What is the Eagle Rock?

eagle-rock-landmarkI love the actual Eagle Rock my neighborhood gets its name from. I haven’t been able to find much about it. Some say it’s named Eagle Rock because at high noon, the shadow the overhang makes looks like an eagle in flight; I first noticed it looked like an eye and a beak, and now I can’t unsee the eagle’s head. It’s giant and rises over the entrance to the 134 like an unblinking mythical guardian. It makes me think about what people before me thought of it. Was it considered an omen or message? Did it inspire awe over the science of rock formation? I love that the desert monolith long preceded me and will outlast us all. In its crevices and shadows, generations of locals have and will continue to project their questions onto it while pondering the smallness of their lives.

 

My tiny apartment

When I was apartment hunting, I made a long list of all the things I wanted in a new place. I wasn’t sure how much I’d have to compromise on for the very low rent I was willing to pay. I was hoping for:

  • a separate bedroom
  • a separate kitchen with a window for ventilation and dishwashing view
  • a dishwasher
  • outdoor space
  • a big refrigerator
  • a proper stove
  • a safe neighborhood
  • walking distance to a coffee shop

I wound up in a very cozy 230 square foot “efficiency” in Eagle Rock/Highland Park. It’s a studio with a kitchen area, an IKEA wardrobe, and a roomy bathroom with a shower and a sliding door. There’s no separate bedroom or kitchen; it’s not really a walkable neighborhood for shops; the stove is not quite a full one. However, the place is incredibly well-laid out. There are wonderful boat galley touches I never would have thought of myself — a single towel hook in an ideal spot, a window that opens out with a crank so it’s easy to reach, a single wall-mounted unit that serves as air conditioner, heater, and fan without the noise of a window unit. The place did come with a mini dishwasher! And, of course, I got a private deck with a teeny garden.

This is not my first time in a tiny apartment. My friends and family always remind me of the “studio” I lived in after I graduated from college. It was located in Berkeley off of Shattuck Ave. on the ground floor of a small apartment building. The small, 9′x 12′ space  was directly behind the carport, and I was always frightened by the sound of my landlady driving in on a Friday night with an alacrity that indicated her tipsiness. The water hookups were clearly meant for a laundry room, but the landlord instead rented it out as an apartment. The “kitchenette” consisted of a microwave and a “convection oven” – a plug-in glass pot with a fan that I used to crisp up takeaway katsudon purchased from the nearby Japanese grocery store, Musashi. It always smelled of rancid oil. The bathroom was tiny and expedient—you could wash your hands while sitting on the toilet. The closet was a cutout space in the wall with a bar for hanging clothes, and the room itself barely fit my full-sized futon and not much else. My mother was horrified by the place, but it was the first time I’d ever lived alone and I didn’t mind it. It was only $500 a month.

So I’m fine in a small space. With this new place, I knew I didn’t want to spend a fortune on rent. But I didn’t expect to appreciate living in a tiny apartment as much as I do now. There’s less to vacuum, which means that I actually do vacuum. I can do the whole place with a handheld, battery-powered stick vac while taking a ten minute eye break from my computer. It’s also harder to lose things, as I have less stuff and there are fewer spots to misplace them. Though I’m a person who’s never had much claustrophobia, I think of the neighborhood as my living room, and I hike its rosemary- and cactus-lined roads as the sun makes its way over the hills in the morning. When I take a break, I inspect the plants on my deck under a canopy of giant eucalyptus. Though my abode is small, my world feels expansive.

I think a lot about how to make the most of this space with the least amount of stuff.

double sink

I love this small corner double sink. To save counter space, I got the MUJI adjustable stainless dish rack with an extra slim cutlery basket which is about the thickness of a deck of cards. They drip right into the sink. Behind the sink is this weird triangular space which happened to be the perfect size for this IKEA Rågrund triangular bamboo shelf. I chose the four-shelf version because building up helps me maximize storage in a tiny space.

On the very top shelf is a MUJI stainless wash bowl, which I use to thoroughly clean my greens. I hate trying to wash greens in a tiny bowl — greens want space to be swished around in before a soak that lets the dirt fall to the bottom. When I’m done washing the vegetables, I dump the water into a bucket I have outside; when I’ve collected enough, I use it to water the plants.

On the second shelf are some of the glass containers I’ve emptied since moving into the apartment. I’m trying to minimize the amount of packaged foods I buy, in part because I want to eat healthier, but also in part because I don’t want to bring another jar into my house only to toss it into the recycling bin. So I bought one jar of jam, and now I use that jar to store homemade jam, which I’ve just started making. (Good god, why did I ever give precious artisanal jam makers my money? Homemade jam is the easiest thing in the world, especially if you don’t bother preserving properly. I don’t bother sterilizing because I refrigerate the jam and eat it before it spoils.) Anyway, I’ve been cooking down frozen organic raspberries with chopped pear for pectin and a tiny bit of sugar (1 part sugar to 4 parts berries), finishing with some vanilla extract. It’s better than anything I can buy (because it’s made to perfectly suit my palate), I can cook it while I putter around the apartment, and I save another jar from entering the manufacturing/waste cycle.

DSC00655 DSC00652

Magnets also help tremendously by lifting objects off the counter and placing them on the walls. I have a magnetic timer which I use constantly for toasting bread in my half-size oven, brewing tea, etc. The oven mitt is a San Jamar Kool-Tek Puppet with a magnet in the tag, and behind that is a magnetic silicone trivet I took from my dad. Under my friend Hee Jin Kang‘s photo of a cherished memory of summer in Hudson, I’ve got my magnetic knife strip. I LOVE a magnetic knife strip. You can see at a glance all of your tools, and whenever you need one, it’s easy to grab. I don’t know why you would store your knives any other way. Also, people who keep knives free in drawers are sadists (or masochists).

The oven is half-size. Before I found this apartment, I thought for sure I’d get a Breville Smart Oven, which I’d coveted since writing about it for The Sweethome. Since my apartment oven is already kind of a like a toaster oven, I didn’t have to. Half sheet baking pans don’t fit, so instead, I bought two of these Vollrath quarter sheets, which I now feel are indispensable in the kitchen—especially if you cook for one or two. I love how easy it is to clean the small quarter sheets, even in my extra small sink. I’d recommend them to anyone living alone. They’re perfect for cooking off just a few discs of frozen cookie dough, or roasting a single head of cauliflower.

DSC00656

I’ve purchased a lot of brilliant space savers from MUJI. I appreciate how thoughtful the designs are and how they make things that are minuscule by American standards. But my favorite item of all is probably this mini dust box, which I use as a countertop trash can. The most genius thing about it is that it has a rectangular metal ring inside (there’s a picture on the MUJI product page). You take that out, thread any small plastic bag through (I like the leftover bags from the produce section), and snap the ring in place for a super neat, Carmen Carrera-worthy tuck. As you can see, it’s not much bigger than a large yogurt container (which is what I use to collect compost scraps), and given the emphasis I’ve been placing on reducing waste and packaged foods, I find it’s really all I need. I love that I can leave it out on the counter instead of having to lean down and open the cabinet under the sink when I have trash.

I’ve got more to say about the rest of the apartment, but I should probably clean it up a bit before I post pics of the place here. Which may mean you’ll never see it. But, hey, we all need goals.

The constant gardener

mexican limeIt feels indecent, the way I inspect my semi-dwarf Mexican lime tree, looking for signs of happiness or illness. There’s a lone grown lime on a branch, the size of a large glass marble, which I use like a scrying crystal to try and diagnose its bearer’s future. The tree spent a week in one corner of the patio before I made the wholly unscientific and faith-based decision to drag the heavy pot to a sunnier spot. When I find new flower buds on its stems finally, after weeks of wondering whether or not it has responded to its new environment, my devotion surges with a vigor I find a little unsettling.

tumblingOf my three tomato plants, the bushy little Tumbling Tom in a broad terra cotta pot has started to fruit first, its savory-smelling foliage dotted with sunny flowers. I squat down between the two eucalyptus trees whose thin bark is molting in the early summer heat. I lean against the larger trunk to search for the little green orbs at the end of the shriveled blooms. It takes restraint not to rummage through the leaves. I am mad with curiosity.

And my worms! For my worms I save my most devout voyeurism. I am endlessly fascinated by this little environment I’ve made. Though there are flies and beings of all kinds in there, it is the worms I care about. I lift the wet newspaper every day and disturb the nematodes annelids as they writhe and dine and possibly copulate en masse. I got gloves in preparation for digging up their castings, and a special pump-activated atomizer that oh-so-gently moistens their bedding of coconut coir and shredded Korean-language newspaper, reserved from a trip to the local nursery. I wrap the front of the composted with foil to regulate the morning heat. I open the spout to check for runoff. Oh no, I’ve fed too much. I haven’t fed enough.

It ain’t right, and I know it. I worry that these are unhealthy obsessions for a single woman who works from home, typing madly, bathing her face in the bluish light of a computer screen, speaking aloud only a few times a day. My friend Jeanne in Brooklyn sends me a care haiku via text message.

I’m worried about u

Are u spending a lot of time alone

Go to the library

But I am helpless against the power of my infatuation. Surely the tiny flowers that bloom under my intense adoration are an affirmation of something reciprocal. Here I recite the only bit of Shakespeare I still have committed to memory:

I know I love in vain, strive against hope

Yet in this captious and intenible sieve

I still pour in the waters of my love

And lack not to lose still

thyme

The active pantry

photo-2How old is the oldest thing in the back corner of your pantry?

How many times have you brought food back from a restaurant only to have it languish in the fridge for weeks before you throw it, plastic container and all, into the garbage?

The last time you bought cilantro, did you manage to use it all before it turned into a brown, jellied mess?

Anything in the freezer so encrusted with ice crystals that you can’t even tell who was president when it got put there?

If you’re feeling sheepish about the answers to those questions, you’re not alone. My friend Sandy Fernandez reported that most people throw out “12 percent of all the food they bring home and 25 percent of the vegetables.” We all have secrets in our kitchen stashes and bad food buying decisions we’d rather stuff into the garbage and close the lid on.

But over the last year, I’ve become much more passionate and practical about not wasting food.

The EPA says we produced more than 36 million tons of food waste in 2012. And, yet, 49 million people in the U.S. have a hard time finding enough food to eat. They are a pair of skew lines, but surely we can do better to cauterize both.

I’ve long been part of the problem. As a food blogger/writer/editor, I’ve been a member of what I’ll call the “eatertainment” industry for over ten years. I was another voice encouraging people to think of food as an experience rather than a physical need to be remedied minimally.  I bought and received as gifts foods that I knew I’d never get to the bottom of — impulse-buy pickles and tins of rosemary-cranberry salt, cans of beans purchased for days when I didn’t have any food in the house (which, of course, never happened).

I’ve seen so much waste and excess in the various eatertainment jobs I’ve had over the years.

You know those Stepford food displays at Whole Foods Market? They come at a cost. When I worked there (many, many years ago), I was encouraged to throw bruised apples into the trash compactor because no patrons would buy imperfect produce. I was told that organizations like City Harvest didn’t have the means to pick up the high volume of food and there was nowhere to store the food for them for sporadic pick ups.

In food media, we entice people to cook whatever recipes their hearts desire – 2 tablespoons of chopped dill for brightness, 1 teaspoon of walnut oil for earthiness, and 9 egg yolks for richness. But we don’t really teach people what to do with the rest of the bunch of dill so it doesn’t get spoiled before their next trip to the grocery store, or how to find 30 other recipes for the walnut oil so it can be used before it rapidly goes rancid, or a companion dish that will accommodate the remainder 9 egg whites.

We judge poor people for the bad food decisions they make eating processed foods, and then turn around and idolize chefs who plate up voluminous roots that have been peeled, freeze-dried and pulverized into vibrantly colored, unsnortable powders with less of the nutrients or filling fiber that might have satiated an empty stomach in their earlier forms.

We’re no longer hungry – we’re just bored.

And wasting food to pass time feels like a grievous sin.

Since moving back to L.A., I’ve thought much more about my own struggles with class, my eagerness to abandon all that I came from and the inevitable difficulty of escaping it. Moving to New York gave me a sense of entitlement that I had never had growing up. I lived well beyond my means because I thought the best of life might be found in the places I couldn’t afford. The hungry were less visible to me.

But growing up, my family never went out to restaurants.  Eating meals with my parents now, I think more about the conditions of developing world poverty both of my parents grew up in, and how their childhood has shaped their sense of food security. For my father, it manifests in how he buys bagfuls of  groceries for a family of 10 when the refrigerator is already packed to the gills. For my mother, it’s difficult to part with vegetables that are obviously well past their prime.

And because of my father’s health issues, I’ve become more cognizant of the genetic cards I’ve been dealt. Eating whatever I want has consequences, not just for me, but for the people around me who might have to take care of me in the future.

But this year has been one of great change for me. One of the blessings of being somewhat outside of mainstream food media (and pretty far outside of restaurant media) is that I can cook and eat exactly the way I want to. Whereas my diet used to consist of oversalted restaurant meals or elaborate recipes, I now cook on the fly with ingredients I have in my house.

I’ve always been pretty good at eating leftovers, but now I’m hyper vigilant about buying only what I need from the market and using every last bit of it. Since moving into a tiny apartment with a kitchen of my own, I’ve been trying to make sure everything in my pantry is “active” — everything I bring into my kitchen is something I actually plan to rotate into the repertoire in the immediate future. I don’t bring anything into the kitchen that I don’t plan to get all the way to the bottom of. So if a recipe calls for a teaspoon of fennel seeds, I think, will I get to the bottom of that jar of fennel seeds? If yes, I’ll get the fennel. If not, I don’t buy it. If I buy a bunch of beets, I’m prepared to roast the roots, skin on, and stew the tops for a side dish. If I want quesadillas but only have a wedge of Västerbotten cheese from IKEA, I guess I’m having a Swedish quesadilla, authenticity be damned.

I’m also growing my own herbs so that I don’t need to buy and waste bunches. I’ve got some kale going in small pots (though the insects are really enjoying it more than I would like). I try to save the water I use to rinse my vegetables to feed to my plants. I also got a Worm Factory and bought a pound of red wigglers from a local worm grower for dealing with the many scraps I have left after peeling my produce.

My immigrant parents gave me the gift of thrift in the kitchen, and it’s something I want to share more of around here. I’m lucky to be living in southern California, where produce is generally abundant, wonderful, and when it’s on sale, dirt cheap. I’d like to start using this space to share the more economical, lower impact way of life I’m leading these days. I know, I’m a cliché: Woman moves back to southern California, becomes a compost-making, chia-seed eating hippie. But, hey, it feels right.

So my first tip for you is to take stock of what’s in your cupboard as you reorganize its contents. Try to remember the last time each item was active. Take the oldest items from the furthest corners of your pantry and reactivate them with fresh ingredients.

- If you have dried beans from the last decade, give them a long soak before cooking, and once tender (which may take several hours), revive them with piles of fresh chopped herbs and generous glugs of olive oil.

- Take that cup of leftover frozen curry and extend it into a single meal with some stir-fried noodles and fresh basil.

- If nobody wants to eat the stale butt ends of a loaf of sandwich bread, whizz them up in a food processor or chop into cubes, fry in some olive oil with garlic, and add to your next salad or batch of pasta.

- Take your old jar of harissa or sambal or sweet chile sauce or Mexican hot sauce, blend with a bit of soy sauce and oil, and marinate a fillet of fish for a quick dinner.

- Throw a reclamation potluck.

And then the next time you go to the store, you’ll have a better sense of what you already have in your cupboards and what (if anything) needs to be replenished.

Sunny


photo(4)

Is L.A. growing on me or am I adapting to it? I can’t tell.

I hadn’t experienced an earthquake in years, maybe over a decade, until this week. A small or faraway one feels a little bit like you’re getting vertigo. The ground may roll a little bit, like you’re in a car going over a lot of potholes.

My body said, “Remember?”

And my brain said, “No furniture. Nothing to get under. Go outside? Doesn’t feel like the big one. You sure it’s an earthquake? Your window blinds are swinging, so probably an earthquake. Maybe you should at least cover your head? Eh, seems to be over now. Check Twitter. ”

My parents are actually pretty close to the epicenter. I went to their house yesterday and cleaned out a broken mirror that had fallen off the dresser. I’m reminded of all that I need to take into consideration as I place furniture in my tiny apartment. (And next time, brain, remind me to at least get away from the window.)

Last week I made fresh almond milk. Soaked a cup of almonds and a couple of dates overnight, buzzed it together with a hand blender, strained, done! I liked it so much that I bought something kinkily called a “nut milk bag” so I can make it again without having to mess with a strainer and cheesecloth.

I also had a sweet little mystery. I had stabbed an avocado pit with two forks and plopped it in a glass of water to try and get it to sprout. After a few days, I walked out the door to find that the pit was gone. Gone! Some creature had absconded with my avocado pit! There my forks were, bereft of their ward. To whom is such a thing delicious?

I asked my neighbor what bandito might prize such a treasure. “Skunks love bulbs,” she said. “There’s a little animal path behind our house. Lots of wildlife. The baby skunks are the cutest.” Of course! The faint sillage, the burrow holes in my potted plants — I’m charmed! Though maybe I will be less so if they start digging through my compost.

My Worm Factory arrived today, and I’m eager for the IKEA delivery to come already so I can get to the Pasadena Farmers Market and try to get a pound of worms before they close up shop at 1pm.

Fuck yeah outdoor living! I’m so excited to get a couple of heirloom tomato plants, a potted Meyer lemon tree and a fig tree to add to my little plant family.

If you need some affirmation, listen to the episode of Bullseye with RuPaul, which I listened to while driving yesterday. YES, the hero with a thousand faces, that’s YOU, that’s YOU. WERK!

Who am I? I don’t know even know myself anymore.

Astronomical spring

DSC00564I took this picture this afternoon at La Doug’s house upstate. This is how I feel — a bit of a happy mess, with all drawers and doors and shelves pulled open.

I’ve been in New York for almost two weeks. This winter, I’d been happily bored with L.A.’s consistently temperate climate — 75 to 85 degrees, with the occasional overcast sky and nippy breeze to make my morning jog more comfortable. So perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that I drove to LAX, sweating through an oversized cowl neck sweater, only to realize upon pulling up to the curb that I had forgotten to bring a jacket. For a two week trip to New York and Chicago. At the tail end off the most brutal winter most can remember.

Have I really been gone that long?

It’s been almost ten months since I moved, and I’m just starting to get to know L.A. But New York’s familiarity is so seductive. It feels like slipping under the sheets with the imperfect but known body of a former lover. Mr. Right Now. I can down two pints of cider, button my coat against the cold, and not get lost on my way to dinner. That’s a luxury I have yet to earn in L.A.

How thrilling to run into friends on the subway, as I have on this trip, and to speak of personal trials in hushed voices so as not to oppress everyone else’s morning commute. The sensory processing that happens on a standard train car was once overstimulating, but now feels invigorating, especially after months of working alone in my parents’ suburban home.

My friends tell me nothing has changed in my absence, but plenty always does in New York.

There are GREEN cabs now, WTF, which only serve the outer boroughs. Mind blown.

I went to the new-to-me Gotham West market on Manhattan’s 11th Ave. to meet some colleagues for lunch, where it seems all of Brooklyn has come to set up shop — Brooklyn Kitchen, the Saltie-related Little Chef, Court Street Grocers, and more. So living in a $10K/month Hell’s Kitchen condo means having Brooklyn come to you? We ate $17 bowls of rye ramen so salty to my adjusted palate that it made me grind my teeth at night.

In Duck Duck bar near the Montrose stop, nursing a pint glassful of Dark & Stormy, I could have paraphrased Wooderson’s line from Dazed and Confused: That’s what I love about these New York kids; I get older, they stay the same age.

One thing hasn’t changed — it costs a lot to live and breathe here. I took a cab from Battery Park City to Bushwick to get to a birthday party. The bridges along the FDR were like lines of can can girls in sparkly skirts preparing to kick up the waters of the East River. I was so dazzled that I missed racking up a $30 fare across the water.

Had a worth-it fancy dinner with my friend Anique at Lafayette, where we got such a cherce corner table for two in the back of the room that we assumed we had been mistaken for more important people. Over baby block-sized cubes of golden and maroon beets and crisp-grilled trout with mustard and apple, we laughed giddily about how lucky we sun state girls were to skip out before the Polar Vortex sucked out our friends’ will to live. The meal ended with a croquembouche mini-tower nested in a halo of caramel filaments, little choux heads with crunchy toupees and vanilla cream brains. Because of course it can be Christmas in Paris on a Monday night in March when you’re in New York.

Dropped $16 on two pints of ice cream at Ample Hills, because they finally had the Peppermint Pattie flavor I’ve heard so much about, and I had to try the completely ridiculous Munchies flavor, which includes, among other things, Fruity Pebbles and Ritz Crackers. I love that their ice cream is more chunk than custard, with a base that isn’t as heavily eggy as gelato or as aerated as soft serve. I’m thrilled that they have a cookbook coming out next month so I don’t have to fly out for a fix.

DSC00557I’m up in Germantown now, at La Doug’s house (wearing a borrowed coat). The snow on the ground makes all the pretty gingerbread houses pop, and the bare mountains against the bluebell sky feel as close as they’ve ever been. It’s such a luxury to be taking Amtrak during the day, looking out at the cobalt of the river, the sunning ducks, and the wheaty skeletons of last year’s cattails. The ice on the water is starting to break up and melt, turning streams into gushers, and the trees are all just dormant, dingy tangles. But spring is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. I’m living like a country queen here, setting the smoke alarm off while roasting a whole chicken; needling Doug and James after dinner with aggressive rounds of Anagrams; sleeping toastily under a quilt that used to be in our old living room for ten years.

New York will always be home as long as my friends are here. But I can honestly say I’m excited to get back to L.A. and get past the first page of this chapter of my life. Two halves of my starfish heart are regenerating from the rift by growing whole in separate places.

Pipeline

Hi hi, I’m sorry updates have been so sporadic. Things got a little rough there. When I was in the weeds, I wanted to be a pipe rather than a vessel, so that life’s difficulties could run right through rather than collect in me. Life, you win! I wave a white flag.

IMG_1342

But my big, great news is that my brother had a baby last Friday, my parents’ first grandchild! What a surprising and magical thing, to see your brother’s face on a wriggling
kitten. My parents are thrilled. I called my father “Grandfather” in Chinese and I could see him holding his smile in his mouth.

Speaking of, Pau’s on a new combination of drugs which has really helped him get rid of some of the excess fluid in his body. He’s breathing much better and doing a bit of walking around, even cooking. He’s even stopped using the oxygen machine for the most part. I can’t tell you how much this has improved my mood and my general outlook on life. I’m so grateful. (Knock wood, bite tongue.) I feel like I can plant this little sprout of hope.

I’ve also moved out of my parents’ house and moved into the tiniest studio in L.A., a 230 square foot efficiency in Eagle Rock. It’s up on a hill behind eucalyptus trees that seem to grow out of the pavement like the limbs of Giacometti elephants. I love the way it smells in my neighborhood, of eucalyptus and orange blossoms and jasmine. A flock of parrots has settled into the valley that stretches out from my window view, cawing as they take to the sky in a little vortex of brushstrokes. It’s a little piece of Australian heaven.

I find myself missing New York less and appreciating California more. I’m going to New York for work and to see friends today, and I’m less worried about being seduced back into its thrall. Given some distance, I’m able to see New York with a bit more of a critical eye. The privileged narcissists creating their own problems who seem to be populating the city now — I suppose it could have been me, but I just never thought that highly of my own art.

Right now, I can make the greatest positive impact on a few lives, those of my family and close friends. If that is the extent of my reach in this world, I have enough to be proud of. Maybe that’s why I feel such a kinship with my tiny apartment. My life feels a bit like this, a set of nesting bowls providing exponentially more space in a deceptively compact package. I’m anti-disruptive. I’m okay with that.

I have smaller wishes now — for health and love and kindness. Smiles from my growing gaggle of nieces. A pineapple that delivers on its promise. A milk crate to put my feet up on.

 

Um, okay.

Power outage on the block. Reading manual by flashlight on how to turn on the emergency tank. Well, TIL.

20140125-205658.jpg

UPDATE: Power’s back! Was getting a little weird over here, having to actually sit and talk to each other, risking eye contact. My dad started telling my mom about how many wives his grandfather had, lulz.

 

Oxygen

You know how sometimes all this fucked up shit happens in your life and you don’t want to write about it because you’re afraid you’ll tempt the fates into shitting on you even more, and then life shows you what REAL tragedy looks like so you don’t get it mixed up with the mild, pussy shit you have been whining about, and then shit kind of winds down and you know you ought to write something but you don’t know where to start?

Hello.

Christmas went by in a flash this year. It was my first holiday season in L.A. in 14 years and I have to say, with the sun shining every day, it didn’t matter how many lawn montages of light-up Jesus babies and snowmen and deer I jogged past — it just didn’t feel like Christmas. I especially loved the inflatable Santa Clauses, which would inevitably wind up prone by morning, looking for all the world like drunkards who’ve had too much malt liquor to crawl past the grass before passing out cold.

santa

An explainer: My dad has congestive heart failure. During one of his hospital stays in the fall, he had a heart attack. I don’t know which came first, but I know that he now has a tendency to retain water, including in his lungs, which makes it difficult for him to breathe and makes his heart work harder. It’s a vicious cycle, one which sometimes has to end with a trip to the emergency room and the administering of an IV drip with the diuretic furosemide. Whereas we kind of needed to reduce the amount of salt in his diet (and ours, since we all eat together), we now have to eliminate salt completely.

Before we brought him home from the hospital, a man probably young enough to be my reason-for-dropping-out-of-high-school son came to the house with an oxygen concentrator and a scripted lesson on how to fill the travel tank, how much oxygen we have in the large tank in case of a power outage, and weekly cleaning tasks for us. I felt sobered then, just as I do now every time its deafening beep signals that the machine has been turned on for the evening. The thing is about the size of R2D2, but it thrums and hisses like Darth Vader. A 50-foot tube lets him move around the small footprint of our house (though he’s not allowed to be near an open flame, like the stove, for 20 minutes after using it), and a clear cannula tucked behind his ears with prongs for his nostrils delivers a steady 2-liter flow of oxygen into his weakened system.

It was scary at first, having that thing around. But now I’m comforted by its sound; it has allowed my father to sleep more soundly than he has in years without having to take nitroglycerin sublingual pills for angina.

Sometimes I hear him coughing and I wonder, is that a normal cough or is that fluid in his lungs? I see him nodding off as he watches his soap operas and I have to resist the temptation to stick a finger under his nostrils and ask him if he’s doing okay. When I change the water in his vaporizer before I go to bed, I think, who’s going to do that for him when I move out? He doesn’t want me to worry, but I can’t help myself.

One thing the hospital drama revealed to me was how lonely I am here. I mean, I have close friends in town, but not in the suburb I live in; many of my best friends are clear across the country, and there’s nobody within 15 mins of me that I would feel comfortable calling and saying, Hey, I’m tired of being in the hospital. Can we go get a quick dinner and not talk about anything serious? 

So I decided to prioritize moving out, finally. I realized that if I don’t make a life for myself here, my whole life will be sacrificed in the service of taking care of my parents. Isolating myself in the suburb I grew up in is not at all what I thought I would be doing, and it’s not what my parents want for me. It took me about six weeks, but I found an apartment I can afford that is close enough to my parents’ house that I can come over without having to fight too much traffic but close enough to the city that I can see friends without having to block out four hours. I move in at the beginning of next month.

When I read that article in the NYTimes about Asians taking care of their parents, I wanted to know, why do they do it? I mean, I know it’s the right thing to do, but I have a hard time articulating why. I think it has to do with a total lack of boundaries, and an empathic osmosis that ensures that their pain is my pain and vice versa. It’s much easier to resist that exchange when you are 3,000 miles away. (If you’re looking for great reading, the short stories in Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap provide pitch perfect examples of Thai parent-child relationships. Totally gutted me.)

The honeymoon phase with L.A. is over. As this winter’s drought dessicates the air, I wake up with a stuffed, irritated nose and open the window to gaze at that familiar, woolen blanket of morning smog. The driving wears me down: those first and last fifteen miles from home are the slowest as I pass the landmarks I’ve ticked off mentally since I was a child — the diamond-shaped California Driving School sign, the Quiet Cannon golf course, the Puente Hills car dealerships with flashing LED displays that spill sugary white light onto the road through the night. It isn’t home yet.

But neither is New York. I miss it. More specifically, I miss the kind of carefree life I had there. But that life doesn’t, can’t exist for me anymore.

I’m trying to focus on the things that make me excited about living in California. The garlic bulbs I planted in December are starting to sprout, and we found one last guava hanging on a front branch of the tree which should be ready in a few weeks. I jog outdoors five times a week because health matters to me more than ever. I hope things will be better when I am living on my own. I want to make this work.

As I was reminded recently, Buddhism teaches people to meditate on their own deaths, and to remember that the only thing you take with you from this life are the good deeds you have done.

I’m taking that to heart. But I’m also trying to remember to put my oxygen mask on before assisting others.

Thanksgiving

photoMy 7AM jog smelled of roasting bird and frying garlic along with the usual gardenias and car exhaust.

After breakfast, my Mae and I made our way down a stretch of Valley Blvd. that is perennially sunbleached the color of dust. We passed the same auto repair shops and birrerias and gentlemen’s clubs we’d seen for the last nine days on our way to the hospital to see my dad.

Once again, spending time with the professionals at the hospital made me wonder why I didn’t pursue a career in medicine. Their competence never fails to shame me.

It’s been more than six months since I moved in with them. Sometimes my despair over the smallness of this life smothers me with its wet, woolen presence. The ugly duckling fears it has grown into nothing more than a duck.

But I just finished Beautiful Ruins and pocketed this pretty pebble from its pages:

A man wants many things in life, but when one of them is also the right thing, he would be a fool not to choose it.

We picked my dad up and brought him home with a paper bag full of medication, a rattling jumble of oversized Tic Tacs. I made him some rice porridge with fish for dinner. It’s my first Thanksgiving back in L.A., but we had no pumpkin pie; instead, we shared a bowl of unsalted popcorn.

Last night, I shifted the iron slug in my stomach over to make room for the many thanks I have.