Food


My childhood household held food that never rests on my pantry shelves. My mother, who cooked or assembled three meals a day for five children and one husband, subscribed to the then food pyramid. Dinner always consisted of a meat, starch and vegetable. Ours was barely a blue collar wage earning home, straddling the middle class line, so my mother bought what was cheap and easy: whole fryer chicken, chuck steak, potatoes, Minute Rice, lamb chops, pork chops, Green Giant canned peas and carrots, corn, beets and green beans. Special meals around the holidays expanded into beef stew, stuffed cabbage and chicken soup. She ground liver, eggs and onions into chopped liver for Passover.

My father liked Devil Dogs, Yankee Doodles and Ring Dings with a tall cup of milk before heading out to work late afternoons, so there were plenty of those box cake snacks in the house, along with my mother’s favorites, Entenmann’s coffee cake or coffee cheese cake. We lived under the fragrant shadows of that cake-snack factory. Entenmann’s filled our stomachs and noses.

After I moved away from home, past the college days of living on graham crackers and cottage cheese or jars of peanut butter, I shied away from those foods. For one, I could not find snack cakes with the same names in California, nor could I afford the price and weight-gain of them. My first job in California landed me in a frozen yogurt shop, where I ate hot fudge yogurt sundaes most every day. I needed to lose a couple dozen pounds after six months there.

But on my own, I chose healthier foods, simpler foods, like veggies and high-fiber carbs. When in my twenties and already married, I started working out at the gym. My intake was largely sugar or fat free, ready-mades and packaged foods until I learned to cook ten years later when my oldest daughter sprouted teeth at 9 months. Then, meals were consciously and conscientiously planned for freshness of ingredients and taste suitable to both the gourmand adults and plebeian small children–not an easy feat.

Before children, my husband and I dined well, sampling Southern California’s finest cuisine and accompanying wine. We were working professionals without children for 16 years, so we honed our pallets here and abroad. We ate plateau de fruits de mer in bistros in Paris; stone-grilled caribou and buffalo in Banff, Canada, apres ski; pabellon criollo in Caracas, Venezuela; and street stand tacos mariscos in San Felipe, Mexico.  We ate haute wherever we went. 

After kids, we had to bring the haute cuisine home, so we hosted dinner parties. I subscribed to Bon Appetit, invested in cooking tools and amassed recipes. I learned to shop for and prepare rib roast and imported French oysters for Christmas dinner and portobello pot roast for Chanukah. I mastered the soufflé and creme brûlée. We served 9 course meals til 2 a.m. to guests lined along stunning tables of Reidel glassware and hand painted China with perfect wine pairings

But then life got busy. The children grew up and into unforgiving, unyielding soccer-school schedules that left us eating on the run, in the car and out the door. My husband and I were back to ready-makes from Trader Joe’s and “healthier” fast foods like chicken rice bowls from Wahoos or Waba Grill. Happily, I still get to cook Thanksgiving dinner every year for the entire 20 to 30 of our clan to keep my cooking skills primed.

And then there was that one year I tried to single-handedly polish off an entire Thanksgiving leftover ten-pound Honey Baked ham, 2006, I believe. So sick, I couldn’t even think about eating meat for weeks. I just never picked up the habit again. I’ve never really missed it, except for the occasional temptation, like the lamb we bought up in Humboldt at the farmer’s market that my niece barbecued or the smell of a burger sizzling in the fry pan.  

Unlike my childhood household, my family never talks about diets or obsesses about food or weight. We did give our daughters choices based on experimentation. Like the times they wanted to eat donuts before playing soccer just like their friends did–instead of the banana or Luna bar I’d give them. I let them. Then, after watching their sluggish performance, I’d ask them how it felt fueling on donuts before a game. That’s all it took.

My mother, who dieted constantly–lurching between binging on a bag of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and going to Weight Watchers–did not impose restrictions on our eating habits unless it was snacking before dinner, but her constant struggle and obsession with weight was modeled to us. Some of us took to conscious eating as a result.

My young daughters wanted to follow my lead and forego the meat, but I did not allow them to until they understood how to eat meatless. Now, both mostly adults, they each have their own versions of a regime suitable to their lifestyles. The older is learning to be a vegan gourmet, while the younger is enjoying the role of test taster. Me too.

Five Years Ago–Happy Revolutions


Facebook reminds me that I have a memory from five years ago, a picture of my then 12 year old daughter in braids and new-budding body and me, lean and less harried (the intervening five years ran roughshod over my face and spirit), walking a 4th of July 5k that is an annual staple of my town, that and the parade that follows. A rare photo in that my younger daughter awoke early to participate in this event with me. She has seen me run all of her life, even gone with me via stroller or bicycle. Running and soccer predominated over our home all of her life.

Except my daughter, a soccer player since a toddler following in her older sister’s footsteps, literally, has never enjoyed running. In fact, her particular style of soccer reveals a constant strategy to minimize sprints and chases. She outsmarts rather than outruns. So, this particular photo reveals the rare and typical: the two of us in an early morning race–walking. 

I remember this day vividly. She and I raced to the race, having awakened late. By the time we reached the starting line, the race had begun and we raced along in the throngs of sneakered early-morning celebrators. We ran our race before it began, a well-known mistake for one who had run dozens of prior races, short and long. Pacing. We had not paced ourselves, so the photo captures us walking at the three-quarters mark, me with serious intent and recovery written on my expression and she with discovery and rescue broadcast on hers. We were enjoying the moment of breath and notice, me ever deep inside myself and she with wonder of the street lined masses outside.

The friend who took the picture much to my surprise traveled in a group tour with me to the Costa Rican Carribbean rain forest jungle on a yoga retreat. We became waterfall hiking companions as well as yoga classmates on the trip and afterward at the health club we both attended. I did not know he had taken the picture until he posted it on my wall. That memory and all it blankets coupled with a coffee quiet morning foreshadows a lovely 4th. 

Happy, peaceful revolutions to you all.

Preview of Upcoming Publication: Yoga and Gravity Unbound


Happy International Yoga Day. In honor, I have written a soon-to-be-published essay about yoga, meditation, gravity, growth, language, presence and play.

“Growing up” is the metaphor, like a slow-rocket burst through the air in defiance of gravity. So many metaphors about that first half of the arc that rainbows our lives bespeak struggle against warring forces like the pitfalls of acquiring experience called trial and error and raging hormonal bodily take-over that is puberty. Not only the breaking through, busting out and bursting metaphors of rising roots characterize maturing, but also minefield metaphors of making mistakes as we learn, falling in missteps (failing a driver’s license test, picking the wrong partner, losing a job) and picking oneself up from such falls. Struggle.

Learning our bodies and minds requires overcoming. Charlotte Joko Beck in Everyday Zen writes about the spiritual growth of achieving zen and states that “the process of becoming fully independent (or of experiencing that we already are that) is to be terror, over and over and over.” Our struggle lies in the fear of breaking free of our own mind chains–of falling.

National Tolkien Reading Day

  
Guess I missed it yesterday, the day devoted to reading Tolkien. And while I would not have read any Tolkien, I would have paid honor in some way as he is one of my most influential writers. Not so much for style or even content as timing.

My earliest reading memory is tied to him. In sixth grade, the reading light went on. Somehow it struck me that with a dictionary and determination, I could read just about anything. I had proven it by trudging my way through The Hobbit, an assigned reading by my ambitious sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Allgrove. Though I begrudged that woman many things while sitting long days in her class, reading Edgar Allen Poe stories to us was not one of them–nor assigning us Tolkien.

She was ambitious for us 11 year olds, and I took up the challenge. Reading The Hobbit was painstakingly difficult but I had a profound sense of accomplishment and enlightenment after finishing the book. Not so much for the story, which reached me in mere wispy shadows at the corners of my imagination, thin strands of plot but thick with magical atmosphere and mystery. More so that I had cracked some code or found the secret password and entered the club. I could read hard books.

After that I ventured into many books, too many to count. I am a reader. I attribute that love to Tolkien who lured me with mystery. My attempt to do the same for my own children did not work as well. I found an amazing illustrated text of The Hobbit for kids, drawings that plucked the fright out of the spider scene or the eerie from Gollum. But it bored and frightened my kids. They were not six graders yet. Maybe premature. They did not even see the movie when it came out. I surely did.

Tolkien totally enveloped my world when I was fifteen, the year I read the trilogy. The Lord of the Rings not only captivated my imagination, but yanked at the seams of longing and teenage angst. The darkness of that book was my own darkness, deep and well traveled. The torture of that darkness produced by the most majestically fabulous language spoke everything to me: horror and beauty. 

I lived in Middle Earth, at the edge of Mordor, in the realm of invisibility that was becoming more and more addictive. The landscape was my own insecurities and sorrow as I traveled through the tunnel from sad teenager to savvy teenager. By the time the ring was tossed into the abyss, I had come out of my own cave to see that the world was brighter than I imagined. I lost some of my perpetual glum, which I wore like the makeup other girls wore to make them–in their minds–more socially acceptable and attractive.

I learned to speak Elvish. My best friend and I spent one Halloween in a cemetary drinking Schmidts beer (a little over a buck a six pack back then) and smoking hash scaring the shit out of each other with visions of Mordor. I lived this world not only while I read the books but in the long aftermath of its lingering imaginative aroma. I hated finishing the books, my long, long absorption in the world coming to an abrupt end.

My love for The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien stayed with me like a first love. The untainted visions and preserved excitement of total disappearance into another world were sacred to me, so much so that when the movies came out, I refused to see them. I did not want my own mental creations of the characters to be displaced by someone else’s casting. I wanted nothing to do with that.

Until I entered graduate school for the second time at the age of 43. I went back to school to get a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of California at Riverside on a fellowship. One professor in the program took a special interest in me and invited me to a small group of three students to do an independent studies course in flash fiction under her tutelage. After I agreed, the course turned out to be a delving into the holocaust and feminism, two subjects I wanted to avoid.

Interestingly, the course reading list included The Lord of the Rings. When I saw that title, I became both excited and anguished. Did I want to spoil the specially preserved place of that book that I read purely for pelasure and out of curiosity by dissecting it until the juices were totally bled out of the words?

The same books from 1975, yellowed with decades of shelf time, came to my aid in 2003. It was like a time warp. I read the books as if for the first time and enjoyed them without critical interference, which was my wont 28 years later with a couple of literature degrees under my belt and several teaching years. As is often the case with acquired analytical expertise, the innocence of a subject under analysis is lost when the invisible lines of creation are exposed.

But that did not happen with The Lord of the Rings. And even after taking some wild bent roller coaster ride of a term paper outlining the underlying sexual tension of the menage a trois between hobbits and gollum-like creatures (Oy, don’t ask), I had fun reading the book even while destroying its innocence with interpretive analysis. It was the easiest paper to write, and I had the most fun writing it, unparalleled to any before or after.

But I still refused to see the movies for months afterward–until I did. I had the director’s cut of all three of them. I sat down in pj’s for the weekend and dove in. And yes, my initial impressions and imagined beings have been displaced but the movies were faithful and enchanting. I admired Jackson’s devotion to the spirit of the text. I was once again immersed in the world with its strange and wonderful journey, mine once again. 

Tolkien has taken me far, stretched me through the years. I am forever indebted to him and his creations far more than I can express in my own plebian words. And though I am not a dedicated fan of fantasy adventure novels (though I have read a fair amount of them), I attribute Tolkien to both my love of reading and my disinterest in most fantasy adventure stories. I had trouble getting through all of the Harry Potter books. In every fantasy story I have read since, I recognize some “borrowing” from Tolkien. 

He was the master after all. He set the prototype. Everything after cannot be but some poor imitation, switch-up or clear avoidance of everything he imagined. The greats do that: pull us along and then intimidate the hell out of us. Thanks J.R.R. I am always reading you, regardless of book in hand or not. Cheers!

Winter in Surf City

  

 
The wind rousts the waves, whipping up a spectacular show of nature’s force and beauty to those witnessing the tossed foam-topped ocean performing under a late winter sun. From across a busy mid-day Pacific Coast Highway, I play poet peering through the glass of an upscale oceanfront cafeteria serving curry roasted cauliflower salad and vegetarian chili–my odd lunch pairing. I enjoy the view thanks to a brand new construction, Pacific City, which is the latest installment of gentrified downtown Surf City.
 
Downtown Huntington Beach (aka Surf City) has come a long way since I first took up residency in 1977. Back then, the spot upon which I write in this clean, stark-modern restaurant with solid white, kelly green, lemon-aid yellow and teal faux art deco tables, chairs and leatherette booths, was probably a run down gas station or liquor store back then. An outlier of Main Street where the original Jack’s Surfboards and the YMCA youth hostel sucked up a city-like block with its ramshackle broken down brick front and faded letters, my current location was a strip of highway fodder to drive past on the way to more happening places like the arty Laguna Hills or more-widely known for its naval installation, San Diego.
 
If memory serves, my dining spot sidles the former location of the Golden Bear nightclub, which drew significant music-loving crowds. Featuring artists such as Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, the Golden Bear cafe, turned restaurant turned music hall hosted serious madcap concert-going experiences for a good 63 years before it closed in 1986, probably at the advent of the city’s huge facelift planning phase–even before the Waterfront Hilton and Hyatt moved in to accommodate tourists venturing into this former sleepy beach town.
 
Only I would not characterize the downtown of the 70s and 80s as sleepy so much as sleazy. Yes, the surf culture pervaded, which in itself did not account for the run-down, neglected downtown even local folk felt slightly wary of at night. No, between the oil drills along the beach by the dozens and the off shore rigs peppering the ocean front view, there did not seem to be reason for investors to take note. And lease holdings were tied up tightly at that time to oil contractors and developers.
 
So, with the world-renown U.S. Open of Surfing’s arrival each year for the last 60 or 70 years (and its 9-day festival), only one of about 50 surf competitions that take place in Huntington Beach annually, I’m sure many chop-licking promoters, developers and real estate moguls begrudged the wasted, unexploited prime realty. Probably about the same time some of those long-term lease holdings expired and the oil drills disappeared, money rolled in and Huntington Beach began its slow 20 year upgrade.
 
So here I sit, thinking about that grungy YMCA with its “dirty hippy” (as my friend’s parents would say), drug-addled or merely down-and-out on their luck clientele, where my best friend stayed while he visited me a few months after I moved to Southern California from the suburbs of Long Island, New York that winter of 77. We were dirty hippies back then too so didn’t think twice about the sub-par accommodations. It was affordable, and I did not feel the “unsavoriness” of the place until a well-intentioned passerby informed me that the place was a dangerous dump full of criminals.
 
My best friend was no criminal unless you consider smoking pot and under-age drinking criminal rather than mere exploratory indiscretions of teens being teens. We two criminals or adventurers (depending on your rigid adherence to the law) flop-housed at the Y and dug the ocean’s roiling and rolling, its contrasting aqua marine to the Atlantic’s sea salt brown, and the frisbee-throwing 65-degree winter weather (from an east coaster perspective).
 
Disheveled downtown was our town back then–for that week anyhow–a place to kick around and watch the placard-waving, end-of-times barkers and strung out sun-and-booze blanched surfers splayed here and there against downtown restaurant or head shop walls, or near the Golden Bear, probably scene of the last sober moment before getting tossed or passing out. We walked the length of the city’s beach front and all over the town, miles of it, as tourist-residents.
 
A far cry from this pleasant, well-dressed, muted-pretentious, upscale open-air strip mall on steroids with its second tier cushioned lounge chairs parked alongside a balcony view of the ocean dancing before a paying audience. It’s clean. It’s orderly. And it smells better than the vomitous former downtown stench emanating from alleyway pockets, but somehow not quite as personable and dauntless.
 
Taking one last look at the rarely clear outline of Catalina Island jutting into the horizon, creating the illusion of the ocean-as-bay from my limited human perception, I pull out the parking ticket for validation. The $12.00 parking fee, yet another reminder that I am, yet again not, in my own hometown, is a first for this town. I know of no other place in the city with comparable parking fees. But hey, I could have walked the mile to get here too. Just like I did in 1977, the last time I pal’d around with my best friend, just being us.

She Like Me

  

I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think interior decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves –  Anna Quindlen

Over jack fruit tacos, fresh chips and salsa and pumpkin bisque, she repeats the urgency to me. “At my age, I feel I should be on some path. I thought I had one, but now I don’t know what to do.”

She is 20. Her eyes glimmer the sea’s green under the sun.

“Maybe you’re already on your path,” I offer. “Searching and yearning is a path you return to periodically throughout your life, I suspect, judging from my own. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”

She dips a chip, swivels and scoops the salsa to her mouth, chewing and thinking.

“No one gets how interesting it is that the same Aussie passes by the same spot outside the store each time I work.” 

She’s off on a new topic, obviously. 

“Or that the old dude with the baggy pants and dead cigar, who sits on the bench watching people go by is not creepy, just lonely. No one finds interesting the same things I do. No one even notices the same things I do. They just look at me blankly, like ‘I don’t get it.'”

Maybe she is not onto another topic after all, I think, and say to her, “You have the eyes and notice of a writer. Perhaps you should write.”

I smile inside at the thought–of her writing, of her at 20, and of her as my daughter. Her terrible beauty in striving splashes coolly recollected imagery over me of the shadow passion of a younger woman, far less stunning but more deeply driven. I too wanted to know my path back then, a college student looking for purpose and love and hating both, the need for either. I too was unable to see the road under my feet for my eyes focused farther down the way.

I mindlessly bring a chip to my lips and the crunching disrupts my musing. Watching her animated face, her lively expression full of open mouth laughter and wide eyed indignity at the passing observations, wishes and gripes she tosses out over half eaten tacos, I marvel at this bundle of gesticulations and well-spun tales of friends becoming strangers and strangers turned friends, this woman of my making with well-chosen words to help me see.

I see me and not me in her at 20. I only hope I was as engaging and fascinating a lunch date as she.

 

The Two of Us

  

There is a photograph of you and me, our heads are contorted from sleeping upright in the back of a car, your face clearly lost to sleep, my long neck extended bent as far back as humanly possible without losing the head–only my head is actually cut off. My face stops at the chin; only the widely exposed distorted neck, almost serpentinely composed, and your sleeping face suggests that I have surrendered to what I could no longer fight.

Your haircut reflects the 80s, mullets being the fashion, which you sported briefly. I had one too, though straight hair does more justice to outline the do than my curly hair. We were young, maybe our mid-twenties and traveling, exhausted with too much caffeine and too little sleep. Our clothing suggests spring time or fall, light half sleeved unjacketed shirts and jeans. 

I cannot place the specific occasion of our sleeping in the back of a car or who took the picture. Our sister in law gave it to us this past holiday season and laughed, saying she had meant to give this picture to us for years, each time she came across it in her belongings. And this year was the year, though I don’t know why. The randomness of things stuns me slightly.

You and I share so much history, large and small, remembered and forgotten, largely the latter, and not for lack of significance so much as sheer length of time, the innumerable moments we have lived together. We grew ourselves from teenagers til these current waning years of our youth, of our lives. 

And we have suffered and joyed in measure to most, all of life’s gifts and trials. We have fared well you and I, though you would look askance on that affirmation. And then I would remind you about the synaptic net you form in your brain with such negativity. 

Thus it is with us, we who co-exist inhaling the dust of our pasts every day, lugging it inside us like weightless trunks of paperless snapshots and report cards and love letters we never kept or even wrote except in the air, in the doing and being of us, so that when life folds up neatly to square off a life lived, we’ll have nothing left to us but shared time, the illusion of being.

Lord knows, I cannot imagine having shared illusions with anyone else.

Hair

  
My older sister played the grooves off this album in 1971. I can still recite every word to some of the songs, and I often burst into a refrain of “Aquarius” when my first-born, Aquarian, squares some of her traits to her zodiac sign. Sometimes I belt out the tune merely because it is such a belting kind of song and the edge of my range register of the song can induce a near spiritual experience or maybe it’s just the oxygen deprivation.

Hair defines. 

My hair has always been a badge of horror and honor. Growing up in the hippy long straight hair parted down the middle fashion era, my hair was a horror. I was mortified that my mother had to cut my black frizzy mop very short, pixie style, to save her the time and grief of taming it, the snarls and fuzz that did not hang but billowed everywhere like a balloon around my head. My hair grew out not down. 

But in the 70s when Jimi Hendrix had already made his mark and died to solidify it, somehow afros for everyone called the day. Then, my hair was perfect. A pic and a shake set the wide puffy do–like a giant woolly black powder puff–for the day. Not a hair primper, that suited me fine. 

When the 80s arrived with its feathered bangs and poof teased hairstyles that required hair to hang up and down vertically not horizontally, I was in trouble again. Though my hair did a bit of a mullet in the early 80s, it was back to the search for the perfect stylist professional enough to make order out of the chaos that was my willful unmatched sides of thick naturally unruly curls doing their own thing. Terri and John did decent jobs with my head for the shearing every couple of months I endured to keep legit.

After the 90s, short hair to medium length hair cuts managed a certain neat professionalism to my look until the end of the first decade of the new millennium when the ever-tightening yet losing the grip of my hair’s will came to an end with Gina, the whispering sideline soccer mom color specialist who subtly wooed me into her kitchen swivel chair for the leap into another’s appearance: long blonde, straight hair. 

And the chorus kicks in:

Gimme a head with hair

Long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming

Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair

Shoulder length or longer

Here baby, there mama

Everywhere daddy daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair

Slow but Quick Day of Enforced Rest

 
 
Christmas day felt like a jail sentence to a Jewish kid growing up in a largely gentile neighborhood in the sixties and seventies. When I was 4, my parents moved the family out to the burbs, away from Brooklyn’s dirt, crime and Jews. It was not their intention to remove us from tribe, but the trade off was a clean newly built blue collar neighborhood in which my mother could build a home. Ours was the lone house on the block without Christmas lights every December, the one with the large bay window sporting an electric menorah with blue light bulbs that turned slightly to the right to light up, each of the 8 nights. I remember both loving and hating the singularity of our tradition on this street in our town on Long Island.
 
But nothing compared to the boredom of Christmas day when there were no friends to call on, no malls to hang out at, no stores to browse in or anywhere to go really. My folks could not afford to take all 7 of us to the movies and only every once in a while we made it out to a Chinese restaurant. The day seemed endless, especially since I never watched much television and was not much of a reader before age 12. Time made its magic back then, elongating for miles in psychological hyper awareness and mental ticks to routine stuff I was not able to do.
 
Now, the opportunity to be imprisoned, pajama-clad in front of the fire the entire day, watching movies I did not know even existed, not cooking, cleaning or even eating most of the day winds down the year perfectly, like a day-long vacation. Permission granted, I laze and luxuriate in voluntary house arrest that whizzes by in the magical time of a slow-but-quick winter day. Gone too soon.
Peace.

Curbside Patties

 
 
Where wander childhood sensations abandoned at the adult door?

Where hides the hood in childhood–buried where, by whom?

Who animates ghost crumb trails lost to fingers of leafy time

casts art’s poetry, memoir or history’s smokey sincerity.
 

But the curiously cured shank of hooded time stored in dark canals,

in brain crevices seeping imagery flattened and folded fit for life,

ages salty sweet in half notions nestled inside enormous desire,

full fledged and bloated with expectation un-dampened:
 

A six-year old, hair a twiggy tangle, growing to the wind, sitting

curbside, forming perfect patties from the meaty pliant mud,

shapes the real from earth and imagination aligned just so,

when nature taught her no bounds to science, only hands.