Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ketchup. Catsup. Catch-up.


Why does anyone ever spell ketchup "catsup"? It's kind of weird and unappetizing to me that the word "cats" would appear on a plastic bottle of red, tomato-based stuff I squeeze on my French fries.  I spell it "ketchup" and to my Australian or British friends who call it "tomahto sauce", I'm sorry, but that is something else entirely that comes out of a can and is used for making marinara.

Anyway.  It comes down to this: it's high time for me to blow the dust off this blog and play some serious catch-up here. For starters, I am writing this post not in Korea but in the guest bedroom of my in-laws' house in California!  A few weeks ago, as we were discussing our plans for the summer, I was punching in various places I wanted to go and checking airfares when I came across such a crazy good deal, I kind of still can't believe it.  I mean, it was less than the cost of almost all the places in Asia that I wanted to visit. 


This way I get to meet the nephew my sister-in-law adopted since I left and the baby my soul sister had.  My kids get to swim and run around in the country like a bunch of ruffians, Wyatt can stomp around being a T. Rex for several weeks without me worrying about our downstairs neighbor who is quite possibly the crankiest man in Korea.  (I am not exaggerating when I say that when we are in the elevator with him, he actually growls at us!  Story for another time...). And next month, Matt will join us for the last couple weeks for a roadtrip.  You know I love my roadtrips.

The only catch with our amazing airfare was that the travel itinerary was abysmal. We had six hours in Shanghai on our way over and will have thirteen there on the way back.  When I told my friends in Busan about this, those who had been there winced and groaned.  They informed me that it was actually good to have a long layover,  Now I completely understand.  I was told that you have to go through immigration to get a 144-hour pass, and that you had to claim your baggage and check back in, then go through passport control and security again.  I thought this would take two, maybe three hours.  The kids and I would grab dinner to kill some more time before our flight.  Maybe we'd play some games and nap while we waited to board.

The story of our time there can best be summed up in Wyatt's words when he saw the line for passport control to check out, after waiting an hour past the time we were told the check-in desk for our airline would open before it actually did.  An hour. Yes.  Anyway, he started crying (it was 11 pm our time by this point) and said, "No! No! NOOOOO!  I don't WANT TO WAIT IN ANOTHER LINE!!!"  

Bro.  I feel ya.  

We ended up sitting at the gate for only about forty-five minutes before it was time to board.  So yes, a long layover, while terribly painful, is necessary there.  Some of what took so long was due to total lack of information and having to figure it out through trial and error, and I would like to tell you I know better what to do next time, but... I'm not entirely sure that's true.  I can't claim bragging rights yet, I'm afraid.

But anyway, we arrived safely in San Francisco late Monday.  Which was weird because we left after midnight on "Tuesday".  I've been doing this my whole life, but I still feel like we should be able to say time travel is possible if you can gain or lose entire days by crossing an ocean.  I'm always left wondering about how to talk about the time on the plane.  Was it "yesterday"? "The day before yesterday"?  All last night, Wyatt, Annalee, and even Jayna we're struggling with sleeplessness... so I was too.  It was frustrating on the one hand, and I plan on more naps today. Buuuut, California.  *Heart eyes.*

Travel isn't the only piece of news, though!  My first baby has graduated from high school!! 


 I have so much I want to say about this, so hopefully I'll be able to grab the time to put it into words to post.  But suffice to say, I'm filled with so much gratitude and awe, I cried all the way through the ceremony.  Motherhood is such a crazy trip.

And speaking of crazy trips, Skyler, my new high schooler, is in Hawaii right now and will be joining us in July.  


She had begged and begged to go see her best friend all year, and she worked a very regular babysitting job this past semester to help pay for it.  It was a little scary to send her off by herself, but so wonderful to see her surprise reunion with her friend.  This girl and her whole family are just such precious people.  Lilly's best friends with her little sister, so she wanted to go too, but she has been sweetly supportive of Sky.  They are moving to Japan later this year, so hopefully we will all be able to see each other more.

Before I left Korea for the summer, we got to do some fun adventuring that I will post about soon, I hope.  But I think I've covered all the big news.  So now it's time for some serious caffeine dosage to compensate for the lack of sleep.  

I hope you all are kicking off summer (or winter, depending on where you are) with lots of happy fun!


Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Roller Coaster


I've said it before, but I've realized I feel like a fraud every time I try to write about "what I've learned".  It's like life tries to prove me wrong.  It's like a kaleidoscope, and how the tiniest movement completely changes what you see.  That's what I think happens when I try to claim I "officially know" something now.  

Buuuuut, that being said, I was thinking about how this is my 18th Mother's Day of being a mother, and it occurred to me that there are actually a few things I think I can justifiably say I've learned by now, and if a new mom asked what to expect, this is what I'd tell her.  

-- If you ever say out loud, "My kid will definitely____ (insert positive behavior) because ____ (insert logical reasoning)," you are spelling doom to whatever you just said.  I know this, and I still do it all the time.  I was at a baby shower this week and said to the hostess as I was leaving, "Annalee will fall asleep on the walk home and then I don't even have to worry about getting her down for her nap!"  

Guess who was still wide awake, singing "Let It Go" as I opened the door to my apartment? 

-- Vomit. Barf. Yak. Puke.  Whatever you want to call it, it will happen a lot.  And you will actually catch it in your bare hands, many times.  Last December when the kids were so sick, Wyatt coughed till he threw up.  I was putting oils on his chest, and no way no how was he going to puke on the comforter on my watch!!   Not when I know what it takes to do the laundry around here!  Without so much as a blink of the eye, I caught it, turned and walked to the bathroom sink and washed it off.  Then I calmly returned to the bedroom where Matt was sitting on the bed with Wyatt, his eyes wide.

"That was kind of awesome," he said.

"I know," I replied nonchalantly.  I almost flipped my hair but decided that was just a little much.

-- Head wounds bleed a lot.  Like... a LOT a lot.  I remember reading this.  But let me just say when it's your kid, the words "Head wounds bleed a lot" mean something entirely different.  Think of the goriest movie you've seen and multiply it by ten.  Okay, that won't be reality (I hope), but it will better prepare you for your child's first head wound than any words about the circulatory system or childhood injuries.  

One day, five-year-old Jayna and almost-two-year-old Skyler were playing out on our patio in Spain   (Matt was gone, of course.).  I had my back turned to them for just a second when Jayna said in the most unaffected, matter-of-fact voice, "Skyler bumped her head and now there's blood everywhere."  

I mistakenly responded to her tone rather than her words and turned to see Skyler stumbling toward me.  She was doing that cry where all the air in the lungs is fully expelled, and then suddenly they inhale and scream loud enough to wake the dead.  And there was blood... my goodness.  It was like Carrie, I'm not even kidding -- dripping from her head, all over the tile floor, soaking into her shirt. And it all came from a wound no longer than my pinky fingernail.  It literally took me all day to stop shaking from the shock.  This is what they mean when they say "Head wounds bleed a lot."  Prepare yourself.

-- You will wear pee that is not your own outside your house and live to tell about it.  In fact, I did this just recently, not for the first time.  I'd put on clothes that were very comfortable and I felt good in, and a certain small someone peed on me.  And though I was still home, and really should have cared enough to change, I thought about my laundry situation, scrubbed it with a diaper wipe, and headed out the door.  No one was the wiser! If it were poop, that would have been another story, of course.

Speaking of poop:

-- Your kids' poop can look very strange.  I about had a heart attack the day I was changing the diaper of one my children who had, the day before, eaten a bunch of tomatoes.  Colored icing and kiwi can also really weird you out.  Even with all the diapers I've changed, I still find myself startled sometimes. Before you panic and call the doctor, ask yourself, "What did my kid eat recently?"  Odds are excellent you will calm down, though that food will never quite be the same to you again.

-- You will spend an alarming amount of time thinking about other people's poop.  You will talk about it casually with other parents (and may even write about it on your blog)!  (You're welcome!) You will probably even have dreams (nightmares?) about it.  I say this even though I've never had more than one kid in diapers at a time.  It just becomes such a huge, stinky, normal part of your life.    

-- You will be alarmingly tired.  On Saturday night, I talked Matt into watching a movie that I've been wanting to see for a really long time.  It was great!  Really, truly great!  But still... not even halfway into it, I felt my eyelids getting soooooo heeeeaaavyyyy.  This was not happening.  I was going to stay awake!!  I was... totally...   going...      to... 

I jolted awake to find him staring at me.  For a long and awkward moment, I stared back.  How long had I been sleeping? I wondered, feeling guilty.  "I'm sorry, I'm just too tired.  I really want to watch it, but I can't keep my eyes open," I said.

"I'm so glad you said that because same here!" he answered.  

I laughed, "I thought you were going to be mad at me for falling asleep in the movie I'd picked!" 

We were both laughing now.  "And I bought you'd be mad at me for falling asleep in the movie you picked."  This is clearly marriage at its finest. We stumbled off to bed.

It was maybe 10 pm.

We party so hard.  

-- This morning, I was served breakfast in bed by my sweet kids.  There was a bowl of sliced oranges, a bowl of delicious oatmeal with coconut, craisins, banana slices and peanut butter.  There was also a coffee and a glass of water and a gigantic pastry that was some kind of amazing combination of muffin and cream puff.  As soon as the older three had delivered my tray, the younger two were sitting there, Wyatt serenading me with fart noises (from his mouth).  

"That looks like good water, Mom," Wyatt said after about ten seconds.

"It is," I answered, "would you like some?" (Never mind our ample water/ cup situation.)  He nodded. 

A few seconds later, "What's that?" pointing to the pastry.  

"I don't know, but it's super delicious.  Want a bite?" 

Dumb question.  Annalee also wanted in on the action.

And I sat there, dispensing my water, orange slices, and pastry-from-heaven only too happily.  Because while they might be completely unreasonable, stinky, messy insomniacs, they might embarrass me more than I thought possible and stretch my patience to it's breaking point, my kids are without a doubt five of my favorite people on the planet.  I smile more when they're around.  

This past week, I was remembering the amazing movie Parenthood with Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen.  Toward the end there is a wonderful scene between the two of them, where they are having a pretty heated argument, and the grandma of Steve Martin's character Gil walks in. 

She says, "You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up and down, up and down.  Oh, what a ride!"

Gil replies (sarcastically), "What a great story."

Then she says, "I always wanted to go again.  You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together.  Some didn't like it.  They went on the merry-go-round.  That just goes around. Nothing.  I like the roller coaster.  You get more out of it."

I was so scared to become a mother, to tell you the truth.  That's a story for another day.  But I can tell you all of the above and this too: I like the roller coaster.  

Monday, May 8, 2017

Expat Memoirs: Vive La France!

 Last fall, when we had just moved into our apartment and I was still figuring out the crazy garbage system and feeling pretty overwhelmed, I decided to take on a reading project.  It started with my love of certain movies like A Good Year or The Hundred-Foot Journey, where people find themselves in a new situation (preferably an international setting -- and if at all possible, Provence), and even if it's less than ideal, they learn to cope and even, eventually, triumph. 

But I didn't want to read fiction; I needed the real, been-there-done-that stories, especially as the kids kept getting sick and we were trying (sometimes it felt quite literally) to survive. 

Now I feel less like I "need" the stories now, but I've found some wonderful books.  And my list keeps growing!  You may not be living the expat life right now, but there is so much to learn from these tales, keen observations of those who have come to love a new place despite its quirks, to thrive and call it "home".  

If you made a pie chart of expat memoirs, a huge chunk of them would be about France.  And probably at least 95% (maybe even all???) of those would have to do with food -- at least to some degree.  Being a bit of a Francophile, I decided to start my book reviews with these French foodie tales.

*****Disclaimer: This is by no means a comprehensive list and in no particular order.  These are just the ones I've read since my arrival in Korea.*****

My Life in France by Julia Child
Why you should read this:
It would be more difficult to find a reason not to read it.  I honestly don't know what took me so long.  Child's unpretentious story-telling and effusive personality shine from the pages. She was educated and intellectual, and she had a very scientific approach to cooking, as she detailed in her descriptions of the research she did for Mastering the Art of French Cooking and its "son".  But her love for people blended with her joie de vivre triumph over any kind of vanity she could have laid claim to.  I like to think that if I'd been in Paris in the 40's or 50's, we would have been good friends.  But I also think that was part of her charisma.  Bonus: The text is peppered with fun words  like "collywobbles" and "muckity mucks", which in my opinion are tragically underused and I hereby endeavor to inject into my daily conversations.  Bonus bonus: the wonderful black-and-white photographs, mostly taken by her husband Paul. 

Why you should read this:
Because it's SO funny.  This was recommended by bloggers I generally agree with, but again, I waited too long to read it.  Most chapters had me laughing out loud at least once.  Lebovitz takes on some of the stereotypes and quirky ideals of French (in particular, Parisian) living, and discusses them to hilarious ends.  I came away having learned a few things but mostly with a strong reminder to find humor in the situations around me.  Bonus: as a famous pastry chef, he has some recipes that look amazing and I'm tempted to try in my beautiful new oven.

Why you should read these: 
As an American who moved to Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman, Bard might have just glossed merrily over all the nitty-gritty details of French life.  Instead, she tells an interesting and realistic tale of adapting to a new culture, as well as navigating the highs-and-lows of family and relationships, through the filter of an outsider.  She discusses issues that we American women like to talk about at length, such as the French attitude towards the female physique and eating, or fashion. But she also bravely wades into more grim territory such as  Stage IV cancer and death of a family member in her new adopted culture.  

Bard also explores what happens when the French national motto "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" crashes into the American belief that anything is possible.  These are both, in many respects, books about "crazy ideas": her husband's quest to fulfill his lifelong dream of working in film, writing a book about her own life even though she isn't -- quelle horreur!! -- a prize-winning scientist or former prime minister, or opening a specialty ice-cream shop in small town in Provence.  She has lived in the country long enough that hers is no longer a starry-eyed puppy love, but an ability to see what is truly there and still want to call it home.  Bonus: lots more yummy recipes.

Why you should read this:
I felt the strongest personal connection to this author due to her husband's career similarities to my husband's, and the frequent moves that has entailed (though the same was true for Julia Child). Unlike the Childs, their dream of living in Paris takes a bitter twist when he is sent to Iraq for a year, and she has to forge a life without him.  Though it's not a sad book, I read parts of it with a lump in my throat -- like when she describes the first days after her husband Calvin leaves, or the wistful thoughts about staying in one place long enough to put down roots while still being incredibly grateful for the opportunities in her life.  

I also related to her love of the French language, though discouraged by her mother who instead made her study the more "important" and "useful" Mandarin.  Both I and now my eldest daughter have received such blunt scrutiny -- i.e. "Why would you want to learn FRENCH?!" (Insert look of disgust). "It's so pointless these days."  But as she says, her mother underestimated the power of love in the ability to learn a language.  Similarly, it's through her passion for food that she survives her year of separation from her husband as she explores France and details culture and history as it relates to what the French eat.  

But even if you don't identify so strongly with the author's story, Mastering is an interesting and educating read, while remaining personal.  Bonus: (do I even need to say it?) yummy recipes (though these seemed more meat-centric than the other books).

I know that there are so many excellent books that fit into this category of expat memoir, but these five reminded me that keeping your sense of humor, enjoying good stories as they happen, and finding -- or rather, living -- your passion are the keys to thriving, wherever you are.

{Also recommended, though read before this project: A Year in Provence (and sequels) by Peter Mayle,  A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Mollie Wizenburg (doesn't entirely take place in France, but still), and Lessons from Madame Chic (and sequels) by Jennifer L. Scott.}

Monday, April 3, 2017

One Plus One

Wherever in the world I've been, one thing I have learned for sure is that everyone likes a bargain.  In markets everywhere, I've heard the words, "I give you special price!"  Which usually means about twice what the locals would pay.  But at least you felt like you were getting a deal!

I also had the unique experience on the selling side once when I lived in Spain.  I hosted a garage sale at my house with two of my friends.  I sold a whopping $15 worth of baby toys (which was probably foolish since I've had three more babies since), while my friends hauled in quite a bit more.  That afternoon, when everything was cleaned up and my girls were down for siestas, the doorbell rang.  It was a Spanish woman and her teenage son, both nicely dressed.  She had a bathrobe in her hands and was carrying on about a belt.  Ah! She didn't have the belt that was supposed to go with the robe!  I hadn't sold it, but I called the friend who had.

My friend started laughing. "Joy!  That woman!  I tried to get her attention because she was running away really fast after she bought it, but I guess she didn't hear me!  Then someone else came up and bought the belt!  Without the robe!!!"

I also cracked up and went outside to explain the situation to my visitor.  To my complete astonishment, I found her digging through my garbage can, I assume looking for the errant belt!  Now... I love a good bargain as much as the next girl, and I have friends that get amazing treasures by dumpster-diving.  But in this case, I'd have drawn the line as soon as I lifted the lid.  I had a toddler at the time, so the garbage was filled with stinky diapers, doggy-doo bags from picking up after our puppy, and a dead bird I'd found on my driveway the day before!

To each her own, I guess.

Koreans love a good bargain, too.  After only a couple days in the country, I became acquainted with "1+1" or, "2+1".  These are "BOGO" or "buy two get one free" deals.  And yes, I realize this sales tactic is not unique to South Korea.  But what is unique is that I have yet to meet a Korean sales employee who will let you leave the store without getting your "+1".  Say you're buying ice cream for your kids, and in the commotion of the whole, "I want chocolate!... Wait, she has strawberry?!  I want strawberry!  No!  I want vanilla!" (hypothetically speaking, of course), you fail to see that you were entitled to one free popsicle.  When you go to pay, the cashier will emphatically tell you (if not yell), "One plus one!"  And if you don't take this moment to hurry back for your free ice cream, well then, what hope even is there for you?

Generally speaking, I love it.  I've always wanted to be one of those extreme couponers who pays five cents to feed her family dinner.  But then... my life.  The coupons get lost, torn, chewed, or used as someone's Kleenex.  I really do need these salespeople and cashiers yelling at me to go get my free ice cream already.

It's just that sometimes... Well, sometimes I don't want that one.  There is one kind of tofu I especially enjoy here.  There are others -- a whole large section of the store, in fact, devoted just to tofu -- but this one is extra firm and cooks up well with the sauces and spices I like.  But darn it, if there isn't a 1+1 deal on another kind every time I go to buy it!  And there's always a lady there with that brand, yelling at me to stop paying more money for the kind I want and buy her kind already.  (in Korean). And then I smile politely and say through my teeth, "But I like this kind! I don't like that one! I won't buy it!" (in English). 

Like I've said before, it's amazing what can be communicated without speaking the same language   

But also, the 1+1 phenomenon led to one very unique experience.  

First I must digress.  I can purchase feminine products at the commissary, which is at least ninety minutes away, and I can also order them online through Amazon.  But sometimes the ill winds of bad timing and miscalculation of supply and demand blow strong.  And so it was that I found myself at the Korean Target/ Walmart store nearby staring at a row of pads (because they don't sell tampons).  Of course, all the labels were in Korean, so I was struggling to determine what would meet my needs when I felt a gentle-but-firm "whack!" on my upper arm.  I looked up to see the kind, smiling face of a saleswomen.  

"One plus one!" she said, pointing to a sign on another brand nearby.

"Oh... sure enough!" I replied, smiling politely but not ready to make my decision.  She pointed to the sign again and, using both hands with index fingers pointed up as sign language, repeated herself, "One plus one!!!"  She indicated the items that were included in the deal.  I started to look at them, realizing there were measurements in English, but they were written in centimeters... so I had to try to remember about how big 30 cms was, and did this one have "wings" or no?  In the meantime, the salesperson walked away but reappeared shortly with a giant binder.

Have you ever gone to a home improvement store to buy new counters or wood floors or carpet?  Yes?  Well, this binder was exactly like the ones you would be shown at Lowes or Home Depot, only instead of 50 different granite pieces or carpet samples, it was filled with pads of all shapes and sizes, for every kind of flow a girl might ever have in her menstruating years.

I might have been doing this period thing for ages, birthed five babies (and written about it), had lots of "woman visits" to the doctor, even had countless "girl talk" conversations with close friends.  But I have never, ever, EVER shopped for pads like this.  Was it a little awkward to stand in the middle of a busy supermarket, staring at page after page of maxi pads mounted on cardboard?  Why yes, I would say it was. 

Still, it was somewhat comforting with my new best friend at my side, guiding me through the catalog, showing me the features of this one versus that, and asking me things I couldn't understand, so that I had to shrug and smile sheepishly.  I made a selection as quickly as I politely could and hurried on my way.  

Since then, I've bought feminine products every time I go to the commissary, without fail -- even if "Aunt Flo" isn't visiting for a month, even if my bathroom cupboard is still chockablock full, even if it does seem a little OCD.  But when I pass that particular aisle at the store, I smile to myself.  Because shouldn't we all have a friend like that saleswoman, who stood patiently beside me that day?  Yes, I'd say we all need that, people who can guide us through all the ebbs and flows of life, so to speak, all the while making sure -- 100% sure -- we get the best deal.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Date Night: Ecotopia!

The second question everyone asks when they find out I'm a vegetarian (usually after some form of "Why?") is, "What about your husband?"  

The short answer is no, he is not vegetarian. The longer answer is: I became a vegetarian at 15.  I started dating Matt at 16.  So it's not like I dropped this bomb on him after our wedding.  When we married, I told him that he was welcome to eat meat, but I wasn't going to cook it or clean up after it.  So at home, he is a vegetarian.  Our system works pretty well.  He complains to friends about his hardships, but honestly, he (usually) says he likes my cooking and has tried to become a vegetarian several times, especially five years ago when both our dads suffered serious heart problems within six months of each other.  He says that he just feels like Bruce, the shark in Finding Nemo, whenever he smells meat cooking.    

And one of the many incredibly sweet things he does is that he's always trying to find good vegetarian food for me.  So the other night when, for the first time in about two months, Skyler actually asked if she could baby-sit her siblings (praise the Lord for good big sisters!!!!), we headed out on a date.  Honestly, it's hard to find Korean food without meat.  Yes, they use tofu in their cuisine, but it's almost always accompanied by beef, pork, or seafood.  So our go-to for eating out here is Indian food since it's always easy to find vegetarian dishes.  There are two good places within about a mile of where we live.  But a week ago Saturday, Matt did some research and found that in Namcheon, about six subway stops away, there is an all-vegan restaurant, and it had rave reviews -- even from omnivores.  

It took forever to find the restaurant, even with the directions that were on their Facebook page, but we finally walked up to find it empty except for the proprietor and another woman (maybe the chef?).  They put their arms up in an "X" position and though smiling said, "No more food.  Free market day.  Many people here.  Food all gone."

Of course.  

Now let me back up a little.  That Saturday was kind of a weird day for me.  I'd gotten up early to make the vegan banana blueberry pancakes that I always make for breakfast on Saturdays, but we left shortly after to cheer on Lilly in a basketball tournament that lasted for most of the day.  So besides the pancake I started the day with, I had only eaten a couple cheese sticks, and a tiny portion of leftovers I scarfed down when we were finally home.  

So now, I was good and hungry.

No, no... I was hangry. I mean, I realize I said I'm not really making plans for this yearbut dinner?  I couldn't even plan on dinner?!!?!  Was it really so preposterous of me to think that I could say, "Tonight, I'm going to go out with my husband to this place and there will actually be food there."?!  To walk into a restaurant that was still open and think that, you know, maybe there'd be SOMETHING TO EAT?!?!?!

Matt led me, fuming, to a nearby convenience store where there were some tables to sit at and bought a couple drinks and a pack of Mentos.  "Want one?" He asked.

"I hate Mentos," I grumbled.  

"I'll get you something else if you want.  Can I interest you in some dried squid?  Kimchi?"

I was in no mood for his jokes.  "No.  I'm starved.  I want real food.  I want dinner."  By now it was after 7, so breakfast, my last real meal, was already roughly a million years ago according to my stomach. I finally caved and popped a couple Mentos into my mouth.

And you know, for all the bad rap high fructose corn syrup and food coloring get.... well, let's just say they have a time and place.  I started to think a little more clearly and went to a Facebook group I'm part of that is specifically for restaurants in Busan.  I searched Namcheon, and to my surprise, there was another vegetarian place.  According to the directions, it wasn't even far away.  We ventured out again, thinking that if nothing else, it was close to the subway, so we could always head to our neighborhood for Plan B (and hopefully the Mentos I'd eaten would keep me alive).

It didn't look promising at first, just another alley with myriad shops lit by neon and fluorescence.  But then I saw a little sign with a tree and the name "Ecotopia".  Just off the alley was the loveliest gem of a restaurant, with a small, walled garden, a chalkboard sign and a bucket of flowers.  The lights were on, and a warm glow emanated from within.  There were tables on the patio that looked perfect for a warmer evening, but since we needed jackets outside, we went inside to the almost-empty restaurant.  Though the sign still said "Open", after the night's adventures, I was feeling pessimistic.
"Open?  Yes?"  The woman nodded, yet I was sure she was going to tell me they were out of food or didn't serve Americans or something.

There was an iPad at the cash register with a menu in Korean, but she touched it quickly, and the language switched to English.  Glory be!
"What can I get you?" She asked.  I wanted to hug her.  All the options looked delicious, but I chose a vegetable gratin and Matt got the cress bibimbap.  We sat down at one of the nearby tables, but the woman said, "You can sit there!" indicating  a small room in the back with a cozy, cushioned bench that wrapped around half of a large table.  There was also a counter facing the window with chairs at it and a vase of flowers,
 but no one else was there.  It was quiet and intimate and perfect for conversation.  When the food arrived a short while later, we were both very happy with our selections.  
Everything was exceptionally delicious -- the gratin fully of garlicky roasted vegetables in a creamy but light sauce, the bibimbap full of flavor and accompanied with a lovely assortment of sides
 -- and we headed home with full stomachs and big smiles.
Our first date was butterflies and sweaty palms.  Don't get me wrong -- that was fun, too. But this date, over twenty years and a thousand inside jokes later, was laughter and conversation that I never want to end, the amazing (saintlike) patience of a man who won't quit until I'm happy, and will pose for 
and take silly pictures for my blog. It's also the knowledge that when I look into his eyes I'm looking at someone who knows me so well it's scary.  Like how a couple Mentos will actually -- sometimes anyway -- make me a better person.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Happy Endings

It's kind of funny when you think back to a year ago, isn't it?  A year ago today we were headed home from an idyllic three days on the Big Island of Hawai'i, and "home" was a beautiful big house on O'ahu with lots of space for my gaggle of kids to safely run around outside with all their many friends. We were filled up with goodness from our little getaway, feeling so happy our cheeks hurt from smiling. 

And then, literally as we were leaving Volcanoes National Park, something really hard happened.  We had a two-and-a-half hour drive back to the airport in Kona along a gorgeous road with breathtaking vistas.  But when I remember that day, honestly, I don't think about those views as much as I remember the lump in my throat and the ache in my chest, the crushing silence in the car, my hollow and awkward attempts to make everyone laugh.  

A couple months later, when we found out we were headed to Korea  I had to get an overseas health screening.  Basically, this is a re-hash of your entire medical history with the doctor to see if there's anything that might be incompatible with living overseas. I can't even tell you how much I was dreading it.  My doctor was exactly my age, a guy who had always seemed good at frank and funny, bad at compassion.  I'm pretty healthy, but my past has a couple big issues: an eating disorder in my early teens that almost cost my life, and a doctor's misdiagnosis that led to three excruciatingly painful days in the hospital seven years ago.  

I didn't want to talk about those things.  Not even a little.  By the time I'd finished telling the doctor, I was crying and shaking.  He was quiet for a minute as I sat on the exam table, twisting the paper towel he'd handed me for my tears in my sweaty hands.

Then he took a deep breath and said slowly, "I can see that was really hard... and very painful... and scary...  But I also look at you and see someone who is very healthy and who has five great kids!  So... I guess what I'm saying is, these are hard stories, but they have a happy ending.  Don't forget that."

I've been thinking about those words for almost a year now, wanting to write about them, but not being sure when or how.  Then today while I was working out, I listened to a podcast I enjoy -- "The Happy Hour" with Jamie Ivey.  She was interviewing Heather Avis  who struggled with infertility for years before adopting three children, two who have Down Syndrome. As I listened, I thought, This woman is awesome.  I wish we were friends.  

She was talking about a book she wrote that comes out next week on World Down Syndrome Day, the title of which is the hashtag she started on Instagram: The Lucky Few.  She also discussed something called the People First language where instead of describing someone by their abilities or conditions, you talk about them as a person first before the condition. For instance, instead of saying "a Down syndrome girl", you say "a girl with Down syndrome".  

I love it.  Isn't this truly what we all need?  I've always been vehemently against labeling my kids as anything like "The Smart One", the "The Athletic One", or "The Difficult One".  I don't want to be defined by what I'm good or bad at, what I've been through, what I can't do or what I struggle with.  I don't want words like "Anorexic" to describe me (which is why I haven't written about it before on this blog), even though my heart shatters every time I hear about someone struggling with an eating disorder because I know that pain so well, and if I could end eating disorders today, I would in a heartbeat. 

But at the same time, when I think about pain in my past, it tends to become my focus rather than the "happy endings", or what happened next.  I let the hard times color my views of the present, if not define my stories, rather than see the healing or how far I've come.    

I've waited so long to write this because for starters, I think of the wounds in the hearts of those who might read this, and I don't want to belittle that or sound like a Pollyanna.  Also, I'm not at all sure how everything I'm dealing with right now will end happily.  I've had days in the past few months when I woke up with a sense of dread, my first conscious thought honestly being, "I wonder what sh!tstorm is going to hit today."  

But I think that's exactly why I need to write this, especially today -- to have it down for myself even if no one else can relate.  What bothered me so much about the first book manuscript I wrote was that it was a total MEmoir -- who did me wrong, caused me pain, etc.  While it ended on a happy note, that's not what I want my story to be.  Similarly, I want to remember the beauty I saw that day a year ago -- acknowledging the pain, but knowing it doesn't define the whole story of that trip or my life since.  

I posted this picture on Instagram (taken on the Big Island) about a week after we got home with a quote from the poet Jack Gilbert, "We must risk delight.  We must have stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world."   

I want mine to be the story of what God did with a very flawed, broken girl, of the many extraordinary people He placed in my life.  I want it to point to His goodness and glory, not mine.   If somehow I can do that, I believe that however the story is written, whether it ever turns into a book or not, it will have a "happy ending".

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Our Kind of March Madness

{Loving the brave little blossoms starting to appear!}

You know the saying, "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb"?  Gosh, I hope that's true.  

A week ago Tuesday, I went to a super fun game-turned-karaoke-night with some of my friends here, and as I was walking home, my phone rang.  It was Matt.  "You need to get home right now.  The baby just threw up."

Do I even need to tell you that was an awful night?  Or that the bug had gone through the rest of us by Friday?  So.... yeah.... last week was not my favorite.

And the weird thing is, this is not the first time we've had the stomach flu on these exact dates.  I'm sure because of a picture that popped up on my Facebook timehop, and I remember thinking then how we'd been sick with it before on those dates when we lived in Virginia and also (!!) when we lived in Spain.  It's almost like I should block out the first weeks of March.  "Sorry, we won't be attending ____. That's our annual stomach flu week."

March is... just a weird month.  It's the month my husband was born, so that automatically makes it awesome.  But besides our tendency to get the stomach flu, it's historically been a month with a lot of upheaval -- and I mean that not just in reference to our digestive systems.  One March I left the country of my birth, the place I'd called "home" for almost all of my first 11 years.  One March, I got my braces off and went to youth group, and saw this incredibly cute guy across the room, and because I'd just gotten my braces off, I smiled at him.  It was in a March that I found out my first baby was a girl.  March eight years later, I conceived her second sister. (Sorry, TMI?)  Another March we found out we were moving to Hawaii (two weeks later!!!).  March three years ago started out terrible but ended with the great news that we were moving into the base housing we'd waited almost a year for, a change that brought a whole world of goodness to my time in Hawaii.  The past two Marches (even in otherwise fantastic 2015) were hard, messy low points of the year. Times I think about and kind of shudder, if not actually get a lump in my throat.  

This March will bring more change to our family, probably the news that will decide where Jayna will be attending college this fall.  That, to me, is so weird. 

But I've done a lot of cleaning this week, and with that came a lot of thinking.  And with all that thinking came this blog post, to catch you up on the strange goings-on inside my mind.

I apologize in advance.

1)  I don't share a lot of "what I've learned" posts because I don't usually feel like I can ever say, "Yup, got that down. Check!"  I've been accused of not having a "useful blog" because of this, but I'm sorry.  I don't feel "wise" or "learned" enough in most cases, and writing that kind of thing makes me feel like a fraud.  

Then again, I would probably get more traffic from Pinterest if I retitled my posts things like "How to Plunge Your Toilet Without an Actual Plunger."  How's that for useful?!

But I digress.  And I'm here right now to share one incredibly valuable lesson I've learned, so lean in close.  These gems are few and far between:  

If you think you're going to come down with the stomach flu (or for any other reason find yourself hurling), eat pizza.

I've tested my hypothesis many, many times.  My reasoning is this: you will never not want pizza.  When I was pregnant with Jayna, literally every time I ate pizza for something like five months, I'd throw up.  Did that stop me from eating pizza???  NOT ON YOUR LIFE!!!  Every time someone put pizza in front me, I'd go, "Mmmm, that looks good."  Also, since pizza isn't exactly great for you anyway, if there were a chance you would never eat it again, would that be such a bad thing?  No, right?

Instead, last week I ate a bunch of healthy food, thinking foolishly all the while that the healthy food would keep me... you know, healthy.  It didn't. And now that I have my appetite back, do I want any of that stuff??  Heck no.  I want pizza.

2) Remember my assessment of Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) last time I had the stomach flu?  Yep, still true.  It did not prevent my getting it.  BUUUUUT!!!! At Matt's suggestion (he'd read it somewhere), I did drink a dilution of it when I woke up still feeling blah two mornings later, and you know what?  It helped!  I think I was the first to get fully back to speed.  

3) Okay, you probably don't want to read any more about stomach illnesses, so let's talk about bowls.  About five years ago, I bought a big set of plain white Corelle dishes.  They were simple, so they'd go with everything, and they were inexpensive to replace.  Perfect.

But they were a little plain. And I've been wanting something pretty, especially bowls because you use bowls for almost everything, right?

Anyway, I went to Costco one morning a couple weeks ago and found the prettiest bowls for a good price.  The box said there were eight, but when I got home I realized four were small and four were the size I wanted.  

So I went back the next day and bought another box. Then I saw another box just down the aisle, donburi bowls from Japan.  
They were so pretty, and inexpensive, too.  I bought a set.  Did I necessarily "need them"? Well, no.  But every time I open cupboard and see those bowls, I genuinely feel a little happier.  Sometimes I open it just to peek at them.  

I've also started making a point to set the table with them.  One thing I think my family does well is that we commit to dinner time together. There are no electronics, just us and a lot of talking.  We fill our plates in the kitchen, usually, and sit around the table to talk.  It's good as far as being useful and not dirtying too many dishes.  But sometimes I feel like our system makes meals a little more "feeding trough" than "festive", and I want our dinners together to be a celebration of coming together.

The bowls kind of do that for me.  Maybe I'm not so weird?

4) Related: my book club just finished reading Shauna Niequist's Bread & Wine.  I'd read it four years ago, but it was fun to read again with friends.  It's kind of a kick-in-the-pants to get you to open your house and practice true hospitality, the "come-as-you-are-and-find-me-as-I-am" kind.  I highly recommend it; I just love her closing words (they're not a spoiler, you need the rest, trust me): "If the home is a body, the table is the heart, the beating center, the sustainer of life and health. Come to the table."

So tell me, friends.  How have you been?  What have you read?  And most importantly, seen any pretty bowls lately?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Strrrrranger Than Fiction!

In college, I took an International Relations class.  I don't remember much about it except for my professor's affection for commenting on certain elements of history (most memorably, Rasputin) by saying, "Strrrrrranger than fiction!"  And yes, he extended the "r" sound just like that.  Ever since that class, I've heard my old professor's voice narrating moments of my life with those words: "Strrrranger than fiction!"  Especially this past week in my kitchen.

Last night, as I was making dinner, I heard a loud "bang!" from very close to me,  similar to a balloon popping, but bigger.  Bolder.  I thought it was weird, since I hadn't seen any balloons in the kitchen.  As I poked around, I realized here was a very pungent odor filling the kitchen, and that's when it all made sense.  I remembered the bag of kimchi I'd bought over a month ago and mostly forgotten about.  Last week I'd come across it again, the bag hugely bloated, and thought, Huh! I guess this is what fermentation does! and also, I'd better eat this soon! but mentally set it aside again.  It had actually exploded, though it was in another bag, so the mess was easy to clean up.  

Exploding bags of kimchi, however, are by far not the strangest thing to happen in my kitchen this past week.

Ever since I moved in, my oven has caused me trouble.  I'd turn it on, wait for it to heat, turn back to put the food inside and find it had switched off.  Or another time, I erroneously left it on for 18 hours (!!!) because even though I had put the dial back to the "off" position, for some reason, it stayed on.  After turning off, it was always very hard to get it back on.  The kitchen would fill with the smell of gas as I tried time and time again to get it restarted.  I'd pray, intercede... consider calling an exorcist.  Finally, it would turn on again, and then (usually), stay on.

But Matt used it once, and it behaved in its normal psychotic way, and I told him nonchalantly, "Oh yeah,, it does that."

"Every time?"  

"Yup.  Every. Single. Time."  

Apparently, this isn't normal.  Apparently, in fact, it's dangerous.  So last week, I put in a call to our property manager.  He sent out a repairman, who deeming it beyond his skill level, sent for a manufacturer's technician.  This guy messed with it a little then said to me, "This oven... discontinued since ten years.  No parts.  But if no use, is okay. 15,000 won please."  

Ummmmm, no.  I wasn't going to pay a penny, let alone roughly $15, to have someone tell me that if I didn't use my oven, it would be okay.  I called the property manager.  He and the technician had a rather impassioned conversation, then the man left hurriedly as I was informed that the property manager would talk to the landlord, but getting the landlord to replace the oven...  "It's very difficult."  My heart sank.  In my six months here, I've learned these are the Korenglish words for no.

But on Saturday, he called me back.  The landlord had, as expected, refused to replace the faulty oven, but good news!  The property manager would himself pay to put in a new one! 

While leaving the old one in.

I was a little puzzled.  "Where will you put it?"  I asked.  My galley kitchen has just over three feet between the counters.  Wellllllll... He and another technician would come look at it in the afternoon.  

I didn't have a good feeling about this.

My bad feeling got worse as the two men stood in front of my current oven, examining, stepping back, crouching down, moving their arms around them to form a square.

"Okay," the property manager finally said, "we put oven here."  He indicated the space directly in front of my current oven.

"In the middle of the floor?!" He nodded.  "Like, right here?"  More nodding.  "But... how do I move around it?"  With his friend standing in for the oven, arms square, he showed how I could move around it, shimmying sideways with tummy sucked in and thinking skinny thoughts.  "But... how do I open the door?"  His friend (a.k.a. "the oven") showed how even if I opened the door there might still be an inch or two to spare.  

"OR! We put door this way!"  He indicated opening it at an angle perpendicular to its current one.

"Toward the dishwasher?"  He nodded.  "But then how do I open the dishwasher?"

He looked at me for a moment, and I could actually see pity in his eyes for my feeble mind.  He sighed and mimed me cooking and putting something in the oven, then into the dishwasher.  "Only have one open at a time.  No need cook and wash dishes together."  Well, obviously. I was just saying tto make a point.

"What about my young children?  My baby?  Is it safe?  Oven is hot, and in the middle of the kitchen."  Here, finally, there was some more discussion, some reluctant shrugging, but he still maintained, "Safe.  Is safe."  

Matt was in Seoul for the day, and I couldn't get ahold of him. Everything in me was saying "No", but somehow, the strangest thing had happened.  I had started to think I was the one taking crazy pills for thinking it was dumb to put a working oven in the middle of my kitchen in front of the broken one.   And so it was that I found myself agreeing to a time early in the week to have the new oven installed.  

As soon as the men left, though, I came to and thought, Wait, what?!  Did I really just agree to that?  It was just like Jafar with the sultan in Aladdin. I'm pretty sure my eyes had gone swirly and everything.  I texted a couple of my close friends here, basically saying, "Does this sound completely ridiculous?!" and suggested maybe I didn't need an oven after all.

Both affirmed that the idea (not me) was completely whacked, and one suggested I get an air oven.  Have you seen these?  This actually seems like a great plan.  The other came back with the words, "Okay.  So obviously you COULD survive [without an oven].  You could eat sandwiches and stovetop meals and miserably dream of your oven churning out enchiladas and brownies and lasagna and cookies, etc.  Or you could embrace the absurdity of the working oven shoved in front of the broken one." Then she wrote, "This could be a great metaphor... definitely a future blog post!!!"

She was right on both accounts.  I mean, well... voila! Blog post!  And, I can think of at least a couple metaphors.

1) Sometimes in life, we pretend we are perfect, shoving things that look right in front of the messy and broken things, and even if it's ridiculous, we try to call it good.  And really, where does that get us?

2) Sometimes in life, we're presented with two options, and neither one is particularly good.  Then it's up to us, with prayers for serenity and grace, to make the most of one of them.  

But thankfully, after a series of texts to the property manager, he agreed! 
 That's right! I stood by my guns and insisted I wasn't completely crazy, and today I'm happy to report that there is a brand new working oven where the old, broken one was! (See picture at top of post) What I was told wasn't possible actually, somehow, became possible. 

Strrrrrrrrrranger than fiction!