May 2009 Archives

Retail Therapy

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For the last couple of days I've been out of sorts and down. Before I started my year of not shopping, I probably would have gone browsing at stores and purchased some little bauble or toy to cheer myself up. That's quite a common thing to do. It even has a name, retail therapy. I don't know a single person who doesn't practice it at least sometimes.

I thought about retail therapy as I indulged in my own therapy yesterday - eating lunch out while doing my Japanese homework - and had some thoughts about why we shop to try to feel better. Shopping isn't good therapy in the least. However, it does supply:

We need space and time away from our problems. Retail environments offer lots of distractions, including mood-setting music, eye-catching displays, demos and testers to explore, and other shoppers to watch. Oh, shiny kittens!

Whether these distractions help us process our issues in the background of our minds or just keep us from finding a resolution may depend upon the situation. Problem solving often benefits by distraction so that the subconscious can reach the eureka moment, but this only applies when one can solve the problem solo. If the problem is of the relationship variety, I think shopping becomes procrastination of a difficult conversation with another person, or avoidance of action or therapeutic thought.

New things are exciting. They promise a better future, an easier life, an improved you. The anticipation of listening to a new album, the beauty claims of a face mask, the imagined compliments from wearing the latest fashion all offer a mental lift and mood boost. Whatever is distressing us in the rest of our world can be momentarily forgotten as we fantasize about ourselves with this new object.

But future-building via acquisition rarely comes to much. After playing with, listening to, wearing, or using the item we bought, it's likely that we are back to our original unhappy state. Unless we gained some insight from playing/listening/wearing/using it, nothing is changed. Or worse, we're disillusioned because the hope placed in the improvement and curative power of the purchase didn't come to anything after all. Worse yet, the item broke or didn't function as it was designed. Hope truly shattered.

Being part of a group helps us feel better about ourselves and makes our problems seem smaller. When we become the proud owner of a new iPhone, BMW, Gap sweater, or the latest novel by Haruki Murakami, we join a tribe of people who also bought these things. We are connected both to other owners and to the company that spawned the products. We associate with a brand image; we are now a cool hipster; someone who has made it in the world; on-trend but practical; a quirky intellectual.

Real connections and community are important, but the connection we get from shopping is pretty shallow. We are one of 14 million iPhone owners. Aside from earning profit via our wallet, any corporation wants little to do with us. Shopping doesn't build connections that help our troubles much after the initial glow of association.

Shopping puts us in control when our life feels a mess. It gives us something to "do". Retail therapy involves lots of small actions based on personal decisions - where to shop, what to look at, when to make a buy, which color/size/model to choose, whether to pay in cash or on credit - and while they are mostly minor choices, they are still decisions to be acted on. Making a decision and following through with it is empowering.

Maybe empowerment explains the crux of retail therapy and its extreme cousin, shopaholic behaviour. "Gee, I might not be able to get a promotion/stop my husband from drinking/cure my aunt's illness, but I can buy this pretty green shirt and shoes to match. Yes, I'll do that." This same action and control factor plays a role in eating disorders, too.

Is consumerism in general a huge blanket for soothing society's and individual's woes, fears and sadness? Now that is a depressing thought. What do others think about this?

I was sure that retail therapy would be a subject of great exploration and research, but there isn't much on this topic, at least not on the Internet. Paco Underhill is a subject expert with books like Why We Buy and Call of the Mall. I found a 2004 paper by Andy Pratt at the London School of Economics that starts out calling retail therapy "anti-therapy" but quickly moves into academic jargon like "acceptance of the quasi-anthropological dictum" and is actually discussing economic analysis of consumption.

In less academic circles, a report from Cotton, Inc's Lifestyle Monitor explains that women like the social aspects of shopping together. Discovery Health claims that women experience pleasure and power when they shop to improve their environment and express creativity. An ABC News article about a 2008 study says feeling sad leads to self-centered thinking and higher spending when shopping. Not to be outdone, CBS News discusses the release of dopamine in the shopping brain, creating a shopper's high. There's a Guardian article about how the walking involved in shopping is a health benefit.

So I am glad that I am not shopping as a therapy. Doing my homework offered the distraction, hope, connection and action that shopping might have, but didn't cost anything, improved my Japanese vocabulary, and inspired this writing, too.

Hip Hop Revolution


You can teach an old girl new tricks, but she might strain herself learning them. I'm taking a hip-hop dance workshop with some of my hooping friends. I crack myself up with my middle aged white girl moves but it is even fun when I am flailing, you know what I'm saying?

Hip-hop isn't quite what I anticipated. It's athletic, graceful and spunky all at the same time.

Our instructor, Virg, is good dancer. He is smooth and straight and relaxed all at the same time. He pushes hard without looking like he's working at all. I watch him carefully to see exactly what nuances make his dance so good. I am slowly picking up on them, even though I can't do them yet.

It's hard to describe the moves, exactly. There are a lot of unexpected influences including outright mimicking motions like some we did tonight:

Picking up a basketball and shooting it;
Pushing your shoulders to the side and downward, sort of like Marcel Marceau plays molecule in a very small box;
Lifting yourself up by the shirt;
Being pushed from behind and stumbling forward

And then there were steps that evoked something for me, but it wasn't hip-hop: a backwards hoedown step; a Russian line dance; Steve Martin's "wild and crazy guy" Somehow I think I am not quite getting it.

Anyway, I might not entirely get it, but I've learned two routines in two classes. I tried hooping some of the steps and they sort of work. Amanda figured our a beautiful way of using one of the arm motions continuously. It has applications, you know what I'm saying?

Pistachio Biryani

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This is an adaptation from a wonderful cookbook called The Complete Encyclopedia of Vegetables and Vegetarian Cooking. I saw it at the library recently and had to have my own copy because I knew if I borrowed it, I'd never take it back. Every recipe in the book looks great; this is the first one I tried. I selected it at random and it was as good as I'd hoped. It's called "Pistachio Pilaf in a SpinachCrown" but it is really a biryani with pistachios. I've adapted it slightly for Japanese ingredients.

Pistachio Biryani
serves 4

Rice Part
2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground corriander
1/4 tsp saffron threads
2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp ginger, grated
2 green togarashi, minced (or fresh green chiles)
2 T olive oil
2 carrots, grated
1 1/4 c basmati rice
1/4 c pistachios
1/2 tsp salt

Spinach Part
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp garam masala
3 bunches spinach (~250g/1 lb), roughly chopped
1 T olive oil

Mix together the stock, coriander, cinnamon stick & salt. Crush the saffron threads through your fingers and add to the stock. Set aside while you prep the carrots, onions and other bits.

Fry the onion, garlic, ginger and togarashi/chiles in olive oil until the onion starts to turn translucent. Add the carrot and rice. Cook for a minute or two, then pour in the seasoned stock. Bring the rice mixture to a boil, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to stand uncovered for 5 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and stir in the pistachios.

While the rice is resting, prepare the spinach part. Fry the onion and garlic in the oil until the onion is slightly browned. Add the spinach and garam masala. Cook until spinach is tender. Drain.

Arrange the spinach around a platter; mound rice inside the ring. Goes well with a tomato salad.

Spotted Laundry

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A ballpoint pen somehow ended up in a basket of mixed colored laundry. Now the colors are even more mixed. My beige underwear, pink t-shirt, and a few unmatched socks are poxy with flecks of blue.

I'm not shopping so I won't replace them. Here is my chance to make do or do without. The underthings aren't really a problem but the pink t-shirt, one of my favorites, presents a challenge. Possibly the ink will fade after a few more washes, but maybe I can embellish it with sequins on the ink stains and pick out a pattern in between them?

Ink-inspired constellations!

Thredcotts? Northgolds?

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Tracey & Ashley were married on Sunday in one of the most joyous weddings ever seen.

It poured down rain in the morning, but by the time we reached the venue, the rain had stopped. The ceremony was lovely and the party afterward was a real treat - scrumptious dinner, toasts and speeches, a live swing band, a hoop performance (of course the bride hooped) and lots of dancing and wine.

I didn't take pictures at the wedding or the hen's night on Thursday nor the cocktail party on Friday, but there are some shots on their wedding website, Ashley and Tracey 2009, and plenty on Facebook. I am excited to see the official photos that Jim took and the video Aya shot; they were both working hard to capture everything.

Since the wedding, I have enjoyed touring around Tokyo with Ashley's family. I've tagged along on quite a few of their outings - Oedo Onsen Monogatari on Monday, Askausa and Ginza on Tuesday, down to seem MJ in Hiratsuka yesterday, and later today Jo & I are hooping in Hibiya park with Deanne. It's been a lot of fun to see everyone again and I hope I'll make it down to Adelaide for Tracey & Ashley's second wedding later this year.

Teru Teru Zouzu



Tomorrow is Tracey & Ashley's wedding and the weather forecast is calling for rain. To try to ward it off, we've hung two teru teru bozu weather amulets, but Zoupi wanted to try to help, too, so tonight he is teru teru Zouzu. He's waving around in the wind, waiting for the weather to change.

So keep your fingers crossed, or better yet hang up a little ghosty friend and hope the bozu-tachi brings us good weather.

No Shopping Report #5

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This has been a bad month for not shopping. I experienced some shopping marathons, but all done for love.

It started in the airports on the way to the US for Maureen's wedding. I didn't buy anything except juice and crappy food, but the whole airport experience is set up to separate you from your money. Shops market impulse purchases to tired, weak people with time to kill. Who else would buy those lame souvenirs? Disgusting. Put me in a bad mood for the rest of the trip.

Weddings require a lot of purchases. In addition to a half-day ingredient excursion to Costco and various supermarkets, there was a trip to JoAnne Fabrics for draping material, a bunch of hoop supplies purchased at Home Depot, little pots of bubbles, garden lights, and myriad other bits and bobs. And that was just Maureen's wedding.

When we returned to Tokyo, it was time to prepare for Tracey & Ashley's nuptials. Tracey's hen's party, which we enjoyed last night, has also been a buying overload. I was able to reuse some of the fabric from Maureen's wedding to make costumes for karaoke, but I didn't have enough time or material to make them all so a trip to the Donki discount chain was necessary. While I was browsing cheap wigs and animal costumes, I saw a man masturbating while staring at the girls buying maid costumes. This is not unusual there. Disgusting shopping on another level entirely.

Since I've never been to a hens/bachelorette party, I had no idea what to do. Thanks to the Internet, I decided that a crown for the bride seemed a necessity, so I made a confection of beads, wire and veiling. And we needed games so that everyone would get a present or a prize. I hit up the 100 yen shop for a bunch of "junky-dos" as my Grandmom use to call them. Prizes included origami paper, gauze towels, zebra-print stockings, roasted plums, and odd bits of stationery. Silly things that peole smiled about.

Gifts have been a troublesome aspect of not shopping. Earlier in the year, I decided not to buy any, period. But I regret that decision because it means that I didn't send my mother flowers on my birthday like I usually do. I wish I had. For Tod's birthday I was able to buy consumables - lots of nice bath products - but I caved in for Elliot Mason's first birthday and got him a bunch of summer outfits from a shop. At least wedding gifts are easy; cash is definitely consumable.

I did have one spot of strength this month. I thought I would need to buy a pair of shoes to go with the coral colored dress I am wearing to Tracey's wedding on Sunday. This is the dress that was to be the prototype for Amanda's wedding dress. It is a fun party dress and I am excited to wear it but coral is not a color I have anywhere else in my wardrobe, so I don't have shoes that match it. Black's too dark; silver is too cool grey and I have no dressy white shoes. I actually went out to look for shoes but there was nothing suitable. Thank goodness! I ended up making some shoe clips for the silver shoes from dress scraps and old hair clips. The silver shoes are transformed into exactly the right thing. Shoe clips are a retro miracle.

I think the coming month will be much, much easier than the past four weeks. No weddings, no birthdays and no other events to run. I have more hoops than I need. I can content myself with refashioning my summer wardrobe if I want something "new" to play with. I only need to consider gardening expenses. More on that next month.

Swine Flu Check & Recheck


When we returned from the US on April 28, it was the very beginning of the swine flu scare.

Our plane was boarded by half a dozen officials who handed out questionnaires about our health. They were followed a man in a mask, gloves and surgical gown who walked through the plane with a thermographic scanner while the rest of his team realised they should have been wearing masks and ran off to change costumes before handing out the rest of the forms.

Eleven days after we landed, when the flu would have had sufficient time to incubate, I received a phone call from the government's special "fever clinic." They were checking up on us. Had we felt any flu symptoms since we returned? I was able to assure them that we were healthy and not feverish.

Interestingly, the four cases of H1N1 here in Japan are all from one school trip to Canada. There is also a student in China who returned from Canada with the flu. I wonder if they had the same vector? Watch out for those school trips to Canada, I guess.

WHO says there are now just about 6,000 confirmed cases worldwide. That is not even 0.001% of the world's 6.7 billion people. And with about 60 deaths in 6,000 people, H1N1 has a 1% death rate, which is about the same mortality rate as simply being over 60 years old.

I think we can all calm down now.

Men vs Women: Party Planning Edition

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The difference between planning a bachelor party and a hen's night is enormous, I've discovered.

The boys decided to go classic and will take Ashley to a dodgy strip club and out for drinks. So last week, two of them did a reconnaissance mission (that lasted until 3 am) and then made a couple of phone calls to their mates by way of invitations. Done and dusted!

Girls need more than passive entertainment to have a memorable night. My hen's night party plan is threefold - first a dance lesson, then dinner (both of which are open to the gentlemen), and finally costumed karaoke.

I know I tend towards too much preparation and I honestly tried to keep this to a minimum. Despite that, I have a spreadsheet of attendees because not everyone can make the whole night and I don't want to leave anybody behind. I researched venues, made reservations, organised discounts, sent invitations, pinged people with reminders, answered questions, and prepared a map. On the night there are vendors to be paid, money to be collected, and change given out. This morning I packed a suitcase full of costumes, prizes, and treats. I hope it is enough. Maybe I should work on one more activity; I probably have time and it would make the party more fun.

Yes, it's an epic amount of preparation but it is all done with love and best wishes for the bride. But maybe next time, I'll plan the bachelor party instead.

Mung Bean Breakfast

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Morning Mung

This recipe comes from my friend Abhijit in Delhi so I am sure it has a proper Indian name, but we call it Mung Bean Breakfast. Sprouted mung beans burst with vitality - just the thing to get your day off to a good start. You'll need to start the beans sprouting a few days before breakfast, so plan ahead.

Mung Bean Breakfast
serves 3-4

150g mung beans
1 onion
1/4 lemon
1/2 tsp salt
dash chili powder
dash cayenne pepper
drizzle sesame oil
oil for frying

Slice the onion into thin strips. Fry in a bit of oil until just soft. Toss in the mung beans and cook for a few minutes. Season with salt, chili, cayenne, lemon. Finish with a tiny bit of sesame oil.

How to sprout mung beans

Rinse the dust off of the beans. Soak them in water for four hours or overnight. Drain the beans, wrap them in a damp towel and set them in a dark place. Twice a day, rinse the beans and redampen the towel. The beans will sprout in a day and continue to grow. For this recipe, I like to use them at about 3 days when the roots are just 2 or 3 centimeters long.

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