Saturday, November 26, 2016

Sing a Chorus or Two...

Last Friday Engrish and I broke into song for the first time in a long time walking over to Five's Games Night at elementary.  While it may have been lovely weather for a sleigh ride, it really sucked for walking.  Once upon a time, the sky was beginning to lighten when I'd go out for my morning walks on the track.  Now I have to take those walks in the school, where it is way too freaking hot and dry (so much that I can't breathe unless I take a sip of water every couple of laps).  And then there's the snow.  Two weeks back we got more snow dumped on us over the course of a week than we have my last four years in Mongolia.  In the last few days city workers have been killing themselves chunking it off the streets and sidewalks (because otherwise it's not going anywhere until March), but it's still pretty treacherous, and walking around with Blondie and Engrish yesterday I came very close to falling down several times, penguin walk or no.

So I've been a little down on the UB life for a while.  Besides the cold, snow, and pollution, I've become a little jaded, having experienced much (most?) of what the city has to offer.  Fortunately Engrish still has her eyes open and spotted that our favorite local band was playing Tarantino soundtrack covers last night at Artistry (formerly American Ger'll, formerly The Moose, formerly American Ger'll).  The decor hasn't changed a lot, although there was a very nice painting (#sarcasm) in the entrance of a horse and a woman doing interesting things (ie, parents, you might want a distraction lined up if you're not ready to have that talk about what happens when a woman and a horse love each other veerrrryy much).  The food was great - my Greek salad was a little heavy on the lettuce (I won't go into why this is so freaking wrong), but Blondie and Engrish had a pizza that was so delicious that even though my stomach has been threatening to do terrible things to me since Friday morning, I stole two pieces.  It goes without saying that Tigerfish was awesome...and since our new Office Wonder Woman turns out to be friends with their lead singer, we actually got VIP seats and talked to her.
There may be reasons I've become jaded,'s hit and miss.  Last week Engrish also told me she was invited to a Japanese culture event being hosted at the water conservation department near our school, and since she knows how crazy I am about Japan, asked me to be her plus-one.  Since the Japanese embassy was involved, we figured it would be pretty legit.  Maybe it was, when things first got started, but it was 1 pm before we got there (she had to get her run in), we were both hungry, and the food didn't look that appetizing.  There were a few other booths set up - one selling recycled goods, another selling camel milk soaps, ones where they dressed you in a yukata, showed you how to fold origami, and wrote your name in kanji - but everything was pretty picked over.  We were just in time for the cosplay event, but animal girls in pink maid outfits really weren't all that inspiring.  When I realized my nerdy-by-nature seventh graders could probably do as well if not better, we decided it was time to sneak out, while everyone else was enjoying it.  Having organized a few things in my day, I do realize how much time and effort goes into them...but I was still hoping for more.  Maybe next time.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Up in the Air

This post actually started over a year ago.  Today, I wanted to write about all the cool art stuff I've been working on...but then I chose to use my powers for evil.  This shouldn't come as a surprise to you if you've been reading the blog for any length of time; I hang out with the powers of darkness a lot.  Nevertheless, most of the finished fruits of my labors aren't things I want to share with the interwebs...if any of my six readers want to stop into Mongolia one of these days, I might be willing to negotiate a cringey show and tell.  But for now, I'll keep my secrets, and you'll have to wait a while longer for the next-level, mad-skillz art post.

Instead, let me tell you about airBnB.  I assume everyone who travels at all and most people who don't know about airBnB, but after our TEDx event (which I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole in this space, but you can check it out on Facebook, if you care), I mentioned staying in one to Blondie during our four-hour ASA with Engrish, and she didn't really know what I was talking about.  I first encountered it before starting to plan my Russia/Venice trip, and decided to try it on that excursion, since hotels there were so expensive.  AirBnBs are generally extra rooms in people's homes that they rent out to travelers.  At first, this seems a little sketchy.  My friend Siobhan once told me about Couchsurfing, and I thought, "Hell no."  I didn't like the idea of just crashing on some rando's couch, or the idea of hosting randos myself.  But I'd seen some of the airBnBs from articles posted on facebook, and the reality of spending three weeks in three expensive cities forced my hand.
I felt a little weird taking pictures of peoples homes at first - instead, here's a picture of my shoes at that trip's end
That first experience was pretty legit.  Irina was my first hostess..  Her apartment was spacious and clean, although a bit of a walk to get into tourist central.  She was very sweet and served yogurt, croissants, and fresh homemade strawberry jam on my last morning in St. Petersburg. My next hostess was Natasha.  Her flat was in the perfect location - it was about 5 minutes from the metro and maybe 10 from the Kremlin AND there was a Mexican restaurant down the street whose food was kind of mediocre but served a kick-ass virgin strawberry daiquiri.  The door was a bit hard to work, and it got a little hot, but overall I was happy with my stay in Moscow (at least until I had to walk 45 minutes to get to the Aeroexpress station, but that was my fault for having such an early flight to Venice).  My final host was Lorenzo (there's no link because he doesn't do airBnB anymore).  I intentionally chose to stay with women for the first two, because that felt safer, but his listing mentioned that he had a female flat mate, so that made me feel a little easier about it, and Lorenzo turned out to be an excellent host.  Not only was the flat right next to the Rialto (which means easy access to the vaporetto and Alilaguna boats), my room was spacious, and I had a wardrobe to hang up my clothes in (which I actually took advantage of, since I was there for 11 days).  Venice was bloody hot, and he went above and beyond by going out and buying an electric fan for me to use while I was there.  I'm not sure how I lived without it the first half of the time I was there, but it made a HUGE difference to my comfort level.  Although his flat was on the 4th piano (which translates to the 5th floor for us Americans), I considered it a good thing, with the amount of gelato I ate during the week.  I also didn't mind when his water heater had a couple of issues (which he was prompt in attending to) while I was there - I spent all day sweating, and I ended up taking cool showers even when the hot water was cooperating.
My stay in Kyoto has been my favorite, though.  Taka-san owns a traditional Kyoto house with tatami rooms and paper-thin walls.  When I went to Tokyo two-some years ago, I stayed in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), where I had the experience with tatami, and a futon, and a Japanese style bath.  I decided I was never staying in a hotel in Japan again, especially since the cramped little room I had my first trip to Kyoto cost me a whopping $130/night, and had zero character.  The problem, though, when I started looking for a place this trip, was that the ryokan were either too expensive, in places where I didn't want to stay, or both.  So when I found Taka-san's Kyo-machiya, I booked it, even though it was non-refundable and our fall vacation hadn't been confirmed yet.
Best decision ever.  It was exactly what I wanted - besides the whole traditional culture thing, it was relatively close to everything.  He also has a gallery set up in his "living room," in which was displayed some of the coolest art I saw my whole visit - a series of anime-style watercolors that told the story of a boy and a girl meeting at a festival.  He owns two bikes that he rents to his guests for a whopping 300 yen a day, so even the things you can't easily see by foot, bus, or metro are really accessible...although learn from my fail.  I fought the law, and the law won.  The day I rented it, I was on my way back to the house when I passed one of the shopping arcades, and decided to stop and take a look around.  There were no legal spaces, and other people had illegally parked their bikes, so I decided to yolo it.  After relying on the kindness of strangers (and Japanese strangers truly are kind!  This ojisan who was dealing with the same problem let me follow him to bike prison) and paying 2300 yen (which is apparently super reasonable for having your bike impounded) I had my bike back and was wishing even more fervently to be able to move to Japan.  It's weird, but I kind of miss living with people who hold you accountable for following the rules.

It was across the street from the zoo, and when I woke in the early mornings I could hear snuffles and grunts from our neighbors.  I could also hear snores from the other guests.  See, many airBnBs have multiple rooms they rent out, which feels a little like a drawback of the system.  None of the other guests in Kyoto were a problem - everyone was very polite (which is kind of a pain in and of itself...when you're staying in someone's home, you feel like you have to be on your best behavior, while at a hotel, you can stink up the room with your poops and not have to worry about offending anyone) - but some of the guests at Lorenzo's came home one night at about two, noisy and (presumably) super drunk.  Another quasi-problem is getting in.  People's homes are harder to find than hotels, and you kind of have to arrange when you'll get there, rather than just showing up.  Contact numbers are listed, in case you get lost, but I rarely bother with getting a sim card when I travel, so when I couldn't find Irina's, I had to find an open wifi network and use my skype credit to call her.
Parting gifts from Taka-san

Overall,  AirBnB is a different experience.  It gives you the opportunity to get to know people from other parts of the world more deeply than you would if you were in a hotel - if you're into that sort of thing - but it's also not their job to help you out.  All of my hosts were extremely gracious, but I didn't ask for a lot from them.  All in all, it's an interesting and often cheaper way to see the world, and I feel like it is probably a pretty good deal for the hosts.  I haven't used it every time I've traveled since I started, but if it makes sense to do so, and you can find one that you're comfortable with, I say go for it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Buy It Here: Fabric Shopping

It's my fourth day wearing black.  I'm in mourning, you see - my home country appears to be on the brink of burning to the ground.  Maybe I'm exaggerating.  I'd love to be wrong.  When I saw my Dark Lord and Master on Facebook yesterday morning, I hit him up for some words of comfort.  As usual, he answered with a thoughtful, well-written analysis, and it made me feel a little better (admittedly, he's a man who considers Chinggis Khaan to be one of history's greats and a personal hero, but since I'm surrounded by people like that, it didn't actually take anything away from what he had to say).  Still, I'm concerned.  I almost wish I was going home, so that I could fight the thing that really worries me - the ignorance and hate that has already started rearing its ugly head, if Twitter is to be believed.

But I'm not.  If I can't get my dream job, I'll stay longer, or go wherever I can, if they've already replaced me by the time I give up hope.  In that case I'd like to leave something behind.  Guidance, let's say, for the next person who comes along.  So I'm going to try to write some find-it posts.  Last time I showed off my sewing projects, so it seems apropos to start with where to find sewing stuff.
I use a lot of special stuff for my plushies that was brought from the States, but obviously I can't fit all the yards and meters of fabric I need in my suitcase.  Summer taught me that if I'm home, I should start and finish looking at JoAnn's, because they literally have everything.  Unfortunately, Mongolia doesn't have JoAnn's.  Or Michaels.  Or even a freaking Hobby Lobby.  What it DOES have is Naran Tuul - aka, the Black Market.  Not that kind of black market.  This one is legit (a fact that I already mentioned when I wrote about it my first year)...when it isn't on fire (yes, that's happened, fortunately in the early morning while no one was there).  And amongst the many, many things that are available there is fabric.   There are two similar blue-roofed buildings in the Black Market.  The fabric and associated supplies are in the left hand one, if you're looking from the front.

You have to do the proper mental preparation before you go to the Black Market.  It's crowded, and busy, and there's not a lot of space.  People will push past you, and if you try to be polite and wait for people to get out of your way, you'll be there a long time.  There are also pickpockets, so you have to be aware of your surroundings (and for the love of everything good, if someone offers to take you there, don't give them panic attacks by having your passport on you!)  But it's my best suggestion for one-stop fabric shopping that doesn't involve getting on a plane (I left Korea nine years ago and I still miss Dongdaemun).  They have a variety of fabric, buttons, ribbons, thread - most of what you're going to need - and bargaining is sort of expected.  For me, the drawback is that it can be really dirty.  The fabric market is covered, but not fully enclosed, so all of the coal dust/dust/other pollution stands a chance of coming into contact with your cloth.  Most of the fleece I bought there I just washed once and it was fine, but I bought some pale pink this fall that I ended up using most of my supply of Goop to clean...and it still has some nasty spots.
There are other options, of course.  One is the variety of small shops scattered around, called "boos baraa" ѲС БАРАА).  There are a number of these on Baga Toiruu, up the street from the Flower Center, past the stop light and on the other side, but I've seen them in other places as well.
The ones on Baga Toiruu seem like to function like the fabric market in Shanghai - you can actually get clothes made there.  And by clothes, I mean deel.  And by fabric, I mean silk deel cloth.  Four-plus years I've been here and I still haven't had traditional Mongolian clothes made for me, but when I stumbled into this shop, I almost did it that day.  They had Hello Kitty fabric.  Hello Kitty isn't really my kind of anime, but she's one of the few cartoon characters Babysis has any attachment to, thus, Bunny loves her.  It is possible that Bunny loved my new Hello Kitty skirt so much that she demanded I bring it to dress up at the family reunion this summer - you won't know for sure because I've censored the photos, but let's just say that when a three-year old tells her favorite aunt that she only gets to see twice a year to bring her "tutu," it happens.  I haven't given Bunny a deel yet, mostly because Babysis wouldn't appreciate it, but this might be the year.  It can't possibly be worse than the glitter-covered Rapunzel dress she got from me last year!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Queen of the Nerds

I've been enjoying a sort of creative renaissance this year.  There's been a lot of art - some drawing (which I'll get to at some point), some workshops, and my sort-of obsession:  my plushies.  Even before I saw what C2E2 had to offer, I was intrigued by the idea of making my own, and had purchased some fabric at Hobby Lobby last Christmas to that end.  However, it took seeing the injustice in their lack of anime goods (particularly for female otakus otomes.  Apparently this is the word - translated as maiden - for hardcore girl geeks), and the poor quality of the ones I did find to spur me into doing something about it, and in April I made my first doll - Kakashi Sensei from Naruto.  At the time, I was super impressed with myself.

I could look back at how naive I was now and laugh myself silly.  But if I hadn't been reasonably impressed with myself, I might not have gone on to make more, or have entered my second in the contest at AnimeIowa, so I'll forgive my own naivete.
The idea of making anime plush first came because I'd seen drawings like these where a character is snuggling a doll.  The drawings were super kawaii...the actual plushies you can buy, not so much.  I get what they are going for, with the big anime eyes and chibi heads, but their execution sucks.  I had a pattern from a service project the Relief Society did when I lived in Shanghai, and after experimenting with it some, I decided to separate the head from the body.
Here's my take on the two above characters (Erza and Jellal, from Fairy Tail).  Honestly, they are not the most perfect thing anyone's ever made - Jellal's head is a little crooked and Erza's eyes are higher than I'd like.  However each time I do one, I figure out how to make them better.  Jellal was my fifth design and Erza was my seventh, and I still get excited with the challenge of figuring out how to make them.
As an example, when I got back to Mongolia in August, I intended to hop in and get everything ready for the coming school year.  Instead, I spent basically an entire week at my desk sewing while watching Inuyasha (which I had read before so I wouldn't particularly care if I missed a subtitle here or there...let me tell you, it is difficult to sew while watching something in a language you don't speak).  Erina was my first girl plushie, and until recently was my masterpiece...the amount of work that went into her hair!  The color wasn't quite right, but since I was back here by then I kinda had to let it go.  Fortunately I got the print for the skirt pretty much right.  It was such a pain in the ass, but totally worth it to see the look on the Kawaii Kingpin's face when I gave her to him.
Having finished her, I decided I was up for a different kind of challenge.  My second plushie was Kishitani Shinra from Durarara!!, one of my top male characters in all of anime.  One of the reasons I love him so much is because of his relationship with Celty - a headless dullahan who rides the streets of Ikebukuro on her horse-become-motorcycle (I know, it sounds ridiculous.  Trust me when I say she's a badass).  So she became my next project.  Her helmet was the hard part; I spent a lot of time figuring out how the pieces would fit together.  It didn't turn out as three-dimensional as I intended, but I enjoyed a break from hair and clothes, since neither were an issue for her.

One of the things I didn't like about the way Jellal turned out was his hair.  This was one of my first challenges - starting from when I made Kakashi Sensei - and it took me until my sixth - Sasuke, also from Naruto - to come up with a reasonably satisfactory solution.  The construction of his stupid duck-tail hair was an even more enormous pain in the ass than Erina's...hers was long and involved a lot of embroidery, but his took about 6 different pieces of material stitched together.  That said, it did turn out the way I was hoping.  I also made my first kimono-style top for him.  Up to this point, I kept the clothing patterns relatively simple - the same front and back.  Erina's skirt was the first departure, but it was relatively simple to fold the bottom part and stitch it to the waistband.  Sasuke's shirt was made with a central piece, the two sleeves, and a collar.  You can't tell from the photo, but it also has a scaly pattern on it - I have been slowly pulling the stuffing out of one of my throw pillows, and when I was trying to figure out what fabric to use I realized that the former pillow had a snakeskin-like pattern on it, which seemed totally perfect.  I also had to make the rope that goes around his waist.  If Necessity is the mother of Invention, then she gets it on a lot in Mongolia, because I wasn't able to find thin purple rope.  Maybe if I'd planned to make him while I had access to all the crafting superstores in the States, but he honestly wasn't on my agenda (yes, I have an agenda).  Fortunately I grew up near Kansas City, a true cow town, and when we went to the American Royal in fifth grade, I learned how strands of fiber are twisted together to make rope.  It took an entire skein of purple embroidery floss, but I used the same principle and was able to make a pretty decent version of rope - one of my prouder moments.  One of my former students who saw him on Facebook wanted me to make his sword as well.  At the time, I had no idea how to make a sword, but I did make a very tiny kunai out of Shrinky Dink film last spring, so that's his weapon for now.  After finding it and a little research into katana construction, I'm pretty sure I can make one.  I'll get around to actually doing it eventually.

A week before I left for Kyoto, I realized that I would get a great deal of amusement out of doing photoshoots with one of my plushies (this segment of a video I showed to my seventh graders at the beginning of our plushie unit came to mind, but I did a helluva lot more than just take pictures of dolls, so I ignored it).  The problem was, I hadn't made one that would have the right look for shrine-hopping.  I briefly considered taking Sasuke, especially since I was going to the Ninja Dojo.  The problem was, I have two different sizes I've made, and Sasuke was the bigger of the two, and I wasn't sure I wanted to drag him around Kyoto with me (also, I didn't have red floss to finish the Uchiha crest on his back.  I know - perfectionists).  So with the clock ticking, I started working on Tomoe, and finished about 15 minutes before Enkhaa picked me up for my flight.  In addition to the fact that he wears a kimono, I wanted to work on him because of his fox ears and tail.  With the exception of Celty, everyone's been a pretty standard human, and although I altered the pattern a little to make more of a distinction between girl and boy characters, I felt like adding ears and a tail would add a new challenge.  One of the dolls I'm practicing for...yes, some of these have been practice rounds.  (Psh, like I was going to make my #1 guy - Yato, from Noragami - first and get super frustrated when he's not perfect on my first try...)
I did try making Yato with Sculpey, though...

As I was saying, one of the dolls I'm working my way up to has furry dog ears, and I bought a fur at Hobby Lobby for this exact reason.  Fur is a pain in the butt because it is REALLY hard to cut it without cutting some of the fibers, and it made my nose itch, so it's possible I'm allergic to rabbits (which somehow seems hilarious - being allergic to bunnies).  It's easier to sew than leather, though, so that was a nice, unexpected benefit.

I've never considered myself much of a sculptor.  Most of what I made during college sucked, but maybe that's because the projects I was given weren't that interesting for me (my attempts at clothing were even more of a joke, although my aversion to sewing machines kept me from trying very often).  However, one of the things I really believe as an art teacher is that giving students some freedom in their work brings out what they are actually capable of, and I guess I've sort of proved that in my own life.  I don't think I would argue that my dolls are high works of art (unlike some of the things I saw in Denden Town), but the definition of art is subjective and I get a thrill out of making them, so personally, I don't give a crap whether or not they're considered art.