Christmas Eve in Tokyo

December 24, 2010

One of my favorite singer/songwriters of current times is Richard Shindell. I first ran across him thanks to my brother Thane, who has turned me on to more new music than anyone else in my life, bar none. The first Shindell tune I remember hearing was a song of love gone wrong called “Are You Happy Now?”, from his 1992 CD “Sparrow’s Point”. It began “You took the toaster when you went, you didn’t pay your half the rent…”; he went on to lament that he was left sitting in the dark on Halloween night, afraid to answer the door, because the love of his life had even taken the trick-or-treat candy from their communal stash.

It was his next CD, 1994’s “Blue Divide”, that simply bowled me over with its lyrics, though. One song, entitled “Mary Magdalene” is exceptionally unusual, in that a man (Shindell) sings the part of a woman (Mary Magdalene) in the first person:

“My name is Mary Magdalene, I come from Palestine

Please excuse these rags I’m in, I’ve fallen on hard times

Long ago, I had my work, when I was in my prime

But I gave it up, and all for love, it was his career or mine…”

I had been trying to write a Christmas song for some time, but I kept getting hung up on the perspective. As a decided fence-sitter where religion is concerned, I am nonetheless moved sometimes by the tenderness and hope that characterize the Christmas story. Richard Shindell helped me realize that I needn’t be bound by the convention of writing a song just from my own perspective; if I wanted to write it from a woman’s perspective, and even sing it that way, there was no hard-and-fast rule in place to stop me from doing just that. And so, out of that epiphany, arose “Mary’s Song”, a first person narrative of a young woman a bit overwhelmed by the cold, the Holy Spirit, and a role in history that she had never bargained for:

Bethlehem in late December, overhead one star shines bright

It’s so drafty in this stable, no room at the inn tonight

I am Mary, wife of Joseph, the child I carry is not his

I have no wish to bear this burden, but I must accept what is…

 

Chorus:

The Holy Ghost slipped in my bedroom window, and touched me like no mortal man could do,

Though with human eyes I cannot see him, I have faith that faith will see me through; I have faith that faith will see me through

 

Three wise men from far off Persia, brought their finest offerings

Why could they have not brought blankets, food and drink and useful things?

In this bed of hay and straw, on my breast the baby lies

A halo of illumination, I think he has his Father’s eyes

 

Chorus:

The Holy Ghost slipped in my bedroom window, and touched me like no mortal man could do,

Though with human eyes I cannot see him, I have faith that faith will see me through; I have faith that faith will see me through

 

Bethlehem in late December, overhead one star shines bright

Lights the road for weary pilgrims, on this cold and holy night

May the giving spirit of the holidays infuse you, no matter your religion or lack thereof. Merry Christmas!

Mary’s Song; copyright 2000, Bruce Tierney; PS, if by some odd chance you are dying to hear Mary’s Song complete with music, I may be able to email you a copy. I am still unpacking, but I am pretty sure that I have a CD of it somewhere in my apartment.

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Kama, Shirako, and Other Culinary Delights

December 21, 2010

I spent most of Sunday at a monthly art auction, where I typically find a few woodblock prints to add to my collection. This time out, the auction was heavy on ivory carvings, for the most part quite old. I am not particularly an ivory aficionado, but the workmanship on these pieces was pretty spectacular, even to the dilettante (and when it comes to ivory, and probably lots of other art, I am but an apprentice dilettante!). Note in the first picture the artfully crafted “insect damage” to the leaves; the second item, a pole boat with fishermen hauling in their nets, was carved from one tusk!

Afterwards, I went out to supper with several attendees, the auctioneer, and Saki. The first restaurant we went to, our usual post-auction haunt, featured a half-hour wait, and we were all kinda hungry, so we set out for option number two. That turned out to be a no-go as well, closed on Sundays. Our third choice was a sashimi place where none of us had ever eaten before, but just happened to see en route to somewhere else. Past the neon-illuminated “love hotel” (4900 yen for the night, or 2900 for a “shorter stay”),

down an alleyway one would think twice about entering in any other city, up a narrow zigzagging staircase, and in through a sliding shoji screen, we found ourselves in an old-style Japanese establishment that looked like it dated from before the war. The beery clientele, cheerful and slightly raucous, told us in no uncertain terms that this was the sort of place we had been looking for.

The biru came first, followed by a squat bottle of shochu (a Japanese liquor that packs a sneaky punch); then we were ready to order some food. There was the usual assortment of sashimi on offer: yellowtail (hamachi); tuna (meguro); shrimp (ebi); oysters on the half shell, and so on. But of course the fun part for Japanese folks is seeing what weird stuff they can get the gaijin to eat, and this group of inveterate jokers decided to put me through the wringer.

First up was kama, fish heads, quite the delicacy, they assured me. In fact, the fish cheeks were good, soft and flavorful. “Eat the bones,” I was told. Not bloody likely, I thought. “Eat the eyes,” I was further instructed. I respectfully declined, and Saki promptly popped one in her mouth, crunching it like a malted milk ball. “Yummy,” she said, grinning. Yeah, right, I thought.

I gamely worked my way through crunchy daikon and gelatinous konyaku, and some root veggies whose name I don’t know (but which were quite tasty). I added liberal amounts of wasabi, occasioning one of the attendees to remark that at least where wasabi was concerned, I was a true Japanese.

But of course, in time-honored tradition, they saved the best for last. When the bowl arrived at the table, I had to take a picture of it. Does this not look delicious?

The colors, pottery, the simplicity of the presentation—all were superb. It smelled pretty good as well. “Try this,” I was urged. “What is it?” I asked. “Shirako,” Saki replied. Kind of a pretty word, I thought, like a Japanese girl’s name. “What’s that?” I asked again. “It comes from inside the fish,” she said, looking at our companions for some help; none was forthcoming. “I don’t know how you call it in English,” she said, shrugging. Normally, I am not a big fan of things that come from “inside” the animal (heart, stomach, liver, intestines), but I thought, what the hell? So I tried it, and it was pretty good. Slightly tart, with just a tiny amount of the liverish taste that characterizes innards. “Not bad,” I offered. Everyone cheered and clapped, chattering in animated Japanese, of which I understood only “Bruce-san”, followed by appreciative laughter. I knew then that I was the unwitting butt of some cosmic Rising Sun comedy. And that was the moment thatToyoshima-san, a warugaki (mischief maker) whose English is pretty decent, chose to tell me the English name for shirako (you can see this coming, right?): fish testicles.


Fun Stuff from YouTube

December 14, 2010

There is a good chance that you have already seen this, but if not, you are in for a truly unusual experience. This is even better than Bill Clinton singing “Imagine” with a chorus of forty Jewish and forty Arabic children, which can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0F_6plYyTM&feature=related

It may even be better than the mashup video of President Barack Obama’s truly inspired rendition of Jackie Wilson’s chart-topping classic “Higher and Higher”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnGc3mI7YKw&feature=related

What can it be, you ask? None other than the 1956 Fats Domino hit “Blueberry Hill”, as rendered by noted chanteur and song stylist…Vladimir “Fats” Putin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IV4IjHz2yIo

I never realized that Fats Domino was not the writer of his biggest hit (which climbed to #2 on the Billboard chart); in fact the song was written by Vincent Rose, Al Lewis and Larry Stock, way back in 1940. Several major acts recorded it at the time, including the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, drummer Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and even singing cowboy Gene Autry. The party didn’t end with Domino’s recording, however; since then, the tune has been covered by Ricky Nelson, Duane Eddy, the Everly Brothers, Led Zeppelin(!), the Beach Boys, Bruce Cockburn, and Elton John, to name but a few. But I think you’d have to agree that none have offered that certain je ne sais quoi of Mr. Putin’s version.

When you have dried your eyes from the stirring rendition of “Blueberry Hill”, please turn your attention to singer/songwriter Roy Zimmerman, who will provide us with the answer to the question that has been at the forefront of inquiring minds for the better part of a generation: What if the Beatles were Irish? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFjH4ZqwOB4

In his timely and provocative tune “Creation Science 101”, Zimmerman riffs on the schism between the evolutionists and the fundamentalists: “Four thousand forty-two BC, on Monday August 27, He made the earth and sky and heaven, then He punched out at 5:03…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIwiPsgRrOs

Zimmerman is perhaps at his best with Christmas songs, and in the joyous holiday spirit, I would like to share a few with you. The first is destined to become a holiday classic, “Bill O’Reilly’s Christmas” (dedicated to “every Chris-mister and Chris-missus in America, and I do mean ‘Mister’ and ‘Missus’ and not some genderless generica…”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNRLLxAOGx4

In another seasonal tune, Zimmerman evokes the early Bob Dylan, complete with harmonica, for “Christmas is Pain”: “There’s a crowd on the hillside with hatchets and saws, and a keen disregard for the forestry laws, and they happily hum while the stumps slowly bleed in the rain…Christmas is pain”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKWh-nnyPIY&feature=channel

Or, last but certainly not least, how about the pan-humanist carol, “Christma-Hanu-Rama-Ka-Dona-Kwanzaa”, embracing the multicultural holiday season with its uplifting message: “Humanity is drifting in an icy sea of strife; the giant quilt of life, is crazy…so’s my wife; but even as all things are dying, one event can steer the moribund toward more abundant cheer; it’s Christma-Hanu-Rama-Ka-Dona-Kwanzaa, what a happy heterogeneous holiday…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSZNpC1ANUM&feature=channel

May your holiday season be filled with happiness and humor!


Some Random Thoughts Upon Returning to Japan Yet Again

December 13, 2010

A week into my winter sojourn in Japan, I am happy to report that things are pretty much as I left them at the beginning of last summer. I moved back into the same apartment complex in suburban Tokyo, although not to the same apartment. I used to be in 201, now I am in 202, next door. This has been the cause of some puzzlement and consternation for the local postman and delivery folks; when I have answered the door, I have been greeted with a pronounced double take on several occasions, and some rapid fire Japanese which must translate to something like this: “Just a doggone minute! Didn’t you use to live next door, or am I hallucinating? Am I on Candid Camera?”

It took less than one day to turn up my first example of Manglish, and I wasn’t even really looking for it. It arrived via the packaging for the pale blue fleece seat cover that currently adorns my commode. According to the label, it is for “washing and heating”, although I must confess I haven’t yet figured out just how it might accomplish those lofty goals. On the other hand, “a colorful waffle design enables the coordination of I liking”, so it’s all good.

As often happens, I have a Japanese mystery to review for BookPage, conveniently timed to coincide with my return here. This one is by bestselling author Keigo Higashino, titled The Devotion of Suspect X. The book description on the back cover reads as follows: “She’s a single mother with blood on her hands. It was a murder that should never have happened. Without hesitation her enigmatic neighbor, a brilliant math teacher whose devotion towards her runs deep, calculates the perfect alibi. When evidence doesn’t add up for the authorities, the lead detective seeks the advice of his friend, a brilliant physicist, who knows the math genius from his past. What ensues is a fierce battle of wits. How far will one mastermind go for love and the other for truth? And how long must one woman feel indebted to her protector when her heart lies with another?”

Sounds pretty good, right? One small problem for me, however: the whole plot was just a bit too familiar, although I couldn’t figure out why. Some time later it dawned on me. Earlier this year, I had watched a Japanese video with a very similar, perhaps identical, story line. The title was in Japanese, though, and I wasn’t sure I could locate it again among the stacks of Japanese videos that line my bookcase. In the event, it wasn’t all that difficult, as the front cover of the DVD case bore a large red “X” (the first clue for this inveterate mystery fan). In Japanese, the movie is titled “Yougisha X no Kenshin”, but in English it is simply “Suspect X”.

It turns out (no surprises here) that the movie is indeed an adaptation of Higashino’s book; the film came out in 2007, and the book was released all the way back in 2005. And, as is typically the case with foreign-language mysteries, it arrives on our shores some years later (sigh…), but that is another rant for another time.

I haven’t started the book yet, but I will do so this week; have a look in the print edition or the online edition of February’s BookPage (www.bookpage.com) for my review. I can say this, though: the movie was first rate (you can find it easily on ebay or any of several online book/video outlets), so I have high expectations for the book.


Eat Your Cookies First

December 11, 2010

As a wise poet once said: “Life is so uncertain, if worse should come to worst, save your vegetables for last and eat your cookies first.”  Okay, I am stretching the truth here; I am the author of that couplet, and I am but a wiseass poet at best.

That said, I had the good fortune of growing up in an environment where the house was filled with the aromas of baking several days a week. Cookies, cakes, pies, tarts, biscuits, brownies, scones—and I am just scratching the surface here. My grandmother stayed with us throughout my formative years, and it seemed she lived to bake. She had a recipe book, but I don’t recall ever seeing her use it. She just knew what ingredients went in where, and when, and everything she touched turned to calories—delicious saturated fat calories. One could almost feel one’s arteries hardening with each successive bite.

We (my brother, sister and I) were not allowed to eat the cookie dough, and we had to wait until the finished cookies cooled down before we were permitted to sample the wares. Kids can be quite artful when it comes to stealing sweets, however, and often one of us would occupy our grandmother with a question or a tale from school, while the others would sneak a couple of handsful of cookies off the cooling tray, carefully arranging the remaining ones so the tray would appear unmolested. We would then repair to our bedrooms to divide the swag. As I was the eldest, my share was typically larger.

Nowadays I have a fancy-pants convection oven in Canada, and an even fancier one in Japan (complete with steam spray!) so I can bake to my heart’s content. I even have my grandmother’s old recipe book—a photocopy of it, actually. She was always quite generous when it came to sharing recipes, although my cookies and cakes don’t taste as good as I remember hers tasting. My guess is that she deliberately left out some vital ingredient when transcribing a recipe, so that anyone who dared attempt it would find the finished product wanting in some small way. Her biscuits and her pie crusts were legendary; my biscuits and pie crusts would be legendary as well (albeit quite differently), if I ever let anyone else try them. I follow her recipes to the letter, but my biscuits come out as tough as tennis balls, and my pie crust bears an uncanny resemblance to salted cardboard, both in texture and in taste.  

My cookies are pretty decent, though; not as good as my grandmother’s, mind you, but quite tasty nonetheless. Peanut butter cookies, ginger snaps, Toll House cookies, Scottish shortbread—I can do them all, mostly from memory. I even improvise by times. Once when I ran out of chocolate chips, I chopped up some Whoppers malted milk balls and substituted them into the cookie recipe. They were a big hit; only a few survived long enough to cool off.

My next project is to learn how to make squares. My cousin Vel MacKay makes the best squares I have ever eaten, and when I get back to Canada next summer, I plan to beg, cajole or even bribe her to teach me. Date squares, Nanaimo squares, Oh Henry squares, I want to learn them all. Then when I have folks come to stay with me in the summertime, I can truthfully promise them a roof over their head, a comfortable bed and three squares a day.