Monday, November 9, 2009

The New Lust


Now that I’ve officially become a cougar, a title invented primarily to mock women who don’t want to admit that they’re no longer hot, I’ve watched myself and my friends turn our sexual energies to a new place. Because of our desire and choice to share said sexual energy with only our husbands, those of us with predatory natures must find another way to channel our need to hunt. We don’t really have the energy to lust after hot guys, anyway. Besides, all the guys we know are married or kind of icky, or both. So now, we still have a hunger for the kill, but no outlet. This is why we shop.


One by one, most of my friends have admitted to me lately that they have discovered internet shopping. They are excited and a little bit ashamed, but they clearly have no intention of stopping. The rush of discovering and attaining goods is rapturous for us. It’s like masturbation with souvenirs. We push a button and expensive goods appear in the mail. We didn’t even have to leave our houses. We can even do it at work. When you think about it, it’s better than hunting men, because a new pair of Ella Moss leggings will never break your heart, unless they’re too small, and then you just send them back without regret.


Gradually, our taboos about discussing our spending are falling away. A year ago, we would never ask each other how much something cost. Now, we announce it. We want everyone to know that we know exactly when Nordstrom’s and Saks post their clearance sales. We are members of online sample sale sites. Our discussions inevitably turn to return policies and shipping costs. No detail is left unexplored. We dive in with the gusto formerly reserved for analyzing our sex lives. When a girlfriend gives in to temptation and spends four hundred dollars on a sweater, we keep the secret for her, because we know she would do the same for us. We tell her that she deserves that sweater because she’s a good mother and does the majority of the cleaning at home.


Shopping gives a safe way to satiate and share our need for acquisition. It’s a secret that we can share, that allows us to bond. Because we are wives and mothers, lust for men would put us at risk of looking treacherous and pathetic. Truth like that makes us and everyone around us feel vulnerable because we have yet to completely accept that not everyone still finds us as attractive as we find ourselves. In the eyes of society, our days of sexual freakdom have come to a screeching halt. But we know that we’re still beautiful, and we know that we still share the same longings as women half our age. We can channel our cravings into a lust for goods that will make us feel beautiful and powerful. We get the rush of knowing that we have found something wonderful and made it our own.


It’s like sex, but safer.

The Mexican Place at Nishi-Ogikubo

Have you ever noticed that when you ask people about their experience at a Mexican restaurant in Tokyo, they never give an answer that mentions the food? The conversation goes something like this.
Q: “How was dinner at that Mexican restaurant?”
A: “They had mariachis!”
Or
A: “Margaritas were really strong.”
El Quixico, in Nishi Ogikubo, falls into second category. Honestly, I don’t know why we’re all so devoted to this tiny little restaurant. The service is possibly the slowest and least predictable I’ve ever seen. I’ve lived in Central America, and I understand that it is very common there for everyone’s food to come out separately. But 20 minutes apart? And how does the last person to arrive always seem to get his food first? AND it’s not run by Latin Americans. Everyone who works there is Japanese, making the bizarre food delivery lottery that you play when you bring a large group is even more inexplicable.
It’s so small that unless you make reservations or get there early, you’re going to end up sitting a teeny table that is squeezed between reach-in coolers full of beer. If you do get a table, it’s so full of expats from our little West Tokyo enclave that your only chance of having a private conversation would be to speak in code.
But we love it. The margaritas, which take about 20 minutes per pitcher to make, are absolutely yummy every time. When you finally get food, it’s always good. The mole (mo-lay, not mole) sauce actually tastes fairly authentic. The green and red enchiladas are filled with spinach, chicken, beef and the right amount of cheese. They aren’t smothered in Velveeta in some bastardized American semblance of an enchilada. For an appetizer, the nachos are more generous than one would expect in any restaurant in Japan. No attention is paid to presentation whatsoever, which is exactly the way nachos should be served. What you get is exactly what a true nacho lover hopes for- a big pile of chips covered in warm, yummy cheese, chicken and whatever extras you decide to add.
However, I have to admit, the margaritas are the big draw. In a land of cocktail perfection at a whopping nine dollars per drink, sometimes it’s fun just to have a big sloppy pitcher of lime and tequila. However, as a word of caution, smallish people with empty stomachs shouldn’t suck down an entire pitcher by themselves and expect to have much of an evening after that. Or so I hear.
If you don’t plan to show up early, or if you have a big party, reservations are a must. The last time I called, after practicing my reservation making Japanese phrases in preparation, the phone was answered by a completely charming Japanese woman who spoke perfect, unaccented English. She was also there during the dinner I was planning, in which after 3 margaritas, we all kept trying to talk to her in Japanese, to which she would politely reply that we REALLY didn’t need to do that. Apparently, tequila does not really sharpen language ability. Who knew?
For information:
http://www.eok.jp/restaurants-bars/casual-dining/mexican/el-quixico
http://www.el-quixico1991.jp/

Confessions of a Stage Mom


Today, I finished my day at work, ran out the door to grab my son, Max, and pulled him by the arm to the car so that we could make it to the train station in time to get him downtown for a modeling job. He’s been modeling in Tokyo for three years, so we’ve played out the rapid departure from school scene many times. Today, as usual, a million questions ran through my head as I zipped through yellow lights in a race to catch the train that the Jorudan Train Finder website claimed was my last best of hope of getting to his job on time. First, there’s the big question. What is my motivation for doing this? Max is a trooper about it, but he didn’t beg to become a print model three years ago when I took him to Sugar and Spice. Never, among his four-year-old ambitions did he list fashion model or child star as an aspiration. Even now, at seven, he lists movie star right below generic, catch-all “scientist” as his profession of choice. He’s more intellectually suited to the latter, but I keep him dabbling in the former. It’s just so easy to get kids into modeling in Tokyo, and I succumbed to the temptation.


I didn’t always think I’d be this kind of mom. I remember, years ago, when my husband and I were living in Costa Rica, there passed a bizarre series of circumstances that included a missed ferry and a stranger with a shark bite story. During the course of these events, we met River and Joaquin Phoenix’s father, a really decent, friendly guy who was living under a pseudonym on the ranch that River had bought for him. He didn’t share any stories about his kids or the family’s history, but a close friend of his confided that when River was young, while the family was on a Christian mission in Venezuela, Apparently, God told River’s father that he needed to get River to Hollywood immediately, that he was going to be a big star. As fate would have it, there was a ship leaving for California shortly thereafter. We all know how that story ends. I heard this tale while I was young and didn’t have kids of my own. I remember thinking that it was so tragic that a father’s choice could lead to such disaster. In hindsight, I may have been a bit unfair in my judgment.


Anyway, it seems ironic that here I am, ten years later, doing whatever I have to do to keep my own son working. I resist the urge to pull him from school to work, but I’ll gladly blow a whole Saturday dragging him around Tokyo. I catch myself rationalizing dry spells, deciding that it’s just his age or his height that isn’t in high demand at the moment. I was the one who coaxed him through the first jobs and tried to keep it fun so he wouldn’t want to quit. Ultimately, I have to admit that I’m the one who is fascinated by all of this.


Don’t get me wrong, I am not a pageant mom. I meet pageant moms at these shoots, and I am so not a pageant mom. I don’t put mascara on my two-year-old daughter, even though she loves my make-up and says that she wants to “get some beautiful on me.” I don’t take Max to auditions because he finds them to be pointless. He’s either got the job flat out, or we’re not interested. I’m not envisioning a life on the red carpet for my children, and if you ask me, I’ll tell you that I’m just doing this to bolster his college fund.


With that said, I love this stuff. I love walking into a studio and seeing the equipment and cameras. I’m fascinated by how many people work on the set of a photo shoot for 7-year-olds. There’s the make-up person, the person who dresses them and adjusts their clothing between shots. There’s a photographer and an assistant whose entire job is to run around and click the light meter every time a cloud passes over the studio window. And of course, there’s the extra person whose job seems to be to wrangle the strays. Some kids get antsy and literally run off. This person’s job is to chase them down and get them back into the shot.


I love the chaos of location shoots. If you gather up four to eight kids under the age of eight in any setting, along with their parents and a full photo crew, there’s going to be chaos. Now, put them all on a bus and drive them around Tokyo from site to site for different shots. By then end of the day, you will see unrestrained children swinging from the luggage rack of the bus, trashing displays in Agnes B, and wiping their noses on a six hundred dollar Roberto Cavalli sundress. And that’s before they get cranky. By afternoon, half of them will decide that they hate the clothes that they’re supposed to wear and throw a full-blown tantrum while their desperate mothers try to wrestle them into eighty dollar Benetton sweatpants. It’s fantastic. Little divas in the making, every one of them. Or perhaps, more accurately, they’re just normal kids with a highly unusual job.


What else do I love about it? I love Tokyo style. It’s great fun watching how the clothes are combined into outfits in ways that could only work in the land of Harajuku Girls. Purple plaid pants and a yellow floral blouse? No problem. Just grab a pair of pink cowboy boots off the rack to balance things. You’ve got the perfect outfit for a 7-year-old boy. It’s all good.


I love it that my son will sit and let a total stranger do something wild, like airbrush his face. When he’s modeling, he’s at work and follows instructions with this beautiful compliance that both his first grade teacher and I wish we could bottle. (Of course, his teacher and I aren’t paying him a hundred bucks an hour.) He usually hates the clothes, but knows that he doesn’t’ have to wear them home. He can be pretty goofy on set and sometimes pushes his luck making monkey faces for the camera, but it’s all digital, so it’s not like he’s wasting film. I must say, that Max has a much clearer idea of professionalism than I did as a first grader.


However, none of these things are what I like best about modeling.


Ultimately, I love it that when I see my son on film, he becomes this being who is separate from the kid who takes 10 minutes to put on his shoes and forgets to take his backpack to school. On film, he becomes otherworldly. Honestly, I think that the emotion I experience on set transcends pride. I’m not religious, so I don’t really know what reverence feels like, but I can imagine that it feels kind of like seeing your child’s image captured in perfect light and detail.


As I mentioned, most shoots are digital, so there’s a moment after every outfit change when the crew huddles around a computer to see if they got the shot. They flip through monkey face pics and shots of him with his fingers in his nose or his ears in an attempt to make everyone laugh. Then, in the midst of the madness, there will be that single click of the mouse that reveals the frame that makes the entire crew gasp just a little bit. Invariably, it’s the shot in which he’s looking directly into the camera; dead on with those deep blue, almond-shaped eyes that are surrounded by thick, dark lashes. The perfect symmetry of his face is endlessly fascinating to me.


The crew gasps, but I’m no longer surprised by this image. Nonetheless, I’m still hypnotized by the profundity of my child’s beauty. Parenting is such a train wreck much of the time that we need these moments to balance out the snarky ones, which sometimes seem to outweigh all else. Even on the day of a shoot, the mother-child dynamic is very much at work. At today’s shoot, he was in an especially patriotic mood, and as we changed him into the navy blue nylon jacket that he was modeling, he said that he wished the jacket had a big American flag on the back. I told him that he looked like an DEA agent, and that would have to do. I know I’ll still bitch at him on the train ride home to stop kicking the people sitting on either side of us. I’ll still be sympathetic, but secretly annoyed when he wants to change trains because an old lady is looking at him. I think it’s good for me to occasionally just stop and really look at the face of this incredible little person and be awestruck that he exists and that he’s mine.

So, I’m assuming that my friends will have comments to offer about appreciating my seven-year-old for his mind. I do. Honestly, he such a bright, inquisitive, loquacious kid that there aren’t many opportunities for quiet reverence. There are few chances to just observe him while he’s awake and marvel at how positively gorgeous he is.


So, do I have my son modeling for the college money? Sure. Is it so that I can have a glimpse into a world I might never otherwise see? Probably. And yeah, I love seeing my kid in a 500 dollar Burberry coat and thinking, “Yeah, baby, that’s my kid in a 500 dollar Burberry coat. How you like me now?”


But, ultimately, it comes down to that single second, that moment when his perfect face appears on that screen and everyone in the room catches their breath. Right in that moment, I’m completely enraptured by the wonder of my own child.


I guess I can teach him about inner beauty later.

Mystery Sticks

We all have our favorite Tokyo haunts. A lot of us learned about them through friends or colleagues and discovered that these places provide great food in an environment that is expat friendly. While I don’t recommend relying exclusively on these places that fall within a comfort zone, there is always that evening when you just don’t feel like trying so hard. Sometimes, you just want to throw on jeans and shoes that you might actually be able to walk in after several hours and many beers, and go somewhere where there won’t be any awkward surprises.

My husband and I have two such places, both of which, by no coincidence are the comfort spots of most of our colleagues. These places are legendary in our circles, so much so that no one refers to them by their actual names. Instead, they are called the Stick Restaurant and The Mexican Place in Nishi-Ogikubo. I’ll explain why we love The Stick Restaurant now and save The Mexican Place in Nishi-Ogikubo for next time.

If you aren’t familiar with kushiage, and if your bad cholesterol isn’t too high, The Stick Restaurant, which is actually called Tatsukichi, is worth a visit or 10. For me, this is where I head when I want to be in very Japanese environment that is actually easy to negotiate. It’s laid back, it’s fairly dark, and it smells great. You can expect your coat to reek of fryer grease the next day, but while you’re there, it smells divine.

Kushiage is a way of eating in which you don’t have to order anything except your drink. How easy is that? Once you are seated and a large, semi-circle bar that surrounds a cooking station, you are handed a plate with compartments and a collection of vegetable sticks that pass as a salad. Order a drink and sit tight. Within a few minutes, the cook will pour different sauces in the plate compartments and soon will begin to place mysterious skewers of battered and deep fried food on your plate. From that point forward, all you have to do is order more drinks and see what shows up.

The people we know who are old pros or who have food allergies are really good at telling the cook what they won’t or can’t eat. We like to wait and see what we get. The salmon wrapped cheese, quail eggs, asparagus with bacon, and roast beef are all outstanding. When you get a favorite and find out what it is, you can get more by shouting out what you want and the cook will yell back to the kitchen to send some more his way. The rest of the time, it’s just fun to debate with your husband about what you think you might be eating. One time, we went with someone who could explain all of the food and it was almost less fun. I felt like he was sucking the mystery out of the room.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are inevitably some duds. Every time we go, I make myself take one bite from the bowl of oily green seaweed slime that comes out early in the meal. It’s gross every time, but I keep trying just to be sporting. I’m still perfecting how to say that I don’t want smelt, which is a little silver fish that gets skewered whole and served up that way, tail and head and all. It’s some pretty nasty business, so every time we’re leaving the house, I have our Japanese babysitter coach me how to ask the cook not to give me any. I’ve practiced. I’ve written it down. Nothing works. One of the last skewers of the night is always that wretched little fish. I think it’s the chef’s way of conveying that it’s time for us to go.

As you eat, you keep your empty sticks in a little cup by your plate. When you’ve eaten your fill, hold up the big X with your arms to signal that you don’t want any more. The cook will count your skewers and charge you per stick. I still have no idea whether or not we have to pay for the green slime, because really, they should pay us for that one.

There are other kushiage joints where you batter and fry your own skewers. We’ve tried this, but it seemed very lacking. Perusing a cooler of raw chicken and other bits doesn’t really do it for me. Also, if the pieces are too small, they just turn to little bricks in the oil. What was it Woody Allen said? I think it was something along the lines of “The food was terrible, and the portions were so small.” For me, that’s DIY kushiage, small portions of mediocre food served under fluorescent lights, which is whole other essay. I like the big portions of mystery food that are perfectly cooked every time.

To get to Tatsukichi, exit Shinjuku station by the Gap, take the ramp down and to the left. Take another left at the IDC building and continue to the Amos Style underwear store. Just beyond the underwear, there’s a little alcove with an elevator. Take it to the fourth floor. Unless you arrive really, really early, plan to wait about 45 minutes for a seat.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can try to make the wall of records for most sticks eaten in a single sitting. It is divided into men’s and women’s records, so everyone can give it a go. For a map, pictures, and a shot of the wall of records, go to http://www.shinjuku-tatsukichi.com/index.html.