A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.
When I was younger I never really imagined becoming a father. I was well-trained by my mother, who, having given birth to a nearly 11 pound me at age 19, encouraged her own children, on this one task, to be true procrastinators.
But a few years ago, when Hiromi and I got married, the idea no longer gave me nightmares. I had a rewarding early adulthood, with plenty of opportunity to do crazy and not-so-crazy things.
I went to college, and immersed myself in literature, politics, and examinations of a world beyond the comfortable boundaries of my mostly suburban and rural childhood. I studied in Germany. I traveled to Japan, Korea, England, Ireland, and China. I learned to jog, lost a lot of weight, hurt myself, and gained it back. I ate well. I developed some professional skills, and ran away from that world for a couple of years to try something risky and outside of my comfort zone. Then I came back to software, and was actually better at it the second time around, with less emotional investment in my achievements or professional status. I helped grow a strong, cohesive community of Japanese-speaking people in my little corner of the world. I had developed a relationship with a fantastic woman, who helped me grow in all sorts of ways and made me a far more interesting person. Having a child no longer seemed like some encumbrance on my enjoyment of life… it seemed like a natural step in the evolution of our lives together.
This year, we took that step.
Kojiro joined us at 1:21 pm on September 8, after Hiromi endured a solid 37 hours of labor. He started out slightly irritated, not pleased with having been summarily evicted from his comfortable home of the last 9 or 10 months.
But he quickly calmed down, and we were pleased that within minutes of life he proved to be an incredibly curious, contemplative, alert newborn. He was fascinated by everyone, unless they put him on the hospital bassinet, or on the scale, which irritated him immensely. He quickly learned that most of the time being in either spot would soon involve a collection of blood or injection of a hepatitis B vaccine or contact with some cold medical instrument. We’re fairly convinced he may never sleep peacefully in a crib again; he certainly hasn’t taken to it in the two months since his birth.
Hiromi’s been unable to sleep more than an hour or so straight since, well, September 5. Hiromi was rooting for our child to be born while her friend, an Ob/Gyn who grew up in the same neighborhood as her, was on a short visit to Seattle during Japan’s Silver Week holidays. Hiromi was convinced going to Bumbershoot together might speed things along.
If that’s true, it’s quite possible that we can credit standing out in the rain listening to Mary J. Blige on the last night of Bumbershoot with Hiromi’s friend with the timely arrival of our child. Not long after we got home that Monday night, Hiromi’s early labor started, and things progressed slowly but steadily thereafter, and she had not a moment’s comfort or rest until the big event.
Hiromi’s friend accompanied us to Swedish’s delivery suite, and my mother arrived just a few hours before Kojiro was born. He’s now a second-generation Swedish baby; I was born in the same hospital, in a different building, almost 37 years ago.
Two months in, we’re starting to settle in to a routine. Our son, however, has not. Maybe in a couple of decades, we’ll start to understand how this parenting thing is supposed to work, but in the meantime, we’re just improvising.
Sorry for my absence the last couple of weeks. Did you miss me?
I've been a bit distracted.
Certificate of Marriage
Hiromi and I have been quietly planning to marry in September in Japan... most of our friends and family have known about it for a while, though I haven't been shouting it from rooftops...
I guess it's time for that to change.
In the lobby of Seattle Municipal Courthouse
A little over five years ago, I met Hiromi in person for the first time while on business for Microsoft in Japan. We weren't really working together directly on anything at that time, but several people from the MSN Japan team went to lunch at Misato-ya in Chofu with me, and Hiromi may have been the person to suggest that we go to the popular organic vegetable teishoku restaurant whose korokke and unpredictable okazu I still crave. I'm pretty sure I spent all of lunch talking about food, cooking and ceramics, probably exhausting anyone who wasn't interested in my personal obsessions.
On another trip that year, Hiromi wasn't even in the office. She had been surprised by a brain tumor and was unable to work for a while while it was being treated.
Somehow Hiromi remembered me a couple years later when we started working on something together. It's rather embarrassing to admit now, but at first I wasn't entirely sure which Hiromi I was working with. There were two contractors named Hiromi on the team back then.
Anyway, I planned a little vacation to Japan after about a year without any business travel. Hiromi invited me to meet up with her on a trip I made to Japan in 2003. We had dinner together one night, and then went touring around Yokohama on another.
I owe my entire relationship with her to my clumsiness... While we were walking around in Yokohama, I nearly ran into a post in the middle of a shopping center, she grabbed my hand to pull me out of the way, and never let go. The wind and rain that day was furious, and a brief trip outside left us chilly and well-soaked. Our lives would be permanently intertwined that day, though I don't think either one of us really knew it then.
In Chambers with Judge Judith Hightower
I didn't really deserve her... I sent all sorts of mixed messages when we first started dating. I was conflicted about starting up a long distance relationship, as I'm sure she was. It took more than a year of trips back and forth before we removed all the ambiguity. Yet somehow she stuck with me.
Things evolved, and Hiromi decided to come to Seattle to take some classes so that we could get to know each other better. Somehow she didn't become bored of me. I don't know how I managed to keep her interested. I wasn't at my best. I was, as now, juggling a day job and my fledgling internet business, more exhausted than usual, and occasionally a bit depressed that I couldn't devote all my energies to that project. But we stayed together, and it became harder and harder for me to imagine my life without her.
We seriously started thinking about marriage, but neither of us was in great financial shape. She went back to Japan, after a little under a year in Seattle, so that she could start earning some money again. I started saving money while paying down some business debt.
At the time, it seemed like it was best to marry in Japan and arrange for the immigration paperwork there. Perhaps a bit sentimentally, we picked the anniversary of the day that I nearly walked into a pole in Yokohama, which coincidentally turned out to be a taian day this year, an auspicious day for a wedding.
Then immigration policies changed again, and we learned we wouldn't be able to start the process of bring Hiromi back to Seattle until after I would return to Seattle after our September wedding... And at first we were just resigned to a fate of things taking longer.
I had a little conversation with my attorney earlier in July to discuss our plans, and he said it was too bad we didn't just get married when Hiromi was still in town. If we weren't hung up on the date, he said, we might have been able to speed things up by starting the application process a bit earlier. I realized that she'd be in Seattle briefly after attending a dance workshop in California, and we started discussing having a simpler municipal wedding before our bigger family ceremony next month.
Well, that's what we did... perhaps a bit hurried... Hiromi's ring won't even be ready until just before I go to Japan, and we haven't figured out mine yet. The judge kindly provided symbolic rings for the ceremony.
There's still a long way to go before we're really together, but now the end of our long time living apart is finally in view.
Ron Mamiya, the presiding judge of Seattle's Municipal Court, had requested to do our ceremony because he shares Hiromi's family name, but Hiromi's tight schedule meant she'd be gone before he returned from his own vacation. Instead, the Honorable Judith Hightower took care of our ceremony in her chambers. She kindly indulged us taking lots of photos, actively encouraging the two camera-wielding witnesses to move about the room for the best possible angles. She even took a few shots of our group together.
Hiromi's former manager Tsuneo, a couple of layers removed, attended at Hiromi's request as a witness. Our friends Jennifer, Hal and Noriko also attended.
After the ceremony, on the steps of the courthouse
Unfortunately, this was also one of the briefest trips Hiromi's ever made to Seattle, and we didn't really have a lot of time to enjoy each other's company after the wedding. We had a little dinner with Jennifer and we came home early in the evening. We only had one night before I had to take Hiromi to the airport.
This was the most painful trip to the airport I've ever made.
I don't remember us posing for this
Fortunately, I'll be in Japan again in just over a month. There's still a lot of planning to do, and I'm not sure how we'll get everything all done by then, but I'm sure we'll figure things out.
Just before dinner
I was surprised at how much this small ceremony changed the way I look at Hiromi. I was completely inarticulate on our way outside the courthouse afterward, but a thousand thoughts were racing around my head. Even at my worst, most selfish moments, I haven't been able to imagine my life without Hiromi for a long time, but everything became so real to me all at once. I was more than a little overwhelmed... after going to the airport yesterday, I was completely useless for the rest of the day.
Hillel of Tasting Menu has issued a bit of a challenge to himself to elevate the average quality of U.S. dining experiences. It's a frustration I share... I know a few places in Seattle that make me very happy, but most of them are out of the reach of everyday dining prices, and it's incredibly hard to find things that do a few simple things very well, and make me want to go out of my way to get a modest lunch or dinner there.
In Japan, countless television shows will obsessively document what it takes to make the most perfect omelet, which soba places do the best job of making buckwheat noodles (a fundamentally simple, but deceptively challenging task), or which ryokan is best taking advantage of their local ingredients. In the U.S., the closest thing we have to that mentality on TV is Alton Brown, and maybe Cook's Illustrated in print. In Japan, it's pervasive.
In the U.S., we are more excited by drama than by perfection. That's why people like Emeril, unfamiliar towers of incongruous ingredients at trendy fusion restaurants, and big fat California rolls. In Japan, more often than in the U.S., the pursuit of perfection is the drama.
In my first few years cooking regularly, during college, I followed a predictably American pattern of rebelling against bland foods from my childhood and I overseasoned absolutely everything. It was an improvement over what I had eaten before, but it's not necessarily worthy of much praise. After 8 years of regular visits to Japan, I increasingly strive for minimalism, trying to find ingredients that do most of the hard work simply by being wonderful and fresh.
Often enough, when I give an example of this, it's something as simple as a blanched spinach dish with a little freshly grated ginger and a splash of good quality Japanese soy sauce. When I explain it, it doesn't sound interesting, but when it's done right, it's easy to understand its simple poetry.
To elevate the U.S. dining scene, we have to give appropriate due to small places with short menus that get the food right, and take what they are producing very seriously. I can point out a few examples in Seattle, but mostly in a liquid context: Vivace and Victrola coffee, Sambar's signature cocktails that often feature house-squeezed juices and purees, tea at Floating Leaves.
Every Japanese restaurant in Seattle seems to feel obligated to offer sushi, tempura, donburi, and an assortment of over-sized side dishes, all in the same place. Nobody does just ramen, just okonomiyaki, just soba, just kushiyaki, or just udon. It seems like there's some sort of unwritten law that, even if you've hired 3 decent sushi chefs at $80,000/year each and contracted with a first-class interior designer, the restaurant has to devolve into some sort of family restaurant style of having something mediocre for everybody.
And I can pick on most cuisines in this regard: we torture Italian food the same way, not to mention Thai, Mexican, and others. If I'm in Japan, I don't think "I want to go to a Japanese restaurant," I think "I want to go to an izakaya", "I'd like some good soba", or "I'd like to have a teishoku lunch at that little vegetable shop near the office for lunch."
We need to reward the places that are obsessive about getting details right, from perfectly cooked pasta sauced with just the right amount of liquid, to serving just the amount of food that makes you wish you had just a little more, rather than making you feel guilty that you don't want to take the inedible leftovers home. Japan does have a certain level of uniform expectations that means there's far less variation in what's considered "perfect", and the benefit of generally high population density, but in the U.S. we usually have lower rents and more tolerance for idiosyncrasy, so the restaurants can be more maverick-like if they build a passionate audience.
Japanese cooking shows typically show professional cooks as careful, serious, diligent and avoiding wasted motion, respectfully repeating orders and executing them, and the guests are the ones who get all excited. In the U.S. the same kinds of shows have clanging pots, chaotically moving employees trying to avoid bumping into each other, kitchen staff telling jokes of questionable taste, and often haphazardly tossing food onto plates, often portraying the dining room is an ocean of calm customers. We want our celebrity chefs to be exciting; Japanese would rather the food and the guests do the talking.
Restaurants also have to get better at telling their own stories, explaining why they don't have 300 menu choices and why they serve their zarusoba with just a little bit of dipping sauce and a few pickles. The story-telling is part of what makes unconventional restaurants succeed in the U.S.; they have to teach their guests to do their marketing.
We can improve the taste of average restaurants by expecting better... When one place starts making the perfect taco, stop spending so much money at the big-as-your-head burrito place. More realistically, I imagine we will have to take more incremental steps, since we might be trapped in a part of town where we don't have better lunch options... So I'll give more money to places that make me happier, even if they aren't flawless.
And hopefully the occasional web rant or rave will help people find better food, so I'll spend some time writing about the good stuff...
I usually eschew political monologue here since it is so rarely relevant to my post-Microsoft life as an importer, food aficionado, and struggling business owner. In college, I wore my progressive and occasionally radical politics on my sleeve, but I’ve mellowed out considerably over the years, even if I maintain a relatively similar belief system. I promise I’m not going to turn into my relatively unread blog into a political soap-box, but I do have something I must gently rant about.
I have been increasingly frustrated by the thinly veiled anti-Arab, xenophobic reaction to the news that Dubai Ports World is buying out another foreign company that manages terminals at a half dozen ports around the U.S. With a few exceptions, progressives, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, have responded in a completely reprehensible, opportunistic fashion. At the same time, the administration’s own handling of the eruption of controversy is also laughable, with the “we didn’t know anything about it, but really it’s fine with us” performance worthy of a cameo appearance by John Kerry.
The hostility toward this deal is full of opportunistic misunderstanding about how ports work, and the fuel for this uproar is equivalently opportunistic hostility and fear of Arabs and the Muslim world. Why react intelligently when you can create a fire-storm?
This is not about ceding U.S. control of our ports infrastructure to foreign companies, as Dubai Ports World has only gained control of a lease allowing them to operate terminals at US ports. This gives them the power to hire US labor to do such low-margin work as unloading shipping containers, and passing paperwork from one company to another. For their efforts, they will have the power to repeatedly touch high volumes of money that produce very low margins. Only an Arab buy-out of a municipal bond hedge fund could possibly be more uninteresting.
The way ports work is not a big secret; thanks to British trade practices dating back hundreds of years, almost every port in the world relies on the same tedious paperwork with un-memorable acronyms designed to squarely clarify title and liability for every piece of cargo and every set of hands that might touch it. The operational side is pretty much the same worldwide, except for variations in things like union-negotiated restrictions on which job description is allowed to do what kind of work. “The terrorists” aren’t going to gain substantially more insight into our security weaknesses than they could by working at a any port closer to home for a few weeks.
Security is still firmly the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard (for seaports) and the TSA (for airports), in addition to other agencies such as local police forces and local port authorities. The terminal managers are usually only responsible for securing their own facilities, an interest which all for-profit enterprises share; Dubai World Ports is no more interested in allowing terrorists to rifle through its paperwork or sneak into its warehouse facilities than any other company.
The United Arab Emirates port of Dubai is the only Arab port participating in the innovative Container Security Initiative, which improves container security by stationing U.S. customs personnel at the port of origin, enabling risk assessment and security inspections as early in the supply chain as possible. Aside from the obvious benefit of early detection, this expedites cargo release on the U.S. side, since Customs merely needs to be satisfied that the freight containers have an intact seal before releasing cargo to the consignees.
UAE also subscribes to maritime security treaties and has a solid record of cooperation. The US Navy trusts the maritime infrastructure enough to regularly dock and service its ships at Jebel Ali, all managed by Dubai Ports Authority, closely tied to Dubai Ports World.
By buying the U.K. company which previously held these port leases and various small offices around the United States, DPW is tying its success to the future of U.S. trade. This is a textbook example of how the U.S. could improve relations with the Arab world through constructive engagement. Aside from this, Dubai Ports World’s executive staff is as multinational as any other conglomerate. Their (soon-to-retire) Chief Operating Officer is an American, their Head of Business Development and commercial business unit’s Senior Vice President, and their Chief Counsel are all American. Most of their other executives are Indian or European. Although executives are replaceable, the current management’s success is clearly not tied to an Islamist extremist future.
Some people complain that DPW is state-owned, but UAE’s government is also no friend of Islamic terrorists; they do have some human rights problems that merit concern, but this is not particularly relevant to the security of U.S. ports. Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines can be accused of the same, and they lease a terminal in Oakland, CA; a number of Chinese state-funded enterprises lease terminals and smaller facilities at ports around the U.S. The only reason why DPW would merit special consideration is the fact that they are based in an Arab country, and the only justification for such concern is racist or anti-Islamic fear.
The security of ports in the United States is not going to be determined by the country in which the corporate parent of the shipping and logistics vendors operating in our terminals is based. It’s going to depend on the quality of the people working at those facilities, most of which are meagerly paid U.S. citizens, Hispanic immigrants, and so on, much like any number of other foreign companies operating in the United States.
Additionally, security is going to depend on the amount of resources available for inspecting incoming cargo, the biggest hole in the equation. This is about a $2 billion dollar problem, with 9–10 million containers entering the United States each year. If customs had 30,000 people whose full time job was to inspect every container that came in to this country, it would cost $1.4–2.0 billion, assuming a roughly $50–65,000 average annual cost per employee. This would add about $250 to the cost of every shipping container. That’s a lot of money from an importer’s perspective (our margins are thin, too) and I certainly would like to avoid having to pay for it, but it would do far more than disallowing companies that come from parts of the world that scare us to handle stevedoring and paperwork.
The concerns about foreign control of U.S. shipping operations are also completely misplaced. The reason why some 80% of U.S. shipping terminals are operated by foreign companies is that most U.S. companies aren’t interested in that kind of low-margin money. Imagine trying to wow shareholders of a public company with single digit profit margins, even in good years with double-digit revenue growth, as DPW has achieved through strategic acquisitions. At the same time, you have high operating costs, rapidly depreciating, expensive fixed assets (airplanes, empty containers and ships) and completely virtual strategic assets (leases and contracts).
What does that get you? A reliable source of modest income. For companies from developing countries, or countries without a lot strength in intellectual-property driven enterprise, that’s potentially compelling. But for anyone else, you could buy a mutual fund and get the same thing without all the headaches.
The Girl Who Ate Everything has a bit of a homework assignment to explain food blogging. I started writing a short comment, but it kept growing, even though I don’t think I have the “answer.” Because I seemed a little too verbose, I thought my thoughts would work better as a blog entry than as a comment.
For those who don’t know already, Pursuing My Passions is not, strictly speaking, a food blog, but food is one of the things I’m most passionate about. I cook fairly obsessively, and my business was founded in part because of how much I enjoy food browsing in Japanese department stores.
My food obsessions started fomenting when I was quite young, as I began cooking for myself, to a limited extent, as a child. By the time I was about 7 years old, I had some basic microwave oven and frypan skills, and in my pre-teen years I played with Bisquick and perused the Joy of Cooking. During my final semester in college, before looking at my student loan bills, I briefly entertained the idea of going to graduate school to study the role of food in revolutionary movements and peasant rebellions. (At the time I also wore my political stripes very loudly).
I'm not sure blogs are reactions against glossy idyllic portrayals of food, considering how much culinary celebrity worship goes on in blogging contexts, and how happily food bloggers devour "food porn."
Blogs do let relatively ordinary people connect their culinary experiences with other people who share similar passions. It may be hard to share my food obsessions with my friends in the same way I can do in a blog; many of my friends are happy to indulge along with me when I'm cooking, but are mildly amused by my ability to steer any conversation toward food topics. Online, people self-select when they want to participate in that conversation, so they are at least as interested in food as me, at least for a moment.
Blogging is, however, a kind of democratization of "cuisine." Without a “target market", unlike a food magazine or TV show, bloggers can, comfortably and without shame or bashfulness, rapidly shift focus between homemade haute cuisine and humble, lowbrow daily fare. Unless they want to, bloggers don’t have to make pretentions of healthfulness or authenticity, and they don’t have to promise easy results in 30 minutes or that your neighbors will be impressed by all the work you’ve done if you just follow some lovely focus-group tested recipes. They just have to celebrate food in an endearing way.
Instead of a traditional media priesthood of good taste (ahem), food blogging is more like a potluck. We might occasionally try to impress each other, but blogging is more about sharing the joy of little discoveries, minor food tragedies, and culinary triumphs. And sometimes guilt, giddiness or discontent.
The thing that makes blogging more real than a magazine, cookbook or TV series is the lack of editors and producers who needs to balance the interests of advertisers, the fickleness of their audiences, and the egos of their writers or hosts. We’re relatively content regardless of who shows up to the party.
As food bloggers, each one of us can wear many hats… restaurant reviewer, chef, event planner, food diarist, food stylist, cooking class instructor, co-conspirator… for most of us, our ability to shift between these roles wouldn’t be possible in other contexts.
Blogging has a low barrier to entry, but fairly powerful network effects… I once saw photos someone in Holland and someone else in Malaysia had taken after making a variation of a cookie recipe I had originally posted on my blog. Similarly, I’ve been inspired by flavor combinations I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about from people blogging around the world. That kind of global influence, even on a small scale, is just incredible to think about. I’m not likely not get my 15 minutes of fame by posting an occasional article online, but this ability to reach other people, and learn from each other, is really appealing.
A certain level of burnout with my job at Microsoft made me loath, or at least unmotivated, to seriously consider moving around within the company as my situation became more frustrating. It just wasn’t what I wanted.
I did spend some time looking around at similar jobs both inside and outside the company, and I tried to keep my mind open to staying, because, as I had long realized, I would need more money to realize most of my other ambitions, and it was a very lucrative way to collect savings toward that end. An alternately charming and sleazy career consultant told me the same when I confided in him that I was looking for something very different than I was doing.
Four of my long vacation trips to Japan during my Microsoft career coincided with professional crises. The first one, my first actual vacation as a Microsoft employee, wasn’t really planned to occur under such circumstances; a power struggle between two managers placed me in a frustrating position, and I had a long-planned vacation that my manager didn’t tell my new manager about, departing only a few days before I was being acquired by the new team in some sort of deal between them.
It was an awkward position to be in, but my new manager considered the information omission an error on the part of of my old manager and asked me to take my vacation as planned. During that trip, I was full of torn loyalties, feelings of disappointment, and apprehension. But my vacation, which was an incredible first experience in Japan, and my first trip outside of North America after my exchange program to Germany, gave me a lot of time to think about my future. It actually was the catalyst for a fledgling addiction to collecting contemporary Japanese ceramics, and expanded my culinary consciousness incalculably.
Over the next 6 years, my other three long vacations were very similar, although both of those vacations I took because I was frustrated at work, and wanted a distraction. It turned out that vacations were quite therapeutic, and even my short few extra days here and there that I got on business trips to Japan or elsewhere were extraordinarily refreshing.
I had the time to stop and take pleasures in basic human needs… good food, interaction with people, conscious moments of relative tranquility.
Strangely, it took me over a year to go on such a vacation again after my career frustrations began to mount. Before that, I spent more time than was probably healthy essentially fantasizing about alternative careers.
I felt really frustrated, and I had some self-destructive impulses… I thought about just walking off from my job without notice and burning some bridges, much like one of my employees did (the same forces that led me to consider leaving hit him harder, since I was deflecting some of them until he was moved under a different lead, and was used to certain kinds of irritation that were less tolerable for him). I had a few short-lived relationships where I was essentially completely emotionally unavailable and surely a source of other kinds of frustration for the women I was seeing.
I took refuge in my obsessions… I cooked a lot of elaborate meals for friends and acquaintances, refining some of my cooking skills. I spent a lot of time in pottery classes, considering early on the possibility that I might import some ceramics, and I thought it would be smart to have some first-hand understanding. Those pottery classes were also suitably humbling, as I did not have a natural talent and I sent a lot of clay flying. I also spent some taking Korean classes, remembering a college-era ambition of learning at least seven languages in my lifetime.
Early on, I started thinking about projects that I could indulge in with great passion, with some prospect for financial reward. I considered some restaurant projects, a small retail shop, and a more wholesale-focused import business.
In Part III, I’ll talk about how I evaluated the potential of these projects.
When I started planning my exit strategy for Microsoft, I thought intensely about what I value and what I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime.
I never thought it likely that I’d have just one career over the course of my life. I thought that I would have at least a good 50 years of a work life, and it seemed an awfully long time to focus on one single thing. Although I truly admire the mastery of a specialty that comes from a lifetime of dedication to one specific field, I have too many interests to be satisfied with one narrow domain. I figured I had three to seven careers in me.
As a child, I had the good fortune to have early exposure to personal computers when that was still a relatively rare thing, and I had an innate curiosity that led me to explore my machine, and eventually others, in obsessive detail. For some reason I didn’t really develop a passion for writing code, although I had an early modest level of competence in that regard, but I still liked probing the machine, and had a great passion for the machine as a tool. By the time I went off to college, I had no interest in studying science, which probably would have shocked anyone with whom I attended elementary school or most of junior high school. My intellectual interests had all shifted to the dynamics of human interaction, the power of communication, the human balance of power, the nature of authority, and the forces that shape culture.
This set me off in myriad different directions. I had established a literary magazine in high school, and by the time I set off to college, I thought that my future was in the media, in radio, television or newspaper work or some other publishing outlet. My university experience, though, opened my eyes to so many other forms of expression, and, although I briefly worked at a newspaper as assistant editor after my German exchange program, my imagination of my future became less specific, more hazy. The longer I was in college, the more time I had to ask questions, the less clear my vision of what I wanted to be when I grew up became.
Whenever I summarize my college career to someone who doesn’t know me very well, the gaps sound incredibly shocking: I began as a literature major and a Media Fellow, became irritatingly politically active, planned an exchange program to Germany, spent too much time on the internet, switched my major to East Asian studies, studied in Germany and began cooking obsessively, worked at an Asian American newspaper, and graduated after an intensely compressed final semester.
These were mostly natural, easily explainable progressions, and generally traceable to long-existing interests catalyzed by the benefit of the open, dynamic environment of a liberal arts college. I was never a specialist in only one thing. I was not a generalist, either; I just had a lot of interests. I maintained an ambition of somehow fusing all of my interests into a career, but I knew I’d be happy to do something that allowed me to pursue at least a few of my interests.
When I got my job at Microsoft, I was happy that my background with German and Japanese language, studies of Asia in general, and addiction to internet technologies and new media all coalesced into skills deemed valuable for software internationalization testing. As with any career, I suppose, I alternated between excitement, boredom and frustration, but I knew early on that it wasn’t going to be my gig forever. I anticipated about 5 years there… and in fact, it was about the 5 year point when things started shifted rapidly into complete dissatisfaction with my job.
I thought about what I was most interested in outside of my work; after all, I made a career in software out of a hobby, and I didn’t think it unreasonable to explore the potential of building a new career out of my avocations. The things I invested most of my energy in outside of work were related to food (eating and cooking well), travel (primarily to Japan), and collecting ceramics and crafts (mostly from Japan, occasionally from Korea). I thought about a few ways of indulging these pursuits in a manner that could be self-sustaining.
I drafted some business plans for restaurants, since I am an obsessive cook and I’ve long imagined opening a little restaurant. I also thought about building a little ceramics shop, as well. I also even thought about planning culinary tours. I realized most of these ventures required more resources just to get started than I had available, as I was never clever enough to exercise my stock options when they were at their most valuable. So I thought smaller…
I wanted to make sure that I really was working on something I could be passionate about, so I started looking at ways of integrating food, travel, my creative impulses, and my interest in ceramics. I started to look at my options…
In Part II, I’ll focus on what went through my mind as I considered my options.
If polling on the reason people voted as they did yesterday is accurate and this election was about moral values, I'm a little curious why active deception and hostile, aggressive behavior were not considered as horrifying an affront to moral values to the red states as, for example, being pro-choice. Bush's morality is far from unassailable, and yet somehow he was given a free pass to own moral values as an issue.
I was not a particularly enthusiastic a supporter of John Kerry, since he never truly articulated a vision for the future. I think this was his undoing, and not any question about his morality. He never successfully articulated a position on the Iraq war rooted in a discussion of values. When he was talking about jobs, he appealed to individual self-interest rather than to humanity and compassion.
The religious left once owned the issue of morality in American politics, the influence apparent from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Martin Luther King, Jr. Even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, for all their weaknesses, always spoke from a foundation of values. The ability for a caricature of morality to dominate the discussion of values points to a failure of the left to speak to people at a human level.
We are not a people unable to see the morality in compassion, truth, and humanity. But in the absence of an articulation of a message built on these, the best of American values, a fetishized morality assembled from token kneejerk issues like abortion, gay marriage, and ambiguous references to "traditional values" will do. I think that it is reasonable for people to expect their politicians to speak to values, although I certainly don't want a religious group to wield all the power over the moral compass of the nation.
The future of progressive thought will be closely tied to the ability of reformers to speak to the values that are our strengths. Threats of hellfire are frightening and effective tools of the religious right. But they are no match for the strength of a positive vision articulated by someone with a unironic approach to the imperative to love thy neighbor.
John Edwards had some potential to accomplish this, but he was overshadowed by the muddled message of the Kerry campaign. The Kerry campaign offered the promise "hope" but did little to build it; all of the hope was assumed, based on the momentum that came from frustration with the situation in Iraq, the casualty of truth, the Bush antipathy to reality. The promise of hope came mostly from faded memory of the election primaries, the voices of Howard Dean and John Edwards.
Hope is precious, but needs to be nurtured. The Kerry campaign was never successful at that. The volunteers were hopeful, but it was a hope that something better than Bush would emerge.
A few articles I've seen have suggested that the re-election of Bush will force the administration to clean up its own mess. It will be at a very painful cost, for now and for a few generations, and I doubt the cleanup will happen in the blissful unawareness the Bush administration seems to have of its disasters. Four years from now, if we have made a clean transition from Iraq and haven't created new disasters, I'll be very surprised.
I am not a religious person, and perhaps this makes me part of the progressive vision problem. But I hope progressives will be able to communicate a vision that shows a positive, coherent alternative to radically isolationist Christianity.