was able to relax and enjoy them more than if I had just been rushing from place to place or if I'd had to get up super-early. I think I'd been doing the travelling thing all wrong. Next time I travel I will only do a couple of things per day, and I will book the hotel for long enough that I won't have to worry about annoying check-out times.

Anyway, the second day, we had some leftover pumpkins in the fridge. They didn't have anything but grapes and soda in their fridge when I arrived, because they don't do any of their cooking, but the first day we made dal an a few simple curries together, because they were curious about them. (We made this dal recipe, although we didn't use so much oil. None of them had ever had dal before.) I also got pumpkins for kaddu ki sabzi, which is a very simple dish of pumpkins cooked in spices. When I checked the recipes online, I saw that they called for fenugreek (one blogger said that it is essential, even), and we didn't have any. So I said, "Well, we can simmer them Japanese-style, right? You have soy sauce and sugar." Some of my Japanese cookbooks had recipes for pumpkin simmered in a broth with soy sauce and suger. And one of the guys said, "Nah, that takes too long. Let's just fry them." He sliced the pumpkin to about 5 mm, skin on, and fried them in a nonstick skillet with just a little oil until they were soft, sweet, and barely beginning to color and get crisp on the edges. They were wonderful.

I feel incredibly happy and very silly about this. This is not a recipe I needed to go to Tokyo to get; I am sure that any of my Nagano friends could have told me, and I probably could have figured it out on my own even in America. But I am grateful for any 10-minute vegetable recipe, no matter what means I find it by.
16th-Sep-2013 05:32 am - Murakami Haruki's translation of Catwings
dark Harry from OoTP cover
Now that I can read Japanese fast enough to finish a typical novel in 2 or 3 weeks, I figured it was time to check out the local library. Libraries have a lot of things not in bookstores, and besides, if I can read a book before it's due, why shouldn't I?

I was a bit surprised to see a whole bookshelf full of nothing but Western translations. Of course all of Earthsea-- the movie made the book much more popular-- but also the Inkspell series (translated from the German), Ella Enchanted, a bunch of others. Now, reading a Japanese translation of a book that was originally written in English is one of the least appealing ways to practice Japanese that I can think of. If I'm going to chew over a book for three weeks, I'd definitely rather it be a book originally written in the Japanese, instead of something that originally was English anyway.

I changed my mind, though, when I saw Murakami Haruki's translation of Catwings by Ursula K. LeGuin. I haven't actually read the original (and I am frustrated that it's not available for Kindle!), but I know it's not a rare book. Besides, it is written by one of my very favorite authors, and translated into the Japanese by Murakami Haruki. And if he says it's good Japanese, it's good Japanese. I've read English translations of books I've read in the Japanese before, and it can be interesting to compare them, so why not occasionally go the other way? (Besides, it's short.)

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15th-Sep-2013 02:43 am - Nagano grapes
forgot to sleep by amaralen
About a month ago, about a week after the new batch of JETs arrived in my city, one of those new JETs posted a question to the local FB group: Where in the city can fresh strawberries be found? I couldn't say, because I hadn't even thought of looking for them. The answer, of course, is that although there are some imported and/or out of season fruits and vegetables, and some things available year-round, generally you can only buy things here when they're in season. Strawberries are in season in Nagano from maybe late February to mid-April, and then you just can't find them. In August, you might be able to find frozen strawberries in one of the bigger stores, but that's it.

Anyway, now that it's mid-September, the grapes are in season. And I have to say, I like the grapes you can get in Japan a lot better than the ones you can get in America. (To be fair, many of the ones here do come from California. Maybe only New England is unlucky.) The sort of seedless grapes I was familiar with are very rare here. You can buy specific varieties of grapes, like Muscat or Steuben or Niagara. They usually have seeds and usually have very thick skins, but they more than make up for this in flavor.

My favorite variety of grape is called kyohō (巨峰), which is a brand name; I don't know what else they are called. They are giant, almost as large as small plums. Their skin is tough enough that you can peel it off with your fingers if you want to, and they usually have seeds. They are intensely sweet, far sweeter than normal grapes, sweeter than gummi bears, sweeter than a spoonful of granulated sugar--they're almost as sweet as Kool-Aid. Any sweeter and they'd be inedible. And almost as strong as the sweetness is a pure, rich, intense grape flavor. It's hard to describe: they taste like grape, only considerably more so.

Someone brought in some of these grapes to the staffrooms at two of the schools I work at last year. Most of the teachers were able to suck out the pulp from the skins and then spit out the seeds. I was quite surprised, because I had never seen anyone eat grapes like this before. A few of them peeled the grapes with their fingers. It is pretty much impossible for me to spit out anything, so I found a knife so I could cut them open and pick out the seeds first.

Nagano produces a lot of these grapes, and now that they're in season they're quite cheap (at least by Japanese fruit standards). If you walk by the display at the supermarket, you smell a rich, fruity grape smell.
23rd-Jul-2013 10:25 pm - summer vacation
was sleeping
It's almost August, so it's almost summer vacation.

What this means is that there are three weeks in between the first semester (from April through July) and the second semester (from the end of August to the end of the year). But this does not mean the teachers or even the staff gets three weeks off. Every day of that three weeks is technically a work day, so if you want even one day off, you use one day of annual leave to take it. In my school, everyone gets 20 days of paid leave per year. This is a lot, for Japan-- many companies give you only five days. Also, in general you have to take vacation days when you're sick, because if there's no doctor's note, it didn't happen. And remember that the 20 days is also to be used over winter break and spring break. Also, sometimes you're told to take one of those days: if there's a conference or something that you can't participate in, but it's a work day, no one is at the school, so there's no point in going, but it is a work day.

For the teachers, the problem is not just with the shortness of the vacation, but with all the other stuff they have to do too. All of the teachers have many administrative duties besides teaching, and the whole Japanese school structure compounds that. For instance, there is no kitchen in the school; school lunch is made in a school lunch center a few miles away, and then distributed by the students. One of the English teachers' jobs is to liase with the school lunch center and oversee the student distribution process. I have no idea what most of the teachers do-- there's budget stuff, PTA stuff, sports teams stuff-- but there's a lot of it.

Anyway, add it all up and most teachers are taking one week off for their summer vacations. And this is a pretty long time by Japanese standards. My school, in northern Nagano, in central Japan, is close enough to Tokyo that you can go there any weekend, and we're close to Nagano City and Karuizawa too. But for anything else, you really need a longer break. A few teachers are going to go overseas, because it's actually cheaper to go to India or Hawaii than it is to go to Hokkaido. Travelling in Japan is expensive. And travelling outside of Japan is cheap. A friend of mine visited Seoul, and the travel company arranged for her round-trip flight and lodging for 3 days, and it cost her I think about $300.

That said, I do not plan to travel. It's not the money or even the time--it's just too much work. Yes, there are many beautiful and interesting places, but I think they are almost as beautiful in books or on video. My perfect vacation does not involve getting up early (which I would have to do if I were to travel) or spending long amounts of time in trains, or trying to find out where I'm supposed to go. I have to do enough of that any other day. No, my perfect vacation involves sleeping for as long as I want to, piles of books, and never spending any more effort than it takes to cause brownies to appear. Even in America, I had plenty of books, but never enough time to read them. And planning a trip and then taking it just feels like more work. I want to be lazy. I want to do nothing. A plate of brownies, a stack of paperbacks, and a couch-- that's all I need. Why leave home?
13th-Jul-2013 03:04 pm - Mark is an idiot, per usual
was sleeping
There is one teacher in my school who has been particularly hard to work with. This is mainly due to her schedule: she is a homeroom teacher, so she has to be with her class for the homeroom at the beginning and end of the school day; she runs the tennis team, so she supervises their practices before and after classes every day; and she runs the student council, so she is often busy with them too. She is usually at school from about 7 to 8, but never has any time to consult with me. I shall call her Ms. Red.

This would be fine if she were OK with me just showing up in classes and doing what she tells me to do then, or if she were to just make requests of me. She does neither. Just showing up in classes and, for instance, reading the textbook slowly enough so the students can follow along, is worth almost nothing. There are CDs which came with the textbook which have every word and every passage read by a native speaker, and of course she can read the textbook too. So I also make powerpoints in simple English, I do skits with the teachers, and I prepare games for practicing grammar. This always takes a fair amount of preparation and consultation, and with the other two English teachers, I just ask them. Neither of them is as busy as she is, so they're usually at their desks or in class. And if they are too busy-- both of them do have several non-curricular duties-- it's OK, because I'll be able to catch them another time. Ms. Red has told me that she's usually available after classes, but after classes she has homeroom and after homeroom she has tennis practice, and even if she's at her desk in between homeroom and tennis she's usually busy.

Anyway, last week, I asked her, "When can we talk?" She said, "Not now, I'm busy." I said, "I know. When is OK?" Her answer was, "Monday morning, between 8:00 and 8:10." My contract says that I don't have to be at work until 8:30, but whatever it says, doing my job is the most important thing. So I was at school at 8:00. She was consulting with another teacher until 8:05 and there was a staff meeting at 8:10, but those 5 minutes were enough to plan for the week.

Yesterday I asked her again, "Are you busy?" (The answer was, as expected, "Yes, so busy.") "When is OK?" "After 8." "Is Monday OK?" "Yes, at 8:00." "8:00 Monday morning. OK." Simple as that.

Why on earth hadn't I done that before?? How is it that it took me almost a year to figure this out?
10th-Jul-2013 10:47 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
I swear, administering tests gives me the heebie-jeebies. This week I'm testing the first years and the third years (the seventh and ninth graders, if you count from the first year of elementary school). I tested the second-years last week. The main English teachers are administering the speaking test this time, and I'm administering the reading test.

The students have to read a short passage-- it takes me 10 seonds to read out loud normally, and 16 seconds at a more classroom-friendly speed-- and I have to evaluate them out of 3 on speed, pronunciation, and volume/attitude.

Each of these is a fairly fuzzy category, because even if someone reads in a good number of seconds, they might sound too fast or too slow. (So I make that one a less fuzzy category by just setting a range they should shoot for and timing them all.) For pronunciation, I don't think I gave anyone a 3 out of 3, because no one got all the r's and l's, the past tense -ed, the pronunciation of all of the words, and an approximation of a natural rhythm right. And the last category is the worst.

After administering the test to one class, I told one of the teachers, "I can hear them of I can't. Shouldn't I just give full points to the ones I can hear?" And her answer was that the third point is for when someone is especially crisp and clear, so she wanted me to rate out of 3 anyway. So what happens is if someone read in the number of seconds I prescribed, but reads totally robotically, I take out points from the other categories.

And I swear, I suffered with almost every single number I wrote. Yes, there were a lot of easy 8s-- people who read in good time, with acceptable pronunciation. (Many of the second-years were easy 7s instead of easy 8s, because the time we used for the third-years was much less strict. This was not on purpose; after I read the passage for a third-year class, the teacher said, "OK, that was 15 seconds, so anything between 10 seconds and 20 seconds is perfect.") But there are a lot of people whose pronunciation is considerably less clunky, or who make effort to put in more of the peaks and valleys of natural English. And I have to choose, are they an 8.5, or a 9, or even a 9.5? Or, if they spoke well but made lots of mistakes, which overrides the other, or do they cancel out? Or if they were sub-par, just how sub-par? It's easy for me to write those numbers, but I know that those numbers will have real effects for the students.

I read in That's Disgusting: Unravelling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz (I am addicted to Kindle) about an experiment. Both male and female subjects interviewed young women. The women fumbled through their purses at one point and dropped either a hair clip or a tampon onto the table. And both the male and the female subjects rated the women who dropped the tampons as less competent and less likeable than the women who dropped the hair clips. Herz quoted the study to show that people really don't like seeing tampons. But it also shows some of the weird sorts of biases that can creep into tests like these even when you're trying to be fair.

I am not used to administering tests.
5th-Jul-2013 12:20 am(no subject)
was sleeping
A few days ago, I watched a movie called 「リアル~完全なる首長竜の日」, or in English, "Real: A Perfect Day for a Pleiosaur". I had to see it because there were machines similar to the ones used in Inception.

It goes like this: A guy's girlfriend has been in a coma for a year, but at the hospital, people are developing a machine that will let someone enter her consciousness. Her boyfriend, of course, is the only one who can do it. When he does, he finds her sitting at her desk in her mind, trying to write the continuation of the manga she'd been writing before, but she says it's not going well. She has one request for him. "Remember that drawing of a pleiosaur I gave you when we were high school freshmen? If I see it again, I think I'll break out of this slump. Find it and bring it to me."

While he looks for the picture, meanwhile, a ghost of a dripping wet ten-year-old boy keeps showing up. And every time he goes into his girlfriend's mind again, things are somewhat different. One time, her office is flooded with water. Another time, gravity isn't quite working; her pen floats through the air when she releases it. "That's because this isn't real," he tells her. Another time, outside the window, all they see is blank whiteness. There are a few twists that you will probably see coming, and I went, "Oh, of course, that explains that," when I saw them. The movie is classified as a mystery, because he has to solve the puzzle of the pleiosaur, but at its heart the movie is really a bizarre love story. I didn't like the ending, but was otherqise quite happy with it.
2nd-Jul-2013 07:43 am(no subject)
was sleeping
One of the teachers had me grammar-check a test she was writing. It included the following: "I've already worn my slippers!" This is a reference to an incident a few months ago: she and I were at a faculty volleyball tournament with some of the other teachers, and I was surprised to see bathroom slippers in the bathroom. I was already used to seeing bathroom slippers in the bathrooms in places where you're expected to be wearing slippers already, like doctors' offices and restaurants, but I didn't understand how it was supposed to work in a gym, where everyone was wearing sneakers. Anyway, she was amused at this small bit of culture shock, and has used it in a few lessons. Here, the test was on the present perfect, which in English is "have" plus a past participle. For example, "have eaten". Here, however, "I've already worn my slippers" makes no sense. She wanted something like "I've already put on my slippers" (which is difficult because the students don't know that use of "put on") or "I'm already wearing my slippers", which doesn't use the present perfect.

One problem here is the meaning of "wear". Japanese has about five words that can be translated as "wear", but none of them actually mean "wear"; they all mean "put on". One of them (haku) means "to put on the lower body", another (kiru) is for upper body, another (shimeru) is for things like belts that require fastening, and so on. But none of them have the sense of being on continuously that "wear" does. They all just refer to the action of putting it on. The problem, though, is that to express the concept of "is wearing", you use the continuing form that is generally easily translated as "is _____ing" or, in very horrible English, "is in the state of having _____ed" (____teiru). And "wear" is normally used as part of "be wearing". So it looks like "wear" just refers to the action of putting on the clothes, just like the Japanese verbs do. IT's very difficult to get that across!

After I explained this, the teacher considered just ditching that whole section of the test. I feel bad for her!
14th-Aug-2012 01:58 am(no subject)
was sleeping
Posting this by typing 1 letter at a time from my new iphone from my new apartment in Nagano. This is so slow I'll almost never post (pls frgv ntspk) but I promise I'm still alive!
2nd-Aug-2012 05:50 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
Since I'm going to Japan for I don't even know how many years, it's time to finally move out properly-- that is, get my room empty enough so that someone else could move in.

The good part is that unlike previous attempts at room cleaning, I can just ask myself, "Will I need it in Japan?" and if not, "Will I need it when I come back from Japan?" If the answer is "no" to both of them, it goes out. Trash, recyclables, thrift store, used bookstore. Laundry will be washed, then sorted and either packed or donated. Very simple.

The bad part: the sheer volume of stuff. I thought I'd done well when I'd gone through the piles of coursework and papers on my floor. Then I looked at my desk, which was piled about two feet high. Then my other desk. Then inside my desk-- 3 drawers full of junk from elementary school. Then under my bed. My closet.

There are definitely some nice little surprises. Like, there's change everywhere-- sometimes in piles, sometimes just scattered, sometimes in the pockets of pants I haven't worn in 4 years. I keep unearthing coins. I expected there to be about $15 overall, but so far it's up to $40 and counting. (The $20 in quarters were nice, but the $4 pennies were a pain.) I even found a pile of cash from when my boss used to pay me in cash-- that's $300 I'd just forgotten about.

The toughest part, though, is the books. I would be sad if all of them disappeared, but I'd know I'd be able to rebuild most of it. But looking at any individual book, I go, "I loved that book!" or "I wanted to read that book!" I can't cull them at all, I love them all too much. It feels so sad to put them in storage for however many years it's going to be, knowing that no one will read them for the whole time, but it feels just as sad to donate them to the used bookstore.
9th-Jun-2012 01:44 am(no subject)
was sleeping
The pastry chef said that I could come back whenever I wanted, as long as I don't visit every day, so I guess I can call myself a pastry intern now. If you go to Il Cappricio tonight or tomorrow and order the lemon mousse or the torrone semifreddo, you'll be having something I made. I also made rhubarb syrup to go over strawberry crostata, the crisp topping for blueberry and peach crisps, and chocolate buttercream frosting to go over a raspberry-filled chocolate cake someone ordered. (Cake isn't on the menu at Il Cappricio, but if you call a day ahead and order one, he'll make one for you.)

I'm still a bit surprised by the kitchen culture there. For instance, he sliced off the tops of the chocolate cake layers so the cake would stack together neatly, and he left these thin extra slices in the pans on the counter. Then for the next half-hour or so, every host, waiter, or prep cook who wandered by just took a bit of it. (I definitely had my fair share too! Who wouldn't want a morsel of chocolate cake?) One of the prep cooks was julienning some beautiful sugar snap peas, and the pastry chef just grabbed a few when he walked by. He also left the bowl he used to mix up the molten chocolate cakes lying around, and at least one of the hosts just stuck a finger in. It's so different from working in a dining hall! Over the course of the day I had countless little bites of chocolate cake, licks of buttercream frosting, tastes of semifreddo and lemon mousse, and nibbles of torrone. He let me take home some extra torrone too. In effect, I'm getting paid in dessert.

By the way, before I forget, here's the recipe for torrone semifreddo. The torrone is 3 cups of sugar and 1 cup of honey boiled to the crack stage, poured over 3 egg whites as they're beating, mixed with the zest of an orange, beaten until the mixer can't handle it anymore, then kneaded with some chopped toasted almonds and a little cornstarch and spread out to cool. This makes enough for 2-3 batches of semifreddo. Because he doesn't have an industrial mixer, it comes out fairly soft, almost marshmallowey, melt-in-your-mouth, fragrant with orange, and for this purpose it's fine. The semifreddo itself is dead easy, actually: beat 4 egg yolks with half a cup of sugar until pale and tripled in volume, whisk a pint of cream, and fold them together with a tablespoon of Frangelico, two tablespoons of Gran Marnier, and as much of the torrone as you want, ripped and crumpled up. This time he sprinkled in some powdered hazelnut praline too. Then you put it in molds and freeze them. This amount makes about 6. I tasted the batter, and it was amazing. He serves them over a pool of warm gianduja ganache.

Also, here's how he did chocolate cake. The cake recipe itself is standard, and I didn't see it. He sliced off the tops of the layers so they stacked better, then spread the bottom layer with a reasonably thick layer of raspberry jam, then with a reasonably thick layer of chocolate buttercream. (Remember, this is the sort of buttercream recipe that calls for a pound and a half of chocolate and two pounds of butter: super rich and smooth and very chocolatey.) After the top layer went on, he checked it to make sure it was level and filled up the uneven side with a bit more buttercream. Then a thin layer of buttercream goes on (I did this part) and it goes into the fridge for 20 minutes before another layer of buttercream goes on. I did this too, but after I thought it looked good, he smoothed it a bit more with the offset spatula, then ran the spatula under hot water to get it very hot and ran it around the side of the cake until it was as smooth as a mirror. Then the whole thing goes in the fridge until the party comes in the door, and the 2 hours or so between then and serving time should be enough to warm up the buttercream. He wasn't worried about the top because the guy who plates the desserts will top it with fresh fruit and serve it with vanilla ice cream.

Last time I visited, I was surprised to find myself a bit bored, actually. It's easy to make one batch of brownies, but to make enough molten chocolate cakes for the restaurant like I did last time, you have to crack about four dozen eggs. (You throw away half the whites. And if you're me and accidentally add the flour to the insufficiently-beaten eggs and it clumps, you throw them all out and crack another four dozen.) It takes a long time to crack four dozen eggs! Or working butter for buttercream: when I went to make the buttercream, the butter just wasn't soft enough, so I chopped it up and worked it myself for 20 minutes until it was good. And it feels pretty similar to washing out the coffeepots at my work: it's just another task that has to be done. Same with a lot of the work. Like, to make lemon mousse with candied lemon rinds, you have to zest and juice about a dozen lemons, then julienne the zests. I'm getting better at it, but it takes a lot of time, and it just feels like something to do and get done with. Not to mention the dishes that you have to take care of, same as at home.

That said, I still think it's very cool to do this.
2nd-Jun-2012 07:03 am(no subject)
forgot to sleep by amaralen
Just got an email saying "Congratulations! Your JET status is now 'accepted'."

In August I will be teaching English in Nagano!!

No way can I sleep now.
16th-Apr-2012 06:55 am - how to make creme brulee like a pro
was sleeping
When I arrived at Il Cappriccio the other day, the pastry chef already had some hazelnuts toasting in the oven, and he'd mixed up a batch of raspberry sorbet that was just now ready to go into the ice cream maker. It would be impossible for me to give a blow-by-blow of the whole shift, because in general, he was always doing at least four things at once. At any given time, there might be cookies in the oven, chocolate melting on the stove, something cooling in an ice-water bath, and pie dough warming up a bit on the counter to make it easier to roll.

On the eating side, the difference between the creme brulee you make yourself under the broiler and the creme brulee you pay $9 for in a swanky restaurant is that when you pay the $9, you get a lot more than creme brulee. Currently, orange cardamom creme brulee is on the menu. You get a dish of orange cardamom creme brulee, a hazelnut macaroon filled with orange buttercream, and a scoop of raspberry sorbet on a crisp orange cookie. The orange cardamom creme brulee itself is simple, and you can make the same one fairly easily. But I have never served that much stuff together!

Here's a few of the things he made:

-Torrone semifreddo. He'd already made the torrone, a simple matter of pouring boiling sugar and honey over some beating egg whites and adding orange zest and blanched almonds, and he'd made it come out soft and fragile. (He let me taste some: it was soft, a bit chewy, almost melt-in-your-mouth, and absolutely fragrant with the orange zest.) The semifreddo itself was 8 egg yolks and sugar beaten together until the sugar dissolved and the mixture was pale, then with a quart of cream, whipped, a spoonful of Frangelico, a few spoonfuls of Gran Marnier, and chunks of semifreddo folded in. (He let me taste this mixture-- it was amazing.) You then freeze this in molds and serve it atop ganache made with gianduja.

-Lemon mousse, which is one of his interpretations of a house recipe that's always been with the restaurant. You take the zest of a few lemons and the juice of a lot, then you warm up the lemon juice with a little sugar and gelatin so that the sugar dissolves and the gelatin melts. Meanwhile, you have egg whites beating with a little sugar and cream whipping. (He has 2 stand-type mixers to help with the multitasking.) After the gelatin is melted, you chill the mixture until it comes down to room temperature in a bowl set in a bowl of ice, then you fold in the cream and egg whites. Then you just fill the cups, cover them, and let them set. This is one of the simplest desserts on the menu, and it's served with only some candied lemon rinds and one or two dried cherry biscotti.

-Molten chocolate cake. Of course, molten chocolate cake is best right out of the oven, but here's his trick for making it ahead. You bake the cakes, then you unmold them. You leave some of them at room temperature and put the rest in the fridge. The ones you leave at room temperature will be heated up in the oven for just a couple of minutes when they are plated, and the ones in the fridge will come to room temperature in the kitchen later. He serves the molten chocolate cake covered with caramel sauce, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp cocoa cookie and some whipped cream on the side.

-The aforementioned orange cardamom creme brulee. You take the zest of an orange, a handful of cardamom pods, a quart of heavy cream, and a quart of whole milk. You bring it all up to a boil, then you turn off the heat, cover it, let it sit for an hour or so to let the flavors infuse, then you strain out the orange zest and cardamom and make creme brulee with it. This much made about 15 orders. The procedure for basil-flavored ice cream is the same: you set the basil in the cream, let it infuse for a couple hours, then strain out the basil and make ice cream with the cream.

-Here's his recipe for caramel sauce, although I didn't see him make it. Take 3 cups of sugar and a cup of corn syrup and cook them until they're the right shade of brown. Add a quart of heavy cream and stir and cook it until the caramel is dissolved and the mixture thickens somewhat. He says it keeps for weeks in the fridge.

-The aforementioned hazelnut macaroons: you toast the hazelnuts, cool them somewhat, then grind them to powder with some confectioner's sugar. Fold them into some beaten egg whites, shoot them out of a pastry bag (he let me try this, and it's not as easy as it looks!), let them sit for 2 hours, then bake them. They were really nice at that stage, mostly crispy with a bit of chewy and this wonderful, rich toasted hazelnut flavor, but he sandwiched them with just a tiny dollop of pastry cream flavored with orange zest and Gran Marnier.

As well as these, he made dried cherry biscotti, vanilla ice cream, orange cookies for the creme brulee and cocoa cookies for the molten chocolate cake (I helped with these), candied lemon rinds for the lemon mousse (I helped with these too), and individual strawberry and dried cherry pies. Being a professional pastry chef is a little bit like being a waiter in that you have to be able to remember how many balls you've got in the air, and when you have to catch each one. There is not much difference in how he folds together a mousse and how I do, but he can make a mousse and molten chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream and biscotti all at once, and I can't. He even told me that this ability to multitask is more important than theoretical knowledge, because being able to make the best dessert in the world doesn't help you if you can't get the job done.
24th-Mar-2012 01:50 am(no subject)
was sleeping
My boss is awesome!

The way the scheduling works at the store is that he writes a new schedule every week, although we're free to change it amongst ourselves as much as we want after the fact. Since he writes it Friday morning, if you give him a note by Thursday night with your request, he'll give you what you want. There is only one time in the 8 months I've been working that he slipped up, and he apologized after.

There's something next Saturday I wanted to get to, but I was a bit out of it when I wrote the note, and I requested "Saturday 3/30" off. This Saturday is the 31st. So he just gave me both Friday the 30th and Saturday the 31st off. How cool is that?
22nd-Mar-2012 05:44 am - new place
was sleeping
I'm so happy! I was going to wait until I get the results of my JET interview in April before I started looking for a house (and if I get in, of course I'm not moving out yet) but the interview went so badly I'm not keeping my fingers crossed at all. If I get in, I get in. Anyway, I saw posted on the bulletin board in my store an ad for a room in an apartment, and when I called them to check it out, the girl who's renting it out recognized me, and I recognized her too, since she's a regular. It turns out that the room is in an apartment that's right across the street from the store-- my commute will shrink from a 20 minute walk to about 20 seconds! The landlord normally does background checks on the tenants, but since he's a regular too and knew I have a steady job, he was totally OK signing the rental agreement right away. Both of them know that I applied for JET and may need to move out in a few months, and are totally cool with that. Plus, the rent is about half what I would pay for a single apartment, so as long as I'm a bit careful, I can afford it. (Granted, a second job would make it easier.) So I'm moving in a week from Friday! I can't believe how easy it was! I'm finally moving out of my parents' house-- with any luck, for good!

So although I'm not doing the actual move yet, I'm preparing-- laundry, packing, and shopping. Today I visited them again to do a thorough kitchen inventory. They have almost no equipment: no cutting boards, vegetable peelers, cheese graters, eggbeaters, custard cups, baking sheets, and not enough spoons or storage containers. I'll have to buy pretty much everything. I'm so excited!
14th-Mar-2012 06:30 am - OK, this is getting creepy
was sleeping
1. A couple weeks ago, a local student, Franco Garcia, vanished. I knew him, because he worked at the CVS right by my house. He was last seen at a bar, and then he just wasn't there anymore. He has not attended classes, shown up for his job, or been seen by any of his family or friends. There are now posters that show him, asking if anyone can give any information.

2. One week ago, one of my coworkers went MIA. He didn't show up for two of his shifts, and he isn't reachable by phone. None of his family or friends know anything either. Since we don't know what's going on, he isn't fired yet, but we aren't scheduling him for any other shifts until he shows up again.

3. Just now one of you told me about someone else you know who also disappeared like this. (I'm keeping you anonymous for now if you want to remain anonymous.)

Just once is strange enough for something like this-- so strange, in fact, that it happening twice isn't much stranger than it happening once. But three times? Something is definitely going on.
14th-Mar-2012 06:12 am(no subject)
was sleeping
One of my boss's jobs is to monitor the security camera footage for shoplifters, and to show the associates (i.e. me) who to look out for.

About a week ago he showed me footage of a lady stealing about five pints of Ben and Jerry's. "Do you know her?" he asked me. "Yeah, that looks like someone I know, but I'd be surprised if it were her," I said. The lady on the security camera looked a whole lot like one of my favorite customers, you know, one of the nice ones who always asks how I am. She usually seemed tired, and somewhat down on her luck, but she always seemed happy to see me and willing to chat a bit. She'd actually submitted an application a couple months back, and I helped him pull it out. "If it's her, this would be about the third time in six months," he said. (The last shoplifter who I helped identify had also submitted an application.) "Yeah, that's the real reason we're always accepting applications," the other associate on duty said.

Anyway, the customer I know came back about three times in the intervening week, and each time, I looked at her carefully, but still couldn't tell if she was the lady in the security footage. But yesterday, my boss showed me more footage of her, this time stealing two pints of Ben and Jerry's and some Windex, then stopping by to buy some cigarettes. "What kind of cigarettes were they?" I asked my boss. "Newport hundreds." "Shit." I know only about four people who smoke Newport 100's, and the lady I knew was one of them.

Anyway, this customer came back that very night, and sure enough, she went right to the ice cream freezer and started rooting around. I asked her if she needed help, and she told me about a particular flavor she was looking for, one with caramel and chocolate. This is actually quite plausible, and I wouldn't even be of much help finding a hidden flavor: the ice cream vendor does all our stocking, so I don't even know what all flavors we have. Furthermore, we order a lot more flavors than we have columns of ice cream, so he just sort of crams them in as best he can-- I do try to keep them sort of straight, but we sell so much ice cream it can get chaotic in there. So if you're really dead set on making sure we don't have one pint of something bizarre lurking in somewhere, you really have to go through it all. I let her do this, but afterwards, I wasn't sure that I didn't see her sneaking something into her purse.

In other words, this favorite customer of mine is almost certainly a habitual ice-cream thief, and she will be arrested for shoplifting. I don't like it.
21st-Dec-2011 09:26 am - JLPT
was sleeping
I need to take the JLPT this summer, so I was checking out the questions on the website to decide which level I should go for. I'm debating between Level 1, which would certify me as an expert in Japanese, and Level 2, which means that I can read most manga but struggle with newspapers. (This latter describes me more accurately.) I could do most of the example questions for the Level 2, but I thought that they might be challenging even if they were in English!

Here's some of the things they have you do: they scramble up some of the words in a sentence, then tell you to put them in the right order. They give you some sentences that all use the same word, and tell you to pick out the one that uses it right. They give you an essay with a word left out of the conclusion, and have you decide what word was left out. Just knowing the words is only the first step here!
1st-Nov-2011 07:01 am - I blame Aja for this.
dark Harry from OoTP cover
As you know, I work in a convenience store. I have to make sure there's no one in the store and lock up before I can go to the bathroom downstairs. The first time I did this, I could've sworn I heard footsteps coming from above. "Hm, that's weird," I thought, and filed it away in my brain for future reference.

Another feature of the store is that the door is set to chime every time someone walks in. This makes things easier for me-- I could be in one of the backrooms stocking milk or washing out cofeepots or something, and I know to rush out every time I hear the chime, just in case it's someone who needs to buy something from behind the counter, or otherwise needs assistance. If I'm on the sales floor, I look to the door, and if I'm behind the counter already, I say, "Good evening," or whatever time it is. I have done this from day one. The only problem with this is that at least once or twice a day, I hear the chime, look to the door or rush out of the backroom, and there's no one there.

Also, since I always check who's coming in when I hear the chime, and since I can see the entire sales floor from almost anywhere, I can be aware of everyone in the store and where they are at all times, unless it gets super-busy. This is both a customer service thing and a loss prevention thing: if someone seems to be looking for something, or if someone's spending a lot of time somewhere, I generally ask if I can help them. Problem is, sometimes I think I see someone out of the corner of my eye-- sometimes a middle-aged lady, sometimes a teenage boy-- and when I look, there's no one there. Sometimes this happens when there's no one in the store, or even after I've closed.

I know there are perfectly reasonable explanations for all of these. Like, the footsteps could be because my store is connected to 2 restaurants-- I could be hearing their footsteps. The walls are pretty thin anyway, and I know I can often hear people talking outside when I'm in the bathroom. The chime really freaked me out until I learned that there's also a chime on the ice cream freezer-- it chimes when you stand in front of it. (There's $6,000 worth of ice cream there, so my boss would like me to be able to tell the chimes apart and look to freezer whenever I hear its chime too.) That takes care of most of the times I hear the chime. As for the people, well, I am blind without glasses, so my peripheral vision is pretty worthless.

Still, I have to wonder.
1st-Nov-2011 06:34 am - Halloween for idiots
was sleeping
Since today was Halloween, of course candy had to be purchased. (Yeah, it would be possible to just not hand out candy, but who wants to do that?) Everyone else forgot until late, so at about 5:00 I made a last-minute run to the grocery store and the dollar store to stock up. The grocery store was almost completely bare; it was as if they wanted to avoid ever selling any Halloween candy at half-price. Of course the prices were shocking to me, because I've only ever bought Halloween candy at half-price the day after, so I was standing there going "$5 for this?" I told a lady also buying candy there, "I can't believe this is all!" "Yeah, this is all there is," she said: "the really stupid part is, I've already bought candy." "It's just never enough," I said, and she said, "No it's never enough-- especially if I know where it is!"

Of course I sucked it up and paid, because the prices at CVS were even worse, and the dollar store was about a mile away, and I wouldn't want to risk the remaining stuff going before I got there and back. And the dollar store had good-sized bags for $3 and tiny little ones for $1, so I ended up paying the same amount there.

When I got back, and mixed up this selection of peanut buttery, chocolatey, crispy, trans-fat-filled sugary stuff in a giant mixing bowl, the doorbell started to ring right away. I let the first group of ghosts, ballerinas, and pirates pick their own, and they each reached into the bowl and grabbed a huge handful. I wanted to make sure that everything would last-- hey, I spent more than I should here!-- so I told the next group to each take 1 piece. They dutifully each took only two. I told my aunt this, and she told me that you just give them each one piece yourself. (If it's only one piece that I'm getting, I'd definitely rather choose.) So this was what I did for the next group, two minutes after. By now, I've served some 10-15 kids, and the bowl is still about 2/3 full. At this point I took a nap and woke up at midnight.

My brother's report was that there was only one more group of trick-or-treaters, so the remaining candy is ours. The bowl is still just as full as I left it. So I ended up paying mumblemumble for candy for mostly myself. And if I were going to get it for myself, Nov. 1 is the day, not 5:00 on Halloween! And if it were going to go to the trick-or-treaters, I should've just let them each take what they wanted-- I definitely got enough. I feel like such an idiot here!
8th-Oct-2011 04:48 am - hunting
was sleeping
So I need to learn Spanish now. Even if I won't need it in grad school a couple years down the road, and even if I don't particularly like the thought of international travel, probably about a third of my customers come from Guatemala, and a good portion of them speak little or no English. Learning Spanish now would be a good move. I can't take a class, because I don't have the time or money to go into Boston however many times a week it is. And I don't want to try going on my own, because grammar books are just too big-- you get lost in them right away, and they're usually too long to just plow through. I'd rather have someone explain what I need to know, so I can study it on my own. And I don't want to travel very far, probably not much farther than the library-- that is, I want a local tutor.

I've been through five of them so far. I'm not counting all the ones who didn't respond to my calls or my emails, who were too busy with other students, who were unwilling to plan lessons, or who made grammatical errors in any of their emails with me. The five I met up with were as follows:

1: A recent grad who'd been to lots of places in Latin America. He spoke with no accent I could hear, and guided me through the alphabet and some basic verb conjugation. Problem is, when he went over the alphabet, he kept skipping letters, which my mother kept pointing out. So she will not let me see him.

2. A Spanish teacher with many years experience both teaching and tutoring all levels of Spanish, with a terminal degree-- she mentioned that she also knew Latin and the entire history of the Spanish language, and although her training is more in Castillian Spanish, she'd also traveled around Latin America. Problem is, after spending an hour with her I had no idea how I'd study in preparation for the next lesson.

3. A sociology professor who happens to be a native speaker. He answered all of my questions, but I felt no chemistry with him whatsoever, and I doubt his ability to create lessons at all.

4. A current Spanish professor with about 30 years experience who spent a very nice hour with me going over some basic phrases I can use right away, as well as breaking down some of the grammar in those phrases for me. I was about to just go with her rather than going through all of the rest of the tutors in Boston, but a family situation came up, and she became unavailable.

5. A young lady who is currently studying Spanish in grad school, who reviewed what I went over with the other tutors as well as reviewing some stem-changing verbs and introduced me to reflexive verbs. She also spent a minute explaining the use of "de" to me, which is awesome because everyone mixes it into otherwise English phrases. I do feel bad for her, because by now I've been through so many you could easily spend the whole hour just going over what I've gone over. I didn't feel quite comfortable with her, in part because she spoke Spanish with a thick American accent, and in part because she told me to just memorize the forms of the stem-changing verbs rather than going into the reasons for the sound changes at all. So I'd worry that the level of both her Spanish and her lesson-planning skills are not quite where I'd want them.

I don't know what to do now. I want someone who would teach me Spanish the same way I would teach someone Japanese. I feel like I've clawed through every list of tutors on every website and come up with nothing. Should I just forget the whole tutoring thing and just wing it with books? (If so, which ones? And how do you make a study plan you can stick with?) Do I need to just find a class? Is there another option I'm not thinking of?
29th-Sep-2011 01:06 am(no subject)
was sleeping
Notes from my store. I have no problems with any of my co-workers or managers. I do, however, have several beefs with the upper management. Here's one.

We throw away more bread than we sell. Company policy is that you pull bread 5 days before the printed expiration date, because no one wants to buy a whole loaf at full price if it's going to expire in a couple days. Part of the problem is that we order too much, true. Last time I went through the bread in preparation for a delivery, I pulled and wrote off about 30 loaves-- so much that I wasn't even able to carry them in one garbage bag.

Now, if it's got to go, it's got to go. Fine, then. There's a soup kitchen almost right across the street from this store, and a day center that provides food, referrals, and assistance not much farther away. It would hardly have been a blip in my commute to just walk them over on my way home from work. There's a huge homeless population in this town, and a huger population on foodstamps. Maybe it would take too much staff time to mark down bread, and it's cheaper to just get rid of it. There's plenty of people in this town who could use it. Problem is, this is against company policy. We are not allowed to give away anything we write off, period. By company policy, I had to throw those 30 loaves of bread straight into the dumpster.
9th-Sep-2011 09:07 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
One of the perks of my job is that I get to play whatever music I want. Most shifts are single coverage, so I don't have to fight with any co-worker over the CD player most of the time, and usually the person who's coming in to relieve me doesn't change it until after I leave. (I do the same for them.) The managers don't care what we play as long as we play things that have no swearing in them-- it is a family-friendly establishment.

I just let the radio play whatever station it was set to for the first month: most of the senior associates listen to the soft rock station, the manager listens to the classic rock station, and some of the associates listen to that station that plays Kanye West and Lady Gaga. Of course I got thoroughly sick of all of those stations-- a whole workday is a long time to be listening to anything!

Hence me bringing in massive stacks of CDs from the library. Right now, I have about 20 CDs in the player. (There's a 50-disc changer.) It's a mishmash of musicians I've heard of but never listened to, stuff from my Zumba classes, a couple of my old favorites, and Loreena McKennitt. I like CDs so much better than the radio: you can choose what you want to hear, and you get to hear stuff that just doesn't get much airplay. Or if you do listen to all of the musicians who are on the radio, you get to hear their whole records and not just the 1 or 2 songs that get the airplay. Right now, if any of you recommend a CD to me, I'll be as likely to check it out as I would be to make a cookie recipe you give me: no guarantees, but it'll probably happen sooner or later.

From the customer point of view, I don't know how much difference there is. At first I thought that my choices were awesome-- my Latin customers sang along with Shakira, the teenagers danced to the funky songs, and the 40-somethings all said how much better this was than the usual stuff whenever I played something calm. Of course, that's not all that different from the radio-- they sing and dance to the radio all the time too. And I get compliments almost no matter what I play.

I've recently been really into Loreena McKennitt-- she's a highly trained soprano, and mixes in Celtic sounds, harps, Arabic dance rhythms and tonalities, Gregorian chants, and whatever else she feels like. Everyone loves her-- I got expatriates who were happy to hear her, people who hadn't heard these rhythms since they came back from Egypt, and a whole lot of regular people who like her sound. I also got compliments for Dido. I put in "Nevermind" this morning, and the guy who came in to relieve me said, "Is this 'Nevermind' by Nirvana? You're awesome! I haven't heard this since high school! Can I put this on repeat?" I think people just really like music in general.
8th-Aug-2011 12:08 am - the food problem
was sleeping
Finally I think I understand why everyone in this country eats such garbage. I do too now. The reason? Work.

Say I'm working a 10-hour shift. If I'm lucky I'll have something before I leave. I will eat at work-- if I'm lucky I'll have enough time to cut up an apple or a cucumber before I go, if not I'll just pack some raisins and almonds. (Whatever it is has to be edible without touching, hence the cutting up-- I have to be able to wait on customers, and I am not going to handle money and then food.) I don't like relying on the store for food. When I get back, I'm going to be starving. And I'll have just been on my feet all day-- I'm not going to want to spend more time making myself something nice. I'm just going to grab whatever I can. Lots of days I'll just stop at a restaurant before or after work: I have the money now, and I don't have the time to cook.

I know that most of you probably don't work 10-hour shifts like I do. (My shifts vary: I've done 12s, tomorrow I have a 9, and later this week I'll have 6s and 7s.) But you all have something, whether you have a long commute or you like to spend an hour at the gym after work. Even if you're only working 8 hours and have an easy commute, you're going to be tired when you get home.

Then what about weekends? I have days off every now and then. But the problem is, there are things I like to do besides cooking. I like to read and watch movies and play Go. I don't want to spend my day off just chopping carrots! And I bet you don't either. In fact, sometimes my days off are busier than my days working. In that case I'll definitely buy something from somewhere. Some days off I do make a massive amount of something, but it's just not feasible to spend your whole Saturday cooking. Definitely not every Saturday.

And the time I have off work is the same deal. Even if I'm just working a 6 and have lots of time after, sure, there are some days when I'll head right to the kitchen. But there are just as many days when I'll head to the library or the yoga studio. Like I said, I like cooking, but I don't like cooking all the time.

So in this country, there are lots and lots of restaurants where you can get lunch or stop before or after work easy. (I am partial to the falafel place near where I work, but that's probably not the best for my health either.) Grocery stores sell chickens already roasted, carrots already shredded, and beans in cans. (I don't trust any of them, but I definitely see the rationale.) Convenience stores like mine sell sandwiches as well as easy snacks like trail mix and string cheese, not to mention the flood of pretzels, chips, Lunchables, Slim-fast, protein bars, Cheerios, and Hamburger Helper. It's incredibly easy to have terrible eating habits without even knowing it. This is just what's going to happen when everyone works all day.

I wish I knew the solution. Maybe if the workday were only 4 hours, more people would cook. But then more people would spend the extra hours doing more yoga and reading more and playing more WoW, and they'd still want something easy to eat. Maybe we need more bistros in the original sense of the word: dirt-cheap places with limited menus each day that serve healthy stuff that tastes more or less like your mother's cooking. But lots of places try to do that already, and we still have a problem. I don't really know the way out.
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