Thursday, June 7, 2012

Postcards from Japan: Meigetsu-in

Favorite Things

My days here in Japan are winding down. The pack-out dates have been set. The tickets back to the states have been purchased. Borrowing from Shakespeare – parting will be such bitter sweet sorrow.

The Sweet: I cannot wait to return to the states. I miss our family. I miss our friends. I miss our dog. After three years of living overseas I have a heightened awareness of what makes me sooooo American, the good and the bad.
The Bitter: It will be hard to say good-bye to this amazing country, I’ve learned so much living here in Japan. Learned to stop and pay even more attention to the details. Learned to appreciate that less is truly more. I hope that I have also gained a deeper appreciation for all that is Japan – the ‘Wa’ – the essence of Japan.

Yesterday marked one of the first of many “lasts” for me to come – a friend and I had blocked out our calendars for a shopping trip to Kamakura. Not on the schedule was a visit to see hydrangeas but when I mentioned that perhaps we could start off the day with a “swing-by” trip to one of the temples in the Kamakura area known for beautiful hydrangeas she graciously agreed. This is one of the things I love about living here, the Japanese appreciate, embrace and celebrate the beauty of nature. Where else would you find hundreds of people – enough to warrant policemen in the streets directing traffic – all walking towards the same destination, to be wowed by blossoms? Only in Japan.

Meigetsuin – Ajisai-dera a.k.a the Hydrangea Temple

Located in Kita-Kamakura, Meigetsuin is a short 10-minute walk from the train station. It is not hard to miss, just follow the masses because at this time of year with over 2000 hydrangea plants lining it’s pathways and grounds it is the place to be for seeing these beautiful plate sized blossoms.

Zen Garden, Bamboo forest, hydrangeas lining well worn old stone pathways, a small stream with a waterfall and another hidden garden for my friend and I to discover which is only open for as long as the Irises are blooming – this temple has it all.

The hydrangea blossom with its many petals is a symbol of expressing love, gratitude and enlightenment. It is said that the observer can get lost in the abundance of petals and thus lost in one’s own thoughts – propitiating higher thought and reaching enlightenment.

I have less than three weeks left here and will be trying in between the purging, organizing, and all else that encompasses moving a family of five overseas, to enjoy my final days in this country that has offered me so much. Revisiting some of my favorites and sharing my final adventures as I get outside these gates for the last time. Look for more posts to come, hoping to pass along all that I love about living in Japan and hoping the next one that follows in my footsteps will see the beauty and of course the inspiration that surrounds you in the land of the rising sun.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Military Spouse Wanted

This is what the ad should have said.

Seeking energetic, upbeat individual with finely tuned organizational skills. Candidate should be willing to relocate frequently*, usually far away from family and friends; able to manage household maintenance issues as they arise, most often when partner is deployed; and have a good sense of humor (which you will need) or at least a deep appreciation for the ironic. Additional skills considered helpful but not necessary: enjoys long periods of solitude; possesses great social skills; and a willingness to be a single parent if required. Full medical and dental coverage provided. For more information a How-to Manual is provided. *previous moving skills are not necessary but considered very helpful.

How to be a Naval Spouse
They come from different parts of the country, different education levels, different socio-economic backgrounds, all faiths and political partys are represented. A naval spouse can be one of the most challenging jobs youll ever have. It can also be one of the most rewarding. Below is a short guide on some aspects we have found helpful in becoming a successful spouse to your career Navy service member.

If you enjoy a challenge, being on your own and discovering your inner strengths through crisis, then this job is for you. Deployments can range from four months to one year. The ability to problem-solve and make crucial decisions independent from your spouse is critical. Self-reliance is key to success but a willingness to ask for help is essential for survival.

There is no way to get around it you need a boatload of patience in order to be successful. Dig deep, its in there somewhere. Call on whatever reserves you may have, because your patience will be tried repeatedly throughout a 20-year career: either in the commissary with long lines and screaming kids, or in the pharmacy with long waits and screaming kids, or during the PCS season (Permanent Change of Station) involving multiple lines in multiple locations in order to process out from one duty station to another.

The average Navy family will relocate every 2.9 years over a 20-year career. Preparation is key to transforming an ordeal into an adventure. The first step in the process towards a successful move is contacting your spouses Personnel Support Department (PSD a.k.a. PTSD) which will then set you on track to the Personal Property office to set up your HHG (Household Goods). Be sure to have a copy of your spouses orders in triplicate. Additionally, a current Power of Attorney will prove crucial nothing can happen without the POA, you need the Power to take control.

Purchase a good set of tools and familiarize yourself with how they feel and what they are used for. Home Maintenance for Dummies is suggested for reference. Equally important is having a reliable mechanic and/or maintenance man on speed-dial. Years of study have shown that as soon as a spouse deploys whatever was fully operational with either the house or car will require urgent attention within 24 hours of his departure. Be prepared.

To offset the many challenges you face as a military spouse one of the greatest benefits are the friends you will make with other military spouses. Theyve been there done that. They understand better than your family or friends back home or even at times (or perhaps most times) your spouse, the trials and tribulations of setting up a household, getting kids enrolled in schools, the how-tos and where-fors of finding sports teams for your kids (because you moved after the local tryouts had already taken place), dentists that take your health care, etc. They are always there to lend an ear or have a shoulder ready when youre convinced youve reached your tipping point. You cannot survive without your fellow sister-spouses, they are critical to your success. Cultivate them, care for them, keep them.

You will be frequently required to attend social engagements with individuals you have little in common with except that both of your spouses are in the Navy. Polished social skills will be most helpful when you engage in conversations. Additional tips would be to always have on hand in the cupboard some sort of go-to appetizer for when your husband calls and asks what are you doing? for me that is code for Im about ready to get hit with something that wasnt on my to-do list like attending a get together at the Commanding Officers house in an hour oh and your spouse is tied up at work and will be meeting you there.

More than 28 years ago as a bride-to-be I was given an apron that read “Navy Wife: Toughest Job in the Navy.” I was young, thought it was cute but kind of goofy, and more importantly wondered why I’d even need an apron. The apron was retired long ago from overuse, on one of our many moves it did not make the pre-move purge, but it reminds me today on Military Spouse Appreciation Day that this job of being a military spouse (note the more PC shift from “Navy wife” to spouse – shows just how long I’ve been working this gig) is tough. Over the years my willingness to move may have dampened (move 13 will take place next month) and perhaps my sense of humor in dealing with military bureaucracy tends to now move more towards the ironic but in this job I have been richly rewarded with experiences and friendships that will last a lifetime and I am glad I answered that ad my husband-to-be put out there so long ago. “Toughest Job in the Navy?” Bring it on.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Teenager Feeding Frenzy

"I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking." – Joan Didion 

Last Thursday’s dinner was prepared and ready before my teenagers came through the door from after school sports activities. Advanced preparedness is required on my part to make this happen. I have learned that I am motivated in the morning to tackle just about anything, including cooking, but by the afternoon I am on a downward spiral and try in vain to avoid anything to do with the kitchen or housework. But these teenagers of mine are going to show up hungry every afternoon, whether I’m ready or not, and life seems to go oh, so much more smoothly if I can just get the meal pulled together before 5 p.m. – otherwise as mentioned in a previous post there is some major carb loading until dinner is on the table.

So dinner was ready – a frittata and a tossed salad – and before my teenagers walked through the door I sat down in front of the computer in an attempt to catch up on some emails. The front door opens and barely a “hi mom” is mumbled before my 16-year-old twin sons make a beeline for the kitchen. Glancing up from the computer I comment “Dinner’s ready, take it easy on the snacks” which was met with suspicious silence. I pop up to see a teenager eating dinner over the stove. In seconds, he had jumped right in and helped himself.

“Hey, set the table and we’ll sit down to eat.” I say.
“I don’t want to sit at the table.” was his response.

I stood there not really knowing what exactly he meant. Did he want to eat dinner standing up in the kitchen because it was faster? Or was it that he didn’t want to sit down and eat dinner as a family because he’s a teenager and family time is not cool?

I sigh, turn to his sibling and say “would you please set the table?” and I start to serve up the plates, thinking to myself, “let it go, just let it go” – it’s all about picking your battles right?

The kids and I did all sit down together to eat, a blessing was said, candles were lit. The dinner conversation was apparently not remarkable – since I can no longer remember what was said – but that’s not important. What is important is that for a very brief time, once a day, we sit together as a family. It is a nightly ritual. Rituals offer comfort, with so much changing all around us, especially as a military family, a family ritual such as a dinner together gives us the daily grounding we need.

What about the resident teenager who did not want to partake in a family dinner? He sat down and joined us and that’s enough to keep this mom ... inspired.

Menu Review
This past week was week 12 of my 12-week plan. Looking back I had some weeks that the plan was totally ditched due to schedules. Other weeks like this past one I modified the original menu plan and ended up with three new hits. Inching ever closer to my goal of 60 dinners that everyone in my house likes. 

Creamy Spaghetti and Beans from Rachel Ray was a three thumbs up ( 

The number one hit was the totally modified Spinach Burritos from Simple Suppers – I modified just about everything with this recipe, including making the burritos into enchiladas. Note the title of the book includes the word “simple” and yet I try to make some dishes even more simple using canned sauce instead of making my own and frozen spinach and boxed rice. I won't win a James Beard award that's for sure but if the plates are empty at the end of the meal and there are no leftovers, that's an indication I won high honors for the night.

Spinach Enchiladas (Jane’s way)
Preheat the oven to 350.

10 corn tortillas
1 bunch of scallions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic chopped
1 package chopped spinach, thawed in the microwave and pressed.
Do you know this trick? I microwave the chopped spinach in the box (minus the outer wrapping of course). When you’ve finished microwaving you simply squeeze the box containing the chopped spinach and it presses out the excess water. No more pressing out the spinach in a colander and getting all the little chopped spinach pieces stuck, or as I’ve done pressing out the water in the microwave dish over the sink and have half of the spinach fall out into the sink.
1 Box of Goya Spanish Rice cooked following the box instructions
1 tsp of ground coriander
2 cups of grated Mexican Cheese
1 can of Enchilada sauce
1/4 cup of chopped cilantro

Saute the chopped onion until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped garlic and saute for about 1 minute, add in the spinach and the cooked Spanish Rice. Remove from the heat, mix in 1 cup of the grated cheese and the chopped cilantro.

• Spray Pam in the bottom of a 11 x 7 pyrex dish. Add just enough Enchilada sauce to coat the bottom of the dish.
• Dip each tortilla into the Enchilada sauce. Add a few spoonfuls of the filling in the middle of the tortilla and roll up, placing in a pyrex dish. Continue until you have used up all of the filling. Drizzle the remaining sauce over the Enchiladas and cover with the reserved 1 cup of grated cheese.
• Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 5 more minutes.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

7 in 7

Well I did it. Here's the last bag. It's super cute – the photography does not do it justice. Wish I still had a little girl in the house who a) liked pink, b) would even carry a little bag, or c) carry a bag that has flowers on it.

I learned so much in the last week, I can't begin to run down the list - nor would you, the reader probably want to read it. The highlights though are:
• I actually had fun sitting down and figuring the Japanese pattern out and the bag construction. It was similar in some ways to my graphic design days when I had to figure out layouts with typography and photos. It was probably the most fun I've had using my brain since my design days.
• I loved sharing the process. That may be a bit narcissistic but it's nice when you're in your space all day and not having the interaction of an office to get feedback through the internet.
• If I'm going to pursue making bags and opening an Etsy shop as many of my friends are encouraging me to do, I'm going to need to work on those photo skills. It's one thing to be out in Japan taking photos of beautiful sites - totally a different animal to take product shots.
• Choosing the right fabric for the right bag along with handles is a critical part of the process. I thought I was being so smart choosing the flower fabric for this bag but did not take into account that the pleat would alter the graphic spacing of the flowers. There's a lot more to this bag making thing than just pouncing on some super cute Japanese fabric.

Not sure what's the what next. I may, as one friend has suggested, drag my readers through my shibori process. The weathers finally warming up and I'm getting itchy to dye some fabric I ordered before the kids and I left Japan last year after the triple disaster of March 11th. The move is marching ever closer and I am not moving fabric that's a UFO. Will be looking through my idea notebooks over the next few days looking for, you guessed it .. inspiration.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Six Down One to Go

When you walk into Swany's the first thing you notice (or at least I notice) are all the amazing sample bags on display. Each one has a number attached to it and I write the number down to get my pattern once I've spent my 1000 Yen (not a problem). One pattern I keep writing over and over is No. 3011. I'll see it hanging in one spot, take a photo, write down the number. Turn a corner, see another bag - that I think is a new and different sample only to realize as I get ready to write down the number that "wait, it's the same one I just wrote down a few minutes ago."

I am realizing there is so much more to this process of making bags than just picking up some fabric and whipping out a cute little bag. Handle choice matters, as my previous entry showed. Fabric combinations do too. What tricked me into thinking that what I was looking at was a different bag was the switch ups Swany's plays with each of their bags. Match a different type of handle with a different type of fabric and you have a completely new look. I don't know why I should be surprised at this - it's the details that matter in most design decisions - boutique bags should not be any different.

Looking for a fabric to play with on this project I remembered I had brought with me some hand dyed shibori fabric I dyed a few years ago. I've learned a lot since then about Shibori and this fabric wasn't so precious that I couldn't take the rotary cutter to it and try out a new bag. It's raw silk and I love the feel of this fabric, rough, nubby and holds up to wear and tear.

I have one more bag to go on my experiment. Hoping to get to that later today since I believe today is the last day of 7in7. I know my other half will be most appreciative to have the sewing machine packed away before he arrives from a conference in the states. Fabric stacked, sewing machine out, pattern pieces everywhere ... he might just turn on his heels and head back out the door. My creativity does tend to spread throughout the house – something only appreciated once there's a finished product hanging or sitting somewhere.

So two deadlines in one – his flight was delayed so I know I just got two extra hours – just what I needed to stay on a roll and be ... inspired.

Getting a handle on handles

I’m realizing this bag process is more involved than I thought. There are design decisions that need to be made at the outset and when you change those decisions – like which bag handles you’re going to use – complications follow.

This darn bucket bag has been my nemesis in this boutique-bag exploration. The plan was to use clip on handles. Cute, simple, fast, professional. Yeah! However, once the bag was made and I pulled out the handles I realized I had the wrong fabric for the handles I intended to use (they have a little fleur-de-lis stamped into the metal attachment – just doesn’t match the Japanese fabric, forgot that little detail was on the handle). Now what?

I had a long black leather handle strap and thought – great I’ll use that instead. But how do I attach the handles? I looked through my two bag making books I have for reference and they did not have an example.

I wrapped up the nearly finished purse and shoved it into my bag and headed to – you guessed it Swany’s. There I found an alternate leather handle, with stitching holes punched and a little tab that inserts between the lining and the outer bag for extra security. I thought perfect. Put those in my shopping bag (along with a few other items) and I imagined myself knocking out the bag later that night while I waited for my daughter at soccer.

Not so fast. Once home I realized I hadn’t thought this through as clearly as I’d imagined. What kind of thread was I supposed to use to attach the handles? Surely with all my thread I’d have something suitable. Did I have a needle that would be able to work its way through leather, lining and the interfaced outer fabric? I tried to make do with what I had – struggled to sew on one side of one handle, the thought crossing my mind more than once there has to be a better way.

Next day I find myself headed out to yet another fabric-craft store a few blocks off base and I found the appropriate waxed twine for sewing on the handle, a curved sewing needle marked for “leatherwork” quickly made my purchase and dashed home. I had delusions of being able to zip this project out and be on to the next bag (which is already cut out and just waiting its turn on the sewing machine). Two hours later the handles were finally secured, that’s 30 minutes per handle side! Either I’m not efficient or the thought did cross my mind that there’s a reason those gorgeous handmade Italian leather bags cost a fortune. This is labor intensive. A seam ripper, pliers, broken needle and cramped hands were all involved.

The end result is a cute bag but I will definitely be looking for a much more efficient way to attach leather handles in the future. One of the ladies who helped me at Swany’s earlier this week showed me their rivet maker ... oh so cool, that with the push of a handle I will have leather straps attached to my bag and it will look professional too, yes, learning this technique is now on my to-do list.

This go round, more than a few times I seriously considered pitching the bag and starting a different one but what kept me going was all the encouraging feedback I’ve been receiving on my posts – thanks faithful readers, you’re supportive words kept me ... inspired.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Feeding Teenagers

Add Artichokes to the List

Today begins week 11 on my 12-week quest for control in the kitchen. I sat down this morning to make out the grocery list, reviewing the planned dinners for the week. Adjustments needed to be made – two of the recipes contain artichoke hearts.

I swear sometimes I think my three teenagers have joined in a conspiracy to make me mental (or perhaps that would be more mental). Just days after my last post with the family favorite of the Tomato Artichoke Pasta Sauce my daughter declares she no longer likes artichoke hearts. Arggggghhh!

“What do you mean you don’t like artichoke hearts?” I queried. “Since when?”

“Like, since forever.” she responded.

How could this be, I thought to myself. Surely she’s kidding with me, sensing my kitchen desperation she’s just yanking my chain. Apparently not.

One more thing has been added to the increasingly long list of items my kids will not all eat together (her brothers will still eat artichokes). Instead of an expanding culinary palate theirs appears to be funneling into a vortex centered around pizza (homemade of course). My toddlers who ate just about everything I put in front of them have become teenagers with sophisticated but limited taste buds.

Even with this latest revelation there was a homerun last week when I made the Curried Cauliflower and Chickpea dish from the Moosewood Collection, Simple Suppers. I’ve put the link up for those of you who may want to purchase the cookbook. I have a several of their cookbooks and all should be on the shelf of those trying to eat less meat or join in on Meatless Mondays.

While the addition of yet another item to the “untouchable” list in the kitchen is a setback, I refuse to give up. If anything I am getting annoyed, which makes me mad, which in turn makes me stubborn (ask my mom), which in a weird and twisted mom-way of not giving up once you’ve set a goal, makes me … inspired.

Pizza Dough Recipe
This is EASY, do not let the steps dissuade you. Once you have made homemade pizza dough you will not go back to store bought again. My kids love this, to the point that they don’t like store-bought boxed pizza anymore (yes, they are spoiled and just don’t know it yet). It’s easy to freeze the dough for later use.

1 Tbsp sugar or honey
1 cup warm water (not too hot, or it will kill the yeast)
1 envelope active dry yeast
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

In a small bowl dissolve the sugar or honey (which feeds the yeast) in warm tap water. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and gently stir until it dissolves, about one minute. Let stand in a warm spot until a thin layer of foam covers the surface, about five minutes (this indicates the yeast is effective).

Using a heavy-duty food processor, add 3 cups of flour and the salt to the beaker fitted with the dough blade. Turn the machine on for a few seconds to mix. Slowly add the yeast mixture and oil and process continuously until the dough forms a single ball. Pinch of a piece of the dough, if it is sticky, continue processing adding remaining ¼ cup of flour until the dough loses its stickiness. Conversely if the dough is dry and crumbly, add warm water, a tablespoon at a time until the dough is smooth.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (I prefer to use cornmeal) and knead by hand for about 2 minutes.

Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a well-oiled bowl, turning to coat completely on all sides with oil Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap to prevent moisture loss and set to rise in a draft-free warm place until doubled in bulk for about 45 minutes for quick-rising yeast.

With your fist punch down the dough until it has doubled in bulk to prevent over-rising. Shape it into a ball, pressing out all the air bubbles.

If you cannot use the dough within 2 hours of rising, punch the dough down, turn to coat in olive oil, cover and place in refrigerator. Let chilled dough come to room temperature before proceeding.

To make two 12-inch flat round pizzas, divide dough into 2 equal-sized balls. I press out as much as I can by hand on a surface sprinkled with cornmeal (I find this grips better than flour, it does leave a bit of the cornmeal texture in the dough) and then roll the rest out using a rolling pin to reach the desired size.

Top with your favorite toppings. Adults in the house like fresh spinach with minced garlic, olive oil and chopped sun dried tomatoes topped with mozzarella cheese; or olive oil, garlic and dried basil on the base with artichoke hearts and mozzarella. The kids like pepperoni with tomato sauce; or just plain cheese; or olive oil, garlic, basil and shrimp topped with mozzarella. Serve up with your favorite salad for a great dinner.

I know this sounds like a lot of work but it’s really not. Probably the worst part of the process for me is cleaning the food processor. Our kids, when they were younger loved getting in there and helping to knead the dough and of course add toppings to the pizza. Enjoy.