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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.

Um, okay.

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

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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.

 

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The hospital’s gift shop is the one gift shop I can think of where its contents are meant to be redistributed within the building’s walls. The refrigerator case with zombified Gerber daisies and the rack of overpriced candy I get, but the other shit in there is straight up cray-cray.

Who buys this shit? Emotionally vulnerable and trapped friends/relatives of patients, that’s who.

Hospital gift shop

These music boxes play “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “You Light Up My Life”. There’s a whole carousel of them. I weep for the relationships that are either too repressed to vocalize such thoughts or too literal for nuanced love. (Maybe I just weep because I’m a cold oyster who’ll never know such unironic, grammatically-tolerant love.)

Hospital gift shop

I want to know why the designer thought to pair “The words you are looking for are, ‘Yes Dear’” with a Mediterranean olive and bread spread. What does it mean?? That Italian and Greek spouses are simpering?

Hospital gift shop

Little Aryan angels not your style?

Hospital gift shop

How about this assortment of Neil Gaiman rejects? I especially like the buxom phlebotomist on the far left with blood dripping out of her mouth.

Hospital gift shop

Or you can buy one of your own smiling, brown Native American babies. Not culturally insensitive at all.

Hospital gift shop

Especially compared to these $15 statues in the shape of your favorite hospital characters, including the curvaceous Latina nurse with sassy eyeshadow and Divine eyebrows. (Like those Homies you used to be able to buy from candy machines by the cashiers in grocery stores, only 60x the price!)

Hospital gift shop

 

Oh, but here’s the one reminder that not everybody’s in the hospital for bad news.

Hospital Humor

My dad was admitted him to the hospital again. It’s not funny. But sometimes there’s shit to laugh about.

NURSE: Are you having chest pains now?

PAU: No.

NURSE: Have you been having anxiety lately?

PAU: (assuredly) No.

The nurse returns to her paperwork.

PAU: (to me, half in Thai) Did she ask if I am dieting?

ME: No! She asked if you have anxiety, are you anxious?

PAU: Why should I have anxiety? I have lived a good life.

PAU: In Thailand, they call old maids chanee — you know what that is?

ME: No.

PAU: Gibbons! (Laughing) They cry, “Pua, pua, pua, pua, pua!

[Pua means husband in Thai.] 

PAU: Of course, women in Thailand are different than people who grow up here. They’re not independent, like you.

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This is the fountain outside the entrance to the hospital. It’s often full of ducks.

ME: Where do you think these ducks go when they’re not here?

MAE: Nowhere. They can’t fly.

ME: Yes they can! [Pointing up at some flying birds] Look, there they are up there!

MAE: No, those aren’t ducks.

ME: Don’t you remember Duck Hunt, the Nintendo game Danny [my brother] used to play? They are totally those ducks.

MAE: Nooooooo. The ducks in my village didn’t fly.

ME: Here. I’m going to make this one fly. [I go chasing after a  lady duck waddling on the pavement.]

MAE: Don’t touch it! Probably has a lot of bacteria!

 

 

 

Bamboo stew

IMG_0558Shortly before my grandfather passed away, my Mae left home to go to school in the city of Kalasin. It would take her half a day to walk from the village to the place where she could ride the bus into town. The jungle she walked through was named after a man who had allegedly been eaten by a tiger, and villagers they passed would warn of fresh tiger tracks. Monkeys cackled overhead, mocking her fear. That’s her in the picture. She was 9.

My grandfather, a school principal, believed in the power of education to raise his children out of the poverty they lived in. He had four sons, five daughters. The rice paddies were the only alternative, a life of backbreaking and painstaking manual labor. They were poorer than I can imagine, but they didn’t know well enough to be unhappy about it. The first words I learned in Pu Thai, my family’s obscure dialect, were, “Kin khao kap paleuh?” — what are you eating rice with?  I didn’t know that they ate sticky rice, but not much besides. A fish if they were lucky. A chicken if they had raised one.

And bamboo stew. Swamp green, the color of crocodile skin, thick as muck. The kind you’ll never see on any restaurant menu. My Mae and her siblings would dig the bamboo shoots up along their walk home using trained eyes. They’d add wild mushrooms — the older villagers taught them which mushrooms to gather from the jungle and which to ignore. (My aunt once discovered a motherlode of fungi on her walk to school. Not only did she convince her walking buddy to skip class with her that day, she also got the pal to take her shirt off so they could use it to transport the goods home.) Herbs with funny names — pak ee thu, bai ya nang — disintegrate down to their chlorophyll essence. Sweet pumpkin brightens the bubbling ooze like golden half moon islands. With a slow-burn chile heat and salt from pla raa, fermented fish, bamboo stew tastes of Earth — her iron, her magma, her wood, her sulfur.

bamboo stewMy Mae makes bamboo stew here in L.A., with some of the ingredients frozen or from cans. When she’s lucky, she can get herbs from a farmers market at a nearby Buddhist temple. The frilly oyster mushrooms come on styrofoam trays sealed in plastic wrap.

As a child, I once told her that her bamboo stew smelled funny. With a severity that made my internal temperature drop five degrees, she said, “Never make fun of other people’s food.”

I didn’t know what it meant to her. I may never really know. Tonight, she said to me, “As a Pu Thai daughter, you must learn to eat bamboo stew.” I wish I could taste the stew she shared with her ravenous brothers and sisters, 9 hands dipping balls of sticky rice into a bowl of the wild country.

Mango madness

For some people, it’s nails on chalkboard. For others, it’s things with holes in them. For me, it’s watching a mango get crushed by terrible de-pitting methods. This page makes me crazy.

I’m writing an article about mangoes right now, and I came across this lovely passage in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book on the difficulties of prepping a mango, which I know the magazine is not going to want:

Publicity leaflets make it all seem easy. ‘Slice round the middle, or round the edge like an avocado. Twist the two halves in opposite directions, until they come apart, and remove the stone.’

Elated with anticipation, knowing, you make a cut. You give a delicate twist — nothing happens beyond an internal lurch. A stronger twist, a couple of curses, then more strong twists. You are now covered with juice to above the wrist, and the mango looks battered. Salvage what you can with any implement to hand, and turn the pulp — exactly the right word in this instance — into a mango fool or water ice. At least you have the pleasure of licking your hands and arms before washing them clean in plenty of water.

Dog Days Are Over

For food writers, Thanksgiving starts as early as summer, when November magazine issues are getting ready to go to press, and generally go through all the way to the end of November for web. I’ve been thinking about mashed potatoes a lot for work lately, and I remembered a particular lesson I learned when I was teaching myself to cook western food.

Early in my New York life, I used to dogsit a little blond dachshund mix named Luna. She had pee pads for days she couldn’t wait for her dogsitter to come home. Sometimes, I’d come back to the apartment after work and find little skid marks on the pee pad, but no poop. I never had dogs growing up. I’d think, she didn’t eat her poop, did she???

One time, there was a downpour and I tried to take her out for a walk, not wanting to shirk one of my few duties as caretaker. I fastened a little raincoat around her narrow shoulders and we took the elevator down. When we got to the lobby, she dug her heels in and refused to cross the threshold onto Bleecker St. I pulled on her leash. She growled. Petulant and indignant, she popped a squat and peed right there in the doorway. I don’t remember if the doorman offered the clean it up or if I went back to the apartment to get paper towels. I just remember thinking, well, even posh blond dogs in the west village are still just dogs.

Luna belonged to a very fancy couple who lived at Bank St. and Bleecker St. They had purchased two apartments on the ground floor and knocked the wall down to combine them. Even then, 15 years ago, I guessed I’d never have a life like that.

They had a pretty kitchen, gorgeous Le Creuset pots, and terrible Ginsu-style serrated knives. There were shelves of cookbooks for perusing.  As a thank you for taking care of Luna, the lady of the house cooked me dinner once — a gigantic, curling fillet of monkfish over wet, tomatoey couscous. I had never had monkfish. “It’s supposed to taste kind of like lobster,” she said. I had never had lobster.

They encouraged me to cook while they were away, to take advantage of all of their amenities. Rooting around in their cabinets, I found a food processor, the first I’d ever touched. Here was my chance to take this technology for a spin. I decided to make mashed potatoes.

I boiled the potatoes, stuck them into the processor and poured hot milk and butter down the chute. Whizz whizz whizz! I removed the cover and stuck a spoon in.

Disgusting! The potatoes had become glue. There’s no other way to describe it — they were gloppy and elastic in a way I never knew potatoes could be. How could such a benign substance betray like that?

The food processor lost my trust that night, and, frankly, it hasn’t done much to earn it back in the years since.

If I had to draw a lesson from this persistent memory, it would be this: I’ve been in L.A. for five months now, and I’m frustrated with how little progress I’ve made getting to know the city. I still don’t even know my way around my local grocery store. This transition feels a little like those early years in New York did, when my days were full of questions and frustration and experiments gone awry. These feelings were fine when I was in my 20s, but they’re discomfiting now. I guess it’s good to remember what it was like to be green, and to know that it passes. And to know that, like Luna, I’ll always be who I am wherever I am.

 

Einstein on the Beach

einsteinOnBeach-LightboxI’ve been struggling with how to explain Einstein on the Beach to people, and what an impactful, unexpectedly moving piece of art it was. And I could tell you what it meant to me, but it would have nothing to do with what it might mean to you. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m sure I never will again.

I really, really didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I had never understood Philip Glass’s music before. Full disclosure: I went to see Satyagraha at the Met from our usual nosebleed balcony box seats and slept through half of it. But a friend gave me tickets to opening night for Einstein on the Beach at the LA Opera and I jumped at the chance to check it out*.

Einstein on the Beach

It runs 4 hours without intermission, with music that constantly repeats itself (and mostly stays in the high end range, puffing the sinuses). Maybe that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea. Whose cup of tea could it possibly be? But stay with me.

I had the privilege of sitting in the third row orchestra, dead center, and looking into the pit to watch the orchestra, ensemble, and chorus. The first two scenes are difficult and feel interminable; the organ cycles are relentless bordering on sadistic; the repetitive scenes made me squirm with discomfort. I watched several people plug their ears, then file out of their primo seats, never to return.

But then I found a fissure in what Robert Wilson calls a “knee play”, an interstitial scene performed from the pit. I watched the chorus and the astonishing Lisa Bielawa sing the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4…” over and over again. What I love about opera in general has nothing to do with any lofty intellectual appreciation. I love opera the way other people love the Olympics — it’s a chance for me to watch people contort their bodies through sheer will and do what few others in the world can do. In this knee play, I found that mind-boggling virtuosity, not in showy high Cs but in an ensemble keeping track of time and space in a superhuman way. That fissure became a crack that poured light over the whole experience. My body and mind made the transition from linear expectation into a kind of trance.

Einstein_2212890bEINSTEIN-articleLargeFrom there, it became a meditation in kairos time. I was glued to my seat, and my nerves were firing. I got lost in the imagery on stage, the choreography, the unbelievably difficult music. Scenes would typically cycle through a sequence and repeat again and again, adding a layer here, a note there, a new character or a new movement. A woman with anime eyes and Minnie Mouse hair puts her ear to a conch shell and bathes in its sound. A chorus, as a jury, simultaneously and gingerly places their paper lunch bags next to their feet. A white bar of light oppresses, blinding you, but you miss it when it rises up and leaves. Dancers in white and beige uniforms pirouette and jeté across the stage in a sequence that is light and energetic at first until its length feels cruel.

02EINSTEIN1_SPAN-articleLargeIt rings in my ears. This week, I found myself thinking about the repetitive motions of modern life. Wake up, work, go to sleep. Stoplight red, green light go. 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, weekend. It is the moments that break those cycles that can crank up the tension but also offer relief from monotony. My life was propelling forward in daily cycles at an unnoticeably rapid clip until my father had a heart attack and I moved back to L.A. This year is one of those extraordinary moments for me — a dilation of time and space, a paradigm shift, an atomic bomb.

Maybe you don’t buy it. I don’t blame you; my articulation has limitations. But if you have a chance to see it, you really should.

* With deepest gratitude to the friend who gave me the tickets. Holy shit, I owe you.

Lessons in LA Public Transportation

When you are new to an area, there are costs accrued in learning to get around. Sometimes you pay in transportation fares or gas, sometimes you pay in time; often, it’s both.

When I first moved to New York, I’d often get on the D train at Broadway/Lafayette and wind up in Brooklyn instead of midtown. Seems so elementary now, recognizing the difference between the downtown trains and the uptown trains, but it took me a while to figure it out. When I got lost, I’d just exit the train and cross over to the opposite platform. I mostly paid in lost time, which I had plenty of back then.

20131014-110141.jpgI’m back to being a n00b here in L.A., and it sucks. On the way to the Central Library today, I paid $17 for a round trip Metrolink ticket + $1.50 for Metro Red subway. But when I got there, the homeless folks and I clustered around the entrance only to find it closed for Columbus Day. (I have never had a job that gave me the day off on Columbus Day. It is not a real holiday!) So I stepped on the wrong bus and paid $1.50 (fuck) before I took the Metro Silver bus back ($2.45), thus learning that it is a much cheaper and more efficient way to move between my hood and downtown.

Well, that’s what I thought while I was on the bus. Then I realized that it takes about 25 minutes to drive to the El Monte bus station, which is about how long it takes to drive to the library. The only thing I avoid by taking the bus is having to navigate the confusing, swirly one-way streets of downtown L.A. Oh, and I also don’t have to deal with the confounding business of parking validation. (I once parked in the wrong lot and had to pay $15 for parking. $15! On a Saturday! That is outrageous.)

So the morning was a complete bust and I generously donated $23 to the Metro. I’m not even going to calculate the cost of gas used on roundtrips to pick me up from the stations.

All of which is to say that I miss the simplicity and reach of my unlimited NYC Metrocard. Do you know how much freedom you have, my New York friends, and how cheap it comes? I don’t know that I did.

 

 

Habemus Papam!

Saint_Francis_statue_in_gardenLike many, I’m really enjoying the tenure of Pope Francis so far. I’m charmed! The guy chose the name of a saint whose statue always has little creatures perched around him. I’m in no danger of being converted, but I like the mystic, generous form of the religion the Pope is presenting — one that is virtually unrecognizable to me as an outsider.

One part of his recent interview in La Repubblica hit home for me:

The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more.

Was like a little pearl of affirmation for me. Not that my parents are so old yet, but they will be.

A nice thing about seeing my father every day is that we can now joke about shit that used to be too serious to laugh about. Like after my dad’s been at the 99-cent store down the street for hours:

MEI thought maybe you got forgot your way and I’d have to drive out to find you.

or after I complain about my dad’s affinity for junk:

PAU: The house is yours, but the stuff is mine. When I die, you can just put all my stuff in my coffin so they can cremate it with me.