October 2006 Archives

Bird on Nest

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Hand sewn felt cell phone cover - day and night.

Phrasebook

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One of the sort of funny things about living in Japan and traveling overseas is that when you want a phrasebook to carry with yo, you either have to plan ahead and order online or buy a Japanese one.

I never remember to order one in advance, but fortunately, we've found a clever series called "Point and Speak" that has lots of pictures labeled in Japanese and the other language. We bought one for India (Hindi) because I'd like to be able to speak a little bit.

So I'll sound out a few words as noted in the book. I wonder if anyone will think it strange that I speak Hindi with a Japanese accent?

Creative Playlist

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creative perspectivesI'm not sure that I ever properly thanked everyone who did the Creative Perspectives mix trade with me a while back. I should shake your hands, all of you.

These CDs have become the soundtrack for my sewing projects and they work like you wouldn't believe. This week, I have churned out four pairs of pants, two skirts and a smock, developing two patterns, (publishing the better one earlier in the week) and modifying a commercial pattern as I uncovered its flaws.

When I cue up all the Creative Perspectives albums alphabetically by the giver's name, my playlist starts with Finally by the Frames (how I usually feel about screwing up the courage to cut into the fabric!) and ends with Carolyn's Fingers by the Cocteau Twins.

And there's not a single repeated song in the day's music. I love it!

Caramel Corn

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recipe thursdayCaramel corn is an American autumn tradition and turned into popcorn balls, a classic Halloween treat from my childhood when neighbors could still be trusted not to poison us kids.

This is a particularly good recipe, creating buttery caramel that cools to an uneven but crispy coating on the popcorn. Making the caramel isn't too difficult, but you need to understand the stages of candy making. Alternately, you can use a candy thermometer, but that's not nearly as much fun.

This is not a quick recipe - making the caramel takes a good long half hour and lots of stirring. But it is entirely worth the time and effort.

Caramel Corn
makes 10 cups

10 cups freshly popped corn
1 cup peanuts (optional)
200 g (2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda

Spread the popcorn and peanuts evenly on two non-stick baking trays. Keep warm in a 120°C/250°F oven.

Over medium heat, bring to a boil butter, sugar, corn syrup and salt. Cook to firm ball stage (245°F), stirring frequently. Remove from heat and add in the baking soda. The caramel will foam.

Drizzle caramel over the popcorn and peanuts, mixing to coat as evenly as possible. Return to oven and bake for 30-45 minutes, stirring well every 15 minutes or so. Cool to room temperature to crisp the caramel. Store in an airtight container.

If you want to make popcorn balls, form the coated corn into fist-sized balls after removing the caramel corn from the oven. Be careful not to burn yourself. Cool them to set the shape and wrap in a twist of waxed paper.

Mock Wrap Skirt

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For our upcoming trip to India, I wanted a lightweight, appropriately modest skirt that would be comfortable to walk in and also easy to pack and hand-wash in hotel sinks. I came up with this straight line, mock wrap skirt in linen.

It has a separate elastic waistband that allows the panels of the skirt to be s-folded to form the wrap before the waistband is applied. I'm sure this is standard technique, but I've never tried it before. Works like a charm, I must say.

The whole thing is made of rectangles, so you only need to do some measuring and cutting. I wrote up an illustrated pattern with instructions, which you can download for free. The pattern includes the measurements for cutting, a list of materials, and a larger version of the image below.

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Mock Wrap Skirt Pattern
492 KB PDF

Please don't resell this pattern or pass it off as your own work because I will get annoyed when I find out.

Peas and Nori

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Tod was describing the unusual miso soup he had for lunch today, rich in aonori. His dining companion said she didn't like it and preferred wakame in her soup.

He told me this and I laughed. I knew exactly the subtle differences in flavour he described. Maybe to most non-Japanese, one seaweed is as good as another, but the difference between aonori and wakame is as stark as the one between peas and lima beans.

I wondered what other foods can be paired like that - obviously different if your palette is familiar with them, but indistinguishably similar if it is not. Tod & I made a list of a few. Can you come up with any?

Coke and Pepsi
Basmati rice and jasmine rice
Spaghetti and egg noodles
Chicken and...frog/crocodile/fill-in-the-blank exotic meat
Chocolate cake and devil's food cake
Butter and margarine
Roquefort and Gorgonzola
Shiraz and Merlot wines
Budweiser and Heineken

A la mode

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"You should have some of those," Tod has prompted several times now, pointing to various young women in tailored shorts. I'd call those ladies "well-heeled," but they are all wearing boots and knee socks with their shorts.

Today I saw a woman whose boots were wider than her ass. I kid not. Her heavily fur-lined boots were folded over into cuffs, doubling their bulk around her calves. She was naturally bowlegged, so it didn't mess up her gait too much. With the boots she wore tailored shorts, a wide gold lame belt and a fur jacket with several layers of pearl encrusted t-shirts underneath.

I think this season, my a la mode will have to be pie.

Material Choices

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creative perspectivesDo you have trouble choosing materials for your projects? I do.

I can easily draft up the plans whether I'm doing a sewing project or some woodworking or jewelry or even a painting. And while planning, I get an idea for what I wood, metal or fabrics I want to use.

Then I go to the store and see everything that's available - all the possibilities I didn't even think about - and I get stuck wandering the aisles for hours, rethinking my plans. "Gee, if I did it with this fabric, I could use that scrap I have a home as a pocket." "What if I used a heavier guage copper, would I gain durability at the expense of flexibility?"

Or I realise that what I want doesn't exist. A couple of weeks ago I drew up plans for a small wooden shrine. The proportions are great and the size is just what I want. But the boards I spec'd are non-standard sizes, so the shrine is not yet built.

Today I went to Okadaya to get three meters of lightweight indigo linen and maybe one other fabric. It took me two hours and I ended up with my three meters of blue, plus 2.5 meters of novelty print cotton, 2.5 meters of brown cotton gauze and two meters of cotton plaid/stripe. I will sew them all up into skirts and pants this weekend, but that's not what I'd planned.

So when you go shopping for materials, do you have a firm idea, or do you change plans mid-stream?

Real Home Soup

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recipe thursdayI post a lot of recipes here and many of them are my own original dishes. Perhaps I have misled you into believing I am careful in the kitchen, a stickler for measuring, and always prepared at mealtimes. That's not real life in my kitchen. Most nights, I make do with what's around me because I am too lazy or busy to go shopping. For Tuesday dinner, I made a soup that is the ideal example of how I truly cook.

Real Home Soup
Serves 2-6, probably

Take a two-day old chicken carcass from fridge. Use your fingers to pick off any edible meat bits, cutting them into bite-sized pieces as needed and setting aside in a bowl. Decide not to make stock; toss picked-over carcass in garbage.

Open vegetable crisper bin. Remove contents and array on kitchen counter. Separate into two piles: Safe and Bad. Consider whether the Bad pile has anything salvageable by cutting, washing or peeling. Reconsider the wilting carrot, as it's only black at the pointy end (the rest would soften in the soup anyway, right?). Rearrange piles accordingly and dump the discards into the garbage. Prepare the Safe vegetables for soup. Use everything, including unlikely candidates such as the heart of lettuce and half a cucumber. Add chopped vegetables to chicken bowl.

Open freezer. Remove plastic container of stock you made last time you roasted a chicken. Regret tossing the carcass - now you won't have stock in stock. Run container under hot water to thaw the edges, then slide contents into soup pot. Turn stove to high and wait for stock to liquefy, stirring when you feel like it.

While the stock thaws, root around fridge for possible side dishes. Find an unopened package of Havarti cheese. Wander into office and chat Darling Husband to ask him to pick up some bread on the way home. Get distracted checking mail. Take a call from a friend asking if there's an extra place at the table tonight. Tell him yes, of course, then consider what will extend the soup a little bit.

Return to the kitchen when you hear the stock boiling. Dump in the chicken and vegetables. Add some cold water to bring the soup to a suitable veg-liquid ratio. Stir in a dash or two of salt and MSG, cover the pot and simmer.

About 20 minutes before Darling Husband and the guest arrive, rummage around the pantry for that half package of egg noodles from 6 weeks ago. Perfect soup extender! Crush nests in your fist to make spoon-sized noodle bits. Toss into simmering soup adding a little more water then a little more again just in case the noodles expand more than you remember (They do).

Put on your apron and smile when DH and the guest walk in the door. You've just slaved over their dinner, lucky guys.

Indian Embassy

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I walked over to the Indian Embassy today to apply for visas for an upcoming trip.

I was disappointed that the consular wing didn't look very Indian. I was hoping for rich curry colors and the scent of incense. But the building is just a regular blocky office building with only a small but shiny brass plate to indicate that it's an embassy. No proudly waving flags, no armed guards.

The waiting room was drab and old - tobacco colored linoleum, asbestos ceiling tiles, dust-encrusted stucco walls. Three standing desks, the sort with attached pens and perpetual calendars, dominated one side of the room, backed by a green bulletin board covered with handwritten notices and printed information in Japanese and English. A huge air conditioning unit throbbed behind the ranks of 50 metal chairs. Across from the desks three service counter safety windows were curtained closed when I arrived.

The decor was minimal. One large printed cotton tapestry hung next to the air conditioner. Two cheaply framed promotional posters hung from glue-backed plastic hooks and two tourism posters (the Taj, of course, and an ironic "Incredible India") tilted like drunken holidaymakers. A metal shelf displayed half a dozen pottery bowls, two blue elephant statues, and the TV that tracked our "take a number" tickets.

Fortunately, I was near the head of the line and didn't wait long. The processing was brief and efficient and I was out of there in 25 minutes with a receipt for our visas which will be ready on Friday.

Dishes

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Elizabeth Andoh selects dishes for a photo shoot.

One of the many benefits to doing ad hoc creative work is that I sometimes get requests from friends to help them out in interesting ways. Yesterday I went over to Elizabeth's to take some pictures of ceramic dishes.

Her dish cabinet, which she says fit exactly the width of the room she and her husband lived in when they first married, is stuffed full of treasures to reflect the current season. She changes the cabinet's contents as the weather shifts. The off-season ceramics are stored in a weather-proof shed on the balcony.

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Jessica Wickham's nesting bowls

As she picked out her favorites from the cabinet, Elizabeth shared their histories - a 250 year old miniature bowl belonged to her mother in law, an original Bizen dish, pottery made by friends and famous associates, rare pieces and bargain finds from recycle shops. The mix is eclectic but perfectly harmonious and our photo session turned out some good results.

New Phone Does Tricks

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I replaced my slowly failing, five year old keitai with a brand new shiny handset, a D902iS. Wow, has the technology changed. My old phone made calls, sent mail, and accessed i-mode sites. Here's what my new phone lets me do:

  • Take photos
  • Shoot movies
  • Videoconference
  • Replace store point cards
  • Collect digital flyers and coupons
  • Pay for purchases in stores around town
  • Browse the Internet
  • Send and receive e-mail
  • Play music
  • Record sounds
  • Look up words in built-in dictionaries
  • Play games

Oh, yes, it makes phone calls, too.

17 Years

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Grinning over the special anniversary fruit platter from the staff at Miyuki

Mushroom-Nira Gnocchi

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recipe thursdayI'm really fond of gnocchi as a base for sauces of all sorts, but if you prefer a different pasta, this sauce will work well on pretty much anything. You might even try it over beef or chicken.

Nira is a sort of garlic-y chive that's very popular in Japan. Sold in large bunches, they are often used in Chinese foods, like ramen and gyoza. In this dish, little flakes of nira coat the pasta like confetti!

Mushroom-Nira Gnocchi
serves 2

3 cups mixed mushrooms (shiitake, eringi, shimeji, etc), chopped
1 clove garlic
1 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup nira, chopped into 1/2 cm bits
1 Tbsp soy sauce
250 g gnocchi

Saute the chopped mushrooms and garlic in butter while the gnocchi boils. Add nera and shoyu just before draining the gnocchi. Toss the gnocchi with the mushrooms and serve.

Gaijin Complaint

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I'm feeling sick of having my differences pointed out.

It's a condition I think most foreign residents in Japan suffer at some point. For some people, it gets so bad their only treatment is to return to their home countries. Others find a suitable remedy and recover with time. I've been relatively symptom-free for over eight years but all of a sudden, I'm struck down with Gaijin Complaint.

What are the indications?

1. "We Japanese" phrasing starts a raging fever.

For example, a friend's Japanese teacher did it to me the other week. "We Japanese use those as sewing boxes," she said when I was showing my friend a beautiful Showa-era cabinet I intended to use as a jewelry box. Would she have said that to a Nihonjin? Certainly not. Did I need to be corrected? Certainly not.

Then a few days later, a shopkeeper called me mezurashii (unusual) because I filled in a form without actually looking at it and wrote my name on the address line. "Japanese people would have put their name here," he said, pointing. If I were Japanese, would he have said that? I think not.

2. Assumptions about my eating preferences make me lose my appetite.

I do not want a fork with my conbini salad; I'd prefer chopsticks just like all "you Japanese." Thank you.

3. Excessive staring causes me to withdraw.

I grapple with a desire to blend in and the knowledge that I never will. I am sized and colored differently to 99% of the population. I am a novelty who is tired of being noticed. On the other hand, I don't want to hang around the gaijin hot spots like the Pink Cow, Yoyogi Park or the foreign ghettos in Minato-ku

4. Presumptions about my comprehension make me to prickle all over.

Whether it's what they are saying or some aspect of culture, it aggravates me when people think I don't understand. I'm sure in lots of ways I don't but I'm not entirely clueless.

For example, yesterday there was a handwritten notice in our lobby stating "Futons are bulky trash and need to be collected by the city for a fee; please contact the management office." When I left the building in the morning, the manager caught my eye and rose from his desk, which he only does if I am stopping by to pay the water bill. Did they assume that I had thrown away a futon? Ha, ha. It wasn't me.


I don't like this dis-ease. I love living in Japan. I want to be comfortable again, so of course I've been thinking of possible palliatives. Cheerfully embrace my gaijin-ness, or strive to behave more like Japanese? Improve my language skills, or bury myself deeper in my English-speaking bubble? Point out discrimination in a polite non-confrontation way, or pitch a screaming fit every time I'm offended?

Somehow I think some of these might work better than others. What do you think? How did you handle your spell of gaijin complaint?

Omiyage

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Every resort town, holiday destination, theme park, and museum in Japan has a gift shop full of souvenirs- the obilgatory omiyage that travelers bring home for their family and coworkers.

Visit any of these shops, or the quaint village streets lined with them and you will see your fair share of Hello Kitty kerchiefs, brightly colored plastic doodads, and keitai straps with the sights printed on them, or if you are touring a place proud of its local history, some handmade textiles, pottery, lacquerware or basketry.

Many omiyage are edible and that's probably best, because how many phone straps does a person need?

Some of these tidbits are local specialties - dried seafood, artisanal sake, or jam made from produce grown in the district - but most are merely one of a half dozen types of popular sweets packaged up in easy to carry boxes and wrapped with appropriately themed paper. Most frequently seen boxed omiyage are chocolates, vanilla creme cookies, and the ever-green favorite, manju, steamed buns filled with sweet bean paste.

Geki Manju

This box of manju I received last week takes the cake. These limited edition Geki Manju are the omiyage from the Self Defense Forces. I guess you need to have something to bring home to Mom when you're on leave.

To the beach!

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My destination

Today is Sports Health Day, a public holiday commemorating the1964 Olympics in Tokyo. I'm going to go be healthy and sporty by taking a train to the beach (collecting MJ en route), enjoying a nice long walk, then soaking in an onsen this evening. The weather is beautiful today and I'm excited to get going.

Blackballed

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...or maybe pink

"The boys" have gone to Izu for the long weekend. I feel abandoned and annoyed.

While I understand and support their need and desire to be independent from me and their various partners, I don't like being excluded because I lack a penis. Couldn't they come up with a better excuse to leave me behind - a real reason - or do something I'm uninterested in so I don't want to go?

"It's a different dynamic when you're not there," Tod lamely explained, as if that was supposed to make me feel better.

"I can't consider you one of the boys; you're very much female to me," Jonathan once tried to placate me. It wasn't the compliment he intended.

Until this group of friends, I've always been "one of the boys" and I am most displeased to be relegated to femininity. It's not my fault I'm a girl. It's not my fault, I say. This gender division is unkind, unfair and completely out of step with how I think about myself.

(Plus, I have an abandonment issue and these weekends away sting a bit.)

Spicy-Sweet Barbecue Sauce

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recipe thursdayThis was adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe for Bourbon Barbecue Sauce. I had no bourbon on hand, well none that Tod would let me cook with, so that's where the deviations began. On top of that, I'd just received some Mexican Guajillo chiles from a friend. There are a lot of changes to the orriginal, and it turned out to be quite delicious on our grilled pork ribs, so here is the recipe for you to try.

Spicy-Sweet Barbecue Sauce
makes 1 cup

1 cup ketchup
2 Tbsp dark molasses
1/4 cup corn syrup
3 Tbsp brandy
2 Tbsp wholegrain mustard
1.5 Tbsp Chipotle hot sauce
1 Guajillo chile, minced
1 Tbsp Worchestershire sauce
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder

Combine everything in a saucepan, bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer (stirring freqently) for about 15 minutes, or until thickened.

Animating

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My first attempt at lip synch animation

An ongoing project of mine is a little documentary film about world population. I started it more than a year ago, then dropped it when I couldn't figure out how to illustrate some of the points. Well, I'm back at it now, having rewritten the script with renewed ideas about what needs to go into the film, and I will be illustrating the points by actually illustrating the points.

I've been testing out this tool called ToonBoom Studio. Based on the sample above, I need a lot more work on my illustration skills, but the tool itself does everything I need. It's going to take me weeks to really learn it and to get into the groove of animating, but I enjoyed what I did today and it's been a long time since I've challenged myself with new software.

So I think I've finally found the right way to go with the the population film: part animation, part archival footage, part maps and charts. Look for a completed project in...oh, another year or so.

Returned from the Simple Life

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OK, I'm back. I'm sure you've been asking yourself all week, "Does she like being offline?"

I hated it. But I got used to it.

Every spare moment I had, my impulse was to sit down and check my mail; to see which friends were online and chat with them; to look up some fact I was curious about. To check the weather! It took all week to lose the habit of walking into the office and bringing the computer out of sleep mode with a jiggle of the mouse.

Being offline forced me to recognise how much time I have in my life. I see now that I use the computer to procrastinate, while still being able to say I've moved forward on something by researching it. I don't do the scary, likely-to-fail parts of my projects.

So when I approached the animations for my latest film project, I balked. I simply could not do them. I wanted to find out what other animators had done; check possible color schemes; play with ideas in digital form. But I couldn't. I had some analog ideas but I didn't implement them because I'm uncertain of my analog skills. So I didn't do the animations and I hate myself for that.

The rest of the week was spent avoiding the animations. I designed a butsudan and some storage benches. I took a watch to be repaired. I walked into Otemachi to have lunch with Tod. I took other long walks to Jimbocho, Ikebukuro and Ueno. I went swimming. I ate lunch outdoors. I jotted thoughts in longhand in a notebook. I reverse engineered one of my favorite daypacks and remade it in new fabric that took me hours to find. I took everything off the rack in the office and reorganised the wires and layout of my gear. I arranged a three week trip to India (I admit that required a bit of e-mailing, but I kept it to a minimum). I cooked and cleaned and did all the usual things, too.

In the coming week I will try to remain more in the world and less online as I think it is good for me, even though I don't like ti much. But I'll keep up the weblog and the 40x365 posts. And maybe I'll poke my head into the chat world. Just for a little while.

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