Remember when I used to blog?

Life has been…different, lately. And very busy. I don’t know that I’m actually doing a whole lot, but it sure feels like I’m spending every moment on something. It occurred to me that it’s been awhile since I actually blogged, so I thought I’d put down some sort of update.

There are several new people in my life, friends I’ve made through the Welcome to Night Vale fandom and through Sean. It has been so wonderful getting to know them and sharing things with them. I’ve been doing a lot more chatting recently than I had for years. I’d really missed it. So many of my new friends are artists or writers, so we’ve been inspiring each other to create fanworks, and it’s been so much fun.

My online life has sort of shifted; I used to spend a lot of time on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, but now I hardly ever look at those two sites. I’m enjoying the chatting a lot more—it’s more personal, and it’s with people I care a lot about. (Sometimes on social media I get a bunch of updates from acquaintances and barely anything from my closest friends.)

I have a trip coming up soon; I’m going to New York City! I’ve only been once before, during Sean and my visit to New York state in 2011 (which I never finished writing up, alas). I’m really excited to see the city properly. I’m going to a Broadway musical, even! But the best part is that I’m going to meet someone very special in person for the first time. :)

I went home to visit my family over Labor Day weekend. It was nice. I didn’t feel like doing much, so I hung out in the office with Mom most of the time. On Sunday, the day before I left, we had a cookout, and AJ let Connor and Logan invite a bunch of their friends. Mom and Dad’s yard was filled with teen and pre-teen boys, swimming, playing horseshoes, tossing beanbags, and helping with the grill. It was amazing. Eventually we all sat down to eat wherever we could find a spot and one of Logan’s friends, Cade, entertained us with jokes. Then he and Logan challenged each other to eat various food items with lemon juice squirted all over them. It was funny.

Ben had no idea I was visiting, so I didn’t see him at all. Gah. Next time I will be sure to tell him myself that I am coming!

My daily writing challenge has kind of faltered. Some days I have been too mentally exhausted to write. Some days I just haven’t been in the right headspace. I’m still trying to write regularly, but it seems like every day isn’t sustainable. I’m trying not to beat myself up over it, and instead to enjoy the writing I’m doing.

So far the vast majority of my writing has been fanworks. I’m trying not to feel bad about this, either. For some reason I feel like I should be writing original stuff, like the work I’ve done isn’t “real.” But people have enjoyed what I’ve written, and I’ve enjoyed writing it. There’s value to it. I’m trying to break out of the “if it can’t make money, it’s worthless” mentality.

(Of course, I’m also nervous that I’m just scared to try to write something original, because I don’t feel like I can do it and I don’t want to fail…)

Sean and I eat out a lot these days. Neither of us is a big fan of cooking. For Sean, it’s mostly that it takes so much time. For me, there’s the added issue that Sean is fairly picky, so there’s the danger that I’ll spend forever making something and then he won’t like it. So we tend to get takeout or fast food, or just go to a restaurant.

We have been trying to make healthier choices, at least. I’ve been getting Starbucks’ Protein Bistro Box for breakfast pretty regularly. It comes with a hard-boiled egg, two slices of white cheddar cheese, a small multi-grain pita with honey-peanut butter spread, apple slices, and grapes. It is so yummy! Much nicer than a sausage or bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, and healthier too. It’s a struggle not to just eat one every day. (I’ve been thinking that I could probably create my own version at home that would cost less. Maybe I’ll do that.)

Exercise-wise, neither of us is doing much of anything. We have to go up a flight of stairs to leave our apartment, and I take the stairs in the parking garage at work, but that’s about it. I’ve been thinking about getting back into walking or running in the mornings now that the weather is cooling off again, but I’m not sure I want to get up any earlier than I already do. My evenings feel pretty short already, especially since most of my friends stay up late.

Yesterday one of my friends linked me to a couple of videos: the pilot short and the first episode of the miniseries Over the Garden Wall. I had never seen it before, though I knew a lot of people were fans. It was absolutely incredible. So unique and charming. Creepy and cute all at once. The music is spectacular. At some point I need to sit down and watch the whole thing. (I was disappointed that both of the two main characters are boys, but my friend says there are important girl characters in the show, so I will hold out hope.)

Otherwise, I haven’t been watching or listening to much of anything lately beyond Welcome to Night Vale. I’ve heard of a couple of podcasts that sound great, but it’s hard for me to find time to listen to podcasts. I need to be doing something with my hands, but it can’t be something that takes too much mental energy, because I’ll get distracted from the show. Maybe if I start walking again, I could listen then. I’ve also been thinking about learning embroidery, or at least cross-stitch. I could listen to podcasts while doing that, maybe.

Well, that’s basically what’s going on in my life right now! On the whole, things are really good. Love, family, friends, hobbies, adventures, happiness. :)

Second homes

There are certain places that I start to feel connected to and even possessive of as I learn about them, visit them, or live in or near them. From my childhood, there’s Chicago; I only visited a couple times with family, but for some reason I developed a sense of belonging that has never faded. I recognize Chicago buildings and I can still remember visiting museums and driving along the waterfront. When I hear news about Chicago I feel almost as if I’m hearing news about a place where I’ve lived. And I’ve always thought Superman’s Metropolis should be Chicago, as Gotham City should be New York. It just seems to have the right tone.

From my first foray into adulthood, there’s Huntsville, Alabama, the city in which I first lived away from home. In Huntsville I gained new freedoms I’d never had living with my parents; I rode my bicycle all over and caught rides with friends to places in town. To this day I feel possessive of Sparkman Drive and the Eggbeater Jesus. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Huntsville in recent years, once in 2009 and twice last year, and the lovely changes to downtown and the cool new restaurants and shopping centers make me swell with pride, even though I had nothing to do with any of it.

Then there’s Austin, which I visited once briefly in 2000…somehow that city got under my skin and never left. Walking around downtown with Sean (who I was simply dating at the time), Ben, and some friends we’d met online, I felt “cool”. And that fast food sushi place blew my mind; Japanese food wasn’t ubiquitous back then. I remember being told that Austin was “the Silicon Hills,” that there was a tech explosion on the horizon, and I loved the lushness of Austin compared to the dry, flat areas of Texas we’d had to drive through to get there. These days an old friend of mine lives in Austin, as well as family; I also follow people on Twitter who live in Austin, and I pay attention to the Austin web scene.

Next is Augusta; as I lived there for eight years, its “second home” status is more than legitimate. Even though we moved away nearly two years ago, I still feel more connected to Augusta than I do to Atlanta, or even to our little corner of it. I had many friends there, and working in news gave me plenty of local insight and the opportunity to attend lots of local events. I love Augusta. Its weather is great, downtown is charming, outdoor activities abound, there’s plenty to do within a day’s drive (including going to the ocean or mountains), and the tech scene is vibrant. Since I’ve left it seems like Augusta is really ramping up; it makes me want to move back.

York, England is another city that made me feel oddly like I belonged. There was just something about it. The city is beautiful and walkable and features the gorgeous York Minster as well as an amazing tea shop. Brooke and I were only there for a day, but I could have easily spent a week; I wouldn’t say no to living there if given the opportunity.

Then there’s Birmingham, Alabama. For awhile there Sean was traveling for work a lot, and many of his trips were to Birmingham. As it’s just a couple miles west of Atlanta, I was able to tag along twice. I fell in love with the beauty of the city, its dedication to history, the many cultural activities that are easily accessible and free, the variety of restaurants, the city’s gardens and natural beauty. Visiting Vulcan was loads of fun despite the rainy weather, and I was excited to find Electra and the Temple of Sibyl on my jaunts through town. Sloss Furnace is gorgeous; I could see myself exploring those overgrown industrial ruins over and over again. And I love the Japanese section of the sprawling Birmingham Botanical Gardens. A friend of mine and his family just moved to Birmingham, and I must admit to being a little jealous.

Poughkeepsie and Beacon in New York state also felt like home. Unique, beautiful, and comfortable.

There are some cities I’ve been to that haven’t had this effect on me. Though I’ve visited Savannah many times, I don’t feel that connection. I like it there, but there’s no sense of mutual belonging. The same goes for San Francisco; during my trip at the end of 2011 it seemed like a lovely place, but I’m not sure I would live there.

If there’s a trend to all the cities that feel like home, it would seem to include cool downtowns, lovely architecture, natural beauty, and walkability. Those last two items were large factors in choosing our current apartment in Marietta; I’m also pleased to note that Marietta has a cute downtown, though parking can be something of a hassle. The Atlanta area is huge, and it’s taking me awhile to develop that sense of comfort that comes from knowing what I’m doing in a city. But with everything Atlanta has to offer, I think I should eventually be able to call it another of my second homes.

Harassment

I’ve started following the inimitable Soraya Chemaly on Twitter; she’s always writing or posting links to articles that intrigue and inspire me. Today she linked to a piece on Rookie magazine called “It Happens All the Time”.

In a nutshell, the article consists of the women of Rookie discussing the harassment they’ve faced in public, just trying to get stuff done or get from point A to point B. Towards the end it goes into how frustrating it is that men don’t seem to understand that this is not flattering–it is completely unwelcome, gross, disturbing, and frightening.

Some of their examples are pretty extreme. I can’t recall a time where I’ve ever seen a stranger touching himself while looking at me. However, things have happened. I tend not to think about them much.

There was the time in Walmart (back when it was called Wal-Mart) when I was an adolescent, and I was several steps behind my mom in the lingerie department. A man I didn’t know came up to me, began stroking a bra, and said with a smile, “Shall I buy you something?”

There was the time on the school bus when I was wearing a long t-shirt and tight leggings, a style I’d copied from my trendy cousin, and a high school boy came up to me with a leer and put his hand on my thigh. (I never wore that outfit again.)

There was the time as a teenager when my bottom was grabbed by someone who was not a stranger and who did not understand that I didn’t want him to do that, even when I told him. He had also told me, when I was younger, that I looked sexy, but at the time I thought that was a good thing.

I haven’t done a lot of walking around, other than on college campuses and hiking/biking trails, and my experience with public transportation is minimal, so I haven’t had many bad experiences that I can recall as an adult. I have been flirted with before, but infrequently and in ways that didn’t bother me. Rereading this one, I can see where it might be gross to some people, but I don’t know. I guess I was in a good mood? And it’s not like it happened every day. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone yell anything at me on the street, other than panhandlers looking for money.

There is one panhandling incident that freaked me out. I was in downtown Augusta. I’d just parked and was walking to a restaurant. A panhandler came up really quickly and hugged me, pinning my arms to my sides. “Don’t worry,” he said cheerfully, “I’m not gonna rape you!”

Yeah, that’s the way to get me to not worry.

I was thinking about the various ways I could get out of his iron grip (destroy his kneecap, head-butt him, knee him in the groin) when he finally let go and asked for money.

Regardless, despite a few uncomfortable incidents, I feel like I’ve been remarkably sheltered compared to other women. Part of it is self-sheltering…I don’t go out in public in a vulnerable way very much, and I listen to my gut when it says to leave an area. Part of it is probably due to the fact that I’ve never lived in a place where I didn’t need a car to get around. I also tend to pay attention more to patterns of behavior rather than individuals–I’m the one reading the signs and noting where to go, but I couldn’t tell you what anyone was wearing, for example. It’s possible I’m completely oblivious to some really disgusting behavior. If so, ignorance is definitely bliss! (Or maybe men are just classier in the South?)

But this has me a little nervous about travel in the future. I’ve really been wanting to go to France, for example…is it that bad for women there? One of the women mentioned London. I didn’t experience anything during my quick day there, but I was with Brooke and David. How would it have been if I was alone?

Honestly, I’m not sure I would be comfortable traveling alone, even without having read that article. I’m already pretty wary of situations that can turn dangerous fast. It sucks, but it’s reality. I’m a woman, so I’m not free to just do what I want when I want. I have to think about my safety at all times.

So long, 2011. You were pretty awesome.

As the new year approached, I saw more and more of my friends posting status updates about how they were ready to see 2011 go. In many ways, I guess it has been a rough year. But I can’t help but think back on it fondly, despite the bad things that happened–the desperate situation our country is in, the hate and pain and suffering and disasters breaking out across the world. For me, 2011 was a year of growth and change and renewal and family and generosity. It was a year filled with love and hope. I want to take the power of what 2011 ignited in me and go out and share it with everyone.

I feel refreshed. I feel empowered. I feel ready.

We started the year embroiled in change. Sean had accepted a new job, and we were in the middle of a long period in which he commuted to Atlanta from Augusta for a week or two at a time. In February I hit the five-year mark at my own job, and wrote about it here. We moved to the Atlanta area at the beginning of March. I took a week off from work to coordinate the move, then went back to Augusta for a week to wrap up loose ends before beginning an approximately three-month-long period of telecommuting. I got a red velvet See You Soon cake :)

red velvet cake
After that week was over, it was back to the new apartment, which I had spent several weeks towards the end of 2010 selecting from the plethora of choices near Sean’s workplace. I wanted new or renovated apartments, nice facilities, a good location, and access to nature. I found everything I wanted, and we’ve been very happy with our new home this past year. Here’s a little something I wrote about it at the end of March.

We slowly started exploring our side of town and discovering new haunts. One of our first discoveries, Hashiguchi, ended up closing, much to our dismay. There are several other Japanese places in the area, but none have the same feel. We also discovered an Italian place, though, Scalini’s, which quickly became a favorite. And at our friend Will’s recommendation we checked out J. Christopher’s, a breakfast and brunch place, and fell in love. It’s currently my go-to restaurant (assuming I break for lunch early enough), just as the Boll Weevil was my go-to restaurant in Augusta. (They even have a door that creaks the same way!)

There’s a lot of shopping in our area as well, and as time went on I started to explore more and more of Vinings, Smyrna, and Marietta. One of my favorite landmarks is the infamous Big Chicken. Sean loves the Micro Center, which is kind of reminiscent of CompUSA. They pricematch, so he can get his quick technology fix.

Of course, there’s plenty to do in the rest of the Atlanta area. We’ve been to a comic book store in Buckhead; a Japanese restaurant, Korean barbecue, and Fry’s in Duluth; Super H-Mart, which is like Walmart for Asian food, off Peachtree Industrial; charming downtown Decatur; the aquarium and the World of Coke; the Atlanta History Center; and more. One day I drove around looking at all the furniture stores I could find, including IKEA…that was an adventure! And still so much more awaits us.

One great thing about living in Atlanta has been seeing our friends Charles and Heidi so much. I had taken several road trips from Augusta to Atlanta to visit them in the past, but now we’re free to do stuff together whenever we want! We have lots of dinners out, and we love going hiking and to cultural or interesting Atlanta destinations as well.

Heidi and Charles
For the next few months, my life consisted of telecommuting, trying to get the apartment in order, and exploring Atlanta. In May, since I was telecommuting anyway, I headed up to Kentucky and surprised Mom for Mother’s Day.

Then, around the middle of June, the station hired my replacement, so I went back to Augusta for my last two weeks to train her. On my way, I took a detour for a weekend in Savannah and had myself a nice little mini-adventure.

It was wonderful to see everyone in Augusta again. I stayed with Sean’s parents, which was really nice. I tried to get together with as many friends as possible. Brandon even managed to pull together some of the old lunch crew from years and years ago…it was awesome.

the old lunch crew
I spent some time on my last day running around getting pictures with everyone. Then, for my last night in Augusta, I spent the night at Brooke and David’s, and had breakfast with them at Cracker Barrel the next morning before heading home to Marietta.

Brooke and David
It was a wonderful last two weeks of work and a wonderful two weeks in Augusta.

Sean’s friend Adam came to visit while I was still out of town, and when I got back we took him around the neighborhood and out for sushi and frozen custard.

After that, I went back to Kentucky for the 4th of July. The fact that I was able to see my family so much was a big part of why last year was so amazing. On this visit I went swimming; I helped my brother with some sod on an area he’d leveled around a tree for seating; I spent lots of time with my nephews, including an awesome camping trip to Natural Bridge with their family; I ate ribs and fried chicken and corn on the cob and watched fireworks; I took a zillion pictures of my niece; I went shopping and out to eat with Mom; I went up to the farm and took awful pictures of the moon…basically, I had the best time ever.

And then I went to New York!

Sean’s job sent him up to the West Point area, and I got to tag along. I spent a week exploring the towns and villages along the Hudson River, including Highland Falls, Newburgh, Fishkill, Beacon, and Poughkeepsie. In Fishkill, I found a sign for the Great Indian Warrior Trading Path, which ends in Augusta. Here’s the sign and its Augusta counterpart:

Fishkill signAugusta sign
I have a few detailed summaries of my adventures around “downstate New York” that I wrote back in July. I will be posting them here shortly. In brief, my first day was spent exploring Highland Falls and Boscobel House; my second day, I went to the West Point Visitors Center and Museum, then Sean and I checked out Washington’s Headquarters. The third day was quite busy. First I went to the Van Wyck Homestead, where the above Warrior Path sign stands, then explored the lovely city of Beacon. After that I headed over to the Samuel Morse house and museum, where I also took in a car show. After that I had the singular moment of the whole New York trip, an unplanned visit to the Eleanor Roosevelt home, Val-Kill. I’ve written much more on that experience in the upcoming post; suffice it to say I’m not the same person I was before I went. I also checked out the FDR Presidential Library and the Vanderbilt Mansion grounds, then finished up my day on the Poughkeepsie riverfront. This day might possibly be the best day I spent in New York state; it is rivaled only by the next glorious day, when I took the train down to New York City.

At Grand Central Terminal, I met up with my friend Matt, who I hadn’t seen since our very first (and my last) Governor’s Scholars Program reunion, a zillion years ago. (Here we are on a boat.)

Matt and me
Matt was an amazing tour guide. I got to see so much. Since we only had one day, we concentrated on Manhattan. Matt’s recommended three-hour boat tour showed us many of the sights with views we couldn’t have gotten up close. The angles we saw of the Statue of Liberty (starting here) were spectacular.

Statue of Liberty
After the boat tour, Matt and I walked and rode the subway to a few places I was interested in seeing. This included…the apartment building used as the exterior shot for Monica and Rachel’s apartment in Friends!

Friends apartment
We also went to Times Square and Central Park, then walked up 5th Avenue to get back to Grand Central Terminal and head off our separate ways.

I hope to write in much more detail about this part of the trip later. It was a long, wonderful day, and an excellent endcap to my time in New York state. I spent the next day relaxing and recovering from two whirlwind days of awesome, then had one more mini-adventure in Cornwall-on-Hudson before Sean and I headed home.

After we got back from New York, Sean’s parents came to visit us for the first time in our new apartment. It was great to show them our place and give them a feel for our neighborhood. We took them around to our favorite haunts, and the next day we did some touristy things. It was a good visit.

Finally, there was a lull in the whirlwind of travel and visits, and I took that time to resume looking into weight loss surgery. The original plan had been to do the surgery once we lived in Atlanta, after all, and various health issues were making it obvious that the time to act was now (if it hadn’t already passed). Unfortunately, just as I started doing the paperwork for a local surgeon, we ran into some difficulties that meant it was impossible to have the surgery done here. This culminated in a trip to San Francisco as soon as I got all my medical clearances out of the way, which ended up being the end of September.

I was blessed to stay with family and thrilled to get to see much of San Francisco before my surgery date. I had never been there before–until then, the furthest west I’d traveled in the United States had been Texas–and I was excited to see everything I could. I was awed by the natural beauty of the Marin Headlands and Muir Woods and the sculpted elegance of Golden Gate Park. My uncle even took Mom and me on a drive down the famous Lombard Street on our way to an open-top bus tour which later offered us an excellent view of same.

One great thing about being in San Francisco was that I got to see my friend Hai again.

Me and Hai
We hadn’t seen each other since our first in-person meeting in Cincinnati back in April of 2008, though we’ve known each other for far longer than that thanks to the AMRN. We met up at Hog Island Oyster Company for lunch, and it was awesome. Hai is a fellow foodie, so he and Mom and I tried oysters, lobster, and a grilled cheese sandwich–an excellent last big meal before weight loss surgery ;)

The next few days were taken up with surgery prep, the surgery itself, and in-hospital recovery. I was eager to go back to my relatives’ house, so I pushed myself to walk as much as I could as soon as possible. The surgery was September 26, and I was released on the 29th.

I wrote a little about what I expected the surgery to be like here. I may write what it was actually like someday, or I may not. I never really have been one to dwell on that sort of thing. I don’t care to write about all my experiences when I had leukemia, either. Frankly, I don’t fully remember them, and I don’t really want to. Yes, I’ve had cancer, heart problems, sleep apnea, obesity, weight loss surgery–but these things don’t define me. They’re just things I’ve gone through. They are a part of what has made me what I am, but what I am has also been a part of what defeated them. Their role in my life is (or will soon be) over.

However, I will probably write about how weight loss surgery has changed me, because my approach to food is completely different now. I have a tiny stomach. I don’t absorb nutrients well, so I need to focus on getting as much protein as possible. Sugar and carbohydrates can shoot my weight loss in the foot. And white bread, white rice, and artificial sweeteners other than sucralose cause unpleasant gastic side effects for me.

These factors mean I don’t eat at all like I did before. Now I go for the meat first. I don’t eat much bread, and when I do it’s whole wheat. I don’t typically have, or even want, dessert, because by the time I’m done eating my few bites of dinner, I’m full. But I’ll get hungry again in a few hours, so I’ve started trying to keep higher-protein snacks around, like nuts and edamame. I also rely on Atkins shakes and bars for the times when I need protein fast. Since an all-protein diet can cause hard stools, I’m working to incorporate fiber when I can. I also have to make sure to drink a lot of water, not only because my new gastrointestinal configuration leeches it away, but because I’m taking a diuretic to treat my pseudotumor cerebri until I’ve lost enough weight to “cure” it permanently.

I also take a lot of supplements to get vitamins and minerals. I have to take a particular kind that my intestines are able to absorb. This will continue for the rest of my life.

Despite these constraints, you have no idea how freeing it is to not be a slave to food. I had no idea how much control food had over me. I thought I did…but I didn’t. I knew I was miserable. I knew I felt trapped. I knew I ate emotionally, or out of habit, or whenever someone else was eating, or because something looked delicious. But it never sank in just how addicted I was to food until, suddenly, I wasn’t anymore.

I told Sean, “I wish there was a surgery to help people stop smoking.”

This is not to say that going through weight loss surgery and recovery is easy. It is not. It is a lot of work, and you have to have the right attitude going in–the attitude that you are going to kick ass and take names because you are awesome. You have to know your stuff. And there will be times, many times, when you don’t want to eat, and you will have to force yourself to do so.

This concept is so alien to the former me that I don’t think I could even begin to explain it to her.

No, it’s not easy, but it works. If you know what you’re doing, if you have the right attitude, if you follow the steps you need to follow…you will lose weight. And you’ll keep losing weight. You’ll feel better than you have in years. The fact that it actually works will keep you positive, and you’ll keep going, and you’ll keep losing weight, until you hit your healthy balance and stop. I’m not there yet, but as of today I’ve lost 64 pounds…more than I’ve ever been able to lose trying to diet on my own. On my own, I had to battle my food addiction every day. Now, with this surgery, that enormous factor is simply gone. I still enjoy food…but I don’t have to have it, and I often don’t even want it.

I’m free.

Immediately after my surgery, I had to rest and recover, but also keep myself moving so I wouldn’t lose muscle strength. I felt good the majority of the time and it wasn’t long before I was off painkillers–a benefit of laparoscopic surgery is that fewer nerves get distressed. Of course, this can also be a con, if you feel so “normal” that you try to do too much too soon and end up injuring yourself. Since I’m the go-getter type, I was in danger of just that. The day after I was released from surgery, I went on a shopping trip with my mom and aunt! It was brief enough, but I tired out extremely quickly. Thankfully I hadn’t messed anything up, but looking back on it now, I’m sort of surprised at myself. I took a weekend off and relaxed with family, but then I went crazy again and accompanied my mom and aunt to Costco! Actually, I did far better than you might expect, and only felt like falling over and dying towards the end of the excursion. We sat down at the little cafe to give me time to recover, then headed back to the house.

After a checkup the next morning, my mom and aunt and I finally got the weather we were after for some Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline shots.

Golden Gate Bridge
After that we sort of just drove around looking at things. We had lunch in Sausalito, which is awesome because I’ve always wanted to say I’ve been to Sausalito (the name is cool!), and then we did a tiny bit of grocery shopping. I was getting stronger and stronger. Still, the next two days were spent relaxing and recovering from all that wandering around. Then my aunt’s dear friend came up for a visit–I’d previously met her on my first trip to Savannah–and we had a lot of fun going around the area with her. (Enjoy this nasty picture of my lunch from our day shopping in Mill Valley…I was still getting the hang of ordering protein-rich food.)

Thus ended my first-ever visit to San Francisco. So much more happened, and there was so much more that I wanted to see. Hopefully someday I will write in more detail about the trip, and I definitely plan to go back!

Obviously, after having surgery, I wasn’t really up to my usual sort of self-reliant behavior. I had to lean on Sean a lot for help with the most simple of tasks, like getting the laundry out of the washer and dryer, putting away the dishes, bringing in the groceries, moving things, etc. It was a little frustrating not being able to just do everything myself, but I persevered. While I wasn’t supposed to carry much weight or reach over my head, I was allowed and encouraged to go up and down stairs, which was good, since we live on the “garden level” (below the first floor). While I recovered I focused on walking for exercise. I did a lot of reading, breaking into the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin for the first time. I also did a little more writing in November than usual.

I did leave the apartment for one event while I was still in the recovery and adjustment period, and that was A Web Afternoon on October 22. I saw my friends Chris and Will, and organizer J. Cornelius apparently recognized me from when I attended the Webmaster Jam Session back in 2008, which is pretty cool of him. The event was really inspiring and interesting; the speakers had somewhat diverse messages and delivery methods, but they were all very enthusiastic about the web.

The end of November heralded a weeks-long flurry of travel for Sean and me. First, on November 22, we headed to Augusta for an early Thanksgiving with Cheryl and Reid, plus Cheryl’s brother Michael and his girlfriend Michelle. I made corn casserole, and I swear Michael ate about half the pan! Michelle is from China, and I got to hear a lot of interesting stories from her past–how she was sent to work on a farm by the government as a child, and how she worked hard to help her family. It was a nice visit, and the food was great. Cheryl really pulled out all the stops.

Sean, me, Reid, Cheryl, and Michael
After a brief stop in Brooke and David’s driveway to say hello, we headed back to the ATL. But I turned around the very next day and drove to Kentucky!

One of the highlights of the visit was seeing my beautiful niece, who turned 1 on November 5. She’s grown so much!

Daphne and Ben

Daphne and Ben

Given my new post-weight loss surgery reality, I wasn’t able to eat much at Thanksgiving dinner–here’s my plate. I ate all the turkey, and maybe half of everything else. It was great to just be there with my family though…I love seeing everyone!

Uncle Steve stopped by during my Thanksgiving visit home, which was great; he’s always a trip.

The day after I got back from Kentucky, I jumped into the car again for a quick weekend in Augusta. I’d been wanting to visit Brooke and hang out with people for awhile, and this was the only weekend left in the year that would work for both of us. It may have been a mistake to try to squeeze it in there–I ended up exhausted and unable to do nearly as much with Brooke as I’d hoped–but I was at least glad to see her, and to visit my friends at the station and have Teresa’s with Brandon, Ed, and Arturo. Brooke and I had dinner with Mari at Kinja, too, which was great.

Mari and Brooke

Mari and Brooke

I squeezed in a quick breakfast with Chris and Kenny and a stopover at the in-laws’ before heading back to Atlanta on Saturday. My biggest regret from the trip is not spending more time with Brooke…that will be rectified next time.

After the Augusta trip, I mercifully had two weeks in which to relax…theoretically. In reality, I had to decorate the apartment, wrap Christmas presents and prepare holiday cards. Yes, even though we were going out of town for Christmas, I still put up our tree. It was beautiful, so I think it was totally worth it! (Technically it still is beautiful…I need to take it down…) These activities brought me much more joy than annoyance. I was thrilled that I could finally give decent Christmas presents to family members; it had really been too long. I had a lot of fun selecting everyone’s gifts.

Sean and I also went to his work Christmas party the weekend of December 10. It was held at Stone Mountain Park, and we decided to spend the night at the hotel and go see the sights the next day. It was an utterly romantic weekend. I’d lost enough weight that I needed to buy a new dress, which I did. I also wore a new perfume, Estee Lauder’s Sensuous Nude, which is now my fragrance–we both love it. The party was elegant enough, and the hotel common areas were beautifully appointed, but my favorite times were when Sean and I were alone–in our room, or out exploring the park. We went down to the village after the party and wandered around looking at all the Christmas lights. The next morning we had room service in bed and a bath in our in-suite jacuzzi. We rode the skyride to the top of Stone Mountain and I got amazing views of the huge carving in the face of the rock. After we’d explored to our hearts’ content, we descended and found hot cocoa for Sean inside an exhibit hall and way too much lunch for us to ever eat at Miss Katie’s.

A particular highlight of our trip was watching a glassblowing demonstration. We saw an artisan create a decorative flower and a very unique vase. We’d already explored the shop, and nothing had quite struck our fancy there. The vase we’d just seen created was unlike anything in the store. Sean asked if we could buy it then and there. It was finished and delivered to us three days later!

After that, we had a snack and then got onto the little train that circles the mountain, watching the lights come on and listening to Christmas carols as the sun went down. When we got back, it was dark and Christmas-y in the village once again. Sean pulled me under a huge ball of mistletoe for a kiss–the perfect end to our romantic weekend away.

The week before Christmas, we headed off to Kentucky. I guess my crazy holiday running around, plus the fact that I was still recovering from surgery, caught up to me, because I felt like I got worn out pretty quickly. Still, I was able to do a lot with my nephews, including getting some one-on-one time with each of them, which I think is important. I also spent a lot of time with Mom and Dad. I didn’t get a chance to go to the farm, but fortunately Ben and Manda and Daphne came down twice while we were there.

I had a wonderful Christmas. I loved seeing everyone open their presents. I think I did well with what I picked for everyone. I had trouble coming up with ideas for a couple of people, but it all seemed to work out in the end.

I love gift-giving. I love how personal it is, how it shows what you feel for the other person. I’m so glad we were able to give gifts this year.

Before everyone dispersed on Christmas Eve, Dan was kind enough to snap some photos of the family for us. It’s hard to get this many people into a picture, but I think it worked out okay :)

my family
Would you believe even that isn’t the end of 2011? After we got home from Kentucky, Sean had his friend William over for a few days of gaming and fun.

William and Sean
William is a charming guest and a funny guy, and it was great to have him around. We’re looking forward to meeting his fiancée when they both come to visit us sometime this year.

After William headed home on the afternoon of December 31, Sean and I quietly rang in the New Year watching Smallville season 10. (I belatedly noticed the clock had ticked over and mentioned something on Twitter; I have no idea if Sean was even paying attention. Similarly, I just realized we both forgot our ninth wedding anniversary, which was yesterday.)

And that was 2011. It was a big year in so many ways, full of friends, fun, travel, and change. I loved it.

Here’s to more of the same in 2012!

Study abroad memories

The University of Kentucky Office of International Affairs recently asked past participants of its programs to post their favorite memories on their Facebook Wall. Here’s what I wrote:

Thanks to UKIA, I spent roughly six weeks in Japan in 2001. It was my first time outside the US. I was really impressed with how well the trip was organized, leaving my fellow students and me free to just take everything in and learn all we could. The whirlwind rail tour put me in touch with Japanese history and culture in a way I never could have experienced in a traditional classroom. I’m still friends with the girl whose family I stayed with in the small town of Yatsushiro. There are so many memories that it’s hard to choose a favorite, but ranking high are the dusk view of the lighted port city of Hakodate from the mountains, swimming at the base of waterfalls, writing a short essay on the aesthetics of haphazard power lines (really!), and strolling through preserved historic areas in tiny mountain towns. Ten years later, I’m still “homesick”!

The iPhone as a travel tool

Thanks to its size, GPS, and various applications, the iPhone has become invaluable for self-guided travel. You can save money, space, and time by using your phone rather than taking guided tours, fighting with bulky maps, and wandering around aimlessly. The iPhone can also help you save the memories you make on your trip, through text, images, audio, video, and location tracking.

Getting Around

Maps

The first and most obvious tool in your iPhone’s travel arsenal comes pre-installed. With the Maps application, not only can you find where you are and get directions to where you want to be, but you can search for different businesses and types of businesses around you.

Mobile Streetmaps

If you’re out of service area or roaming and you can’t connect to wifi, the Maps application becomes pretty useless. Sometimes even when you are connected, Maps doesn’t load at the speed you need. Prepare for this scenario with Mobile Streetmaps ($1.99 per map).

These maps are saved to your phone, so they’re viewable even when you’re offline. Purchase a map in advance for the city you’re visiting, and you’ll be able to find your way around no matter what your connection status. You can find these maps in the App Store by searching for the name of the city, or by searching for “Dubbele.com”.

Mobile Streetmaps is a must if you’re connected but roaming and don’t want to deal with massive data charges. Without GPS, all you’ll need to do is run a search for nearby streets to find your location. Since all the information is stored on your phone, there’s no data charge. With GPS, your coordinates will be matched with your location on the map saved to your phone. Since GPS does not use your phone’s data plan, there will again be no data charge.

This excellent user manual walks you through the process of using Mobile Streetmaps, including useful features like searching for amenities and saving locations for later.

Note: The maps in Mobile Streetmaps come from OpenStreetMap, meaning they are community-generated like Wikipedia. This means there may be incomplete areas.

Check out the FAQ for good information on why and how to use Mobile Streetmaps.

Enhancing Your Experience

Audio and video walking tours of some cities are available as iPhone applications. Since these applications are fully installed on your phone, they can give you a location-enhanced experience without using your data plan–like Mobile Streetmaps, all they require is GPS.

Some of the apps have features that do use data; when you’re roaming, watch for links to search results, internet content, or the Maps app to be sure you’re not incurring extra fees. (You can avoid this problem by accessing these features while connected to wifi, or by turning off Data Roaming in Settings > General > Network.)

Right now it seems that various small companies are building tours of their own cities first, then attempting to branch out; I haven’t seen a company with an app for more than one city yet.

These are the cities I’ve found; doubtless there are more out there.

The London Audio Guide ($5.99) will use your current location to pull up audio, text, pictures, and a map of nearby attractions. The app includes over 150 landmarks, and all of this content is downloaded upon install, so you won’t have data charges. For an added bit of fun context, the “More Info” button brings up quick links for Google results, Twitter mentions, Flickr images, and Google News results for the location. These options will, of course, use your data plan (or wifi).

City Slicker: Charleston ($9.99 normally; on sale for $0.99 at time of writing) is a video walking tour. Each stop includes text, images, and a video tour with a qualified guide. This content will not be automatically downloaded when you first install the app; to make sure you have everything pre-loaded, you’ll need to tap the “PREFS” button in the upper right and then tap “Download All Content”.

Tour Buddy’s Savannah Walking Tour ($9.99) is a professionally-recorded audio tour with pictures. You can choose to follow their recommended route, or visit the attractions in your own order. You can navigate through either a menu or a tour map without using your data plan.

The fun thing about these apps is that you can use them anywhere. You can preview the tour from home or from your hotel before you head out. This can help you know what to look for ahead of time. The London Audio Guide is also available for free online, if you’d rather preview that content on your desktop or laptop.

Save and Share Your Experience

Journaling

There are many ways you can chronicle your trip using your iPhone. The native Notes application lets you save text to your phone that can be emailed or copy-and-pasted later. This is a good option if you don’t want to use data while you’re out and about. You can also simply save memos to be expanded into a full blog post or private journal entry later.

You can also send brief updates to the world using Twitter or Facebook, either through those services’ free iPhone apps or via text messaging. When I visited England last year I updated Twitter via text message. I was hit with roaming fees and text message fees, but I didn’t incur data fees. You have to make a judgment call based on the charges for each service which one you want to use, or whether you want to use them at all.

If you like the immediacy of Twitter, but don’t want to incur data or text message fees, try Birdhouse ($1.99). This app will let you save drafts of tweets to be published later. The pros of using this rather than simply saving your thoughts in Notes are the robust sorting system, the countdown that lets you know how many characters you have left, and the fact that you can easily publish right from the application. One possible con is that your tweets won’t indicate the time you first wrote them, but the time you eventually publish them…so if you want to give your followers some context, you may need to include the time of writing in the tweet.

You can also blog from your iPhone–again, this will use data. Most blog systems have a post-by-email feature, which you can use without having to install an app–simply email from Notes or from Mail itself. However, this may result in some formatting oddities such as line breaks, and if you want to add photos, you can only do five at a time.

BlogPress ($2.99) is a robust third-party blogging tool that supports Blogger, WordPress, Movable Type/TypePad, LiveJournal, and others. This app will auto-save your posts as you write them. It has functionality for embedding photos and videos and adding tags and categories. You can tell the app to add location information to your post, and you can also have it send notices to your Twitter and/or Facebook when your posts are published.

WordPress also has its own iPhone application, which is free. This application not only supports posting, but also editing posts and pages and moderating comments.

Photos

Your iPhone comes equipped with a great way to save and share your trip: the Camera/Photos app. You can take pictures all day–or as long as your battery holds out–and then upload them to your favorite photo site from home or your hotel later. If you’re on wifi, not roaming, or willing to incur data charges, you can even update on the go.

As mentioned above, most blogging systems have post-by-email options, so a low-tech solution for getting your pictures online would be simply emailing them to your blog. The leading photo hosting sites also have their own mobile pages and applications.

SmugMug, my photo site of choice, has a free app called SmugShot that lets you take photos, caption and tag, and immediately upload in full size. SmugShot also geotags your photos, something the native camera app does not do. By default, SmugShot will upload to a generic gallery that is created automatically. However, you can adjust where photos go in the “Account” area. If you want to change this, be sure to do it before you start taking photos.

The fun thing about automatic geotagging is that you can go back later and see where you were when you took each picture. SmugMug’s “Map This” button on galleries is especially nice for this purpose.

Another fun camera application is shoot it! With this app, you can send a regular mail postcard of one of your photos right when you take it. Snap a shot of yourself in front of Big Ben, then use shoot it! to mail that photo to all your friends with a personalized note. The app itself is free; credits for sending postcards have price breaks if you buy in bulk.

Audio or Video Journaling

If words and pictures aren’t enough and you want to save and share an audiovisual experience, your iPhone can do that too.

The native Voice Memos application lets you record and trim audio, then either email it or send it via MMS. Similarly, with the Video Recording app, you can record and trim video. Within the native app, video can be sent by email, MMS, or directly to YouTube.

You can post video, audio, text, and more to Tumblr using the free Tumblr iPhone application. Posterous is even easier. Just email whatever the content is–text, photo, audio, or video–to post@posterous.com. In this blog post, Steven Sande describes using Posterous to publish an audio podcast.

The BlogPress app mentioned above can put your videos on YouTube and your blog.

Qik ($0.99) is a video blogging app that lets you record and upload video content. You can keep your videos private or share them with the world; you can choose to add your location or not. Qik can be connected to your existing blog and YouTube accounts. It can also send updates via Twitter and Facebook whenever you upload or stream a video. With the Qik Live app (free), you can even live stream video. Here’s more information.

Mapping Your Travels

As I mentioned above, one way to chart where you went on your trip is to take geotagged photos with SmugShot. But if you don’t use SmugMug, or if you’d like your tracking experience to be more interactive, you can use a free location-based social media application like Gowalla or Foursquare to share your location. These apps let people know what you’re doing geographically in a fun way. You can collect prizes, earn titles, and add friends to see what they’re up to.

Gowalla lets you add photos, complete “trips”, bookmark locations, and comment on your friends’ check-ins. Foursquare lets you add reviews, encouraging you to be specific so your friends will know what to do or try at that location.

Yelp (free) lets you find and write location reviews. You can add friends, find nearby businesses and landmarks, search for certain types of location, bookmark locations, and, like Gowalla and Foursquare, check in at a location. Because it’s primarily a review site, Yelp can help you pick what restaurant you want to try or park you want to explore.

Which app you use is really a matter of preference: how do you want to store and share your location? Which interface do you prefer? What features do you want? They’re free, so it’s not a big deal to try them all out and see which you like best.

Bear in mind that all of these apps integrate GPS functionality with online databases, so you will be pulling data.

Battery Life

If you’re using your iPhone intensively on your trip, the battery isn’t going to last the day. As many have unhappily noted, you can’t just carry spare batteries to swap out, either. Fortunately, there are some things you can do.

Whenever you go out, bring along the USB cord and power adapter that came with your phone. This way, if you stop at a place where you can use a power outlet, you can charge your phone. Apple sells a World Travel Adapter Kit that will allow you to plug in in most countries.

You can also carry external backup batteries. Kensington sells a large portable battery/recharger for the iPhone, a mini rechargeable battery with its own USB charging cable, and a dock that can charge both your phone and a mini battery. If you started out each day with a few fully-charged mini batteries, you’d probably be good to go. (Other companies have similar offerings; I linked to Kensington here because I’ve used their products before and have been pleased with them.)

If you’re driving, several third-party companies have iPhone/iPod car chargers. I have a Kensington car charger/audio adapter that is no longer on the market; while mine cradles the iPhone at the power adapter, this current model mounts to the windshield, plugging into the socket via an unobtrusive cord. (To play your iPhone music through your car’s speakers, you would then need a cable like this.)

If you’re biking, Make has a tutorial on how to harness that energy to recharge your phone. It looks like many people have built similar devices independently, but I couldn’t find a consumer product.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a solution for recharging using the energy of walking. Perhaps someday we’ll have kinetic batteries and battery chargers for our phones. In the meantime, you can always use a hand-crank radio/flashlight/USB cell phone charger in a pinch.

Beyond keeping recharging solutions at hand, you can also follow this advice from Apple to maximize your battery life.

Safety and Privacy

Don’t Share Too Much

It can be a lot of fun to post content immediately and check in with a location service everywhere you go, but you should keep in mind that constantly updating your location online can make it simple for strangers to find you. I recommend updating sporadically, and checking in to a location when you’re about to leave rather than when you arrive. It’s also best not to update your social networking status with a note about where you’re headed, unless that particular network is locked so only your friends can see your status.

If you’re exploring the area around where you’re staying, I suggest trying not to post location information that could possibly lead someone there. Instead of checking in along the way, wait until you arrive at an attraction to post. And if you’re alone, try not to make that obvious.

Be careful with photo geotagging. There is no way to turn it off on a per-photo basis in SmugShot. If there’s a location you don’t want to have on a map, like a friend or relative’s house or a place you’ll be for a few hours, take that picture with the basic camera app. You can then upload the photo using SmugShot, and no geotagging will occur.

If you accidentally upload a geotagged photo, you can remove the location information using SmugMug’s full web interface. Go to the photo in your gallery, tap on “Tools”, tap on “More” under “This Photo”, and tap “Edit Geography”. You will then be able to remove the latitude and longitude coordinates.

If you’d rather not deal with geotagging at all, you can turn it off completely in Settings > SmugShot.

Have a Backup

Don’t be utterly dependent on your iPhone. Do research before you go on your trip. Prepare for the possibility of not having the phone at all.

Learn what you need to know to get around and what to look for if you get lost. Try to familiarize yourself with the main streets of the area you’re visiting, including the location of where you parked or where you’re staying relative to everything else. It would also probably be best to have a hard copy map, just in case.

If you’re visiting a country with a different language, learn how to ask for help and how to read and say important words like “police”, “embassy”, “lost”, “sick”, and “hospital”.

When you’re out and about on your trip, pay attention to places where you might go for help if you need it. Also pay attention to where you can get water, food, and money in case of emergencies.

Protect the Information on Your iPhone

Your iPhone has a lot of information about you stored on it. If your phone is lost or stolen, you don’t want to be left open to identity theft.

The first thing you should do is set a code for unlocking your phone. Go into Settings > General and tap “Passcode Lock”. You will be asked to enter a 4-digit code, then enter it again in order to set the code. Once this feature is enabled, no one will be able to unlock your phone without the code.

You can also protect your iPhone with iHound ($2.99). This application lets you use your phone’s GPS to track its location. The best way to use iHound is to turn it on whenever you finish using your phone. Even if you don’t do that, though, once you realize your phone is missing, you can send it an alarm via a push notification from the iHound website. The push notification will turn iHound on automatically if someone tries to open the phone to turn off the alarm.


As you can see, the iPhone is an amazing tool for travelers. There are plenty of other options out there that I couldn’t get to in this post, like language dictionaries, currency converters, and of course the compass that’s available on 3GS iPhones. Do a little digging and you’ll probably find a way to do everything you want to do on your next vacation.

Quick England rundown

As you may know, I’ve been in England visiting Brooke and David since May 21 (I left on May 20 and arrived the next day), and I’m going home tomorrow, June 2. The following are Facebook statuses that I’ve been posting quickly each day so as to not forget everything we’ve done. I do hope to go back and actually write about this trip, and these notes will help.

Day 1: Arrived, unpacked, napped, had fish and chips, and went to British Wal-Mart.

Day 2: Cereal while watching the BBC and NHK, waiting for the sleepyheads, lunch at Wagamama Japanese, stroll through Sheffield Town Center, drive around Peak District with stops for photos, steak and kidney pie at Red Lion Inn, quick grocery stop for supplies for picnicking in Wales!

Day 3: WALES! A walk through Conwy Castle, then a drive in and around Snowdonia. Absolutely beautiful! Quite a drive from Sheffield, but totally worth it.

Day 4: Relaxation galore. Felt a little sick so stayed in and rested and visited with David’s family. Had lovely snacks and sandwiches for lunch and Indian takeout for dinner.

Day 5: Whitby, a lovely seaside town with charming shops, great restaurants, and amazing, beautiful abbey ruins on a hillside. Saw train station used in Harry Potter on the way back!

Day 6: Another rest day. Ran errands and played with David’s telescope. Saw the surface of the moon, plus Saturn and two of its moons!

Day 7: Hardwick, home of Brooke’s hero, Bess, Countess of Shrewsbury; and Sherwood Forest.

Day 8: Shopping, eating, York Minster, and the train museum in York, then exploring the origins of the Pilgrims.

Day 9: Newstead Abbey, home of Lord Byron, with Emma, Jessica, and James, then amazing six-course dinner at The Old Vicarage, a Michelin Star restaurant.

Day 10: Picnic lunch at Roche Abbey with the Kenmores and Robertses. Ruins exploration and soccer-kicking a kickball around the lawn. Then, dinner with David’s parents. And I got birthday cards and presents!

Day 11: LONDON! Sherlock Holmes museum, Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, a photowalk around Trafalgar Square, and dinner in Chinatown.

I love being awake in the morning

It’s such a different feeling getting up at 6:30 rather than 8 or 9:30. Somehow the day seems so much longer, seems to have so much more potential. I think it puts me in better spirits.

I went to bed last night somewhere around 9:30. What woke me up this morning was not my alarm, which was set for 6:30, but a text message from my mom at 6:20 telling me her new phone number. I didn’t know Mom was generally up at that time :>

Regardless, I got plenty of sleep, so I was able to get right up, get packed, get my shower, and spend some time with Sean, and I’m still ahead of my 8 o’clock target departure time. I should get to Kentucky in plenty of time for the cookout at my parents’ house :)

I’m better prepared for the drive this time, too: I have a long-sleeve shirt to wear in the car and a tank top under it for when I’m out of the car, so I can foil the evil UV rays that have already left what can only be called a tan line on my left arm. (I guess I do tan, after all.) It’s a trucker’s tan, but it deepened when I went to the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame’s Botanical Gardens the other day, to see everything in bloom for the first time, and to see the grounds where Sean and I got married one last time before they closed. (Pictures are here. The zen hoop sure looks different with plant life on it…)

I don’t know if I feel so good today because I’m up in the morning, because I got a lot of sleep, because I’m off work for the rest of the week, or because I’m heading home to see my family. It’s probably a combination of all of the above.

It really does seem to make a difference for me to go to bed and get up at geezer hours, though. There’s something about the morning sun that isn’t the same as noon approaches, and isn’t the same as the setting sun, either. When I tried getting up early that one time to go to work, I felt really good all day, though tired towards the end of my workday. But right now, I feel optimistic about my ability to work that out.

Ah, mornings are awesome.

Okay, time to pack up the laptop and hit the road. I’ll try to keep everyone Twittered…but at the least, expect some Fourth of July pics soon.

Interview

Merujo sent me five interview questions. Here are my responses:


1. What do you love about anime? What recommendations would you make for an anime newbie as the best of the genre?

I originally got into anime because it, like other products of Japan, could tell me something about the culture. It was actually my brother AJ who was first interested in anime; I remember being kind of “meh” about it. I had seen and enjoyed Akira on the Sci-Fi Channel, but I didn’t pursue an interest in anime, didn’t go to Blockbuster and rent various titles like AJ did.

But I randomly took a Japanese culture class in college, and that really piqued my interest in Japanese history and society. There was a girl in my class who brought in a huge book of manga and explained the anime/manga phenomenon, and I remember feeling a little snobby towards her, like there was something wrong with her because she was interested in that.

But as time went on and I took more classes, both language and culture, and my professors actually used manga and anime to help them get their ideas across and to share the culture with me, I started to have a greater appreciation for it. I joined AMUK–Anime/Manga of the University of Kentucky. It was there that I first saw shows like Please Save My Earth and Yawara.

After awhile I stopped going to the meetings, but I was always grateful for the windows into Japanese culture that the club offered me.

(AMUK is now defunct. After some drama, the newer members took over, kicked the old-school members off the listserv, and renamed the club “UK Anime”. As an observer, I don’t know the whole story, but it seemed like a good move to me. People who weren’t even at UK anymore were trying to have a say in the club, which seemed a little backwards, in my opinion.)

I continued my research into the anime/manga phenomenon online. It was then that I discovered the world of fansubbing, which opened up a million opportunities for me to see anime. By this time I was pursuing a Japan Studies minor and had been to Japan on a six week trip (and AJ’s own interest in anime had flagged). Anime was the most convenient–and, I’ll admit, the easiest–way for me to keep a flood of Japanese culture coming into my life. After I graduated, this became even more important, because I had moved to another city and was no longer surrounded by Japan resources. (I never realized how many Japanese people lived in and around Lexington, Kentucky until I moved.)

So in a way, asking me what I like about anime is like asking me what I like about Japanese culture. And it’s hard to describe. I think part of it, honestly, is an interest in seeing US culture refracted in the lens of a culture that existed long before the US. Here is a land with so much history, so many things that are incomprehensible without detailed study, and yet English (in derivative forms) is everywhere, US music and movies abound, and certain ways of doing things are obvious imports.

But as you keep going, you realize it’s not just the US. Japan imports, and often improves, facets of every culture it comes in contact with. It is just fascinating to see. As a linguistics major, I studied how languages interact and change one another and evolve over time. Linguistics is just one branch of anthropology, which is the main lens through which I like to observe the world. I’m always wondering where certain traditions came from, why people dress a certain way, where a certain way of thinking came from.

In a way, Japan is an extreme cultural melting pot, and that is fascinating to me.

But there are inaccessible things about Japan, things that have been a part of the culture for so long that it’s not easy to trace their roots. Things that, as an outsider, mean there are always surprises, no matter how much you think you understand.

Japan is inaccessible in many ways, and I think that makes it attractive as well. Even as you are invited in with open arms, there are so many closed doors.

So I enjoy watching anime partly because it was not made for me. I like trying to understand why it was made the way it was, and what it says about the people who wrote it. I use it as a means of better understanding the culture and practicing my comprehension of the language.

I especially enjoy high school comedies and dramas because they are abundant…because this idea of “seishun”, youth, is such a driving force. High school is so important that people around the country watch the national high school baseball tournament, which takes place at the largest and most famous stadium in Japan, Koushien Stadium in Osaka [Koushien is not actually in Osaka]. One of my all-time favorite anime, Touch, centers around three high schoolers as their baseball team tries to make it to Koushien.

What’s intriguing is that Japan is not unaware of how it idealizes the high school experience. There was one short series whose name escapes me that dealt with life for a group of friends after high school. There was a love triangle, of course: two girls loved the same guy. One of the girls had been a brilliant swimmer in high school and looked to be on her way to being a professional swimmer. She loved the guy, but was best friends with the other, quieter girl who loved him, and so she cheered the two of them on and kept her feelings to herself. One day the quiet girl was waiting for the guy to show up for their date and she was hit by a car. This left her in a coma.

The story starts with everyone around 20. The guy is in college and working part time, and the swimmer girl has become an office worker. They have ended up dating each other, but aren’t happy about it because the other girl is still alive, albeit in the coma. A feeling of unfinished business permeates the story, until finally the girl comes out of the coma and everyone’s feelings are resolved.

What struck me most about this, beyond the thoughtful exploration of how people would respond to such horrible circumstances, was how small life seemed to be after high school for all of them. All they had to look forward to was work, and perhaps the comfort of each other. It wasn’t like school where their opportunities seemed limitless. It was interesting to see this actually shown, and striking to me that I haven’t seen it very often.

This gets to why I started enjoying anime beyond a tool to help me learn about Japanese culture. The stories are so rich. There are series that are nothing but fluff, obviously, and those have their place, and can be really fun. What I realized, though, was that anime was simply another medium for storytelling, and there were plenty of really good stories being told.

The reason I love Touch, for example, is not because it is so revealing about Japan’s love of high school and/or baseball, but because it has enduring, believable characters who all grow and change as they deal with both normal and extreme events in their lives. Something happens in this show that you will rarely see in a US series, but I won’t tell you what it is because I want you to watch it!

As far as recommendations…

There are just as many genres of anime as you would find in any other storytelling medium. Maybe more, since Japan likes to categorize things to the extreme. I have found myself drawn to the “sports” genre, which is essentially a story where the main character works and gets better at something, competing with a broad cast of various personalities and going through tests of skill. As you can guess, an actual sport is typically involved, but this can also cover things like board games, or fighting, or magic.

I also love the “high school comedy/romance” genre. The “mecha” genre, which involves giant robots that are piloted by people, can be good if done well. But as you’ll see below, I don’t trap myself within any genre. If the characters are real and the story is compelling, I’ll even watch an anime about, say, baking bread!

I can’t expect that everyone in the world is as obsessed with learning about Japanese culture as I am, so there are some series that are brilliant but might not quite work as “gateway” anime. Too many jokes that don’t make sense, etc. So with that in mind, here’s what I would recommend:

1) Cowboy Bebop

This show takes place in the future and spans the solar system. There are interesting projections of various cultures into a radically different world from the one we live in. I think this makes it pretty accessible, because it’s familiar and foreign at the same time, but you don’t have to know anything about the universe before you start.

The story centers around a group of people who are forced through various circumstances to come together and become bounty hunters. Each has his or her own issues to deal with that affect the lives of the others.

Plus there’s music by one of the greatest, most versatile composers in the world, Yoko Kanno, and the art and animation are stunning.

It’s just 26 episodes long–that’s a standard series length, though variations include 13, 12, and 24. There are other series that run far longer.

This series is licensed in the US, so you can Netflix it or buy it at the store or online.

If you’re not into reading subtitles, the dub isn’t bad.

2) Detective Conan (Case Closed)

If you like detective stories, including murder mysteries, and can handle the weirdness of having a group of elementary school kids who occasionally solve them, then that’s all you need to enjoy this show. Heartwarming and hilarious, it’s got a main character who might need to be taken down a peg or two–and boy, is he ever!

The main plot of the series is that high school detective Kudou Shin’ichi (Jimmy Kudo in the dub) is force-fed a pill that shrinks his body so it looks like that of a child. He spends his time solving mysteries as Edogawa Conan (this is a Sherlock Holmes in-joke name) and trying to find the crime syndicate that did it to him.

At first the plot centers around Conan, his love interest Ran, her father Mouri Kogoro, and the aforementioned group of junior detectives. As the show continues, more characters are introduced, each with their own issues that may or may not have anything to do with Conan’s.

The characters end up visiting many cultural spots in Japan throughout the series. Some episodes are hour-long or two-hour-long specials that often involve a discussion of Japanese history/legend. So in this way the series is good for learning more about Japan. But someone uninterested in this might find these episodes rather dull.

Another thing is that while it is possible to guess who the criminal is, most of the murders are absolutely ridiculous. For me that’s part of the fun, but someone who is an avid mystery fan might find that annoying.

The show’s been running in Japan since 1996! But the episodes are slowly coming out on DVD here in the US, under the name Case Closed, and you can get them at Amazon.

As I mentioned previously, the dub for this show is amazing. It’s not a literal translation, and they did add some jokes of their own, but the general feeling of the show and who the characters are absolutely comes through, which is what I want from any translation.

You’ll want to keep in mind that names are changed, both character names and place names. So Mt. Fuji is called Mt. Fincher, or something.

3) Touch

The previous two series I’ve recommended are both licensed in the US and pretty much universally appealing. Touch is neither.

It isn’t licensed, so you won’t be able to rent or buy it anywhere. And it’s a story about Japanese high schoolers and baseball…so it might not engage you if you’re not interested in those things.

But it has some of the best character development I have ever seen in any series, anime or not. This show made me want to learn about baseball! If good storytelling floats your boat, do not pass this series up.

The tale centers around Uesugi Tatsuya, his twin brother Kazuya, and their next-door neighbor and childhood friend, Asakura Minami. Tatsuya is naturally gifted at many things, but doesn’t try hard at anything. Kazuya has some talent, but has had to work very hard to become the brilliant pitcher that he is.

The main conflicts/crises are how the brothers feel about each other, how they feel about Minami, and what all three of them are going to do with their lives.

There are 101 episodes in this series. There are also some movies, but I haven’t seen them and don’t plan to. The series stands on its own; the movies are, as far as I can tell, rehashes. (Even the one that takes place after the series just seems to cover old ground instead of doing anything new.)

4) NANA

This is another one in the amazing character development department. It’s ongoing and just started last year. It hasn’t been licensed, so there’s nowhere to buy it with subtitles/dubbing. (You can buy the movie, which only covers part of the story, and the manga, which is where the story originated.)

This is the story of two girls with the same name. They meet coincidentally on a train and become friends. At first their lives are completely different, but then they grow together. And then complications arise…

It’s a brilliant exploration of the relationships between women and other women and women and men and what people expect out of life versus what they actually get. I can’t say enough about this series. I eagerly await each episode.

5) Rose of Versailles

As you might guess, this is historical fiction based in France. It begins a bit before the French Revolution. The main character is a fictional Royal Guard named Oscar Francois de Jarjeyes…who is a woman who was raised as a man.

I love that.

You might also guess that this story ends tragically, and you’d be right. But it is brilliantly done. It presents Marie Antoinette from a more sympathetic perspective, but still manages to show how how she fell from glory and ultimately ruined her country.

This 41-episode series is not licensed. It was made in the 70s, and that leads me to wonder if it ever will be. Manly women don’t seem to sell in the US anime market. (We love us some girly men, though; see below!)

6) Kyou Kara Maou!

Once you’ve gotten through the anime above, you might want to try this one, which happens to be my all-time favorite. It’s often quirky and silly, yet it also deals with themes of prejudice and war. I think the real reason it appeals to me is that the main character has such strength and such a sense of honor and justice. He seems naive, but the truth is he makes an active choice to believe in people. And in this series, that approach to life has some amazing results.

So this show speaks to my eternal optimism :)

The basic premise is a Japanese high schooler named Yuuri (who happens to love baseball) gets flushed down a toilet (I told you it was silly) and into another dimension, where he is told that he’s the king of the demons.

There are some funny cultural things, like how they eat with sporks in the Demon Kingdom, and how hardly anyone has black eyes and black hair (this is cute because the opposite is true in Japan), and how when Yuuri first arrives one of the demons calls him a “foreigner”. What a role-reversal for a Japanese person!

By the way, demons in this series look like humans, only they are typically flashier, with more varied hair colors. There are other things about them that get revealed as the series goes on. But basically, the main difference between them and regular people is that they have natural magic from making a pact with the elements, while humans have to pray (to something undefined in the series) whenever they want to do magic. Human magic is weaker and contrived, which has caused resentment and fear between the two groups. Now the demons all live in their own country, and many of them despise humans as stupid, lesser beings.

The characters are great. My favorite after Yuuri is Adelbert–I can’t explain why without discussing his plot in detail, but suffice it to say he gets a lot of character development. Then there’s Conrad, who is simply fabulous.

One thing you have to understand is that this series is made to appeal to people who like looking at handsome/pretty men. There are many homosexual overtones. There also aren’t a whole lot of female characters, and most of the ones who do exist have really weird personalities. I think this is a lot of fun, but it might be off-putting to others.

Other than those, I definitely recommend Hikaru no Go (“sports” anime about playing the board game go), Initial D (“sports” anime about illegally street racing cars on twisting mountain roads), Vision of Escaflowne (fantasy in which a girl with prophetic powers is transported to a dimension where people fight inside giant robots), and The Prince of Tennis (an absolutely ridiculous “sports” genre anime about playing tennis, with extreme special effects. The characters are fabulous).


2. Let’s say you just won a tidy sum on a scratch-off ticket and you have two weeks of vacation time to burn. Where are you headed and what will you do/buy?

My answers to questions about what I would do with a million dollars always involve traveling around the world, experiencing as many different places as possible. (My way of experiencing places is usually going to restaurants, wandering the streets, going to performances like plays, operas, or classical music concerts, and visiting museums, by the way…I’m not much of a partier.)

If I only had two weeks and a few thou, though, there are a few places I’d consider.

First, Japan. I’ve been there twice already, but there is so much I have yet to see, and so many bloggers over there I want to meet. My next (non-theoretical) vacation will hopefully involve both.

Then there’s Wales. My dad’s side of the family, the Aubreys, descended from Wales, and I’ve always wanted to see it.

England, of course, because Brooke’s there. I considered visiting back when it was just David there, too, but I’m not an Anglophile or anything.

One thing I have really always wanted to do is take a road trip around the United States, and stop at all those weird tourist attractions along the interstates.

I’d also like to visit all my far-flung friends and family, but that would probably take longer than two weeks.

All of the above assume I have time to plan. If I don’t have time, I might very well chuck the majority of the money in savings, spend some nice time off at home (or perhaps in Kentucky visiting the immediate fam), and then run off to the beach. I’m not the type to “lay out”, but I love playing in the waves, and beach culture fascinates me. Plus seafood is damn good! So I could definitely see myself slipping away to Myrtle Beach or Savannah for a few days.


3. What is your dream profession? Is it really “a dream” or something you are aiming for as a life goal?

I like to joke that my dream profession is “rich man’s wife” ;) Basically, I want to be free to pursue my interests, so my dream job would involve doing that.

The closest thing I’ve found is the job I hold currently: web content manager. I get to find cool things to put on the web or link to, and design things. It’s diverse enough to keep my interest and it involves stuff I do in my free time anyway! Hell, I even take photos for the site sometimes.

But I’m always thinking about what I want to be doing. Part of me still dreams of living in Japan for a few years, so I keep my mind open to possibilities there.

I like the idea of owning my own business, but as my parents own their own and I know a few small business owners, I’m quite aware of the sheer amount of dedication it takes to get anywhere, and the costs involved. I don’t have any product or service that I feel excited enough about to give up my free time and financial security for.

I also like the idea of living off investments. I want to do more research into how I could achieve that, because then I would have plenty of time for travel and learning new things. But so far I haven’t done anything. ;P


4. You have come through a genuine life/health crisis victorious. What advice would you give to anyone facing real adversity like you have?

Be cheerful to everyone around you. Don’t be demanding. Focus on good things in your life. Be appreciative of people’s efforts on your behalf.

There may not be anyone around you who understands what you’re going through. But they’re trying. And this situation is not their fault.

If you’re negative all the time, they won’t want to be around you and will stop helping you, and loneliness is one of the hardest things when you’re already dealing with so much. Having people near you will help you stay positive.

That said, let yourself be angry. Cry. Express yourself when you need to. Let the emotions roll through you until you’re exhausted…and then move past them.

Dedicate yourself to something tangible. Work hard. I spent my time in the hospital learning web design. You never know how what you focus your attention on in the hard times might affect your future–now my career is all about the web.

That’s really it. All you can do is decide to beat it, whatever it is, and then do it. You have to somehow accept that you can’t control what’s happening. You can only endure. You can control your own reactions. You can decide to drive people away or draw them to you. You can keep moving forward in your life, or you can stop everything and feel sorry for yourself and accomplish nothing. No one can take those decisions away from you.

Merujo, the face you show to us on your blog is the face I tried to show. You are suffering, and you share that pain when it gets to the breaking point, but you come back later with a joke, and you keep moving forward. You’re not letting it beat you. It’s hard, especially with no end in sight…but you have to keep it up. You can win. And you will.


5. Chocolate: evil device of Satan or one of the best things in the world?

Whoa, okay, that’s a total 180 question :)

I would have to say: both. ;)

Seriously, at this point, I don’t find chocolate anywhere near as much of a threat to my health as I do the fast food I eat regularly for lunch and dinner. There was a time when I ate a candy bar every day, but I haven’t done that in a long time. I think chocolate is just like anything else in this world: good in moderation, bad if you let it control you.


Would you like to be interviewed? If you want me to send you a set of five questions to ponder and answer, follow the directions below:

1. Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me.” (And make sure I have your e-mail addy so I can zap you the questions!)

2. I will respond by e-mailing you five questions. I get to pick them, and you have to answer them all.

3. You will update your blog (or comment here if you don’t have a blog) with the answers to the questions.

4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.

5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.


If anybody else wants to interview me, use the comment form here to send me questions :) I’m all about stuff like this (as you well know).

Photos

Lots of photos have been uploaded, but I haven’t had the time to tell you about them. So here goes.

Shaker Village, Kentucky, April 15, 2007

Ben and Manda and I drove out to Shaker Village, as has become typical for us when I visit. Aside from the beautiful rolling hills, well-maintained buildings and fences, and farm animals, we also had the rare experience of seeing a whole herd of deer. There were something like eight or ten of them running around the grounds. Ben managed some close-up shots from behind a stone fence, starting here.

Family Farm, April 17, 2007

AJ and I headed up to the farm with Dad, where we met up with Grandma and Uncle Steve. AJ and Dad busied themselves with uprooting small trees using a car battery-powered motor and a rolling tripod of Dad’s design, while Uncle Steve mowed the grass and I walked the grounds and sat and chatted with Grandma. And took pictures, of course!

Around the time we were gathering on the porch for lunch, Uncle Steve found a tiny frog in the grass :)

Riverwalk at Lunch, April 26, 2007

I grabbed some Chick-fil-A and headed to Riverwalk for lunch this past Thursday. Instead of the usual St. Paul’s parking I went to the Marina parking just off the 5th Street bridge. Much nicer! You don’t have to walk down a bazillion steps. I may make a habit of parking there.

While I was sitting on a bench by the river eating my lunch, some pigeons with blue coloring were poking around the area nearby. I was surprised at how close they got to me.

Later, as I was taking pictures of a rose bush, a woman asked me if I was a photographer. :>

There are also some new photos in my Life > 2007 > April 2007 gallery, including Renfro Valley, hanging out with Ben and Manda and having a pizza roll, a trip to a furniture store with Mom and Connor, a beautiful mountain road in Jellico, Tennessee, the new nightstands I just put in our bedroom last night with Reid’s help, and the new layout of the living room, which is a mess, but much closer to what I want than it used to be.

And here’s the view from where I’m sitting as I write this post.

Just watched the worst episodes of Detective Conan ever

I mean, wow. They spent way too much time on the history lessons and the Momotaro legend. Then the murder was so sudden, and there was zero discussion of how she was killed, and the confession at the end just seemed trite.

I felt like the episodes were contracted by Okayama Prefecture to promote tourism. There was hardly any of the usual Conan goodness, and a whole bunch of slow, detailed scenes discussing historical locations and showing how beautiful the cities of Kibitsu and Kurashiki were. Sheesh.

So yeah. Eps 377 and 378? Not so much.

On the other hand, I now have another Japan location to add to my to-visit list ;P