A friend of mine recently recommended the movie Saving Mr. Banks to me. We were having one of our epic conversations about the Oscars (3 hours on Skype, and that’s not even a record for us) and Tom Hanks came up. If you saw Captain Phillips, then you know it was an absolute travesty that he was not nominated in the Best Actor category. Seriously, the last scene alone should earn him an Oscar every year for the rest of his life. Even if he didn’t do any movies that year.

Anyway, my friend said Mr. Hanks was also fantastic in Saving Mr. Banks. In fact, he was so insistent, that I felt I had to see for myself. So I settled in with it last night at home. I knew pretty much nothing about P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, so the whole movie was a revelation (although be warned, the movie takes quite a few artistic liberties, as I learned from my research afterwards). I wasn’t a Mary Poppins fan before, but I am now. The whole story was wonderful, moving, hopeful. It is no wonder that I cried through the entire thing. Really. Pretty much from beginning to end. If I wasn’t crying because something bad happened, I was crying because something good happened. There really was not a lot of down time for me. In fact, I was watching it in the evening and I eventually got hungry at some point and decided to eat dinner. I even cried then. The tears streamed down my face and into my food, forcing me to literally eat my own salty tears. It’s attractive, I know. Sobbing and chewing. This is why I live alone.

This is not the first time I have made a fool of myself crying over a movie. When I saw Forrest Gump in the theater, I cried so hard my contacts fell out. I had to hold them in my palm and hope that they didn’t dry up before the movie ended and I could go to the bathroom and pop them back in (it was close, but I made it). My friend told me in the same conversation that one of his favorite memories is the time we went to see Atonement together. He said that there was a point during the movie where there had been a lot of noise and then it suddenly got quiet. It was at this moment that he heard me make a little gasping, sobbing noise next to him. A sound which reverberated throughout the silent theater. Yep, that was me.

But at least he was understanding about my crying. Yes, he may have teased me later, but it was not at all mean. Unlike Betty the Drama Queen. Betty the Drama Queen (one of my very favorite people and a great friend) used to just flat-out laugh at me during the movie. In fact, her laughing usually distracted people from my crying, for which I was suppose I should be thankful. BDQ and I went to see The Passion of the Christ together at the local theater. Before entering the theater, she said she needed to stop at concessions, where she proceeded to buy a diet Coke and popcorn. As if we were going to see a Michael Bay movie. And if that weren’t bad enough, during the scene where Jesus is being flogged, BDQ kept whispering in my ear about how amazing the makeup was. The whole experience turned out to be the one time when it would have been totally acceptable to break down crying, and yet I could not shed a tear. How could I? With frequent offers of popcorn and whispered exclamations of, “Oh my goodness, HOW did they do that?! Doesn’t that look fabulous?” I just couldn’t get into it.

Yes, many a time I’ve been close to requiring hospitalization after a movie. My earliest memory of losing it during a movie is when I was about 10 years old and my family went to see The Fox and the Hound. I cried my eyes out. I can’t imagine what the parents waiting in line thought when they saw me come out of the theater, eyes all red and puffy. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them quickly took their kids out of line and said, “Hey, I’ve got a better idea. Let’s go bowling instead!” But you know, I wouldn’t change that about myself. It’s rather cathartic to cry like that. I always feel better afterward, if a bit exhausted. And I’d rather be reduced to tears by a movie than by my own real life.

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ImageOne of my all-time favorite movies is Until the End of the World.  It’s a 3 hour (the director’s cut is 5 hours) futuristic road movie about chasing love, happiness, and a controversial invention that turns your dreams into home movies.  All set in the year 1999.  In the opening scenes of the movie, the narrator, played by Sam Neill, gives us a brief description of the times: “1999 was the year that the Indian nuclear satellite went out of control. No one knew when it would land. It soared above the ozone layer like a lethal bird of prey.  The whole world was alarmed.” I’ve been wondering if we will think back on 2014 in a similar way, remembering it as the year Malaysian flight MH370 went missing.

Malaysia jetI mean, they lost a jet, a huge Boeing 777.  Filled with people.  And equipped with all kinds of state-of-the-art communication devices.  How can that happen?  They’re saying today (though it could easily change tomorrow) that someone had to have purposely turned off all the devices and whatnot that allow the plane to be tracked.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is not good.  I mean, that sounds like someone wants the plane to not be found.  Is it the pilot?  A passenger who hijacked the plane?  Charles Widmore?  No one knows.  But in the dead time following the Olympics, the Oscars, and a weekend binge of House of Cards, the mystery of it all is somewhat alluring.  Not to make light of it – I’m sure the families who are praying for their loved ones to be found are not at all fascinated. More likely they are dumbfounded, angry, and desperate for a resolution.  But for those of us who are not intimately connected, it’s compelling.  How and why did they do it?  Where are they now?  Are they alive, and if by some miracle they are, why haven’t we heard anything?  And the question no one wants to ask out loud, how long until we give up?

Pray for MH370So what world event will define 2014?  It’s still too early in the year to make that call.  So far we have a few contenders: the Sochi Olympics (memorable more for the sketchy accommodations than for the sports themselves), Crimea being separated from Ukraine and annexed to Russia, and now the missing plane.  Who knows what else will happen in the next 9 months?  I’m just relieved that there’s already enough to overshadow the shock that Matthew McConaughey (Matthew McConaughey, for Pete’s sake) won an Oscar.

There’s something that’s been on my mind for quite a while now, so I guess it’s time I attempted to put it into words.  I’m not sure how eloquently or clearly I’ll present it, but I will do my best.

For several years, I went through a very difficult and personal struggle with being single.  I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t expect to be married some day.  Having a lifelong partner, with or without children, was my goal, and I never even entertained the thought that it wouldn’t happen.  When I was in my 20s, I didn’t worry too much because I figured I still had plenty of time.  But when I got to my early 30s, a nagging desperation began to set in.  I pushed it away most of the time, because I knew I was still young.  But it was there.  It began to rear its ugly head every time I received another wedding invitation or birth announcement from one of my friends.  It got even worse once I started getting invitations to the weddings of the students I used to teach in Sunday school.  I kept telling myself I just need to be patient and God would reward me.  After all, He loved me and wanted what was best for me, so naturally He would present me with my significant other soon.  Then the self-deprecation started.  To be more exact, I began mentally ripping myself to shreds. I wasted so much time criticizing myself, my looks, my character.  Obviously I was deficient in some way.  As more years went by and Prince Charming continued to elude me, I became more and more critical.

During these times, I honestly did turn to God.  In every difficult situation, when I turn to God and seek comfort in the Bible, I am never disappointed. So talking to God about my struggles with singleness always helped. For a while.  But then I’d walk out the door and be slapped in the face again with how perfect everyone else was and what a loser I was.  I rarely spoke about it with anyone, but many times I would get comments like, “Jen, I can’t believe you’re not married yet, or “We need to find you  husband.”   That made it even worse because that meant that everyone was aware of my deficiency. I suspected that my friends, especially the married ones, pitied me.  I just knew they had secret conversations amongst themselves: “Why isn’t Jen married yet?” “I know!  She’s so nice. What do you think the problem is?”  I just couldn’t cling tight enough to God to be able to deal well with society’s perceptions and expectations.  Which of course were my own perceptions and expectations as well.

The thing is, all these comments and bits of advice were well-meaning.  I know that my friends like me and enjoy my company.  That’s why they’re my friends.  I know that when they say things like that, they want to encourage me and make me feel better.  But the problem with all of this is, they’re all looking at it wrong.  I’ve been looking at it wrong. I believe that the prevailing attitude in our society, including the Christian community, is that marriage is the final goal.  It’s what all of us, especially the women, should strive for.  Ultimate success is marriage and family.  Of course, no one would say this exactly.  It sounds so old-fashioned. But it’s such a part of our culture (and I’m guessing many other cultures) that we don’t even notice that we think this way anymore.

The way I see it, marriage and singleness are gifts.  I’m not just talking about spiritual gifts, but gifts that God gives each of us to equip us for the work He calls us to do.  They are gifts the same way that patience and athletic ability and intelligence are gifts.  One person can draw and another is good at cooking and yet another is good at science.  The difference in these gifts doesn’t make one person better than the other.  Each person just has different ways of being able to serve God.  My married friends are able to serve Him in their marriages.  I am able to serve Him in my singleness.  Neither one trumps the other.  They are simply different states of being. Marriage should never be the end goal or the defining factor of our lives. Serving God as best we can should be.

I am single right now.  I have no idea if that will stay the same for the rest of my life.  Things change.  A spouse can die, and people can get married at any age.  But I can honestly say now that I have stopped worrying about it.  It is a waste of my time.  It’s like obsessing over being bad at math or not being able to sing.  Sure, you can force a change.  But it’s so much work to do it!  All the time and resources to change something that really doesn’t matter is pointless.  I want to focus on what God has given me, not what I wish He would give me.  I have peace in knowing that I am right where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to be doing, and at least trying to live the way I should live, all for Him.

Power of WordsI’ve been perusing other WordPress blogs and I’ve discovered something. There are quite a few would-be writers out there. Several times I’ve seen mentions of novels in the works, or dreams of someday being published. Nothing wrong with that at all. It makes sense that people who want to write would find an outlet in the blogosphere. I, however, am not one of them. Oh no. I have no desire to be a writer. All that pressure to write something meaningful, something that makes an impact on the world. No thank you. Alright, yes, it’s true, I guess I’ve thought about it once or twice. But only because so many of my friends have told me I should write. “What?” I say to them. “You’re crazy. What would I even write about?” What would I write about, indeed. I certainly didn’t pay any attention to that recent Buzzfeed quiz, What Career Should You Actually Have, when it clearly stated that I should be a writer. I really wouldn’t even know where to begin. Although, I suppose, yes, I’ve had a few interesting experiences. I’ve often thought that I’ve packed at least 3 lifetimes into the short time I’ve been alive. In fact, some periods of my life seem unreal to me, almost as if they were part of some movie I saw. In all honesty, my life would make a pretty good movie. I guess if I were going to be coerced into writing something, a novel loosely based on my life experiences that could easily be envisioned on the big screen would make the most sense. Not that I would ever really consider it. I mean, I guess I might actually try submitting some of my work somewhere if it would get everyone to stop telling me I should be a writer. That would show them, wouldn’t it? If I tried and just failed? Of course, if you look at it completely objectively, I probably wouldn’t fail. I’m pretty creative, I’ve had lots of interesting experiences, and besides, they can’t all be wrong, can they? But it doesn’t matter because if I wrote a novel and it was made into a movie, there’s no guarantee it would be a hit. Though between you and me, I can already picture some of the scenes in my head, and if you could get some major stars attached, like Jennifer Lawrence and maybe Matthew McConaughey, my movie would be huge. HUGE. I just wouldn’t want to deal with the fame, though. You know, you write a best-selling novel and it gets turned into a hit movie and suddenly everyone knows you and is making all kinds of offers and you’re the most popular person in the business. Way too much stress. Sure, there are perks. Traveling all over the world, getting into the swankiest restaurants, hanging out with celebrities, probably going to the Oscars. That’s really why I don’t want to be a writer. I mean, who wants all that? Not me.

Tonight, I had a simple mission: buy toilet paper.  I stopped at the local drugstore on the way home, expecting to run in and out.  I wasn’t really in a hurry for any reason there than that I was hungry.  So I walked in the front entrance and made my way towards where I thought the tp would be.  Imagine my surprise to see that there was no toilet paper in the whole store.  Seriously.  I walked up and down every aisle twice, some of them 3 times.  Not a square to be found.  Then i started wondering, do they carry tp at drugstores here?  Where had I bought it last time? Certainly not at this drugstore. I realized I had only bought it once since moving in to my new place.  My host mother had bought a jumbo pack for me when I first moved in, and being a single person, it had taken a while to go through it.  I had bought a 4-pack when I had 2 overnight guests, and I had bought it in a hurry at the supermarket because I had to get back home and vacuum and finish putting the laundry away before they arrived and I just didn’t have time to screw around looking for the best deal.  So apparently, this drugstore was not going to help me out.  I left out the front entrance again, and as I came around the corner, I passed the little-used side entrance of the shop.  Which I guess also serves as the official toilet paper section.  An entire shelf unit full of toilet paper.  Because why wouldn’t you display it in the dimly lit alcove next to the store?  All those years working in retail, I never was very good at promotional displays.

I love the parking lot traffic directors at Mandai. Actually, you can see them a lot of places, but I go to Mandai pretty frequently so they are the ones I see the most. The parking lot traffic directors are great. They are almost always retired guys who work part-time at shops with lots of traffic. They wear uniforms and carry a “wand,” which looks a bit like a short light saber. And you can trust them completely. They are vigilant, constantly watching all around them for cars, bikes, and pedestrians in need of directing. Ready to hold up one hand to stop that car while waving you on with the light saber. Quite often when I come around the corner on my bike, the Mandai traffic looks a bit crazy. I consider getting off my bike and just walking it the rest of the way, hoping that the traffic clears out enough for me to pass through. But then the traffic director looks over at me and nods and waves me into the parking lot with total authority. All he says is, “Hai! Dozo, dozo,” but I know he means, “Go ahead, miss. As long as I’m on duty, you won’t get hit by any cars. My job is to serve and protect, and you can count on me to do just that.”
The other job I really appreciate is the bike lot attendants. Usually near the train stations there are bike parking lots where you can pay to leave your bike all day. There’s usually a guy in the little office where you pay, and then 2 or 3 guys, also retired gentlemen, who help you with your bike. In the morning, it’s not such a big deal. Everyone’s kinda coming in and parking his or her bike wherever. But when you return in the evening to get your bike, the parking lot is almost always packed tight. The bikes are all lined up in these neat rows, and they’re really close together. It would be impossible to get your bike out if it weren’t for the bike lot attendants. You just walk over to your bike, unlock it, and the attendant will maneuver your bike out and bring it over to you in the main aisle. When you leave your bike in the morning, they say, “See you later,” and when you return, they say, “Welcome back.” They’re like a bunch of kindly grandfathers. Probably they really are grandfathers, so I guess it makes sense.

Tonight as I was riding my bike home from work, I had to stop for the train as I usually do.  As I was waiting, an old woman walked up and stood to my right about 7 or 8 feet away.  I gave her a little glance, but didn’t pay much attention.  But then out of the corner of my eye, I saw her edge a little closer to me.  I glanced sideways at her, wondering what caused her to move closer, but didn’t see anything unusual.  Then she edged closer still.  At this point, I became paranoid that she was going to make a grab for the small bag of groceries I had just bought and was sitting in my basket.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized the groceries were just begging to be stolen.  What was I thinking, putting them out in the open like that?  I could tell she knew I had found a good deal on frozen French fries and she wanted in. So I coyly wrapped the plastic bag handle around my handlebars.  “Just try it now, lady, ” I thought smugly.  The train passed and the rail went up and I thought I was home free, but then I found out the real reason she had moved closer.  Her diabolical plan all along was to step right in front of me and then walk as slowly as possible.  I had nowhere to go.  To the left was nothing but rocks and train tracks.  On my right, other bikers were passing me at the speed of light, only too happy that they were not the ones stuck behind her.  Well played, old lady.  Maybe I should have just given her the groceries.

While we’re on the subject of annoying things that people to do to other people (i.e. me) on the street, I think there needs to be a law that prevents groups of 2 or more people from forcing someone off the sidewalk and into rush hour traffic just so that they can continue to walk next to each other.  Or maybe they just need to start teaching basic physics in Japanese schools, because obviously they do not understand that 2 people cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  Unless of you is a ghost.  Which I am not.  And hopefully, neither are you.  If you are, then we’ve got even bigger problems.

USB typewriterI work in an organization staffed by about 15 people (plus several volunteers) in a 3-story building.  My office is on the 3rd floor, and I share it with 3 other people.  Were it not for these 3 co-workers, my day would be extremely lonely, since no one EVER visits the 3rd floor.  I even brought in flavored coffee from my favorite coffee shop in the U.S. to try to bribe people to come visit.  The attempt was a complete fail.  On the upside, the 4 of us got more coffee.  But today I am flying solo, and it has been a loooooong day.  To break the monotony, I wandered down to the first floor to make a lovely cup of afternoon milk tea.  One of the volunteers was sitting at the main table with a big stack of posters, so I asked her what she was working on.  She told me that she was putting these new stickers on the posters that informed people you could take a picture of the poster with your smart phone and then somehow donate directly through your phone. I just looked at her for a second in amazement.  I mean, she was obviously excited, so I knew she wasn’t making it up.  But it just sounded like crazy talk to me.  I know, I’ve seen those little boxes with the squiggly lines (which I just now Googled and discovered they are called QR codes).  I know you can scan those with an app or something (there’s an app for everything) and you can get special offers or extra information or something.  But this was just a poster.  I have no idea how it works.  It just amazes me.

Don’t get me wrong; I have embraced technology.  I  was an early iPhone 4 user (at least here in Osaka), and the only way you’ll get my iPhone 5 is if you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.  I’m actually very good at using it, too.  I was thrilled to be able to scan a boarding pass recently by using my phone.  When I was in the Philippines, one of my tasks was to set up the satellite phones.  I even taught my parents how to use Skype, which is nothing to sneeze at.  So I’m not technologically challenged.  It’s just that I remember the days before all this.  When I was in university, I typed my papers on a word processor.  It had a little pop-up screen that displayed 4 lines at a time (I was jealous of my sister when she got a newer one a few years later that showed seven lines).  My lab reports were handwritten in duplicate using carbon paper.  My neighbor once told me how she and her boyfriend, a student at a different university, used to communicate using a rudimentary form of what is now known as instant messaging and I just didn’t get it.  The first time I heard about this new invention they were working on called the World Wide Web, I couldn’t figure out how it would work.  How would you get information about anywhere in the world? Was there someone sitting at a computer that would answer your questions? I pictured this poor person sitting at a single desk in a poorly lit room patiently waiting for a question to answer, maybe with a glass of water and a sandwich next to the monitor.

What will they think up next, eh?

American Girl in Italy

During the cold winter months, I am very motivated to bring my lunch from home on the days I work.  That, or I stop at the convenience store during my morning bike ride to the office.  When it’s cold out, I have very little desire to go back out into the cold just to eat.  But the last few days have been a bit warmer, and I have been reminded of how much I enjoy getting outside for a walk in the middle of the day.  Even though it’s just a short walk down street, it’s nice to leave the office, breathe some fresh air (when it’s not garbage day), and stretch my legs.  It’s not a pretty walk – it’s not the cleanest area (for Japan) and there are no trees or flowers along the way.  It’s not a peaceful walk – my office is located right next to the highway ramp and the train passes by rather close.  But it’s 5-7 minutes (round trip) during my workday which belong only to me.  The other day was a beautiful sunny day, the air filled with the tear-inducing smell of a chemical spill.  Today, the sound of the birds singing and the inexplicable squadron of helicopters passing repeatedly overhead rang out over the rooftops.  And of course every day I can count on the curious sight of bags upon bags upon bags of used clothing piled up outside the recycling center, just sitting there lined up along the sidewalk, as well as the earthquake-like tremors from the trucks that go barreling by on the highway.  Oh, how I love my daily walk!

I’ve been recently put in charge of humanitarian disaster relief at the NGO where I work.  We are largely a development NGO, with our main focus on ending world hunger.  But disasters (floods, droughts, war) are bound to happen and we must be ready to help.  The problem is, I have no idea WHY I’ve been put in charge of disaster relief.  I have no background or training in it.  The biggest disaster I ever had to take care of was when I accidentally left my laundry out on the balcony to dry and it poured.  Starting next week I have to begin training the rest of the staff in emergency procedures.  I’m concerned that my emergency plan will look a bit like this:

So in an effort to live up to the potential that someone assumes I have, I’ve been scouring the internet for help.  There are actually quite a few disaster planning guides available for free.  By respectable organizations, no less.  In all honesty, I am not too worried.   While it’s important for us to work together well in a time of emergency, we are not first-responders in international crises.  We work with many international partner organizations that consist of highly trained and experienced staff.  I’m looking forward to learning some new skills and passing them on to my colleagues.  And if my training sessions result in us sending necessary food and water even 3 days earlier (which really can make a big difference) than we’ve been able to do in the past, then I’ll consider them a success.