Monday, October 21, 2013

stop worrying, love the bento

I had a gig as a part-time teacher* at a kindergarten here seven years ago, and I got to see the exquisite and tyrannical cuteness of the bento first-hand. There really were fish cakes stamped into flower shapes, adorning rice-ball bunny faces with pink ume cheeks and black nori whiskers, joined by adroitly flayed cocktail wieners and that non-edible decorative sushi grass. That shit is real.

(*had nothing to do with "teaching")

I would eat with the students, and marvel at their little zig-zag cut cucumber slices, their broccoli spears topped with a smattering of sesame seeds, their tiny patterned foil cups filled with coiled noodles... and they would make fun of me for my unabashedly boring leftover curry..
But, come to think of it, they made fun of me for just about everything. Aren't kids delightful?

So I had some trepidation about this lunch-making business. Getting tips from cookbooks specifically for bento is like taking a crash-course in master-chefsmanship... learn to prepare tiny portions of savory and aesthetically appealing finger food, nutritionally balanced and artistically nuanced:

Roasted eggplant slices interspaced with prosciutto! Glazed grilled salmon and bite-sized chunks of boiled kabocha! Apples sliced like an MC Escher drawing!

Gorgeous little hors d'oeuvres. For your child. FOR LUNCH.

I flipped through the pages of that cookbook thinking my kids will not eat any of this.

But first, before I even got to the cooking part, I needed some things:

ALL THE THINGS. Are needed.

I can't even tell you how many different stores I went to for the proper napkins and little cups and pouches for little cups, but it was a lot, and I broke a sweat in all of them because the kids take my price-tag-reading and decision-making-face as a cue to escalate to full-on feral monkey mode.

But we made it out eventually, and everything is safely gendered and color coordinated, despite the hodge-podge of assorted cartoon personae. 

To the kitchen, then, for my first attempt:

Fortunately the majority of the bento is supposed to be rice, and it's not hard to dress it up with some furikake. The fried-chicken was store-bought (cheating, yes), then sliced apples, clementine wedges, cucumber slices -- salted! that's the trick -- and some green beans, blanched, then simmered in miso paste.

This is not going to become a cooking blog,  where I take well-lighted pictures of food I made in my impeccably tasteful house in order to make you feel bad about your life, heaven forbid -- I only need to illustrate my story to show you that my children ate these vegetables. My children. Who usually eat cheese crackers and hot dogs. After a week in Japanese Yochien they are willingly eating green things.

Attempt #2 was leftover chicken piccata, rice cooked in dashi with carrots & mushrooms (followed this recipe, more or less), gomae (sesame spinach), and some more cuke & apple slices.

I'm crediting peer pressure mainly, and also the utter lack of fall-back comfort food, as the reason my kids will even try this stuff. But I have also realized my own complacency in our previous lunch habits. I don't want to be all insufferable about it, but learning how to cook vegetables in a way that tastes good to my kids is a skill I didn't know I needed until I was forced into it. Having a toaster oven helps, too.

I did not expect to like making bento; I was only hoping for a grudging tolerance. Believe me, I have deeper issues about Japanese food in general that need to be resolved (how desperately I miss good bread, for example), but I'm giving myself permission to feel a little smug in my success on this front.

Don't expect cocktail wieners cut to look like octopi with little sesame seed eyes, though. I have some snark to maintain.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

bona fides

I have been trying for years to get myself to draw every day.

I have little spurts of productivity and discipline, but then I misplace my sketchbook or I’m tired or I’m caught in that sneaky trap of fear and self-doubt. Then I see my friend's drawings, which she’s been doing for years, about her daily life and experiences, and they are so AMAZING, and I chastise myself for not drawing every day and doing something amazing too.

I want to be amazing, but I don’t want to allow myself to practice. I want even my sketchbooks to be amazing (so I can show them off and impress people and become famous and never again experience fear and self-doubt — that’s the narrative, isn’t it?), so I don’t ever give myself permission to make mistakes, not even in a sketchbook. I want to make marks, but I am terrified of making stupid marks. The self-consciousness is paralyzing.

I read once that Egon Schiele was such an amazing draughtsman that he never used erasers — if he didn’t like his line, he threw away the entire drawing. But mostly he just nailed it.

I have the same yearning for a certain quality of line, for an ease and a naturalness. When I make stupid marks they betray me; they expose me.

But when I look at other people’s work, I LIKE the rough edges. I like when things are not so tidy, when I can see some of the process, some of the decisions they made. I like the vitality in that. So why am I so intent on killing that vitality in my own work?

I  have spent a lot of years trying to make art the way other people make art, mistakenly believing that imitation will yield satisfying results. And then I compare myself mercilessly when I don’t do what they did. All the while I’ve been ignoring the very thing that makes my work MINE. And I don’t know what that is, but I know it shows up if I just do the work.

I have been very deliberate this past year about dismantling my perfectionism.

I had been feeling like I was on the verge of a breakthrough for months on end and instead I was just getting totally blue-balled, feeling as though there was a wall, like a literal wall, between where I was and where I wanted to go. I had no clue how to get around it. “Just do something different!” I would scold myself. Then I’d try something different and it would be so pitifully meek and half-baked that I would give up immediately and despair about being any kind of artist at all.

In the superb little tome Art and Fear, the authors write about that feeling of yearning, which is often what compels artist to make stuff in the first place, and how it can corrupt what you’ve made immediately after you’ve made it. Because you’re still yearning. Like being painfully hungry and just drinking hot water.

So part of my breakthrough was the realization that each single piece is not going to be IT — the satisfaction of that yearning -- it’s just part of it. Each piece leads me closer, and each piece contains the seed of the next piece. So that’s why I have to just keep making stuff and not worry so much about whether every single canvas is resolved.

But I keep looking for the line.

What I need to do instead is allow the line to be the record of the search, not its object. How I think, how I see, how I keep turning something over and over in my hands and in my head in order to figure it out -- these are what make me an artist.


Friday, October 4, 2013

same river twice

Hard day, good day, hard day... brain weaving a pattern from the din of information.

So unbelievably tired at the end of the day; snapping at the kids, feeling guilty, always trailing behind, instead of marching, decisively, ahead.

More than once already I have wanted to bail on this adventure. It's getting easier bit by bit -- we have water pressure now! and a table! -- but it's still hard for me to imagine the coming winter and the rest of our year here. It's simultaneously a big deal and not at all... we're just going about our lives and our work, with the usual frustrations and successes. And yet, I'm indulging in self-pity, needing some recognition for the work I'm doing, because it feels like a magic trick every time I coax dinner out of the meager provisions in our fridge. I am flummoxed by the grocery store, vexed by uncooperative children who expect toys and treats just for breathing Japanese air.

I have been retracing old steps, stitching this city together from a dream. I am looking for the street that connects to the alley that leads to the cafe next to the charming gift shop... was that it? Do I also expect to find the person I was then?

I used to love rummaging around at used bookstores, searching for collage material. Yesterday I went to one in our neighborhood and browsed briefly through the offerings out front, a haphazard stack of mildewed books and periodicals. It didn't enchant me with possibility like it did before, it just looked like the remnants of someone's hoarding, coating my hands with filmy dust.

So, I had to get that out of the way, I suppose. Now I can allow this experience to unfold in real time, unbounded by my expectations. The kids and I ride our bike all over town, observing, piecing things together in a new way: here's the giant tanuki, there's the mossy little waterfall, here is our fox shrine. "We're meambling," Auden says as we coast slowly, letting the narrow streets lead us this way and that.

I want to force things to come together, to make sense, to be easy. I takes all kinds of reminders to slow down and see what's right there: delicate things, easily overlooked, like tiny maple leaves in a layered canopy, filtering sunlight.