Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fall Celebrations

Last weekend, I went to Nashville with an old music-making friend to contribute vocal tracks to the latest in a series of projects called poetry scores – long poems set to music as one scores a film. Click here to read a post about that trip, and listen to MP3s of the songs with me on them.

Mowgli did not go with me – the reality of owning two large dogs makes it difficult for us to take weekend trips together. When friends asked what he’d be doing, I said my best guess was that he’d be watching football and cleaning the house. I was right on both counts.

The reasons for the football are self-evident – men like sports, ugh-ugh. The cleaning is less obvious unless you’re privy to the Hindu calendar and realized that Saraswati Puja, a major Hindu observation, fell on Sunday.

Saraswati is the goddess of the arts, learning and knowledge, and she also governs language and tools. Her connection to tools mystified me until Mowgli explained that because you need knowledge to use tools, and she rules knowledge, she therefore rules tools.

We’re not just talking about hammers and screwdrivers here; the Hindu concept of tools encompasses everything that helps you do anything, and thus includes appliances, books, flashlights, computers, phones, watches, doorways, lightswitches, pens, keys, and vehicles. All of these things get daubed with both kumkum (which I think of as blessing powder) and sandalwood paste, but cars get a special treatment that’s meant to cast out the evil eye.

The passivity of being a passenger on a five-hour trip allowed me to think about the puja, and get bummed out by the prospect of missing it. Participating in Hindu rituals with my husband lets me crawl into his cultural skin a bit, and it’s plain fun to see him prepare for them rituals with joy and excitement. When I got home, I was happy to find that though Mowgli had daubed everything with the sharply sweet sandalwood and kumkum, he had waited for me to start the ceremony.

I puttered, unpacked and settled in, then showered before we lit an oil lamp, incense and camphor, and prayed over an assortment of fruit, hot milk with sugar and cardamom, and a few books, watches, keys and musical instruments. (This part of the ceremony is the same as for Ugadi, which I wrote about earlier this year.)

The serious, reflective part over with, we proceeded with the fun part. We moved the cars, one at a time, to the front of the house. Mowgli had cleaned them inside and out, and anointed the hoods and trunks with the aforementioned powders. He had also prepared the lemons by washing them, daubing them with kumkum, and scoring them widthwise before we prayed over them with the rest of the fruit.

I took four lemons and wedged one against the front of each of my car’s tires; then I drove forward slowly, squashing them, and drove around the little park in our neighborhood. As I pulled into the driveway, I could see Mowgli smiling and waving from our front porch. I smiled and waved back. I picked up the lemons I’d squashed, and watched Mowgli repeat the process with his car. As I stood on the porch waiting to see him come back from his short drive, it felt a bit like Christmas morning, with our simple actions and the smells of incense, sandalwood, lemons and cardamom standing in for the smell of a pine tree and opening presents.

Seven years ago when I first met my husband, I could not have imagined this ritual, much less that I would ever take part in it. Two years ago, as we started our married life, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I would look forward to it. Realizing that I cherish it makes a pretty good anniversary gift. Thanks, honey.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ramadan in Holland

A week ago, a friend who lives in Amsterdam sent an e-mail about participating in Ramadan fasting in order to better understand both the tradition and a German friend of Turkish descent. I found it pretty interesting, and thought the rest of you might, too.

Yesterday was Suikerfeest for those of Islamic tradition here in Holland. "Suikerfeest" roughly translates to "sugar party," and lots more of the candies called "Turkish delight" fill the stores. It's an obvious marker for the rest of us that Ramadan has come to a close.

I, too, just finished the fast of Ramadan, and what really caused me to write this was something a very good friend of mine mentioned. In particular, instead of always seeing religions focus on denial, he expressed that he would like to see a focus on indulging the pleasures and joys of this life. Those thoughts eventually crystallized into something I thought would be worth passing along.

I only did the fasting part – I did not do the mediation/prayer several times a day. Still, going with no water and no food from before twilight starts in the morning until after twilight ends in the evening for a month was pretty intense. At 52 degrees latitude, dusk sometimes didn't end until 9 p.m. Also, I should note that on four separate days I broke my fast a bit early when I was with non-fasting friends so as not to force everyone's evening plans around my own constraints. Additionally, while in Sarajevo, hotel breakfasts started at 6 a.m., which was bit after the call to prayer, which we could hear from a nearby mosque.

Back to the joy vs. denial debate, at first I was thinking – wait, joy is how we should be arranging our whole lives. You know, perhaps, rather than 30 days of joy and pleasure, the goal should be to have as close to 365 days of indulgence as possible. With the perspective that my life is a life of indulgence, does the idea of taking a month out to step back and experience my body differently take a different perspective? Does that make the denial seem better? To me? Not really.
So then I started thinking about the fasting I just completed. It didn't connect to the conversation about denial at all. I pondered that for a while.

Slowly it came to me that maybe it was because denial wasn't a main factor for me. I don't think denial is a main factor for those that follow the fast every year either. Yes, there was some denial going on, but the denial seemed almost incidental. Perhaps a means, not an end?

But again, talking about all that seems very intellectual and abstract. So while connecting to another person and another tradition was certainly a big factor, it is not really down to earth in a day-to-day way, and doesn't really illuminate the denial angle one way or another.

The fast created a very physical experience of learning that even with thirst gnawing at me, I can fill my worldly obligations. Without exactly intending to, I demonstrated to myself that, with focus, I can be rational and level-headed and civil and tend to all of my work-a-day duties even with low blood sugar. But even that was a secondary thing, I think.

After some time, I came to the idea that framing the fast of Ramadan as denial would be a mistake, but an easy one given the seemingly endless focus on guilt and punishment in our historically Christian-dominated culture. By comparison, I don't think we see the fasting portion of the indigenous American "vision quests" as being about the denial aspect; I don't think it makes sense to view the Ramadan fast as denial either.

I think it's our cultural perspective that sometimes makes the tradition seem like some weird abstract analog of a sado-masochism club. As if it were a tradition of getting tied to a big cross, seeing all sorts of beautiful people walking by being intentionally tempting, and only getting untied at dark. Now that I've done it, I see it's not like that at all. (Although of course, there were a few days where that seemed to be almost the case. But not most.)

Now I see it really isn't about denial at all. And certainly it isn't any sort of self-punishment. Rather, in its own little way, it almost is a focus on pleasure. Most days were about indulgence, although admittedly quaint or at least simple ones. The evening tastes were magnified. The first glass of water every night was really an amazing thing all by itself. My wife had great fun taking bigger risks in the kitchen because she knew that I would be the most forgiving audience ever. And every dinner was "King's Cabbage," which was really neat.

The fasting of Ramadan isn't for everyone, but it's a surprisingly interesting tradition. I'd encourage giving it a try for a week or so to get a taste of it. For me, anyway, it was fun.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sumo Revisited

Sunday’s post on sumo has me thinking about bodies, size, and the twin obsessions with thinness and excess weight we have in the United States. The emcee managed to avoid using the word fat, and I stood there thinking she was smart to craft her patter for neophytes.

As I listened to her, my love of sumo made me think that surely at least a few people were there to learn about an ancient culture’s time-honored athletic contest. That conversation would go like this:

Bob: “Hey, sumo, I wonder what that’s like?”

Mary: “Yeah, I mean wow, what is the history is behind that?”

Bob: “Hm. That might be interesting.”

Mary: “Okay, let’s go check it out. And then we can head over to the ikebana hall.”

But I knew that the majority of the audience must have been there for the shock value, gross-out factor, what-have-you, of seeing fat guys wrestle. And that conversation would go like this:

Bob: “Oh wow, sumo! Fat guys wrestling!”

Mary: “Yeah, in diapers! Let’s go see that.”

I will admit that the biggest guy there (I think the emcee said he was 300-ish pounds) was not necessarily pleasant to look at. His legs reminded me of a baby’s, with the excess flesh drooping down and rubbing against itself. The emcee stressed several times that these guys have regular checkups, and tend to be in better shape than you would think.

Beyond the visual impact, there’s the stubbornly solid smack of massive bodies making contact at high speed. It’s a bit like the sound of a belly flop, but more substantive, with a wider range; it was also loud enough to shock me, and I was at least 30 yards away from the stage.

I wish I’d talked with a few audience members to find out why they were there, and whether their perceptions of sumo changed after learning about it and watching it. The conditions for that kind of change were good. The emcee stressed the cultural significance of the sport, the high place of honor reserved for champions, and the gorgeous women they subsequently date and marry. The rikishi were gracious with the kids they brought onstage, and gracefully powerful in their bouts. The bouts were interesting, with a variety of moves, holds and unexpected outcomes.

So if you were there, tell me: What did you think?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Japanese Festival: Sumo Edition

One of the things I most wanted to see at the Japanese festival was the sumo. A while back I blogged about the basics of sumo and why it's so awesome, so I won't repeat myself here. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who wanted to see big men wrestling -- the place was packed.

The three rikishi (wrestlers) that were there had wrestled professionally in Japan but were from Hawaii, and they were introduced by a woman who wrote a book about sumo. I don't recall her name, but I do recall the crowd getting visibly and audibly impatient as she sucked up valuable wrestling time with fun facts about sumo, like, sumo wrestlers are big because they eat a lot! Really? We had no idea.

Okay, done being snide now. She did say some interesting things, and I realize she was gearing her talk to people who have no exposure to sumo, but in all honesty, she needs an editor. (Interestingly, though, she never once used the word "fat.")

Eventually she introduced the rikishi, ending with the biggest one, who elicited gasps and comments from several people around me. They went through their stretching exercises as the woman continued talking about how much weight they'd lost and what there did no (one of them is a surfing instructor). Then, finally, hallelujah, the two smaller ones settled in for a bout:

They brought a bunch of kids up to go through the stretching and strengthening exercises:

They asked for a kid volunteer to wrestle with one guy:

Then came an older kid, whom they put in a mawashi, which was funny both because they had to spin him around three or four times, and because I knew everyone there was thinking, "Hey, look at the kid in the diaper."

He got the initial squat just right.

He was very serious about the bout.

But he did not win.

Watching all of this only strengthened my jones to attend a real sumo basho (tournament). And while there are annual "sumo opens" in California (this year's happens to be next Saturday), I have a feeling that wouldn't quite do it, either. Because with sumo, as with ice cream, NASCAR and high-end hair products, there just ain't nothing like the real thing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lolita: More than a Fictional Character

A week and a half ago, we went to the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and I've been writing about it ever since. I lived in Japan for nearly three years, right after college, and I experience enough nostalgia for it that getting a big cultural fix was soothing.

One of the things I really wanted to see was Taiko drumming -- big drums, lots of them, and impressively coordinated people wailing away at them. The event was packed, and we picked our way along the back of the crowd until we found a spot against the fence with a decent view.

A little while later, two frill-bedecked young women walked by, and I immediately knew what their deal was, though I couldn't recall the name for it. Here they are, from afar:

After a while, I realized I was excited to see two intrepid Midwesterners taking fashion chances at an event that's not necessarily crammed with open-minded people. Recalling an early photography teacher's advice that it's always better to get your subject involved in a shot by (gasp!) talking to them, I worked up a bit of courage. I said I liked their outfits and asked them what they were called. Lolita, they said, and they seemed both excited and envious when I mentioned I'd lived in Tokyo and seen the groups of people that hang out in Harajuku park in their Loli outfits.

Despite the name, most Lolita practitioners will tell you that dressing this way has nothing to do with Nabokov's book or anything sexual. It's a way to escape, indulge a love of fashion, and express themselves. There are clothing lines dedicated to this mode of dress, and there are sub-modes: Gothic, Black, Elegant, and so on. Outside of Japan, followers often make their own outfits because ordering these items online is time-consuming, expensive and fraught with size-translation peril. I wish I'd asked these ladies about that, because I'm betting that made at least some of what they were wearing, and they'd have been really happy to talk about it.

Well, the one on the left, anyway. The parasol gal was less enthused, though she was pleased about looking tall in the photo.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

People-Watching at the Japanese Festival

The people-watching at the Japanese festival was unexpectedly rewarding. The place was just crammed with people of all description, most of them wearing traditional Midwestern summer garb, but some splashing out a bit with Japan-flavored outfits or items. The best outfits deserve a post of their own, though, so come back on Wedesday to check that out.

Umbrellas were quite popular.

So were fans.

These pointy hats were everywhere. I think of them as Chinese coolie hats -- what manual laborers wear to keep the sun off. So it was funny to see them on so many well-fed Midwestern kids.

It was also possible to spot the occasional actual Japanese person wearing traditional Japanese garb.

It's a little hard to see, but this lady is wearing geta -- wooden flip-flops that have you up on two vertical chunks of wood per foot. That means she's almost certainly wearing tabi, the heavy socks with a split that puts the big toe off on its own. It was about 85 degrees and humid that day, too, so between the footwear, kimono and obi, I'm sure she was really toasty.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bonsai, Ikebana and Fish Banners

On Monday, we went to the Japanese Festival for the first time in years. I was a picture-taking demon the whole time, so you, my friends, are in for at least a solid week of posts about the festival, Japan, the people at the festival, the food at the festival, you get the idea.

Today's installment has to do with the natural world, and how it's traditionally manipulated within ancient art forms of ikebana and bonsai. And fish banners. Must not forget about the fish banners, about which I posted on my other blog.

While we were walking around the bonsai display, we speculated on the origins of the tradition and guessed that it had something to do with a lack of space. We were wrong. According to this site, it's a horticultural tradition of creating an aesthetic masterpiece out of a tree. It originated in China and was adopted by Japanese Buddhist monks, and from there, it spread to the elite. Here's an informative quote, also from that site:

"In an ancient Japanese scroll written in Japan around the Kamakura period, it is translated to say: 'To appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity.' "

Ikebana, on the other hand, is both the art of arranging flowers and other plants, as well as the coming together of nature and humanity. Similarly to bonsai, arrangements are displayed as works of art, it has a spiritual aspect to it, and it's done by both men and women.

As I mentioned on Buildings and Skies the other day, the fish banners (koinobori) are carp, which swim upstream and therefore represent strength and perseverance. They are hung during festivals, but also on Children's Day, which was called Boy's Day until 1948, when the government declared that girls should also take part in expressing gratitude toward their mothers. My recollection is that girls are given sets of dolls representing the emperor's family, and one carp for the mother, father, and each boy in the family is flown outside the home.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Phone That Changed my Life

On Thursday night I made a ridiculous purchase for an item I did not need, but wanted: a phone that is not so much a phone as a very pretty and enjoyable toy that provides seemingly endless hours of entertainment. With it, I can: check e-mail; noodle around on Facebook; store, purchase and listen to music; take, store and share and edit photos and video; find the nearest open gas station; and so many other things that attempting to list them here would be a lengthy, if interesting, exercise in futility.

This purchase, as much as I resisted it, has changed my life in the space of the last two days. I know that’s dramatic, but it’s true.

One of the ways it’s been transformative is by demonstrating in a concrete way that it is good for me to occasionally buy myself the best of the best, my heart’s desire, something nice. I give my husband Mowgli (not his real name) majority credit for this; he is, as I like to say, a fancy lad, and tenaciously persuasive about many things.

With this particular item, he’s been working on me for a year. Get it. We can afford it. Get it. You’ll enjoy it. Get the biggest one.

And so, after gradually realizing that he was right and I did actually want the thing pretty badly, and having verified both online and via a surprisingly decent customer service line that I was eligible for an early upgrade, I called a store near us and guilted them into reserving one for me. Then I called my husband to giddily give him the good news and outline my plan for the two of us to spend a romantic evening at the phone store.

The guy who greeted us there frowned a bit when I said I’d reserved one earlier that day, but came back from a locked room with “the last one.” We were there for an hour, I think, making changes to my service, talking about the warranty, picking a shell for the device (purple and pink, much to Mowgli’s chagrin), and getting a tutorial on the basics of the phone’s features.

During the 15-foot walk to the car, I got a little dizzy from walking with my eyes glued to thescreen. I sat in the driver’s seat, setting up the voicemail and trying out voice dialing. I’m pretty sure I had started drooling when I heard a question from somewhere off to my right: “Do you want me to drive?”

I said no, and about 15 seconds later, unable to tear my attention away from the thing, I said yes. Mowgli drove us the 150 yards to the next store, I put the phone in my bag with great tenderness and delicacy, and we shopped. When we got out of the store, I took a few photos, and spent the entire drive home trying to figure out how to post them to Facebook.

At home, Mowgli put the groceries away (usually a tag-team effort) and I went out on the deck with the phone and the dogs, downloading apps, playing with said apps, and generally trying to run the thing out of juice as instructed by the phone store guy. Eventually I moved inside and sat on the couch, fiddling with it as Mowgli watched TV. Occasionally he’d ask me something, and I’d answer on a 30-second delay, without looking up.

Then I heard laughter from my left. “What?” “It’s like when you tell me you want me to pay attention when you talk to me and I’m watching TV. Only I’m trying to get your attention and you’re staring at the phone.”

Ladies and gentlemen, my iPhone changed my life – by turning me into a man.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

One Hundred

Well blog friends, it's a big day, in several ways.

This is post number one hundred. It's hard to believe that I've sat down at this kitchen counter, usually early in the morning like this, that many times. That was part of the point, to sit down to write on a regular basis. But I didn't think about how it would feel to hit this number and look back. It feels pretty great.

I also didn't think about how it would feel to watch my visit stats climb and have feedback from readers. That feels pretty great too, so thank you, readers, for reading and commenting.

But as they say on TV, that's not all! An essay I wrote specifically for Sauce Magazine appears in their September edition. It's about food, naturally, but it's also about an unhappy event, and a kind of masala I've toyed with writing about here: Native American culture.

And finally, partly to mark the occasion, I'm taking this blog's schedule down to two days a week: Tuesdays and Sundays. That way, I'll have more time to work on the book. Yep, a book. About my personal masala, in novel form. It's already been a revelatory process, and I'm looking forward to sinking my teeth into it.

I suspect I may share parts of it here, sometime during the next one hundred posts.