Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions

A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

Listing posts

What I've learned this year

jason

This year, I took a leap of faith to leave an unfulfilling job and start something completely new. I didn't quite know what to expect, but I knew that most of what would happen next was up to me. My primary goal for the year was really just to get my bearings and not lose too much money. I was hoping to get a full web store up and running with my ceramics products, and I wanted to import several products over the course of the year and build customer bases for each of them.

I was perhaps a little optimistic about how much I could take on in the first year, but I think I'm off to an acceptable start. When I started, I thought I could concentrate on three or four products simultaneously, but the products I am interested in are so unusual and have too many different countries of origin for me to be able to handle the logistics, sales, promotions and marketing work all on my own. I'm also no longer able to effectively invest a lot of time and energy into building web software, since it distracts from more important wholesale sales and promotion work.

I could probably do everything I want to if I had more cash to throw around. But I hesitate to take on inventory risk without a likely destination customer for each product, and I also didn't want to invest too much in the web store until I had a foundation of wholesale customers.

So, by the end of the year, my goal morphed to be more about getting a reasonable number of retail outlets for the dragon beard candy and use it as a foundation for the next series of products. I now have 14-15 retail points of presence, and I think it's feasible to add another 12 or so stores by mid-February. If by fall of next year I've gotten my numbers up to about 60 stores, and get a little revenue trickle from some other products by summer, I'll actually start to have a healthy income.

Based on last month's in-store sales, January will probably be the first month where I actually start seeing enough revenue to cover most of my personal expenses. I've also minimized most of my advertising budget and switched to a more promotion-based approach, so the regular business expenses will start being properly covered by March or April. I am still nervous about three likely "irregular" business expenses related to travel and trade shows in January, March and July, but I think all three of those will pay off.

I learned that focus was the thing I needed most. Since I wear multiple hats, I really have to bet heavily on a small mix of products. I'm just starting to learn how to be a salesman. I'm incredibly naive as a marketer. I am not a genius at advertising. I'm not bad at promotions but I think I have a lot of work to do there as well. And I am not a great bookkeeper, though I am pretty conscious of where my money is going to and coming from. I'm relatively decent at planning, and even at accommodating dramatic changes on short notice. One thing I'm really good at, I think, is recognizing when a product is very distinctive and will bring something unique to the U.S. market. Of course, that's only a very small part of operating a business.

I need to be better organized and I need to make fewer dumb mistakes and miscalculations. I've made mistakes related to filling orders a few times (three, unfortunately all to the same customer). I've misplaced documents, which led at least once to a day-long distraction searching for an item. I underestimated the time it would take for an air freight order to leave the port of origin and to clear customs and FDA inspection. With varying degrees of severity, these have impacted the efficiency and momentum of my business.

When I was at Microsoft I often complained about being resource-constrained on very complex projects. But I never worked on anything as complex as operating all aspects of a business by myself, and I've never been more resource constrained in my life. I know how precarious my position is.

On the positive side, I'm starting to build momentum, and the long term key to my success is converting active sales work into passive revenue streams; I have to help my customers become successful with the products that I am selling them, so that people come to me and ask if they can start selling the products rather than mostly being the other way around.

I'm starting to see evidence of customer loyalty to the things that I sell; several people have become serious repeat customers, buying large quantities or with enough frequency that I have more confidence in the future of my products. Other than continued footwork, I don't know what it will take to transform my small business into a healthy, self-sustaining operation, but I think I'm mostly on the right track. I just need to be incredibly aggressive and execute my sales strategy in the next year.

Maybe one or two days off

jason

Most people take Christmas Eve off, but I'll probably do a few hours of promotions at Uwajimaya Seattle before attending a family party.

The Hong Kong folks took off Wednesday, only a few hours after Hiromi arrived in Seattle for a two-week visit. Tuesday, our last full day, we ran around doing a few morning errands, although I dropped Mr. Wong's son Hong off at GameWorks, where he spent about 6 hours playing "Street Fighter 3."

Everyone else went shopping. We stopped at the Pike Place Market for a whirlwind tour and visited Bacco for lunch in their new "Bistro" location, where Mr. & Mrs. Wong and Lavina shared a crab sandwich and a lox bagel with some soup and salad. I had a panini of some sort suitable for vegetarians.

I think I added about 5 pounds to my waistline in the last two weeks due to constant restaurant eating, even though I tried to be more cautious about how much food I was putting down my throat. With no meaningful level of exercise and a plentiful supply of heavy food portions, I was feeling some serious stomach pressure by the end of the week.

We ate our last dinner together at Lark in Seattle, which roughly met expectations and was overall quite appealing to my supplier. The atmosphere is pleasant, the food is decent, the portions are just right for sharing between four or five people. Not counting alcohol, I think we spent about $23-24/person including a reasonable tip. (Keep in mind that none of us were starving). With the alcohol I think it was a little higher, as the wine list tended to be pricy. We had a modestly priced sparkling wine at about $32/bottle and a couple of other drinks, but I don't recall seeing a red wine under $50/bottle on their wine list.

Today I ran around like a madman in the afternoon but it was mostly in search of food for the next few days. I fulfilled a wholesale order in the morning. Hiromi was driving tonight's dinner plan, featuring a tofu gnocchi and a gobo soup from a Japanese macrobiotic magazine I picked up on my last trip, and I prepared something for tomorrow's family gathering, basically filo cups filled with a savory cheesecake, upon which I will place some sauteed chanterelles with sage pesto and shallots, or probably some lox and capers for the non-vegetarians.

I need to eat more judiciously the next few weeks so that the holidays don't lead me back to my early Microsoft expansion...

Last day before a long journey home

jason

We had our last demo today, in Milpitas, which attracted record crowds and pretty respectable sales. Saturday was surprisingly calm in Foster City, but the 99 Ranch store there is beautiful and well-suited for presenting the candy.

We had a few issues with proper display of the product in one store yesterday, and today we discovered one store had mislaid our cardboard display stand since signing for delivery. I am hoping to properly resolve these in the next couple of days.

I'm expecting good results overall in the Bay Area as word spreads, and we had a healthy launch for the area this week.

Tonight I learned one of the stores in Seattle has gone through a lot of inventory in the last two weeks, so I'm trying to decide whether to pull some inventory from other stores or to sacrifice some of my inventory meant for internet orders. I wasn't expecting to need another shipment this quickly, and the Hong Kong side had some unexpected orders, so I had not budgeted for a new order, and the Hong Kong office doesn't have much capacity to spare as they ramp up for Chinese New Year.

We ended up eating at a really horrible Japanese restaurant tonight after a tour of Macy's in San Francisco. I knew it was trouble before walking in, but my preference was overridden. I ate some not so freshly boiled edamame, a strange squash-filled roll, and some oddly prepared firm agedashi-doufu. I couldn't eat two full pieces of the agedashi-doufu because it was so mediocre. The staff didn't understand Japanese, and as far as I can tell from the misspellings on the menu and the waitstaff interactions, everybody working there was Korean. I left at the suggestion of Lavina to hunt down something I might enjoy more, and walked around aimlessly looking for a snack.

Last night we had a good meal in North Beach though, so I think that makes up for it.

Bay Area exposure

jason

Our TV appearance in Portland got canceled due to the feature reporter and some part of his crew getting very sick... we got a call from the station at 5:45, about 30 minutes before we were supposed to go on. We just chose to drive to San Francisco around 7:30 on Tuesday morning.

However, a Chinese TV station and a Chinese newspaper visited us during our first demo in Daly City in the Bay Area. We saw the newspaper today, though I'm not sure when the TV feature will appear. It's likely to be on the SF market Cantonese station, TVB. A mainstream newspaper photographer also took some photos.

The Daly City demo went pretty well. Enough of the customers were from Hong Kong or Cantonese speaking areas that I didn't have to talk very much, and some people aready knew the brand. Our demo today was a little quieter, as the store traffic at the Cupertino 99 Ranch location wasn't quite as dense.

We made a brief stop at the Asian Art Museum today, where I could see their presentation of both the ceramics and the candy. We also showed the video to some of the volunteer staff and Mr. Wong greeted everyone. We ended up behind schedule, arriving at almost exactly noon at the Cupertino store. I think we were lucky everyone else on I-280 considered the speed limits a mere suggestion because we might have otherwise been about 15 minutes later.

 

The tour is underway

jason

We made our move from Seattle to Portland last night. Saturday involved rushing around maniacally to get a rental car before the agency's noon closing time. Enterprise apparently doesn't "pick you up" on Saturdays if you live in Seattle, so I needed to extract Mr. Wong from his hotel a little early and have him drive my car back to my home.

The demo in Seattle went reasonably well; apparently the publicity from the Seattle P-I, Seattle WeeklyNorthwest Asian Weekly (twice), Seattle Chinese Post, and even some internal Microsoft message boards brought in a few people. We definitely attracted crowds, especially at the Seattle store. I hope that this event translates into a long-term boost in sales and also helps build the brand image in the US.

Originally we planned to return from Portland to Seattle tonight, but on Friday the Portland Fox affiliate asked us to be available for a morning TV show this Tuesday, so we decided it would be simpler just to stay in Portland and continue directly on to San Francisco from there.

We are traveling in a small van, but the amount of luggage needed for supplies, personal effects, display material, and so on makes the space pretty crowded. I almost think we would have been better off dragging a small trailer behind my Camry. I feel comfortable, but the passengers themselves must feel pretty cramped.

Tomorrow is our first relatively unstructured day. I'll be taking the Wongs around Portland to do some market research, the specific mode of which most people simply call "shopping." We'll go to downtown Portland again and maybe a few other areas. I'm not looking forward to waking up at 5am on Tuesday or driving for 10-12 hours afterward, but I think it will be interesting to see what happens in the Bay Area.

The Bamboo Garden team is here

jason

Mr. Wong, Mrs. Cheng, and two other key staff members of Bamboo Gardenhave arrived safely. I trust they are now getting some sleep. We had countless errands to run this afternoon, including nailing down the final schedule, routing the new candy shipment, and sending some media to the 99 Ranch promotions folks. Afterward, we made some attempt to find large quantities of cornstarch, which Mr. Wong was loath to bring on the airplane and risk misinterpretation by Homeland Security folks.

Before turning on full-productivity mode, we stopped at Cafe Besalu for a little breakfast and caffeine, with a little bit of chatter. After that, I was either on the phone or driving somewhere or writing up a shipping order for the next 5 or 6 hours. We mellowed out around 5:30 pm, although it took me a good 30 minutes to make it from Queen Anne back to Fremont due to heavy traffic. I did some prep work in the kitchen and came back after they had time to take a shower.

I did manage to make them a little dinner, but I think we didn't eat until about 8:30.... I made a potato pizza with sage pesto, chanterelles, and thin slices of eggplant, a mixed green salad with yuzu vinaigrette, a little squash-potato soup, some grilled mushrooms with basil and garlic, and some green beans with lion’s mane mushrooms and ginger. We finished off the pear sorbet which I think I mentioned here a few weeks ago, and it still tasted pretty decent.

The schedule for Bay Area is now settled, though I think the actual time of day might still need clarification.

  • December 15: 99 Ranch Daly City, 250 Skyline Plaza, Daly City, CA 94015
  • December 16: 99 Ranch Cupertino, 10983 North Wolfe Road, Cupertino, CA 95014
  • December 17: 99 Ranch Richmond, 3288 Pierce Street, Richmond, CA 94804
  • December 18: 99 Ranch Foster City, 1070 Foster City Blvd., Foster City, CA 94404
  • December 19: 99 Ranch Milpitas, 338 Barbar Lane, Milpitas, CA 95035

Insured and ready

jason

Today I entered the ranks of a real company and signed a commercial insurance policy. I didn't have a choice, really, as it was driven by a customer requirement. The last thing I want right now is additional expenses. But it was something I would have needed to do eventually.

I am exhausted, but I still have a lot of work to do still before my candy-makers arrive tomorrow.

We'll be doing live demos of dragon beard candy at Bellevue Uwajimaya on Friday, noon to 6 pm; on Saturday at Seattle Uwajimaya, noon to 6 pm, and Sunday and Beaverton Uwajimaya, also noon to 6 pm.

My plan for the Bay Area should be ready to go by tomorrow, but I'm still waiting for the customer there to arrange the details. It looks like everything will be good, and there is some promotion being done on their end too.

A new shipment came in yesterday and I have to prepare the routing details somehow by tomorrow, so maybe I'll take a few hours of leave from my guests who are arriving to do some logistics work. Tonight I have to do some housecleaning, too.

Not yet that sane

jason

I was doing the usual sampling at Beaverton and Bellevue this weekend... Beaverton went reasonably well, with a high sampling-to-buying ratio; Bellevue was a little slower but sales picked up as I was about to give up for the day. One guy who bought several boxes last time I saw him picked up another big box today. I'm happy to have that kind of customer.

Hiromi discovered a unique "pillow" when acting as a tour guide for one of our mutual colleagues.

This is probably not something for my import company, since I tend, to my detriment, to focus on slightly more high-brow items, but someone would probably appreciate it if I did bring it in... Called "hiza-makura" (hiza means falling asleep in someone's lap, makura means pillow), I guess it's designed for a special kind of man. If nothing else, this pillow seems to have the "dirty old man" or ojisan market locked up. Cost: about $90 (retail). 

http://portal.nifty.com/koneta04/11/12/02/

I'm likely to be incommunicado on the web journal for an extended period, as I prepare for Mr. Wong's visit and try to solve some irritating issues I'm facing. But I'll do my best to report what's going on during the tour.

Mr. Wong is coming

jason

The guy who makes my dragon beard candy is coming to Seattle next Thursday. I'm trying to get my publicity act together; I've got a few little mentions lined up but I'm hoping to get a little more visibility still.

His wife, his son, and one of his assistants will be coming also, so I'm trying to get publicity hotel, transportation, appliances and similar things lined up in time for their visit. I'm not sure I'll get much sleep in the next few days.

This will be cool. I think it will help sell candy, and will help us launch properly in the Bay Area.

I shipped off a small internet order to Japan today. I was excited because it was the first completed order going back to Asia. I've made one or two shipments to Canada, but that's the extent of international orders so far.

The weather is pretty cold these days, so I'm not looking forward to the depths of winter this year. Last year was intensely cold (by Seattle standards) with unusually high frequencies of snowfall... I hope it doesn't get that harsh this year.

Foggy day

jason

Early this morning I drove to Beaverton, Oregon for in-store demos, and it was incredible how thick the fog was along the way. As I approached Olympia, it got progressively thicker. I thought it might be a morning thing, but on the way back home in the evening, the fog was about as dense.

The weather has been pretty cold recently. I set myself up near the front of Uwajimaya and occasionally thought it would be nice to have something even warmer than my yellow Merlino wool sweater. The opening and closing doors brought a lot of cool air whooshing past my little spot.

The last few days I tended to eat leftovers with slight modifications. I still have a little bit of my squash gratin left over, but it gets pretty soft upon reheating. I didn't eat a proper lunch on Saturday, when I was doing a demo in Seattle. I don't know if I wasn't hungry or if I just forgot to eat.

I was happy to find some yuzu-shichimi seasoned potato chips at the Bellevue Uwajimaya on Friday. I might not indulge on a regular basis, but the taste was pretty nice.

Thanksgiving and new geek toys

jason

I had some dinner guests yesterday, not quite something I had planned. I was planning on making squash gnocchi for myself anyway so I added a few other dishes and had a little party... a little salad with pomegranate seeds, a frittata, a little mushroom dish with some garlic and rosemary, and of course the squash gnocchi, made using potatoes, kabocha, and flour, roughly estimated. I then served some sweet potato ice cream and pear sorbet. The pear sorbet turned out really nicely... nothing more than pureed, slightly cooked fragrant pears, sugar, and lemon juice.

Today I woke up after sleeping a rough 5 hours, and then I was up for a couple of hours before I crashed again. It was a little late to properly prepare my planned contribution to a Jennifer-hosted Thanksgiving. I made a hurried bread dough and then I prepared a butternut squash gratin, which was a good way of using up the extra pureed kabocha and heavy cream from yesterday. Today's stuff was a little rushed, so it didn't turn out as well as yesterday's food.

I got a replacement for my damaged Sony Ericsson T616 cell phone. I settled on a Motorola Mpx220, which I hunted down at a Best Buy location after abortive attempts to order it online. It seems like a decent choice so far, though I'm having some little frustrations with it.

The voice recognition works better than my last phone's "voice tag" system, though it doesn't seem to work in handsfree mode. The camera was behaving erratically yesterday but seems not so completely insane today. I had some issues setting up features like email and so on because the menu system was not initially very intuitive for setting up new accounts.

Voice quality is decent, and I can hear better than I did with my T616. The internet features are substantially better, and syncronizing my address book with Outlook is absolutely painless; it was something I dreaded when I was trying to do that with my Sony phone, because I was always wondering which contacts would suddenly be duplicated and also whether the phone would even be detected by the Sony-bundled package. ActiveSync is actually a pleasant experience, which is surprising to me, considering all the horrible things that people said about ActiveSync a few years ago.

The next few days I'll be doing in-store demos for my candy at the Uwajimaya stores, and then I have to furiously get my publicity stuff together.

Cars are trouble

jason

On my way home from an in-store demo of the dragon beard candy, I started my car, and a warning light which I have never seen before was illuminated. I wasn't sure what it meant, but based on the hieroglyphics, I surmised that the problem was a taillight of some sort.

I thought that I should inspect the lights before I drove any meaningful distance, so I stopped my car just before leaving the parking lot and took a look. The lights seemed to be ok, and my turn signals checked out fine, and even the reverse gear lights seemed to be normal. So I decided to worry about the problem when I got home.  Not really sure what to make of the issue, I tried jamming an umbrella against the brake pedal to see if it the problem would appear when the brakes were engaged.

Finally, I gave up, thinking the only option would be to have someone else take a look at the car. I shut down the engine, and got out of the car.

Suddenly, a thought occured to me.

I turned on the engine again. The indicator light did not illuminate this time.

It was merely a bug. The car needed to be rebooted.

International attention

jason

It may not do much for me, but my retail web site was mentioned by a Singapore-based food industry magazine, The New Asia Cuisine and Wine Scene this month. The blurb "demystifying dragon beard candy" actually has a couple of trivial factual errors, but there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be furiously preparing for a somewhat more dramatic launch of the product in Seattle, Portland and Hong Kong. This will require me to take a slightly heavier financial risk than I have been doing so far, but I think it's probably a good thing and will help create some long-term buzz.

Tomorrow I'll head off to Portland once again, and I'll be doing sampling in Seattle on Sunday. I also need to get some work done to prepare for some other product offerings. I'm hoping I can afford to take on everything.

 

Sales picking up

jason

I had a busy weekend doing more promotions, this time at Uwajimaya Beaverton and Bellevue. I had lots of trouble setting up, because I couldn't find my product on display anywhere and nobody knew where it was. It turned out that what I had sent them a few weeks ago had almost entirely been sold, and that's why it was nowhere to be seen.

My bamboo display cabinet for the candy was hiding upstairs in storage. It hadn't been unpacked, although it had been at the store for quite a while. So I spent some time unpacking and setting up the cabinet. Shipping stress damaged the cabinet slightly, and adhesive from packing tape affixed to the plexiglass door on the cabinet stuck to face of the door. I spent an hour scrubbing off the adhesive residue.

After returning from Portland, late at night, I made a little stop at a Diwali party at a friend's home in Capitol Hill. Everyone tried their hardest to lose money gambling; I didn't pass up the marketing opportunity to hand out sweets, which is a reasonable thing to do on Diwali. 

My promotion at Bellevue this Sunday was beyond all historical comparisons. Usually it's one of the toughest places to sell the candy, but it sold really well today. My memory of last week's sales might be a little inaccurate, but I think that I sold slightly more today in Bellevue than I sold last Saturday in Seattle. That never happens. I am wondering if people are feeling festive, if I'm getting better at telling the story, or if people are finally starting to see the value in something like this.

Afterward, I stopped at Patrick's home. He made a matsutake risotto and an onion soup, accommodating my vegetarian quirk with a mushroom based broth. I ate so strangely the last couple of days that I was inadequately hungry, though I kept eating... today's brunch was two really large pastries from Le Boulangerie in Wallingford, and no real food except a bit of seasoned fava bean snack I nibbled on right after finishing up at Uwajimaya today. Maybe my body was in starvation mode and confused.

Early in the week I made a satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) ice cream which turned out to have a pretty nice texture and flavor. My blender was quite flustered by the low proportion of liquids to solids, but it survived.

My mid-week entertainment involved a stop at Troiani for lunch, where I had a decent but unremarkable penne dish. The restaurant belongs in a mafia movie. It's huge, dramatic, expensive, and apparently well-funded. I had a nice little savory crepe at 611 Supreme on the same day, which was a refreshing contrast.

Pizza and promotions

jason

Saturday marked my first in-store promotion for the Dragon Beard Candy since returning from Japan. I did pretty well with large gift boxes, which was unexpected. This is the second piece of evidence that I may have under-ordered large gift boxes. The small boxes are selling too, but the big boxes are outpacing small box sales for the first time.

I anticipated that the percentage of big gift box sales would increase in November, so I weighed that when placing my order, but I wasn't quite expecting this.

The sample size is small, so this may just be a fluke. But I expect this will be a good month for sales.

This afternoon, I visited my grandmother's house for a bit of a family gathering; my uncle Jeffrey is visiting briefly from North Carolina. Two of my aunts made appetizers... a baked artichoke dip and some stuffed mushrooms.  and baked a bunch of pizzas using my signature pizza dough. I made one with thin slices of Japanese eggplant, one with yuzu-marinated fennel and a simple olive oil base, and one with shiitake and oyster mushrooms. There was also one with an arugula pesto and some roasted peppers with soft chevre. I don't eat meat, but I made pepperoni pizzas for the carnivorous ones, and I finished with a gorgonzola, pear and caramelized onion pizza.

It was nice to see everyone... I don't see my aunts and uncles very often these days, and I know I'll be incredibly busy until Christmas.

Commiseration and catharsis

jason

Amelia and Jennifer and I had a need for some decompression yesterday evening (and I'm sure we're not the only ones) so we made arrangements to meet up for dinner at Monsoon, a yuppie Vietnamese restaurant which cleverly located itself next to Kingfish Cafe on 19th in Capitol Hill a few years ago.

Monsoon has the "small and sexy" thing right; the food was generally pretty nice, though we had some grit in the matsutake component of our bok choy and matsutake.  The lemongrass tofu was nice, the persimmon salad was simple and clean (though they didn't warn about the shreds of bacon... I chose to work around them), and Jennifer and Amelia devoured the foie gras and poached peaches. A tamarind, chicken and shrimp soup probably serves as a year-round staple, and I ate some of the vegetables and broth, which was pretty pleasant.

The matsutake oversight aside, the food helped lift our apocalyptic moods.

We felt the need for movement en route to dessert, though our dessert move morphed rapidly into a need for red wine and cheese. We made our second stop at Brasa's bar, and had the cabrale cheese plate with a Spanish red that was just about the right complexity for the cheese. The thinly sliced apples, grapes and spanish almonds also helped.

We ordered more cheese from the main dining room's stash, trusting our waitress to pick the right ones, and she did. Somehow we ended up ordering the grape pizza with more cabrales cheese, which was worthwhile, and I'm sure I remember it from when I was there three or four years ago. It was a good way of communally distracting ourself from our country's confusion of bravado and virtue.

Our theme for the evening: We may not have a Democrat in the White House, but we can drink like Republicans.

I'm a little curious

jason

If polling on the reason people voted as they did yesterday is accurate and this election was about moral values, I'm a little curious why active deception and hostile, aggressive behavior were not considered as horrifying an affront to moral values to the red states as, for example, being pro-choice. Bush's morality is far from unassailable, and yet somehow he was given a free pass to own moral values as an issue.

I was not a particularly enthusiastic a supporter of John Kerry, since he never truly articulated a vision for the future. I think this was his undoing, and not any question about his morality. He never successfully articulated a position on the Iraq war rooted in a discussion of values. When he was talking about jobs, he appealed to individual self-interest rather than to humanity and compassion.

The religious left once owned the issue of morality in American politics, the influence apparent from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Martin Luther King, Jr. Even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, for all their weaknesses, always spoke from a foundation of values. The ability for a caricature of morality to dominate the discussion of values points to a failure of the left to speak to people at a human level.

We are not a people unable to see the morality in compassion, truth, and humanity. But in the absence of an articulation of a message built on these, the best of American values, a fetishized morality assembled from token kneejerk issues like abortion, gay marriage, and ambiguous references to "traditional values" will do. I think that it is reasonable for people to expect their politicians to speak to values, although I certainly don't want a religious group to wield all the power over the moral compass of the nation.

The future of progressive thought will be closely tied to the ability of reformers to speak to the values that are our strengths. Threats of hellfire are frightening and effective tools of the religious right. But they are no match for the strength of a positive vision articulated by someone with a unironic approach to the imperative to love thy neighbor.

John Edwards had some potential to accomplish this, but he was overshadowed by the muddled message of the Kerry campaign. The Kerry campaign offered the promise "hope" but did little to build it; all of the hope was assumed, based on the momentum that came from frustration with the situation in Iraq, the casualty of truth, the Bush antipathy to reality. The promise of hope came mostly from faded memory of the election primaries, the voices of Howard Dean and John Edwards.

Hope is precious, but needs to be nurtured. The Kerry campaign was never successful at that. The volunteers were hopeful, but it was a hope that something better than Bush would emerge.

A few articles I've seen have suggested that the re-election of Bush will force the administration to clean up its own mess. It will be at a very painful cost, for now and for a few generations, and I doubt the cleanup will happen in the blissful unawareness the Bush administration seems to have of its disasters. Four years from now, if we have made a clean transition from Iraq and haven't created new disasters, I'll be very surprised.

I am not a religious person, and perhaps this makes me part of the progressive vision problem. But I hope progressives will be able to communicate a vision that shows a positive, coherent alternative to radically isolationist Christianity.

Then again, some people throw themselves to the lions.

Gifts from Minowa-san

jason

The first time I bought items from Minowa-san, he gave both Hiromi and me a yunomi (teacup). Hiromi's was Minowa's signature niji-yu (rainbow glaze) which is actually the typical Mashiko kaki-yu (persimmon glaze) fired in a gas kiln. (I'll put up an example later). The one I received was a more temmoku-like (iron speckled) kaki-yu.

On this trip, I didn't buy that many pieces, but Minowa-san gave me a very nice coffee cup. This one has hints of blue in it, and the yunomi shows a little bit of a red appearance. Minowa-san says he doesn't plan to make any more coffee cups, so this was a nice surprise.

The yunomi has a little bit of what Minowa-san refers to as “yuzu no hada“ or yuzu skin. This means there is a noticeable texture around the iron bumps.

I really need to get a good lighting solution so I can finally put up my ceramics for sale on the yuzumura.com website. But this shot isn't too bad.

Mashiko yunomi and coffee cup, Minowa Yasuo

Civic obligations, yuzu, photos from Japan

jason

Post-jetlag insomnia has set in over the last few days, but I woke up and started some of the necessary housecleaning I've neglected since returning from Japan.

I managed to get myself to the polling station near my home... it's just a short walk. I was expecting it to be crowded, but there were no lines out the door... it was busy around 3pm, but nobody had to wait.

This afternoon I made a surprising discovery... In one of my carry-on bags, I discovered three yuzu and another deteriorating citrus fruit from Mashiko inside another plastic bag.

The yuzu are still in good shape, but I need to use them fast because there is some hint of deterioration. The other fruit, whose name I forget, was already in bad shape when it came off the tree, but it had a nice aroma.

Mr. Minowa, a ceramic artist I met in Mashiko whose work I have been importing, drove me to the train station after I met him on the last Friday of my Japan trip. Somewhere on the way toward Kasama, he noticed a big yuzu tree in someone's front yard and started reaching over the fence to acquire a few fruit, still mostly green. He wasn't terribly concerned about the owner of the house; he said they wouldn't be missed because there are a lot of yuzu.

I was bummed out because I knew I'd have to leave most of them in Japan, but I did use one of the yuzu to keep some apples from browning when I made a cheese fondue. It turns out that the yuzu found themselves in my luggage after all. I don't know if I unconsciously grabbed them or if Hiromi slipped them into one of the bags, or if something else happened. But it's an excellent excuse to make yudoufu.

Last night I finally bulk-resized photos that I should have posted while still in Japan, but I got a little bit busy. The first few photos shown below are from my visit to Mr. Minowa, who lives in Mashiko, close to Kasama. The last time I was here with Hiromi, it was completely dark. So Minowa-san was happy to give me a tour of his home in daylight, and his wife served really nice apples and English tea.

 

Minowa-san is showing me the flora in his backyard.
Sansho fruit pods on the tree This is a citrus plant called sansho. The seed pods are very aromatic; rubbing the skin reveals hints of citrus with some cinnamon-like base notes. The leaves are also edible and make a nice garnish, although Minowa-san says this variety of sansho has better fruit than leaves.
Sansho detail photo Mr. Minowa gave me some sansho to take home.
Sansho detail with extracted seeds The black seedpods in here can be used in cooking, and will be similar to the Chinese sichuan pepper; they might have a slight numbing effect on the tongue. Minowa-san said this variety's seeds are better when green; fall is a little late for harvesting for culinary purposes.
Japanese flowers A few close-in shots of flowers from Minowa's backyard.
Japanese flowers I don't know anything about flowers, but this isn't a daisy.
Japanese flowers Minowa-san was telling me the Japanese names of each of the flowers, but I promptly forgot because I only caught each name once or twice, and he showed me a lot.
Japanese flowers Regardless of the name, this is a really nifty flower.
Yakimono from Mashiko-Tanaka Saori At one of the galleries I work with, I saw this work. Tanaka Saori does a lot with interesting abstract motifs; they feel a little rustic but have sort of modern appeal.
Yakimono from Mashiko with momiji Another artist I like had a lot of momiji (Japanese maple) motifs.
Yakimono from Mashiko, toruko (Turkish) blue The gallery where I found Minowa-san's work last time was highlighting a Mashiko artist who does lots of work with Turkish Blue glazes.
Hanamaki meal at Oosawa onsen OK, it's a little late, but here's the spread from the hot springs resort called Oosawa Onsen in Hanamaki (near Morioka) where I stayed on my second night of this trip. This is the vegetarian meal. I was impressed because rather than just provide fish-less or meatless versions of the same things they served to my friend, they changed a number of side dishes for balance purposes. This was one of the nicest meals on the trip.
Edamame Yuba, tofu, and shiso with shredded vegetables Proof that some of the nicest dishes are also the simplest. Some tofu and I believe edamame-yuba is served with shredded vegetables, a little wasabi, shiso, and a dipping sauce (not pictured).
Persimmon (kaki) stuffed with aemono Another one of the side dishes. I'm a pushover for things presented in sweet, crisp hollowed-out persimmons, ever since I had a little ohitashi presented in a persimmon at Yuu-an (Nishi-shinjuku) a few years ago. This is a kind of ae-mono, lightly dressed vegetables.
small sweet Japanese kabocha stuffed with kinoko and takenoko A warm side dish brought after we started eating, this small sweet squash half is filled with various mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and tiny eggplant. It's a very clean flavor, and the broth poured over is slightly thickened, probably with katakuriko.
Hiromi and another cheerleader in Tokyo, Japan Hiromi's (center/top) hobby is cheerleading, so she invited me to watch her team perform at a football game, along with my friend and sometimes assistant Kazue, who returned to Japan during my own business trip.

Compliments in Japan

jason

One of the things I learned in high school German class was never, ever to accept a compliment. The proper response is denial; graciously accepting someone's praise in Germany is hopelessly gauche.

Fortunately, a similar aesthetic regarding compliments prevails in Japan, as this Japan Times article suggests. So even my first time in Japan, around 1998, I was habitually denying the overwrought compliments offered on my truly atrocious Japanese. Anyone I know whose Japanese skills are actually worthy of praise ceases directly hearing even a word of such, unless they are particularly tired and sloppy and making mistakes. Such people are offered praise (or bewilderment) through intermediaries.

Unlike Germany, however, it seems to be far more common for Japanese to lavish praise on people, so the skills in deflecting compliments require somewhat faster reflexes.

It is somewhat news to me, though, that I would need to be cautious about group contexts when offering compliments to people close to me... But since Americans can be insulted by insincere compliments, I suppose the same risk would be present in U.S. situations; offering an insincere compliment to someone you know in a mixed group might be taken particularly badly. I think that the most sincere direct compliment in Japan is when someone is saying that they like something about you (I like your hair when it is longer) or something that you have done (is it ok if I eat more of this?), rather than offering general praise (your Japanese is good, etc.)