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Oklahoma

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I’m not even sure how to start this.  I grew up in Oklahoma, way out in the country, on ten acres of land.  We had chickens.  We could walk and walk and build forts and forget where they were and build more the next day.  We were so lucky.

When I was a kid, my family listened to the seasonal tornado reports on the t.v., and tried not to panic.  We had a closet under the stairs where we went during the serious tornado warnings, when the sirens would actually go off.  My mom and dad always said we’d be protected if it got bad, because they’d drag a mattress over our bodies if the storm got really close.  But it never happened.  In fifteen years, we never had to drag the mattress over our bodies.  We were lucky.

One time, we had a close one.  When I was 8 or 9, I remember an afternoon — or maybe it was evening.  You see, when a tornado is coming, you have no clue what time of day it is.  It’s just gray.  Infinite gray and ominous.  There’s almost NO movement in the air, but, like those moments in a horror movie, when the music builds, and you know the monster is coming — you can feel the danger.

We felt it.  Danger.  If we were dogs, the hairs on the backs of our necks would have stood up.  I’m pretty sure the hairs on the back of my neck stood up anyway

We stood on the back deck and looked at the sky . . . and then we saw it.  We saw the funnel.  We saw it forming.  It was alive and it was dark and crafty and mean — mean as a black, slithering snake.  It was coming after whatever was in its path.  We shivered and prayed to God we were not in its path.  As we watched, it formed and started moving away from our house, so we relaxed.  And then we had dinner, like nothing had happened.  I think we had taco salad.

Yesterday, as I listened to the news, I sat waiting, denying and praying.  Waiting to hear from my family.  Denying that they’d have to get the mattress and hide in the closet.  Praying for their safety.   I am not religious.  I don’t name what I believe.  But I believe.  I believe so strongly.  And I prayed.  Because I believe this universe, whatever your religion or beliefs, is built on energy and thoughts and love and the electricity that emanates from all of us – so I sent it out as strongly as I could.  I prayed.  Hard.  I could not live without my family.  It doesn’t matter how far away they are or how long it’s been since we’ve talked – they are me.  Our connection is beyond visceral.   My love for them is infinite, and I know they love me equally.  I found myself mentally making a violent argument to the heavens, arguing that my family MUST be saved, because so many people would be shattered if he/she/they decided to take the souls I loved so much.  Then, I started making deals:

I’LL DO MORE.

I’LL BE BETTER AT FORGIVENESS.

PLEASE, LET THEM BE SAFE, GOD.  I’LL DO ANYTHING.

My prayers were answered, and my family is safe.  Did my prayers work?  Did I pray harder than someone else?  No.  I did not.  My family got lucky.  So many other people did not.  I feel devastated and horrified and relieved and guilty for feeling relieved.  I watch news reports of Moore, Oklahoma, 5 miles from my mom’s house, and I see what looks like a war zone.  And yet there was no enemy, was there?  Was it God?  How could God let this happen?  How could this be pre-ordained?  It doesn’t seem possible.  Why?  How could He have let this happen?  I have no idea.

I wish I had some wisdom.  I wish I could give a cerebral, beautiful, thoughtful, calming explanation for the massive devastation that has happened in my home state, but I can’t.

I know that the past 48 hours have made me realize how incredibly fortunate I am.  I know my family and I were spared.  I know that this horrific tragedy has pulled my life into perspective, lickety-split.  Problems that seemed overwhelming no longer loom.  I pray that it’s awakened others.  I pray that we all take a step back and breathe and help.

And I thank the universe for every breath.

UNCLE BILL

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How’s that for a smile, huh?  That is the face of my Uncle Bill.  For most of my childhood, Bill lived with my grandparents, but, when my grandparents died, he moved in with his sister, my mom.  So Uncle Bill became a part of our everyday lives.  He had the energy of a puppy, the joy of a four year old kid and the capacity for love of . . . well, there’s just no comparison.  It doesn’t exist.  Bill had an infinite capacity for both giving and receiving love.  He taught me how to really HUG and how to love unconditionally and without hesitation.  He didn’t know how to be dishonest.

Me:  “Bill, did you take that last cookie, when you knew I was saving it?”

Bill:  (Without pause) “Yes.”

How could anyone get mad at that face?

This July, Bill will be 59 years old.  Most people with Down Syndrome develop Alzheimer’s, if they live into old age, and Bill is, sadly, not the exception to that rule.  He’s lost a lot of his awareness, vocabulary, and his mental and physical abilities, but he’s still able to live at home.  That’s because my mom has been caring so beautifully for him twenty-four hours a day, for the past twenty-five years.

My mom, as a full-time caregiver, has had one absolute saving grace in recent years — a facility in Oklahoma called Full Circle.   It’s an incredible place, where families can take their elderly and disabled loved ones for the day.  It’s like Summer Camp for Grandma . . . except it goes on all year long, and it’s staffed by angels.  It’s such a happy place.  Any time I walk into Full Circle, I feel like I’m at a party.  They engage the clients with music, art and numerous activities, sort of like a little school.  Most importantly, however, the staff members give them love and understanding and infinite patience.  I am always amazed at the pure light that radiates around this staff.  I am beyond thrilled to support this organization in any way possible, knowing how vital Full Circle is to both my mom and all of the families it helps.

So I’m writing about my Uncle Bill to encourage anyone looking for a worthy organization to support to consider donating to Full Circle.  The funds they receive go directly to their operations.  They are not bogged down by bureaucracy, and they don’t spend tens of thousands of dollars on red carpet galas at fancy hotels.  They use all donations to keep the lights on and the doors open.  They’re having an open house/bake sale tomorrow, and they’ve received a corporate pledge to MATCH any funds they receive, so timing is crucial.  I can’t be there tomorrow to buy brownies, but I can send a few bucks online.  If you want to see your tax-exempt dollars going directly to people in need, I urge you to give Full Circle some serious consideration.

http://www.fullcircleok.org

Writers’ Block

How ironic that I’m writing in the middle of writers’ block.  So, I’ve semi-abandoned my blog in the past few months as I was working on “real” writing.  I wrote a television script and a couple of short stories and am now working on two wildly different screenplays.  So, in the process, I decided to ditch the writing outlet that actually brings me joy beyond compare?? Huh?   This blog is the place I can write and feel release.  And feel fully human.   I hear songs in my head when I write this blog.  Maurane when I’m feeling contemplative.  Natalie Merchant when I’m needy.  Colin Haye when I’m unfulfilled.  Annie Villeneuve when I need a moment to escape.  Melissa Etheridge’s most recent album, INDIANA, when I’m feeling unruly and need to scream.  And always, Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.”  It’s a total cliche, I know, but it’s such a beautiful reminder that at every moment you can start over.  START OVER.  Push reset, as I tell my 5 year old.  You may have had a crap morning, but just push RESET in your brain and have a gorgeous afternoon.   And when you’re in the midst of writers’ block, blast music, chop some veggies and FEEL.  Just feel all the good and the bad and the, frankly, ugly of the inner workings of your brain.  It may be chaotic, but it’s all yours.

So here I am.  I’m holed up, writing.  And I need food, right?

MiniHarvest

 

I harvested my dwindling winter garden and set to work.  Um.  I’d like to take credit for my creativity and zest for creation, but, as I said, I’m BLOCKED.  So I simply shaved all the vegetables — celery, beets, carrots, scallions — and tossed them with olive oil, lemon zest and gorgeous, crunchy salt.  Then, I cooked some green, French lentils in a bit of tomato paste (and browned it thoroughly, thank you, Mario Batali, for the tip), added a splash of water, and let them simmer.  I scooped up the lentils alongside the veggies, put a dollop of Greek yogurt and a hefty downpour of Nutritional Yeast (please see past postings on the brilliance of NY) on top.  Finish off the whole mess with a bit of reduced balsamic vinegar and a generous drizzle of fresh walnut oil and you, my friends, have got a meal.  No need for slaughter.  Just electric, exceptional food, straight from the source.

Gotta go.  I’m suddenly inspired . . .

 

 

 

 

July 19, 2012

Well, it’s here.  I don’t know if I ever thought this day would come.  15 years.  It’s been 15 years since I last felt my dad’s hug.  15 years since I heard him sing “Mares Eat Oats,” and watched his eyes crinkle as he cracked up.  When he died, I didn’t think I’d be able to go on.  I didn’t think I’d be able to love again or laugh, and I certainly did not think I could ever have a child – because she would not know my dad.  And then a wise man told me – your father will know your daughter before you do.  She will come to you, still warm from his arms.  And I was comforted.

Today, I don’t feel comfortable.  I miss him.  I wish he could spend time with my daughter and hear her tell a joke and give her one of his crazy hawa-raspberry kisses he used to give me.  If he were here, he would scold me for not taking better care of myself and praise me for being a good mama, and he would hug me no matter what.

My dad was born in 1924.  He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and he shouldn’t have made it.  But he did.  He brought home a purple heart and a set of US Army-issued dog tags I wear with pride.  He survived a horrific war, against enormous odds, and found the strength to go on and thrive.  He had me and all of my brothers and sisters, and he was PRESENT.  He didn’t live in the past.  He worried about the future, of course, but he allowed himself to indulge in the present.  He snuggled the babies and danced with my mom whenever Glenn Miller played.  He sang old radio novelty songs and, even when I was 25 years old, grabbed my hand to cross a parking lot.  He taught me that mistakes are what make us who we are, and, without them, we would be boring.  He taught me to be honest, and he taught me how to pray.

The curse of having an incredible father is the intense, soulful pain of not having him forever.  I once knew a little girl who, when teased, would say “That hurts me in my feelings.”  Not being able to talk to my dad and rest my head on his chest and feel his arms around me hurts me in my feelings.  It makes my guts twist and my eyes storm, and it doesn’t go away.  It abates at times and I can put it in a closet for a bit, but it doesn’t go away.  15 years sounds like a long time, but it feels like he was just here.

Cravings

When I was a little kid in Seattle, my family sponsored another family to come over from Vietnam and live with us.  It was the ‘70’s, and my dad heard from my uncle that there were Vietnamese families with kids who had to get out of there NOW.  I’m not quite sure how it all went down, but I woke up one morning to Xich, Neim, Bang & Kim living under our roof.  I already had seven brothers & sisters, a million uncles, aunts, and an army of extended family & friends, so, at the ripe old age of four, the arrival of another family just seemed like more of the same to me.  And, although we didn’t speak the same language, the little girl, Kim, immediately became my best friend, playing Barbie’s and blocks and racing each other up the hill to the Aqua Club for swimming.

Now, Xich and Neim, while beyond grateful, did not like to accept charity and insisted on doing SOMETHING for our family while they settled in.  So, they cooked.  A lot.  My mom would sit down with Neim to make a phonetic shopping list in the morning.  Then she’d pull on her muumuu, wrap a scarf around her curlers and buzz out to the local market in our wood-paneled station wagon to hunt and gather.  Because we lived in Seattle, there were a few Asian items in the grocery store, but, because it was the ‘70’s, those items usually came sealed in tin and labeled “Chung King”  (Ever had a CANNED bean sprout?  Yeah.  Tastes just like Saigon, right?)  My mom did her best, Neim adapted her recipes, and we all ate very well.  My mom still loves to tell the story about when my niece, Rachel, who was born when I was three years old, first learned to walk.  She’d just started trying out that wobbly toddler walk and was practicing in the kitchen.  She tumbled again and again . . . until she caught sight of Neim’s fresh batch of Cha Gio.  Rachel reached for the platter, clutched a tiny spring roll in each of her chubby little hands and set off for her high-chair . . . and she DID NOT FALL DOWN.  The little fried rolls were all she needed to give her the strength and focus to walk.  Ah, Rachel, sweetie, I swear, I feel that way sometimes today.

I’m not sure how much my mom wrote down about Neim’s cooking.  I do remember one tattered recipe for “Fried Bananas” that was measured not in tablespoons or cups, but in numbers of “big spoons”.  My mom kept that old, swirly-handled Corning “big spoon” for decades – in fact, now that I think of it, that woman owns over 2,000 jigsaw puzzles.  She may still have that damn spoon.

When I got pregnant with my daughter, I had the fleeting burrito craving and the occasional mango-obsession, but my go-to for almost ten months was Vietnamese food.  The first craving came like a crazy, rogue wave on the beach – I NEED VIETNAMESE FOOD.  I didn’t even know WHAT I wanted – -I just knew I needed those flavors and that feeling of home with a capital H.  It had been so long since my preschool days in Seattle, I wasn’t even sure of the names of specific dishes anymore.  So I would show up at restaurants, clutch the arm of the server, and use my toddler Vietnamese pronunciation to try to get what my belly wanted.  Even when the result was not exactly what I remembered, the combination of fish sauce, lime, chili & sugar would jolt my soul back to my childhood . . . and I felt comforted.

But there was one dish I could NOT find.  I clutched numerous waiters’ arms and passionately described an egg crepe – a luscious eggie, creamy crepe, filled with bean sprouts and maybe something else I couldn’t remember, with fish sauce and lime . . . maybe a bit of spice.  Nobody knew what I was talking about.  Then, one day, while having my nails done (I KNOW, it’s a cliché, but there ARE a lot of Vietnamese girls doing nails in L.A.) I asked Tiffany if she knew what I was talking about.   “Banh xeo” she said.  “But there’s no egg.  Just turmeric.”

Oh.

So I learned to make Banh Xeo.  I mixed the rice flour with coconut milk, added tons of turmeric and other spices, and I made that chewy, spicy-sour, unctuous explosion that my baby-body was screaming for.  And, as with most of my insane-o-preg-o cravings, I had three bites and I was finished.  But I was HAPPY.  I knew it was exactly what my body and my soul needed to finish building this beautiful baby.

I cook Vietnamese now from time to time, and I always feel a bit of suspense when I put any of it in front of my little girl.  When she grows up, will she remember?  For me, the taste imprints of those early days are so strong.  After all, they are my first memories of life on this planet.  I wonder what will happen, many (please, God) years down the road . . . what will my sweet girl be craving?  What will her body yearn for as she builds her own child?

** I will now take a five minute pause to sob at the thought . . . **

And I am consumed with the knowledge that I am responsible for so, so much in her life.  None of this parenting business can happen by accident.  The responsibility is too great to not take care.  So I will pay attention.  I will lead by example.  I will show my daughter what my parents showed me – that we give.  We give so that others may have the opportunities we have.  We give for no other reason than that, for that moment, we have what someone else needs.  And it feels so good to share.

Here’s my recipe for Banh Xeo.  It ain’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn good.

BANH XEO

BATTER:

2 c. rice flour (available at Whole Foods and many grocery stores)

½ c. unsweetened coconut milk

2 1/3 c. cold water

2 t. turmeric

1 ½ t. sugar

½ t. kosher salt

¾ t. curry powder

3 green onions, sliced

FILLING:

4 T. oil (I always use olive, but you can use canola or peanut)

½ onion, shaved

8 oz. shrimp, tofu or 1 c. cooked beans

4 c. bean sprouts

2 c. mushrooms, sautéed and drained

SAUCE:

1 serrano or jalapeno chile

1 clove garlic, sliced

3 T. sugar

2/3 c. warm water

2 T. fresh lime juice (DON’T substitute lemon – it’s NOT the same)

4 T. fish sauce

GARNISH:

2 T. finely shredded carrot

1 c. chopped or torn cilantro

To make the batter:

Mix all ingredients together, set aside.

To make the sauce:

Mix everything together and let sit for about 30 minutes to mellow. (If you’re not a big raw garlic fan, as I am NOT, blanch the whole clove in boiling salted water for 30 seconds, cool and then slice).

To make the filling:

Mix the onion, protein (shrimp, tofu or beans), in a bowl.  Over high heat, saute ¼ of that mixture in 1 T. of the oil in a hot, nonstick pan for a few seconds.  Pour 2/3 c. batter over the sautéing filling and swirl like a crepe to the edges of the pan.  Pile on 1 c. bean sprouts and ½ c. sautéed mushrooms on top and then turn your heat to low to finish cooking – cover for about 5 minutes.  When the sides are crisp and a little brown (maybe 5-7 minutes), fold side over and slip out of pan.   Sprinkle with sauce, garnish and enjoy.

**If you’re pregnant, please feel free to take a nap afterward.  After all, you’re building kidneys and lungs and such – you deserve a snooze.

Some Like It Hot . . . VERY Hot

I have a confession:  I’m in love with my water bottle.  I call him My Baby Blue, and I constantly marvel at his incredible design, beautiful color and, so help me God, STAYING POWER – he stays hot for AT LEAST 5 hours, and that’s longer than any girl truly needs.  I take him everywhere with me – to work, on errands, on cross-country trips on location, to bed, of course.  Ooh, I can’t wait to take him to France with me at the end of the month!  My pre-dawn swim workouts would be absolutely unbearable without knowing this gorgeous hottie is waiting for me in my bag, full of still steaming yerba mate, ready to warm my chest and belly.  I wouldn’t DIE without him, but I’m such a happier woman with him in my life.

The flip side of this cutie is that he knows how to keep a drink cold as well.  I load him up with lemons, cucumbers, fresh water and a few ice cubes, and I’m set for a day at the beach.  Did you read that?  AT THE BEACH.  My baby can sit in the hot sun and stay as cool as . . . well, as the cucumber water that he’s guarding.  My heart flutters at the memory of playing catch with my little girl at the beach for hours, until we were both hot pink and bleary-eyed, and who do you think rescued us from certain heatstroke?  Not daddy – no, he was miles away.  You guessed it —  True Blue.

Now, my husband’s not an idiot.  It’s not like he’s actually JEALOUS of a BOTTLE.  In fact, he usually laughs and makes a total mockery me when I launch into rapturous wonder at the Nasa-esque technology or, more likely, divine intervention that has made this little phenom possible.   However, a man can only take so much.  I swear, the other day, as my nearest and dearest was unloading the dishwasher, I caught him shoving a certain blue bottle to the very back of the cupboard.  I suddenly realized I had a bit of a Sophie’s choice on my hands.  What could I do?  Give up my love for my love?  It made no sense.  There had to be another way.

Ta Da!

* – The beautiful Bottle and Spa Water book are both available at www.myspawater.com, and, no, this is not my company and they’re not paying me to scream their praises from the rooftops.  I’m just a huge fan!

Born Again

“When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.” The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

When I was a little girl, we used to sing a song in Sunday School called “Popcorn Popping.”  It was all about springtime, and how the blossoms covering an apricot tree look just like big bunches of popcorn.  Growing up in central Oklahoma, I’d never seen an apricot, or any other fruit tree for that matter, in bloom.  We grew horseflies the size of my hand, but fresh fruit came from the grocery store, and it was usually a not-so-delicious Red Delicious.

Now I live in Southern California, surrounded by orange groves, avocado trees, fields of lavender and gorgeous, sweet, fat herbs that grow like weeds.  At the moment, I have an entire hillside filled with flowering arugula, because one year I let my crop go to seed.  I take the garbage out, hop the fence behind my house and pick a salad for dinner.  On my counter, you’ll almost always find giant bowls of lemons, avocados and tangerines in addition to whatever else happens to be in season from my garden.  I am lucky; I am spoiled; and I do not forget it.

We spent our 85 degree Easter Sunday at a party at our friends’ place, perched on a hillside, overlooking the incredible Topa Topa mountains.  We soaked up the sun, swam in the pool, chased the dogs away from the chickens and watched the kids, still in their wet bathing suits, squeal like crazy, collecting little colored eggs.  Last night, I dragged my daughter away from her Cinderella Squinkie’s set, a gift from the Easter Bunny (or “E.B.,” as she calls him), and instructed her to plant herself on our front porch and breathe.  The orange groves that surround our house are in bloom, and I am euphoric.  I can’t bring myself to describe their scent as “perfume,” because I find most perfumes so cloying and artificial.  But when the cool night air hits the dense blossoms . . . my whole world shifts.   I don’t have words for it.  It’s thrilling, awe-inspiring and somehow tranquil, all at the same time.  Yes, it’s fireworks, but it’s also violin music that builds to a crescendo and crashing cymbals and holding your baby for the first time and the overwhelming rush of first love.  I can’t think of any more words, but this is the music that was playing in my head as I filled my lungs with the hypnotic air:

We stayed outside until we started shivering, and as we turned to go inside, my daughter pointed to the sky and said, “Daddy, look!  That’s Venus!  I know, because it isn’t twinkling.”  He said, “Yep.  That’s how you know it’s a planet.  Only stars twinkle, because, just like the sun, they’re on fire.”

When the stress and stuff of my world start to make me nuts, spending time outside and in awe is the quickest, surest way to wake up my tired soul.  I woke up this morning filled with hope and courage and an avalanche of ideas.  I feel like there’s literally nothing I can’t do.  I needed the funk of February and March to push me, kicking and screaming, into the revitalization of Spring.  Today I feel alive, REALLY alive.  And now I am twinkling . . . because I’m on fire.

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