Friday, December 31, 2010

A Big Scoop

A lot of visitors to the beach this week, new year and all. Certainly a few have been attracted by the spurt of unseasonably warm weather and are here to bask in the 70° temperatures. A few even splash briefly in the ocean, but quickly discover the water is uncomfortably cold and a world apart from the sun washed beach. Along with warmer temperatures has come a lessening of the hard-blowing north wind, and the invitation to shed jackets and sweaters. Walking in jeans and T-shirt is just about right under these year end conditions.

The past two days have offered a sky of perfect cerulean blue made even more exhilarating by the clarity of light and air. Apart from the unfortunate catfish that still battle cold water and end up as bird food, the sand too has a fresh, clean look. The birds are back in large numbers and fortunately for them food in excess lies waiting. Still, there is less animal, shell and plant life about now, and for long stretches of walking the runnels, drifts and pockets of sand offer up little variety.

But there has been an infrequent avian visitor to this sweep of beach in the past two days, though if we are to judge by today’s roll call, it was just a brief stopover or rest stop. I was brought to a sudden halt yesterday by the sight of an altogether unfamiliar bird hobnobbing with the gulls. Very shy, they quickly move away at the approach of people, uncomfortable even with a stationary figure hovering inside of twenty feet. The bird has a striking appearance, and looks like a prince beside the less colorful gulls. By the time my path turned for home I was curious about what the bird book would say about this new member of the local community.

With markings so pronounced, finding a picture was easy, and I learned it is a tern called a black skimmer. This name explains the bird’s unusual beak, describing how it feeds by skimming fish from the surface of the water. Sounds almost impossible, but the black skimmer skims the water’s surface with its mouth open and the lower half of its bill beneath the water level. When it makes contact with a fish the bill snaps shut and the bird takes off. The catch is consumed either in flight or once it has landed.

In appearance the tern has a large but narrow body and a long red bill with a black tip. The lower bill is longer, with a scoop-like shape. The top of the head and wings are black, with a white collar in winter; face and underparts are white. Legs and feet are red. The black skimmer is the only bird species in America that has a bill larger on the bottom than the top. At the time of hatching the upper and lower halves are equal in length, but at four weeks the bottom is nearly a centimeter longer than the top mandible.

The bird breeds along Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Massachusetts to Florida and Texas, and spends winters in a range from southern California to Virginia, and also central and South America. Despite photos and descriptions of the black skimmer in Florida, yesterday was my first sighting of the bird on the central east coast of Florida, along which I walk each and every day. Odd, since this is not a bird one is likely to overlook. Interesting note about number: A group of skimmers is not a flock, but is instead referred to as either a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘embezzlement’ of birds.

As Wednesday was my first sighting of this splendid looking tern, it prompts me to think the fifteen or twenty I spotted were resting, but on their way to parts farther afield.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Shank of Lamb

Sometime back I was given a couple of lamb shanks which went straight into the freezer. Three months later and the lamb shanks continued to pass frozen days nestled between the ice cubes and turkey noodle soup. Earlier today a visitor looked in the freezer and pulled the shanks out. “I’ll tell you how to cook these and you can have them for dinner tonight.”

Not a whole lot of resistance from me, if only because trying new things in the kitchen always turns out to be a useful process, especially for one who enjoys cooking on most occasions. The first step this time was determining what ingredients were not already in my kitchen stocks, and making a shopping list. Seasonings were no problems, but the sour cream and Lipton Onion Soup stocks were on the shy side.

Here’s what you will need to braise two lamb shanks:

2 lamb shanks weighing about 1¾ pounds

1 package of Lipton Onion Soup mix

1 small container sour cream (8 ounces)

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove fresh garlic minced

½ teaspoon thyme

1 bay leaf

a pinch of celery seed

a sprinkle of cayenne

a healthy sprinkle of Zatarain’s Cajun Seasoning

salt & pepper as desired

1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

7-8 fresh mint leaves for garnish


And here’s how to put it together…

Choose a cooking pot or a skillet that has a lid. Heat the olive oil until hot then add the lamb shanks along with the seasoning. Hold off on the chopped chives; they will come later. Turn the lamb shanks, browning them on each side. Once they reach a nice even brown all over, add a cup or more of water along with the package of Lipton’s Onion Soup. Lower the heat to a point just under medium, put the lid on the pot and allow the lamb to cook for about an hour and twenty minutes. Check occasionally to see that the liquid does not boil away. Add more water when necessary. After the meat has cooked for an hour, test the shanks for tenderness. At best it should be tender but not falling off the bone. When you are satisfied that the meat is done, add most of the 8 ounce container of sour cream, along with the chives and stir it until mixed well with the liquid in the pot. Put the lid on again and lower the heat—you do not want the liquid to boil at this point. Allow it to heat for another five minutes or so. Serve the lamb shanks with rice and your favorite vegetable, maybe a green salad. A cabernet sauvignon goes well.

I feel compelled to admit that I am not a great fan of lamb, and more often than not my choice would be otherwise. But with encouragement from another, and trusted advice on the preparation my reservations fell away and I jumped into the cooking. It may not be so with others, but the onion soup and sour cream in this recipe had a nice ring and sounded like a recipe I might like despite any ambivalence toward lamb. I wasn’t disappointed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sock Glue

Some time in the late 1990s socks became an important part of the ‘look’ for Japanese high school girls. Since the start of that fashion fad socks and their size, color and manner of collapsing around the shins and ankles has been critical, determining the acceptable degree of cool, or in Japanese jargon, kawaii. The young girls achieve just the right sock look with meticulous adjustment and shaping, holding the socks in place with dabs of the indispensable sock glue.

This fashion is so widespread today it is practically second nature to the average person and most give it little if any thought—about as rare as the sight of a teenager anywhere listening to an iPod. During the time I lived in Japan it was my usual habit when riding trains to people watch. Ask any New Yorker and they’ll likely tell you it’s sometimes better than reading or napping. Careful not to be rude with open stares, I managed to learn quite a bit about the Japanese people through observation on the trains. The loose, baggy socks always intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First off, impressive as a great look that works well for the girls. Can’t say that about many school girl notions of fashion, but the drooping sock look is definitely a cool style that enhances the figure. Whoever first came up with the idea of oversized baggy white socks has a sharp sense of fashion.

Continuing to observe this style over a couple of years, it finally occurred to me that the fall of the socks around shins and ankles was anything but accidental, and was instead something not far from sculptured cotton. But how did they do it? Then one afternoon the answer was acted out in front of me. Waiting for a train a group of high school girls stood nearby laughing and enjoying the release from school. One shortened her uniform skirt by folding over the waistband a couple of turns; another applied a faint blush of color to her cheeks and another was bent over repairing the hang of her large white socks. I noticed she used something in a tube, applying it to her shins, then pressing the sock against it. Viola! The secret revealed. It was some kind of sticky substance that held the socks in just the right places.

Mmm…That could solve a now and then problem in my life too, I remember thinking. On the next visit to a drugstore I asked about this sticky stuff the school girls use on their socks, and without a blink the clerk pointed out a rack of colorful tubes, all of it the school girl requisite, SOCK GLUE. I bought the first of many tubes that day, a mild water based roll-on glue, and from that day forward never had trouble with badly made socks slipping down to the ankles. Hearing about my new and very practical discovery, a few friends laughed and swore they would never use such a thing. But the laughter didn’t stop me, and I only wish I could find some of the same stuff here to put the hold on troublesome socks.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tax Crones

Each year as the days wind down toward the last of December, the awful spectre of dollar bills flapping goodbye and winging their way south begins to play across the mind. Nothing to do with the familiar and customary expenses of Christmas and the buying of gifts to give to close hearts, but related instead to one of the two things often described as inescapable—taxes. Year end for these past eleven years has been the season for paying property taxes. Surely some, maybe many hold off payment until the end of March, but the lower rate for a December payment seems less shocking to the bank account. Living twenty-five yards off the beach in Florida is not conducive to low property taxes, and each year the handover of big bills comes with the violence of a hand grenade detonated in the next room.

Forget computers and techno-assisted accountants in fluorescent-lit cubicles tallying up tax numbers on multi-gigabyte adding machines. My imagination paints a more sinister picture, of sharp nosed, thin lipped crones dressed in black, and with ink smudged fingers working their numbers into an instrument of financial destruction aimed at my bank and belly. And when their calculations reach a horrid but satisfying degree of property owner punishment, cruel chortles shake the narrow space of their dark counting house and an ominous fume fills the air.

No, really, there’s a friendly smile on the face of the young woman who takes my check at the county financial office downtown. She’s fast, efficient and perfectly agreeable, making the large tax bill a tiny bit easier to swallow. How painless can it be when the spelled out dollar amount is too large to fit comfortably on the second line of your check?

Interesting mishap on the mailing of my tax bill this year. In previous years the bill always arrived in the Tokyo mailbox no later than the end of October, or earlier. It suddenly occurred to me last Friday that the tax bill had not come, and the fault very probably my own. In moving from Japan to Florida it is helpful to give a change of address to pertinent agencies—if you can remember to do it. Mentioning my forgetfulness to the county clerk, she said, “Here’s the mailing address we have for you,” showing me a form that read:


KU TOKYO 1680082


Relieved that the fault was not all mine, I pointed out that the second line of that address is an odd and meaningless non sequitur and may have confused the post office. No harm done in the end, since the taxes got paid on time, including an address correction.

Good feeling knowing that I can forget about the cruel counting house crones for another twelve months.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Eye on Nature

This season introduced me to an unfamiliar and excellent source of notebooks, scratch pads, cards and calendars. Compared to my friend and cousin, Carolyne, I am a mere novice in this line of goods, and once again she has turned my eyes to a ‘new’ store and artist, Gwen Frostic of Presscraft Papers in Benzonia, Michigan. Until Christmas morning I had never heard of her, the company or the location. My loss, for sure.

Gwen Frostic was born in Sandusky, Michigan in 1906. Until her death in 2001 she shared through her art, books and lectures a very particular and enchanting view of the universe. So impressive were her work and ideas, that in 1978 Michigan’s Governor declared May 23 ‘Gwen Frostic Day,’ and in 1986 the artist was inducted into the Michigan Woman’s Hall of Fame.

Frostic left university at age twenty-one, continuing without a pause her work in metal and plastic arts. The war years brought on a shortage of metal, so she shifted to carving on linoleum woodblocks. She sketched flowers, birds, grasses, trees and dozens of woodland animals and insects, refined the sketches and later cut them into linoleum woodblocks. The result was woodblock prints expressing in marvelous simplicity the Frostic perspective on the beauty and serenity of nature. These prints were applied to calendars, notebooks, cards and books. Thus was Presscraft Papers born.

A poem by the artist offers some insight into her view of the natural world:

Let’s just wander here and there

like leaves floating in the autumn air

and look at common little things

stones on the beach

flowers turning into berries…

From the wind we’ll catch a bit

of that wondrous feeling that comes

not from seeing

but from being part of nature…

The artist’s home and studio, as well as press, are all situated in a wildlife sanctuary in northern Michigan and include a shop built of natural materials designed to bring the outdoors inside. One room with a large fireplace and natural fountain offers a view of the twelve Heidelberg presses printing the artist’s designs onto cards, notebooks and calendars.

A part of my Christmas blessing this year was a Gwen Frostic calendar and a notebook. Completely new to me and I sat for a long time turning the pages of each. At first I worried that the paper in the notebook might not be fountain pen friendly, but that proved a needless concern; four different pens, four different inks all turned out a beautiful match with the paper. An effort to find out anything specific about the paper used by Presscraft for their cards and notebooks came to nothing unfortunately.

Should the time come when stationery goods feel like the right gift, turn your search to that corner of Michigan where one native artist found a woodland universe to illustrate in woodblock prints.

See it all here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

First in Many

Home late from Christmas in town, car loaded with loot, belly overloaded with two days of magnificent eats, and altogether heartwarmed by the company of family. An extra special time because it was the first opportunity in many years to be with family over Christmas.

A few of the memorable tidbits…

The surprise of finding on my sister’s kitchen counter a Christmas cake specially made to duplicate the one posted here on December 23.

A beautiful midnight mass at St Alban’s Anglican Church on Christmas Eve, celebration of the high mass, including all the traditions of ceremony on the eve of Christ’s birth.

Dinner on Friday: shrimp cocktail, oyster stew, grilled scallops, jambalaya with shrimp, escargot, squid salad and platters of raw oysters.

A long wanted new dictionary and desktop swivel stand.

A bulging, near overflowing bag of take-home delicacies.

Special heartfelt thanks to Ben and Beverly for adding all the joy and jingling bells to this Christmas.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Half-Eaten Cake

A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn't lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Between books and in those times when a wistfulness for Japan wells up turning my thoughts sentimental, more often than not I feed the nostalgia with a few pages from one of the several old ‘living and working in Japan’ books tucked into my shelves. This time it was the late Edward Seidensticker’s journal of his time working on the translation of the tenth century Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji.

For specialists, Seidensticker’s commentary on the translation process is of some interest, but his journal of this time, Genji Days, published in 1977 is much, much more than a record of his putting the classical Japanese of a long and complex novel into English. For most of us the tidbits and items of daily life sandwiched between his record of translation is the delicious nugget at the journal’s heart.

For those unfamiliar with the preeminent scholar of Japanese studies, Edward Seidensticker translated most of the great names in modern Japanese literature, including Mishima, Kawabata and Tanizaki. He has been called the best translator of Japanese that has ever lived. Apart from that, he was also an extremely witty man with a sharp eye for all around him, and a remarkable fluency in describing it. Mr Seidensticker died in 2007 following a fall near his Tokyo home.

Genji Days is full of interesting (fascinating, unusual, racy) observations or commentary on personal experience. Seidensticker first went to Japan in 1948 as a diplomat. He lived there on and off for the next fifty-nine years, dividing his time between Tokyo, Honolulu and mainland US. During his years in Tokyo he moved fluidly between levels of society, having drinks with the rich and famous one night, and trading jokes with laborers in a lower class dive the next. His writing is full of that color and range.

TUESDAY, JULY 7, 1970: In the late afternoon I ventured timidly into a barbershop and my!—such treatment as I did get, such an assortment of wetters and driers and steamers and perfumers, all for a thousand yen. I felt alternately as if I were enthroned and as if I were being guillotined. With such attention to look forward to, how could one possibly become a long-hair?

WEDNESDAY, JULY 26: Kaoru took me to a most extraordinary place, a “host club.” The clientele is female, and its needs are seen to by boys. The clientele, this particular evening, consisted of rather frowsy ladies of a certain age. The boys were all excessively pretty, and their masochism seemed quite open—and I suspected many of them of being boys from the band. I was fascinated, and at the same time repelled, and I suppose the most curious thing is that I felt nothing in the least erotic about the scene before me.

MONDAY, JUNE 26, 1971: Speaking of scents, in the new instructions on how we should comport ourselves in this our Shûwa Residence is an admonition that we refrain from farting in the elevator.

Down to the spicy lotus breezes to await Bill Sibley. He arrived just as I was about to be propositioned by a tart. We (Bill and I, not the tart) went and had a beer nearby.

THURSDAY, JULY 5: Having an evening to myself, I spent it wandering around Ueno. The lotuses, most powerful symbol of high summer, are coming into bloom. In a month I will be gone. I sometimes seem to tire of Tokyo and its frantic stir; but I regret the passing of each Tokyo day, the dwindling supply of Tokyo days, all the same.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tangerines & Cake

As far as Christmas spirit goes, this little town in Florida has nothing whatsoever over Japan, where the late December air is everywhere palpable in music, decoration and the holiday demeanor of people. Hard to tell it’s even Christmas in this sand blown beachtown with few decorations.

Though people do go to work as usual on Christmas Day, like most December days people are caught up in a holiday swing. It is a time of year in Japan when tangerines and strawberries are everywhere, boxes, bowls and dishes of the bright orange and red fruit coloring stores and living rooms, a time when people are thinking about Christmas cakes and what kind to get this year. Boys making plans to take their girlfriend for a Christmas Eve dinner, while the restaurants are gearing up for their prix fixe specials. Lampposts and storefronts are wearing garlands that twinkle with lights, and in the busier parts of town carols from overhead compete, “Jingle Bells” from the camera shop, “Frosty the Snowman” from a tinsel-wrapped bakery crowded with strawberry topped cakes. Even the big Colonel Sanders figure out front at Kentucky Fried Chicken wears a Santa suit.

One thing absent from a Japanese Christmas is our own tradition of gift giving. Oh, sure there are those parents who give their child a Christmas present, but without the stockings and bedtime stories of Santa, and nothing like the American Christmas tree surrounded by colorfully wrapped presents. Apart from the many decorated trees in stores, parks and on select corners, Christmas trees are not a custom in the average home.

There is no Christian tradition underlying the thoughts and celebrations of the average Japanese, as less than two percent of the population is Christian. I suppose there are those strict Western-taught Christians who on occasion discount the Japanese celebration as hollow, but it is also true that Christmas in America is as much an economy driven bonanza as it is a holiday commemorating the birth of Christ. The idea of ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’ has a competing flip side where Wall Street and Madison Avenue declare that spending is the reason for the season. But in that aspect Japan is no different. Christmas was created by retailers who saw a phenomenon they could re-create in Japan with a few Christmas carols and some yards of tinsel and was from the beginning a marketing concept. Still it would be unfair to criticize those beginnings, because the years have brought at least some understanding of the Christian concept, the joy, happiness and celebration.

This will be my first Christmas in the US since Ronald Reagan was President and I haven’t yet gotten a hold on the differences. I keep thinking I’ll be going to Christmas dinner in Yokohama at Kumiko’s house, but then remember it will be my sister’s house in Maitland instead. Will she have a Christmas cake, I wonder.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Handful from Levenger

During the two weeks spent in Louisiana last month, I enjoyed some time visiting with my favorite cousin and her family. Carolyne, or as I’ve long called her, the Cajun Queen, is one of us who takes pleasure in stationery goods, and stays on top of what’s available in the pen, pencil, ink and paper market through blogs and other websites. Carolyne has kept up with my frequent fountain pen hurrahs over the past year, but apart from a Pelikano Junior, remains loyal to her rollerball pens. She is a big fan of Levenger products and has on at least three occasions given me wonderful gifts from their online catalogue. What I’ve come to discover however, is that Levenger is quick to ‘retire’ items from their online menu. I have a pen case, an eyeglass-pen case and a mechanical pencil from Levenger-via-Carolyne, and none of the three are currently available on the Levenger website. Hard to understand when each of the three is an excellent, high quality product, as well as practical. Mmm…wait a second there; let me amend that to say that two of Carolyne’s gifts are practical, with the case for ten fountain pens more in line with the needs of pen nuts like myself. I have to doubt that a case for multiple fountain pens would be very useful for someone like my sister or best friend.

The last time in Baton Rouge Carolyne gave me what Levenger calls the 2mm Clutch Pencil. Lead with a 2mm diameter is huge, practically verging on the size of a carpenter’s pencil. I am no stranger to thick lead, since I regularly use a 0.9 Montblanc 167 mechanical pencil, but the difference in 0.9 and 2mm is considerable. Still, I like thick lead because it guarantees stability in writing; thick lead doesn’t suddenly snap in mid-sentence.

The Levenger Clutch Pencil is short, measuring only 4.5 inches, with a weighty 0.5 inch diameter. After writing with it for three pages, I switched to my regular 0.9 Montblanc and was surprised at the Montblanc’s lightness in comparison. The Levenger has a barrel of half brushed aluminum at the top, and natural wood at the bottom. I wish they had added a rubber grip above the point because the smooth wood does not allow for a secure hold, making the grip almost slippery. I also would ask that they lengthen the pencil at least an inch, but perhaps that’s my big, large-grip hand talking.

Unfortunately, as stated above, the 2mm Clutch Pencil—like the eyeglass-pen case and the fountain pen case—is no longer listed on Levenger’s website. Don’t quite know why this is so, but they know more than I do of sales and marketing.

Finally, a bayou-sized thanks to the Cajun Queen.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Composure of Trees

My thoughts seem to be stuck on Japan, this being the third post in a week related to Japan or things Japanese. Must be the season that’s sending my ruminations eastward to my longtime home. Whatever the reason, during a walk today I began thinking about a Japanese poet I’ve long liked, and one of his poems in particular.

There may be some who would argue my description, but Kinoshita Yûji (1903-1965) is a poet I would call obscure, or at least obscure to all but those with a particular interest in modern Japanese poetry. I have mentioned his name to a great many Japanese people and most are unfamiliar with both his name and his writing. So, I use the word obscure.

The defining characteristic of Kinoshita’s life was the tension created by unhappiness in his work as a rural pharmacist, and his yearning to be a sophisticated urban poet living in Tokyo. As a young man studying French literature at university in Tokyo, fate dealt him a cruel blow when his stepfather died forcing him to return home and take over the family pharmacy. Thus, he spent his life in the remote countryside mixing medicine by day and writing poetry at night.

Kinoshita had a special affinity for trees and saw in them the characteristics and ideals he hoped to emulate. He wrote many poems with trees as his subject, one of them the poem, “A Felled Tree” included in his collection, Flute Player published in 1958. The translation below is by Robert Epp and comes from his book, Treelike, The Poetry of Kinoshita Yûji. In his poem Kinoshita observes the fall of a tall tree by the roadside and expresses the hope that his own death can be met with the same composure and sense of fulfillment that he sees in the tree.


Today I stood by the roadside and watched

a tall tree sawed down

Aware of its maturity

the tree seemed to take the saw calmly

with a sense of satisfaction and confidence

I noted a composure born of fulfillment

even in twigs and leaves quivering on the ground

Night now I suppose

that a huge black cloth covers those scars

that stars sparkle beautifully around them

that birds plying the night sky

feel a chilly emptiness on their wings

at the height at the spot where the tree spread out

You who will one day saw me down

at life’s end

do you suppose I too might know that repose that hush?

Do you suppose I’ll be capable of feeling then

what I felt today as I watched by the roadside?

We see in Kinoshita’s words a hope that his own death can be met with a similar composure and sense of fulfillment with life that he observes in the fallen tree.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Cat’s Meow

A common sight in Japan is the coffee shop. Unlike the shared and almost predictable commonality of coffee shops in many American cities, those in Japan come in a funhouse of types and themes. If you’re looking for a simple cup of coffee the choices are myriad and if you’re in a Starbucks mood walk twenty yards and look around—you’ll probably see two of them. Want to be waited on by a young girl in a French maid’s costume? Easy to find. How about boys in French maid’s costumes pouring tea and coffee? Yep, that too. Coffee shops in Tokyo come in all guises.

One increasingly popular type of coffee shop is the cat café. There are anywhere from fifty to sixty coffee shops in Tokyo catering to cat lovers, cozy shops where you can sip your coffee with a cat on your lap. The Calico Café in Shinjuku has about twenty cats in a wide variety of breeds.

What kind of customer goes to these cafés? First thought is probably of odd old ladies who live alone and moderate lonely afternoons petting and nuzzling cats. But in fact, the cat cafés attract all kinds of people. You’ll find singles, couples in their 20s and 30s, and lots of people who simply like cats and for one reason or another can’t keep one at home.

In most of the cat cafés, walking in, finding a table and ordering a cup of coffee is not the way it’s done. Rates vary, but the average is $9.00 or $10.00 for an hour of cat company, with coffee extra. There are also rules and picking up just any nearby cat may not be the thing. At the Calico Cat Café there are six rules: (1) Customers must wear a ‘cat-access’ pass around their neck. (2) Cats wearing a scarf are too young to be handled or picked up. (3) Customers must not force themselves on any cat that resists. (4) Napping cats must not be disturbed. (5) No catnip or cat treats allowed, and (6) children under eleven are not allowed in the café.

I probably know at least ten Japanese people who would consider relaxing in a comfy chair, sipping a cup of cappuccino, flipping through a comic book while scratching the ears of a purring cat the ultimate in relaxation. On the other hand, I probably know a good many who view the whole thing as just a little screwy. Think I might be more comfortable if there were just one cat instead of several, and him or her dozing on the sill of a sun-splashed window across the room.

Note on the bottom photo: A cat I used to have, a red point Siamese dozing on the veranda. Her name was Husselbud.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Elegy for Catfish

A walk on the beach in Florida can take on a multitude of shapes. Depending upon such influences as sun, wind, rain, tides and season, the fundamental trio of ocean, beach and sky shifts daily through a cycle of patterns ongoing in their variety. Just when you think you’ve recognized something predictable in the daily scene, a twist in the weather brings on a sudden surprise in the tenor of that walk on the beach.

This week the twist is cold ocean water and its effect upon catfish and snook. In daily walks the past few days I have seen an increasing number of catfish washed up on the beach, some newly dead, others half picked over by scavenging birds. Not nearly as many, but the same is true of snook. My initial thought was that the phenomenon is related to the temperature of the ocean. A call to the New Smyrna Beach Wildlife Services confirmed that guess. According to the person I spoke to, from Flagler Beach south to Vero Beach, a stretch of about 100 miles, the ocean temperature this week is low enough to cause shock among catfish and snook. The shock disables the fish as far as swimming goes, leaving them helpless against tide and surf. Thrown onto the beach they are stranded at the surf line, quickly becoming a fresh dish at the grand and sandy beach buffet for birds. Onshore temperatures have been higher the past three days and birds are more numerous now. Their numbers though are still too few to handle the large influx of beached fish. For the time being, what you see are many fish only half-eaten. But this environment, whatever the season is supremely efficient in processing the non-living, and the passage of several days will find a beach cleansed of these partially eaten carcasses.

As for us two-legged creatures who frequent the beach, temperatures are back in the 60s and 70s, and the walking is optimum, if a little ghoulish with the sight of so many eyeless fish heads.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dark Streets

A friend recently passed on to me a big thick paperback, a trilogy of novels called collectively Berlin Noir. The book is a 1993 Penguin paperback that includes March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991). Long a fan of hard-edged mystery stories in the noir style, this collection was quick to grab my interest. Not my usual practice to write about a book before I’ve finished reading it through to the end, but I am making an exception this time because my comments will stay pretty much with the book’s setting.

What exactly is noir fiction? It describes a style that is lean and direct with a fair serving of gritty realism, a further development of the hardboiled crime story made popular by Dashiel Hammett and refined by Raymond Chandler. Noir fiction took its name from “film noir,” dark dramas of hardboiled stories. Jim Thompson is a paramount name in noir, but what many have failed to notice is that Patricia Highsmith was the ultimate of noir writers. Though Raymond Chandler may be more accurately described as a writer of hardboiled fiction, the darkness of his Los Angeles streets and the characters who inhabit them is very definitely a noir characteristic.

The Chandler descriptions of Los Angeles make up the element that many of his readers look for in each of his books. The city becomes a character as much alive as any of his human characters. And it is that point that connects him to Philip Kerr and his trilogy, Berlin Noir. In March Violets, the Kerr book I am now reading, the city of Berlin, circa 1936 is recreated so finely, and with such completeness that it makes me believe the writer must have had photographs and maps tacked up all around his writing desk. He writes of dark, wet streets and you feel that darkness and wetness as though you were standing there on Alexanderplatz in east Berlin looking up through lamplit drizzle at Berolina Haus and Alexander Haus. Kerr does for Berlin what Chandler does for Los Angeles. Here is Kerr in an interview:

‘Yes, I tried to make Berlin a character in the same way that Los Angeles is a character in Chandler, which is probably where people get the idea that I copied Chandler. I do admire his descriptions of places and have always used them as an example of excellence that I set myself. It seems to me that a sense of place is essential in all good fiction. I like to think of myself as being rather similar to a painter in that I describe pictures of places.’

Kerr is so successful in his descriptions of Berlin 1936 that holding the book open in my hands I almost feel as though I’m wearing a trench coat, a wide brimmed hat, cheap leather shoes, with a Luger stuffed in my pocket. Only halfway through March Violets, I am reluctant to say more about the book. But for those readers with a special penchant for noir, and especially pre-World War II Berlin, Philip Kerr and Berlin Noir is the ticket.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vending Machines Japanese Style

Most visitors to Japan are not long out of Narita Airport before discovering that among other eye-popping sights greatly visible armies of vending machines stand in squad-like clusters on every other corner. Plain and simple, the Japanese adore vending machines. No question that companies like Georgia (Coca Cola), Kirin and Glico have over the years created a market that is hugely served by a near epidemic of vending machines from one end of Japan to the other, across cities and countryside. When the 100 yen coin was first put into circulation in 1967, vending machine sales skyrocketed overnight. They have been a part of daily Japanese life for so long that it wouldn’t surprise me to hear of Japanese visitors to the US suffering withdrawal symptoms. It may not be an exaggeration to say that many Japanese children learn how to operate a vending machine before learning to tie their shoelaces.

Back when I was still new to Japan, maybe a week or two after my arrival, my first time of using one of several vending machines near where I lived turned out to be a memorable experience. When I dropped a 100 yen coin in the slot, the machine—half the size of a Buick—lit up like a pinball machine and belted out, “WELCOME AND THANK YOU FOR CHOOSING DAIDO!” The enormous thing practically shimmied and I had to walk around to the back to see if a woman was hiding there with a megaphone. There was also in my old neighborhood one vending machine that sold nothing but comic books.

Ice cream, cold drinks, beer, cigarettes and other staples are only the tip of the iceberg in the land that gave us karaoke. Machine contents are often decided in relation to location. Near schools there are more juice, tea and milk products; in front of liquor stores you’ll find machines with alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and soft drinks. Wander into Kabukicho, a Tokyo center of nightlife and you are more likely to find machines selling items of a more adult nature, such as neatly packaged worn, but unwashed panties. Over the years there I saw a range of goods including eggs, oranges, fried food, live lobsters, pornography, sexual lubricants and pot plants.

Whatever they are selling, vending machines in the big cities of Japan are state of the art hi-tech behemoths. For example, to prevent minors from buying cigarettes and alcohol, many machines are now engineered to read ‘proof of age’ cards before dispensing the product. Cell phones can be charged with ‘money’ to allow use with vending machines by swiping the phone across a sensor. An article from CNN today reports installation in some cities of solar powered vending machines operable 24 hours a day.

And the new item for sale in these machines now? Would you believe lettuce?

Last, and by no means least, there were 5.6 million vending machines in Japan in 2008, or one machine for every twenty-three people. You never have to walk far to buy a Coke, a beer, a pair of boxer shorts, or a pair of…

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America