September 29, 2010

Muse in the Mojave

Lately, I have been freaking out about everything.

Brandon Flowers's album, "Flamingo" lets listeners escape in the Mojave Desert
I mean, between the (prospect of a) job search, the university applications and the gross amount of free time, I have lots to worry about--and lots of time to do it.

In the thick of my personal discovery mission, I find an escape in music. If you thought I was obsessed with John Mayer, get ready for this.The Killers are my ultimate band: indie rock with synthesizers and a quirky-cute lead singer.

The Killers seem to know when I need a little music therapy. Their last album, "Day and Age" was released shortly after I returned from Austria. I don't think I listened to anything else that semester.

Now that I'm writing phrases like "vice of introspection" and other emo metaphors, the lead singer of the Killers has conveniently released his first solo album: "Flamingo". I may not be a music aficionado, but my weary soul is pleased by a good melody.

Brandon Flowers--the lead singer of the Killers wrote a collection of songs as a tribute to his homeland, the desert southwest. It's been said that The Killers' first album was often mistaken for a British band, and in response, the band has focused on representing Las Vegas through their music. Flowers' attempt is very literal: each song on "Flamingo" tells a story about his childhood. He was born near Las Vegas, grew up Mormon in Utah, and eventually returned to Las Vegas to begin a music career.

Behind Flowers's storytelling, the steel guitars paint the arid landscape at dawn. As the castanents ripple through the bright verses, cymbals accent the beat and maracas add a touch of Mexico. Driving beats and a voice best described as a "cannonball" fuel the tracks' emotional journey through the big three: faith, hope and love.

I'm enjoying the musical escape into Flowers's Southwest, rolling down desert highways, making lots of gambling references, and remembering the good old days (that never were).

Yep--sounds a lot better than job searching. Maybe I should road trip.

September 24, 2010

A little less talk, a lot more coffee

What is it about coffee?

It is more than a hot drink. It's a culture with an international following. It's good for breakfast and for thinking. At home, at the office, or--dare I say it--in the coffee shop, coffee is an essential part of those who drink it.

I don't think coffee's appeal comes from the taste. Certainly boiling water poured through roasted, bitter, ground up beans sounds less than delicious. The aroma of fresh coffee is much better than the taste, but we don't just smell it. We drink the stuff. For many people, the caffeine in coffee is the most important part of the morning. I admit that I'm not really myself until cup number two is halfway gone.

But it's not just a drink--it's also something to do. Going for coffee is a great excuse to meet friends, get to know a stranger, or take someone from friend (or stranger) to something more. "Let's go for coffee". It's one of those troublesome and noncommittal suggestions. It's a step up from Facebook-friending someone, but not quite an invitation for dirty martinis in a bar with mood-lighting. The trouble with going on a "coffee date"--no matter the ratio of coffee to date--is the surge of caffiene. Any existing jitters magnify into distracting twitches. It's the inverse of alcohol: instead of sleepy and relaxed, coffee makes you feel deer-in-the-headlights awake. You might just jump onto the hood of a car by accident--a real buzzkill. That's why you should stick with decaf if you haven't eaten or if you have any intention of persuing a real relationship. Until the phrase "That's the coffee talking" becomes an acceptable excuse for trash-talking or ridiculous bouts of laughter, after sunset, I'm sticking to one cup.

Ready to run and two reasons to stay

Last night I googled "Teaching English Abroad".

Feeling the return of flight risk, I browsed teaching positions in Korea, China and Croatia. I tried to remember the gut feeling I got from selecting "Cambodia" from drop-down menus, but I couldn't find it.

Unable to feel real excitement (or blind trust) this time, I shut Baby Top and turned off the light.

This morning, I was determined to see America with fresh eyes. Here are my two things I love about living in Lincoln.

1. Driving my own car. Having reliable transportation at any hour is freedom. In Nebraska, parking is rarely an issue (except Husker game day...don't get me started). My Mitsubishi is more convenient than the Strassenbahn in Austria, less crowded than the JR train in Tokyo, and infinitely safer than the motos of Phnom Penh.

2. Grocery stores. American grocery stores should be the model for the world. First, a giant cart to load with food for the next week, month or year. Second, thousands of food choices displayed on pristine shelves. Third, and most importantly, checkstands big enough to hold $500 in Doritos, and someone getting paid to put my groceries into Earth-destroying plastic bags. Austria had a good selection of goods, but the checkstands were built for a maximum of four items, and the poor guy who forgets his own shopping bag will be tarred and feathered on the spot. Obviously I have rich memories from study abroad. Japan's stores are similar to Austria, except everything is written in impossible Japanese. What am I getting here? Is this fish or chocolate? Cambodia has Lucky Supermarket, but that's so boring. Let's talk about the markets: claustrophobes, beware. No pristine shelving here--just buckets of fruit, tables of veggies, stacks of fresh meat slabs, and live eel in a tub. Although I constantly worrying about stepping on chickens or low-hanging meat shanks, I never once worried about a shopping bag.

For now, I'm living in Lincoln. I love my car and my groceries. I can't guaruntee that my wandering days are over; in fact, I think they are just beginning, but I'll enjoy home while I've got it.

September 23, 2010

Cookies, Jobs and Wisdom

My 10-year-old brother is a constant reminder that it's all relative.

"They aren't that bad," he reassured me, "I mean, I'm not gagging or anything." My oatmeal cookies had met the only basic requirement of food--not stimulating the gag reflex. Nevermind that I had him in mind when I substituted chocolate chips for raisons. And nevermind that I have told him a few times about the social convention of praising (or at least not insulting) the food that others make, even if you don't like it.

"You don't have to say that it's your favorite, and you don't have to get seconds, but it is polite to show appreciation of the effort." I said, wondering when I learned to do this.

My brother takes the same approach to my job hunt. He makes valid suggestions about finding hourly work as a cashier at a grocery store or Target. When I express my lack of interest, I am reminded of the oatmeal cookies. Cashiering isn't that bad, I mean, I'm not gagging...

But the real question is why have runny oatmeal cookies when you can have coffee and a slab of licorice?

September 22, 2010

Getting What You Really Want

In my abundant spare time, I have taken to crochet and motivational books.

Crochet I have yet to master, but reading--that I can do for sure.

The books I find at Gere Library (that's Charles H., not Richard) are usually written for women who are tired of their lackluster careers, getting run over by pushy colleagues and generally people who are ready to stick it to the man.

The women who write these books have found successful methods to getting everything they ever wanted--or so it seems. They offer suggestions for how to manipulate people courteously, how to sabotage colleagues discretely, and how to charm your way out of uncomfortable situations. Basically, how to be a backstabbing bitch and still have a great job and friends (or at least people willing to serve your personal fabulousness).

Anyway, I'm into it.

The advice in such books seems reasonable. For instance, if I don't know how I am going to get my dream job, I should imagine how someone else (a celebrity or someone you admire) might get the job. This technique is supposed to inspire creative thinking and bold action.

I ask myself: What would Lady Gaga do?

1. Crochet a glittery body suit
2. Add a face covering and a wig
3. Finish my resume with a lipstick kiss
4. Write a song demanding the job
5. Sing my song atop the manager's desk

If all this works out, I may not get the job, but I will have a Grammy Award and my picture on the worst-dressed list. I might even get arrested.

September 20, 2010

Becoming the Cambodian Adventure Lady

Everywhere you go, there you are.
Cambodian Adventure Lady in Kratie, Cambodia

It's an old adage, a cliché, and one of the most wonderful and horrible facts of life. Horrible because the only thing you can never outrun is yourself, but wonderful for exactly the same reason.

I went to Cambodia to become someone else. I was going to break out of my textbooks and apathetic college student community to do something totally different. I was going to volunteer in Cambodia. I don't really know who I wanted to become, but whoever she was didn't materialize as I stepped off the plane in Phnom Penh. It was me sitting there anxiously filling out the customs form wondering why I had signed up for this and how I was going to survive.

There I was, with my suitcase and backpack in the thick of Cambodian midnight, waiting for a sea change in myself.

I waited and waited, but it was still just me. As I began to adapt to the surroundings, or perhaps just get lazier, I stopped wearing make-up. I started taking naps and wearing my hair in tight ponytails. I wanted so badly to be an ex-pat, to find my calling in a new culture. I was embarrassed to be homesick for the Great Plains and people with blond hair.

I had wanted to be the Cambodian Adventure Lady for at least a year before I left Nebraska, but once in Cambodia, I had no idea what to do. I was finally living the dream, and it was not quite what I expected. I thought it would be grass huts, hippies and hardship; not city smog and ice cream treats. This was supposed to be my chance to transform, to find myself anew. I found myself, instead, being very much my old self, just much sweatier.

I think we all find ourselves in this position--in the vice of introspection, hoping to unlock the mystery of life's purpose. Everywhere you go, there you are. That bothersome phrase again. I go all the way to Cambodia and the same stuff still bothers me. I'm still tall and awkward; in fact, now I'm a side show among petite, dark-haired people. I'm still unsure of what I want to with my life, and I still want yogurt for breakfast. Not exactly a complete rebirth.

Same old me, different visa.

This trend of my generation to travel the world, through backpacking or as English teachers, has created a new sense of loss in all of us. Who are we? Where do we belong? What are we looking for in these faraway lands?

When I got off the plane, part of me was hoping that I would become my inner Cambodian, or at least my inner fearless world traveler. I didn't.

I remained Jena--though I prefer to think of myself as the Cambodian Adventure Lady. I may not have solved any of life's mysteries in Cambodia, but I met people who showed me how wonderful life can be even if you only have the basics. I learned that education is our most valuable resource, and that free speech is never guaranteed. I found hope for a better world and the desire to help create it. No, I didn't change into someone else or meld into a new culture. I am the same person who dreamed of giving back through volunteering, and now I have the opportunity to use what I know to continue improving the world.
Everywhere you go, there you are.

September 18, 2010

And I'd do it all over again.

I've got a pile of thank-you notes and the feeling that I did something good today.

Today I did a short presentation about Cambodia for my brother's fifth grade class. I showed them several photos from Cambodia--some photos of CWF school, some of my students, and even one of a fried tarantula being eaten.

The students were curious about this country where kids only go to school in the morning, and where Lucky Burger reigns supreme. I was delighted to recall memories from my adventure, and I was happy to share with kids who might never have thought about Cambodia before.

They say hindsight is twenty-twenty, but it's also rose-colored. The discomforts of Cambodia have already faded from my stories, and I am left remembering a time when I was living the life I dreamed about. A life I still dream about, even though I understand the hardships and sacrifices.

I believe that, in some parallel universe, I am still in Cambodia. I've found a fabulous job teaching writing in a school that pays me well and supports a local cause. But that's a parallel universe. This is Nebraska.

Today is the first day that I can say "...and I'd do it all over again" without reservation. Today I realized that going to Cambodia was important. I went to Cambodia, I learned more about the world, and today, I got to stoke the imaginations of young people. Maybe one day one of Sam's friends will decide to study abroad or volunteer.

September 12, 2010

A Hammer and a Heart of Glass

A few days ago, I read that John Mayer had "sworn off" women. You may recall him as my other boyfriend; a man whose music is like a blowtorch to the creme brulee of my heart.
According to the story, he is spending his nights home with a new love--the iPad.

I guess it's better than Jessica Simpson, but still. An iPad? How am I supposed to compete with a streamlined, all-in-one entertainment supergadget? I once tinkered with a iPad at the Apple store in Ginza (that's in Tokyo!). It was an attractive plaything, especially the piano app.

It's just hard because I have been on-again-off-again with John Mayer since Room for Squares. I remember rediscovering that CD, buried among Spice Girls and Bryan Adams, sometime in the Winter of 2007. "Your Body is a Wonderland" still makes me blush for no good reason. As I prepared to leave on my study abroad in Austria, I bought two more albums to keep me company.

John was my dinner date the first weekend in Graz. I had no TV, no internet, and no friends.

I remember falling asleep in my apartment on Froebelgasse to "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" and "In Repair."

I remember playing "Clarity" on repeat on the train from Vienna after Takeshi's dad died.

His latest album, Battle Studies, is my favorite yet. It's about the painful inability to compromise between single and taken. Sometimes he takes the words right out of my mouth--or at least I wish I were articulate (or close!) enough for him to do that. He's like a halfway-motivational speaker in my iPod--he makes the imperfect relationship sound so romantic.

The point is, it's Sunday afternoon, I've got chili on the stove, bran muffins in the oven and my real boyfriend lives in Belgium. I don't have an iPad, but I've got John Mayer playing, and doggonit, that's good enough for now.

September 3, 2010

Intuition vs. Lil Red

I just clicked submit on my first graduate school application.

No one is as shocked as I am that this application is to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I think I would have been less shocked to find myself in the middle of Tajikistan--or at least Salt Lake City. And few would have guessed that I, Jena who once poo-pooed all things business, applied to a program including "Marketing" in the title.

I applied to the UNL Communication Studies department for a MA specializing in Marketing, Communication Studies and Advertising.

A sudden change of heart? Yes. But what happened to Sociology or Linguistics? I just couldn't commit. With Communication Studies, it's been a whirlwind romance, and I am excited to see where it goes.

I think I'll have a toast to celebrate. Well, I'm not supposed to have any alcohol this week. I can't even have real toast...

I guess I'll make do with sugar-free Jell-o and congratulate myself.

September 1, 2010

Blog Lite

I'll take my coffee black, please.

And hold the Oreos. The ice cream too. Don't even show me that bread.

For the next two weeks, I am following "phase one" of the South Beach diet. It's the cleansing and re-programming part of the diet that is designed to re-balance blood sugar levels to reduce cravings for certain foods. My mom starting changing her eating habits a few years ago, and she looks great. More importantly, her more informed food-decisions have improved her energy and stopped her from feeling dizzy during the late afternoon.

I have been lamenting my low energy levels lately, and the weight I sweat off in Cambodia has returned to haunt my tailor-made pants. Having watched my mother's success with South Beach, I want to challenge myself to try it--just to see what happens. According to my mom, the first two weeks are pretty boring because you are suppose to eliminate all starches, sugars and dairy (except low-fat cheese!). Those foods are my staples, especially for breakfast. You can imagine my disappointment facing a broccoli omelet instead of a sugary cereal bar and coffee with a healthy splash of half-and-half.

This morning the Australian Kookaburra licorice--one of our most popular--nearly broke me. I needed to put the pieces into smaller bags by hand, a tortuously aromatic and tactile experience. My mouth waters at the smell of licorice any day, but on day two of South Beach, it took all my self control not to be taken out by such a devilish opponent.

The next several days it's going to be lots of grilled chicken, all the veggies I can handle, and even some string cheese to keep me sane. The diet recommends curtailing caffeine intake (it's an appetite stimulant), but also says that if a cup or two makes you happy (and boy, does it!), go for it.

Wish me luck, and don't be offended if I turn down your baked goods this week.