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.
Sorry for my absence the last couple of weeks. Did you miss me?
I've been a bit distracted.
Certificate of Marriage
Hiromi and I have been quietly planning to marry in September in Japan... most of our friends and family have known about it for a while, though I haven't been shouting it from rooftops...
I guess it's time for that to change.
In the lobby of Seattle Municipal Courthouse
A little over five years ago, I met Hiromi in person for the first time while on business for Microsoft in Japan. We weren't really working together directly on anything at that time, but several people from the MSN Japan team went to lunch at Misato-ya in Chofu with me, and Hiromi may have been the person to suggest that we go to the popular organic vegetable teishoku restaurant whose korokke and unpredictable okazu I still crave. I'm pretty sure I spent all of lunch talking about food, cooking and ceramics, probably exhausting anyone who wasn't interested in my personal obsessions.
On another trip that year, Hiromi wasn't even in the office. She had been surprised by a brain tumor and was unable to work for a while while it was being treated.
Somehow Hiromi remembered me a couple years later when we started working on something together. It's rather embarrassing to admit now, but at first I wasn't entirely sure which Hiromi I was working with. There were two contractors named Hiromi on the team back then.
Anyway, I planned a little vacation to Japan after about a year without any business travel. Hiromi invited me to meet up with her on a trip I made to Japan in 2003. We had dinner together one night, and then went touring around Yokohama on another.
I owe my entire relationship with her to my clumsiness... While we were walking around in Yokohama, I nearly ran into a post in the middle of a shopping center, she grabbed my hand to pull me out of the way, and never let go. The wind and rain that day was furious, and a brief trip outside left us chilly and well-soaked. Our lives would be permanently intertwined that day, though I don't think either one of us really knew it then.
In Chambers with Judge Judith Hightower
I didn't really deserve her... I sent all sorts of mixed messages when we first started dating. I was conflicted about starting up a long distance relationship, as I'm sure she was. It took more than a year of trips back and forth before we removed all the ambiguity. Yet somehow she stuck with me.
Things evolved, and Hiromi decided to come to Seattle to take some classes so that we could get to know each other better. Somehow she didn't become bored of me. I don't know how I managed to keep her interested. I wasn't at my best. I was, as now, juggling a day job and my fledgling internet business, more exhausted than usual, and occasionally a bit depressed that I couldn't devote all my energies to that project. But we stayed together, and it became harder and harder for me to imagine my life without her.
We seriously started thinking about marriage, but neither of us was in great financial shape. She went back to Japan, after a little under a year in Seattle, so that she could start earning some money again. I started saving money while paying down some business debt.
At the time, it seemed like it was best to marry in Japan and arrange for the immigration paperwork there. Perhaps a bit sentimentally, we picked the anniversary of the day that I nearly walked into a pole in Yokohama, which coincidentally turned out to be a taian day this year, an auspicious day for a wedding.
Then immigration policies changed again, and we learned we wouldn't be able to start the process of bring Hiromi back to Seattle until after I would return to Seattle after our September wedding... And at first we were just resigned to a fate of things taking longer.
I had a little conversation with my attorney earlier in July to discuss our plans, and he said it was too bad we didn't just get married when Hiromi was still in town. If we weren't hung up on the date, he said, we might have been able to speed things up by starting the application process a bit earlier. I realized that she'd be in Seattle briefly after attending a dance workshop in California, and we started discussing having a simpler municipal wedding before our bigger family ceremony next month.
Well, that's what we did... perhaps a bit hurried... Hiromi's ring won't even be ready until just before I go to Japan, and we haven't figured out mine yet. The judge kindly provided symbolic rings for the ceremony.
There's still a long way to go before we're really together, but now the end of our long time living apart is finally in view.
Ron Mamiya, the presiding judge of Seattle's Municipal Court, had requested to do our ceremony because he shares Hiromi's family name, but Hiromi's tight schedule meant she'd be gone before he returned from his own vacation. Instead, the Honorable Judith Hightower took care of our ceremony in her chambers. She kindly indulged us taking lots of photos, actively encouraging the two camera-wielding witnesses to move about the room for the best possible angles. She even took a few shots of our group together.
Hiromi's former manager Tsuneo, a couple of layers removed, attended at Hiromi's request as a witness. Our friends Jennifer, Hal and Noriko also attended.
After the ceremony, on the steps of the courthouse
Unfortunately, this was also one of the briefest trips Hiromi's ever made to Seattle, and we didn't really have a lot of time to enjoy each other's company after the wedding. We had a little dinner with Jennifer and we came home early in the evening. We only had one night before I had to take Hiromi to the airport.
This was the most painful trip to the airport I've ever made.
I don't remember us posing for this
Fortunately, I'll be in Japan again in just over a month. There's still a lot of planning to do, and I'm not sure how we'll get everything all done by then, but I'm sure we'll figure things out.
Just before dinner
I was surprised at how much this small ceremony changed the way I look at Hiromi. I was completely inarticulate on our way outside the courthouse afterward, but a thousand thoughts were racing around my head. Even at my worst, most selfish moments, I haven't been able to imagine my life without Hiromi for a long time, but everything became so real to me all at once. I was more than a little overwhelmed... after going to the airport yesterday, I was completely useless for the rest of the day.
This afternoon I completed a sale of ceramics to Azuma Gallery, a Pioneer Square gallery which carries prints, screens, and ceramics. It's my first sale of note, so I'm very happy. To the best of my knowledge, it's also the first venue where the work will be seen by an American audience. The two artists whose work Azuma Gallery has bought are Minowa Yasuo, who does gas-fired work, and Akutsu Masato, a 27-year old whose work combines rural, organic textures with a surprisingly modern feel.
Minowa Yasuo's kaki-yu (Persimmon glaze) pots, which are gas-fired, sometimes have a tenmoku-like appearance, and sometimes a striated rainbow reddish pattern, which can be matte or have a metallic luster, sometimes even on the same pot, depending on the clay body and the kiln atmosphere. The results are pretty striking, and although Minowa can control the basic "tenmoku" vs "niji" effect, no two pots are exactly alike.
Akutsu Masato's work has a lot of youthful energy and has four main textural motifs, a "doro" or rough clay look, a tetsu-yu brownish, wood-like brush pattern, a white sandy texture often adorned with sgrafitto or sometimes rough, evocative stained three-dimensional contrasting textures, and a gyokuro-yu glossy dark green glaze which references more typical Mashiko or Kasama ware.
If you happen to be in Seattle anytime soon, please stop in and take a look at Azuma Gallery, located at 530 1st Ave. S., and ask about the work of Yasuo Minowa and Masato Akutsu (the order used in this case is the customary US given name followed by family name).
Later in the day, I met up with Kaoru, a friend of mine who works for a community college program north of Seattle, and we had a little dinner at Djan's, a Thai restaurant in a little house in Wallingford. We had a nice, simple meal with cold spring rolls, green papaya salad, an eggplant dish, and a not-very-spicy red curry with tofu. We skipped the "fusion" or "specialty" dishes since none of those appeared to be vegetarian friendly. The best thing about that place is the careful, but simple presentation, and the feeling that you're really eating in someone's house. The dishes that we had would probably be easily obtainable at any kind of Thai restaurant, but overall I would say it was a pleasant, unpretentious dining experience with a little more attention to detail than the average Thai restaurant.
We stopped at Masalisa in Ballard, a tea shop which transforms into a sake place on weekend nights. At first I was inclined to order some kind of nomi-yasui sake, but in the end both of us decided to try their "sake smoothies", one with strawberries, and the other with matcha. These were interesting concoctions, reminiscent of amazake except for the icy texture.
In the morning and early afternoon, I chatted with Patrick at Vivace's, an ex-Microsoft guy I've previously referred to indirectly, who contacted me after reading my web journal. We drank too much coffee and talked about various ways we might be able to work together. I was a bit surprised that our conversation shifted into discusssion about my ambition to do a little cafe/restaurant, as I have hinted at before, and there's a distinct possibility that this may be feasible sooner than I had previously calculated. He also has some useful connections that might make it possible for me to study cooking under some chefs in the Kyoto area. In any event, we'll keep on talking over the coming weeks.
After years of working a well-paid, challenging, and ostensibly prestigious job which was often interesting, occasionally satisfying, but rarely fulfilling, I’ve decided to move on.
I have three obsessions that I’ve indulged outside of work for the last 7 years or so. One is an uncompromising passion for cooking and eating good food. Another is a love of travel. And third is a wallet-thinning habit of collecting Japanese and Korean ceramics and craftwork. Beyond that, I have a long-neglected impulse to write and create, which, most likely due to excessive comfort over these 7 years, rather than inadequate time, I have mostly failed to pursue and develop.
My goal over the next few years is to explore each of these passions with an eye for making a reasonable living doing the things I love the most.
This is a life-altering transformation. My job at Microsoft, working as a test lead in software internationalization, has allowed me to live comfortably while I regularly invested at least 20% of my income. Now, for the first time in years, I expect many months during which I’ll be slowly eating away at my reserves.
My plan for the next year is to take advantage of my safety net while taking a lot of personal risks. I've established a small business entity focused on importing foods, gifts, and other things that I am excited about.
I’ll travel, but with the objective of generating some kind of return from each trip, either in a financial sense or in the sense of personal growth. I'll be exploiting my ceramics obsession by buying ceramics and craftwork, but with the intent of using my eye to bring back items that could be introduced to the U.S. market for resale. I’ll also at least occasionally be working in restaurants as a cook and waiter and whatever else will teach me what it will take to make a successful business serving food. I expect that I’ll create some opportunities to write and to create again. Within a few years I intend to have established enough of a network to be ready to start a small café/restaurant, and on the way, I will focus on building up my import/export business.
This journal is the document of my transformation.
At least once a week, I’ll be telling part of my story. I intend to be pathologically honest, but I promise to do my best to avoid sentimentality, wistfulness, or excessive self-indulgence. I don’t promise to be authoritative, profound, or even important. But I do promise, more than anything else, to live.
Every time I’ve returned from a long vacation to my job at Microsoft, I’ve struggled with a ton of unpleasant feelings and internal conflicts. Most of the time, I just worked to quiet my impulses to run away and then I’d be able to hold on 6 months or 12 months or more.
Since I was fully prepared for my departure from Microsoft this time, it wasn’t quite as painful to come back, but I did catch myself wincing as I opened the door to my office this morning. I also noticed myself jittering with nervous tension at lunchtime, after I had been at the office a few hours. Some kind of negative energy builds up as the hours pass, but at least I have something to look forward to, so the overall frustration level is low.
My manager asked me to draft my performance review, a request to which I didn’t quite know how to respond… I said I wasn’t terribly concerned about it, but then I thought better of it and said I could take care of it. Toward the end of the day we had our regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting for the first time since I told him I’d be taking some time off.
Of course, I readily told him that I was leaving, and then we talked a little bit about what I had been doing the last few weeks and showed him my business card. I think he was happy that I was choosing something adventurous rather than just taking the first job that came along… He almost sounded a little jealous.
In any event, I agreed to serve out another couple of weeks to finish one of the deliverables in one of my projects, so I have to live with a little more distraction before I can tend to my new life.
Most of the day was rather pleasant, because I was able to talk about my plans with everyone who knows how much I’ve wanted to move on for the last year and a half, and even get a few useful contacts. I’ll try to make the best of the next couple of weeks.
Today was my first purchase of note. I picked ceramic wares from three different artists at two different dealers. My original intent was to buy from four separate dealers, but time was getting tight.
I ended up buying a substantial amount of work from a Mr. Minowa, who is a 60-something potter who does beautiful gas-fired work using the classic Mashiko kaki-yu (persimmon glaze), but which depending on oxidation or reduction factors can take on a temmoku-like appearance, a red rainbow striated pattern, or sometimes a luster-like metallic appearance. Kaki-yu is an iron-based glaze but is very versatile in gas-fired work. I bought about 12 guinomi for drinking sake, a few sakazuki, which are lower, wider forms also for sake, various meoto-jawan (husband-wife sets for tea), and a good number of vases. Mr. Minowa came to the gallery to meet us and show us some additional work. He invited us to come and see his workshop after we finished our other business today.
At another gallery, I bought out probably 75% of a show from a young potter name Mr. Akutsu, who was doing his first solo exhibition. He previously co-presented most of his work with his family. His work has about three or four motifs but tends toward earthy textures… sometimes a wood-like appearance, sometimes lighter colors, and sometimes a strong green glaze. A lot of his work is slab built, but of course his cups and bowl-like forms are wheel thrown. We talked to him a little bit and then made a lot of work for him and the staff by selecting more than a hundred pieces from the collection.
Hiromi and I were getting tremendously hungry by around 4:30, so while they were doing some initial packing and drawing up the long invoice, we walked across the street to get a bite to eat at a nearby Mashiko café. Everything at that café is served on Mashiko ware… almost everything is Wafuu (Japanese style) western food… we had a Japanese-style pasta dish with mushrooms and nori, a cheese-heavy “pizza” with little chunks of potato on top, and some salad in a beautifully rustic Mashiko plate with braided handles. Afterword we leapt for the yuzu-flavored desserts, a yuzu poundcake and yuzu cheesecake, served with lemon tea.
When we came back I made some additional selections for work from Mr. Yoshiaki Senda, which are pricy but very desirable pots made by combining multiple colored clays into floral or geometric patterns. The technical complexity of this work is truly amazing. In most cases, the pattern is visible on both the inside and outside of the form. I bought a relatively small amount of these pots because of budget constraints, but I think it will be easy to sell them.
We made some final logistics arrangements with the gallery owners and tried to find Mr. Minowa’s workshop, which is about 20 minutes from the center of Mashiko by car if you know where you’re going, or 40 minutes if you have never been there before. He comes to meet us at a nearby landmark after we call him, then leads us toward his home.
A windy dirt and gravel road leads off the main street to his home and workshop. He greets us and shows us around the outdoor parts of his workshop… He points us toward his mostly dormant noborigama (climbing kiln), his huge gas kiln, and his stash of clay. When we come inside he shows us his kickwheels and some unfired, bisqued and recently produced work. His wife, who had been representing him at the gallery, served us some black tea in English-style cups.
He then proceeds to show us some of his other pieces and tell us about the happy accidents and intentional manipulations that make up his work. My friend understands only a little of the Japanese terminology for ceramic materials and techniques, but occasionally when I volunteer an English technical term for the same thing Mr. Minowa seems to recognize when I get it right. Occasionally all of us are at a loss to communicate in a way that is meaningful to more than one of us, so we aren’t always sure what we understand…
We are forced by time constraints to depart his studio at about 8:45 pm, even then uncertain if we’ll get back to Tokyo in time for Hiromi to return her car to Yokohama and for me to get to the hotel near Shimbashi. Today was an incredible experience, though, as I had a chance to meet two of the potters whose work I had planned to buy since my last trip. I look forward to coming back here a few months from now and making another buy… This small purchase is more of a test to see what it takes to market handmade ceramics to an American audience… if it goes well, I’ll need to be buying on a larger scale than I could on this trip. If not so well, then I’ll need to be very good at acting as an import agent on the other stuff I’ve been investigating.
I’ve been an avid collector of Japanese ceramics for quite a long time, though, and this is really a labor of love for me. So even if it takes some time to develop an audience for these ceramics, I’ll keep investing in it. These things are too special to go unnoticed by US customers.
Under something close to the least favorable economic conditions of my short life, facing the prospect of casting aside a mostly respectable seven-year career at the largest software company on the planet should be terrifying.
Instead, I am strangely calm. During the past two weeks, I have probably felt more relaxed than I ever did while shackled by the constraints of stability; fear of my uncertain future has, so far, been fleeting, if present at all.
Today, I am crossing the Pacific Ocean aboard United Flight 875 to Tokyo-Narita International Airport, carrying freshly minted business cards that bear no reference to my prior professional identity. Although I’ve often heard other Microsoft employees express the feeling that they make up their role in the company as they go along (and I've probably even said that myself) the constraints and freedoms inherent in subsuming your persona to a corporate entity are nothing like starting from nowhere, as I am doing now. Corporate tradition, colliding egos, and layers of mutable but established hierarchy trump all but the most skilled balancing act of ambition and creativity.
Ten years ago, I had no aspiration to become part of a massive corporate machine; in fact, my politics rapidly assumed the opposite direction, inspired by revolutionary ideologies and assisted by frustration with the careerist impulses of students who chose what to study based not on what they were curious or passionate about, but by what they thought would be most financially rewarding. Ironically for all of us, it was my own idiosyncratic curiosity that led directly to the job I found shortly after university.
I fell into majoring in East Asian studies via a gateway course, “Modern Japanese Novels,” chosen purely out of curiosity. Soon I found myself in Japanese classes, Buddhist studies, and so on. At the same time, I was continuing to learn German, and I headed off to Germany as an exchange student, oddly situated as probably the only late addition to the East Asian Studies program ever to have planned a European exchange program. Evenings and sometimes whole days I spent hacking around Bitnet and later the Internet, and by the time I graduated from university I was a well-rounded humanities major with geek tendencies. If it weren’t for all of that, I wouldn’t have found a nice cushy job at the big cozy corporation that that all of the economics majors around me fantasized about. Who could know that, 4.5 years after beginning university, Microsoft would be interested in hiring computer-savvy folks with Japanese or German language skills who had an ability to write at least some haphazard web code and could think about problems analytically?
When I first arrived at Microsoft, like most recent college graduates of that era, I felt it was my duty to say yes to nearly everything asked of me and, perhaps more importantly, to fit in to the company culture and even to believe in as much of the company dogma as I could cognitively reconcile. I eventually developed a little more personality and actually became more productive when a legendary manager took me under his wing and taught me how to say “no.” Of course, my experience working for a manager of his caliber was limited to about 7% of my time at the company due to a combination of corporate and management reshufflings, my own decisions about how to react to various job frustrations, and the relatively low percentage of people who actually have that kind of skill in a company dominated in management by geeks who got rewarded for their technical skills with team leadership responsibilities on the one hand, and those skilled at political manipulation on the other. It’s rare to find managers who are smart, ambitious, involved, and fiercely loyal to their staff; in my time at Microsoft, only that one manager would stake his career in defense of his team.
I spent the last year and a half or so actively disliking my job, and disenchanted enough not to want to seek out other opportunities within the company. I was coming to work every day driven only by momentum, not by intent. I spent that time thinking about my exit strategy—how I would move on after leaving the company, what kind of timeline, and so on—and I set conscious boundaries between the sufferable and the intolerable. When circumstances moved beyond the merely unfortunate, I had already decided how to handle the situation long in advance. I decided I would be going on “vacation.”
So here I am, technically on vacation, but with no plans to return. I’ve spent the last two weeks doing most of the essentials associated with starting my own small business, including registering a LLC with the state government, hurriedly establishing phone and fax services, buying a new laptop to replace the one previously supplied by my employer, and getting an annual medical checkup I’ve only delayed by about five or six years. I’ve been jogging daily, and just making the psychological transformation that is required when one decides to separate from something that has been such a tremendous portion of one’s life.
This relaxed feeling is some sort of delusion, but it just means is that I’m at peace with myself. I have almost never been at peace with myself while at Microsoft. I have occasionally liked my job, and I was even passionate about some aspects of my work, but I have almost always had trouble sleeping at night and almost always dreaded waking up in the morning. I rest easily now, and wake up earlier than I usually did when I was expected to be at the office.
Over the next few weeks, I must reinvent myself. I am scouting suppliers of things that I consider interesting—things that have stories, things that I can talk about to complete strangers and infect them with some of the same enthusiasm I feel. In the Tokyo area, after a brief weekend of R&R, I’m attending a trade show related to food products; after that, I’ll spend a little more time researching logistical requirements, and I intend to go to some rural villages where I can find potters and craft technicians. When I come back, the hard work of finding buyers will begin, and the brutal realities of generating income based on work that I just happen to like doing may start to hit home. In the meantime, I’m just getting started. Every step I take now is full of intent.