Saturday, May 31, 2008

Navigating the Bumpy Terrain of the Superflat

Friday I went on a guided tour of the current Takashi Murakami exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.  I joined a small group arranged by Japan Society to see ©Murakami, the Japanese artist's installation that exhibits a chronology of his work from past to present, details his merging of art and commerce, and defines him as a brand name.  Although my husband and I saw this exhibit when it first opened here, being guided through it for a second time was both informative and refreshing.  From the guide we learned how the museum worked with Murakami to design the layout of the installation based on space and functionality.  Basically, the artist has total control of his work and how it is presented.  In fact, our guide mentioned "total control" several times during the tour.  He said it matter-of-factly, not maliciously, but it gave a lot of insight into the museum's preparation for the exhibit.  

As far as the actual artwork, I was blown away by the scale, vibrant color, and flatness of the pieces.  The flatness of his work is a key element of Murakami's artistic philosophy, which he calls Superflat.

My favorite work, however, is not physically flat at all.  It's Mr. Pointy and the Four Guards, a 22-foot tall fiberglass sculpture that sits in the Brooklyn Museum's lobby.  Cute and playful, Mr. Pointy and his companions are obvious references to Buddhist conventions.  The Mr. Pointy in this installation is one of four created by Murakami; another was displayed outside Rockefeller Center in 2003.

My introduction into the art of Takashi Murakami was at Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, although I didn't know at the time that the postcards I purchased at the Tokyo City View gift shop were designed by him.  A couple of years later, I experienced the Little Boy exhibit that Murakami curated for Japan Society, and he became my new favorite artist.  He draws me in with his cute characters, but I stay engaged with his political commentary on Japan, religion, and war. Through his company, Kaikai Kiki, he promotes his artwork and himself as well as his stable of artists.  He is often criticized by many Japanese for being a sell-out, but for some reason, it doesn't bother me.  Perhaps his art is enough for me to look past the fact that he enjoys making money.  But who doesn't?  I helped Murakami make more money by purchasing a few items at the museum store:

After the tour, our group walked a few blocks to Gen restaurant, where we were provided a set meal.  On the menu: vegetable curry soup, tempura lotus root with salmon, chirashi over wild rice, and our choice of entree dish - mine was salmon teriyaki with avocado - with green tea and a cold drink.  Since I was pressed for time because of work, I had to pass on the cold sake cocktail as well as dessert.  Despite being in a slight rush, I still enjoyed myself, but I do regret that I didn't have time to return to the museum to watch Murakami's Kaikai Kiki animations. The exhibit doesn't end until July 13, so there's still time to go back. 

One interesting thing I learned from a couple of Japanese ladies on the tour is that kikikaikai, the inverse of Murakami's company Kaikai Kiki, means the equivalent of "spooky" in Japanese. The ladies actually struggled to assign the word "spooky" as the exact translation; they mentioned the concept of "being dark and strange" as well.  I looked up kikikaikai in both my translator and Japanese-English dictionary, but didn't find an entry for it in either place.  Since the ladies who told me this are Japanese, I trust them, and I think Murakami's company name could be a play on words.  Even though his work is awfully cute, there is a spooky element to it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Downward Dog Diary

Eventually the soreness in my muscles will subside.  I hope.  My yoga class is kicking my butt, and I couldn't be happier about it.  I'm amazed that I'm even attending these classes at my gym because I've been self-conscious about things like that for as long as I can remember.  I'm not the most graceful person on earth, and I worried too much that my clumsiness would bring the class to a halt while everyone laughed at me.  Because of that, for years I practiced yoga solo, watching TV programs and DVDs and reading about poses in books and magazines.  Although I impressed myself for trying this, I didn't know if I did the poses correctly.  Plus, when I encountered a pose I didn't particularly like, I simply didn't do it.  You can't escape that in a class.  Of course, if I'm unable to do the pose, I can go into child's pose (curl up into a ball) and re-join the class when ready, but I put more effort into it when other people are watching. 

The best thing about taking a class is that the instructor corrects everyone's alignment, ensuring the accuracy of the poses.  The slightest adjustment is insightful and deepens what I'm learning.  Another difference between yoga with a group versus yoga at home is that I've noticed the way I count is somewhat shorter than the instructor's.  He'll say, "Hold this pose for five breaths."  To me, five breaths is quick, but in yoga it's an eternity, especially when I'm twisted up like a pretzel.

I love sharing my practice in class and learning and growing and surprising myself with the things my body can do.  I'm still clumsy, but the class hasn't stopped because I fell over.  It's challenging and athletic with cleansing results.  But my muscles still ache.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Japanese Is Better

I should be fluent in Japanese.  In a previous post, I mentioned that my mom is from Okinawa.  Other than counting to ten and saying "please" and "thank you", I didn't learn to speak my mom's native tongue.  It's something that she and I both regret to this day.  I've been studying the language for nine years now, but I'm nowhere near where I should be, which is fluent.  I'm fine when doing my homework or composing an e-mail to one of my cousins in Okinawa because I have time to think and access to my textbooks and dictionaries. But I'm worthless in situations where I'm put on the spot, such as during my lesson when my teacher asks me a question in Japanese!  

Every Wednesday morning my sensei (teacher) comes to my apartment and spends almost two hours teaching me one of the most complicated languages in the world.  She's a great teacher and a delightful person, so I often feel guilty that I'm such a bad student.  I love the Japanese language and want to excel at speaking and writing and comprehending it, but I lack that something that will make me more confident.  My month-long stay in Japan this September should help that.  Or at least the thought of spending a month in Japan will motivate me to buckle down and etch my weekly lessons into my brain.  

During the last couple of weeks, the class has been devoted to  sakura hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, Japan's main event in the spring.  After reading a passage in the textbook I'm about to finish, I was charged with the task of writing an essay about Japan's big craze of the fall, which is momijigari, or "hunting autumn leaves."  I love the imagery of the kanji (Chinese characters) for momiji: 紅葉.  Individually, the characters mean "red" and "leaf".  Isn't that nice?  If I have a free minute tomorrow, I'll post my essay.  In the meantime, I have a new homework assignment for next Wednesday: Describing the scenes in six pictures (all relating to sakura hanami) and brushing up on all 20 chapters of my textbook for a review.  I should've started learning Japanese 39 years ago!

A reader posted a comment to my previous entry and said something that I thought was very interesting.  He said that he doesn't know how to explain the way we (meaning native English speakers) say certain things in English to non-native speakers (in his case, to his Japanese friend).  I encounter that occasionally with my sensei, who speaks excellent English, and with my mom, who has lived in the States for more than thirty years.  Of course, I can't think of anything specific at this moment, but when I do, I'll post it here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Grammatically Speaking

I love grammar.  I'm a stickler for it.  An obnoxious stickler.  I'm such a stickler that last year I started listening to grammar podcasts.  One of my favorites is by Grammar Girl.  Each week she concentrates on a theme that is usually inspired by the many e-mails and phone messages she receives from listeners who have grammar questions.  I don't always agree with her, but I usually learn something.  The podcasts are brief, so if you have a few minutes every Friday and want to brush up on your writing and speaking skills, download Grammar Girl from iTunes.  

Earlier today I read the most recent comments from her listeners, and I was shocked by how many entries were littered with grammatical errors.  One of the worst culprits was an English teacher!  I couldn't believe it.  At least this person cares enough to listen to Grammar Girl and posts questions on her forum, but if an English teacher uses poor grammar, then we're all in trouble!  That's just wrong!  I usually become enraged when faced with glaring grammatical mistakes such as misspellings (or typos), misplaced commas, etc.  Reading this forum, however, didn't make me mad.  I felt almost sad for some reason.

Here is a grammar flub that made -- and continues to make -- my blood boil:

The graphic above, which appeared during an American League Division Series game broadcast on TBS in October 2007, is a quote taken from the Bergen Record, a New Jersey newspaper.  The mistake in the graphic is small to some, but it's glaring to me:  "a lot" is TWO WORDS!  Perhaps the graphics operator typed this verbatim from the newspaper article, but it's still a mistake.  In that case, the operator could have -- and should have -- typed the quote so that it's grammatically correct, using brackets to indicate that an edit was made.  

". . . I think we are paying him [a lot] of money . . ."

There's one thing about this quote that left me wondering.  I wasn't sure about the use of a hyphen between the words "highest" and "paid", as in "He's the highest-paid manager in baseball."  My first instinct is to assume that this construction is correct because in this sentence two words are being combined to form an adjective describing another word.  It's called a compound modifier.  I checked a few sources to find more info.  My conclusion is that the structure in question is correct with or without the hyphen because I ran into a couple of confusing explanations.  Webster's New World Pocket Style Guide advises to use the hyphen in a compound modifier "in which the second element is a present or past participle", which "paid" is.  However, the book later states not to use the hyphen in a compound modifier "when the first element is a comparative or superlative", which "highest" is.  Hmm. Strunk & White's The Elements of Style says that the hyphen is necessary in this case.  The AP Stylebook, if I understand it correctly, advocates the use of the hyphen as well.  It seems to me that this is, as Grammar Girl would say, a style issue.  I like the hyphen in this case because I use it with other compound modifiers, whether or not a superlative or a participle is involved.  Had the person who typed the graphic left out the hyphen, I wouldn't have been mad, but I am mad about "alot".

Disclaimer: I want to explain that my job entails the typing of graphics such as the one displayed above, and I may actually know the person who typed it.  This could've been simply a typo caused by rushing to build the graphic and not an example of someone who didn't know any better.  In either case, I hope I didn't offend anyone by calling out the error because I know I'm guilty of the occasional typo, too.  


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day to my mom!  Even though I give her a hard time and don't always speak to her using a patient and respectful tone of voice, I consider her one of my heroes.  As a child growing up in Okinawa, she survived World War II and eventually married an American GI.  Her life is a wonderful story,  yet much of it remains a mystery to me because she has been hesitant to tell it.  When pressed, she'll offer a few nuggets of info here and there, but she remains otherwise silent about the bulk of her life.  I'll drag it out of her one day. . .

She still lives in my hometown in North Carolina, and I'm up here in New York, so I wasn't able to spend Mother's Day with her.  I sent her a gift and called her today.  It's times like these that I wish I lived closer.

Friday, May 9, 2008


Just finished filing my report for the advisory council of a Japanese cookbook.  This is a new avenue for me, and I'm excited about it.  I don't think I would classify myself as an excellent cook, but I've been trying to do more around the kitchen.  Learning to cook Japanese cuisine is a great motivator, but it's also extremely exhausting!  There is a lot of preparation involved in cooking a Japanese meal:  making stock, soaking vegetables, peeling and julienning, marinating, etc.  I suppose one has to do that in any style of cuisine, but, as I mentioned earlier, I'm not exactly a cook!  Anyway, to explain the advisory council . . . I'm one of many people who volunteered to try out several recipes to help a cookbook author write her latest book.

The cookbook author is Elizabeth Andoh, a native New Yorker who has spent forty or so years in Japan.  During that span she completely absorbed the language, cuisine, and culture of the country and runs A Taste of Culture, a cooking school based in Tokyo and Osaka.  I've had the good fortune to attend her lectures at Japan Society and take a cooking class at the New School here in New York, but my favorite encounter with her was a tour of a Japanese grocery store in Tokyo.  I know that sounds strange, but it was a fascinating experience.  I'll blog about it in the future, but I must sign off for now.  Tomorrow is going to be a long day at work. 'Night.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A Necessary Evil

In Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes's blog, teammate and guest blogger Morgan Ensberg writes that "TV contracts are a really big deal in baseball" and that waiting for the television commercial breaks to end "drives all of us crazy."  Well, yeah, the TV contracts are a really big deal.  The players may hate to stand around and wait for the commercial breaks, but those breaks serve several purposes.  Broadcasting the games allows fans all over the country to watch their favorite teams play and helps increase the overall fan base of Major League Baseball, which generates large dollars for the teams.  Not only do the commercials pay for the airing of the games that Ensberg and his fellow big leaguers play, but it gives fans at home -- assuming they don't have a TiVo or other such recording device -- a chance to run to the bathroom and get snacks between innings.  Fans at the stadium have time to do the same things.  The breaks also help the people working in the TV trucks update the graphics and edit the replay packages that enhance the viewers' enjoyment of the game.  While it may seem agonizing for the players, a lot is happening during those ninety seconds.  And what's a couple of minutes to guys playing a three- to four-hour game?  Besides, they're millionaires, so they should just deal with it.

Let's Baseball!

In four months, my husband, Marc, and I will embark on a month-long vacation in Japan.  Hooray!  The first part of our trip will be attending baseball games in different cities throughout the country.  The tour is organized by  The idea of experiencing Japanese baseball sounded great to me, but we weren't sure if we wanted to go on the actual tour.  Marc and I aren't the kind of people who like to vacation with tour groups.  Having a set schedule that requires us to meet in the hotel lobby at 9, eat breakfast at 9:30, get on a bus at 10:00, go to this museum at 11:00, go to that museum at 12:00, etc. just isn't our style.  We like to wander off the beaten path and lose ourselves in a quaint neighborhood. Getting lost is a great way to discover the true culture of a place.  The JapanBall folks, however, assured us that we would have as much independence we wanted during the free time we have before each game.  And with that, we were sold.  

The scope of the baseball tour is vast.  We will see games in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka and go sight-seeing in Kyoto and Hiroshima.  That's quite the itinerary for one week!  In addition to studying Japanese (which I've been doing for several years now), I'm researching the teams we're going to see as well as the cities we're visiting.  Marc and I have been to each of these cities with the exception of Nagoya -- unless you count four hours at the airport in 2001 as visiting a city -- but I always learn more about a place each time I go.

The rest of our stay in Japan is up in the air: a few days in Okinawa to visit my mom's family, more time in Tokyo, a trip to a city we haven't seen.  I enjoy the challenge of planning a trip like this, and I invite readers of this blog who have been to Japan to post suggestions.