Monday, 26 October 2009

Buy this book! And these CDs!

Pardon me for big upping my brother-in-law Justin who has a new book out, but I'm very proud of him and think it's a great accomplishment. Please consider visiting his website and possibly ordering a copy. (Even after seven years in Japan and England, I'm still not very subtle.)

I think the link between music and spirituality is self-evident, and I'm sure most people at one time or another have thought about it. But Justin is such a guy that not only thinks about it, but proceeds to contact over a thousand musicians of all sorts to get their opinion and edit a book about it. And the result is The Spiritual Significance of Music. Amazing. I mean, he's got excerpts from the likes of Stryper  to Sonicflood, Guns N' Roses to Ravi Shankar and Faith No More to Petra. (Is anyone else excited about Petra?!)

And on his website version he's even got an interview with Seattle-based singer-songwriter Josh Ottum, who I happen to know from some good old days hanging out with Jenny and her now husband Jeff and Adam (who make up The Republic) and a box of crazy musical instruments in Jeff's bachelor pad in Queen Anne. That's how underground I am folks.

I'm exhausted after all this shameless promotion. Please go to Justin's site and order your copy.  Then go buy Josh Ottum's new CD and the Republic's CD 'Kingdom of Noise'. You won't regret it.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Thanksgiving come early

Practicing regular thankfulness is an important discipline, because it's much more natural to complain and take things for granted than to appreciate. Every week a group from church meets at our flat for dinner, friendship and prayer. Every week we share one thing we're thankful for, to give God praise and to be encouraged by what's going on in people's lives. Some weeks, when we're not feeling particularly thankful, we have to dig deep, but it's worth it.

This week I made a list of everything I'm thankful for from these past four years in England. Doing this helps me not to live in the future, but realise that one day I'll look back at where I am and think, wow, you had it good. So I might as well think so now.

Here are some things I'm thankful for this week...

Monday, 19 October 2009

Red Velvet

Last Wednesday night I whipped up some red velvet cupcakes to bring in to work. Red Velvet is a bit of a shocker in England, and the reception is a fine line between suspicion and delight.

The first time I made red velvet, I was under an illusion that I could create a natural, wholesome, organic version using beetroot. So I did a test kitchen and, (surprise, surprise) no luck. If you want the kind of red cake I want, you've got to dive deep into E numbers.  The result is stunning. Artificial, but stunning. My ultimate compliment was when my friend Emily told me she dreamed about my red velvet cake. How do you beat that?!

So, next on the cupcake agenda is preparing for the November Iron Cupcake competition. The theme this month is 'spice', and I'm out of ideas.

I've already used up my spiciest recipes: Cinnabon cupcake and Chai Tea Latte cupcake.  I don't want to do pumpkin pie. Help! The only thing I can think about is a Spice Girls cupcake, so you can see that I need some assistance.

If anyone has suggestions for a spicy lil' cupcake please let me know! Or even just unorthodox spice combos. I'm open for suggestion.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Osusume Sushi!

I've been going through an unrelenting sushi phase recently.

It started when Dan and I went to Soseki in the city (next to the Gherkin) on our anniversary for a seven-course Japanese meal. Dan said it's the best meal he's had in London (and he's eaten a LOT), so high praise indeed. I loved that we got to eat in our own little pagoda and that our waitress actually was Japanese (rare in London). I think that if you're looking for a memorable place to eat - and you like sushi - this is the place.

So once I caught the bug, I couldn't stop.

Last week we went out to a place called Mura in Marylebone (50% discount with our Taste London card!), which also very good, and a bit cheaper.

Cheapest of all (and still high quality) is the Japan Centre in Piccadilly Circus. At 8pm the sushi prices are slashed in half and everyone goes crazy scrounging for their meals. And at £1.50 for sushi I was right there in with them.

The Japan Centre just moved to a new building down the street and dutifully I'm planning to go test run it on Monday.

If anyone else has good other Japanese recommendations in London they're much appreciated.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Neon milk

There's more where this comes from on Dan's new blog, Neon Milk. Please stop by and say hi.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Reading Rainbow: The Blue Sweater

Jenny inspired me to write a book report on my latest read, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Book reports used to be one of my favourite parts of being in school, so even though I'm not getting graded on this, know that I'm taking great pleasure in it.

In a nutshell, the books documents the journey of a twenty-something idealist as she learns to change the world with a 'soft heart and a hard head' (ie sentiment alone isn't helpful). It does it in a way that's inspirational rather than preachy, and I welled up twice.

I really enjoyed this book because of all the stories Jacqueline tells. In 1987 she went to Rwanda for two years to help set up a lending programme with and for poor women, and the characters really suck you into their lives. When she goes back after the genocide and meets with the survivors she'd worked with, it's fascinating to see how each played a part in the horrors of 1994 - as victim, perpetrator and bystander. One of the women who worked to set up the programme had played a senior role in the genocide, and it's interesting to hear how people who've done amazing things for good can morph because of power and do awful things.

I also liked her emphasis on listening to what the people you're trying to help are saying, rather than thinking you know all the answers. This should be obvious, but isn't. It reminds me of the entry in the Stuff White People Like blog about how white people (or any middle-class person for that matter) like knowing what's best for poor people. I had to laugh how this entry mentions that white people like to think that if poor people could, they'd all shop at Whole Foods rather than McDonalds or Wal-Mart, just because that's what white people like. Jacqueline is constantly saying that instead of telling people what they should do, we should listen to what they want to do.

She tells a story of trying to distribute mosquito nets to tackle the huge problem of malaria in a certain African country (I think Tanzania). Instead of just distributing them for free and watching them get unused or become ineffective after six months, she works with a local producer and distributor to sell them at market value. She hires reps to sell them to local women in a fashion very similar to Tupperware parties. Her most effective rep gives her sales pitch, convincing the women they need one because the nets are beautiful, show you love your family, and keep the bugs from buzzing in your face all night. Then she demonstrates how easy and luxurious it is to use. In her sales pitch, there's no mention of should. People in the developing world are people just like us, and respond better to things like beauty, dignity and comfort rather than being told what to do.

I think it's refreshing to hear about how capitalism can be harnessed for good, but needs to be harnessed. Depending on the point of view, capitalism is either seen as completely evil or else the be-all-end-all magic bullet to every world problem. It's of course neither, and I like how the author recognises how to use market forces for good.

I think this is a good book for anybody to read, whether you're bent on changing the world, exhuasted trying to or completely apathetic. If you do read it, let me know what you think.

Anyone read any good books lately, noble or not?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The London List

I think a lot of people know this already, but if all goes well with US immigration, Dan and I may be packing up our life in England by Christmas. England's given us four good years, but it's time to move on. The plan just keeps getting better and better too... Instead of heading straight to America to jump into the stress of job, flat, and car-hunting, we've decided to take a breather in between. So naturally, we're going to New Zealand.

Dan's parents live in Auckland, and we haven't seen them in three years! Plus, NZ will be in the throes of summer – why didn't we think of this earlier?! Also, it can be difficult to think about the next season in life when you're in the thick of the current one. Our time in NZ will hopefully give us some perspective on what's next. So, we're not moving to New Zealand, we're just going to hang out there for a bit before moving to Los Angeles.

Having an end date makes me appreciate London so much more, because I know I have to make the most of it. Now, rather than spending Saturdays watching nine episodes of the West Wing (which is perfectly legitimate), we're waking up early (around 10) and ticking things off our London list.

The London list is a live document, so please give me any suggestions. In a year's time I don't want to think back, regretfully ruing the fact that I never made it to Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Or that I missed out on a market or coffee shop or any other hidden gem.

So, this is not comprehensive, but it's a start...

The London List

Victoria & Albert museum!
Cabinet War rooms (Churchill's WWII HQ preserved)
Transport museum (to buy old-school underground maps)
Victoria Park village
The London eye (? undecided, it's a £25 ferris wheel!)
Leather Lane Market
Exmouth Market
every instance of good coffee
good pubs
Mildred's (on Lexington)
Kew Gardens
Richmond Park
Broadway Market & London Fields
Borough Market
Tate Modern
Falkiner's Paper shop in Holburn
Cabbages & Frocks market in Marylebone
Soseki Japanese restaurant

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Recovering from fashion anorexia

I hate and fear winter. I think winter in England is particularly oppressive because when I go to work it's dark, the sun shines for a bit, then gets tired and it's dark again by 3pm. When you don't have a car and you're waiting for buses in the cold it seems unfair. So as a protest act I usually wear my flip flops as long as possible and delay getting my winter coat out of reverse hibernation until it's absolutely essential. This year I'm thinking of getting a new winter coat, as I'm not sure I can bear busting out the four year old grey thing that is now more functional than anything else. I thought I'd scatter my jacket pinings throughout this entry, but it's really about recovering from fashion anorexia.

My old gray coat is symbolic to me of having absolutely no money when we first moved to Birmingham four years ago. It was a really hard time financially (and in lots of ways), but through it we also learned some great lessons about contentment & simplicity. It was forced on us, but slowly I really got into this idea of living with less and less, rather than more and more like society instructs us. After a few years, when I'd go home to America and go to a mall it just seemed so gross and indulgent and selfish. Plus, I had just started working at an international development NGO, so it's easy to succomb to this mentality of 'who am I to place importance on what I wear when 5,000 children die each day because they don't have proper toilets?!'.

At some point my simplicity became a fixation, a source of pride almost. I become subtley addicted to not buying things. I'd get a mini-high from being too good for materialism. Like, look how righteous I am not caring about my clothes or not wearing any make-up. But really, people didn't think I was holy, just disheveled, or ill. With this addiction came resentment, because my personality isn't Amish.

I heard a great story about a woman that we work with in the DRC - one of the most difficult places to live in the world. She had made some money from a loan our partner organisation had lent her. And with that money, do you know what she bought? A handbag! At first I was like, whoa, that's a bit indulgent...a handbag - lady you need to prioritise. Then it dawned on all of us: this woman had lived in poverty and conflict her whole life, and if she wants to buy a handbag, let the woman buy a handbag dammit! Because a handbag for her was about dignity, expression, creativity and not merely surviving.

(I love this coat in black!)

As I've been recovering the creativity that was squashed in the last few years (plug for The Artists Way by Julia Cameron), I'm starting to recognise again how important fashion is, that it's not holy to have a dull and ratty wardrobe. (I'm not talking about £500 handbags here, I'm talking about a new dress from H&M!)

I know I'm a bit odd. I tend to struggle with issues that are polar opposite to 'mainstream' problems (like, 'help! I'm addicted buying shoes'-ism). I'm just trying to navigate my way between two things I really value:

Creativity, style, expression, empowerment, design


Simplicity, justice, contentment, and sustainability.

They often feel in tension, but I think they're integrated somehow.

Has anyone else been unhealthily addicted to consumer-deprivation?
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