Ode to a Japanese rice cooker
September 4, 2017 § 26 Comments
I’m not sentimental about stuff. There is a box up on a shelf in my closet that has my great-great grandfather John Turner’s powder measure in it. He used it in the Civil War; it’s made from the breast bone of a turkey. I’m pretty sure it’s the only thing I own from that side of my family, but you know what? If it got lost or stolen I wouldn’t really care because it’s just a thing.
Bikes are the same. I owned bikes that are what you’d now call “classics,” but if I still owned any of them all I’d ever call them is clutter. Good fuggin’ riddance.
Last week my wife bought a new rice cooker. Here is a picture of the old one, beat to shit.
We bought this Zojirushi rice cooker in June 2000, when we moved back to the United States from Utsunomiya. I calculated that it has cooked over five thousand pots of rice since then, and it has never hiccoughed, much less needed repair. At the time it cost $200, which in today’s dollars is about $45,000,000, adjusting for inflation and poor arithmetical skills.
My sentimental rating for this thing is zero. The front cover has peeled off from being so close to the stove for so many years, and it is covered with more battle scars than an alpha male bull elephant seal. Since it still works fine, we’re handing it off to our youngest, who has left the dorms and signed up for apartment living in his second year of college.
Like I said, no sentimentality for that old thing. Some big corporation made it, I worked to pay for it, it did what it was supposed to do, and now it’s going off to Santa Barbara to do it some more. Most people would love to retire to Santa Barbara anyway.
But even though I’m not sentimental, not even a little, about the contraption that fed us and nourished us and did its job without interruption or complaint for close to twenty years, when you think about it, that old rice cooker marked a lot of time with our family.
When we brought it home from the Asahi Japanese Market in Austin, my youngest son was two. His brother, seven. His sister, eleven. He’s now a sophomore in college and I’m a grandfather. Time didn’t fly, it vanished. These wrinkles on my hands are tree rings, they mark the truth and can’t be obscured.
That rice cooker saw a lot of trials and a lot of tribulations. Terrible family altercations, family illness, family death. Friend troubles, school troubles, work troubles, life troubles. That rice cooker saw paychecks cashed with so little to go around that working poor would have seemed like an upgrade. Through the worst times, though, it coughed up a daily diet of hot steamed rice, nourishing food that left us with full bellies no matter how dire things otherwise might have seemed.
That rice cooker saw a lot of happiness, too. Reconciliations, mended friendships, excitement and adventure, new jobs, California, graduations, nuptials, and the crowning gift of life, babies. Whether we were making up or celebrating a milestone, that old rice cooker kept plugging away, pumping out the mainstay of every meal we ate together as a family for almost twenty years.
Those meals we ate together as a family, sometimes mad, usually happy, often hilarious, always filled with commentary about the things the day had brought, those meals were the glue that bound us, and they bound us in a way that frozen food and dinners out and ready-to-eat Trader Joe’s fare never could have. Whether we argued or whether we laughed, we did it over home cooked food whose backstop was invariably steamed white rice.
And if I’m so damned unsentimental about that old home appliance, maybe you can tell me why I’m so sad to see it go.
Widening the circle
September 28, 2015 § 22 Comments
The first time I cycled with my wife was in June, 1987. I’d been in Japan for five months and my mom had just shipped over my pink Tommasini. It was heaven, pedaling through Tochigi-ken, climbing the mountains around and behind Nikko, rolling through the rice paddies on the coastal plain towards the sea.
“Hey, honey,” I said one day, “let’s go for a bike ride!”
“Okay!” She loved to ride her bicycle and had commuted on it throughout high school. It was a cute little red mama-chari with fenders, a rack, a basket, a kickstand, and a wide padded seat.
“Let’s do an easy pedal,” I suggested. “Then if you decide you like it we can do more.” Everyone knows that “do more” is biker codespeak for “buy a really expensive race machine that you can hunch over on, strain your back and neck on, and ram a sharp hard saddle up your ass while you suffer for a few hours.”
She didn’t know that. “Okay!” she said, and even today I remember the happy, pretty smile.
I picked a course out to the prefectural driving license center that was almost totally flat except for a couple of hilly sections, and it was so short you wouldn’t have even needed legs. I was kind of bummed because I knew I wouldn’t get a workout doing a measly 25 miles, but it was worth it to spend time with my sweetie. Plus, once we got going I could kind of pick up the pace a tad so I’d at least break a sweat.
We got most of the way there before she began to really complain. When we got home four hours later she was livid and her parts were raw.
The next time we cycled together was in 2013. It had taken her a while to get over the earlier ride, I guess. We rode down the Strand from Rat Beach to Manhattan Beach on the Fourth of July. It was just us and twelve million other people.
Then in Germany this summer with my youngest son, straddling bicycles as we crossed the country, this occurred to me: Why had I failed so signally to share this thing that has given me such joy with those I love the most? Why has cycling always been a kind of hex that shoos away everyone in my family? Why haven’t I ever been able to widen the circle?
The answer is simple, and as I’ve looked at my friends, I’ve realized I’m not alone. I’ve always presented cycling as something that only an insane person would want to do. Arduous. Time consuming. Expensive. Combative. Dangerous. Populated by other, equally insane people clad in weird and ugly clothing that shows your tummy and haunches in the most unflattering of ways.
Who the hell WOULD want to do it?
So I came back from Germany and set about a stealth plan to get Mrs. WM back on a bicycle. The key was to never mention cycling. Instead I offered to take her out to breakfast.
“Oh, that would be great!” She loves chatting and breakfast. “When?”
“How’s next Sunday?”
“Perfect! Where are we going?”
“Let’s go over to Java Man in Hermosa. You’ll love it. We can ride our bikes there.”
She looked suspicious. “I don’t have a bike.”
“You can use Cassady’s.”
“I can’t pedal back home up the hill.”
“We’ll drive down to Rat Beach and pedal from there.”
“I’m not going to wear those stupid bicycle clothes with the big maxi pad seat.”
“Me, either. Shorts and a t-shirt.”
She brightened. “Okay.”
At Java Man, Manslaughter, Hair, and Emily were waiting for us, dressed like normal people. We chatted and ate and laughed for over an hour, and no one mentioned bicycles or cycling or, dog forbid, bicycle racing. It was one of the best Sundays of my life.
“That was fun!” she said as we pedaled home on the bike path. “Can we do it again?”
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May 11, 2015 § 39 Comments
In 1995 I started writing a novel about a Japanese family. I was living in the city of Utsunomiya at the time and had tired of all the zen-like, mystical, and reverent books about the inscrutability of life in Japan.
The polite, sophisticated, ambiguous, homogeneous Japanese apparently lived somewhere else, because my daily reality smacked up against people who were as rude, crude, obnoxious, funny, compassionate, hilarious, outrageous, subtle, overt, lying, thieving, honest, honorable, humble, prideful, and contradictory as people I’d seen in every other part of the earth I’d ever been.
For ten years I worked on the novel, then put it aside. A few years ago a good friend who had seen the very first draft asked me how it was going. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t have it anymore.”
“I think I have the copy you gave me,” she said, and a couple of weeks later she had scanned it and sent it over. I looked around on the Internet for a copy editor, but balked at the $2k price tag, so I began the laborious process of editing my own work, something akin to hearing your own voice on a recording for the first time, only much more repulsive. Each edit was slower than the one before, but after a dozen careful reads I was finished. The final proofing step on Amazon’s publishing platform picked up two more typos — not bad for 100,000 words — and I hit the “publish” button and was done.
The novel is called “Blossoms on the Family Tree,” and I hope you will buy a copy. My good friend Jack Daugherty has posted the kindest and most flattering review imaginable on Amazon, and if he’s even 1/1000 on the mark, then this is a book I can be proud of. And even if he’s not on the mark, I can say this: This is the best thing I’m capable of writing, and it’s got nothing to do with bikes!
Though the novel is hardly autobiographical, every single thing in it is true except for the parts I made up. And one of the parts I didn’t make up is that the Japan of the late 1980’s is gone. I still remember arriving on January 15, 1987, heading out into the provinces two weeks later for my first job, and getting mobbed by elementary schoolkids who had never seen an American and wanted to touch my hair.
I remember the hundreds of bicycles stacked up and around the Utsunomiya JNR station, a time when bikes were everywhere and used by everyone, all the time. Most of all, I remember the young people and what a young country it was, and how, in only that way perhaps, I blended right in.
My relationship with Japan began then and has continued unbroken for almost thirty years, and if I had to say that there is one thing above all others that has molded me in my adult life it has been the Japanese women around me. My wife of course but also the women in her family: Mother, grandmother, aunts, sisters in law, cousins, nieces … women who in a myriad of ways taught me firsthand about strength, resilience, determination, frailty, humanity, and love, and who gave me a Japanese cultural lesson every single day for each of the ten years that I lived there. It’s not a lesson that you’ll find in mainstream writing about Japan and the Japanese.
This novel, after twenty years’ gestation, is as fully formed as anything I’ve ever written or hope to write. The era it encompasses is gone forever, but the women who populated it are still here, some still present in the flesh, all still here with me in spirit.
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Just don’t call it “little”
November 7, 2014 § 18 Comments
We were sitting around the fire after a wonderful dinner with friends and so naturally the talk turned to Mrs. Wankmeister’s underwear. “I’m using onna underpants that are sometimes the old and sometimes the new,” she said. “The old ones is onna classic type.”
My buddy’s wife asked what exactly was a “classic type.”
“That’s a underpants onna ain’t got any holes,” said Mrs. WM. “But I hate onna throwin’ away old underpants unless they have a big holes,” she added. “For ten years wearin’ onna old underpants is okay because they are softer.”
“Speaking of underpants,” I said, “that reminds me of that ride I once did with Tom Malone.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. WM, “thatsa funny story onna his o-chin-chin.”
“What happened?” asked my buddy’s wife.
“Well,” I said, “it was like this. I was living in Utsunomiya and Tom was living in Ujiie-machi. I called him up the night before and said, ‘Dude, let’s ride tomorrow,’ and he was like, ‘Cool, meet you at seven out by Inokashira Park.’ The next morning I put my bike in the car and drove out to the park; it was cold as hell. I had brought my warmest clothing — it was 40 degrees and getting colder by the hour. Wool Santini hat, glove liner, heavy over gloves, wool socks, neoprene booties, thick winter tights, heavy under-layer, jersey, wool arm warmers, wool sweater, and outer Santini jacket. I knew it was going to be a brutal ride.
“When I got to the park Tom hopped out of his car wearing a pair of shorts, a light pair of spring gloves, a helmet, Lycra arm warmers, and a short-sleeve jersey. ‘Dude,’ I said, ‘you’re gonna freeze your ass off.’
“‘No problem,’ he said, ‘I’ll be fine.’
“So we started out and after half an hour he was frozen to the core. ‘You okay?’ I asked. ‘You look pretty bad.’
“‘Nah,’ he said, ‘I’ll be fine.’
“We pedaled on for another half an hour and even I was getting cold, even though I was bundled up like a polar bear. Pretty soon Tom’s head started to droop. Then he started to moan. ‘You okay?’ I asked.
“‘No,’ he said. Then he moaned some more, and I mean it was an agonizing moan, like someone whose hand is slowly being fed into a meatgrinder. After a couple of minutes he stopped pedaling and fell off his bike into a ditch. ‘Dude!’ I said, being pretty afraid. ‘What’s wrong?’
“‘Mr. Business,’ he moaned. ‘Mr. Business is frozen!’
“I looked around for Mr. Business but there was nobody on the road but us, then I realized he had his hands jammed down his shorts and was rubbing like a madman. ‘Shit, dude,’ I said, ‘is it frozen?’
“‘Aaaaaagh!’ he screamed. ‘Mr. Bizzzzznesssssss!’ I had seen people freeze the ends of their noses, their fingers, and their toes before, but I’d never seen anyone freeze that, and as he tried to rub in some heat I wondered what to do. ‘I’m your pal, Tom,’ I said, considering the various ways I might assist him, ‘but there are limits to our friendship.’ Then it occurred to me to offer him my wool Santini cap. He desperately grabbed and wrapped it around Mr. Business. ‘Dude,’ I said, ‘no need to worry about giving it back.’
“We pedaled back to the car and the Business came back to life and I drove home and told Mrs. Wankmeister about it. She thought it was pretty funny.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Wankmeister said, “but then I got worried onna Seth’s chin-chin because he’s always out riding onna cold days and what if he’s onna frozen too and no one’s gonna stick his hands and hats and warmin’ onna his chin-chin? So I made you onna that cover.”
“What?” said my buddy’s wife.
Mrs. WM looked at her. “He had onna old wool socks and I cut one up for makin’ a little foldy-over-cover for him puttin’ onna his chin-chin for warmin’.”
“A little wool cover, huh?” my buddy said, grinning. “How little was it?”
Mrs. WM paused and looked at my face, but she apparently couldn’t see me mouth the word “enormous” in the darkness. “Oh, it wasn’t onna too little, just a medium little.”
There was a brief silence as we waited for the paramedics to come and assist with my pal and his wife, who appeared to be choking to death from laughter. Eventually Mrs. WM steered the conversation over to the subject of pajama bottoms and how my one pair had giant holes in them and no elastic and were held up by twisting a big rubber band around the bunched up waistline. “I got something for you,” said my buddy. He went inside and came back out with a big pair of thermal pajama bottoms that had a working drawstring. I’d had a few beers, so I put them around my neck and eventually we went home.
That evening I tried on the PJ’s and they were a perfect fit, especially where it matters most. “Those onna be good PJ’s for you,” said Mrs. WM. “They gotta good fit on your hanging space.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “but could I make a request?”
“Oh sure,” she said.
“The next time you’re explaining to a crowd of people something — anything — related to that … ”
“Could you try not to use the words ‘little’?”
“Itsa bad words,” she agreed. “Cutesy is onna better, right?”
I sighed. “Right.”
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