In Remembrance – Minoru Yasuda

Left to Right: "Ken-chan," Satoru, My Dad, Minoru, Hiro, Me

I recently lost someone who, even though I hadn’t seen him in 7 years, was very important to me – my friend Hiro’s father, my “Japanese father,” Minoru Yasuda, died in October 2014 at the age of 74.

I met Minoru and his wife Eiko and their son Yoshi when I was teaching English in Japan. I had become friends with their oldest son, Hiro, when he was studying ESL at my university in America, and I had met Hiro by signing up to be a conversation partner for the ESL program. Hiro was immediately a really impressive guy and we quickly became good friends, despite the language barrier – we hung out and went out to dinner together with a big group of diverse/international friends. Hiro was still halfway through his year in the U.S. when it was time for me to fly to Japan to start my year of teaching English on the JET Program, but even though we were not together in the same country, Hiro asked his best college friend Satoru and their entire circle of friends back in Tokyo to take me under their wing and show me around and take good care of me while I was living in Japan.

Satoru arranged a meeting for me with Hiro’s father, who had asked to meet me for dinner. The first time I met Minoru Yasuda was early in my time in Japan – it must have been early August 2001, and it was a hot, humid Tokyo night. I got off the train at Ikebukuro station and there was a driver waiting for me – Minoru had ridden to pick me up in a chauffeured car. The driver whisked us off through the neon lights of Tokyo and Hiro’s father took me out for dinner at a really amazing sushi restaurant – one of those hole-in-the-wall places that only seats 8 or 10 people, and you’d never be able to find it unless someone who had lived in Tokyo for years took you there, and even though it’s a tiny, out-of-the-way restaurant, somehow the food immediately ranks among the Top 5 greatest meals of your life. That was one of the things about the restaurant culture of Tokyo that I never understood – there are so many amazing restaurants in Tokyo where the owners, despite making world-class food, apparently have no ambition to expand or franchise or serve more than 10 customers at a time. They’re content to do this one specific thing (sushi, or ramen, or curry, or soba) and do it really, really, really well, with exacting precision honed over many years of rigorous study and practice.  

Even aside from the great restaurants, Minoru Yasuda was one of the greatest people I met in Japan. He was such a character – so funny, so generous, so fun-loving. He was really nothing at all like the stereotypical image that a lot of Americans might have of a stern older Japanese man. “I want to thank you for being a good friend to my son,” he said to me at our first meeting. “My English is very bad, but I want to treat you to excellent sushi. I know you are far from home, so maybe I can be your Japanese father.” (He had studied English, briefly, decades earlier when he was in college, but I was still impressed at how much English he could speak and how much he understood. We mainly communicated in English for the whole time I was in Japan.)

Minoru was born in Tokyo in 1940 and survived the World War II firebombings in 1945. I never really asked him about his experiences during the war, or if he remembered any of it; I felt sad to think of how many kids his age must have been killed by American bombs. He had grown up during the U.S. military occupation of Japan, and he had only good memories of American soldiers – he used to see General MacArthur getting driven around in a big black limousine through the streets of Tokyo, and he said that he and his friends used to go up to American soldiers and ask for candy. “We were hungry,” he would say, “And we would run to the Americans and say, ‘Please! Please!’ and they would always give us some small thing, some chocolate, some candy. I was always grateful to the Americans. Because when we could not eat, they were kind to us.”

Minoru had never been to America, but he was a big fan of American culture, American big band jazz, and American movies. He loved to drive around Tokyo in an old Thunderbird, even though it cost him dearly on upkeep and extra taxes (in Japan, the tax system is geared toward incentives to buy new cars – so you rarely see any beat-up old cars in Japan, let alone a beat-up Thunderbird). I remember sitting in their living room with him, drinking sake and watching “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (the original version with Danny Kaye). Minoru used to love Danny Kaye’s facial expressions; he would laugh and point at the screen and say, “Ha ha – look! Look at his face!” He was a big fan of Dean Martin, too. I came to think of Minoru as being a kindred spirit to “the Rat Pack:” he loved to smoke, he loved to have a good time and enjoy good beer and spirits, and unexpectedly enough, I soon found that my friend Hiro’s 62-year-old father was one of my favorite people to hang out with in Japan.

I cannot begin to sufficiently express my gratitude for how hospitable and generous Minoru and Eiko were to me. I was a young guy living in Japan teaching English, I spoke very limited Japanese, and I really didn’t know what I was doing from a cross-cultural standpoint – I probably committed lots of social faux pas – but they welcomed me into their home and kept inviting me over for dinner and always made me feel like an honored guest. Eiko made the most delicious dinners for me. (She spoke not a word of English but instead of chatting she always smiled at me and then disappeared to the kitchen and served us mind-blowingly delicious home-cooked Japanese food.) Minoru always would pull out a bottle of excellent sake or champagne and we’d eat and drink and watch the Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo’s most popular baseball team) play on TV. Living in another country where you don’t speak the language, living in your own apartment by yourself for the first time, cooking for yourself for the first time, can all be tiring and stressful – and whenever I was at Minoru and Eiko’s house I always, every minute, felt very well taken care of and very much at home.

Left to Right: Minoru, Me, Yoshi

Hiro’s younger brother Yoshi (shown with me and Minoru in the photo above) was living at home with his parents – he had graduated from high school but had not passed the college entrance exam, so he’d had to take a year off to prepare once again to take the entrance exam. (The Japanese college admissions system is a bit more rigid than America – if you don’t get accepted by the college of your choice, you can’t just go to community college instead for a year or two; it’s kind of all-or-nothing.) Yoshi spoke very little English and was very shy around me, but Minoru was always trying to coax Yoshi into being more outgoing and talking more. Again, Minoru and Eiko were not at all the classic stereotype of strict, overbearing, achievement-obsessed Japanese parents – even though Yoshi had missed his first chance to go to college and was kind of at loose ends for a year, they were really laid-back about it, and were just happy to have the unexpected opportunity to spend lots of time with their son. “Yoshi is a, how you say in English? Good boy. He is a GOOD boy,” Minoru said, taking another puff of his cigarette. Then he would mockingly pretend to play the part of the “strict Japanese father” and fake-harass Yoshi to try harder with his studies. “Yoshi?” he would say, shaking his fist, “You MUST study. You have NO CHOICE!” And we’d all laugh.

My own (actual) father came to visit me in Japan for a few days in the spring of 2002 on his way back to the U.S. from a business trip to China and Korea, and Minoru took us out for a couple of amazing meals in Tokyo. My Japanese had improved enough by then that I could understand Minoru cracking jokes with the sushi chef, explaining to him that he needed to make something good for my dad, because “He’s hungry – he came from Korea.” (With the joke being: there’s obviously nothing good to eat in Korea. There are a lot of rivalries and hostilities between Korea and Japan – it’s like the Ireland and England of Asia.)

Minoru also took us all out for lunch at his favorite yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurant that he had been patronizing for 40 years – with the same chef, who he referred to by the familiar name of “Ken-chan.” This was a really amazing yakitori restaurant. The only thing on the menu is chicken – nothing else – but they use every single part of the bird’s body. Flesh, bones, hearts, lungs, gizzards, livers – all salted and seasoned and prepared meticulously and exactingly to squeeze out every subtle nuance and flavor. Again, it was one of the Top 5 meals of my life. Out of the Top 5 meals of my life, two of them were thanks to Minoru Yasuda.

“Ben,” Minoru would tell me, “Sometime, if you like, you can go to Ken-chan’s chicken barbecue restaurant, and you can say, ‘Ken-chan! Send the bill to Mr. Yasuda.’ And bring your best girlfriend! But…you can only do this ONE TIME. Any more than that, and I will become VERY ANGRY.” And he would fold his arms and give me a mockingly “stern Japanese father” face – he was so funny, I’m laughing right now just as I’m typing this.

I remember that after the yakitori meal, Minoru had us over to the house, and he subtly-yet-strongly suggested that because of his busy travel schedule, maybe my dad would like to take a nap. So they had my dad go lie down by himself in a separate bedroom on a futon, and even though my dad felt kind of sheepish about it (he never wants to make a scene or get any special treatment for himself), he immediately dozed off. My dad later told me that it was one of the best naps he’d had in a long time.

That’s the kind of hospitality Minoru specialized in – he had this force of personality where he somehow encouraged you to try the food, try the sake, take a nap, have the experience that you maybe didn’t even realize you needed, but were grateful to have had.

The last time I saw Minoru was in 2007 when my wife and I made a visit to Tokyo. At the time, he had been having some health problems and was in the hospital (the same hospital where President George H.W. Bush was taken in 1992 after vomiting on the Japanese Prime Minister – my friend Hiro showed us the commemorative plaque in the hospital lobby). I was sorry that he wasn’t feeling well and that we didn’t get to spend much time with him, but I was glad to see him again and I was glad that he got to meet my wife. My wife and I have often talked during the past few years about how we’d like to take our kids on a trip to Japan someday, and how we would have liked for Minoru to get to meet our kids. I’m sorry that now, that will not be able to happen.

Left to Right: Minoru, Me, Hiro, Eiko

I heard from my friend Hiro and his wife Nanae about the death of Minoru in October. Nanae said that 400 people attended the funeral wake for Minoru, and it’s clear that he really touched a lot of people’s lives. He had such a warm heart, and he had fun every single day. He lived life the right way!

Hiro and Nanae live in London now – Hiro became fluent in English (he always used to tell me, “I owe my English to you, Ben!”) and got transferred abroad by his Japanese company – and they have two young boys, just like my wife and me. Minoru was always incredibly proud of Hiro, and I’m sure he was especially proud to have his son achieve fluency in English and be able to qualify to work abroad. Hiro is a really hard-working guy who’s an up-and-comer at his Japanese company, and he works really long hours in the City (London’s “Wall Street”), but he’s always been such a great guy and I’m sure he’s still the same energetic, charismatic, generous, funny, open-minded and capable leader that I remember from when we were in college. I hope to see Hiro again someday soon so we can drink a cup of sake in honor of his father’s memory.

It took me awhile to get to the point of being ready to write this little remembrance of Minoru Yasuda. I cannot imagine a better host, father, “Japanese father,” or ambassador for the very best of Japan’s cultural values. I’m grateful to have known him. He made a big difference in helping me have a great experience in Japan, and I wish everyone who studies abroad or travels abroad or lives in another country could have someone like Minoru to laugh with and learn from.

Minoru Yasuda, rest in peace! You will be fondly missed and long remembered – all over the world. 

The Generosity Project: Helping people find jobs

Why aren’t we more like Martin Luther King, Jr.? 

Was he great because it was preordained, because he was destined to be a leader and influencer, because he was hand-selected by some almighty providence or the forces of history to be the right person for his moment in time, to be a martyr for his cause? 

Or was he great because he chose to be? 

Of course, Martin Luther King was a rare talent. He was one of the greatest orators in the history of the English language; he was a great organizer, strategist and leader. He had strong religious faith. He was hailed during his lifetime as a present-day Moses who would lead his people to the Promised Land. 

But maybe the most important reason for Martin Luther King’s greatness was not his innate talent or some larger sense of destiny, but his own choice – time and time again – to be generous, to be a leader, to reach out to people, to keep organizing, to keep working….even when he was tired, even when he feared the effects on his family, even when he feared for his safety, even when he was thrown in jail, even when he feared for his life. 

Most of us in America in 2015 do not face nearly the risks and threats and seemingly intractable violent hatred that Martin Luther King faced during his life. So what’s holding us back? Why aren’t all of us – you, me, all of us – more like Martin Luther King? We can’t all be great orators or organizers, but why can’t more of us make the same simple choice he made: to keep doing everything in our power to make life better for the people around us, to keep being tirelessly, radically generous? 

I don’t believe that the only people who should be allowed to have success or be encouraged to make a difference are a tiny percentage of elites, or a preordained chosen group of people. I believe that everyone has innate human potential to be of service, to make a difference, to be more than what they think they’re capable of being. I believe that humanity’s biggest achievements arise not from rugged individuals or lone geniuses, but from a rich context of learning, sharing and generosity. We are all “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Isaac Newton said. I believe that with our modern Internet connections and the “share economy” and instant mobile communication and information spreading faster than ever before, it’s possible for anyone to make a bigger difference in the world IF WE CHOOSE to do so. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my own life. I want to be more generous. I want to make more of a difference. But how? How can I align my skills and interests in a way that really helps other people? How can I do the most good with what I have to offer, in the most efficient way possible? 

I used to be pretty active in my community – I worked in politics, I volunteered at a public school, I hosted international visitors through State Department programs. But for the past few years, as a freelance writer and work-at-home dad, I haven’t been feeling as involved and generous as I used to be. I’ve been very focused on raising two young kids and paying the bills and taking care of my own house and family. I haven’t been as involved as I would like to be in the wider world. 

But I want to do better about this. So in 2015, I want to start something new – my own personal “Generosity Project.” 

I have over 1,000 Facebook friends. I have connections all over the U.S. and all over the world. I’m a freelance writer with good communication skills and a flexible schedule – I want to use what I know and who I know to help other people get connected to opportunities. 

Here’s what I want to do to be more generous this year – I want to help other people: 

  1. Find jobs
  2. Get connected to people who can offer career mentoring or advice (for free)
  3. Learn how to make money by doing freelance writing or otherwise utilizing skills and interests that they already have
  4. Learn about great nonprofit organizations, volunteer opportunities, or good causes to support

All of these topics are very important to me, and I think I have the right blend of connections, interest and aptitude to be effective in helping people in this area. 

I’m a good connector of people. I like introducing friends to other friends; I like helping people get new job leads, I like being a freelance writer coach to help people learn how to make money online. I’ve already been doing this on a limited, informal basis, but I want to do more of it, more proactively, more expansively. I want to find friends on Facebook who are willing to offer their talents, expertise and connections to help offer career advice or pass along a resume or otherwise help connect talented, hard-working people with jobs and opportunities. 

I’m really lucky. I get to make a living as a freelance writer. I’ve been doing this for four years full-time and I’m more successful than ever before. But I’m not interested only in making a good living for my own family – I want to do more to help other people find opportunities and make more money and have the same sense of empowerment. And I want to do what I can to help shine a spotlight on some worthy organizations and good causes for other generosity-minded people to donate their time, talents and money. 

Will you join me? This doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment; I don’t need lots of time or money from any of you. I’m looking for people who are willing to… 

  • Be interviewed about your career or business. I’d like to do podcasts or e-mail interviews where we can create informative resources (published on my blog) to help other people who want to learn more about getting a job in your industry or who want to start a business. For example, how did you get started in your career field? What qualifications do you need? What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to get into your industry or work at your company? How did you start your business? How do you find customers/clients/buyers? What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to get started making money on the side as a freelancer/consultant or who wanted to start a small business from home?
  • Help connect people with job openings. If I hear of someone who’s looking for a job in your area, would you be willing to talk with them via e-mail or connect with them via social media, and, if you feel comfortable doing so, pass along their resume or put in a good word for them?
  • Serve as short-term casual career “mentors.” Would you be willing to help people who are looking for a new job or a new career field? Would you be willing to answer questions/do a brief phone call or Skype call with someone who wants to learn more about working in your career field?
  • Share the story of a nonprofit organization that you work with or volunteer with or donate to. What makes them great? Why is their mission so important? What do people need to know about this organization? I’d like to write profile articles of some of great nonprofits from around the U.S. and around the world to post on my blog and share on social media.

Benefits of doing this “Generosity Project:” 

  1. People get new jobs (and companies get great new employees)
  2. People get inspired and get the information they need to help start a business or make extra money on the side
  3. People get to make better-informed career decisions
  4. Nonprofit organizations get more donations and more volunteers
  5. Career mentors and interviewees get the satisfaction of helping other people while getting a published blog article or podcast to share their own stories
  6. Small business owners/freelancers get free publicity for their businesses
  7. I get to expand my network and become known as more of a leader – maybe someday, the people I help today can connect me with opportunities too!


Of course, there are also a few possible risks and downsides of doing this “Generosity Project:” 

  1. People might take advantage of me. There might be unscrupulous/unqualified/disreputable people who try to use my reputation and connections to get a job, even though they’re not seriously qualified or are being dishonest about their qualifications. It could reflect poorly on my reputation if I tried to vouch for someone who wasn’t really who they said they were.
  2. There might be overwhelming demand – too many job seekers, not enough jobs; too many people looking for help, not enough people offering help.
  3. Too much time commitment – I can’t spend too many hours each week creating content for free (doing podcasts or writing articles) or networking on behalf of other people, because I’m really busy with my own (paying) freelance writing work.

But on the whole, I think the benefits outweigh the risks. 

Ever since I started working as a freelance writer, I’ve realized – on a new level – the importance of networks. I work with clients all over the U.S. and all over the world. Instead of one “job” with a salary and benefits, I have lots of smaller “projects” that add up to a good living. Instead of relying on one single company to give me my livelihood, I have a broad network of clients. Freelance writing is my dream job, and I’ve created it all for myself – and I feel very well-supported by this invisible “safety net” of lots of different clients – but what if I could help other people extend their own “safety net?”  

Whether we realize it or not, we are all inter-connected. No one is every truly alone. We are all one or two degrees of separation removed from great people who can help us find what we’re looking for in our careers. What if we used the power of the Internet and the power of Facebook not just for screwing around and sharing funny cat pictures, but for taking some positive, proactive steps to make a difference in people’s lives – helping people make more money, find better jobs, or make a career change in a way that will benefit them for years to come? I want to be a connector of people. I want to introduce people for their mutual benefit. I want to help people get a step closer to the job of their dreams. 

I know I can’t help everyone. Not everyone is a good fit for a certain job, not everyone has the energy or capacity or desire or will power or “hustle” necessary to start a business or work extra hours freelancing in addition to holding a full-time job. Not everyone is willing to change. Some people stay stuck in the same thought patterns and never break out of their comfort zones – and that’s OK. 

But what if this “Generosity Project” could help someone figure out how to get started as a part-time freelance writer and earn an extra $200 or $300 or $500 a month? What if this project could introduce some talented job candidates to some great employers who might not otherwise find each other? What if I could help speed up the natural sorting process of people finding the right job and the right career and the right company, and make it a little more efficient and more human? Wouldn’t that be great? And I can do it all from home? I already waste way too much time on Facebook, so why not put some of that time to good use?   

I don’t know how “big” I want this to get. I’m a really busy person and I have a lot of demands on me already from my work and my family and everything else that goes with being a parent and a spouse and a homeowner. But I really want to try to do something. I can’t solve all of the problems in the world, but maybe I can make a difference for this specific problem: helping connect other people with jobs and opportunities. 

What if we could all be a little bit more generous with our time, talents and connections? What’s holding us back? I’m going to start making a conscious, proactive, public effort in 2015 to be more generous. Starting NOW. 

If you would like to help, please send me a message:

Or connect with me on LinkedIn:

What is the JET Program like? My experience teaching English in Japan

Ben Gran teaching at Koma Elementary School, Hidaka City, Japan - 2002

My first job out of college was teaching English in Japan on the JET Program (“Japan Exchange and Teaching Program”) back in 2001-2002. That year of living in Japan and teaching in the Japanese public schools was one of the most influential years of my life, and it was an ideal adventure for that time in my life, when I was single and hadn’t started on a rigid “career path” and had the freedom to travel and be an interloper in another country. I made wonderful friends in Japan that I’m still in touch with today. Living in Japan gave me a sense of perspective and broader awareness of the reality of the world beyond America – it helped me see the beauty and uniqueness of other cultures in a new way, and it has affected my decision making and sense of identity in many ways.

My experience living in another country taught me not to take America too seriously – I know – really know, on a fundamental level – that the world is bigger than this one country and that there is more than one way to solve problems and interpret situations. At the same time, living in Japan taught me to appreciate a lot of things about America that I had previously taken for granted – even while I admired many things about Japan that are unique to Japan’s cultural context. Teaching English in Japan gave me a new understanding of myself, my place in the world, and my appreciation for my fellow human beings.

If you want to teach English in Japan, working on the JET Program is one of the best ways to do it. I highly recommend the JET Program to anyone who’s looking for a fun adventure and who’s interested in teaching English in Japan. It’s a great opportunity that continues to benefit you as a person for years after it’s over.

A few years ago, a friend of a family friend contacted me with some questions about the JET Program. She was wondering about the realities of teaching English in Japan. I have enclosed her questions – and my answers – below:

What motivated you to go teach English in Japan on the JET Program?
I didn’t know what else to do after I graduated from college, and nothing else sounded good. I had a strong desire to have the experience of living in another country (I never studied abroad). I had some good friends from Japan who I had met at college by signing up to be a conversation partner in the ESL program, and so that helped make the decision. Plus one of my other good friends from college grew up in Okinawa, and he and I had talked a lot about Japan, and it all sounded pretty good.

Why did you choose to apply for the JET Program?
The JET Program was only a one-year commitment (as opposed to the Peace Corps or other types of programs that are a multi-year commitment), and it was an actual “job” with a paycheck; no research papers required. As for how JET compares to other options for teaching in Japan, the JET program generally pays better (my salary at the time was around $30,000 per year, tax-free), the JET program gives you more time off (I think I had like 4 weeks of time off), they help you find an apartment (which is a HUGE benefit in Japan, where there are a lot of hard-to-understand rules and customs for renting a place), and JET allows you to teach in the public schools during regular work hours, as opposed to the “eikaiwa” (English Conversation) schools where you often teach at night and on weekends. I’ve also gotten the impression that JET Program teachers tend to have an overall better “quality of life” on the job – fewer contact hours, more unstructured time, more time to study Japanese, etc. I’ve heard that a lot of the Eikaiwa schools just keep lining up one student after another with little time to decompress.

But you know what, I think the #1 factor that sold me on the JET Program was that they helped you get your own apartment. It sounds stupid now, but at the time, at age 21, I had lived in the dorms for all 4 years of college, so getting my own apartment sounded really daunting. I remember going to an orientation session for the JET Program and they played a video showing the nice cozy apartments in Japan where some of the JET teachers lived, and I was like, “Wow! My own apartment? Sign me up!”

Do you think it’s OK to choose a program other than JET for teaching English in Japan?
Yes. In fact, I know several people who taught for private eikaiwa schools (like Nova and GEOS), and they had a generally good experience. But I had no regrets doing the JET Program – I think it’s probably the best way to teach in Japan.

Did you go with someone you knew?
I knew no one. But I found that it was quite easy to make friends with other people on the program. I made friends with lots of my JET Program colleagues from Canada, Australia, Britain and America, and also made friends with lots of Japanese locals. There were always people to talk to and hang out with and go drinking with. I really had quite an active social life in Japan – more active than my life in America once I got back. Plus I was VERY fortunate to have a built-in circle of friends in Tokyo via my ESL conversation partners – I still keep in touch with those friends 12 years later, and my wife and I visited my Japanese friends in Tokyo in February 2007.

What were the biggest difficulties you encountered?
The language barrier. (I spoke no Japanese when I arrived – but I learned fairly quickly.) The hardest thing on a day-to-day basis was not understanding the background noise of daily life – I was basically illiterate over there. (Although Japan makes it easier, since the train station signs and bus stops and public locations are in English letters (“romaji”)). I really missed being able to go to a public library and read anything I wanted, in my own language. It was strange not being able to read anything over there – for example, the subways and trains would be covered with ads and posters, and I wouldn’t be able to read what they were for. (“Is this an ad for a car company or for rat poison? I can’t tell…”)

Certain things about working in another culture were hard – teaching on the JET Program was my first “real” job post-college, and I probably made all kinds of mistakes that I’ve forgotten about or forgiven myself for by now.

Some of my mistakes included:

    • I used to eat breakfast at my desk, which is a no-no. I didn’t intend to be disrespectful, but by eating at my desk, I was showing disrespect to the other “real” teachers who got to work earlier than I did and had already eaten breakfast. (I am not a morning person.)
    • I used to be late for school sometimes. Punctuality is highly prized in Japanese culture, so I was really screwing up on that front as well. 
    • I once flooded my downstairs neighbors’ apartment when I forgot to put the drainage hose from my washing machine into the drain in the shower (long story – fortunately nothing was seriously damaged, and it turned out that I had accident insurance through my employer). 
    • Some people on the JET Program occasionally have a bad attitude about work – lots of whining about JET Program policies, complaints about the boss, etc. It’s natural to feel frustrated with things at work, but in retrospect our lives on the JET Program were much, MUCH better than they would have been at almost any entry-level job back in our home countries. I wish I had complained less and learned more and studied harder. 

One thing I learned from teaching English in Japan is that culture shock is definitely real. Except “culture shock” isn’t the right term for it, it’s more like “culture fatigue.” There are certain things about living in another country that just start to wear on you after awhile, especially where the culture is so different from your own. Certain small things start to feel annoying or oppressive – for example, I remember being on the train one Sunday afternoon, riding into Tokyo, and seated across from me was a group of middle-aged women on a weekend outing, chatting amiably together. And they were all wearing the same style of hat – kind of an inverted flowerpot shape that was popular in Japan at the time. And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, come on – do you all really have to wear exactly the same sort of hat???” And really, how unfair of me to feel annoyed about their hats! They were just minding their own business. But that’s the kind of thing I remember as being difficult – just little reminders of the cultural barriers between me and the rest of the people there. There were times when I felt very alone.

Earthquakes – that was a big challenge for me. Japan gets LOTS of earthquakes, and I’m from a part of the U.S. that never gets earthquakes, so the occasional earthquakes really freaked me out – I would wake up in the night and the walls of my building would be trembling, dishes rattling in the cupboards. Not fun.

I also experienced a fair amount of homesickness, I suppose – I always enjoyed talking with my parents on Sunday nights. I would call them at 9 p.m. from Japan, which was 7 a.m. Iowa time, and we would talk for an hour or so. Another thing that was hard was that my grandpa died while I was in Japan, and I wasn’t able to come back for the funeral. So that’s definitely something to think about – if you live abroad, you might have to miss out on some friends’ weddings, births of new family members, funerals or other life events.

Another difficulty was the work itself. The job of being an Assistant English Teacher could occasionally become very boring. The overall “experience” was really an amazing privilege – being able to work in another country’s public school system and talk with the kids all day – but the day-to-day “work” wasn’t always that challenging, if that makes sense. I suppose it’s my own fault – looking back on it now, I could have done much more to learn Japanese, get involved with the other teachers, plan lessons, etc. While listening to the other teachers speak rapid-fire Japanese during the morning staff meeting, I should have been taking notes, writing down words that I recognized, and looking them up in my dictionary, building my vocabulary. I should have tried harder to learn more every single day. I should have been more of a “sponge for knowledge.” 

And I should mention – most of the teachers that I worked with were really great. They helped me a lot, they involved me in the classes, they tried to make things fun for the students. But a lot of days, I just felt like I was kind of “in the way” or that I didn’t understand any of the conversations going on, and I just kind of let things happen around me without being as engaged as I could be. (This is probably making me sound like a terrible employee – I’m really not that bad.) But that was hard – those days when it felt like less of an exciting adventure, and more like an unchallenging job. (Of course, there are lots of times as a working adult in the U.S. where you’ll feel unchallenged or unfulfilled by your job. There have been times as a grown-up person in America where I’ve wondered if I should move my family back to Japan and go back to teaching English! But now that I’m a freelance writer, I’m quite happy with my career.)

Feelings of isolation, homesickness and culture shock come and go. There were times when I didn’t feel like a “real” person in Japan – like this was just a temporary stopping point and I wasn’t really building anything that would last. It’s liberating to be an interloper, but sometimes you want to feel like you’re putting down roots and are more authentically connected to a community and a place. But there are also a lot of incredibly exciting, invigorating, inspiring aspects to living in another culture, and the good far outweighed the bad in my experience.

Was it hard coming back to the U.S. after teaching English in Japan?

It was very, very, very hard. I came back after a year (actually only ten months) to take a job at the Governor’s office in my home state of Iowa – it was a pretty special job opportunity and I had to come back early from Japan in order to start my new job. But to my surprise, coming back to America was harder than going to Japan. The “reverse culture shock” was harder in every way. I missed Japan a lot, I missed my friends and my carefree life over there, I missed riding the trains and riding my bike and walking everywhere and not having to use a car, I felt regrets for having come back so soon, I wondered if life would ever feel quite so exciting or interesting again. (It probably didn’t help that I was living at home with my parents for the first seven months after coming back to the U.S.) Life just seemed so…colorless back in my home country. I probably was depressed, on some level.

To get over my sense of reverse culture shock, I read a lot of books about Japan – Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors – and I corresponded with my friends, and in time I got better. Eventually I was able to build a life for myself in the U.S. that was fun and fulfilling. But it took a long time – it took like a year to get over the reverse culture shock. I think I had reverse culture shock for longer than I actually lived in Japan. It’s funny – now that I’m thinking about all this again – I remember that the decision not to renew my contract on the JET program was a really hard decision. I was literally physically sick about it. In a lot of ways, the JET Program was a good job, and people there treated me very well, and I’d had this great cultural experience, and I thought, “are you sure you want to give all this up?” So that was a big decision, the moment when I decided not to stay on for a second year. I think it was February when we had to decide that. And then I ultimately found my new job and decided to come home in May.

Would you suggest taking a shorter teaching trip to sort of “test the waters” of working abroad?
I don’t know what options are out there – I think it’s easier to get a visa if you’re committed to going over there for a full year. But I could be wrong. The plane ride is so long (14 hours Chicago to Tokyo, each way) and expensive, and the experience is so great once you get over there, that I really think it’s best to just take the plunge and commit to going over for a year. It probably makes things easier as far as leaving behind your life in the U.S., too.
Have you traveled anywhere else in Asia?
No, and that is the one regret of my time in Japan. I was only there for 10 months, and I originally thought I would be there longer – 2 years, 3 years maybe. But instead I wound up coming back to Iowa after only 10 months, and I never traveled elsewhere in Asia. I didn’t even travel in Japan very much, I mostly hung around in Tokyo with my friends. (Of course, there’s a lot to see in Tokyo – it’s the biggest city in the world.) Some of my colleagues on the JET Program took great vacations to Thailand, Korea, China, Hong Kong and many other places – and it’s so much cheaper to fly to other destinations in Asia once you’re in Japan.

What was the JET Program application process like?
Long, but not too tough. If I remember correctly, the application deadline was December, and then we interviewed in…March? And then got acceptance letters in April, and flew to Tokyo at the end of July. So it was an eight month process, start to finish. I’ve read/heard that it used to be a lot faster to get signed up to teach in Japan with Nova or GEOS or other eikaiwa schools, but I don’t know if this is still the case with the economy the way it is now. It’s also possible that the JET program has become more selective since I was on it.

Was it hard to make plans for the next year when you were waiting to find out if you’d been accepted?

At the time, I was a senior in college, and I didn’t have many other career plans. It was pretty much a choice between doing the JET Program and moving back to my parents’ basement. (I had some job interviews with consulting firms in the U.S., but no job offers.) So I pretty much pinned all my hopes on going to the JET Program, and fortunately it worked out for me. My senior year of college was a  rather emotionally tumultuous time, but not because of the JET Program; I had my own reasons for all the tumult. I was just generally struggling to figure out what (if anything) I wanted to do with my life after graduation, and in my darker moments, I felt like no matter what I chose, it would be wrong. And I had recently ended my first really really serious romantic relationship, so I felt like I was going out into the world after college feeling completely adrift.

Of course, looking back on it now, there is no “wrong” plan. As long as you have something that you want to pursue, even if it’s only one thing – and you pursue it with integrity and hard work, good things will happen.

I’m grateful for the JET Program for giving me a good start to adult life and introducing me to so many wonderful people. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to have an adventure.

Are you interested in teaching English in Japan on the JET Program? Feel free to send me any questions via e-mail and I’ll be happy to respond: 

The skills we need now

Photo Credit - Library of Congress:

Today is Labor Day. I was thinking about work, and how I work, and what I love about it, and what I might be able to offer as lessons to others from what I’ve learned from working online as a freelance writer for the past 4 years.

One of my friends posed an interesting question in response to my blog post about the “New American Dream.” He asked, “What kinds of skills do people need to learn to do the type of self-employment/freelancing/online work that you do? And how can we teach these skills in schools?”

This is a really good question that I’ve been thinking about a lot. On the one hand, much of what I do as a freelance writer is based on some fundamental academic skills – reading, writing, critical thinking. But the way I work as an online freelance writer – collaborating with multiple people on multiple continents, learning new technology, integrating different ideas – requires a certain kind of agility and curiosity that can’t necessarily be “taught” in a traditional academic environment. I sometimes think that the most important skills I’ve learned in my life have come from just doing the work.

But with that said, here are a few ideas for what kinds of “transferable skills” and personal characteristics I would recommend that people pursue – starting at a young age – if they want to be able to make a living working online as a freelancer – or at any traditional “job” that requires digital age skills:

Project Management

Project management, broadly defined, is “the art and science of getting things done.” This is one of the most important skills that is relevant to almost any good job today – you need to be able to organize a group of people, marshal your resources, analyze your budget, deadlines and constraints, and deliver a result. I manage a team of bloggers all over the U.S. Every month we have to deliver a set number of articles to our client. I’m the one who leads the team, manages the deadlines, negotiates any problems that arise along the way, and helps answer questions. I keep a detailed tracking spreadsheet that I constantly update throughout the month to make sure we’re on target to meet our goals. I love writing, but I also enjoy project management because I get to take a bigger picture view of the overall team effort. It’s like being the captain at the helm of the Starship Enterprise.

I wish more kids could get hands-on experience managing projects in school – it doesn’t have to be a “big” thing or a physical product, but learning how to meet deadlines, manage resources and guide a project to completion is one of the most important skills people can have. We’re heading toward a “project economy” where instead of traditional full-time year-round jobs, more people will work in the style of Hollywood film productions, where a team of people with specific skills will gather together for a limited time for a dedicated purpose.


I work “alone” most of the time, working at home from my home office or from a coffee shop on my laptop – but I never truly feel “alone” because I have clients and collaborators all over the U.S. and around the world. I love sharing ideas and pitching story ideas and exchanging feedback to make things better for whatever project we’re working on. Collaboration is more important than ever before, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re all going to be in the same conference room or the same city or even on the same continent. Some of my favorite people to work with during the past 4 years have been in Tokyo, Australia, Germany, London, The Netherlands, and many other places. Most of the people I’ve worked with during the past 4 years are people that I’ve never met in person. But you know what? Even though my collaborators and co-workers and clients and I are separated by thousands of miles, I often feel closer to them and more a part of their team than I did with a lot of the “in person” co-workers I used to work with at my previous jobs. Distance doesn’t matter in being a good co-worker as much as your reliability, your communication skills, and your willingness to get the job done right.

Team Building

One of the underrated skills for working online is being able to build and recruit a team for a project, and inspire that team to achieve success. How does “virtual teamwork” work, exactly? How can you build a team when you’re scattered across continents? The new style of team building does not require in-person interaction, but it does require you to set a clear vision and show each person on the team how their contribution supports the larger goals. For example, I recently built a team of blog writers from around the U.S. I reached out to friends from college, friends on Facebook, and friends of friends in specific cities where we needed writers. (The client wanted to get perspectives and insights from various geographic regions of the U.S.) As part of building my team, I wrote a lot of guidance and detailed instructions about what kind of work we’d be doing and why it was important and how they would benefit by being part of the project (in addition to the money). I had to kind of “sell” the project to the team and get them excited to be part of it by conveying the sense of fun and fulfillment that I get from working for this client. For example, most of the people I reached out to to help with this project are not full-time freelance writers, so I said to them, “How would you like to make some extra money each month with just a few hours of work?” As part of building and nurturing the team, I’ve kept up regular communication – not just via e-mail but also YouTube videos where I can give people regular updates and encouragement. I’m also available by phone whenever anyone on the team needs to talk with me or ask questions.

The new style of team building for the “project economy” and the new way of working online is not about job titles and hierarchy and following orders – it’s about flexibility, humility, generosity and a genuine spirit of helping people get better at what they do. Being a leader of a team is a great challenge and privilege, and you realize quickly that being a leader is a humbling experience – because ideally, if you’re doing it right, you should be learning much more from your team than you knew before.


I can find something interesting about almost anything. During the past 4 years I’ve worked with clients in all sorts of industries, including: animal pharmaceuticals, corporate law, life insurance, mobile apps, virtual events, fire extinguishers, tourism, fine wine trading, relationship coaching, life coaching, sales consulting, restaurant consulting, hospital physician recruiting, and many more. I’ve helped write screenplays (which is usually thought of as being a fun, “sexy” line of work) and I’ve also written brochures for a company that makes high-end paper shredders (which is an industry that I knew very little about), but no matter how “fun/creative” or how “dry/technical” the subject matter might be, I seem to have a knack for finding unique aspects to enjoy and find interesting. I’m often talking with my wife about something fun I learned today from my work, or some interesting facts or knowledge that I had no idea about before I started working for a particular client.

One of the most oddly fun and, well, kind of reassuring things about working online with so many clients all over the world is that the global business world is just so diverse! No matter what strange niche market or problem is out there waiting to be solved, some group of people are out there trying to solve it – trying to make a better paper shredder, or build an app, or develop some interesting solution that saves time and money. It’s not always glamorous and high-profile and sexy, but it’s what makes the world economy work.

People who want to be employable and have success in the economy of the future need to love to learn. You need to be constantly curious and willing to keep pushing the boundaries of your knowledge and get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes I take on projects even if I haven’t done something “exactly like this” before – because I have confidence that I can get up to speed on almost any learning curve, and become conversant in a variety of industries and niche topics. I don’t have to be an expert in absolutely everything – but I try to know a little about a lot.

My personal preference is that I would rather be a “generalist” than a “specialist.” My worst fear for my career is that I’ll become limited to a tiny, narrow band of expertise that makes me feel irrelevant to the larger world. However, that’s just my preference – many people work online as “specialists” in some niche field – whether that means being a freelance writer specializing in financial services, or making apps for a certain industry, or consulting for a certain size/variety of business. There’s nothing wrong with being a specialist (and finding your niche with deep expertise) or being a generalist (and serving multiple niches with a variety of skills) – the Internet makes it possible to do either one. You can either be a generalist like me, riding the wave of ever-expanding knowledge and research available online – or you can be a specialist and use online channels to connect with people who need your specific skills and expertise. But either way, you will be well-served to cultivate a strong sense of curiosity and stay eager to keep learning all the time. 


My mother teaches middle school, my father teaches college classes, and my 4 grandparents all worked as teachers/college professors at various points in their lives. Apparently I have a family gene for working in education. I worked as a teacher in my first job out of college, teaching English in Japan. They say that you never truly know anything until you teach it to someone else, and I’ve found that to be true from my work as a freelance writer.

The biggest part of my work today is content marketing – I write content for companies who want to better explain their products/services, show the value they offer, and educate their customers about why they are different from the competition. Content marketing is different from a sales letter or a brochure or a TV ad – it’s not meant to “sell” directly, it’s meant to build credibility and trust. The Internet has made it possible for people to do a lot more research than ever before when making a purchase – checking prices, comparing brands, reading customer reviews. My work as a content marketing copywriter is all about helping companies show what makes them special and explain how their products work, and exercise “thought leadership” to help guide the direction of their overall industry.

As part of this work, I need to know how to frame questions and offer thought-provoking ideas and make a “soft sell” of helping ideas to spread, but without hammering people over the head with “hard-sell” sales pitches. This is all part of being a good teacher. The best teachers don’t impose ideas upon their students, they help students discover ideas and realize the truth for themselves.

I recently was contacted by a guy who lives in the Bahamas who hired me to do some coaching via Skype to help answer some questions about how to get started working online as a marketing consultant. This was a great experience for me, because I felt like I really helped him clarify some goals and feel more confident in making a specific plan to start his own business – and I think more people will be able to make money like this in the future, just by sharing their knowledge and teaching people “how to do what I do.” The Internet has enabled more of these one-to-one connections. If you find someone’s website or follow someone on Twitter or read someone’s blog post and you feel inspired by what they do, it’s easier than ever to ask them for help. (Seriously, if you’re interested in learning more about being a freelance writer or making money online by utilizing your existing skills, please send me an e-mail:  


The Project Economy and working online are not for everyone, and they’re not for the faint of heart. Working online as a freelance writer or other self-employed consultant presents some unique stresses. Sometimes projects get cancelled, budgets fall through, people make promises that they cannot ultimately keep. Sometimes clients go silent. Sometimes (rarely, fortunately) people don’t pay their bills. The Project Economy and working online offer more freedom, but they also offer more uncertainty.

Perhaps the most important skill for people working online is to stay resilient. Be agile, be flexible, be able to bounce back quickly from disappointment or frustration. Keep your momentum going. Keep moving forward. Keep creating a pipeline of new business opportunities so you always have options even if a big project gets cancelled or a big client goes away.

And look, this style of work isn’t everyone’s idea of a dream job. If you want/need the predictability of a 9-5 routine, if you like the reassurance of having a physical location to report to for work each day, if you struggle to make good use of your time without a boss to guide you and help create structure for you, then maybe being a freelancer or working online isn’t the ideal fit for you. And that’s fine. But I think more people are going to seek out opportunities like these as the Project Economy expands in the years to come. More employers will realize that they can get good results without the expense and overhead of full-time employees – and more workers will realize that they can take their skills directly to the market and make more money and have more freedom than any traditional “job” could offer them.

I almost never work 8 hours a day. Sometimes I take a few days off, and then work very hard for 3 days in a row. I fit the work into my life, instead of the other way around.

I’m working today, on Labor Day, but I’m happy to do it. When you’re self-employed there are no “paid holidays,” but there are also no “Mondays,” no anxious Sunday nights dreading going back to the office the next morning. I never, ever resent a single minute I spend working, because the work is all for me and for my family, and if I do a lot more work, I make a lot more money.

I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the skills I’ve developed during these past 4 years of working as a freelance writer. I hope many other people can do the same.

We need a new American Dream

Today is the 4th of July. This has always been one of my favorite holidays – I love the summer weather, the fireworks, the grilled meats, and the occasion to reflect on the meaning of America – this baffling, often exasperating country that I love. (But mostly I love the grilled meats.)

Even though today is a “holiday,” I worked for a couple of hours. When you’re self-employed, there are no “paid holidays.” But you know what? I don’t resent a single minute that I spend working for myself. Being a freelance writer has truly been a new birth of freedom for me. I am grateful that I can earn a living on my own terms, working from home, spending lots of time with my wife and kids, without all the bureaucracy and organizational stupidity of a corporate job. (Being a freelance writer means that I only have to put up with my own stupidity.)

But seriously: I never knew what “freedom” really meant until I was running my own business as a freelancer. I’ve been doing this now for 3 years full-time, and I have never once regretted the decision to quit my old corporate job. Every day feels like a paid vacation. I work when I want to. I work from home, or from a coffee shop, or from a hotel room while on a road trip with my family. I can make more money during the two hours when my wife and kids are taking a nap in the afternoon than I used to make from spending 8 hours a day in a windowless grey fabric-padded box.

I recently started a new freelance project where I had to recruit a team of writers from various regions of the U.S. I reached out to old college classmates and friends from Facebook – I happen to know a lot of talented writers – and quickly built a great team. It’s been a lot of fun for me to be able to hand out some lucrative, fun projects to people I know and respect. And this experience reminded me, that many more people could work the way I do – if they could get past the old way of thinking about work, and redefine their idea of “success.”

America needs a new “American Dream.” The old American Dream was all about having a steady 40-hour-a-week job and a nice car and a big house in the suburbs. I think the new American Dream is going to be more mobile, more inter-connected, and more diverse. We don’t need “a” job anymore – it’s easier to get connected to 50 clients who will each give you $1,000 worth of work (or 100 clients who will each give you $500) than it is to find a single $50,000 a year job.

The new currency of the American Dream will be connectedness and sharing and trust. Instead of wealth being defined by having access to scarce resources, now it’s about “who do you know” and how connected are you to what is going on. Who would you rather be right now: a business owner of a big, entrenched business in a stagnant industry (with a six-figure income but slow growth), or a 24-year-old recent college graduate with 2,000 Facebook friends, making a living in social media and developing apps with Facebook friends at night? My money’s on the 24-year-old.

As part of our new American Dream, we need to change our ideas of “success.” For example:

Social capital is more important than money. If you have a strong network of people who care about you and who will support you and spread the word about what you do, the money will take care of itself. I have seen this happen in my own “side venture” as a stand-up comedian. Using nothing more than my own network of “fans” on Facebook, I have produced and performed in sold-out stand-up comedy shows at various venues in our city. For one of the shows, I didn’t even have to pay any money to the venue as a deposit, because my Facebook audience bought so many tickets so quickly. With the new American Dream, we all have the opportunity to build our own audience, on our own scale, and ask them to support us in doing great things.

Free time is more important than wealth. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about being self-employed is that free time is the new “wealth.” Having control over your own schedule is more powerful than having lots of money in the bank – but having no time to spend it. Why spend 40 years doing a job you hate, just so you can eventually (maybe) afford to buy the freedom to do what you wanted to do all along? Yesterday my wife and I had an impromptu “Date Day” where we sent our kids to my parents’ house for the day, and we just spent the whole day together – we went out for a great lunch, we went shopping for some new shoes and clothes (for ourselves – the kids always get whatever they want, but I hadn’t bought myself a new pair of shoes in 4 years. I had holes in my soles). I love being able to have control of my own schedule so I can make my work fit into my life, instead of the other way around.

Generosity and trust are the ultimate status symbols. Instead of showing off your big house or your expensive car or your expensive possessions, the new American Dream’s measure of prestige is: “How much of a difference are you making for others? How influential and giving are you to your community? How much do people trust you and want to follow you and listen to what you have to say?” As Kevin Spacey says in “House of Cards,” power is more valuable than money. And there are more ways to influence people and wield a new kind of “power” than ever before – even if you don’t have a traditional “powerful” job or title or office. Who is more powerful in today’s world: the Governor of a small Midwestern state, or a blogger with 500,000 fans on Twitter? Who has more people who are eager to listen to what that person has to say, and who will eagerly take immediate, meaningful action as a result? I’d rather be a blogger than a Governor. Seriously.

Failure is to be welcomed. With the way we are all interconnected, with the amazing apps and tools available online to help us be more productive than ever, with the ease in which we can get connected to the right people and resources to launch any project…the cost of failure has gotten cheaper than ever. The riskiest thing you can do today is to NOT take a risk. I quit my steady job with good benefits 3 years ago, even though we had a new baby and two kids under the age of 3, and I was terrified to fail. I was afraid that I was making a terrible mistake by venturing away from the safety of the corporate “nest.” But the thing is, I hated that job. I felt like there was no future in it for me – if I had stayed at that job, my skills would have stagnated and I would have gotten trapped in a career path that I didn’t give a damn about. Today, I feel more fulfilled than ever by my work. I feel great optimism for the future – because I’m conversant in lots of new industries and subjects, I’ve been through good times and tough times, and I’m no longer afraid to fail. The new American Dream requires us to redefine our idea of “failure.” New college graduates need to try lots of things, even if some of them don’t work out. You’re going to be more successful in the long run if you have a spirit of inventiveness, agility and courage – and it’s hard to get those things if you just go and get on a corporate career path without ever trying anything else.

Connectedness is more important than control. Here’s what I mean by that – lots of traditional corporate jobs are a matter of doing things “the right way” and controlling your own little domain of knowledge and resources. (“That’s not how we do things around here.” “Follow the established procedures.” “Check with Legal.”) The new American Dream, powered by working online and being supported by our own “safety nets” of social connections, will be about not “how well can you control” your little domain of expertise, but “how connected are you” to the right people and the right ideas? This new idea of connectedness is also going to transform our lives outside of work. For example: have you heard of Airbnb? It’s a site where you can rent a room in people’s houses, all over the world. Instead of paying big money for hotel rooms, you can crash at someone’s house for a fraction of the price – and you can check them out on Facebook in advance. This is an amazing new reality – instead of only “hotels” being able to offer you the value of a clean, safe place to sleep, now we can rely on the invisible safety net of thousands of “strangers” – but most people are trustworthy, and not everyone is a “stranger” for long. Have you heard of Lyft? It’s a new ride-sharing app (available only in select cities, for now) where people can use their mobile phones to immediately locate a nearby “citizen taxi-driver” who will give them a ride. Instead of owning a car (and paying the huge costs associated with that), perhaps in another few years, the new definition of success will be about living close to downtown and sharing rides with “strangers.” And Google is working on driverless cars – which could also be used for ride-sharing.

Here’s the point: instead of creating our own individual safety net with wealth and savings and physical assets (“I want to have a nice house and a safe car for my family”), the new “American Dream” is going to be about relying on the invisible safety net that was always around us all the time – but that we are now able to connect to and see and touch. Does this all sound like fantastical, overly optimistic techno-enthusiast hippie nonsense? Imagine how much your life has changed from having a smartphone. What if, instead of using your smartphone to find a restaurant or take photos, you could use it to hail a driverless Google car “taxi?” And then save thousands of dollars a year by not having to own a second car (or maybe not even own any cars at all)? The technology is almost ready.

Community is more important than individual wealth. As part of the new American Dream, I think more people are going to buy smaller houses, closer to their friends, closer to the communities and amenities that they care about. Why sign up for a big house in the suburbs and a big time-sucking commute, when you can work online and spend your “real-life” time with the people you love? We don’t have a big house, but we love it. We never want to move – unless it’s to a smaller house or condo closer to downtown. I love being self-employed because it gives me more time to hang out with my friends. This summer, I’ve spent most of my time taking my kids to the pool, going to movies with my wife, meeting my friends for drinks at our favorite neighborhood bar, having coffee with awesome, talented people, and eating at my favorite restaurants. And I’ve still managed to somehow make more money than I used to make from 40 hours a week in a cubicle.

Side projects are the new social currency: In the “old days,” watching TV sitcoms and watching Johnny Carson were the ways that Americans got their “social currency” – their sense of what is worth caring about and knowing about so they can have something to talk about with their peers. Today, I hardly ever watch TV. (Unless it’s a massively critically acclaimed show like “The Wire” or “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards” that I get recommended to me by my hilarious, savvy Facebook friends.) The reason? There is too much other great stuff to do today! Why passively watch TV when you could be writing a blog, or building a website, or coding an app, or starting a band, or hosting a wine party, or starting a business to make some extra money on the side outside of your day job? Moonlighting is easier than ever before – and more lucrative. That’s how I started as a freelance writer – I got started on Elance in January 2009 as a way to make extra money outside of my day job, and then it blew up and took off to the point where I was making so much money in 10-15 hours per week (and enjoying the work so much more) that I wondered, “What if I did this full-time?” People have the opportunity now to do so many more interesting and valuable things with their time other than watching TV. And the best way to make new connections in the world of the new American Dream is to share your passions with people. Talk about that new side business you’ve started. Share your artwork with people on Facebook. Post YouTube videos of songs you wrote. I want all Americans to be more creative, to share their talents, to share their gifts! Stop wasting time at jobs you hate. Stop watching lousy TV. Go online and make a difference instead. We are still barely scratching the surface of what is possible.

During the past 3 years, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some really great projects and amazing experiences. I love working online. I love working with clients all over the world. I love having Skype calls with clients in London and Australia and Germany and Japan. I love writing creative website content and brainstorming ideas for blog articles. I love being able to be part of multiple collaborative teams and learn “a little about a lot,” without getting pigeonholed as “only” being an expert in one particular subject area (as tends to happen at too many corporate jobs).

I’m grateful to truly be free. I hope I can keep the momentum going with my freelance business, and stay as busy as I want to be, and keep earning more money, and keep making more of a difference for my clients and my community.

I think more people are going to live like me. Not to brag, or anything – I don’t mean to suggest that I’m a trendsetter. (I’ve never been particularly “cool.”) But it just makes too much sense! The way the economy is changing, the way people’s social and cultural preferences are changing, the way we spend our time – it all points to a new sort of American Dream where we all hopefully can enjoy more freedom and a truer kind of wealth and a more democratic form of “success” that anyone can enjoy, no matter how much money they make.

Does this sound so impossible? I used to think it would be impossible to earn a full-time income working from home and getting paid over the Internet from clients all over the world.

Happy 4th of July!

Six people I knew who died by suicide

Image credit:

It took me a long time to write this.

I first started writing this article 4 years ago, then I stopped short of publishing it. I wasn’t sure how or whether to write about this topic. I wasn’t sure how much of this was really “my story” to tell. But since May is Mental Health Awareness month, and since I read this really amazing article about the new suicide epidemic, I wanted to share this story about depression, suicide, grief and loss, in the hope that it might help someone else.

During my life, I have known six people who died by suicide.

I have changed/omitted most of the names here (and some identifying details) to protect their privacy, and because I don’t want these people to be defined solely by the way they died. But I felt that it was important to write this.

In my own small way, I want to honor the memories of these six people – classmates, friends, childhood friends, co-workers – by sharing the stories of how I knew them, what I remember about them, and what they meant to me.

These are their stories.


Stan was one of my high school classmates. I didn’t know him very well at all, but I remember him from gym class – we were in the same group one time when we did archery in gym class. (Sometimes they would have us try some alternative types of sports and activities in gym class, so that it wasn’t always about who was the most naturally athletic and good at team sports.) Stan wasn’t very talkative. He didn’t seem like a particularly sociable, outgoing high-achiever, but he didn’t cause trouble or talk trash or bully anybody. He seemed like one of those regular “average” (for lack of a better word) kids who didn’t seem to have a lot of outlets for his skills at school – he didn’t particularly stand out for any reason, but he also wasn’t making life worse for anyone else. (In high school, “not making life worse for anyone else” can sometimes be high praise.) Stan was really good at archery – he hit close to the bullseye almost every time. He must have had some experience as a bowhunter.

So I don’t remember much about Stan, other than the archery. He killed himself during our junior year in high school, if I remember correctly. He was found by his younger sister. He left a note.


Todd was the oldest son of some family friends of ours, and we used to play together when we were children. Todd’s family moved away a few years ago, but I remember that there were several occasions when I was growing up when our families would get together, and the kids would all play together in the basement of Todd’s parents’ house. I don’t have many clear memories of Todd, but after he died I remembered thinking how strange it was that someone who was once a little kid around the same age as me, playing in his parents’ basement, was no longer in the world.

I hadn’t been in contact with Todd or his family for a few years, but I heard about them from time to time through my mom. She said that Todd had struggled with depression and had dropped out of college and moved back home with his parents. He used to play soccer in a weeknight rec league with his younger brother and their dad. The night Todd died by suicide, his family found a note that he’d left on his computer saying that he felt like he was never going to find a place in the world where he fit in, but he loved his family and that his brother was his best friend.

Todd was 21 years old when he died, I think. He was just a few years younger than me – I have a brother who was the same age.

Dr. Galway

The next person I knew who committed suicide was a former chief of staff for the Governor who I used to work for. (This person was a public figure, and his life and death were very public, but I’ve still changed his name here.) Shortly after he left the Governor’s office, Dr. Galway came forward and admitted to having struggled with painkiller/prescription drug addiction for years. He announced that he had relapsed and that as a result of his addiction, he expected to lose his medical license. A few months after this news came out, Dr. Galway was found dead at his home – he died by suicide. He left behind a wife and several children. Dr. Galway had worked in public health policy in the Clinton White House, and President Clinton delivered the eulogy at his funeral, saying, “Sometimes when people spend so much time helping others, they don’t hold enough back for themselves.”

Dr. Galway was a uniquely energetic, creative thinker. I always enjoyed working with him and he was one of the people at the office who I always tried to impress. The year before Dr. Galway died, I happened to run into him at a football game, and he gave me his business card. I kept it in my wallet for a long time. I remember when I left the Governor’s office, Dr. Galway wrote me a really nice, heartfelt e-mail that was full of encouraging words and compliments. I really wish I would have kept a copy of that e-mail.


Martha was one of my first clients in the advertising business, and I learned a lot from her. Everyone on our team loved working for her – she was funny and determined and cantankerous, and was a big fan of our work. More than most clients, we genuinely enjoyed finding new ideas to bring to her and we loved to win her approval. She had several children and a granddaughter; she was planning to spend her retirement volunteering at her granddaughter’s elementary school and going on volunteer mission trips to Mexico.

Less than a year after Martha retired, she committed suicide. She had come home one day and discovered that her husband of 40 years wanted to get a divorce. She had also recently had to deal with the long illnesses and deaths of two of her siblings. Who knows what goes on in a person’s mind when they decide to go through with suicide, but it’s clear that she was going through a lot of grief and stress. I was really shocked to hear that Martha had died by suicide. She always seemed like a plucky, optimistic, can-do person.


Justin was one of my roller hockey teammates. He was young – maybe 20? 21? And he was a veteran of the Iraq war (he was in the National Guard and had spent a year in Iraq). He went to war and saw a bunch of horrible things. After a few months at home, his girlfriend broke up with him, and he killed himself later that night.

Other people who knew Justin better than I did said that Justin had been struggling with some traumatic memories from the war, but they thought he’d been doing better lately. Everyone at the roller hockey rink was in shock. A lot of them had grown up with Justin, skating together and hanging out on weekends for years.

Justin was a really good hockey player – scrappy and quick and fearless. He played tenacious defense and was really good at interfering with the other team’s attack, taking the puck away from the other team and then quickly pushing it up the floor. He never seemed sad or morose to me. I never saw any signs of depression in him. I didn’t even know that he had been to war. He just seemed like a solid, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky kid who had many good years of life ahead of him.


Three years ago, shortly before the birth of our youngest son, my friend Jubal died by suicide.

Jubal is the person on this list who was closest to me, and his death was also the most recent. His funeral was held just a few days before my younger son was born. There were 500 people in the church for Jubal’s funeral, all of them crying hard. Many of my friends were there, but I didn’t even talk to anyone at the service, I just sat in the back with my wife and cried by myself.

Jubal was known and loved by so many people in our city. He had grown up here, he loved going to bars and hanging out in coffee shops, he loved his job teaching Spanish at various elementary schools (Jubal didn’t have a college degree, but somehow had carved out a niche as an independent contractor Spanish teacher – he was just that kind of person; he knew how to improvise and work outside of the established system.) Jubal was charismatic and outgoing and was respected and influential in his many social circles. He was a leader and a good listener and a party-starter. Many people would have described him as their best friend.

Entire classes of school kids came to the funeral. Jubal left behind a wife and a baby son. He left behind a big, loving, creative family of brothers, sisters and step-brothers and step-sisters.

Jubal was one of the first people I met when I moved to Des Moines in 2003. I had been living with my parents for 7 months, I had a demanding job, all of my old friends from high school and college had moved away, and I wasn’t really sure where my social life was going to come from. I sometimes wondered if moving back to Iowa had been a mistake, or if I should have moved to a bigger city instead. But I remember being impressed with Jubal and his circle of friends – they were talented, smart, fun-loving people, and I remember thinking, “If people like Jubal enjoy living in Des Moines, then maybe this will be a good place for me to live too.”

In the year or two before he died, I had kind of lost touch with Jubal – not for any particular reason, but we just weren’t seeing each other as often as we used to. I remember being excited to hear that he and his wife were having a baby. I thought that now that we were both fathers, it would be a good way for us to reconnect and have something new in common.

We were all really shocked by his suicide. No one saw it coming. Any one of those 500 people at the church would have happily done anything to help Jubal, if we would have known that he was so desperately sad.

Suicide is not Inevitable

If anyone ever happens to read this who is thinking about suicide, please don’t do it. Get help. Talk to someone now. There is always hope, and there are always other answers – no matter how bad your situation might seem, there is always a way to get back into a positive place.

Suicide is not inevitable. Suicide often results from opportunity – a loaded gun close at hand, a bridge to jump off of, some easy implement of self-destruction. (Many of the people I knew who died by suicide used a gun.)

Most people who feel suicidal can be helped and can recover and live a normal, healthy life. Just because someone wants to kill themselves in a single desperate moment doesn’t mean that they are ALWAYS going to feel that way. There was a study called “Where Are They Now?” published in 1978, which followed up on a number of people who had tried to commit suicide, and most of them went on to live many more years without ever trying again to take their lives (my emphasis added in bold):

“Where Are They Now?,” published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971. After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes. “The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature,” Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis—Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days—chances are extremely good that he won’t kill himself later.

I read an article a few years ago about the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a popular spot for suicides, in part because the bridge doesn’t have a suicide prevention barrier, which makes it quite easy for people to climb out onto the ledge and jump off. 26 people have survived jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge. There was an amazing quote from a formerly suicidal man who survived his fall from the bridge. He said, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

Suicidal People Can Be Helped

One of my favorite comedians is a guy named Rob Delaney, who has struggled with alcoholism and suicidal depression. At one point a few years ago, he was having constant thoughts of suicide. His brain was constantly telling him, “Kill yourself.”

Rob writes in this very poignant and personal blog post:

I tried very hard to step out of myself and look at the situation with a modicum of objectivity and “imagine” that I was someone who deserved help. Quite literally I thought, “I don’t think anyone else would shoot me with a shotgun, so maybe, temporarily, I’ll postpone that and try this Lexapro that everyone who knows me is recommending…”

While great strides have been made in mental health over the years, certain stigmas still exist. I strongly resisted medication at first. But after having been through depression and having had the wonderful good fortune to help a couple of people who’ve been through it, I will say that as hard as it is, IT CAN BE SURVIVED. And after the stabilization process, which can be and often is fucking terrifying, a HAPPY PRODUCTIVE LIFE is possible and statistically likely. Get help. Don’t think. Get help.


Life is really hard and depressing sometimes. Americans live in a country where people are expected to always be optimistic and “have a nice day” and put a happy face on things all the time – and in a way, this makes it worse. Because depressed people are left to feel even more isolated, like “What’s wrong with me? I live in the greatest, happiest country in the world! Why should I be depressed?”

We’re surrounded by impersonal communication and sales pitches, we’re bombarded by disturbing stories in the news, we’re constantly short on time and money, we’re starved for authentic human connections and affection. No wonder so many people despair.

I don’t know how to get people to stop dying by suicide. But I think the solution starts by being able to talk more openly about the problem.

There’s no shame in feeling depressed. Even the greatest failures can be overcome. No matter how disappointed you feel with yourself, or how badly you’ve disappointed the ones you love, they would always rather have you stay alive.

If you feel depressed, or if you know someone who does, please know that you are not alone. None of us are ever truly alone. Reach out. Share your story. Now.

Year in Review: Ben Gran’s best moments of 2012

the "Sister Wives" photo shoot

In no particular order…

1. Doing a sold-out stand-up comedy show at the Des Moines Social Club in March with Zach Peterson!

2. Visiting New York City in April.

3. Hosting a foreign exchange student from Brazil (Jan. – June).

4. Hosting my friend Satoru from Japan in July.

5. Hosting Japanese exchange students for a week in October.

6. Doing a really fun stand-up comedy show in December with Janelle James and Randy Burk!

7. Meeting some of my favorite freelance writing clients in person!

8. Doing the “Sister Wives photo shoot” (photo above) for my comedy website. Every man, at least once in his life, should get to experience a Sister Wives photo shoot.

9. Celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary.

10. Having semi-regular lunches with my friend Gordon.

11. Going out for beers with my friends Mike, Scott and Zach.

12. Driving up to Ames and going out to lunch with my brother Luke.

Our family with Sakura and Mafuyu - at Zombie Burger

13. Picking up my son from pre-school and then going out for donuts.

14. Taking my kids to visit their grandma and grandpa – or as the 2-year-old says, “Ham-ma and Ham-pa.” (Which is appropriate, because his grandparents LOVE ham.)

15. My kids getting old enough so we can send them to grandma and grandpa’s house by themselves for a Saturday afternoon visit.

16. Getting to go to a year-end “bonenkai” (“forget the year party”) with my wife’s Taiko drumming group at Miyabi 9, the best sushi restaurant in Des Moines.

17. All the times we ordered takeout from Thai Flavors.

18. All the visits to Zombie Burger and Hardee’s and Culver’s. (I have a weakness for cheeseburgers.)

19. Bike rides on Des Moines’ wonderful bike trails.

20. Taking my kids to the zoo, the playground and the swimming pool.

21. Picnics and trail hikes at Gray’s Lake.

22. Late-night nachos from Abelardo’s (24-hour Mexican drive-through).

23. Meeting many amazing new friends, too numerous to list them all here.

24. Family weekend vacations to Omaha and Sioux City. I love getting out of town with my family for a few days and staying in hotels and going to restaurants, and getting away from the clutter of everyday life.

25. Finally getting around to watching Game of Thrones. It’s the best pop culture I’ve seen in 15 years. If you’re not watching Game of Thrones, you are wasting your life. 

26. Celebrating my children’s 4th and 2nd birthdays.

27. Walking in the woods.

28. Being fortunate enough to be able to get paid to express myself creatively.

29. Getting to be a guest blogger for Des Moines is Not Boring.

30. Celebrating another year of not owning a dog.

31. Summer barbecue dinners on my parents’ deck.

32. Knowing that there is still so much to look forward to.

How to ace your Rice University admissions interview

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this blog article are not endorsed by Rice University and this article should not be construed as official advice from the Rice University admissions office. I am an alumnus of Rice University and a long-time admissions volunteer, but I am not a Rice University admissions officer. All opinions expressed here are my own.

I’ve been doing Rice University interviews as an alumni admissions volunteer for 9 years now. Some years I only do 1 or 2 interviews, some years none. (Not very many kids from Iowa apply to Rice, although I wish there were more – Rice is a really good school, and they could use more Midwesterners in their student body, in my humble opinion.)

Here are a few observations I’ve made over the years, that might be helpful for students who are trying to prepare for their Rice University interview, or any other college admissions interview:

Don’t hold back.

You only have one hour during your Rice University interview to show us what makes you special, to show us your personality, to demonstrate your passion for learning and your excitement to go to college. In a way this is not fair, because not everyone is at their best during a single 1-hour conversation. Not everyone is an extrovert and not everyone is full of easy verbal dexterity and charm.

But for that 1 hour (or less) that you are talking with your Rice University interview volunteer, try to be as outgoing as possible. Give full, detailed, colorful answers. Ask inquisitive questions. Show some enthusiasm. There are thousands of kids applying to Rice for less than 1,000 spots in the freshman class. Many kids who apply to Rice have perfect SAT scores and perfect grades – one way to stand out from the crowd is to show your admissions interview volunteer what really makes you excited about learning, what you’re hoping to get from the experience. Share your aspirations and ambitions. Don’t be afraid to show the creative, quirky side of your personality. Don’t be afraid to banter a bit with the interviewer – don’t be afraid to have an opinion. Be real. Be yourself.

Lovett Hall - Rice University, Houston, TX

Ask good questions.

Your Rice interview is not just a chance to tell us about yourself, it’s also a way for you to “interview” Rice and find out more about whether the college is the right fit for you. Show why you’re interested in Rice by asking good, detailed questions about the university, about the student experience, and about the programs you’re interested in, whether it’s the Architecture school or the Music program or the intramural flag football teams. Ask questions that only a Rice alum could answer – go deep. Such as:

  • “What’s it really like as a student at Rice?”
  • “What was most surprising about the reality of life at Rice compared to what you expected – was it better or worse, and in which ways?”
  • “Was going to Rice ‘worth it?'”
  • “Would you recommend Rice to your kids and younger family members? Why or why not?”
  • “What’s the one thing about Rice that you wish you would have known before you decided to go there?”
  • “What’s one thing you wish you would have done differently while you were at Rice?”

Tell us: Why you?

Again, there are many thousands of very bright students competing with you for a very limited number of spaces in the Rice University freshman class. Your Rice University interview can help you stand out from all the other very compelling candidates, especially if you make a memorable impression. Here are some examples of things I would love to hear from a student during a Rice University interview:

  • “I want to go to Rice because I love studying Spanish and I want to volunteer with the Latino community in Houston and get to learn more about all the cultures of the city.”
  • “During my summer internship at the hospital, I realized that I really want to be a doctor and so I’m excited to work at the Texas Medical Center while I’m a student at Rice.”
  • “I want to be around really smart, talented kids who have big ambitions in life. I want to really test myself and push myself to the limit and find out what I’m capable of academically.”

Be socially graceful.

One of the reasons we do Rice University interviews as part of the admission process is to answer the question, “would this student fit in at Rice?” Rice University has a lot of social events, not just with students but also with faculty and staff. You might often find yourself having lunch with your professors, or being invited to dinner at the home of your residential college Masters (faculty who live on-site with the students and serve as unofficial “parents” for each residential college).

Being a student at Rice brings an expectation that you’ll know how to act in social situations with lots of different people of different ages, not just other college students. Try to demonstrate your social skills and good manners. A good handshake and eye contact go a long way. Be confident. Act like you’re meeting with one of your parents’ friends – somewhat of a formal, professional conversation, but still at ease.

My most common “complaint” (and it’s not quite a complaint, but just a missed opportunity) is that I often find myself thinking, when I write up my Rice University interview reports and recommendations, “I wish that student would have told me more about themselves.” Don’t be afraid to open up a bit and tell us what you think and how you feel. This is your one best chance to really put a human face on your application.

Above all, don’t worry. Just the fact that you’re applying to a highly selective college like Rice University is a good sign that you have the motivation, focus and confidence to succeed in college and in life. No matter where you go to college, you’re going to get as much out of it as you put into it.

As an interviewer, each year I’m really impressed by the intelligence and poise of the high school seniors who are applying to Rice. I often joke, “I don’t think I could get admitted to Rice if I had to try again today.” I’m grateful to have gotten such a good education, not just at Rice, but also in my 2 years at Iowa State University, and in my 12 years of public schools. There are so many kids all over the world who never get a chance to learn to read and write, who toil at menial, dangerous jobs that will never lift them out of poverty. Even in our own wealthy country there are many people who never get a chance to reach their potential, whether it’s due to bad choices, bad influences, a bad environment or bad luck.

Just the fact that you are getting to interview for a chance to attend Rice University is a magnificent privilege. Make the most of it.

Why we love hosting exchange students from Japan

Our family with Sakura and Mafuyu - at Zombie Burger

This past week we hosted two high school students from Japan who are here in Des Moines on a sister state program from Yamanashi prefecture – their entire homeroom class of 40 students has come to Iowa for a week to take intensive English classes and stay with host families.

We had the pleasure of hosting two wonderful girls named Sakura and Mafuyu. We hosted students last year through this same program and it was such a great experience that we decided to do it again.

Hosting international visitors is one of my favorite things to do. I love sharing our home and our city with people from another country. Each year we host my friend Satoru from Japan for a week’s vacation (he’s been coming to Iowa every year since 2003, using his precious, rare days of vacation to fly 14 hours each way and stay with us – we are honored to have him each year).

Earlier in 2012 we hosted Daniel, a high school exchange student from Brazil, which was also a great experience. And now this year we’ve welcomed two new high school students from Yamanashi-ken.

Japan has a special place in my heart. I lived there for a year in 2001-2002, where I had my first job out of college teaching English in the Japanese public schools on the JET Program. It was one of the most influential years of my life and I’m glad to be able to keep up a connection with Japan as the years have gone by.

Satoru arrives in Des Moines for his 9th visit to Iowa

As time passes and I reflect back on my experiences in Japan, and on our experiences hosting these Japanese students, there are many things that continue to impress me more and more:

1. This Japanese high school sends an entire class to America for a week. The kids from Yamanashi are so mature and responsible and well-behaved! If you had sent a typical class from my (American) high school on a weeklong trip abroad, there would have been an international scandal. There would have been shoplifting and vandalism and teenage pregnancies. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by much – on my high school band trip to Orlando, several kids got caught shoplifting from Universal Studios.) It would have been a disaster – because  a lot of American kids just can’t handle the responsibility that goes with traveling overseas and representing their school and their country. And of course, I’ve taught in the Japanese public schools and I know that not all Japanese kids are polite and well-behaved; some of them are obnoxious and rude and immature. But both years participating in this program, I’ve been truly impressed by the way these kids from Yamanashi behave in a foreign country. They are a real credit to their school, their parents and their community.

2. The kids from Japan are interested in learning about other countries. They’re grateful to be here and appreciative of the opportunity. We asked the girls what they were most surprised to learn during their time in America, and they said that it was surprising to them that so many strangers said “hello” and were friendly to them. “In Japan, strangers don’t usually greet each other,” they said. “But in America, so many people said ‘Hi’ to us.” I told the girls that Iowa is unusually friendly by American standards, not that other parts of the country are rude, but if you go to a big city in the U.S. most people are too busy getting through their daily schedules, and they don’t always have time to talk and make conversation with people they don’t already know. It’s fun to hear even these basic observations from people seeing your home through new eyes.

3. The kids from Japan are very helpful and easy to have around. Both years we’ve done this program, the girls have been awesome guests – helping play with our kids, cooking dinner one night each week (last night they made Japanese beef curry and soba – two of my favorite dishes from Japan), and generally making daily life a lot nicer. It’s so much easier to deal with the daily needs of two kids under the age of 4 when you have some “big sisters” there to help keep the young ones entertained.

4. I believe that it’s important to help young people experience life in another country and culture. Living in Japan and traveling abroad have been some of my favorite and most influential learning experiences. You learn so much just by being in another country, surrounded by unfamiliar sights, learning a new language, learning how to navigate your daily life. You notice so many things and appreciate so many things about your home country and culture. It makes you a more tolerant, open-minded, well-rounded human being. I wish every young person could spend a year living and working in another country. I feel a sense of gratitude toward Japan for being a welcoming place for a young guy from America, back when I was just beginning to learn how to live on my own as an independent adult after college. I used to go to the grocery store after school each day and pack my groceries in a basket on my bike and ride up the hill to my apartment. Every weekend breakfast of successfully-prepared homemade scrambled eggs felt like a small triumph. I learned to walk into any ramen noodle shop in the city and order confidently in Japanese. I met new friends and stayed out drinking Asahi beer into the wee hours. My apartment had a tatami mat floor where I slept on a traditional style Japanese futon, and I slept very well, except for nights when there was an earthquake. (The walls would shake, slightly but noticeably, and I would hear the dishes rattling in the cupboards.) A friendly neighborhood housewife would see me walking to school in the morning and happily gave me a ride to school so I wouldn’t be late. (How many Americans would do this for a random foreign person walking down the street?) I got to know a whole circle of awesome Japanese friends through my friend Satoru and I got to see many amazing places in Tokyo that I never could have found on my own. I ate the best sushi I’ve ever had, right outside Tsukiji, the world-famous, world’s largest fish market in Tokyo. (In a year of living in Japan, I never once had a bad meal. You could spend your whole lifetime trying every restaurant in Tokyo and never be disappointed.) I got to climb the steps of ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. I got to see the old gravestones standing watch in the forest on the way to my school, containing the cremated remains of generations of ancestors. Living in another country gives you a new appreciation for the seasons, for colors, for food, for sensations, for time itself. I want to help other young people experience this same feeling, in whatever small way I can.

So I think we’re definitely going to keep signing up to host students like Sakura and Mafuyu. I feel a special connection with Japan and I want to help young Japanese people have a good experience in America, just like I had as a young person living in their country.

If anyone in the Des Moines area would like to participate as a host family for the Iowa-Yamanashi sister state program, please send me an e-mail at and I can provide more details and put you in touch with the program organizers.

The glutton’s guide to the Iowa State Fair

Cross-section of a Corn Dog

The Iowa State Fair is one of my favorite summer traditions. Every year my wife and I pack up the kids, crowd into a State Fair shuttle bus, and wander the fairgrounds stuffing our faces with grease, pork, cheese, ice cream, milkshakes, cookies, beef, breading and butterfat. It is a beautiful sight to see hordes of halter-top wearing women and mullet-sporting men crowding around the communal feeding troughs of the State Fair.

As a veteran fairgoer and dedicated year-round glutton, I’d like to share a few of my favorite State Fair eats:

Corn Dog:

You can’t go wrong with a State Fair corn dog. I usually buy one as soon as I set foot inside the Fairgrounds, just to start the visit off on the right track. Corn dogs, in case you’ve never had one, are hot dogs dipped in batter and fried on a stick. The batter is sweet and greasy, crunchy on the outside and mealy on the inside, like eating a hot dog wrapped in a pancake made of French fries. The best way to eat a corn dog is to slather the length of the dog with ketchup and mustard. If you manage to go home from the Iowa State Fair without ketchup and mustard stains all over your face, throat and chest, you’re doing it wrong.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Sometimes I like to eat one corn dog at the start of the day as an appetizer, before I eat my actual “meal,” and then I eat one more corn dog before we go home – kind of like dessert.

Cup of Cookies:

Cup of Cookies! (image credit:

At the Varied Industries Building, there’s a restaurant that sells wonderful, freshly baked Toll House chocolate chip cookies. They bake them by the dozens and hundreds on vast silver sheets the size of aircraft carriers, each little cookie proudly arrayed in disciplined rows, ready to take flight into your mouth. Gazing upon these pristine rows of cookies is like gazing through the window of a hospital nursery full of newborn babies, except you want to eat the babies and smear their chocolatey innards all over your face, chest and throat. The Cup of Cookies includes approximately 20 cookies, all stacked at impossible angles. You WILL get chocolate all over yourself. You WILL get buttery greasy goodness all over your hands, face and pants. It’s OK. Just go with it. Revel in the buttery love. Your heart rate will elevate from the salty, fatty goodness of these warm, sweet, crisp-yet-soft cookies in a cup. Cookies in a cup! Who would’ve thunk it?

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: If a Cup of Cookies isn’t enough, you can also buy a Bucket of Cookies for like $10. But that just seems excessive, even for me.

Bauder Pharmacy Peach Milkshake:

If you only eat one milkshake per year (and my wife does, because she has a dairy allergy), make sure it’s the Peach Milkshake from Bauder Pharmacy (an old-time Des Moines pharmacy soda fountain-type place) at the Iowa State Fair. The Bauder Pharmacy peach milkshake is so delicious, it will make you overlook all of the less-than-admirable qualities of the state of Georgia (“the Peach State,” I think – whatever). It’s the taste of summer, poured into a tall plastic cup and served with a straw, although a more useful serving implement would be a trowel, because I want to spoon large spadefuls of this milkshake straight into my hungry gullet.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Bauder Pharmacy’s mobile ice cream serving station also dispenses tasty ice cream sandwiches, one of which involves Mocha flavored ice cream. One year, I ate a Peach Milkshake and then went back for a Mocha ice cream sandwich, and spent the rest of the weekend in a sudden-onset diabetic coma. (It was worth it.)

Pork Tenderloin:

This is the sandwich served only in Iowa – a slab of pork tenderloin, pounded flat, batter-dipped and then fried, served on a bun with pickles, onions, ketchup and mustard. The breading is light, crispy and ever-so-slightly greasy. The pork is thin, juicy and flavorful. This is the sandwich that tempts Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims to abandon the faith of their forebears – and why not? It’s goddamn delicious.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Make sure to get a plentiful side order of fries or Onion Rings to go with your tenderloin. If not, you are a weakling and a coward and a failure.

Fried Things:

The Iowa State Fair is home to an exotic cavalcade of Fried Things on Sticks, like a Fried Twinkie, Fried Pickle, Fried Oreo, and Fried Butter. (I made that last one up – I think. Who knows, it might actually exist.) I have never actually tried any of these Fried Things. Although I have eaten Fried Pickles before at my favorite brewpubs, so that one is probably OK.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Funnel cakes really aren’t very good. Seriously. You’re better off saving your money to buy a box of donuts at a convenience store.

Turkey Leg:

There are lots of places at the Fair where you can buy freshly grilled Turkey Legs, roasted over an open flame. These are massive, meaty Turkey legs with loads of flesh hanging off of them – you can tear pieces off with your teeth and pretend you’re a caveman. It’s a primal experience to rip into piece of animal that still looks like the animal it came from – none of this civilized “ground turkey” or “turkey patties” – this is a real, honest to God LEG of an animal that used to be alive, and now you’re stuffing it into your hungry carnivorous maw. Just like Nature intended.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: There’s not a lot of seafood at the Iowa State Fair (this is a landlocked state with massive amounts of beef, pork and poultry production), so eating a Tenderloin and a Turkey Leg is the closest State Fair equivalent of “surf and turf.”

A&E Dairy Barn Milkshake:

I know, I know – I already sang the praises of the Bauder Pharmacy Peach Milkshake, and you really should try it – but in case one milkshake isn’t enough for your hunger, check out the A&E Dairy Barn, where you can see actual cows being milked to create the fixins for your chocolate, strawberry or vanilla milkshake. (Quick aside: How badass is it that humans have basically enslaved other animals and forced us to give them their milk? It’s like, “Yeah, cows – maybe you’d like to feed your young with that milk, but I have a hankering for a milkshake and a cheeseburger, so GIVE IT UP.”)

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Is there anything better than a milkshake? If I ever got diagnosed with a dairy allergy/lactose intolerance/diabetes, I think I’d just keep enjoying milkshakes, and to hell with the consequences.


Avoid overpriced beer and soda and head for your nearest Lemonade stand. The Iowa State Fair is home to dozens of friendly, family-run lemonade stands that shake up a fresh glass of lemonade, with actual lemons and lemon pulp floating in it. Raise a glass of citrusy refreshment!

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: The Lemonade stands are usually conveniently located to ice cream/milkshake dispensaries, so you can get all your liquids in one place.

Beef and Pork places:

There are various cafeterias and Iowa Pork/Beef Association barns that serve pork ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, loose meat sandwiches, and other Fairground favorites, but I don’t usually eat there because I’m too busy stuffing my face with things on sticks that have been batter-dipped and fried in vats of grease.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Did you know that Iowa is home to a Pork Queen? Is this the greatest state in America, or what?


There’s this one place, right next to the Giant Slide, that sells Watermelon in a cup for $2. It’s amazing. I don’t know why, but somehow watermelon tastes even more delicious after you’ve just consumed 4,000 calories worth of grease, pork fat, butter and salt. The guys who work at the watermelon stand are out there chopping up watermelons all day long – two and three melons at a time – and it’s mesmerizing to stand there and watch them effortlessly strip away the melon rinds with a few deft strokes of their carving knives. It’s like watching samurai swordsmen, or master shipbuilders carving a massive tree trunk into a main mast. With just a few simple strokes of the knife blade, they transform a massive melon into a tasty, fleshy pile of diced pink fruit, ready to apportion into plastic cups (or buckets – I think they serve the watermelon in “Bucket” sizes as well). So anyway, get some watermelon, because its high water content will help to counteract the effects of the 5,000 milligrams of sodium you just consumed today.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: The watermelon stand also serves hot dogs.