Sunny


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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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.