I’m still not sure I made the right choice when I told my wife about the bakery attack. But then, it might not have been a question of right and wrong. Which is to say that wrong choices can produce right results, and vice versa. I myself have adopted the position that, in fact, we never choose anything at all. Things happen. Or not.
If you look at it this way, it just so happens that I told my wife about the bakery attack. I hadn’t been planning to bring it up—I had forgotten all about it—but it wasn’t one of those now-that-you-mention-it kind of things, either.
What reminded me of the bakery attack was an unbearable hunger. It hit just before two o’clock in the morning. We had eaten a light supper at six, crawled into bed at nine-thirty, and gone to sleep. For some reason, we woke up at exactly the same moment. A few minutes later, the pangs struck with the force of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. These were tremendous, overpowering hunger pangs.
Our refrigerator contained not a single item that could be technically categorized as food. We had a bottle of French dressing, six cans of beer, two shriveled onions, a sitck of butter, and a box of refrigerator deodorizer. With only two weeks of married life behind us, we had yet to establish a precise conjugal understanding with regard to the rules of dietary behavior. Let alone anything else.
I had a job in a law firm at the time, and she was doing secretarial work at a design school. I was either twenty-eight or twenty-nine—why can’t I remember the exact year we married?—and she was two years and eight months younger. Groceries were the last things on our minds.
We both felt too hungry to go back to sleep, but it hurt just to lie there. On the other hand, we were also too hungry to do anything useful. We got out of bed an ddrifted into the kitchen, ending up across the table from each other. What could have caused such violent hunger pangs?
We took turns opening the refrigerator door and hoping, but no matter how many times we looked inside, the contents never changed. Beer and onions and butter and dressing and deodorizer. It might have been possible to sauté the onions in the butter, but there was no chance those two shriveled onions could fill our empty stomachs. Onions are meant to be eaten with other things. They are not the kind of food you use to satisfy an appetite.
“Would madame care for some French dressing sautéed in deodorizer?”
I expected her to ignore my attempt at humor, and she did. “Let’s get in the car and look for an all-night restaurant,” I said. “There must be one on the highway.”
She rejected that suggestion. “We can’t. You’re not supposed to go out to eat after midnight.” She was old-fashioned that way.
I breathed once and said, “I guess not.”
Whenever my wife expressed such an opinion (or thesis) back then, it reverberated in my ears with the authority of a revelation. Maybe that’s what happens with newlyweds, I don’t know. But when she said this to me, I began to think that this was a special hunger, not one that could be satisfied through the mere expedient of taking it to an all-night restaurant on the highway.
A special kind of hunger. And what might that be?
I can present it here in the form of a cinematic image.
One, I am in a little boat, floating on a quiet sea. Two, I look down, and in the water I see the peak of a volcano thrusting up from the ocean floor. Three, the peak seems pretty close to the water’s surface, but just how close I cannot tell. Four, this is because the hypertransparency of the water interferes with the perception of distance.
This is a fairly accurate description of the image that arose in my mind during the two or three seconds between the time my wife said she refused to go to an all-night restaurant and I agreed with my “I guess not.” Not being Sigmund Freud, I was, of course, unable to analyze with any precision what this image signified, but I knew intuitively that it was a revelation. Which is why—the almost grotesque intensity of my hunger notwithstanding—I all but automatically agreed with her thesis (or declaration).
We did the only thing we could do: opened the beer. It was a lot better than eating those onions. She didn’t like beer much, so we divided the cans, two for her, four for me. While I was drinking the first one, she searched the kitchen shelves like a squirrel in November. Eventually, she turned up a package that had four butter cookies in the bottom. They were leftovers, soft and soggy, but we each ate two, savoring every crumb.
It was no use. Upon this hunger of ours, as vast and boundless as the Sinai Peninsula, the butter cookies and beer left not a trace.
Time oozed through the dark like a lead weight in a fish’s gut. I read the print on the aluminum beer cans. I stared at my watch. I looked at the refrigerator door. I turned the pages of yesterday’s paper. I used the edge of a postcard to scrape together the cookie crumbs on the tabletop.
“I’ve never been this hungry in my whole life,” she said. “I wonder if it has anything to do with being married.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe not.”
While she hunted for more fragments of food, I leaned over the edge of my boat and looked down at the peak of the underwater volcano. The clarity of the ocean water all around the boat gave me an unsettled feeling, as if a hollow had opened somewhere behind my solar plexus—a hermetically sealed cavern that had neither entrance nor exit. Something about this weird sense of absence—this sense of the existential reality of non-existence—resembled the paralyzing fear you might feel when you climb to the very top of a high steeple. This connection between hunger and acrophobia was a new discovery for me.
Which is when it occurred to me that I had once before had this same kind of experience. My stomach had been just as empty then….When?…Oh, sure, that was—
“The time of the bakery attack,” I heard myself saying.
“The bakery attack? What are you talking about?”
And so it started.
“I once attached a bakery. Long time ago. Not a big bakery. Not famous. The bread was nothing special. Not bad, either. One of those ordinary little neighborhood bakeries right in the middle of a block of shops. Some old guy ran it who did everything himself. Baked in the morning, and when he sold out, he closed up for the day.”
“If you were going to attack a bakery, why that one?”
“Well, there was no point in attacking a big bakery. All we wanted was bread, not money. We were attackers, not robbers.”
“We? Who’s we?”
“My best friend back then. Ten years ago. We were so broke we couldn’t buy toothpaste. Never had enough food. We did some pretty awful things to get our hands on food. The bakery attack was one.”
“I don’t get it.” She looked hard at me. Her eyes could have been searching for a faded star in the morning sky. “Why didn’t you get a job? You could have worked after school. That would have been easier than attacking bakeries.”
“We didn’t want to work. We were absolutely clear on that.”
“Well, you’re working now, aren’t you?”
I nodded and sucked some more beer. Then I rubbed my eyes. A kind of beery mud had oozed into my brain and was struggling with my hunger pangs.
“Times change. People change,” I said. “Let’s go back to bed. We’ve got to get up early.”
“I’m not sleepy. I want you to tell me about the bakery attack.”
“There’s nothing to tell. No action. No excitement.”
“Was it a success?”
I gave up on sleep and ripped open another beer. Once she gets interested in a story, she has to hear it all the way through. That’s just the way she is.
“Well, it was kind of a success. And kind of not. We got what we wanted. But as a holdup, it didn’t work. The baker gave us the bread before we could take it from him.”
“Not exactly, no. That’s the hard part.” I shook my head. “The baker was a classical-music freak, and when we got there, he was listening to an album of Wagner overtures. So he made us a deal. If we would listen to the record all the way through, we could take as much bread as we liked. I talked it over with my buddy and we figured, Okay. It wouldn’t be work in the purest sense of the word, and it wouldn’t hurt anybody. So we put our knives back in our bag, pulled up a couple of chairs, and listened to the overtures to Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman.”
“And after that, you got your bread?”
“Right. Most of what he had in the shop. Stuffed it in our bag and took it home. Kept us fed for maybe four or five days.” I took another sip. Like soundless waves from an undersea earthquake, my sleepiness gave my boat a long, slow rocking.
“Of course, we accomplished our mission. We got the bread. But you couldn’t say we had committed a crime. It was more of an exchange. We listened to Wagner with him, and in return, we got our bread. Legally speaking, it was more like a commercial transaction.”
“But listening to Wagner is not work,” she said.
“Oh, no, absolutely not. If the baker had insisted that we wash his dishes or clean his windows or something, we would have turned him down. But he didn’t. All he wanted from us was to listen to his Wagner LP from beginning to end. Nobody could have anticipated that. I mean—Wagner? It was like the baker put a curse on us. Now that I think of it, we should have refused. We should have threatened him with our knives and taken the damn bread. Then there wouldn’t have been any problem.”
“You had a problem?”
I rubbed my eyes again.
“Sort of. Nothing you could put your finger on. But things started to change after that. It was kind of a turning point. Like, I went back to the university, and I graduated, and I started working for the firm and studying for the bar exam, and I met you and got married. I never did anything like that again. No more bakery attacks.”
“Yup, that’s all there was to it.” I drank the last of the beer. Now all six cans were gone. Six pull-tabs lay in the ashtray like scales from a mermaid.
Of course, it wasn’t true that nothing had happened as a result of the bakery attack. There were plenty of things that you could easily have put your finger on, but I didn’t want to talk about them with her.
“So, this friend of yours, what’s he doing now?”
“I have no idea. Something happened, some nothing kind of thing, and we stopped hanging around together. I haven’t seen him since. I don’t know what he’s doing.”
For a while, she didn’t speak. She probably sensed that I wasn’t telling her the whole story. But she wasn’t ready to press me on it.
“Still,” she said, “that’s why you two broke up, isn’t it? The bakery attack was the direct cause.”
“Maybe so. I guess it was more intense than either of us realized. We talked about the relationship of bread to Wagner for days after that. We kept asking ourselves if we had made the right choice. We couldn’t decide. Of course, if you look at it sensibly, we did make the right choice. Nobody got hurt. Everybody got what he wanted. The baker—I still can’t figure out why he did what he did—but anyway, he succeeded with his Wagner propaganda. And we succeeded in stuffing our faces with bread.
“But even so, we had this feeling that we had made a terrible mistake. And somehow, this mistake has just stayed there, unresolved, casting a dark shadow on our lives. That’s why I used the word ‘curse.’ It’s true. It was like a curse.”
“Do you think you still have it?”
I took the six pull-tabs from the ashtray and arranged them into an aluminum ring the size of a bracelet.
“Who knows? I don’t know. I bet the world is full of curses. It’s hard to tell which curse makes any one thing go wrong.”
“That’s not true.” She looked right at me. “You can tell, if you think about it. And unless you, yourself, personally break the curse, it’ll stick with you like a toothache. It’ll torture you till you die. And not just you. Me, too.”
“Well, I’m your best friend now, aren’t I? Why do you think we’re both so hungry? I never, ever, once in my life felt a hunger like this until I married you. Don’t you think it’s abnormal? Your curse is working on me, too.”
I nodded. Then I broke up the ring of pull-tabs and put them back in the ashtray. I didn’t know if she was right, but I did feel she was onto something.
The feeling of starvation was back, stronger than ever, and it was giving me a deep headache. Every twinge of my stomach was being transmitted to the core of my head by a clutch cable, as if my insides were equipped with all kinds of complicated machinery.
I took another look at my undersea volcano. The water was even clearer than before—much clearer. Unless you looked closely, you might not even notice it was there. It felt as though the boat were floating in midair, with absolutely nothing to support it. I could see every little pebble on the bottom. All I had to do was reach out and touch them.
“We’ve only been living together for two weeks,” she said, “but all this time I’ve been feeling some kind of weird presence.” She looked directly into my eyes and brought her hands together on the tabletop, her fingers interlocking. “Of course, I didn’t know it was a curse until now. This explains everything. You’re under a curse.”
“What kind of presence?”
“Like there’s this heavy, dusty curtain that hasn’t been washed for years, hanging down from the ceiling.”
“Maybe it’s not a curse. Maybe it’s just me,” I said, and smiled.
She did not smile.
“No, it’s not you,” she said.
“Okay, suppose you’re right. Suppose it is a curse. What can I do about it?”
“Attack another bakery. Right away. Now. It’s the only way.”
“Yes. Now. While you’re still hungry. You have to finish what you left unfinished.”
“But it’s the middle of the night. Would a bakery be open now?”
“We’ll find one. Tokyo’s a big city. There must be at least one all-night bakery.”
We got into my old Corolla and started drifting around the streets of Tokyo at 2:30 a.m., looking for a bakery. There we were, me clutching the steering wheel, she in the navigator’s seat, the two of us scanning the street like hungry eagles in search of prey. Stretched out on the backseat, long and stiff as a dead fish, was a Remington automatic shotgun. Its shells rustled dryly in the pocket of my wife’s windbreaker. We had two black ski masks in the glove compartment. Why my wife owned a shotgun, I had no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn’t explain and I didn’t ask. Married life is weird, I felt.
Impeccably equipped, we were nevertheless unable to find an all-night bakery. I drove through the empty streets, from Yoyogi to Shinjuku, on to Yotsuya and Akasaka, Aoyama, Hiroo, Roppongi, Daikanyama, and Shibuya. Late-night Tokyo had all kinds of people and shops, but no bakeries.
Twice we encountered patrol cars. One was huddled at the side of the road, trying to look inconspicuous. The other slowly overtook us and crept past, finally moving off into the distance. Both times I grew damp under the arms, but my wife’s concentration never faltered. She was looking for that bakery. Every time she shifted the angle of her body, the shotgun shells in her pocket rustled like buckwheat husks in an old-fashioned pillow.
“Let’s forget it,” I said. “There aren’t any bakeries open at this time of night. You’ve got to plan for this kind of thing or else—”
“Stop the car!”
I slammed on the brakes.
“This is the place,” she said.
The shops along the street had their shutters rolled down, forming dark, silent walls on either side. A barbershop sign hung in the dark like a twisted, chilling glass eye. There was a bright McDonald’s hamburger sign some two hundred yards ahead, but nothing else.
“I don’t see any bakery,” I said.
Without a word, she opened the glove compartment and pulled out a roll of cloth-backed tape. Holding this, she stepped out of the car. I got out my side. Kneeling at the front end, she tore off a length of tape and coverered the numbers on the license plate. Then she went around to the back and did the same. There was a practiced efficiency to her movements. I stood on the curb staring at her.
“We’re going to take that McDonald’s,” she said, as coolly as if she were announcing what we would have for dinner.
“McDonald’s is not a bakery,” I pointed out to her.
“It’s like a bakery,” she said. “Sometimes you have to compromise. Let’s go.”
I drove to the McDonald’s and parked in the lot. She handed me the blanket-wrapped shotgun.
“I’ve never fired a gun in my life,” I protested.
“You don’t have to fire it. Just hold it. Okay? Do as I say. We walk right in, and as soon as they say ‘Welcome to McDonald’s,’ we slip on our masks. Got that?”
“Then you shove the gun in their faces and make all the workers and customers get together. Fast. I’ll do the rest.”
“How many hamburgers do you think we’ll need? Thirty?”
“I guess so.” With a sigh, I took the shotgun and rolled back the blanket a little. The thing was as heavy as a sandbag and as black as a dark night.
“Do we really have to do this?” I asked, half to her and half to myself.
“Of course we do.”
Wearing a McDonald’s hat, the girl behind the counter flashed me a McDonald’s smile and said, “Welcome to McDonald’s.” I hadn’t thought that girls would work at McDonald’s late at night, so the sight of her confused me for a second. But only for a second. I caught myself and pulled on the mask. Confronted with this suddenly masked duo, the girl gaped at us.
Obviously, the McDonald’s hospitality manual said nothing about how to deal with a situation like this. She had been starting to form the phrase that comes after “Welcome to McDonald’s,” but her mouth seemed to stiffen and the words wouldn’t come out. Even so, like a crescent moon in the dawn sky, the hint of a professional smile lingered at the edges of her lips.
As quickly as I could manage, I unwrapped the shotgun and aimed it in the direction of the tables, but the only customers there were a young couple—students, probably—and they were facedown on the plastic table, sound asleep. Their two heads and two strawberry-milk-shake cups were aligned on the table like an avant-garde sculpture. They slept the sleep of the dead. They didn’t look likely to obstruct our operation, so I swung my shotgun back toward the counter.
All together, there were three McDonald’s workers. The girl at the counter, the manager—a guy with a pale, egg-shaped face, probably in his late twenties—and a student type in the kitchen—a thin shadow of a guy with nothing on his face that you could read as an expression. They stood together behind the register, staring into the muzzle of my shotgun like tourists peering down an Incan well. No one screamed, and no one made a threatening move. The gun was so heavy I had to rest the barrel on top of the cash register, my finger on the trigger.
“I’ll give you the money,” said the manager, his voice hoarse. “They collected it at eleven, so we don’t have too much, but you can have everything. We’re insured.”
“Lower the front shutter and turn off the sign,” said my wife.
“Wait a minute,” said the manager. “I can’t do that. I’ll be held responsible if I close up without permission.”
My wife repeated her order, slowly. He seemed torn.
“You’d better do what she says,” I warned him.
He looked at the muzzle of the gun stop the register, then at my wife, and then back at the gun. He finally resigned himself to the inevitable. He turned off the sign and hit a switch on an electrical panel that lowered the shutter. I kept my eye on him, worried that he might hit a burglar alarm, but apparently McDonald’s don’t have burglar alarms. Maybe it had never occurred to anybody to attack one.
The front shutter made a huge racket when it closed, like an empty bucket being smashed with a baseball bat, but the couple sleeping at their table was still out cold. Talk about a sound sleep: I hadn’t seen anything like that in years.
“Thirty Big Macs. For takeout,” said my wife.
“Let me just give you the money,” pleaded the manager. “I’ll give you more than you need. You can go buy food somewhere else. This is going to mess up my accounts and—”
“You’d better do what she says,” I said again.
The three of them went into the kitchen area together and started making the thirty Big Macs. The student grilled the burgers, the manager put them in buns, and the girl wrapped them up. Nobody said a word.
I leaned against a big refrigerator, aiming the gun toward the griddle. The meat patties were lined up on the griddle like brown polka dots, sizzling. The sweat smell of grilling meat burrowed into every pore of my body like a swarm of microscopic bugs, dissolving into my blood and circulating to the farthest corners, then massing together inside my hermetically sealed hunger cavern, clinging to its pink walls.
A pile of white-wrapped burgers was growing nearby. I wanted to grab and tear into them, but I could not be certain that such an act would be consistent with our objective. I had to wait. In the hot kitchen area, I started sweating under my ski mask.
The McDonald’s people sneaked glances at the muzzle of the shotgun. I scratched my ears with the little finger of my left hand. My ears always get itchy when I’m nervous. Jabbing my finger into an ear through the wool, I was making the gun barrel wobble up and down, which seemed to bother them. It couldn’t have gone off accidentally, because I had the safety on, but they didn’t know that and I wasn’t about to tell them.
My wife counted the finished hamburgers and put them into two shopping bags, fifteen burgers to a bag.
“Why do you have to do this?” the girl asked me. “Why don’t you just take the money and buy something you like? What’s the good of eating thirty Big Macs?”
I shook my head.
My wife explained, “We’re sorry, really. But there weren’t any bakeries open. If there had been, we would have attacked a bakery.”
That seemed to satisfy them. At least they didn’t ask any more questions. Then my wife ordered two large Cokes from the girl and paid for them.
“We’re stealing bread, nothing else,” she said. The girl responded with a complicated head movement, sort of like nodding and sort of like shaking. She was probably trying to do both at the same time. I thought I had some idea how she felt.
My wife then pulled a ball of twine from her pocket—she came equipped—and tied the three to a post as expertly as if she were sewing on buttons. She asked if the cord hurt, or if anyone wanted to go to the toilet, but no one said a word. I wrapped the gun in the blanket, she picked up the shopping bags, and out we went. The customers at the table were still asleep, like a couple of deep-sea fish. What would it have taken to rouse them from a sleep so deep?
We drove for a half hour, found an empty parking lot by a building, and pulled in. There we ate hamburgers and drank our Cokes. I sent six Big Macs down to the cavern of my stomach, and she ate four. That left twenty Big Macs in the back seat. Our hunger—that hunger that had felt as if it could go on forever—vanished as the dawn was breaking. The first light of the sun dyed the building’s filthy walls purple and made a giant SONY BETA ad tower glow with painful intensity. Soon the whine of highway truck tires was joined by the chirping of birds. The American Armed Forces radio was playing cowboy music. We shared a cigarette. Afterward, she rested her head on my shoulder.
“Still, was it really necessary for us to do this?” I asked.
“Of course it was!” With one deep sigh, she fell asleep against me. She felt as soft and as light as a kitten.
Alone now, I leaned over the edge of my boat and looked down to the bottom of the sea. The volcano was gone. The water’s calm surface reflected the blue of the sky. Little waves—like silk pajamas fluttering in a breeze—lapped against the side of the boat. There was nothing else.
I stretched out in the bottom of the boat and closed my eyes, waiting for the rising tide to carry me where I belonged.
“How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make? Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions? Will you follow dogma, or will you be original? Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure? Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions? Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize? Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love? Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling? When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless? Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder? Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?”—Jeff Bezos (via azspot) (via jesuisperdu)
THERE, in all of their Fourth of July glory, are 101 grilling ideas begging to be tried. A vast majority take less time to prepare and grill than it takes to watch your coals turn white. (If you use gas, they’re still almost as fast as heating up the grill.) Some of them feature ingredients like corn, eggplant and tomatoes, which will be better a month from now, at least in the Northeast. But there are also suggestions for foods in season right now that not everybody thinks of putting on the grill. Please note that salt and pepper are (usually) understood.
Vegetables and Fruits
1. A winter dish, summer style: Brush thick slices of fennel bulbs with olive oil and grill over not-too-high heat. Cut oranges in half and grill, cut-side down. Put fennel on a bed of arugula or watercress, squeeze grilled oranges over top. Garnish with fennel fronds.
2. Best grilled artichokes: Cut artichokes in half, scoop out the choke, parboil until tender. Grill, cut-side down, until lightly browned; grill a couple of halved lemons, too. Combine the juice from the grilled lemons with melted butter and spoon over the artichokes. Finish with parsley.
3. Tahini tofu steaks. Thin tahini with lots of lemon juice and some minced garlic. Cut a brick of firm tofu into four slabs and brush with sesame oil. Grill over a moderate fire, turning a few times, until marked and crisp outside and custardy inside. On the last turn, baste with the tahini sauce. Serve on thick tomato slices with a drizzle of soy sauce and chopped basil, Thai if possible.
4. Spice-rubbed carrots: Roll peeled carrots in cumin, salt, pepper and brown sugar. Char, then move them away from direct heat and cover the grill until carrots are tender.
5. Grill bread; grind in a food processor to make coarse bread crumbs. (You can add garlic and/or parsley and/or Parmesan, or not.) Grill asparagus until tender. Top with bread crumbs and olive oil.
6. Brush slices of beet with olive oil and grill slowly until tender and lightly browned. Top each slice with a little goat cheese and some salad greens.
7. For perfectly ripe tomatoes only: Grill tomatoes, any size, until hot and lightly charred but not bursting. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve with fresh mozzarella (or, even better, burrata) and grilled bread.
8. Halve and grill radicchio (or Belgian endives); drizzle cut sides with honey or plain vinaigrette, pesto or parsley pesto. Or just brush with oil and finish with a little grilled prosciutto.
9. Grilled guacamole: Halve and pit avocados; lightly char them, then scoop out the flesh. Grill halved red onion, too. Chop, combine, add tomatoes, lime, garlic and spices if you like.
10. Grill corn. Serve with mayo with minced garlic, pimentón and parsley.
11. Grill more corn. Serve with curry-powder-laced yogurt and minced onion.
12. Grill corn again. Serve with coconut milk, cilantro and mint.
13. Root vegetable of your choice: Slice celeriac — or jicama, big potatoes, daikon or yams — and grill slowly, until very tender and browned. Drizzle with olive oil or melted butter and sprinkle with chopped rosemary or sage and olive oil.
14. Choose another root. Slice it, but this time char lightly and leave it crunchy. Chop and toss with chopped cilantro, a pinch of cayenne and juice of grilled lime.
15. Rub thick zucchini slices with a mixture of fresh or dried dill, yogurt, olive oil and lemon. (Or use pesto or parsley pesto.) Grill slowly.
16. More shopping than cooking: Grill an array of radishes on little skewers, four to six each. Serve with butter, salt and bread.
17. Halve Belgian endives. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill over moderate-to-low heat, turning once or twice, until soft and browned. Finish cut-side up and sprinkle with grated Parmesan; close the grill to melt cheese.
18. Lightly char whole or halved heads of baby bok choy; drizzle with soy sauce and top with chopped scallions.
19. Peel and thickly slice a not overly ripe mango. Brush very lightly with neutral oil and grill just until softened; sprinkle with cilantro and/or mint and lime juice (you might as well grill the lime first, too).
20. Grill pineapple (or anything, really, from pork to tofu to eggplant). Make a sauce of half-cup peanut butter, a tablespoon (or more) soy sauce, a dash (or more) sriracha chili sauce, a handful of basil or mint and enough warm water to thin. (I’m tempted to say, “Throw away the pineapple and eat the sauce,” but the combination is sensational.)
21. Waldorf salad revisited, sort of: Grill cut apples until browned but not mushy; grill chunks of Napa or savoy cabbage, also left crisp; grill halved red onion. Chop or shred all together with blue cheese, walnuts and a little yogurt.
22. Cut a slit in as many ripe figs as you like; stuff with herbed goat cheese (or cream cheese mixed with chopped nuts) and grill slowly. Appetizer or dessert? Your call.
23. Grill red, orange and/or yellow peppers; toss with olives, capers, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
24. Quick grilled pickle: Rapidly char thick slices of cucumber; toss with salt, vinegar and sugar; let sit for 15 minutes, then drain.
25. Charred salsa verde. Toss whole husked tomatillos, scallions and jalapeños in olive oil and grill until charred. Remove the blackened skin from the chilies and chop or blend everything with diced avocado, lime juice and cilantro. Eat with chips or top grilled chicken with it.
26. Mideast lamb chops: Shoulder cuts are the best and the cheapest; just don’t burn them. Marinate them briefly in yogurt, lemon, cardamom and mint. Serve with lemon and parsley.
27. Midwest pork chops: Again, shoulder; again, don’t burn. Marinate briefly in spicy mustard, chopped garlic and apple cider.
28. Six-minute steak (or maybe four): Salt skirt steak and grill it, quickly. Top with queso fresco, thinly sliced red onion (you could grill it first, if you like) and the juice of grilled lime.
29. Six-minute steak, plus a little marinating time: Soak skirt steak in a mixture of soy, lime juice, garlic, ginger and sugar (or mirin) before grilling. (The time it takes to heat the grill is long enough.)
30. Smear chicken leg quarters (or thighs) with a paste of garlic, chopped rosemary (thyme, too, if you like), olive oil and the juice of grilled lemon. Grill away from heat, covered; crisp briefly over high heat.
31. Steak au poivre: Sirloin strip is ideal. Press lots of cracked black pepper into both sides, sprinkle with salt and grill over fairly high heat, about three to four minutes on each side. Slice quarter-inch thick before serving.
32. Crisp (and better) duck à l’orange: Score the skin of duck breasts and press rosemary leaves, salt and pepper into both sides. Grill skin-side down over low-ish heat until crackly, then turn and grill briefly. Serve with grilled orange halves.
33. Smear hanger, skirt, flatiron or other steak with mustard. Grill and serve with grilled shallots.
34. Brush chicken thighs — boned or not — with basil, parsley or cilantro pesto. Boneless and skinless thighs can be grilled over direct heat; thighs with skin should be started away from heat.
35. Fast lamb leg: Use steaks cut from the leg, and rub them with a mix of warm spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon and turmeric. Grill quickly, serve hot.
36. Spread flank steak or butterflied lamb leg with garlic, parsley and lemon zest. Roll and tie, or fold. (Or grill without further fuss, adding more paste occasionally.)
37. Moist grilled chicken breast? Yes: Pound chicken breast thin, top with chopped tomato, basil and Parmesan; roll and skewer and grill over not-high heat until just done.
38. Call it grilled chicken Parm: Pound breast thin, top one side with sliced tomato, mozzarella and Parmesan; fold in half, seal with a toothpick or skewer and grill for a few minutes on each side.
39. Pork (or veal) saltimbocca: Pound pork or veal cutlets thin; top with ham (prosciutto preferably) and cheese (maybe Gruyère). Roll, cook on skewers and serve with pickles.
40. Slice pork shoulder thin. Fry lots of sesame seeds, minced garlic, fresh minced chili in sesame oil; off heat, stir in some soy sauce. Grill the pork fast over high heat, smearing with the sesame paste right after flipping. Serve with lettuce leaves and cilantro, basil and/or mint for wrapping.
41. Bacon-wrapped hot dog. You know you want one.
Fish and Shellfish
42. Grill thick onion slices; purée in a blender with olive oil and lemon juice. Grill scallops for about four minutes; serve with the vinaigrette.
43. Salmon tartare with grilled stuff: Lightly grill radishes, scallions, lime halves and, if you like, plantain disks. Serve the plantains under, and the other things next to, chopped raw salmon (preferably wild) seasoned with salt and pepper.
44. Grill sardines or mackerel; serve with a squeeze of grilled lemon, grapefruit or both.
45. Stuff whole gutted trout with slices of lemon and chopped marjoram or oregano. Wrapping in bacon is optional. One per person is best.
46. Not so easy, but so impressive: Stuff squid bodies with chopped chorizo (optional), garlic-toasted bread crumbs, lemon zest and parsley. Close with toothpicks. Char quickly over a very hot fire.
47. Shrimp, Part 1: Rub with chili powder and salt, and grill quickly. Finish with cilantro and the juice of grilled lime halves.
48. Shrimp, Part 2: Rub with olive oil, salt and cumin. Finish with the juice of grilled lemon halves; garnish with chopped marjoram, if you have it, parsley if you don’t.
49. Shrimp, Part 3: Rub with curry powder. Drizzle with warm coconut milk and chopped mint, basil and/or cilantro.
50. Grilled tuna niçoise: Brush tuna with olive oil and grill; keep it rare. (You might grill some new potatoes while you’re at it.) Serve with more olive oil, lemon juice, cherry tomatoes, olives, grilled red onion and parsley. Green beans and hard-cooked eggs are optional.
51. Grilled clams on the half shell: Get them shucked (or cook in the microwave or on the grill until opened); top with bread crumbs, parsley, lemon, minced cooked bacon (optional). Grill until topping is hot.
52. You think you don’t like bluefish? Grill it, then drizzle with a mixture of chopped fennel fronds (or crushed fennel seeds), melted butter and the juice of grilled grapefruit or orange.
53. White fillets with spice: Mix salt, sugar, chili powder and paprika. Rub on sturdy white fish fillets (make sure the grill grates are clean and well oiled).
54. Buy shucked oysters. Top with juice of grilled lemon. Period. (You could grill shallots, mince and make a grilled mignonette, but this is better.)
55. Grill soft-shell crabs, brushing with melted butter and Tabasco. A little charring of the claw tips isn’t a bad thing.
56. Simmer octopus tentacles until tender (this may take a couple of hours); cool. Grill; cut into attractive little rounds and drizzle with lemon and olive oil.
57. Grill wild salmon (preferably king or sockeye) until not-well-done. Toss diced cucumbers with fresh dill, olive oil and lemon juice. Serve salmon hot, slaw cold.
58. Shrimp and chorizo. Serve with lemon or a little vinaigrette.
59. Lamb and carrots. In last few minutes, brush with miso thinned with a tiny bit of mirin (or sherry, wine or water).
60. Lamb and onions. Brush with a mixture of cumin and olive oil as they sizzle. You can add bell peppers, too, but somehow the stark minimalism of this is pleasing.
61. Odd, but good: Strawberries and cherry tomatoes, finished with basil-laced balsamic vinegar.
62. The New Yawk special: Italian sausage, peppers and onions.
63. The California special: Figs, with chunks of good bacon.
64. Kebab or hero? Your choice: Cut brussels sprouts in half; grill slowly on skewers, with chunks of sausage. Both slowly crisp as they cook.
65. Bread salad on a stick: Cubes of bread, black olives and cherry tomatoes. Don’t grill too long, and drizzle with basil or thyme or parsley vinaigrette.
66. Peaches, plums, strawberries and watermelon. Finish with a sprinkle of salt and perhaps a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
67. Cubes of mango and chunks of white fish; brush with a mixture of soy, fish sauce, sriracha chili sauce and chopped mint or cilantro. Serve with a mai tai.
68. Go Hawaiian or Italian: Wrap pineapple or melon in prosciutto. Grill briefly.
69. Grilled coleslaw: Lightly char wedges of green and red cabbage and carrots. Let cool, then shred and toss with a little mayo, vinegar, salt and sugar.
70. Grill halved new potatoes or fingerlings (microwave or parboil first for a few minutes to get a head start), red onions and scallions. Chop as necessary and toss with chopped celery, parsley, mustard and cider (or other) vinegar. I make this annually.
71. Toss grilled Lacinato kale leaves with a little Caesar salad dressing (or olive oil, lemon and Parmesan) and grilled croutons.
72. Char iceberg wedges and cherry tomatoes (skewer these first). Top with blue cheese dressing.
73. Lightly grill ripe figs; brush with balsamic. Chop and toss with arugula and blue cheese. Sprinkle with olive oil.
74. Steak salad with almost no steak: Halve endives or radicchio; brush with oil and grill. Sprinkle with bits of blue cheese and bits of charred steak.
75. Ratatouille: Grill chunks of zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms, eggplant, onion and tomatoes (or use cherry tomatoes), all until lightly browned and perfectly tender. Toss with fresh marjoram or oregano, thyme, basil and olive oil.
76. Greek salad burger: Ground lamb with grated feta, chopped calamatas and a little oregano. Top with tomato, red onion and cucumber.
77. The pickled onions make it: Soak sliced red onions in diluted vinegar and salt while you prepare everything else. Combine ground lamb with grated carrots and cumin; grill, then top with onions.
78. Asian burger: Grind pork, combine with grated daikon and a little soy sauce. Brush with hoisin or miso and top with sliced-and-salted cucumbers.
79. Grind beef, combine with crumbled blue cheese and chopped toasted walnuts. Top, if it doesn’t sound too effete, with sliced grilled pear.
80. A chicken or turkey burger worth eating: Cook and chop bacon; mix with ground chicken (or turkey) and grill.
81. Another: Grind turkey, combine with chopped basil, shove a cube of mozzarella into the center, grill until well done (the cheese will melt). Top with tomato and more basil.
82. Grind salmon (actually, it’s better if you grind half and chop half) and combine with chopped scallions and soy sauce. Grill medium-rare, top with mayo spiked with ginger, soy and/or lime.
83. Philly cheesesteak burger: Grind beef and grill with mushrooms and onions; top with aged provolone.
Sandwiches and Breads
84. Actual grilled cheese: Use good bread, good cheese, tomato slices and maybe a little mustard; brush with melted butter or olive oil and grill with a weight on top.
85. Glorified grilled cheese: Use grilled pineapple, grilled ham, cheese, pickles and mayo; grill with a weight on top.
86. Grill bell peppers until blackened and collapsed; cover, cool and peel. Grill eggplant planks, brushed with olive oil (or pesto if you have it), until very tender. Make a sandwich with balsamic vinegar, mozzarella and basil. This is also good with strip or skirt steak: grill meat until medium-rare, then slice and salt.
87. Grilled quesadilla (simple): Fill a flour tortilla with queso fresco, Monterey Jack or Cheddar; add chicken, shrimp and/or tomato. Fold and grill until cheese melts.
88. Grilled quesadilla (not as simple): Grill and strip corn from the cob; grill red-onion slices and chop them. Combine both with chili powder and bind with a tiny bit of mayo or yogurt. Put between two flour tortillas with cheese and grill. Serve with grilled lime wedges.
89. A different kind of Cuban sandwich: Grill pork steaks (best from the shoulder, about half-inch thick). Put on baguette spread with well-seasoned mashed black beans, queso fresco, chopped red onion (grilled or not), cilantro and lime juice.
90. Grill pork steaks as above; grill red onions. Slice the meat, chop the onions, toss with thinly sliced apples and roll in lavash bread or stuff in pita with yogurt-dill dressing. You can use the meat as an accent, or as the dominant ingredient.
91. Grill sweet Italian sausage and some figs. Combine on a toasted hot dog bun; mustard is optional.
92. Grill split kielbasa or chorizo (the Spanish type). Serve in buns, filled with chopped Manchego and mayo spiked with pimentón. Some chopped dried apricots would be good, too.
93. An idea whose time has come: Halve and grill peaches, nectarines or apricots. Brush with barbecue sauce or, if you want to be sophisticated, a mixture of bourbon, sugar and mint, or simple syrup laced with basil.
94. An idea whose time will come in September: Halve and grill pears or apples. When they’re done, drizzle with yogurt, honey and a pinch of cardamom.
95. Grilled fruit salad, and why not? Toss grilled watermelon (really good), peaches, plums, pineapple and kiwi with honey, a little salt, lemon juice and tarragon (not much), chervil, basil or mint (or a combo).
96. Cut grapefruit in half. Sprinkle with brown sugar; grill, cut-side down. You might top this with chopped pistachios or a little honey.
97. Grilled shortbread or poundcake (store-bought is totally fine) topped with grilled fruit sauce, strawberries in sugar, yogurt, ice cream, whatever.
98. Grilled angel food cake or poundcake (again, store-bought is fine) topped with Nutella, chocolate sauce, sorbet, etc.
99. Grilled s’mores: Put graham crackers (or other good quality flat cookie) on foil, top with marshmallows and chocolate and another cracker. Grill until the chocolate and marshmallow begin to melt.
100. Cut bananas into thick rounds (like scallops almost), char quickly and serve with caramel sauce, brown sugar, vanilla ice cream, Nutella … whatever.
101. Actually, this is a drink: Skewer green olives, then char them a bit. These would be a good garnish for shrimp, chorizo or anything else. But instead, make yourself a fantastic dirty martini.
“Mourning rituals, when they work, function like emotional retirement accounts: putting off the worst of grief, the long slog of hopeless yearning, until it can be better borne.”—“the leap,” by jesse green, in last week’s new york magazine. it’s the story of a prep school kid who jumped out a window to his death, and it’s wonderfully written and worth a read. (via brookehatfield)
"Let me start off by saying that despite what some critics are saying, this is not going to be your typical Chinese food. It’s also not going to be some weird Mexican-Chinese fusion taco truck. The idea behind mission chinese food is quite simple. Alot of people think of chinese food as sweet and sour pork and walnut prawns. And no matter what they say on the menu, it’s usually not ‘spicy.’
…And although we enjoy sweet and sour (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, etc.) as much as the next guy, there are so many different types of chinese food that we are excited about and feel challenged to make. Islamic chinese. Sichuan. Taiwanese. (no stinky tofu, sorry can’t get behind that one.) So there. We want to make delicious, frequently spicy chinese food, besides what everyone already gets delivered, without m.s.g., with responsibly sourced proteins and vegetables. Seven days a week. All day long. The website will be up shortly!” (Editor’s note: Yessssssss. The Mission rules.)
Vladimir Nabokov was starting his career as a writer when he found himself in Berlin. “It is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page…Something or other is going on around him.” The short 1934 novel Despair from which this quote comes is already heavily self-ironising compared with the stories of the previous decade. But like them it is studded with incidental Berlin experiences, from the shape of the city’s S-Bahn train line on the map to the comedy of a German misspeaking English. “I suppose only the pest. The chief thing by me is optimismus.” If Nabokov’s Berlin was in his head, it was nevertheless not invented.
He lived from 1932-37 with his wife and son at Nestorstrasse 22, in the smart, quiet residential area of Wilmersdorf, comparable with London’s Chelsea. The unfussy mansion block was his first real home after the curtailed teenage years in Russia. The previous decade in Berlin had been a series of removals from one rented address to the next after his father was shot dead by Bolshevik agents in 1922. “That flat of ours in one of those newfangled houses built in the modern, boxlike, space-cheating, let-us-have-no-nonsense style…” So the imagined author of Despair commented as his creator moved in. The building was dull with an awkward tower in brick and glass towering up at its helm. The protagonist ofNabokov’s next big project,The Gift, dwelling in Agamemnonstrasse, thought that the boring architect of his block had suddenly gone mad. After the war, these leafy streets had to be raised from the rubble. (Tiny bronze plaques mark their 1954 resurrection). The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov lived here, 1932-37, it says, but you could easily pass by that dim bronze plaque from 1999, fading into a brownish façade.
Perhaps tying works of art to their originating topography is vulgar and needs to be kept discreet. But history needs Nabokov. During the artistically formative years, he lived here in the 1920s and 1930s, he peerlessly described how Berlin’s 300,000 Russian émigrés endured life after the Bolshevik Revolution. A city “swarming with ragamuffins” (Despair) and here and there “an urban vagabond with an early evening thirst” (The Fight, 1925). Here were thousands of lonely people haunted by poverty and nostalgia. Divorce or widowhood sealed their fate. In An Affair of Honour (1927), the cuckolded Anton Petrovich went through the motions of a classic Russian duel only to find himself stuck in a shabby Berlin hotel after his opponent didn’t show. “He looked at the moth-eaten plush, the plump bed, the washstand, and this wretched room…seemed to him to be the room in which he would have to live from that day on…[With] the door shut, he grabbed [a] sandwich with both hands, immediately soiled his fingers and chin with the hanging fat and, grunting greedily, began to munch.” So the writer imagined the crude Germanisation of a lost man. Nabokov, for whom all life after 1917 contrasted with his childhood on a Russian country estate, was a perfectionist, who noticed how even his own mother fell from wealthy grace. Miraculously, his brutal insights produced their own kind of beauty on the page.
"And do you know with what a marvellous clatter the brightly lit train, all its windows laughing, sweeps across the bridge above the street! Probably it goes no farther than the suburbs, but in that instant the darkness beneath the black span of the bridge is filled with such mighty metallic music that I cannot help imagining the sunny lands toward which I shall depart as soon as I have procured those extra hundred marks for which I long so blandly, so light-heartedly." (A Letter that Never Reached Russia, 1925.) Light-heartedness and a tendency to fairytale was the key. The Russianness of that keenly visual fantasy strikes home today. Malevich with his desire to unite peasant harmony and modern technology, early Kandinsky’s animated countrysides and Chagall’s magic carpets all come to mind.
Nabokov’s Russians in Berlin, from a less modern world, are struck by the bright lights and vulgarity of the big Western city. From the same 1925 Letter: “A cinema ripples in diamonds…farther on, a stout prostitute in black fur slowly walks to and fro, stopping occasionally in front of a harshly lighted shop window where a rouged woman of wax shows off to night wanderers her streamy, emerald gown and the shiny silk of her peach-coloured stockings…I am so light-hearted that sometimes I even enjoy watching people dancing in the local café, Many fellow exiles of mine denounce indignantly…fashionable abominations, including current dances. But fashion is a creature of man’s mediocrity, a certain level of life, the vulgarity of equality, and to denounce it means admitting that mediocrity can create something (whether it be a new form of government or a new kind of hairdo) worth making a fuss about.” Visually and socially this is the same Berlin as Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) but what these two writers do with it defines their distinctiveness: one political, the other a fabulist.
Five of Nabokov’s early stories (A Guide to Berlin, The Aurelian, Cloud, Castle, Lake, Spring in Fialta and Lance) recently appeared in a classic Reklam edition as Nabokov’s Berlin Erzählungen. Compare their themes with mid-1920s posters in the city’s national gallery and you can see how topical stories featuring variety shows, fun-loving girls and cinema were. But Nabokov gave the Berlin vignette additional spin with the gift of seeing everything symbolically. He was a Russian poet, influenced by the pre-revolutionary Blok. His mournful-magical imagery seems to me comparable with some of his contemporary Mandelstam’s. What tipped him back towards realism was a fascination with vulgarity. His later Berlin was awash with advertisements for consumer goods. Billboards and neon signs decorated the streets. The vices of modern culture fascinated Nabokov and would later almost overwhelm him in the US. His macabre and dramatic preoccupation with films and the cinema, outed in the short novel Laughter in the Dark, began in Berlin and finally ended in America when Hollywood cast Sue Lyon as Lolita.
As consumerism and Hitler rose together so Nabokov treated totalitarian politics principally as aesthetically repugnant. It was “another beastliness starting to megaphone” in Germany which in 1937 drove him and his half-Jewish wife Vera to leave Berlin for France and the US. It was almost too late. Berlin suited him. The anti-totalitarian novels Bend Sinister (1947) andInvitation to a Beheading (1938) which followed were remarkable, particularly the latter, for not insisting that totalitarianism’s victims were moral heroes, only men of taste. Nabokov, who saw in art the possibility of redemption, was tempted to think taste ruled out evil.
The shorter fiction of the 1920s and 1930s contains many passing reflections on the art he was already practising and the ways of those who fell short of his ideal. Errancy from paradise preoccupied him. He found lapses from perfection in all the material that came his way and treated criminality and insanity, but above all sexual perversity, in those terms. The writer in him understood how cleverly these deviations from a good world could disguise themselves, and how they might seduce a reader. Hence the rampant narcissism of Despair's Hermann Hermann who, when he makes a street tramp his double, thinks he can “cheat Nemesis by helping his shadow out of the brook”. Hence the perversion of the seducer and murderer Humbert Humbert, who, after all, desired only the downy legs of the child, not the hairy limbs of her mother. Nabokov's most famous protagonists are fastidious criminals who know how to spin golden fictions out of their guilty dreams. With wit and imagery he makes us feel we are in paradise too, though our entertainer is the devil.
Post-war Berlin was the fallen city for Nabokov, and as he learned to transform even the most tawdry things he saw into a world of new enchantment, so in a concealed self-exploration he found out how to make his narcissists and perverts and woman-haters (lots of those), as well as his humble losers, lovable.
He loathed the idea of Freudian intrusions into his work. One can see why.
He always supervised his readers on how not to misread him. One 1925 story, A Guide to Berlin, even led step by step to an explanation of his art. The narrator tells a friend about some pipes being laid in the street, a tram, a few men at work, and a visit to the zoo and the pub. “That’s a very poor guide. Who cares about how you took a streetcar and went to the Berlin aquarium?” The obtuse interlocutor, fixated on his typical sights, misses the shift from reportage to poetry almost from the opening sentence. In the end, he has to be told how this writer will keep a hold on posterity. In the pub a child being fed in a backroom gazes out through a series of open doorways at the narrator, evidently a German war invalid. The scene might have been painted by Bachmann, Grosz or Dix to document social wrongs. But inwardly the narrator is Nabokov, telling us how what the child sees is his own future memory. The writer has a metaphysical assignment. Sitting in a Berlin tram, Nabokov knows “every trifle will be valuable and meaningful: the conductor’s purse, the advertisement over the window, that peculiar jolting motion which our great-grandchildren will perhaps imagine…I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects in the kindly mirrors of future times.”
In all Nabokov’s work, the kindliness of memory recreates Eden, just as perversity razes it to the ground. He was a Russian writer, but one for whom surely Proust in Remembrance of Things Past was his immediate predecessor. We can lose our capacity to interpret the world as good. We can see only darkness. Despair talks about “the tunnel of corruption” — a somewhat Platonic image about how the good can fade. Nabokov commented that the novel’s Russian title Otchayanie was a long howl he couldn’t reproduce in English. He made it his task to find beautiful metaphors even for evil. See again those two political novels and, of course, Lolita. The Russian disaster that destroyed his youth he likened in Guide to Berlin to a starfish at the bottom of the sea. The communist red star originated in depths to which it would return. Times would come when no one would remember “those stupid utopias and everything that upsets us” and the starfish would go on “pottering” among the submerged Atlantica.
Nabokov wrote about how Berlin struck his refined eye, with its ubiquitous trains, its shop windows, and its postcard sellers under the Brandenburg Gate and its comic rooftop statues, and how anything can become material to rebuild a private, redemptive Eden of the mind. Beneath his old flat in the Nestorstrasse there’s now a pub calling itself Die kleine Weltlaterne — The Little Lantern of the World. Not a bad coincidence.
He came out of a time which could not contemplate the collapse of life as an aesthetic paradise for the few. Yet collapse it did.
Each country or cultural region has a uniquely-structured industry responsible for producing, promoting, and distributing the products that make up what we consider “pop culture.” In the case of Japan, there is a single organizational category most responsible for the form and content of pop culture: the artist management company, called colloquially jimusho (”office.”) The jimusho wield a powerful cultural influence on all fields that require performers — television (variety and drama), advertising, music, modeling, gravia, and films.
I will argue in this series that much of the content produced in these specific fields conforms to the business needs of artist management companies much more than it is created in response to audience desires. The opposite is also true: Non-jimusho controlled fields such as manga and indie music have enjoyed much more freedom of expression. In the case of manga, placement of certain titles within magazines is often tied directly to consumer feedback, meaning that competition is alive and well and consumers play a large role in guiding the industry.
With this in mind, we aim here to get a full understanding of the jimusho system in order to understand the structure in which Japanese popular culture is produced. Seeing that there is little written formally about the jimusho, we offer this multi-part series on Japanese artist management companies.
A note: This series is not meant as an “exposé” but a collection of the most reliable information about a relatively secretive industry for the purpose of sociological and business analysis. We welcome any corrections and additions.
Part I - What are the Jimusho? Roles and Labor Relations
The main role of the jimusho is essentially to “manage” the careers and schedules of artists, entertainers, athletes, and celebrities. They, however, claim a much deeper hold on the industry than simple management. The jimusho create stars much more than they just help maintain their fame. The stronger jimusho plan out every part of the performer’s persona, style, mannerism, and career. Most jimusho also have publishing wings, creating long-term revenue streams from songwriting related to their stars. Many idol management companies — such as Johnny’s Jimusho — finance and produce the master recordings of their singers, relegating record companies to pure distribution roles. This also means the jimusho can capture a large percentage of money made from CD sales.
The first important thing to understand about Japanese jimusho is the relation between labor and management. These companies are sometimes called “agencies” but they do not normally use “agent relations” — i.e., where stars hire the jimusho to act on their behalf. In the United States, William Morris and CAA perform agent services for 10% of the deals they broker, but stars have the ultimate power in that specific relationship as they are allowed to change agents or agencies at any time.
Japanese jimusho, on the other hand, hire their talent as salaried workers. They pay their “employees” a monthly salary, which usually starts at the relatively low ¥200,000 and can be re-negotiated on a yearly basis. (That being said, many famous stars have not been able to significantly raise their salaries to match the revenues they have brought to the company.) In exchange for the salaries, the artist relinquishes rights to 100% of their media appearance fees, copyright royalties, publishing payments, and any other income. Yes, 100%. If an artist secures a lucrative commercial contract, for example, this will not be reflected in his/her salary as any kind of bonus.
notes that the price of producing an “idol” singer can cost upwards of ¥30-40 million. The companies provide new talent (although most often charge for) lessons in singing, acting, dancing, manners, speech, and other skills required for celebrity status. Jimusho create appealing stage names, change appearances (sometimes even fronting money for plastic surgery), and provide clothing and cosmetics most flattering to the talent. Only when the talent makes their formal debut does the company see any returns. Therefore this high risk business model requires that all eventual income go directly to the management company.
Now many stars are able to negotiate an income increase in light of greater sales, but those who cannot unfortunately are not able to move to a different management company. While stars in the United States can change their agents and personal managers at a whim, Japanese stars cannot freely move management companies. In my own survey of 1300 popular musicians between 1985 and 2004, only around two dozen changed management companies. In other words, it is not a free market where Japanese stars can look for the best management deal. It is a “closed system.”
How do the jimusho keep stars in their stables? As a way to ensure that talent do not leave for other agencies for better deals, the jimusho have informal agreements to blacklist any talent who “defect” to other companies or go independent. With each star being an “investment” — both in terms of training but also of use of the management companies’ established media and industry connections to become famous — the jimusho have an economic incentive to curb their talent’s mobility. This secures profitability for their initial investment.
There is only one accepted way of changing jimusho: moving up to a more powerful organization. Horizontal movement or going independent are essentially verboten. Larger jimusho, however, can steal talent from smaller ones. We saw this with Kanno Miho, for example, leaving the small Tani Promotion to enter big player Kenon.
Like most aspects of the “closed” jimusho world, this blacklist is rarely detailed in specific terms. The case of mega-star Suzuki Ami, however, offered a very strong example of the blacklist in action. As reported by Steve McClure in Billboard, Suzuki attempted to leave her management company AG Communications after its CEO Yamada Eiji was arrested for tax evasion. Her parents cited “damage to her reputation” and received legal approval to break her contract with AG. Despite the legal right to go independent, the industry appeared to have conspired behind-the-scenes to punish her actions. All her advertising contracts mysteriously dried up, and later when she released her own music, she could not find basic distribution for the CDs nor television airplay. In effect, she was frozen out of the industry. She only came back in once she signed a new deal years later with Avex Entertainment. Not all blacklists are permanent, but they can “disappear” a star right at his/her peak, which is normally a death blow to a long-term career. Suzuki Ami never really recovered.
Cabal-like blacklists like this fail in most markets because there is such high incentive for companies to “break” the agreement and steal the profitable talent. The strongest jimushos’ power over the market, however, may be adequate to scare away anyone who wishes to scoop up ronin talent. And the blacklisting may not require wholly negative action. For example, YouTube star Magibon recently made allegations that her former jimusho would call up and offer Magibon’s clients their pick of the agency’s stable of famous stars to work in the place of Magibon. This could be considered a “positively-reinforced” blacklist.
The end result of this labor relation between talent and their jimusho is that the management company has full control over their salaried employees. And with the jimusho world working together to discourage movement, talent cannot use labor mobility as a way to break the agencies’ power. And with investments into master tape production, jimusho do not just hold power of their talent but within the industry as a whole. We will look at the source of jimusho power in later installments.
There must be something in the water here in Lanesboro, Minnesota, because last night I dreamt of an encounter with a very muscular African-American centaur, an orgiastic experience with – gasp – drunken members of the opposite sex and (as if that weren’t enough) then being asked by my hostess to wear a white wedding dress while giving a scientific keynote presentation. “Does it make me look too feminine?” “Not at all,” she assured me, “it’s a man’s dress.”
Now Freud might raise his eyebrows at such a lurid dreamscape, but if these images represent my repressed sexual yearnings, then there’s a side of me that I apparently have yet to discover. But I doubt that this is the case. Dreams with erotic undertones are like most other dreams during REM sleep—runaway trains with a conductor who is helpless to do anything about the surrealistic directions they take. Rather, if you really want to know about a person’s hidden sexual desires, then find out what’s on his or her mind’s eye during the deepest throes of masturbation.
This conjuring ability to create fantasy scenes in our heads that literally bring us to orgasm when conveniently paired with our dexterous appendages is an evolutionary magic trick that I suspect is uniquely human. It requires a cognitive capacity called mental representation (an internal “re-presentation” of a previously experienced image or some other sensory input) that many evolutionary theorists believe is a relatively recent hominid innovation.
When it comes to sex, we put this capacity to very good—or at least, very frequent—use. In a now-classic, pre-Internet-porn (I’ll get to that later on) study by British evolutionary biologists Robin Baker and Mark Bellis, male university students were found to masturbate to ejaculation about every 72 hours, and “on the majority of occasions, their last masturbation is within 48 hours of their next in-pair copulation.” If they’re not having intercourse every day, that is to say, men tend to pleasure themselves to completion no more than two days prior to having actual sex.
Baker and Bellis’s quite logical argument for this seemingly counterintuitive state of affairs (after all, shouldn’t men try to stock up as much sperm as possible in their testes rather than spill their seeds so wastefully in a rather infertile swath of toilet paper or a dirty sock?) is that because there is a “shelf-life” for sperm cells – they remain viable for only 5-7 days after production – and because adult human males manufacture a whopping 3 million sperm per day, masturbation is an evolved strategy for shedding old sperm while making room for new, fitter sperm. It’s quality over quantity. Here are the adaptive logistics.
The advantage to the male could be that the younger sperm are more acceptable to the female and/or are better able to reach a secure position in the female tract. Moreover, once retained in the female tract, younger sperm could be more fertile in the absence of sperm competition [sexually monogamous relationships] and/or more competitive in the presence of sperm competition [in which the woman is having sex with other men]. Finally, if younger sperm live longer in the female tract, any enhanced fertility and competitiveness would also last longer.
Unconvinced? Well, Baker and Bellis are clever empiricists. They also apparently have stomachs of steel. One way that they tested their hypotheses was to ask over 30 brave heterosexual couples to provide them with some rather concrete samples of their sex lives: the vaginal “flowbacks” from their post-coital couplings, in which some portion of the male’s ejaculate is spontaneously rejected by the woman’s body.
The flowback emerges 5-120 min after copulation as a relatively discrete event over a period of 1-2 min in the form of three to eight white globules. With practice, females can recognize the sensation of the beginning of flowback and can collect the material by squatting over a 250 ml glass beaker. [And here comes a useful tip, ladies…] Once the flowback is nearly ready to emerge, it can be hastened by, for example, coughing.
As the authors predicted, the number of sperm in the girlfriends’ flowbacks increased significantly the longer it had been since the boyfriend’s last masturbation — even after the researchers controlled for the relative volume of seminal fluid emission as a function of time since last ejaculation (the longer it had been, the more ejaculate was present). If only the parents of teenage boys had these findings available for the first hundred thousand years of our history, think of all the anxiety, guilt and shame that might never have been.
In fact, even the father of adolescent psychology research, G. Stanley Hall, had a particularly nasty thorn in his paw when it came to the subject of masturbation. Hall accepted that spontaneous nocturnal emissions (that is, “wet dreams”) in adolescent boys were “natural,” but he viewed masturbation as a “scourge of the human race … destructive of that perhaps most important thing in the world, the potency of good heredity.” In Hall’s view, the offspring of teenage masturbators would show signs of “persistent infantalism or overripeness.” Boys will be boys, Stanley, and how wrong you were.
Now back to masturbation fantasies and cognition—and this is where it gets really interesting. Baker and Bellis’s theory may be peculiarly true for human beings, because from all appearances, under natural conditions, we are the only primate species that seems to have taken these seminal shedding benefits into its own lascivious hands. Unfortunately, there have been a paltry handful of studies tracking the masturbatory behaviors of nonhuman primates. Although some relevant data is probably buried in some mountain of field notes, I didn’t come across any targeted studies on the subject in wild chimpanzees , and even the prolific Jane Goodall doesn’t seem to have ever gone there. But nevertheless by all available accounts, and by contrast with human beings, masturbation to completion is an exceedingly rare phenomenon in other species with capable hands very much like our own. As anybody who has ever been to the zoo knows, there’s no question that other primates play with their genitalia; the point is that these diddling episodes so seldom lead to an intentional orgasm.
In a 1983 study from the International Journal of Primatology , the sexual behaviors of several groups of wild gray-cheeked mangabeys were observed for over 22 months in the Kibale Forest of Western Uganda. There was plenty of sex, particularly during the females’ peak swellings. But just two incidents of male masturbation leading to ejaculation were observed. Yes, that’s right. Whereas healthy human males can’t seem to go without masturbating for longer than 72 hours, two measly cases of masturbating mangabeys were observed over a nearly two-year period.
University College London anthropologist E.D. Starin didn’t have much luck spying incidents of masturbation in red colobus monkeys in Gambia, either. In a brief 2004 article published in Folia Primatologica , Starin reports that over a 5.5-year period of accumulated observations totaling more than 9,500 hours, she saw only 5–count ‘em, five –incidents of her population of five male colobus monkeys masturbating to ejaculation, and these rare incidents occurred only when nearby sexually receptive females were exhibiting loud courtship displays and copulations with other males.
Intriguingly, Starin says that although females weren’t in the immediate vicinity, it is possible that the females could still be seen or heard by the masturbating male while the incident at hand occurred. (In other words, no mental representation required.) In fact, the author’s descriptions of these events strike me as producing accidental, rather than deliberate, ejaculations. Not that they weren’t happy accidents, but still. “During each observation,” Starin writes, “the male sat and rubbed, stretched, and scratched his penis until it became erect, after which additional rubbing produced ejaculate.” I know what you’re thinking: What did the monkeys do with the “product”? Well, they ate their own ejaculate—and in one case, a curious infant licked it off the adult’s fingers. Also, out of the 14 female colobus monkeys observed during this time span, “three different females were observed possibly masturbating” by self-stimulating their genitals—only possibly because none of these episodes culminated in the telltale signs of colobus orgasm: muscle contractions, facial expressions or calls.
Perhaps the most colorful report of nonhuman primate masturbation—or rather the astonishing lack thereof, even in subordinate males that aren’t getting any—comes from a 1914Journal of Animal Behavior study by a primatological colleague of Robert Yerkes named Gilbert Van Tassel Hamilton, who apparently ran something of a monkey research center-cum-sanctuary on the lush grounds of his Montecito, California estate. Hamilton was clearly a pioneering sexologist, or at least had especially liberal attitudes for his time, defending the naturalness of homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom, among other things. In justifying his research, which meant getting up close and personal with his monkeys’ genitals, Hamilton opines:
The possibility that the types of sexual behavior to which the term ‘perverted’ is usually applied may be of normal manifestation and biologically appropriate somewhere in the phyletic scale has not be sufficiently explored.
In fact, he seems to have expected to find rampant masturbation in his animals, but to his surprise only one male (named Jocko) ever partook in such manual pleasures:
Of all my male monkeys only Jocko has been observed to masturbate. After a few days confinement he would masturbate and eat part of his semen. I have reason to believe that he lived under unnatural conditions for many years before I acquired him. In view of this fact that not one of seven sexually mature monkeys masturbated after several weeks of isolation under conditions that favored a fairly healthy mental and physical life (close proximity to other monkeys, large cage, warm climate) I am inclined to believe that masturbation is not of normal occurrence among monkeys.
Granted, Hamilton seems to have been a tad eccentric. Earlier in the article he reports that one of his female monkeys named “Maud” liked to be mounted (and entered) by a pet male dog out in the yard until one day poor, horny old Maud offered her backside to a strange mongrel that proceeded to bite off her arm. More disturbing is Hamilton’s description of a monkey named “Jimmy” who one sunny afternoon discovered a human infant lying in a hammock: “Jimmy promptly endeavored to copulate with the infant,” observes Hamilton matter-of-factly. It’s unclear whether or not this was the author’s own child, nor is there any mention of the look on said human infant’s mother’s face when she saw what Jimmy was getting up to.
In any event, though he may have had some questionable child supervision skills, the candor by which Hamilton reports on the sex lives of his monkeys lends his non-observations of masturbation that much more credence.
So why don’t monkeys and apes masturbate even nearly as much as humans? It’s a rarity even among low status male nonhuman primates that frustratingly lack sexual access to females–in fact, the few observed incidents seem to be with dominant males. And why haven’t more researchers noticed such an obvious difference with potentially enormous significance for understanding the evolution of human sexuality? After all, it’s been nearly 60 years since Alfred Kinsey first reported that 92 percent of Americans were involved in masturbation leading to orgasm.
The answer for this cross-species difference, I’m convinced, lies in our uniquely evolved mental representational abilities—we alone have the power to conjure up at will erotic, orgasm-inducing scenes in our theater-like heads … internal, salacious fantasies completely disconnected from our immediate external realities. One early sex researcher, Wilhelm Stekel, described masturbation fantasies as a kind of trance or altered state of consciousness, “a sort of intoxication or ecstasy, during which the current moment disappears and the forbidden fantasy alone reigns supreme.”
Go on, put this article aside, take a five minute break and put my challenge to the test (don’t forget to close your office door if you’re reading this at work): Just try to masturbate successfully—that is, to orgasmic completion—without casting some erotic representational target in your mind’s eye. Instead, clear your mind entirely, or think of, I don’t know, an enormous blank canvass hanging in an art gallery. And of course no porn or helpful naked co-workers are permitted for this task either.
How’d it go? Do you see the impossibility of it? This is one of the reasons, incidentally, why I find it so hard to believe that self-proclaimed asexuals who admit to masturbating to orgasm are really and truly asexual. They must be picturing something , and whatever that something is gives away their sexuality.
Empirically capturing the phenomenology of masturbation fantasies is no easy matter. But some intrepid scholars have indeed tried to do so. A British physician named N. Lukianowicz, in a 1960 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry , published one of the most sensational scientific reports I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Lukianowicz personally interviewed 188 people (126 males and 62 females) about their masturbation fantasies. An important caveat: all of these people were psychiatric patients with “various complaints and different neurotic manifestations,” so their masturbation fantasies aren’t necessarily typical. Nevertheless the details provided by these patients about their erotic fantasies give us an extraordinary glimpse into the rich internal imagery accompanying human masturbation. Consider the self-report of a retired civil servant, age 71, being treated for obsessive feelings of guilt on account of his “excessive masturbation”:
I see in front of me naked beautiful women, dancing and performing some most exciting and tempting movements. After the dance they lean back, and keeping their legs wide apart, show their genitals and invite me to have sexual intercourse with them. They appear so real, that I can almost touch them. They’re in a setting of an oriental harem, in a large oval room with divans and a lot of cushions around the walls. I can clearly see the wonderful gorgeous colours and the beautiful patterns of the tapestry, with an unusual vividness and with all the minute details.
Or consider Lukianowicz’s account of a 44-year-old schoolmaster’s fantasies, which reads like some Bacchanalian, morphine-dappled scene ripped from the pages of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959):
In them he “saw” naked adolescent boys with their penes stiffly erected, parading in front of him. As he progressed in his masturbation, the penes of the boys increased in size, till finally the whole field of his vision was filled with one huge, erect, pulsating penis, and then the patient would have a prolonged orgasm. This type of homosexual masturbatory fantasy started shortly after his first homosexual experience, which he had had at the age of 10, and it persists unchanged hitherto.
Now, obviously, there are pathological cases of chronic masturbation where it actually interferes with the individual’s functioning. In fact, it’s not an uncommon problem for many caretakers of adolescent and adults with mental impairments, whose charges often enjoy masturbating in public and making onlookers squeal and squirm in discomfort. (Not unlike some captive primates housed in miserable conditions such as laboratories or roadside zoos, where self-stimulation sometimes becomes stereotypical.) But one thing that clinicians dealing with this problem may wish to consider is that the individual’s cognitive limitations may not allow them to engage in more “appropriate” private masturbation because of difficulties with mental representation. In fact, frequency of erotic fantasies correlates positively with intelligence. The average IQ of Lukianowicz’s sample was 132. So perhaps public masturbation, in which other people are physically present to induce arousal, is the only way that many with developmental disorders can achieve sexual satisfaction. Sadly, of course, society isn’t very accommodating of this particular problem: Between 1969-1989, for example, a single institution in the United States performed 656 castrations with the aim to stop the men from masturbating. One clinical study reported some success in eliminating this problem behavior by squirting lemon juice into the mouth of a young patient every time he pulled out his penis in public.
In any event, Lukianowicz argues that erotic fantasies involve imaginary companions not altogether unlike children’s make-believe friends. But unlike the more long-lived latter, he concedes, the former is conjured up for one very practical purpose: “… as soon as the orgasm is achieved the role of the imaginary sexual partner is completed, and he is quite simply and quickly dismissed from his master’s mind.”
And, perhaps not surprisingly, men seem to entertain more visitors in their heads than do women. In a 1990 study published in the Journal of Sex Research , evolutionary psychologists Bruce Ellis and Donald Symons found that 32 percent of men said that they’d had sexual encounters in their imagination with more than 1,000 different people, compared to only 8 percent of women. Men also reported rotating in from their imaginary rosters one imagined partner for another during the course of a single fantasy more often than women did.
In their excellent 1995 Psychological Bulletin article on sexual fantasy, University of Vermont psychologists Harold Leitenberg and Kris Henning summarize a number of interesting differences between the sexes in this area. In their review of research findings up to that date, the authors concluded that, in general, a higher percentage of men reported fantasizing during masturbation than did women. It’s important to point out, however, that neither “fantasy” nor “masturbation” were consistently defined across the studies summarized by Leitenberg and Henning, and some participants likely interpreted “masturbation” to mean simply self-stimulation (rather than orgasm-inducing ) or had a more elaborate conceptualization of “fantasy” than we’ve been using here, as some form of basic mental representation. For uncertain reasons, one dubious study compared “Blacks” and “Whites,” so it’s definitely a mixed bag in terms of empirical quality. They didn’t find much of a difference, by the way.
A side note: both sexes claimed equally to have used their imaginations during intercourse. Basically, at some point, everyone tends to imagine someone—or something—else when they’re having sex with their partner. There’s nothing like the question, “What are you thinking about?” to ruin the mood during passionate sex.
Here are some other interesting tidbits. Males report having sexual fantasies earlier in development (average age of onset 11.5 years) than do females (average age of onset 12.9 years). Females are more likely to say that their first sexual fantasies were triggered by a relationship, whereas males report having theirs triggered by a visual stimulus. For both men and women, straight or gay, the most common masturbation fantasies involve reliving an exciting sexual experience, imagining having sex with one’s current partner and imagining having sex with a new partner.
It gets more interesting, of course, once you step a little closer to the data. In one study with 141 married women, the most frequently reported fantasies included “being overpowered or forced to surrender,” and “pretending I am doing something wicked or forbidden.” Another study with 3,030 women revealed that “sex with a celebrity ,” “seducing a younger man or boy,” and “sex with an older man” were some of the more common themes. Men’s fantasies contain more visual and explicit anatomical detail (remember the giant, pulsating penis from Lukianowicz’s study?) whereas women’s involve more story line, emotions, affection, commitment and romance. Gay men’s sexual fantasies often include, among other things, “idyllic sexual encounters with unknown men,” “observing group sexual activity,” and here’s a shocker: images of penises and buttocks. According to one study, the top five lesbian fantasies are “forced sexual encounter,” “idyllic encounter with established partner,” “sexual encounters with men,” “recall of past gratifying sexual encounters,” and—ouch!—“sadistic imagery directed toward genitals of both men and women.”
One of the more intriguing things that Leitenberg and Henning conclude is that, contrary to common (and Freudian) belief, sexual fantasies are not simply the result of unsatisfied wishes or erotic deprivation:
Because people who are deprived of food tend to have more frequent daydreams about food, it might be expected that sexual deprivation would have the same effect on sexual thoughts. The little evidence that exists, however, suggests otherwise. Those with the most active sex lives seem to have the most sexual fantasies, and not vice versa. Several studies have shown that frequency of fantasy is positively correlated with masturbation frequency, intercourse frequency, number of lifetime sexual partners, and self-rated sex drive.
The Psychological Bulletin article on sexual fantasy is chockfull of interesting facts, and those with a more scholarly interest in this subject should read it themselves. Leitenberg and Henning also provide a fascinating discussion about the relation between sexual fantasy and criminality, including a clinical study in which deviant masturbatory fantasies were paired with the foul odor of valeric acid or rotting tissue. Now that’s enough to put a crimp in anybody’s libido, I’d say. But Leitenberg and Henning’s piece was written over fifteen years ago, summarizing even older research. The reason this is important is because it was still long before the “mainstreaming” of today’s Internet pornography scene, where zero is left to the imagination.
And so I’m left wondering … in a world where sexual fantasy in the form of mental representation has become obsolete, where hallucinatory images of dancing genitalia, lusty lesbians and sadomasochistic strangers have been replaced by a veritable online smorgasbord of real people doing things our grandparents couldn’t have dreamt up even in their wettest of dreams, where randy teenagers no longer close their eyes and lose themselves to the oblivion and bliss but instead crack open their thousand-dollar laptops and conjure up a real live porn actress, what, in a general sense, are the consequences of liquidating our erotic mental representational skills for our species’ sexuality? Is the next generation going to be so intellectually lazy in their sexual fantasies that their creativity in other domains is also affected? Will their marriages be more likely to end because they lack the representational experience and masturbatory fantasy training to picture their husbands and wives during intercourse as the person or thing they really desire?
I’m not saying porn isn’t progress, but I do think that over the long run it could turn out to be a real evolutionary game-changer.
(Editor’s note: Clearly the author has not been on Youtube. via Kottke)