Friday, December 27, 2013

Surviving Christmas with Altered Barbies

I survived another Christmas. Yay!

"Don't be such a Scrooge," Big Dog would often tell me seeing me with my brow furrowed, glaring at all the shoppers. Rampant commercialism makes me sad…and mad. I'm a terrible shopper and being pressured by custom to shop does not make me happy. Even at normal times I would prefer to do anything BUT shop, however, as we approach Christmas, the mood of materialism on steroids keeps me from even thinking about entering a store.

I make all of our gifts. I grew up around a lot of handmade things -- my mother was a terrific seamstress and knitter -- so it's all very normal for me, but I guess for some, handmade gifts feel "cheap" or "sorry." Big Dog's family is sick of my ranch-made items, for sure.

"This is all I could get you guys this year," apologized BD's nephew's mother-in-law.
"You don't need to get us anything!" we protested. I mean, really, no one needs to get holiday gifts for one's son-in-law's uncle! When I saw it was a homemade baked good, I was surprised. What does she mean "this is all"? To me, a gift that has someone's time and effort is so much better than a mass-produced-in-China-by-questionable-labor-store-bought thing. But I guess for them, it is not.

And then I hear about "plus-size Barbie."

Why not. And while we're at it, why not Menopausal Barbie, Bulimic Barbie, Anorexic Barbie, Pussy Whipper Barbie. I think we already have Gold Digger Barbie.

Years ago I drew a cartoon of Bi-polar Barbie. ("I'm sad! I'm mad!" Just like me at Christmas-time!) Yes, it's in terrible taste when you consider that real bi-polar disorder is complicated and painful, but I think a lot of women go through a bi-polar phase (like during menopause) so why not let your kids play with a real-life figure?

I'm thinking of other real-life Barbies we could but don't have: Goth Barbie, Metal Barbie, Stoner Barbie. Panhandler Barbie, Meth Lab Barbie, Convict Barbie, Welfare Barbie… Steampunk Barbie, Anarchist Barbie, Activist Barbie… 

Hmm. Looks like others have been thinking of them, too.

Metal. or Punk Barbies
Birthing Barbie!
Anorexic Barbie
Bulimic Barbie
Not sure what she is. Skank Barbie?
And, of course, Stoner Barbie
There's even a community for people who love Altered Barbies!
Check out the artwork

Love the "Pinebie," the child of Barbie and Pinecone. And someone's even got a Suicide Barbie! I'll bet there are Pedophile Barbies and Crazy Stalker Barbies, Frivolous Lawsuit Barbies… My head's starting to spin. 

Like Exorcist Barbie.

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Persimmon Power

After almost all of the pommes have fallen and long after the stone fruit and berries are gone, one small tree in our orchard brings us a burst of Halloween and Christmas all at once. Giant, brilliant orange globes on a leafless tree, they are what the Greeks call "divine fruit." Diospyros. Kaki. Persimmons.

In Japan, kaki are a common fall fruit and if you visit someone's house during the season, chances are, you will be served fresh persimmons, peeled and quartered on a beautiful small plate with a rustic, rough hewn toothpick.

I hated them.

I don't use that word often with food, but no matter how I tried, I just could not like the taste of persimmons. (And I would keep trying every few years, thinking that perhaps my tastes had changed.)

"I'm so sorry. They are the one of two things I cannot eat," I would apologize. The other thing I cannot eat is offal.

One bite of our persimmon changed that forever.

Ours are an astringent seedless type and when they are fully ripe and ready, oh, boy. The soft jelly-like fruit is not only deliciously sweet, but slightly tropical in flavor, with a lovely floral note. Who knew persimmons could be this tasty!

When we came to the ranch and I saw the persimmon tree, I thought, well, at least the leaves are good for you. In Asia, the persimmon is also a medicinal tree. The calyx of the fruit is used as a hiccup remedy, as well as a cough suppressant. The leaf, with tons of vitamin C, K and B, as well as minerals and flavanoids, is a favorite ingredient in Oriental medicine. Herbalists gather leaves in May and June to make a tea which strengthens the circulatory system and acts as a general tonic. In the old days, they used to wrap food items like sushi in the leaves because of its disinfectant properties.

And now I know the wonderfully tasty fruit is also a miracle food. Along with a boatload of vitamins and minerals, it also contains high amounts of antioxidants and phytonutrients which neutralize free radicals and phytochemicals like catechin (which green tea has a lot of, too) and betulinic acid which is being used in anti-cancer research. That means it's a great preventative for things like aging, cancer, cataracts and macular degeneration.

A quick internet search brought up more benefits:
- Weight loss. The fiber rich fruit also reduces the craving for sugar and processed foods!
- Healthy eyes. Antioxidant vitamins and the phytonutrient zeaxanthin prevent retinal damage.
- Better digestive system. Yup, back to all that fiber.
- Prevention of DNA damage. If you are worried about all that radioactive contamination from Fukushima, eat more persimmons!
- Younger skin. Keep those free radicals at bay to protect yourself from aging.
- Boost immunity. The nutrients will protect you from common winter ailments like colds, flu and infections.
- Cleaner colon. It's a great detoxifier!

In Japan, there are even sayings like "When the persimmons turn red, doctors turn blue."

I don't know if persimmon health benefits had anything to do with it, but my search came up with an interesting bit of trivia, too. During the Civil War, some regiments were nicknamed "Persimmon Regiment" because they would stop to consume persimmons. The 35th Ohio Infantry lost 15 of their soldiers to the Confederate Army when they chose to pick persimmons rather than fight the Rebels. Meanwhile, the 100th Indiana Regiment who were cut off from their food supply had to live on persimmons for a while but still showed such determination on the battlefield that their nickname became a source of pride.

In Italy, during the season, you can get a perfect cachi at restaurants to end your meal. (I've often wondered why more restaurants in California don't offer fresh fruit for dessert -- it's quite common in other countries.) The waiter will remove the calyx and quarter the fruit at your table. All you need to do is scoop out the rich, flavorful fruit.

Here on the Central Coast, if you don't have your own persimmon tree, you can always find great tasting persimmons at the farmer's markets. The non-astringent types (like Fuyu) are wonderful in salads and if you have too many, you can try air-drying them like the Japanese and Chinese do. Peel them when they are still firm, string them up so that air circulates between each fruit.

I like eating ours the Italian way, but I also make a persimmon pudding which I will share with you. It has quite a lot of sugar (especially for me) but the sugar caramelizes (mmm!) during the baking and that seems to cut down the sweetness a bit. Buon appetito!

Bad Dog's Persimmon Pudding

    * 2 cups persimmon pulp
    * 1-2 cups white sugar
    * 2 eggs, beaten
    * 1 teaspoon baking soda
    * 1 cup all-purpose flour
    * 1 pinch salt
    * 1 teaspoon baking powder
    * 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    * 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
    * 1/4 cup heavy cream
    * 1 tablespoon honey
    * 4 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly oil or butter a 9x13 inch baking pan.

Mix the persimmon pulp with the 1 to 2 cups sugar in a large bowl. (The original recipe called for 2 cups but that was way too much for our super sweet persimmons.) 

Whisk together the eggs and baking soda in a separate bowl. Add the egg mixture to the persimmon mixture and beat well.

Whisk together the 1 cup flour, salt, baking powder, and cinnamon in a bowl. Stir 1/4 of the flour mixture to the persimmon mixture. Add 1/4 of the buttermilk and mix well. Continue alternating flour and buttermilk, adding 1/4 each time, and mixing well after each addition. Stir in cream, honey, and melted butter until well combined. Pour the pudding batter into the prepared pan.

Bake in the preheated oven until set, about 1 hour. While baking, do not stir; Turn off the oven at the end of the baking time, but do not remove the pudding from the oven. Leave it to cool in the oven for another 20 minutes.

Serve with whipped cream or creme fraiche.

In the original recipe, they had something called "the sauce" which you poured onto the pudding after it had baked for an hour. I feel like the pudding is already so moist, it doesn't need this extra step, but if you'd like to try it, here it is:

    * 1 cup water
    * 1/2 cup white sugar
    * 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
    * 4 teaspoons vanilla extract

Boil the water in a small saucepan. Whisk 1/2 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon flour together, and whisk sugar mixture into the boiling water, whisking until smooth. Boil the sauce for 5 minutes and remove from heat. Stir in vanilla.
After turning the oven off, pour the sauce mixture evenly over the pudding, and leave the pudding to cool in the warm oven for 20 more minutes.

A Japanese-y presentation of our Very Californian Persimmons

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How to Not Burn Out

In the rock and roll world, we think it's "better to burn out than fade away." We love geniuses who shine bright and fast; stars who are snuffed in their prime.

We look at the really old with a mixture of dread and pity. We feel sorry for the ones who are just alive but not really living, hoping it won't be us in that chair, staring blankly at an inane TV show with dozens of other drooling, mumbling ex-human beings.

But here in this tiny beach town, we have a little enclave of octogenarians who defy common preconceptions about aging. They are fit, both physically and mentally, some more so than people half their age. And they are fearless.

"When you start to get really old, you worry about anything that will hasten your way to the end," my mother wrote. Not only does this prevent you from doing something new, it also stops you from doing some of the things you really enjoyed. In my mother's case, she stopped driving decades ago. "My eyesight is too bad," she said.

One by one, you give up something that you used to be able to do until there is precious little.

No wonder we think it's better to burn out than fade away, but watching our local octogenarians, I see that you don't have to burn out OR fade away. This is what I have learned:

- Don't use up all your fuel at once.
- Keep a steady fire going, but be sure you keep stoking it constantly with fresh fuel.

I think I've developed very slowly -- I am only now understanding things that every 30 year old seems to knows. I was a complete geek in high school but have slowly become more and more athletic as I grew up. Since leaving Japan in my mid-40's, I am constantly learning new things. I learned to drive, ride horseback, speak another language, farm, do construction work. I keep forgetting a lot, too -- like, I am no longer the Music Trivia Person nor do I know much about films anymore -- but I have gained just as much knowledge about nature, physics, history. I've learned to make my own sourdough bread, tofu and miso. I'm running and climbing trees and digging trenches and…

My fire started slow and weak. Thank god it didn't die. Thank god I learned how to stoke the flames, add more oxygen, and now, every day I am finding new fuel to not only keep that fire going but to make it burn high and bright -- without burning out.

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Japan's New Militarism

They passed the new state secrets law in Japan. Now, if you don't agree with the administration, you can be labeled a "terrorist." They are clamping down on what information gets released from Fukushima, when they should be thinking about the radioactivity that is released from the damned place.

There's a new wave of militarism starting to rise in Japan. The Ministry of Education has prevented certain details about Japan before and during World War II from ever being taught so generations have no idea at all about the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities.

Japan became more and more aggressive after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. In its aftermath, Japanese anti-Korean and anti-Chinese prejudices exploded and mobs went on a killing spree of ethnic minorities. The military used this civil unrest as a pretext to erase political dissidents. Stunned by the disaster, many felt that Japan had to return to its past values and nationalism grew even stronger. Then, Tokyo won a bid to host the 1940 Summer Olympics.

Fast-forward about 90 years. The biggest quake in recorded history rocks northeastern Japan. The quake and subsequent tsunami destroy a huge portion of Japan. It also starts the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe. Pissed off citizens begin standing up to the Old Guard. No more nukes. No more dirty politicians. No more collusion between politics and business. The Old Guard freaks out. Sensible Kan is pushed out, ineffectual Noda reigns briefly setting the stage for rightwing Abe to take over. Tokyo wins a bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. The state secrets law gets passed. It's on the 72nd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The similarities between the two different eras are too creepy.

Big Dog doesn't share my fears, however. He thinks Japan's aggressiveness is only a response to saber-rattling by the Chinese and Koreans. He believes the Japanese are mostly sensible, peace-loving people.

I think there is too much "sheep" in the Japanese. They don't like to rock the boat, can't stay mad for long and eventually just want to get back to their uneventful lives. They value harmony above everything else which in normal situations is great but when there are injustices and wrongs that need to be righted, they are useless. Ultimately, people will give in, sighing "Shoganai." (It means "nothing can be done" and is a convenient out for those who don't have the guts to do anything anyway.)

I don't think the Japanese living in Japan see it quite the way I do. They are too immersed in the gradual changes -- like that proverbial frog in a pot who doesn't realize the water is getting hotter and hotter until it's too late. I have a different vantage point, though, and the combination of a multitude of "signs" is making me very anxious.

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