Tourism of the Absurd

Imagine that you have just stepped out of a train in a foreign city. Before you have even left the station, you receive a phone call informing you that there will be a vehicle waiting for you outside. The driver of the vehicle, which is a rather nondescript white van, silently drives you into the countryside, through some seedy farming communities, past several garishly painted motels, and up a winding mountain road. At the top of the road, your transport deposits you at a slightly worn-down, but still operational carnival. A mostly empty carousel turns and turns nearby while a few people mill about eating some identifiable food on sticks. The main attraction at this carnival, however, is not the rides or the mysterious skewered edible items. Near where the van dropped you and past a ramshackle ticketing booth, the mouth of a cave yawns in the side of the mountain. As you walk into the gaping maw of the earth, the first sight that greets you is a strange and confusing mural painted brightly on the sides of the cave's entryway walls. Dinosaurs, kangaroos, slightly racist depictions of Native Americans, and a single, huge human skull stare down at you from the walls. Beyond this confusion of color lies the cave itself, a combination of natural caverns and mine shafts, all lit with green and pink floodlights. The cave contains a perplexing assortment of oddities. One chamber is filled with water and a large diesel-powered raft roars around it carrying several sight-seers. Beyond it, a hallway is lined with glass cases containing Egyptian artifacts of dubious authenticity. In yet another room there is a large stage upon which a single boy performs acrobatic feats involving a balancing board and several baskets on his head. Near the stage there is a pool surrounding a replica model of a certain cluster of islands, and an adjoining chamber illustrates the evolution of humans through the medium of bad sculpture. At last, you reach the final hall of the cave, which is appropriately named the 'Amethyst Hall.' A large sign points out a depression in the side of the cave wall which was an enormous amethyst geode but which has been almost completely mined; only a few sharp spikes of the gem poke out from the walls of the depression. More glass display cases hold enormous clusters of the violet crystals which were mined from the geode. Accompanying the mineral displays are two dioramas containing statues of miners going about their work. The statues were badly-made in the first place, and now they are in a state of disrepair that makes them look suspiciously like zombies. They have sunken cheeks and discolored, cracking skin. A few are missing limbs or digits. Worst of all, their bulging, dead eyes stare at you from under the sickly green half-light. You decide that it's about time for some sunlight, and you exit the cave. The carousel still spins lazily in the hazy afternoon, and you can't help but stare at it and wonder if any minute now you are going to hear the familiar sound of mechanical bells and wake up lying in your bed with your left arm half-numb and your brain fuzzy with the momentary bewilderment of waking from a bizarre dream. But you don't wake up. Instead, you climb back into the nondescript van, and ride back down the mountain, past the gaudy motels and farms, and right back to the train station where you started your strange adventure.
And now you know what happened in my life today.

A Tail of Two Kitties (and a plea for help!)

 Meet Rhiannon!One chilly late winter Michigan day, a friend of mine let in a stray tabby who had taken up residence under the front porch. This petite little feline was given the moniker Blue Whale. No joke. This is what happens when you let the 9-year-old son of an eco-hippie name your cat. A couple months later, just in time for Easter, Blue Whale had a litter of four kittens. I took an instant liking to one of the female kittens, so of course that one got adopted first and I ended up with the other one instead. I now consider this to be very fortunate. I chose the name Rhiannon from the wizard Merlin’s sister in T.A. Barron’s The Lost Years of Merlin. She was “Rhia” for short until she was big and sassy enough to handle her full name. Rhia was my fast friend and shadow right away, always wanting to be in the middle of whatever I was doing, even when what I was doing involved a hammer and a staple gun. After that episode, it’s astonishing that she retained both ears and all four paws.

When I moved to Colorado, Rhia came with me. My husband, Ian, joined the family about a year later, and Rhiannon abruptly demoted me from my post as “favorite human” and staked her claim to Ian instead. By age 4, Rhiannon was beginning to mellow and was ready to settle down to being a quiet, respectable adult feline. And then Basil entered the picture.

With our final year of college looming, Ian and I knew that we would not have as much time or energy to devote to Rhiannon, and she was never very fond of solitude. Our solution to this problem was that we needed to get another cat to keep her company. On our first trip to the humane society, the front display window was filled with a batch of solid black and solid grey kittens, with one exception being a little black and white kitty with funny markings on his face who ran around pouncing on the other kitties while they slept. On the second visit, which I made alone, I went with every intention of adopting a grey kitten because I have always wanted one. But the little black and white kitty was sitting at the front of his cage, fully alert, and he caught my eye again. The instant the shelter volunteer brought him into the meeting room, he started to purr. My defenses were laid to waste and he came home to join the family that same day. We named this tiny cat with a huge personality Basil, after the miniature dragon Basilgaraad in T.A. Barron’s Merlin’s Dragon.

Rhiannon, of course, was not entirely pleased with this new development, and saw her plans for an easy, quiet routine pounced and shredded by the little dragon-cat. For the past year, Basil has kept Rhiannon on her toes. She has warmed up to him, and though she is still a rather placid cat, she has recovered a good deal of her vigor and animation. After all, she has to stay alert if she wants to hold her own with Basil, who like his namesake has become considerably bigger than he was when he started out. 

At the beginning of this year an opportunity presented itself for us to try for a program to teach English at an immersion program in South Korea. For Ian, the opportunity to teach abroad for a year or two is an incredible way to jump start his teaching career, especially since he is interested in teaching ESL in the long term. For me, living in a different culture for a while will allow me to put my anthropology degree to good use. The chance was too good to pass up, so after Ian spent a month doing an internship in South Korea to try out the program, we applied and were accepted for a full year contract.
We are very excited for this new and life-changing experience, but sadly the living arrangements in S. Korea will not allow us to bring our furry family members along. It has been something of an unpleasant paradox. We believe that adopting a pet is a commitment for the lifetime of that pet, and we very much want to be Rhiannon and Basil’s forever family. On the other hand, we feel that going to South Korea to teach is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for our personal and professional development. To resolve this, we are looking for someone who has a big enough heart to take in these two lovely cats and care for them while we are in Korea, and then return them to us when we come home.

The offer is this: We will pay for food, supplies, licensing, and any necessary vet fees, and once our paychecks start coming in regularly in Korea we plan to pay a small monthly stipend. Our contract in Korea is for one year starting in September. We will be leaving the U.S. probably in the last week of August, and would like to have the cats placed a week or two before that time so that they can adjust to their new home before we leave. If you’re in the Colorado Springs area, we’ll need to leave the cats with you before we leave the state on July 11. You would have the cats for a little over a year. If we decide to renew our contract for another year, we will give you the option to keep the cats another year or we will find them new placement. The cats will come fully vaccinated and licensed. We would strongly prefer that Rhiannon and Basil be kept indoors only for their safety. If possible, we would like them to be cared for by someone who is a cat parent or former cat parent and can understand and appreciate their little quirks and occasional mischief. Basil and Rhiannon are both very loving and they will reward you with excellent companionship for as long as they are with you, and you will have our undying gratitude as well. We know that this is a really big thing to ask of anyone, but we trust that there is someone out there whose generosity and love of felines is equally big. If you think you can handle this double-handful of fur and fun, please let us know as soon as possible. Thank you very much for reading!
Amethyst, Ian, Rhiannon, and Basil
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Graduation Speech

 Eight years is a long time to work on an undergraduate degree. For a while, I think a lot of people wondered if I was going to be the fabled "professional student." So did I. But, as I'm fond of saying, "Everyone has their own path." Maybe mine has been a little longer than most, but I think that every hill and bend of it has been necessary and meaningful. This isn't by far the end of my path- hardly even a rest stop if you ask me-but it is a major milestone and one I'm very proud of reaching.

I have not walked my path by myself. Many people have led me or walked beside me, and some have given me a good shove from behind. All deserve my thanks.

To Ian: I don't know how you've put up with me these past few years! Thank you for your patience, for always being there to sound my ideas out, for dinners and backrubs, for sharing all the ups and downs of being students, and most of all for love.
To my grandparents: I see a lot of people my age who don't seem to know up from down. Thank you for giving me a good foundation of sensibility and for teaching me how to be resourceful, gracious, and honest, and how to know what's truly important in life. It's taken me a while to catch on to some of these lessons, but you planted the seeds. Maybe I'm biased, but I think you did a good job.
To those few people who said that I couldn't make it through college or that it wasn't worthwhile to try: Thank you. There have been times when my stubborn determination to prove you wrong has been the only thing that kept me on course. I think some of you have changed your minds by now. The rest of you are just plain silly.
To my teachers, instructors, and professors: I think the best thing I can say to you is what I learned to say at the end of my violin lessons when I was very little: Thank you for teaching me.

To my friends: Whether I've known you for about a million years or only for a few months, you are precious to me. Thank you for good conversations, raucous laughter, and great stories. Thank you for commiserating about the woes of college and sharing ideas and help. Thank you for teaching me how to value and enjoy different personalities and perspectives. Thank you to those of you who have always been there to talk, even when it was the wee hours of the morning in one or both of our time zones and neither of us were really coherent. Thank you for picking me up when I've stumbled and for cheering me on. Thank you for inspiring me. 
The path ahead is exciting. I don't know where it goes, I don't think it's paved, and there just might be dragons, cannibals, or angry badgers. I hope it's a long path, and I hope that many of you will continue to walk with me. 
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What's in a Number?

 I'm sitting in an office.

The chair I'm seated on is one of those waiting-room types with a burgundy cushion that is almost comfortable and wooden arms that are not. On the wall opposite where I am sitting there is a display full of pamphlets, leaflets, flyers, and other important-but-not-very-interesting-looking pieces of paper. The carpet is that sort of slate blue speckled with grey, or maybe grey speckled with slate blue. It's hard to tell. I can hear the front desk assistant typing at her computer, tappity tap tappity tap-tap tappity tappity tap. There's also a printer somewhere- whaaaaaaar-chuk whaaaaaaar-chuk whaaaaaaar chuck waaaaaaar-chuk. I'm holding a ballpoint pen with a huge, orange, fake flower affixed to the top of it. A purple clipboard holding an official-looking form sits on my lap. This is a university office. I'm here to request a transcript.

I'm sitting here trying to remember my social security number, and all I can think of is the phone number of the house where I lived when I was thirteen years old.

If the form had asked me for the phone number of the house where I lived when I was thirteen years old, I would not have been able to recall it. Not even if you paid me to. I know my social security number. I have it memorized. I've used it hundreds of times until I'm almost sure that my social security number is me. I know how many digits it has. I can remember the rhythm of it when I say it. But I cannot remember the numbers. I cannot remember who I am. All I can remember is the number of a phone that is no longer connected at a house I have not lived in for years.

979-0449. No, that isn't the number I need right now. 979-0449. Still not it. 979-0449.

I'm sitting in my bedroom. I'm in the cubby under my bed, which is suspended above me on ropes attached to joists in the ceiling. It swings back and forth when I climb onto it. My grandpa built it for me. My walls are an accidental color of hot pink that is almost magenta, and they are lined with shelves full of my favorite books, cat and horse figurines, a music box my great-grandma gave me, and some assorted Star Wars collectibles. The window is covered with simple white curtains, and between them I can see the big oak tree in the backyard with the tire swing that I still use occasionally. I'm curled up on the inflatable armchair under my bed with the blue cordless phone pressed to my face. I'm talking to my best friend. I've been here for three hours.

918-46-6134. What? No. You'll never reach me if you call that number. 918-46-6134. But that's not even a phone number. 918-46-6134.

Oh, that's right. The form. My social security number. The orange flower bobs while I jot down my identity in nine digits on the specified line. I turn it in to the lady at the front desk. There's barely a pause in the tap tappity tap-tap-tap tappity tap. I plant the flower back in the jar on the desk. I leave the office. I'm glad that's done.

*Note: the numbers used here were created by a random number generator. To the best of my knowledge, they are not real numbers.*
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Why you should never rent an apartment that doesn't have security

So we were in the bedroom folding laundry, and during our conversation I referenced the internet joke "Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten." A minute or so later, we heard the creak of our apartment door opening, and heard our neighbors in the hallway laughing. One said, "What does she drive?" and the other replied, "The little Hyundai." My car is the only car in our apartment complex that could be described as a little Hyundai. Now I'm left with two possibilities. I can assume that the door was left open a crack when my husband brought the laundry in, and the cat pushed it open further, the neighbors heard my conversation, and were making fun of me for saying something so ridiculous because they don't understand the reference (they're not the type to be internet literate), in which case I would be highly amused and a little embarrassed. Or I can assume that my neighbors were messing with my apartment door and are planning to do something to me and/or my car (these are the same neighbors we've called the cops on for domestic violence, and we know they've committed acts of vandalism before). I can't wait until my lease here is up!
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 Once in a while, I write something and it strikes me as being good writing.  I had just such a moment while replying to a forum post a few minutes ago, and decided that this little bit of writing is worth sharing.  

"I LOVE to cook. I guess I could say that I'm passionate about food. Not in a way where I overeat on a regular basis, but in a way where I genuinely enjoy the variety of flavors, textures, and preparations that are available in food. It actually bothers me when there's a food that I don't like, because I feel like it limits me. I will try different variations on that food until I find a version of it that I like. I enjoy experimenting with new ingredients and trying foods from different cultural traditions. On at least one occasion, I have literally cried because the food I tasted was so delicious that it demanded an emotional response.
I believe that food is sacred in a way, because it is one of very few things that unites all humanity. Everyone eats, and every culture has a cuisine that is a central part of its way of life. You can learn a lot about people from their food practices, and a good meal has the ability to bring people together- it is no accident that family and social gatherings and celebrations almost always involve food.
Currently, my finances and my livelihood are unstable, and it is easy to imagine scenarios in the near future where I might not be provided for. Of these scenarios, the one that terrifies me the most is to not be fed. I could get by without a home and with very few possessions, and probably do so better than most. But to not be nourished both physically and spiritually with food seems like it would be unbearable."

Happy New Year!

Chinese New Year, that is.

This year, we decided to celebrate the Chinese New Year instead of Valentine's Day.  So far, the solar new year hasn't been overly kind to us, so I figured, "Hey, why not give the lunar new year a try?"

It's traditional in China, much like it is here, to have a celebration on New Year's Eve.  Usually, this celebration takes the form of an extravagant dinner.  Since we're always up for an extravagant dinner, we decided to give it a go.

To get our Chinese New Year started, my husband and I embarked on a cultural adventure and visited an Asian market for the first time.  This turned out to be a very interesting and very fortunate shopping trip.  For a store that focuses on Asian cuisine, the cultural diversity of the other shoppers we encountered was impressive. We discovered that the Asian market has excellent prices on certain types of produce.  Most notably, I found fresh ginger for less than half the price I would typically pay for it.  I unashamedly admit that I have a love affair with ginger, so this was extremely exciting.  Another point of interest was the seafood department, which featured tanks of live fish.  I had never seen a live tilapia previously, and found that they looked strikingly similar to the Convict Cichlids that I kept in my aquarium not so long ago, albeit quite a bit larger.  Sometimes the line between pets and food is not so wide as we might like to think!  

Some parts of the Asian market were absolutely boggling to my Western mind.  For instance, there was an entire aisle devoted to soy sauce in more varieties than I knew existed.  But even that paled in comparison to the selection of noodles.  There were two full aisles devoted to noodles!  One side of each aisle was devoted to rice noodles and wheat noodles, respectively, and the other side of each aisle was lined with an impressive array of instant noodles in packets and cups.  I have never seen so many noodles in my entire life.

It was in the freezer section, however, where I found heaven- an entire row of freezer doors dedicated to Dim Sum.  In particular, I was attracted to the several varieties of steamed buns, the likes of which have often enticed me to spend money I don't have to go to my favorite Chinese buffet (which is my favorite Chinese buffet specifically because it serves steamed buns).  Now I can enjoy custard buns, peach buns, and red bean buns fresh from the steamer in my own home.  Nothing has made me happier in quite some time.

Once home with all our purchases, we proceeded to deep clean our kitchen and living room.  Cleaning your home thoroughly is traditional for the Chinese New Year, because it represents cleaning out all the previous year's bad luck and making room for good fortune in the new year.  I even vacuumed behind the couch!

I can easily say that this was the most ambitious culinary excursion that I have ever embarked upon.  Together, we prepared a four course meal.  The first course was fairly easy- all we had to do was stick the pre-made eggrolls into the oven, and I whipped up some sweet and sour dipping sauce.  For the second course, we made pork dumplings for wonton soup.  The dumplings were particularly delicious.  For the main course, we served a triad of Szechuan green beans, Chow Mein, and honey chicken.  I'll admit that the sauce for the chow mein could use some improvement, but the green beans and honey chicken easily rivaled most Chinese restaurants I've been to.  For dessert, of course, we had steamed custard buns.  And to wash it all down, we made boba tea (or bubble tea, in English)- actually Taiwanese, but we wanted to give it a try.  I enjoyed the texture of the tapioca pearls, but my husband decided that he prefers not to have to chew his beverages.

In all, the preparation for this meal took nearly three hours, but it was well worth it.  We ate our meal at the coffee table, sitting on the floor, in order to approximate an Asian dining style (actually, we sit on the floor to eat our meals every day, but we usually don't bother to use the table).  I decorated the table beforehand with red and white cloths and candles, so it was really a lovely dinner.  

Our Chinese New Year turned out to be a very tasty and very enlightening cultural experience.  But the absolute best part of it?


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