Saturday, December 30, 2006


Christmas Cookies Will Give You A Migraine

Every year my friend Debbie and I make a batch of Christmas cookies. She's moved to Chicago, but put in an extra week in New York City to ensure that we'd have our cookie time.

This year we made seven varieties, and discovered two killer ingredients that can make all the difference: eggs from true free range chickens and Sheffern Berger chocolate.

Unfortunately, the cookies also unleashed a beast of a migraine in me.

I haven't had one so awful for the past three years.

Red wine, coffee, lack of sleep, noise, stress and apparently too much chocolate are the main triggers for me. If I screw up the balance of these things, I can set off a firestorm.

I struggle with migraines--and their triggers--every day and have to work around them all to get any kind of writing done. Today was a relatively decent day, the first day I had any energy at all in two weeks. Two weeks! Forget Christmas, forget the lovely meal I had planned, the decorating I wanted to do. It breaks my heart to have missed out on my favorite holiday.

The whole time I was in my migrainous state, I would alternate between deep fatigue and fear that I was never, ever going to get better. Awake, I was dizzy, nauseous and dissociated from the outside world. I took medication to control the pressure in my head, and this made me even more nauseous. I couldn't eat but of course, skipping meals only makes migraines worse. My eye was numb and I had problems with my vision. I would remind myself that the electrical storm had passed before and that it would pass again. I took my pain medication, then found myself rebounding from too many Excedrin. It has been harrowing. I hear that people who have migraines wonder if they are experiencing a stroke or a tumor or a seizure and it's not surprising.

At the peak of my migraine, I occasionally reviewed the chain of events that had led me to this place. I asked myself if it really was worth it to stay up until 2 AM, then drink a strong cup of coffee to wake up the next morning to go to work, then take Excedrin to deal with the inevitable headache, if all these repeated activities were going to inevitably result in a migraine of this nature somewhere down the road. I think that the answer is no. Today I feel as though my New Year's resolution should be to quit coffee, seriously monitor my wine intake, watch my diet (god, no more salami) and control my sleep if I'm going to polish my manuscript.

In other words, I'm going to look like a prude to you.

We value a certain kind of joie de vivre in our culture. We like it when people are flexible and playful and can tell a great joke and handle their alcohol. I remember once reading an article by some guy who swore he "never trusted anyone who wouldn't drink." Because drinking to him was equated with moral worth. Drinkers are cool. Non-drinkers are pussies.

I've gone through phases where I controlled my diet/sleep/socializing before so I know what my new swearing off of fun is going to mean. It is awful to be in a social setting where everyone is drinking, and you know that you really love red wine and you really want a glass, but you are also fighting a migraine pushing up against your right eyeball. And if you have that drink, pain will explode in your head. So, you ask yourself; do you have the drink then go hide in the bathroom with a bottle of Excedrin to get rid of the migraine so you can look socially acceptable, or do you explain for the hundredth time that you don't want to drink? And do you then have to explain that you get headaches and that is why you aren't drinking, and it isn't because you are some uptight prude, which you know deep down inside the jolly person across from you suspects you are.

My Aunt Jane tells me that once upon a time, people thought that allergies were all "in the head." It was just a lack of willpower that caused her son to break into hives when he ate peanut butter. If he were more stoic, there wouldn't be a problem! I think that telling people you are prone to migraines has a similar effect.

Suffering from migraines does have an impact on how I use my time. I have to be able to be creative when my head is clear and when I'm in a writing mode, I want to stay in a writing mode. I don't want to go out and play. So, yes, the jolly guys at the party are right. I come off as pretty serious. But if you had my nervous system, you would be too. You'd plan ahead so you knew you could get some writing done. You'd be pissed off if you wasted 2 weeks to deep fatigue and nausea. You'd want to meet with a friend and have an intense discussion to make the most of the time you have together.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Read This Book


Western writers, not to mention filmmakers, wrestle with two well-worn tropes when portraying Japan. There is the nightmarishly modern landscape with a youth culture that fetishizes things a bit too much, and whose inhabitants, if alienating and silly, at least benefit from a system of enviable efficiency. Other authors are so gob-smacked by Japan’s exotic beauty they hope Buddha himself will notice their “enlightened” sensitivity. In these stories we meet founts of inscrutable wisdom, repressed emissaries of human dignity, instructors of the perfect karate chop: nothing at all, in other words, recognizably human.

What a pleasure it was, then, for me to read a copy of Ellis Avery’s new novel, The Teahouse Fire set in 19th century Kyoto and published this month by Riverhead. Avery neatly resolves the dilemma of the “Western writer writing about beautiful Japan” through her choice of narrator. Plucky Aurelia, aged nine, accompanies creepy uncle Charles, the missionary, from New York to Japan in 1865. Vowing to do something about the icky adults in her life, Aurelia wisely prays at a Shinto shrine for help. The gods listen, but the new life they grant her isn’t necessarily good or bad. This is a Shinto divine intervention, after all, not a Christian one.

In the space of one evening, Aurelia flees Uncle Charles, survives a harrowing fire, and collapses. When she wakes, she finds herself in a pristine Kyoto teahouse run by the Shin family where she is immediately pronounced dirty and in need of a bath. Yukako, the willful Shin daughter, is allowed to “keep” Aurelia. But Aurelia’s status is never clearly defined; sometimes she is a kind of pet, other times a servant, and other times a companion and confidante. This isn’t Oz, where Toto is loyal and the green witch obviously evil. Anyone who has ever wrestled with Japan’s complex social laws will understand the shifting rules which Aurelia must learn to juggle. You anime and manga fans will recognize the wildness of Aurelia’s journey.


Generations of Shin, the latest of whom Aurelia nicknames “the Mountain,” have taught aristocrats the finer points of the tea ceremony, but Japan is changing. The shogunate is soon abolished and the Shin will need to adapt in order to survive. Who better to helm this transition than Yukako, the intelligent daughter who both resists and embraces tradition. It’s a dynamic that exists in Japan today. How much tradition should be saved? How much tradition is authentic and how much is invented? And how well will Aurelia with her pale skin and her strange eyes fit into this new world? Expect no Tom Cruise master-of-the-sword-slaughter-and-survival scenes; Avery is after something far more real and subtle.


Ellis Avery’s research included a stay in Kyoto where studied the tea ceremony, but that alone doesn’t account for her perceptiveness about Japan; she’s simply a keen cultural observer. A geisha (yeah, okay, geiko for you purists out there) composes a letter of apology through a most Japanese haiku. Aurelia, awakened to love, regards it as a red thread binding her to her fate. Avery is also an artist and bestows upon us a beautiful world of embroidered silks, glazes, good posture, grammar lessons and even a socially uppity geisha or two. There’s plenty here for lovers of Japanese aesthetics to feast upon. Here is a novel that is as insightful as it is entertaining, and, most importantly to Japundits, super smart about Japan. I hope you check it out.

First posted at Japundit.

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