Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More than a meal...

Tonight, Billy, one of my best friends in the world, took me to Kampachi, our favorite sushi restaurant. Billy has been going to Kampachi for more than thirty years; I've entered into my second decade of attendance.

There are so many things I love about Kampachi. It's absolutely authentic, no compromises, Japanese cuisine. It's delicious. And delightful. The owner and staff enjoy teaching us about the food and its traditions as much as we enjoy eating it. I've had transcendent meals there, made all the more so by the cultural experience, the embedded meanings of the ingredients, how this type of fish should be eaten, what food is proper for the season.

We had a typically wonderful meal tonight, full of exquisite flavors, things we'd never tried before, and of course, great conversation, between ourselves, with Mr. Kido, the chef and owner, with his wife, some Chinese customers who came in right before closing. It's never just about eating. It's about all the things that are supposed to go with meals, once you get beyond subsistence.

It's late, I'm tired, and I can't do justice to the place or the experience, so I thought I would repost something I wrote nearly four years ago, about the time we went to Kampachi for fugu.....

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Billy has been taking me to Kampachi for more than a dozen years. Kampachi is the best sushi bar I've ever been to: very traditional, very Japanese, with a master chef who appreciates customers with adventurous tastes. Billy, who has been going to Kampachi since the 1980s, often says that no matter how many times he's been there, every visit brings at least one dish he's never tried before. Which given Billy's experience with and understanding of sushi, is really saying something. At Kampachi, they call Billy "Sushi Ken" - not because they don't know his name, but because "Ken" means "master" (or something along those lines). Billy's knowledge of sushi (and just about every other major cuisine you could name) is encyclopedic. He and the master chef discuss ingredients, philosophies of Japanese food, its presentation, the aesthetics and culture. So going to Kampachi is more than a gustatory experience - it's an intellectual one as well (you can read Billy's review of Kamapchi here).

But oh, the many different, tantalizing flavors, textures, subtle combinations. As much as we enjoy talking during these long, drawn-out meals, there will come a point - several - heck, at least one for just about every dish - where we're reduced to happy sighs and embarrassingly orgasmic moans. Damn, the food is good.

The other night, while sitting at the sushi bar, someone - I forget who - commented on a handwritten sign in Japanese posted on the wall. "That says, 'fire,'" I pipe up. "And that one's...wind." One of the chefs has studied some Chinese, so towards the end of the evening, when I've had a couple sakes, we generally exchange a few words.

"It's for fugu," the chef explains.

"You can get fugu?" Billy asks, more than casually interested.

"Yes. From Japan. Just order four days in advance."

Now, I've heard of fugu. It's a blowfish of some sort, considered a delicacy (and a very expensive one) in Japan. Partially because it's very poisonous, and has to be prepared just right in order to ensure repeat business from your clientele. Who, if the fugu isn't prepared just right, can drop dead on the spot from respiratory paralysis.

By the time I've returned from the restroom, Billy has determined that a special fugu dinner is just what's needed as a belated celebration of my birthday.

The next Wednesday, Billy, Pete (an old research buddy and my original link to Billy - the two of them are childhood friends) and my sister, Dana, meet at Kampachi for our arranged fugu dinner.

I'd very much been looking forward to the dinner. But for some reason I'd been reluctant to make too many jokes about death by fugu in the preceding email exchanges. Because, of course, that wasn't going to happen. Was it? I mean, this is one of the best sushi chefs in greater Los Angeles. Surely there was nothing to worry about. Probably the whole danger aspect was exaggerated anyway.

Still, I avoided telling anyone exactly what the dinner was about. Just, because, well, you know...

The day of the dinner, I did a little research. The preparation of fugu is tightly regulated, I was happy to discover. Chefs are rigorously trained. Hardly anyone is poisoned by fugu these days, even if the amount of toxin in the liver is enough to kill thirty grown men; the poisonings that do occur tend to happen in outlying areas of Japan, with chefs who aren't properly certified. So what if the Lonely Planet website quoted a line from a Japanese poem: "Last night he and I ate fugu; today I helped carry his coffin." That was from, like, ages ago. And that crack about fugu being the dining equivalent of bungee-jumping...kind of a cheap shot, really.

In truth, I am not a bungee-jumping person. I tend to be cautious and analytical. And a great spinner of worst-case scenarios. God, how embarrasing would it be if I died from fugu poisoning?

We sat in the tatami room, Billy, Pete, Dana and I, drinking hot sake and waiting for our fugu. By now we were cracking jokes. Fugu dinners are highly ritualized (for a more positive account than Lonely Planet's, go here, and for additional interesting information, here). Fugu sashimi comes on a huge platter, sliced thin to the point of translucence. Special scallions from Japan, tiny green reeds, are rolled up in the fugu, which is dipped in ponzu sauce. You can add a kind of daikon relish and more scallions if you'd like.

But when the fugu platter came, we all kind of stared at it for a while.

"I'm not going first," I announced.

Billy, true to form, took the first bite.

And when he didn't die, we all plunged in, quickly putting aside any thoughts of danger or mortality. It seemed the most normal, delightful thing in the world, to be sitting in that tatami room, drinking sake and eating fugu with good friends.

Fugu has a delicate flavor and a slightly rubbery texture. The first bite, I thought I felt that tingling of the lips and tongue that marks the residual toxin and is so prized by afficionados, but I can't be certain. "Do you think it's so prized because it can kill you?" I ask Billy, thinking of a Japanese proverb I'd read earlier in the day: "Those who eat fugu soup are stupid. But those who don't eat fugu soup are also stupid."

"It's because of the delicacy of the flavor," Billy replies. "Keep in mind that the ultimate expression of Japanese cuisine is a plain custard."

I think it's a little of both, an expression of the contrasts, the light and the dark, the attempt at balance, that are so much a part of Japanese culture. I think of another poem I'd read:
I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.

After the sashimi, the server - I hesitate to call her a waitress, she is something above that - brings us something that she isn't sure we'll like. Hot sake in big covered cups, in which soaks a fugu fin. It's absolutely delicious - a sort of cross between sake and a meaty broth. Next, we made soup: a huge clay pot of water on a gas burner, in which we spooned chunks of fugu, onions, tofu, greens and mushrooms. Simple, plain, unspiced and unornamented. It's ironic, the juxtaposition of this prized, gourmet ingredient and almost peasant fare.

All the while we talked, we toasted, we laughed. We celebrated our lives and our friendships. And I think perhaps this is part of the meaning of a fugu dinner. We're all of us living on the edge of dying. We can mourn, and sometimes we must. And we can celebrate. Also because we must.

And for dessert, we had toro.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Department of Way Too Meta...

You know, I really get annoyed when real life makes parody obsolete:
A fast-food giant has been trying to determine whether it's easier to place your drive-through order with someone around the world instead of around the corner.

Jack in the Box Inc. has been outsourcing order-taking for some Charlotte-area restaurants to a call center elsewhere, testing whether the idea could improve efficiency...

... the orders are routed to a Texas call center operated by Bronco Communications, and...some orders may be routed outside of the country...

...Customers in Charlotte have noticed heavy accents among order-takers only to find different workers at the drive-through window.

"I had noticed it (several months ago), but I just thought the person taking the order was somewhere else in the store where we couldn't see them," customer Elizabeth Banks said. "It never occurred to me they might be out of the country."
You'd think the jokes would write themselves, but things like this tend to overwhelm my synapses. Something along the lines of an updated Five Easy Pieces, maybe...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Random Sunday Musings...

I have to clean up my house, and there is no football. Damn. For whatever reason, I find that housecleaning and bone-crunching violence go well together. Thankfully I've found an "America's Next Top Model" marathon on Oxygen. ANTM works almost as well for housecleaning as football. Don't ask me why.

I'm 29K into the new book and at one of those, "uh oh. Now what?" places. I think what I have is pretty good; I kinda know where the book ends up in the final third, but this middle third...I'm clueless.

I get a lot of ideas when I'm walking, in the gym, and, yeah, especially in the shower. Apparently a lot of people find showering conducive to creative problem-solving.

(more in the New Yorker, registration required).

The problem is, figuring out this middle third is going to take a lot of showers, and we're having a drought here in California.

Other thoughts: when did weekends get to be...less interesting than weekdays? In part this is because, hey, I'm not working, so every day is kind of a weekend. Mostly, though, when you're waiting to find out about the status of...well, business stuff, this doesn't happen on weekends!

And did I mention, no football?

And finally...two things that do not go on the Mini-Stair-Stepper and Ninja leg-climbing kitten. Last night I did the last three hundred steps with a small cat on my shoulder.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Not the change we need...

So, remember how I said that I expected an Obama administration to make significant investments in alternative energy and infrastructure but to not address economic inequality and the repairing of our tattered safety net? That my biggest concern about Obama was the neo-liberal bent of his economic policy?

Well, l guess I was right to be concerned, and a little too optimistic as well. It looks like that big infrastructure investment in Obama's stimulus package adds up to a whole bunch of not so much. Only 7% of the package directly involves infrastructure projects (you can boost the percentage up to 18% if you stretch the definition). 33% of the package, on the other hand, is, wait for it...

Tax cuts.

Moreover, according to Representative Peter Defazio, infrastructure funding in the package was gutted to allow for more tax cuts.

I strongly urge you watch Rachel Maddow's interview with Defazio, which clearly explains how infrastructure investment stimulates the economy in a way that tax cuts do not, and how the new administration is compromising with a discredited and greatly outnumbered Republican Congressional delegation. Among other things, Defazio points out that the infrastructure investment in Obama's proposal equals just one-fifteenth of what China has committed to spend in the same period and won't even come close to addressing our country's urgent needs.

This is just embarrassing.

Defazio hopes that by sounding the alarm, we can hold President Obama to his stated commitment to infrastructure investment and restore at least some of what was cut. He makes the point that the problem is in the Senate, not the House, and that the first and best Clinton Administration budget was passed without the vote of a single Republican Senator. Nowadays, I'm guessing there are a few Republican Senators who would be happy to come on board a bold proposal to rebuild and invest in America.

Politics may be the art of compromise, but starting from a compromised position will never result in anything bold.

President Obama arrives in office with the highest approval rating of any incoming President in decades. He was elected because people desperately want real change, not just hopey rhetoric. There's no reason not to be bold.

If not now, when?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Just because you're paranoid....

Doesn't mean they aren't out to get you...
Just one day after George W. Bush left office, an NSA whistleblower has revealed that the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program targeted U.S. journalists, and vacuumed in all domestic communications of Americans, including, faxes, phone calls and network traffic.

Russell Tice, a former NSA analyst, spoke on Wednesday to MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. Tice has acknowledged in the past being one of the anonymous sources that spoke with The New York Times for its 2005 story on the government's warrantless wiretapping program.

After that story was published, President Bush said in a statement that only people in the United States who were talking with terrorists overseas would have been targeted for surveillance.

But Tice says, in truth, the spying involved a dragnet of all communications, confirming what critics have long assumed.

"The National Security Agency had access to all Americans' communications," he said. "Faxes, phone calls and their computer communications. ... They monitored all communications."
Video of the Countdown segment at the link...

(H/T to Evil Willow, who needs to get a blog so I can link to it!)

ChangeFest 2009!


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Something to celebrate...

Never, ever, ever having to say "President George W. Bush" again, except as a historical reference.

(H/T shakespeare's sister)

Good-bye to All That...

Maybe our long national nightmare is over. I am not wildly optimistic, but I am pretty sure that the incoming Obama administration will be a huge improvement over the last eight years.

When I think of what has happened under Bush's watch, it seems like the culmination of a lifetime of paranoid worst-case scenarios. Okay, we weren't nuked by terrorists, and we haven't endured the death of millions by genetically altered Super Flu. But, you know, without reciting the litany... unnecessary war, economic ruin, legitimizing of torture, shredding of the Constitution, fiddling while the planet burns...

Oops. Hard to stop with that litany, I've recited it so many times.

One thing I probably won't be doing is watching the inaugural events. I'm still pissed about Rick Warren, but it's more than that. It's the marketing of it, the packaging, the constant hype - seriously, do we need any more reminders that this is "historic"?

But worse than that is this expectation that I'm supposed to feel something. "So-and-so is over the moon! We're going to celebrate!"

The unspoken criticism: "You don't feel it? What's wrong with you?"

I do feel something, mostly relief that no matter what happens, George Bush is gone, Dick Cheney is gone, Alberto Gonzales and Dick Addington, gone, Donald Rumsfeld, gone - well, he was already gone. But the morally bankrupt and intellectually suspect ideology they championed leaves with them. I hope it's buried in the dust heap of history and stays there, where it belongs.

But first we have to clean up the mess.

Is Obama up to it? We'd better hope that he is. My expectations are limited. I think we will have a more rational foreign policy and that America's global standing will improve. I think we will see significant investment in alternative energy and infrastructure - there's really no other choice. Economic collapse makes Keynesians of us all.

Significant health care reform? Not so much. Reigning in corporate malfeasance? Sorry, I don't think so. After all, letting Wall Street operate untrammeled has worked so well. Addressing economic inequality and repairing the tattered safety net? Probably not, and I'm worried about social security privatization - Obama has made far too many dog-whistles on this subject.

But look. If some good things happen, and nothing too terrible does, that's enough for me right now. I'm a fan of incremental improvements, which are generally preferable to revolutionary upheavals. Those tend to happen when things are really, truly bad, and they rarely work out very well.

The first thing to do when you're heading off a cliff is to stop going that way.

So, here's hoping.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Another flippin' meme...

Okay, THIS time I got tagged for, erm..."Six things that make me happy." I'm pretty sure it was Bryn Greenwood who did the deed, but it might have been Dana or Elizabeth. You should go read all three of their blogs anyway.

1. I'll start with cats. Because I have two sitting on my lap. And if I ignore them, they might get pissed off.
2. Good food, good wine, good companions. Oh, wait. I guess that's three.
3. Travel. Drop me someplace different, let me look around. I like traveling with friends - that is, if we're travel-compatible. You know what I mean. I'm easy, and I don't do well with people who, well, aren't. I also like traveling by myself. There's something about the solitude, the near-melancholy, that resonates with me in a way that, well, makes me happy. If I speak the language, it's even better.
4. Long walks. When I walk, I learn about a place in a way that's so detailed, so intimate - I'm connected. The opposite of the purposeful isolation of driving.
5. Writing. Even when I hate it.
6. Having control over my time. Living a creative life.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tagged again...

And not once, but twice.

First was by Alex Moore, YA author (go check out her excellent blog!). I am supposed to tell you seven things about myself. Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I had problems with six, so I'll refer you back to that for two of them. As I said then, people who know me, pretty much know any six or seven things I'd be willing to share in a public forum, so the following are a review:

1. I had a band for many years. I was the singer/songwriter/bass player.
2. I once got lost in Inner Mongolia while trying to buy boots.
3. Uh...
4. I have three cats. Wait, you probably knew that.
5. in 1979, a friend and I made mix tapes of Talking Heads, Bowie, the Pretenders, the Clash, the Beatles and the Residents and gave them to Chinese friends in Beijing. Even if they asked for copies of the Carpenters, we would put a Residents song at the end.

(See here for two more).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This explains a lot...

"The Book industry in a nutshell."

(H/T to Judi Fennell & Galley Cat)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

If a democratic manifesto falls in a forest...

Richard of TPD posts an update to his original Charter '08 post, citing Xujun Eberlein's analysis of the response to Charter '08, both internally and internationally. Have a look.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging!

It's been ages since I cat-blogged, but how's about this for cute?

Amazing things happen...

when you follow instructions. I went to Haloscan and they had a very easy set of directions to reinstall Haloscan with the new Blogger. I was almost tempted to stick with Blogger comments, but I have so many posts with Haloscan comments that I went back to it (with the older posts, comments are not visible until you click on the perma-link, but they are there). With the new template & haloscan, I'm not sure if you can now retrieve the Blogger comments, but them's the breaks.

Except, crap. It looks like my "followers" have disappeared (and doing the "followers" thing is why I updated to new Blogger to begin with). Why is this? Feh.

UPDATE: The folks at Haloscan are extremely responsive and are working to fix the bug. Props to them!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Fasten your seatbelts...

Whenever I've heard talk of how China will become the next hyperpower and rule us all, I've always been more than a little skeptical. Yes, China's economy and power on the world stage has grown exponentially in recent years; yes, China is an emerging superpower. But the dominant one?

I don't know if people making these predictions really have a handle on how complicated and difficult China's situation is internally. Just how many people there are to employ and house and feed, in a country without enough arable land to feed itself, where the environment has become so poisoned that it will take decades to repair the damage, if it can even be repaired. China still has no consistent rule of law, no social security system, and it has over a billion people. That makes labor costs low, to be sure, but it also makes for an inherently unstable situation. By the Chinese government's own reckoning, there were something like 87,000 "incidents" of social unrest in 2007 - riots over unemployment, over non-payment of wages, illegal land seizures, pollution. But as long as growth is high and most people are working, the balance, so far, can be maintained.

I've looked at the US/China relationship in recent years as partners in a sometimes unwilling dance: interdependent, their movements made in response to one another - two puppets tangled together with no puppeteer. China's financing of US debt enabled the US to maintain its consumption based economy - and US consumption is one of the main drivers of China's export economy.

So what happens when the music stops?

John Pomfret reports on how the global economic crisis has affected China, and the news so far is alarming:
An official Chinese magazine this week predicted a massive increase in protests because of the global economic downturn. It reported that 10 million people, originally from the countryside, have been fired from their jobs in factories mostly on China's eastern coast. Another 8 million people are officially registered as unemployed. Meantime, a record number of people will enter the workforce this year, including more than 6 million who have graduated from high school or college. 2009, the magazine said, will be the toughest year in China in recent memory.

The piece, published by Liaowang, a magazine owned by the state-run New China News Agency, detailed a "perfect storm" of economic problems in China's cities -- factory closures and the non-payment of salaries to millions of employees -- cascading into China's rural areas, sparking land disputes as millions of recently-fired factory workers flood home.This perfect storm, the piece said, would "inflict a new pressure on our country's social stability and harmony."

What's that mean in English? Well, the article provided a few statistics. Labor protests jumped 93.52 percent in the first 10 months of 2008 over same period in 2007. In one city alone, the capital Beijing no less, protests to demand the back payment of salaries (Chinese employers routinely rip off their workers to the tune of an estimated $4 billion a year nationwide) increased 300 percent and the people participating went up 900 percent in November when compared to the same month a year earlier.
It may be that ultimately, China will emerge from this crisis in better shape than, for example, the US. After all, they have not been busily hollowing out real productivity from their economy and substituting it with obscure financial transactions and military empire-building. At some point, it's possible that China's vast internal market can shoulder the consumption load to keep the country running. But in the meantime, the logistics of dealing with armies of the unemployed, of people who are already living on a thin edge of survival, is a formidable challenge.

We're in for a bumpy ride.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

China's Charter '08

I wanted to post about this tonight but the Peking Duck beat me to it. I strongly suggest you check out Richard's comprehensive post and links for insights into what is shaping up to be a serious democratic challenge to China's one party state.

Here's a key graph from the Charter, and it pulls no punches:
"The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change."

Monday, January 05, 2009

What a shame...

And unfortunately, completely predictable...

"Beijing suffers the curse of the Olympic city:
Three months after the end of the games, new figures show the "Olympic Effect" has been short-lived and hotels are empty, industrial output has fallen and the streets are quiet.

Much of the pain is due to the worldwide financial crisis – and in some cases due to brave decisions by the government to keep polluting industries shut to spare the environment.

But even the biggest single symbol of the modern rise of China, the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, stands forlorn, largely unused except for a shrinking number of tourists.

Attempts to attract the city's main football team to move to the ground have failed – it is simply too big for the club's crowds. Instead, it charges 50 yuan – around five pounds – per person to come and stand where Usain Bolt and others touched glory in the summer.
I attended the Olympics, and for all the controversies and negative aspects (the exile of Beijing's migrant workers & wholesale clearance of historic neighborhoods to name two), it was a spectacular event in many ways. I was particularly impressed by the quality of the athletic facilities - the Bird's Nest and Water Cube really are world-class (the fencing hall is really cool too). But there were always questions about how useful they would be once the Games were over.

On the plus side, Beijingers are enjoying a greater number of "blue sky days" - and if you've ever experienced Beijing's bad air days, you know this is no trivial accomplishment.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

"The Sun King"

Fascinating article in the Times (UK) that illustrates the factionalism in the CCP that I've often cited. Prominent dissident Bao Tong, still under house arrest for his role in the "unfortunate events" of 1989, issued an online criticism of late Premier Deng Xiaoping. Far from being a reformer who opened up China to economic liberalization, Bao Tong characterizes Deng as a modern-day Louis XIV:
Bao says true economic reform died in 1989 when Deng turned against political liberalism and backed rule by a strong state. He argues that the party has merely transferred economic privilege to a corrupt bureaucratic elite. “The price we have paid for it today has been too steep: a cheap labour force, added to massive plunder of natural resources, poisoned air and polluted water,” Bao writes...

...Deng was not interested in economics, did not understand markets and never intended to liberalise, says Bao. His aim was to save the party’s power.
Bao Tong was a high-ranking official who knew Deng Xiaoping personally, making his critique particularly devastating. That Bao Tong has not been further punished for his criticisms suggests the reformist faction in the party is strong enough to protect him. As the Times article points out, "One comrade who worked alongside him, Wen Jiabao, is now the prime minister."


Okay, I'm playing with the new Blogger layout feature - I had to update my blog from the "classic template." I think I have most of the features back, but I can't figure out how to enable Haloscan, so all the comments that were on Haloscan are no longer visible. Ideas, anyone?

Forgot one...

6. To improve my Mandarin, which sucks way more than it should. A month in China should help; after that, I've signed up for a conversation class at a local college.