Facebook, T-shirts, and Other Odds and Ends

January 31, 2010

A couple of weeks back, I broke down and actually set up a Facebook profile. Don’t bother to go there yet; there is nothing to be seen save for one picture of yours truly in the company of Hotei, the chubby Chinese god of abundance (and that has already been posted in this blog). I finally joined as a means of staying in touch with my daughter, who is more scrupulous about returning Facebook messages than she is about either emails or phone calls. What I didn’t expect was the influx of messages from folks I hadn’t heard from in years. I have to say it was kind of weird getting an email saying that “so-and-so wants to be your friend”, especially when so-and-so was my brother (to cite one example), and as far as I know, already my friend. Still, it has been pretty amusing, and I can’t wait to see who comes out of the woodwork next.

One such friendship request came from my cousin Cindy (with whom I have also maintained a friendship prior to Facebook), who asked that I post some pics of weird fractured-English Japanese T-shirts, so here are a few of my finds from earlier this afternoon:

I guess "raised wisdom" is better than the unleavened variety...

The "autheticity" is in doubt...

Humility is key, don't you think?

That adoult mood always gets me so flushed...

Nothing I could say could improve on this...

And then there were a few other odds and ends from this weekend that I thought merited inclusion:

When it comes to H1N1, you can't be too careful...

It's that old "L-versus-R" thing again...

Franchise opportunities available!

A manly health aid...

Humility is key, part 2; a Yamaha record player

(*$@&@%#@! Chin’s Grocery Store

January 31, 2010

Sometimes you have to actually go somewhere to get a true sense of the place. A TV special or even an article in a pictorial-laden publication such as National Geographic doesn’t begin to give you the complete picture: the sounds and smells of the place, the foreign-ness of the local language, the feeling of tranquility or danger, and most especially, the unusual application of English that is endemic in the areas of the world where “the mother tongue” is not the first language.

Case in point: in Hong Kong a few months back, I was looking out the tour bus window when I saw a hastily painted sign (in English) on the side of a building, a scribbling of the caliber usually associated with gang “tagging”, suggesting someone’s extreme dissatisfaction with “Chin’s Grocery Store” (see title, above). Sadly, since this is a PG-rated column, I cannot include a picture (although you can rest assured that I took literally dozens), but suffice it to say that it was about the crudest epithet that could be lodged in English against the aforementioned grocery store. A word which, had I used it in my childhood, would have caused my mouth to be washed out with soap by my mortified mother. And here it was, in capital letters, in plain view of the tour bus, adorning the side wall of a pleasant-seeming neighborhood food market.

So, when the bus made its next pit stop at some cultural oasis or another, I took the guide aside and asked what was up with Chin’s, what on earth a grocery store could possibly have done to engender such animosity. She looked a bit perplexed as she flipped through the images on the screen of my digital camera, then gave a big grin as she realized exactly what she was seeing. “Um, this is a bad word in America, no?” I acknowledged that it was, without a doubt, the baddest of English bad words. “Here,” she said, “it is not a bad word. It is just the store owner’s first name.” Excuse me? Let me get this straight: old Mr. and Mrs. Chin named their newborn son (*$@&@%#@!? “It is not so uncommon here,” she went on. And indeed, this turned out to be the case: as the day progressed, I found several other examples of the unexpected given name, on billboards, shop windows and once on the side of a delivery van.

It got me to thinking in a couple of odd directions: first, what if Mr. and Mrs. Chin moved their family to the US? Poor (*$@&@%#@! would be suspended from school on day one, after answering the very first question posed to him by his new teacher. Or spin it the other way: an American family with a grade-school-age kid visits Hong Kong, whereupon young offspring happens upon the aforementioned sign. “Hey dad, check that out…” The father, upon assessment of the situation, posits that (*$@&@%#@! is actually somebody’s name. The kid, realizing the street cred that this discovery will give him upon returning home, basks in the sensual warmth that only an unpunished bad word can summon up in one that age. The mother grabs the dad urgently by the elbow, flashes him a dark look and mutters under her breath, “I told you we should have taken him to Epcot.”

Art Is Where You Find It (not necessarily where you might expect it…)

January 24, 2010

For twenty-odd years I have been a fan of Japanese art: woodblock prints, paintings, scrolls, and furniture. Last year, on a chance Saturday trip to nearby Inokashira Park, I happened upon an art form that a) I didn’t expect to find in Japan, and b) until I did, I suspect I would not have considered it a true art form (but I do now, believe me!). This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to pay another visit to Inokashira Park, and to my surprise, on a weekday in the dead of winter, the artist was again busy at work, and with a gaggle of approving spectators close at hand.

The artist is Moto-san, a fifty-three year old gentleman whose sense of humor and charm transcend both age and language. Several afternoons each week, he can be found in Inokashira delighting children of all ages, doing magic and crafting the most elaborate balloon figurines I have ever seen. There is more than a bit of the showman in Moto-san; think “Ronald McDonald meets Elton John”, and you would not be far off in the assessment of his costume. His hair is dyed raspberry pink and shaved into the shape of a heart at the crown.

He keeps up a relentless patter which is immensely entertaining even to a non-Japanese speaker; judging by the crowd response, it is even more so to those who do speak Japanese. He engages audience members young and old, bringing them into his tricks and making them look a bit silly in the process, to the immense amusement of those not chosen. As the only foreigner in the crowd, I knew I was going to be singled out for some special treatment, and indeed I was. I was given a balloon to inflate, a simple thin balloon that was going to look sort of like an extended sausage when blown up. That was the plan, at least. The fact of the matter was that I met with exactly no success whatsoever, occasioning peals of laughter and shouts of encouragement from those standing close by. One of the three others chosen for this experiment had better luck (or lungs) than I, but the other two met with dismal results. Then, with a sigh of feigned disgust, Moto-san retrieved the four balloons from us and proceeded to blow them up, in unison—with his NOSE!

(For an encore, he blew up a rubber glove, of the sort used to protect delicate hands when washing dishes, and continued inflating it until it was the size of a turkey, at which point it popped! As soon as I figure out how to upload videos, I will add a few; in the meantime, check out this link at YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-g7Vjak65Mk)

Oddly, this whole experience left me feeling a bit philosophical (at least after I got my breath back and my eardrums stopped hurting). The purpose of art, I think, is to appeal to different people in different ways, to touch some part of them that daily life doesn’t typically reach. Perhaps it brings them a sense of peace, or longing, or insight, or even unease, but in the best cases, it makes them reconsider their assumptions about beauty in all its various forms. It can bring out the wonder of a child in the heart of a rather more jaded adult. It can bring back memories of a simpler or happier time. And for a child, it can open up a world of magic and imagination that can add broad washes of color to their later lives. If that seems an acceptable definition of art, then there can be little argument that Moto-san is an artist, a living national treasure. Just have a look at the faces of his harshest critics:

Whodunit Overflow…

January 19, 2010

As I prepare my reviews for the BookPage Whodunit column (check it out at www.bookpage.com) , I have to winnow down the choices to a mere four books, from the fifteen or twenty mysteries that cross my desk each month. Sometimes, there are four that are just head and shoulders above the rest in terms of writing quality, suspense quotient, humor, etc; other times, like this past month, I wish I had space to review another two or three, as there were so many deserving choices.

The Bricklayer; Noah Boyd; William Morrow; ISBN 9780061827013; 400pp; $24.99

One case in point is Noah Boyd’s gripping debut novel, The Bricklayer. The title character is Steve Vail, an iconoclastic ex-FBI agent with serious authority issues; he was tough, he got the job done, but he relentlessly called a spade a spade in a milieu where a certain amount of political savvy might have served him better, and it got him unceremoniously sacked. Nowadays, he works as a self-employed bricklayer; the money is not as good, the excitement factor is considerably lower, but on the plus side, he quite likes his boss. So it is a bit of a surprise when his services are once again required by the bureau, to track down a group of extortionists who are threatening to kill famous figures one by one (and making good on said threats) if the FBI does not pay their “ransom” beforehand. Vail’s would be handlers promise him full autonomy, the ability to work “off the grid”, unconstrained by any of the rules (Miranda, search and seizure, wiretapping) that keep law enforcement agencies in check. So let the games begin…

Vail is a character in the mold of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, a slightly loose cannon who doesn’t take guff from anybody, but with a “heart of gold” side that only a few close associates ever get to see. He is gifted with a reasonably good visage, brains, brawn, skills and a good sense of humor, basically everything you need to succeed in a suspense series (or in life, for that matter). The Bricklayer is a great series opener; I am looking forward to installment two.

Fantasy in Death; J.D. Robb; Putnam; ISBN 9780399156243; 368pp; $26.95

J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas stories, genre-benders of the first order, are a complex mashup of police procedural, detective novel, and sci-fi thriller, set some fifty years in the future. Robb’s post-postmodern New York City would be easily recognizable to Big Apple fans of the current day, but with some significant evolutionary changes: androids, often indistinguishable from humans except under close examination, perform many of the more mundane functions of daily life; virtual reality has become significantly less virtual and much more real; computers and computer games have evolved to a level almost unimaginable given current technology. Case in point: Bart Minnock, founder of computer gaming company U-Play, has a project in development which promises to up the ante in computer games; the player can choose his milieu, his opponents, his weaponry, from a virtually infinite array of choices. What even Bart Minnock didn’t realize, however, was just how dangerous his new game could be; when homicide detective Eve Dallas first lays eyes on him, he is lying on the floor of his game room, his head completely separated from his body. Eve is no techie, but she has a couple of gamers on her team, and their combined skills as computer geeks and investigators serve them well as they pick apart the threads of the most unusual case of their careers. Fantasy in Death is a welcome addition to one of the longest-running series in genre fiction (absolutely the longest, if you consider the genre as being “police procedural detective science fiction”), bound to appeal to “Bladerunner” fans and their ilk worldwide.

Betcha Didn’t Expect “Heartwarming”!

January 16, 2010

I know y’all don’t come here for “heartwarming”, but every now and then it does us all good to mix it up a bit, I think, so here goes: I got a letter from my step-cousin, Dick Pennock, shortly before Christmas, in which he let me know of a project that was near and dear to his heart. His father, Anthony Phillips “Tony” Pennock, was about to turn ninety, and Dick was soliciting reminiscences for publication in a family journal to be presented to Tony as a birthday gift. In the letter, Dick asked each of the members of his extended family to contribute an essay based on the theme “What Made Me What I Am.” His only instructions to the group at large were: “Cover as much or as little as you like. Keep it under three pages. I mean, you’re fascinating, I’m sure, but not THAT fascinating…”

I have known Tony since the summer of 1967, when his brother Jack married my mom, or to put it another way, since Tony was younger than I am now. Because he lives in Atlanta, and I am a leaf in the wind, we don’t cross paths all that often. The last time, I believe, was shortly after my stepfather’s funeral in 2005. There were three memorial services, actually, one in Cape Cod, one in Prince Edward Island and one in Pennsylvania, for my stepfather put down a taproot in every place he loved and those were three places he loved without reservation. Tony stayed with me for a few days after the PEI gathering, and we talked well into the night each of those days. This is not by any means uncommon when we get together. Our last marathon was also after a funeral, my mother’s, after which Tony accompanied my brother Thane and me on a road trip from Canada to Boston, where we would catch flights to our respective homes: Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Nashville. It was that experience that I chose to write about in the closing of my contribution to the journal:

“By way of a birthday note, Tony, I would like to say that one of my finest travel experiences ever was the ride home from Prince Edward Island with you and Thane after my mom’s funeral. (For those who don’t know this, Tony had air reservations back to Atlanta after the service, but at the last minute asked Thane and me if he could ride with us as far as Boston, a day’s drive from Prince Edward Island, just to be able to hang out together and catch up.) The three of us talked about everything under the sun, as members of this extended family have been known to do. We argued, we agreed, we laughed, we commiserated, and we solved most if not all of the world’s problems.  After Jack’s memorial service, you stayed with me again in PEI for a few days, during which time, in my estimation, we entertained one another exceptionally well. Given your religious leanings or lack thereof, I think it might amuse you that the closest I have gotten to prayer in the past forty years was when you took the helm of my then-new Mini Cooper and the two of us went for a supercharged spin through rural Kings County.”

In all, some two dozen family members contributed essays to the journal: Tony’s three sons, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, and their spouses/significant others as well as several of us (myself included) who share no DNA, but think of one another as family nonetheless. Our lives are the richer for it.

Happy Birthday, Tony!

It seems Kit Kats are not the only foodstuffs in Japan with unlikely flavor variants…

January 14, 2010

KitKats Once More

January 14, 2010

The one on the right is Yuubari melon flavored KitKat, a taste treat from the northernmost main island of Japan, Hokkaido. The one on the left, which I have not tried yet, is (as you might have guessed from the picture) the Baked Corn flavored KitKat, quite possibly the answer to a question nobody asked.


January 14, 2010

Let me say at the outset that I never intended this blog to be a product promotional tool (other than perhaps the book reviews that show up here with some regularity), but I have bought  something with which I am quite enamored, and I want to share it with you.

A bit of background might be in order: some years ago, I tackled a BookPage assignment to pen reviews on a bunch of cookbooks from exotic places: Portugal, Malaysia, Argentina, and Brazil, to name but a few. The task was to write about these books from the perspective of a novice chef (and believe me, nobody could have been more of a novice than I), trying out some of the recipes and reporting on the results. My first dish, a pork tenderloin in a lime, coconut, cilantro and chile pepper sauce, was met with kudos from all who tasted it, and it launched (lunched?) my new avocation as cook-in-training.

When I remodelled my kitchen in Canada a couple of years back, I installed a high- end stove with a European full-convection oven. I had never used one of these before, but the promo literature promised speedier baking, better energy efficiency, and tastier foods; what’s not to like? And indeed, I have been quite pleased with it.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I am in a much smaller space in Japan (my whole apartment would fit into the kitchen and dining room of my house in Canada). Here, nobody has an American style full-size stove; most folks get by with a microwave and a toaster oven, and a separate gas-powered hotplate sort of affair for stovetop cooking. Those who have an oven typically have a free-standing countertop unit which is slightly bigger than a microwave oven, capable of roasting a chicken, for example, but nothing larger. A turkey? Forget about it.

A brief segue, a seeming non-sequitur perhaps, but I will tie it in: there is one major problem in Japan, a serious cookie shortage in the supermarkets. In the US, you can go into any Safeway and find a hundred or more different kinds of cookies on offer: ginger snaps, vanilla wafers, chocolate chip cookies, fortune cookies, oatmeal cookies, cookies from the four corners of the world. In Japan, you can get: Oreos, Ritz Crackers, a half-dozen local varieties which might have red bean filling or something even less palatable, and one confection that tastes like raisins crushed between sheets of cardboard. Clearly, if I wanted cookies, I was going to have to make my own. Which would require an oven. Now we are back on track again.

After doing a bit of market research, I happened upon the Healsio, an avant-garde oven made by the electronics firm of Sharp. This is about the slickest oven on the planet, a bit on the pricey side to be sure, especially for its size, but it is years ahead of the competition. For one thing, it is a steam oven, so one can make French bread that is soft and yeasty in the center, and crunchy and delicious on the outside, indistinguishable from the products on offer at a Left Bank boulangerie. The precise amount of steam is pre-programmed for perfect results every time. (This is from my experience, not from the promotional literature.) Baking cookies could not be easier: simply press “cookies” on the menu, place the tray in the oven, and it will bake them for the appropriate length of time, until the edges are a crispy golden brown and the centers soft and chewy. You don’t set the temperature, you don’t set the time, just press “cookies” and then go about your business. Additionally, it is a full convection oven; the latest examples include microwave capabilities as well. There are a half-dozen settings for doing complete “Balanced Meals”; I have not tried this yet, but it seems that you just put the ingredients into their separate containers, load them into the oven, push “Balanced Meal”, and return twenty-five minutes later for supper.

Downsides? Well, it is still not big enough for a turkey, although it could manage a turkey breast without a problem. Also, the display is in Japanese, which slows me down a lot (I have mastered the “cookies” setting, however…)

(This just in: I just now discovered that an English-language model is being sold stateside as the Sharp SuperSteam Oven; you can see details on the SharpUsa website.)

A Day Trip to Odaiba

January 12, 2010

January 11th is a holiday in Japan, Seijin-no-hi, commemorating the coming-of-age of young women in Japan. In the year of their twentieth birthdays, said young women don furisode, kimono-like garments but with voluminous sleeves, and proceed to parade singly and in groups about the city. It is quite colorful and attention-grabbing, especially at a time of year known for its relentless shades of grey (and also especially if you are a guy with a pulse).

I spent the day in Odaiba, the port of Tokyo, which boasts both a rich history and a somewhat controversial present. Odaiba is an artificial island, named after the Daiba, a group of six island fortresses that guarded Tokyo Bay in the Tokugawa era. The modern island had its beginnings in the early years of WWII, and has grown in the intervening years into a massive (and massively expensive) endeavor, a project with decidedly mixed results. On the plus side, the architecture is cutting edge, lots of concrete and glass, biomorphic forms, sculpture parks and the like. The boulevards are wide and uncharacteristically (for Tokyo) devoid of traffic. Which brings us to the minus side of the equation: comparatively few people live or work there because it is a somewhat inconvenient commute from Tokyo, and because the loud popping noise made by the bursting Japanese housing bubble resonates there all these years later.

There are signs of life in Odaiba, though, that suggest an imminent realization of the founders’ dreams, and in that slightly offbeat Japanese way that is so endearing to the hearts of Westerners:

To wit: a downsized replica of the Statue of Liberty; a humongous ship-shaped edifice that houses the Museum of Maritime Science; the Megaweb, which features Toyota’s futuristic interactive celebration of all things automotive (well, all things automotive and Toyota, at least); Venus Fort, (pronounced Venice Fort), the Venice-themed indoor galleria and mall which replicates the time of day in the ambient lighting, a slick but ever-s0-slightly disconcerting effect; and a sandy beach, one of only two in all of urban Tokyo. And, get this, you visit Odaiba by monorail, which crosses the aptly named Rainbow Bridge, how cool is that? In the monorail, there is no driver, no conductor, indeed, no people save for the passengers. The fine thing about this is that if you time it right, you can sit in the front seat, and have the entire windshield view to yourself (see pics below).

The first twenty-year-old of my day...

...followed in rapid succession by numbers two and three

Odaiba architecture, part one...

In the sculpture garden

The Telecom Ctr, great Tokyo skyline views from the top

...of which this is one

...as is this

The Return of Tom Swifties, or How Can We Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

January 6, 2010

“Goodbye, cruel world,” Sue sighed.

“Bingo,” said Tom benignly.

“Hi, I’m Joseph Kingley,” he said jokingly.

“They are boring compared to rhinos,” he said hypocritically.

“2br, 1ba, LR, kit,” he said aptly.

“I shall run the CIA,” he said aspiringly.

“I believe your mink coat is inside out,” he inferred.

“What’s the capital of North Vietnam?” he asked annoyingly.

 “What’s the score in the Stevie Wonder-Ray Charles tennis game?” he asked lovingly.

“The Jello is 50% ready,” he affirmed.

“Is it a ‘Tom Swifty’ or a ‘Tom Swiftie’?” she asked, spellbound.

And then they get more difficult:

“I believe it is elephant pooh,” said Tom in Zulu.

“There is an insect in my cheese,” he said briefly.

“I vant to find za batroom,” said Hans peevishly.