Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Nation Conceived In Liberty

On Tuesday, on my way back to my lab, after a meeting on grounds, I cut through the cemetery like I usually do.  As I walked through it, I was impressed to find someone had placed a small American flag at the tombstone of a Civil War soldier in honor of Memorial Day.  I looked at the rest of the cemetery, wondering if others had left flags too.  Then, my eye caught sight of the statue in the middle and I remembered that I was in a confederate cemetery.  These men fought and died for a cause and a nation that no longer exists.

I walked out of the cemetery with Abraham Lincoln's words ringing in my ears:  "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

Could the United States endure the war?  We take it for granted that it did.  But, looking at those soldiers' graves, I can see how it was no guarantee.  There were many who did not want a part of any more.

It was certainly a long bloody struggle to make sure that "that nation...so conceived could long endure".  Men and women died for that cause.  Families wept for their lost loved ones.  Friends were separated and sometimes even fought against each other.

I wonder what the Civil War looked like from the outside.  Did France or England watch with bated breath whether this grand experiment in democracy would survive or self-destruct?  Or did they simply yawn and let those Americans fight among themselves like hotheaded teenagers in some family squabble?

Now we live on a world stage where, for better or worse, the world can daily watch all of our infighting and struggling.  Do we look like we are engaged in a great conflict or something much less noble, less honorable?  What issues are we fighting for?  Are they worth it?

I don't really have any answers.  But somehow I feel it would be a tragedy for a country that has fought this long and hard for a country dedicated to the proposition that men are created equal to fall apart because we can't balance a budget.
Flowers outside the UVa cemetery

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Feline Fanboy

Last week, I took care of my friend's cat while she was on her honeymoon.

Meet Levi
Isn't he absolutely adorable?

We passed our evenings in comfortable companionship.  He always remained nearby and sometimes had these funny moments when he just had to be petted and coddled that moment.

This resulted in him walking across my friend's laptop while I was looking through pictures of the Japan National Team training camp.  I tried to save the computer from him but too late!  A little marker came up, alerting me to the fact that he had somehow pressed the button combination necessary to download a picture.

Because it was my friend's computer and a Mac, I wasn't sure how/where to look to find the picture to delete it.  I left it.  My friend returned yesterday and immediately sent me the picture Levi downloaded after I told her about it.
We had a good chuckle over it.

She told me that loved Levi has recently gotten attached to a little soccer ball I brought her back from Germany.  It hangs from her bedroom window and he spends a lot of time batting at it and trying to pull it off the window.

I started laughing.  Of course the soccer ball is none other than one from Schalke 04, the very team that Uchida plays for.

I should have figured; Everyone adores Uchida.

Arts and Crafts

Yesterday, my friend and I burned through six episodes of Dance Academy because it took us three hours to make these:  
TOTORO
My friend's handiwork
Mine
Her roommates were enthralled at our dedication to our domesticity: 
"Look at you two, over there, hand sewing."  
"Ohhh! CUTE! You are making...felt thingies."  

I couldn't get over how cute they turned out, even with all their imperfections.  I went home and excitedly showed my own roommate.  "Look!  Isn't he adorable?"  

She looked at him and then back at my beaming face.  She looked back at him. 
"Umm....I can't quite figure out what it is."  

Sadly, you either know what we made (and love it and want one for yourself) or you don't.  

If you want to know what we made, I highly recommend the movie My Neighbor Totoro by Hayao Miyazaki which captures childhood in all its simplicity and imagination.

If you want to make one for yourself, then you can find the pattern here.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sometimes I Worry; Mostly I Don't

I work in a pretty scary lab.  When I give my friends the tour, I always give them two perspectives about it: (1) how we do cool science and (2) how the lab should serve as the set for a horror movie.

Even then, the lab and its vibrant personality doesn't bother me much.  After spending more time with this lab than probably anything or anyone else in the past six years, it's hard for its noises, building-shaking compressors, and quirks to ruffle my feathers.

Today, the other research group started up the compressor and I complained to my office mate.  "What?  They're running the tunnel today?  On a Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend?"  The fact that they were turning on an experiment that burns oxygen and hydrogen at supersonic speeds didn't even really cross my mind.

However, about an hour ago, something felt different.  I pulled myself out of the email I was writing and stopped to listen and feel.  The office was shaking while a loud rumbling and high pitched squeal echoed from outside.  In a second, I was on my feet and out the door and down the stairs.

I spent the next few minutes searching for the lab manager to ask him about the new noises and the shaking.  I wasn't worried, I told myself.  I just wanted to make sure.

Not finding him nearby, I went to investigate.  When I went to the back of the lab, I looked over at those pressurized tanks that I see outside my window every day.  They were rumbling in that weird frequency that drove me outside in the first place.  Meanwhile, the large wheel valve in the middle of the system and its chains shook slightly.  I looked at that valve with its rusty hinges and suddenly realized how little I worried about all the possible problems with my lab.  Without wanting them too, the 'what ifs' started rushing in and I fairly ran past the oxygen tanks with their ominous warnings.

I hurried over to the old nuclear fall-out bunker, its roof just peeking out of the ground, and settled onto the top step that led down to its entrance, nestled well into the hill my lab is situated on.  Then I caught the interesting situation I was in, finding an old bunker that was intended as security during the Cold War but which has only been used as testing for experiments with explosions and projectiles and started to laugh at myself.  I looked down at the bushes near the steps and found myself looking staring down at a groundhog, cautiously watching me from the entrance of his own safety bunker.  On those steps, the noises seemed far away.  The air was calm and I felt cut off from my self-propagated anxiety.

There I stood, on the steps of that bunker, feeling a sort of kinship with that groundhog, while I looked at my lab and marveled.  My lab, for all its quirks, demands respect.  I must never forget that.

When another machine started up, one that was almost deafening, I smiled and started walking back towards the entrance to the building.  This machine was one that I was well acquainted with.  On my way out of the back area, I ran into the lab manager who was releasing pressure from one of the machines, pushing down the grass around it in large swells of energy.  The manager saw me and paused what he was doing so that we could hear each other when we spoke.  I asked him about the machines and the strange new noises.  He smiled at me and thanked me for coming to find him.  "Those noises aren't normal but we are well aware of the situation and are shutting everything down."

Just a typical day in the lab.  It's times like this that I realize I chose anything but a typical career.  :)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Night and Day

MH: Attended Fujieda Higashi High School which is famous for, among other things, its soccer program and putting out great soccer players.
Me: Attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, whose name alone probably serves as an explanation of the school's focus. 


MH: Never attended college.  
Me: Never stopped attending college.  


MH: Started his first real career path job at age 18.  
Me: Has yet to land her first real grown up job.  (No shame, honestly.  I don't regret my stints as a custodian, pizza-maker, dry cleaner, pruner or TA in the least) 


Me: A rocket scientist.  
MH: Not a rocket scientist.  


MH: Speaks German, which is a distant cousin to English.
Me: Speaks Chinese, which is a very distant cousin to Japanese.  


MH: Wrote the number one bestselling book in Japan for 2011.  
Me: Dreams of publishing something one day.  (Although I can claim second/third author on a few journal articles) 


MH: Adores his niece.
Me: Adores her niece.  


Even two people who are as different as night and day can find something in common: Nieces rock!
Baby's curious face
Me and my niece - taken by the niece

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Signs

Since I'm relegated to walking this summer, my pace of traveling has afforded me the pleasure to stop and pay attention things to which I've only given a cursory glance.

One of those 'things' being signs.  

Some signs remind us of our past
This man was only 16 (15 according to Wikipedia) when he joined the services.  On D-Day he single-handedly charged a German machine gun emplacement.  For this, he was awarded the Medal of Honor which is the highest medal decoration one can receive by the United States government.  Apparently he also won a Soldier's Award by also saving another soldier from drowning.  However, the Medal of Honor would be awarded posthumously because he died six days later in battle.  

How often I have passed this sign and never actually read it.  But now, I'm glad I did.  Here is a man who served his/my country for half of his life and gave his life in defending it.  I am reminded of the sacrifice of many so that I could lead the life I do.  I am also reminded that people can act with great courage and do much of their own volition.  


Some signs have multiple meanings.  
A sign about a bridge in honor of those who build bridges.  But I have a feeling this isn't about civil engineering feats.


Some signs take you by surprise and help you discover hidden things.  
When I read this, I was shocked.  Take-Off and Landing?  What?!  So I poked around between the bushes and found, as I had started to suspect, the landing pad for the helicopter for the hospital.  I wonder how many signs in our lives could help us find hidden things in our lives if we stopped to read them.  


Some signs just make you laugh (even if that is not their intention).  
 I know that this was meant to be a real warning.  But I had to laugh since we live on Earth which of course has a magnetic field in use.  Might as well put up a sign that warns us that gravity is in effect.  Or that diatomic nitrogen and diatomic oxygen are present.

And some signs are not to be put into words.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gilded Toes

I had already gotten my shoes and dress to be bridesmaid when my friend, the bride, told me that she was changing our shoes to sandals.  Guiltily I looked at my feet, worn from walking all over the place, "That means I have to get a pedicure."

A week later, I found myself in a salon with all the other bridesmaids and the bride getting our feet pampered and our toes painted an identical silvery gold.

All night long, I looked down at my toes.  I felt a little like Kate from Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot who painted her toenails gold and went to a ball in 1817 London,  She was a little giddy at the prospect of it and a little in awe of her boldness.  I felt the same way - and half expected that something magical  - or at least noteworthy - should happen because of it.  

Something magical did happen - my friend got married.  She was a beautiful bride and her wedding and ring ceremony and reception were all wonderful events.  

Here are some funny situations I got myself in though: 

In the temple, my friend and her fiancee and I got on the elevator.  A nice lady already on the elevator oohed and aahed over the prospect of my friends' upcoming nuptials.  The bride and groom got off on a different floor to get ready for the ceremony and I stayed on to go up to the waiting room.  As soon as they got off, the lady looked at me.  "So, you must be ..." She paused and looked me over.  "The mother of the groom?"  I looked at her in shock.  Did I really look old enough to have a 27 year old son? I must have really overdone my makeup or something.  "Ummm...no."  I managed.  "I'm a friend of the bride."  

(The groom came over to me later and tried to make me feel better.  "Don't worry about that.  When I went into the changing room, one man asked me when I was going on my mission.")  

During the picture taking of the bride and groom, the rest of the guests sat around and chatted politely.  For most of us, this was the first time we had met.  My friend's mission president's wife was just telling everyone her life's story when I noticed to my horror that a bug! was crawling up her skirt, just under the top sheer layer.  Not wanting to interrupt her or scare her, I leaned down and put my hand out, wondering if I should try to dab at her skirt and scare the bug out or what.  People started to notice my weird behavior so I spoke up.  "Um...Sorry to interrupt but there is a bug crawling up your skirt."  Everyone stopped and stared at me, awkwardly perched with my arms out, kneeling down beside this woman and most people gasped in horror. The woman herself acted like a true lady and reacted calmly, simply pulling up the top layer and letting the bug fly away.  

The real mother of the groom introduced me to some people from her family.  
Mother: This is Erin.  She is the maid of honor.  
Me: Um...No.  I'm not the maid of honor.  
Mother: <looks at me> 
Me: I'm just a maid.  
Mother's friend, laughing: Ah, a maid!  
(I couldn't think of the word for bridesmaid)
Turns out my feet are tiny compared to Yao Ming's feet

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Frustrations of Frustration

Yesterday, I tried to learn how to swim.

Ok, confession.  I actually know how to swim.  I took lessons when I was a child.  But ever since my extremely brief stint on the swim team when I was six (seven?  eight?), I have never really spent a considerable amount of time working on my strokes.  Somehow in the years between swim lessons and now, I forgot how to get the timing down to properly breathe while doing freestyle.  Thus, I have spent most of my life swimming other strokes in which breathing is a given.

I have a friend visiting who swam competitively in college and she offered to help teach me.

I hushed my fears of being in a swimming suit, being in a pool and being bad at something in front of my friend and agreed.

Just as expected, being in a swimming suit felt awkward.
Just as expected, the pool was cold.
Just as expected, I was horrifically bad at swimming.

The result?  I was furious with myself.

My friend got frustrated with my poor attitude.  I got frustrated with my poor attitude.  Overall, it was a pretty pathetic trip to the pool.

My friend insisted that I am too hard on myself and I need to realize that I'm not going to be perfect at something at the beginning.

"You need to just learn to accept failure."  She insisted.

Which was oddly hard to hear because I went into this trip knowing that I was going to be horrible.  I knew that I wasn't going to get it the first time.  I knew that I wasn't going to be perfect.  (In fact, I feel like I have had so many things fail in my life in the past few years that you'd think failure was my M.O.)

So, where was my temper coming from?

I spent a long time thinking it through.  I think I figured it out:

You know how you go into a situation imagining how it's going to turn out?  I didn't imagine leaving the pool with perfect swimming skills.  However, I did imagine myself having a great go-to attitude about the whole thing.  I did think that my friend and I would have a lot of fun and I would feel like someone who was going to start making progress on something she'd left on the shelf for far too long.

I don't get discouraged with my results as much as I get discouraged with my immediate gut reaction to my results.  And somehow, that's more disappointing.

Anyone can fail.  Lots of people do it.

But the people who just give up or get angry and walk away?  We have no pity for them.

"I can't do this.  I give up."  Those words were out of my mouth before I could stop them just as soon as we had begun and I'd been left in my friend's wake, desperately trying not to swallow her waves.  I regretted it as soon as I'd said it.  I knew that I wasn't giving up.  But the words were out and I couldn't take them back.  I was mad at myself for saying it.  Mad at myself for thinking it.  Just plain mad.

I'm a person who gives up.  At least, in those silly moments, I think that must be what I really am.  And so I get mad at myself for being THAT PERSON.  I get mad for being human and getting discouraged.

As it turns out, I'm not a perfectionist in that I want to perform perfectly.  I am a perfectionist in that I want a perfect attitude while performing imperfectly.

It's interesting to discover that after after 30 years of life.  But at least now I can do something about it.

Kindness - it's still the best policy.  Especially when dealing with ourselves.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Maladies that Inflict Us

"It is mid-May already.  Are any of you suffering from May sickness?"  (Source)

I stopped reading.  May sickness?  I know I didn't misread it because the words 'May sickness' were written out in clear kanji.  Could I be suffering from this illness?  How do you know if you have May sickness?

I tried to think of what about May would make a person sick but I came up empty - that is, except for a little imp in my head that kept singing, "April showers bring May flowers.  What do May flowers bring?"  

Allergies?  (from the flower pollen?)
Depression?  (from realizing that those flowers aren't for you?)
Melanoma? (from the sun exposure due to going outside to enjoy the warmer weather)

I did wake up this morning wondering why I have a lingering cold from the flu last weekend and I still feel slightly feverish.  Could that be May sickness?  

The hypochondriac in me started panicking; I could be dying from something and not even know it! 

(Then again, if it's called May sickness could it really be chronic?  or just repetitive?)

I googled it.  

Turns out May sickness is an illness that people suffer when they return from their Golden Week holidays (up to 10 days off work) and return to their jobs, schooling, etc. in the form of mental and physical ailments.  Most those who suffer May sickness are those who have recently started a new job, a new school or new semester in school.  (Fiscal year and school years start in April in Japan so it's about a month or so in)  

In other words: the sickness strikes when the newness starts to wear off.  

May sickness is especially brought on for those who have been working tirelessly to get the new job or into the new school and, after running at top speed for as long as they have, especially in their respective new positions, trying to learn the ropes, that they become simply exhausted.  The pace they have been running is not sustainable long term.    

Articles online give recommendations for how to recover from May sickness: 
Give yourself a break.  Let yourself stop and enjoy the fresh air.  

I think it's good advice.  For all of us who suffer May sickness, in whatever month we suffer it.  

For those of us who work ourselves tireless to the bone, remember that your body and mind need a break once in a while. 

I do wonder though, is there a given month that Americans suffer from this same disease?  
Post holiday burnout in January?  

Illinois River
Sit back and enjoy the view every so often 

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Blue Castle

My favorite book and I haven't been able to open it's covers for a few years now.  It has only been a few years because an old roommate saw me with it and teased me about reading it at least three times in the nine months we lived together.  I used to be able to recite whole passages by heart - I can now only remember a phrase here and there.

It is odd for such a book to be my favorite.  For a girl who struggles to bring herself to pin herself down to a favorite anything, choosing only one out of all the literature she has encountered and standing by that decision for 15 years is nothing short of remarkable.  Especially a book bearing a cover that makes people think I'm reading a harlequin romance and a title that will never appear on any bestseller or best written list.

Imagine though a fifteen year old girl, curled up in a chair, idly reading a copy of it, borrowed secretly from her older sister.  The book is about a woman who finds herself in circumstances she would never have chosen for herself - unmarried, unloved and oft forgotten.  She lives a life that is strictly structured, but is mostly hampered in by her fears - fear of saying what she really means, fear of doing what she really wants, fear of being who she really is, fear of the repercussions of truly being herself.  Suddenly this woman who has yet to live is given a diagnosis: angina pectoris in its final stages.  One year, at most.  Even a fifteen year old imagination has trouble conceiving how any of that would feel - except the fear.  I'd spent most of my childhood and life creating rules about how to conduct myself in society - do not look popular people in the eye but keep your head down to show due respect, never let anyone see you cry, and never share anything that really matters with you.  I spent a lot of my childhood being myself around my family and following everyone blindly around outside it.  I had created rules to keep myself safe but they only trapped me and strengthened my fears.  So a book about a person who casts aside her fears and lives, really LIVES for herself was freeing.  (Especially since this woman decided 'living for herself' meant serving in the community, reading good literature and spending significant time in nature)

The book changed me profoundly.  For the next ten years, whenever I felt my courage waver, I would pull out that book and remind myself that I do not want to live a life characterized by fear.  Despite the laughs I got from friends judging it by its cover or confused looks from others who expected that my favorite book would be some book worth considering a classic, I remained with that decision.  Any re-read reminded me once again how lasting and true a friend that book was to me.

But for the past few years, I put it aside.  Suddenly, I was starting to understand the other parts of the book. I knew what it felt like to be unmarried at 29.  (At fifteen, I simply laughed at such an absurdity.)  Fears, questions all bubbled up.  I couldn't bear to face the book.  What if, after all, I was still simply a coward, coiled about with fear?

With research frustrations and family concerns ever before my eyes, I went to bed the other night, seeking for a book to put me to sleep.  Nothing else would do.  I pulled down The Blue Castle, flipped it open to a well worn section and settled in.  As I doze off, a figure comes out of the woods and draws closer and closer until I can make out who it is and draws nearer yet so I can make out his face.  He reaches me, laying down, dreaming quietly, and smiles before extending a hand.  I find myself smiling back while carefully memorizing once again every line and mark of his face.  "My dear friend, it's been too long."

"Everyone has a Blue Castle, I think," said Cissy softly.  "Only every one [has] a different name for it."  (p. 89)

Here's hoping you all have your castles in the sky and that they uphold you through your trials and lift you above your fears.

P.S. If I had my druthers, the cover of this book would actually be Woodland Solitude, painted by Charles Curran at BYU's Museum of Art.  You can view the painting here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Schalke Goes Stateside

In three hours, FC Schalke is playing against Philadelphia Union.  

Of course, as is typical for me, I found this out on the Bundesliga website.  Five minutes ago.  Rather than a few months ago.
If I'd known months ago, I could have somehow begged and scraped together the money together.  And in three hours I would have been in the stadium, wearing my Royal Blues Schalke jersey, cheering them on.  

Instead, I'll be living a normal life, as though FC Schalke wasn't on this side of the ocean, pretending Raul, Huntelaar (and top scorer in the Bundesliga), and Uchida are not only five hours away by car.  

I hope Philly shows them a great time but, deep down, I still hope Schalke shows them how soccer games are played, and won.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Have Baby, Will Travel

This is how my niece has handled the week.
Eating an Oreo: Pure Enjoyment 
Tuckered Out
Me: What song do you want to sing?
Baby: Spider?
<We sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider x5>
Baby: Twinkle?
<We sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star x5>
Me: What next?
Baby: Spider?  
Me: We just sang Spider.  Try another one.
Baby, thinks for a few minutes: Twinkle?
(I promise she knows more than just two songs)
Pretty baby admiring the pretty baby while brushing her teeth
The cutest picture ever. 
Baby, admiring herself in the mirror
Me: Who is that?
Baby: Lexy (but when she says it sounds like 'sexy') 

Baby, admiring a picture of herself
Me: Who is that?
Baby, pointing at herself and then at the picture: It's you!
Self taken picture - she is slowly improving.  

I love her smile.  
Me: Can you say 'Mississippi'?
Baby: Sippi!
Me: No, Mississippi.
Baby: Missippi!

Playing on Great-Grandpa's porch
Me and the Niece
Me: Do you want to take a shower with Sarah?
Baby: Yes!
Sister: Baby, if Sarah were to jump off a cliff, would you jump too?
Baby: Yes!

Milk - taking the straw in and out of the
cup was her favorite thing to do
during the meal.  
Playing at Nichols Park in Jacksonville, IL
Me: No really?  If your friend were really going to jump off a cliff, you would just follow?
Baby: Sarah? (looking around for her)  
Looking at me like I'm crazy for taking so many pictures of her
Teddy: Her best friend, except when
anything caught her eye
Baby: Teddy fell!
Me: Well, yeah, he fell.  Because you pushed him.  
Baby: I pushed Teddy!
Me: Haha, well, at least you're honest about it.
The end of the trip

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Before the Storm

Yesterday was a good day that started with a hike and ended with me spending a glorious hour with my niece.  

Here are some highlights from my niece who is now talking quite well - not in sentences but she uses a lot of words.  

I ask Baby is she is thirsty and pull out a children's monkey cup.
Sister: Oh, that's the same one she has at home.  Look Baby!
(Baby proceeds to get very excited about the cup and I proceed to only fill the already small cup 1/3 full)  
(Baby walks around the kitchen shaking the cup around so excitedly that all the water spills out)
Baby: Oh!  Water!  (as though "How did that get there?"  "Why is the floor all wet?")

Me: Can you say Sarah?
Baby: A Sawa (short for Aunt Sarah).
Me: Can you say Marc?
Baby: Marc.
Sister: Can you say Erin?
Baby: Yeah.  (as though even asking such a question was an insult to her intelligence) 

We play with some bubbles.  I blow one towards Baby's face but it goes straight into her eyes and pops.  
I cringe, waiting for her to start crying;  bubble solution probably stings.  
Baby: Oops!  My eye.  Bubble! 

I've decided I need to teach the Baby Chinese.  
Me: Baby, 你想要睡覺嗎?
Baby turns around and points at her mother.  
I slap my hand down on the bed with a laugh: Oh Baby, that was a question, not a statement about your mom.  (She heard me use the question particle, 'ma' and thought I had said 'Ma')  
Baby slaps her hand down on the bed in perfect imitation of me and laughs.