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.

Back to work

Hiromi had to go back home yesterday, so I took her to the airport to send her off. We drank two coffees on the way to the airport, because it’s Seattle and we only made one coffee stop this entire trip. We had a reasonably decent latte at Essential Bakery, and something else at the airport, which was a little overcooked.

Of course, we started enough of the days with an iced latte or perked up with a straight espresso or something made at home, so we didn’t walk around uncaffeinated. We had some of the most luxurious breakfasts I’ve indulged in for a long time. Everything happened deliberately most of the time, which is usual when she visits Seattle… I will never be able to shake the image that I move at my own pace. Actually I often have the urge to move at a frenetic pace when left by myself.

I got a bit of a sunburn on July 4, in spite of a relatively pain-free long kayak ride on Sunday. I forgot to apply sunscreen for a short meander along Alki on Monday, and I exposed my usually covered feet to the sun by wearing sandals most of the day. Somehow, although the burn was rather moderate, I had a slighly lobsteresque look on my feet, arms and legs by the end of the day, and walking around yesterday exacerbated the irritation a bit.

I went to Ikea today to arrange for additional parts for my bare storage shelving, which I’ve been using ever since I brought over my first ceramics order last year. I hate shopping at Ikea. It’s not that I am particularly opposed to their products, but I feel like I’m in a lab mouse maze, complete with traps and dead ends. They have signs to guide you where you think you want to go, but they always force you to walk through things that you have no need for, unless you happen to be their target audience with 1.8 children in tow, an outdoor garden, and a house whose kitchen you can alter at will. When you see a sign that tells you to walk straight through, then walk through a non-negotiable U-Turn path around another wall, only to see another sign urging you to walk straight ahead parallel to but in the opposite direction of the last sign, you feel a little manipulated.

Anyway, I now have more shelving to assemble. I also realized I’m going to need another small shelf, preferable something portable and ideally snappable for my Chinatown Summer Festival event this weekend, but that’s not a problem Ikea seems to be able to solve, so I’ll go and get something utilitarian at Office Depot or Staples tomorrow, I think.

Busy enough for one day

This morning I took my car to have an expensive alarm installed in my car, and I replaced the CD player that had been stolen. It took them a few hours, so I met with my graphic designer for lunch at Phuket on Queen Anne. We talked about an ad campaign for my Hong Kong candy, and some packaging for organic teas from Taiwan. We also did some exploration at Uwajimaya, looking at how different teas and gift items are packaged.

After that I waited for the Car Toys person to finish up the paperwork... apparently they suffer re-entering the invoices in three different programs that don't talk to each other.

I hurried back home to revise a couple of spreadsheets and sent them off to my contact at the candy company. We talked for an hour about getting some visuals for the ad work, and some displays and other things for the summer festival, and various other logistic details.

Afterword, I changed clothing and went jogging. The weather was pleasant. It seems like I've brought up my mileage average to about 5 miles per run... I ran around Greenlake twice, for 5.6 miles, three times over the last week, and just shy of that the other runs. It's sure not helping my belly much yet, but I'm glad I'm getting my mileage up without aching. I won't push my mileage above that for a couple of months, because the last thing I want to do is re-injure my knee with mediocre health insurance...

The value of a good party

A friend of mine is having a housewarming party today, although she actually moved in to her place about 4 months ago. Earlier this week I had planned to bring some little dish to the party, so this morning I went over to Whole Foods in the Roosevelt area and picked up some maroumi sheep’s milk cheese from Greece, as well as some spinach, onions, and shallots, and a few other things. I made a thick béchamel sauce mixed with eggs, nutmeg, allspice, and the maroumi cheese, sort of like the topping you’d expect on moussaka. I lightly caramelized the onions and shallots, then briefly sautéed the spinach. I also made a simple yeast dough, fairly moist but with relatively low yeast content.

After that I put the spinach filling and the cooked béchamel sauce in low containers to cool in the refrigerator for a few hours.

I wanted to go to the pottery lab to do a little bit of glazing of some work from last quarter. As usual with things pottery, I didn’t quite finish everything I had hoped by the time I needed to leave. I set a couple of things aside and went back home to finish cooking…

Basically I just rolled out a dozen or so small discs of dough and filled them with a little bit of the spinach-onion mixture mixed with some egg, topped with the béchamel sauce, and I closed them up sort of like Chinese buns. I baked them on a stone in my oven until they were brown and smelled nice, and packed them up for the party.

Attending a party as the owner of a small business is a different experience than attending a party as an “engineer” at a tremendously large software company. Meeting someone at a party has, up until now, been a pleasant diversion, a mild form of entertainment. But as a small business owner, every new face is an opportunity… people with job descriptions or educations or backgrounds that were merely interesting in my old life suddenly seem like potential partners, customers, people I can learn something from, or people who can introduce me to someone that might be useful for developing my business. It’s also kind of an opportunity to refine the story of my work. Hopefully I avoided sounding like too much of a salesperson… anyway, my spinach and béchamel buns disappeared, and I met some interesting people, and I don’t think I annoyed anyone too much.

Visiting the pottery town, Mashiko

For a day which I had originally written off as an R&R day, I was incredibly productive.

Somehow Japanese style domestic travel usually means going to be early… Especially if one soaks in a hot springs bath for more than 30 minutes a day. It sort of makes sleep an inevitable event shortly after dinner, unless one has unusual willpower. It also tends to result in early rising… I think I was fully conscious and rested shortly by around 6am this morning. We showered, had breakfast, and packed up, and were on the road by around 9am.

Hiromi had planned a day in Mashiko. For her, it was the first time to visit; I’m kind of a veteran by now, with today being about the fifth or sixth visit for me; ever since my second trip here I’ve led whoever was traveling with me to all my favorite shops.

I managed to abuse my friend as an unpaid interpreter, and did some basic negotiations for ordering pottery under wholesale terms from several of the resellers of pottery in town. I took a ton of photos of things I am interested in buying, and I’ll need to come back here in a week or two so that I can finalize my purchasing decisions, after I’ve arranged for freight forwarding services. I’ll be able to offer some really beautiful pots from some young potters, as well as some impressive but more anonymous pots from the big production studio in town, Yokoyama.

Mashiko ware has incredible variety of styles, mostly because it has a relatively young history as a pottery center; Shoji Hamada basically led the way to the village, encouraging a couple of generations of potters to settle here relatively unconstrained by pervasive traditions common to the legendary kilns (Arita/Imari, Seto, Hagi, Bizen, and so on). There’s a lot more experimentation, influence by foreign potters who found the area more welcoming than most, and the durable legacy of Shoji Hamada’s and Murota Gen’s philosophy of soulfully-created craft ware.

We were encouraged to try Yokoyama’s new café atop the school where they offer wheel-throwing, slab-building and decorating lessons. I had taken a lesson here about a year and a half ago with another friend of mine, and it was the first time to attempt the very humbling wheel-throwing process. I still have evidence of this attempt, and although I still have limited throwing skills after over a year of practice, I’m slightly embarrassed by this “early work.”

I had a mushroom pilaf, which was actually surprisingly tasty, considering how meager my other dining experiences in Mashiko have been up until now. We also shared a sampler of cakes… green tea chiffon cake, chocolate gateau, pumpkin flan (kabocha purin), a maple syrup scone, and pot du crème or panna cotta.

For dinner, we stopped at a rest stop along the highway and I ate two oyaki (pan toasted buns filled with vegetables), and a stick of battered fried small potatoes served with a packet of mayonnaise. Not haute cuisine, but filling enough.

After a long drive back to Tokyo, I settle into the weekly-rental apartment and start to think about how to best make use of a free Monday before the FoodEx show.

Chinatown Festival Day 2: The conclusion

I was a little more aggressive today pitching the products we sell, and the additional energy seemed to help motivate my assistants a bit. We sold a bit more than yesterday, but it was still a bit quieter than this time last year.

I’m hoping that the event will produce some internet orders and it seems like a couple of possible corporate gift customers showed some interest. I didn’t come away any richer than I started the weekend, but it wasn’t too bad.

We had a little dinner at Vegetasia, after drinking tea with proprietor Nancy, which was really nice… some Singapore-style “curry” soup with noodles, slightly acidic, and a dish made with bamboo shoots, fried yuba in nori, and a nice deep-flavored sauce. Nancy also made us some grilled tofu with plum sauce and cilantro as an almost dessert kind of thing.

Actually my lunch was also from Vegetasia… some baozi (steamed buns, these with whole wheat dough) and chimaki (the Japanese name for a leaf-wrapped sticky rice dumpling, this made with chestnuts and some “vegetarian ham”), and a spring roll… I just ordered from their little table in front of the restaurant during the festival.

Busy busy busy

I'm trying to keep up with work, both the logistics/marketing/store display stuff, the follow-up from my trip, and some outside work I took on... I'll put up photos from the last days of my trip as soon as I can handle the distraction.

I can't avoid eating, though. Tonight I made a simple minestrone with turnips, zucchini, the usual soup base vegetables, cannelini, pasta and some finely chopped chanterelles. At the Ballard Market, chanterelles were under $5/pound. I dressed the minestrone with some quickly made basil pesto and a splash of roasted pumpkin seed oil. Yesterday's dinner was penne with eringii, shallots, broccoli and some cream and parmesan, done on a Japanese scale... 2 weeks of paying for minimally subsidized agriculture and expensive distribution networks has made me a little more restrained. But today I made enough minestrone for lunch for the next week, and a big chocolate sesame cake that I shouldn't finish by myself.

Lots of stuff to work on tomorrow... oh, and tonight.

The good news is my jetlag is in check so far... I woke up around 7 this morning with about 6 hours of sleep, and that's an improvement of waking up at 5am with 4 hours. Tonight I'll try to sleep before midnight.

Kuromame and satsumaimo ice cream

Don’t be fooled. This is not your usual vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

Kuromame to satsumaimo ice cream

It’s very wafuu and hip. I’m a trendsetter, I promise.

Actually, I’m a follower, because both of these flavors have been popular in Japan for a fairly long time. But if I bring them to the U.S. first, that makes me hipper than Nobu, right?

On the left is satsumaimo ice cream, one of my perennial favorites. When fall and winter roll around, and Japanese-style sweet potatoes appear, it’s one of the first on my list for seasonal ice creams. I’ve been making it nearly every year since I first got my nifty ice cream maker back in 1999 or so. I don’t have a precise recipe, since the requirements change depending on how sweet my particular sweet potatoes happen to be. But rest assured, you can do it too: cream, milk, cooked (mine were baked) Japanese sweet potatoes (but your yellow ones will do in a pinch), sugar, a hint of vanilla. Use enough sugar so that it’s just a tiny bit sweeter than you’d like to eat at refrigerator temperature, and the frozen result will be just about right. The sweet potatoes should be fork-mashed when their internal temperature is a bit shy of 160 Fahrenheit.

On the right is my deferential nod to the grand inexplicable “kuromame cocoa” (black beans and cocoa) trend in Japan of the last three years or so. I saw several companies promoting products with that flavor at the last two FoodEx shows. Many years ago I saw black sesame cocoa, or kurogoma cocoa, meant to be blended with milk and sugar, which I related to instantly, but koromame cocoa was a bit of a surprising concept for me at first glance. The contrasting flavor bodies against a common element of slight bitterness produce a pleasant, mellow result.

Of course, in the drama-obsessed food culture of the United States, where hitting you over the head with flavors is prized far more than subtlety, it probably will only draw reactions of perplexion from the average food critic, and it will only sell with the truly adventurous on even the trendiest of New York or San Francisco Japanese restaurant dessert menus, but I promise you, it’s a fine combination. It’s as good as the far more ubiquitous “red bean” and far more suitable for surrealist cuisine, which is important if you are into postmodern culinary deceptions.

And why shouldn’t you be? You’re beating the Japanese ice cream manufacturers by at least one food trade show’s worth of flavor development.

As ice cream, it’s also an excellent excuse to use up excess kuromame from osechi season. We were pleased.

Short sweet demo before a politically significant birthday

As customary I did another supermarket demo today, this time at Uwajimaya. No disasters on my part this time, but a young guy, roughly mid-to-late teens, managed to drop a matcha latte sample. His parents must have trained him well, because he not only used the cloth I handed him for the intended purpose of wiping his hands, he also cleaned up after the spill on the counter and floor. I would have done it myself, but I appreciated that I didn’t need to.

I took a rather short day, because I was invited to a birthday party for a local politician at a steel-and-glass house on Lake Washington. Clear, warm weather against wide open doors made for a beautiful afternoon… I didn’t know many people at the party, since my connection with the campaign is one or two low-commitment events. Since I’m fairly inexperienced at political schmoozing it was a bit awkward at first, but eventually I settled in and chatted a bit with quite a few interesting people.

I did nibble a bit at the party, and I brought some dragon beard candy to sample, but at home I made a simple insalata caprese. I had gotten some nice tomatoes yesterday at Central Market at a fairly decent price. But it turns out I’m now out of olive oil…

Kamakura and a day of serious snacking

I got a bit of a late start today, even though I woke up at a reasonable hour.

Around 11am Hiromi drove us to Kamakura. After finding parking, we headed to a place that serves purple sweet potato soft ice cream. We ended up noshing at various streetside vendors… some over-salted senbei (rice crackers), and dorayaki with sweet potato paste in the middle (sort of a stuffed pancake).

Sometime around 3pm we stopped and had a sort of baked rice (kamameshi); mine was made with bamboo shoots. Normally the place we went to is a drinking spot, but we came for the food. It turns out to have pretty nice food. The regulars there all buy whole bottles of shochu (actually Korean soju), whiskey, or other spirits, and they keep the bottles on a shelf labeled, each bottle carefully labeled with the customer’s name.

We stopped at one temple toward the south end of Kamakura and took some photos, and saw some early cherry blossoms and other blooming trees. We also briefly visited one side of the temple leading from the station.

Since we did a lot of snacking and had a late lunch, we weren’t hungry at any normal dinner. Later in the evening we went to an izakaya for a late dinner in Nishi-Shinjuku. We ordered a bitter melon dish made with eggs and tofu, a pretty spicy tofu salad, some “fuki” tempura, and some fried nattou and yamaimo wrapped in nori, and a not very sappari mozuku. We both ordered pomegranate sours, and Hiromi ordered a umeboshi sour and I had a lime one. The pomegranate sour was nice. I’d definitely repeat the nattou dish… it seems like a great dish to confound people with at parties.

Supporting my habit

Cary Tennis: "Your music does not have to support you. In fact, your music might be happier if you were supporting it."

Poignant.

I remember when I started thinking about working in software again, sometime approaching the middle of 2005. I was watching my bank balance shrink and my debt load increase even though my business was starting to see a predictable revenue stream.

My passions and my bank account weren't quite aligned. At that point I had realized I started with too little money, and I knew I had made some early mistakes with my wholesale line of business...  not least of which was having a wholesale business, when my objective was to sell products with compelling origin stories, rather than catering to the risk aversion of retail buyers and merchandising managers.

Hiromi advised against caving in and taking a day job so soon, although my rational faculties were fully aware of the inevitability of needing to supplement my income.

I was happy when I finally saw a project come along that matched my technical interests and personal idiosyncrasies back in the winter of 2005. Although I was a little disappointed that I couldn't devote myself full-time to YuzuMura.com for the time being, I quickly learned to appreciate the freedom to go out to dinner with friends again without worrying about making the rent.

Although it's been a quiet year and a half in terms of developing my business, I've settled into a satisfying rhythm of solving challenging technical problems in the daytime, coming home and taking care of the logistics of a small business, and having the financial freedom to be a bit more self-indulgent than I was two or three years ago. My passions for travel, food, and craft have actually gotten more attention (particularly the first two) since I've had more disposable income again.

Surprisingly, I found that I was better at the software stuff than I was several years back, even though I was theoretically out of practice.

I remember a sleazy-but-well-dressed "Career Consultant" in a fancy downtown Seattle office, who had a low pressure pitch and a high pressure close, trying to sell me on repackaging myself for higher-paying jobs. For a fee, of course.

It was a weak moment for me... When his office called me, I knew I wanted to leave Microsoft, but I also knew I needed to escape the industry for a while and I had other passions I wanted to explore. I almost bought into it.

When I told him I really wanted to get out of software and either run a restaurant or start a business that indulged my passions for food and travel, Mr. Career Consultant told me, in roughly so many words, that I could be committing career suicide if I left the field for two years. (He also told me I'd never leave Microsoft, but I know it was just part of the act when he turned up the pressure).

What he said wasn't true, of course... Smart software companies hire capable people, not just resumes... but I was surprised and delighted to discover that I actually liked the work again. I was even happier to discover that being less emotionally attached to my status, or my career, made it possible for me just to "work the problem" and not only deliver value to my employer but also to enjoy most every day at work... something that wasn't happening at all in my last 18 months as a full-time Microsoft employee.

Although I haven't had as much time or energy to invest in my business as I'd like, I've actually had the financial resources to let it slowly grow, instead of having to cut my early losses and run.

Letting my work support my work has been surprisingly liberating. I make decisions for me, rather than trying to chase after small rewards in service of short term urgencies.

I know I'd have done things a lot differently, faced with the same decisions all over again, if I had the last three years of experience and my bank account of 3 years ago... lessons learned, but I'm not living 3 years ago. I'm just building on what I've got now.

Doing both my work and someone else's work makes it easier to wake up every day... Sometimes it's harder to sleep, but I can guarantee that I'll have something to look forward to the next day. Maybe it will be the joy of solving some esoteric technical problem. Perhaps I'll hear from a customer delighted to find something she never expected, all because of my little web store. Maybe it will be the more base pleasure of being able to spend a few dollars on a good pastry and a coffee without feeling accounting guilt. Maybe it'll be that little trip I'll take to Asia in a few days that's part business, part leisure, part love... and entirely in my own hands.

 

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