Pancakes are Essential to International Travel

Head to any children’s section of a bookstore and you will find a whole series of books about what happens when you give fictional animals their sincerest desires. If you give a pig a pancake, there is a whole series of events that unfold because of that one generous gesture. Pig loves his pancake, but needs syrup and then gets messy and eventually needs a bath, with bubbles, of course. As the story goes along, a thread connects everything back to the initial request of pancakes. Ever wonder what would happen if that thread were suddenly cut and the Rube Goldberg machine that is Pig’s life wasn’t able to continue?

While I am not normally a superstitious person, I do have a newfound respect for a travel ritual that I seem to have taken for granted- early morning pancakes. Little did I know, just like Pig, those pancakes are the start to a series of events, which in my case lead to auspicious air travel. You see, as I was getting ready to depart Idaho this last weekend, I made the horrible mistake of eating Lucky Charms (the real thing- not even generic Marshmallow Maties!) at my parents’ house before heading out to the airport. With my belly full of fun-shaped bits of sugar and cat-food-like wheat crunchies, I had no desire to drop by the BOI McDonald’s for some flapjacks. Poor choice! I’ve stopped at that McDonald’s before every early morning flight for years, but the gods of the sky didn’t like being bypassed this time.

All went well for the first leg of my trip, lulling me into a false sense of security. My plane from Boise made the flight to San Francisco with nary a bump. On the ground at SFO, I faced the nerve-wracking to-upgrade-or-not-to-upgrade (see here for that story!), but otherwise had what I thought was an uneventful layover.

But I was wrong. It was in SFO that my problems began.

You see, after skipping the McDonald’s pancakes in Boise, I decided that I really did need to indulge in my preflight ritual, one that I can’t pander to in China since Chinese McDonald’s don’t serve pancakes. (What is that about?! They have hamburgers with mashed potatoes on them and serve cups of corn as an alternative to fries, but they can’t whip out some carb goodness first thing in the morning?) I didn’t see Ronald on the international terminal map anywhere, but the King was present, so about ten minutes before ten, I got in line to have it my way. The line was long. Too long. As I chatted with the woman in front of me, I tried to mask the horrified look on my face as I watched the worker slide the lunch menu overtop of the breakfast one, signaling the official end to breakfast at Burger King. I was just one spot away from ordering! Hoping the clerk would have pity on my poor self, I stayed in line and when it was my turn to order, tried to sneak in a breakfast platter, but was rejected faster than a Ginobili-shot in game seven of the NBA championships. Not wanting anything lunch-y at ten in the morning, I despondently wandered away from the counter, mumbling about how having it my way means pancakes at 10:02AM.

A giant M&M cookie later, I sat on the floor of SFO, blogging about my epic window-seat decision, not really thinking about the long-term repercussions of my flapjack-less travel. Things didn’t start to go bad until after I boarded the flight, when we inexplicably sat on the tarmac for an hour. (Maybe they got the message about needing to stock toilet paper on the ten-hour flight, unlike the United flight from London the day before, where cocktail napkins became TP out of necessity.)  Knowing I had a mere hour layover in Narita, my mental wheels starting turning as I leaned against the wall next to my economy class window seat. I may not be a math-person (words are SO much cooler than numbers!) but it didn’t take a lot of calculation to know that an hour layover minus an hour delay meant I would probably not be seeing my bed Sunday night.

Oh, how right I was!

Even with a United representative waiting at the gate for me and the four other passengers connecting to Chengdu, we didn’t get through security in time to make the China flight.

But alas, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Much like when the adorable Corduroy was stuck in the department store overnight, my evening became an adventure of its own. (I’m full of picture book references today! Usually my age-genre for literary allusions leans a bit more middle school.  If I could find an online degree program that focused on YA literature, I’d be signed up and taking classes in a heartbeat!)  After getting a hotel room voucher from United, through a series of trial and error (translation: pointing and gesturing) I found my way to the shuttle that would deliver me to my evening abode.

With nearly a negative amount of Japanese and no experience in the culture, I stumbled my way through checking into my hotel room, which turned out to be the perfect fit for a travel-weary, connection-missing solo flyer. (The math on the negative Japanese works out like this- all of my long-term Asia experience is in China which is, in many ways, polar opposite of Japan. That makes my starting point below neutral.)  Since my luggage was stuck at the airport overnight, I was delighted to see that my tiny (not capsule-room tiny, but petite nonetheless) was equipped with an array of soap, shampoo and conditioner, as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste. Plus, it came with jammies! That’s right. I had anticipated a night of sleeping in my jeans and tank top, but was thrilled to find a men’s dress-shirt style button-down night shirt folded up on the double bed. It was like something out of a storybook! . (Maybe this is what precipitated today’s picture book heavy post.)   Add on to that amazingly high-speed internet that was perfect for a Skype call home and vouchers for the Japanese buffet on the first floor and my unexpected layover turned out to be a tiny travel adventure in and of itself.

I am going to market a new book in the If You Give A _______ A ________ series called If You Don’t Give Michelle a Pancake. It will be non-fiction and tell the tale of a weary traveler who disregarded her own travel rituals and ended up stuck in Narita overnight because she didn’t stop for some imitation maple syrup covered pancakes grilled up by cranky teenagers working at the world’s most ubiquitous fast food chain. But, it will also include her grand (if short) adventures in a new land.

Lessons will be taught.

Lessons were learned.

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Mere Moments to Decide My Fate

Sometimes in life we are all forced to make some big choices, knowing that the path we choose will dictate our futures, for better or for worse. At nineteen, I decided to get married, which may not seem to be the most prudent decision, but one that fifteen years later I can attest worked out just fine. Or a couple of years after that we decided to sell our home and cars and give away our adorable pot-bellied pig for a two-year stint at Peace Corps Volunteers in western China. Then there was that little choice a few years ago to walk away from my teaching career to become the terribly monikered “trailing spouse” of a US Foreign Service Officer. None of these choices was made lightly or without a good deal of research, but we don’t always have the luxury of time to think through the big ones; sometimes they are thrown at us and we are given mere moments to determine our future.

This is exactly what happened to me today. My back, bum and possibly sanity depended on a single spur of the moment decision. Standing at the United counter at SFO I had to make an on-the-spot determination that would have long-lasting (at least ten hours!) consequences: window seat in economy class or upgrade (for $140) to a middle seat in “economy plus.” Oh the pressure! There’s no time for pro/con charts, no time for color-coding and organizing information about each option, no time to assess the possible consequences of each choice on an individual basis.

Standing 5’10”, those extra six inches of legroom are tempting. But, with an extra suitcase returning with me from America, (filled with nacho cheese, hot sauce, a couple pairs of shoes and a book or two) spending more money wasn’t wasn’t inviting at all.

What’s a girl to do?

Quickly, I mentally rushed through my options as the gate attendant looked at me expectantly. Window to lean my head on for ten hours but with my knees crushed against the seat in front of me that will be unceremoniously kicked back at the first opportunity or half a foot of extra space, but stuck in an uncomfortable middle-man situation that may or may not result in actual access to the arm rests? (My personal rule is that the middle-man always gets the “shared” armrest as a tiny consolation prize for taking one for the team. Sadly, not everyone recognizes this simple karmatic alignment of air travel.)

“Ma’am, which seat would you like?”

Window! I’ll go window!

As I now sit on the floor of SFO charging my laptop before the trans-Pacific flight to Narita, I am left to question my decision. Will my back and bum make me regret not having extra space to curl my legs up in front of me mid-flight? Will I actually be able to sleep for an hour or two, propped against the wall of the plane? These are the consequences that can only be determined with time, when I unfold myself from that crammed economy seat ten hours hence.

She may not have proposed marriage or posited the possibility of moving to the other side of the world, but the United gate attendant did force a major decision with no time to really consider the good and bad of each possible option. Okay, I’ll admit that in the big scheme of things this doesn’t even qualify as a minor decision, but with nothing else to occupy my mind during my four-hour layover, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the possible repercussions of the choice.

Window it is. Now, only time will tell…

Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

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World War II gets a lot of attention in high school history books and on TV documentaries, but oftentimes while the sacrifices of American soldiers are the center point of these discussions, a darker tale is swept under the rug- that of internment camps on our own soil, built to hold our own citizens. The Japanese camps of the early 1940s are too often skimmed over in the discussion of the US’ role in the war, not giving fair play time to those who suffered and lost while never leaving their home country. Sophie Littlefield’s latest book, Garden of Stones, shines a light on this difficult time in American history, weaving a tale that links the pain of several generations.

As Garden of Stones jumps between the Patty’s pending wedding in the late 1970s and the dissolution of that same family in the early 1940s, Littlefield tells Lucy’s story- the middle woman in a three-generation tale. Lucy was just a teenager when the US government decided it would be prudent to gather up all Americans of Japanese ancestry and send them to holding camps, fearful that these people would work with the Japanese military against the US. Lucy was still reeling from the sudden loss of her father when she and her mother were shipped to Mazanar in California. While Lucy found the transition easier than her mother, falling into a part-time job as a delivery girl and meeting Jessie, who would be her first true love, her mother, Miyako, finds no such solace. As a beautiful woman, she is instantly noticed by the officers who ran the camp and soon forced to provide favors for these men, in hopes of keeping her maturing, and beautiful, daughter away from their prying eyes and filthy hands.

Soon though, Patty sees the darker side of the camp, as she realizes that not only her mother, but also Jessie, are taken advantage of in ways that would be unheard of in her life before the war came to American soil. This sudden loss of naivety starts the ball rolling on a series of events that will transform not only her own life, but those of her mother and Jessie as well.

Garden of Stones doesn’t condone the choices and subsequent actions of its various struggling characters, but it does shine a light on their backgrounds, allowing the reader to see beyond the face value of what appears to be heartless maiming of a child or cold-blooded murder. There is more to each character than meets the eye and as readers, we are privy to those histories and stories.

My one complaint with this book is that the multi-generational ensemble cast creates such a huge tale to tell that individual’s stories often don’t go as deep as I would like. There were several characters introduced, who by the end of the novel, I still want to know more about. Stories that need to be told are left open-ended, in what seem to be unintentional cliffhangers.

Sophie Littlefield’s latest work isn’t always easy to read, on an emotional level, but it does tell the tale of a time too often forgotten, and does so in a way that made me really consider just how large a swath of gray area can exist when it comes to the choices people make, earning it:

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Guest Blog– Notes from the Field: Chengdu, China

I’ve been MIA for the last week,  hiding out in Idaho on a little vacation from Sichuan. But, I’ve not been totally unproductive when it comes to blogging.

Last week I submitted a guest blog to The New Diplomat’s Wife.  

Check out a few thoughts on Chengdu at:


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The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne


Being either a weightlifter or a librarian are not two commonly checked boxes in the “what do you do?” category of any survey, but finding someone who could honestly check both would be nearly impossible. Or so you would think. Josh Hanagarne, though, assigns himself not only  those two monikers, but he’ll also add in being Mormon and having Tourette’s to the jumble of labels that make him who he is.


It’s an odd premise for a book, I will admit, but Hanagarne does an excellent job weaving his story, giving the reader not only an in-depth look at where he has been, but an truthful assessment of where he is as those different roles ebb and tide in his life throughout the years.


There is much to appreciate about The World’s Strongest Librarian, but its real strengths (forgive the word choice!) lie in its honesty and fairness.  Not only does Hanagarne talk frankly about the trials that come along with dealing with constant physical and vocal tics, but he also gives a heartbreaking account of his fear of passing those same challenges on to any future children and the guilt that comes along with that possibility. On an even more personal level, Hanagarne gives readers a glimpse into the world of the LDS church and what it means to be raised Mormon. While he is honest about his current indifference to organized religion, it was nice to see a book give the church a fair shake, taking a pretty neutral stance on many of the teachings. Often, what is written about the church is either pushed by zealotry, either in favor or opposition to the religion. It was interesting to see so many of the stories from the Book of Mormon told in a modern way, emphasizing aspects of the church that are rarely a part of public discussions. As he deals with his own faith (or lack of) he doesn’t disparage the church/culture in which he was raised.


By starting off each chapter with a story or two from the inner workings of a large public library, I found myself drawn to both Hanagarne’s current situation, as well as learning to understand what created the person he is today.  I enjoyed reading about the odd patrons that walk through the doors of their institution on any given day, as well as felt pangs of nostalgia for when I had easy access public libraries whenever I felt the need to wander the stacks in search of a new book (or two, or three).


As someone with zero (or less!) interest in weightlifting, I must admit to having trudged through a few pages here and there when Hanagarne gets into the details of kettle bells vs. traditional free weights or the specifics of training. But, the occasional skimming of a paragraph here or there didn’t take away from the overall story one bit.


But, by far, my favorite part of The World’s Strongest Librarian, is the abundance of literary references throughout. I love how Hanagarne wraps up so much of his personal story with the writings of other authors! Not only did his true “librarian-ness” shine through at these times, but it gave me a whole new reading list.


Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family was a great weekend read and one I would recommend to people who are checking a variety of different boxes in their own lives. His story is one that, while seemingly catered to a very niche audience, is actually a tale of personal growth and the overcoming of obstacles, which ultimately makes it applicable to us all. This book easily earns:

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