Monthly Archives: September 2011

Food for Thought

Standard

“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?”  –Lin Yutang

Today Anderson Cooper spent his new show talking about (disordered) eating.  Food is such a base, simple need that is loaded with unbelievable baggage.  We need food from before we are out of our mothers’ wombs, and continue to need it until the day we die.  It is ever-present, both background and foreground for the most important and mundane moments of our lives.  Food is a matter of life and death.  While it seems so simple, such an afterthought, it really is a complex piece of our lives.

As someone lucky enough to live a life where my next meal is not a mystery, where I know that I can choose what I consume, food takes on much more symbolism.  It intricately ties itself to memories and people, to places and emotions.  Cooper admitted to being a surprisingly picky eater and other people talked about idiosyncrasies with respect to their dining rituals.  As a picky eater, I felt validated that there are others out there who share in my aversions, my fears, and my embarrassments.  As I prepare to make myself dinner, with this show on my mind, I’m thinking very seriously about food.

I go through phases when I will crave something and eat it almost exclusively, and then will lose my taste for it.  Right now my taste for spicy food is dominating my palate.  While I still fear new foods, my old standbys are getting a little punch with some chipotle or jalapeno.  And while there are foods that I try and gain a taste for, there are some things that I will never refuse, that I am always in the mood for.

With the absurd request of recently-executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, many are asking what their last meal would be.  I spent a long overnight shift answering this one for myself.  After one of the most fascinating stories I gleaned from This American Life (Poultry Slam 2007), the question stuck with me.  After hearing about the legendary last meal of forbidden ortolan (you really need to listen to, or at least read, the story), I wondered what I would eat.  During a silent night of work, the thought settled on my mind and I quietly realized what I would eat, with no reservations.

If I knew I had only one meal left to eat, I would want my mother’s chicken and dumplings, drink strawberry Quick, and enjoy my grandma’s chocolate balls (yep, laugh all you want) for dessert.  When I’m hot and craving something sweet, nothing quenches my thirst like Diet Coke.  There is no pizza like a hot Round Table pie.  I love the soft, gooey sweet bread my grandma makes each Christmas.  I have a sandwich place I would eat at every day to keep in business.  There are plenty of foods that I love and would eat any time, any place, but that would be my last meal.  I would savor the hot broth, tender chicken shredded in it, saving the heavy, chewy dumplings for last, sprinkled with salt and lemon pepper.  I would remember every cold night, warmed by the scoops out of the steaming pot.  I would remember my family, silently gathered around the table, burning our tongues on the hot broth because we cannot wait to eat the delicious tradition.  I would sip my pink milk, remembering my little mouse glass, the lunches of grilled cheese and crackers.  I would remember being young, as much as I could, and the special treat that strawberry Quick was.  The cool milk soothing my burnt tongue, I would eat until my stomach burst with warmth, heavy with winter.  Then, after the hot meal, I would enjoy the semi-frozen chocolate candy that my grandmother makes each Christmas.  Small, sweet balls of graham cracker, peanut butter and coconut, coated in dark chocolate, are a sure sign that the holidays have arrived.

My mouth waters as I think of the foods, able to recall the tastes as I imagine the glorious meal.  While delicious and satisfying, the meal would be made infinitely better because it is tied together with love.  My mom, leaning against the counter as she stirs the large, stainless steel pot of chicken never gets more thanks than on those nights.  My grandma, year after year baking, her tanned hands forming each ball and dipping them, freezing them and always keeping a few hidden until New Year’s for us.  My dad, stirring the gritty drink mix in as we kids climbed up to the table for lunch.  The last meal I would choose wouldn’t be some of the best food on earth, but it would be food that makes me feel indescribably loved.  It is food that links me to my family, food that brings me home.  There are plenty of other things I enjoy eating and restaurants I love, but this is the food that sustains me, the things that make eating life-giving.  What would your last meal be?

“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” –Mother Teresa

Advertisements

Ten Years

Standard

“The stern hand of fate has scourged us to an elevation where we can see the great everlasting things that matter for a nation; the great peaks of honour we had forgotten–duty and patriotism, clad in glittering white; the great pinnacle of sacrifice pointing like a rugged finger to heaven.”  –David Lloyd George

Ten years passed.  Ten years of living in a new world.  Ten years of mourning and fear.  Ten years of questions and anger.  Ten years of life and death.

I was 16, up early for school.  I showered first, early in the morning, and often went back to sleep or caught up on homework.  In a dark, quiet house, I watched the news more for the running clock in the bottom corner than for any headlines.  I was putting on socks.  All stories stopped short and footage rolled from New York, a plane collided with a building.  It was shocking and confusing, reports muddled and brief.  Could an accident this ugly really happen?  As reporters relayed what they knew, questions arose.  As a serious concern descended on the Bay Area newsroom, I became more glued to the coverage.  As reporters shared what little was known, a second plane took the nation by surprise, live.  I kept getting ready for school and remember telling my mom as she readied my little brothers in the bathroom.  I was brushed off, clearly mistaken.  I left for school and found my zero period Chemistry classroom flooded with radio coverage.  We listened as buildings collapsed.  I remember the principal making an announcement.  I remember coming home from school, canceling my babysitting appointment that night and the man not understanding why I wanted to be home with my family.

“What broke in a man when he could bring himself to kill another?”  –Alan Paton

I remember sitting in the living room that evening, watching television coverage.  The news continued all day, anchors tired and windows growing dark.  Images of the buildings, of the collapse, of people running and jumping and crying streamed.  It continued for hours, days.  More death, more destruction, more hatred.  It was all so senseless, so unnecessary.  It was brutal and cruel, targeting civilians and innocents going about life and work.  It was unbelievable.

Our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance.  It is also owed to justice and to humanity.  Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.”  –James Bryce

Then, among the carnage, something amazing began.  People came together.  People loved and helped however possible.  People gave and gave and supported.  People were human.  In the face of blind hatred, optimistic courage poured forth.  Much like the Whos, America was about more than business and skyscrapers.  Taking away our pretty things, taking away our family and friends, would not destroy us.  We became stronger than the violence that sought to rend us apart.  There was a shining moment when all that was right with our country, all that we idealize and cling to, shone.  We were the American dream: rich, strong, generous and brave.  We were the promise for a tomorrow, no matter how dark the day.

(Frodo) “I wish none of this had happened.”

(Gandalf) “So do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  There are forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”  —Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring

Life is not the same today.  The world is different than it was ten years and one day ago.  I resent that my safety was stolen, my security erased–the world is a scary place.  I resent that I can’t take liquids on a plane, that I can’t meet my parents at their gate as they arrive.  I resent that every fly over for the football games down the street stops my heart and makes my stomach lurch.  I resent that concentrate, small hatred has ruined so much for so many.  Today should be unremarkable.  It should be just another Sunday, wedged between my aunt’s anniversary and a close friend’s birthday.  It was not supposed to be this way.

“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.”  –Kurt Vonnegut

And, most years, the day passes as routine.  The date stands out and a slight anxiety surrounds it, but it blends rather seamlessly with the rest of the year.  What I lost was ineffable, theoretic.  There are so many others who lost concrete, tangible pieces of their life.  I was lucky.  But this year, with the tenth anniversary, I am much more aware of the day.  I am astonished that ten years have passed, that sixteen year-old me lived in such a different world.  As I watch the memorials and coverage, I have been unexpectedly moved.  Last night I watched as four firefighters recounted the woman they saved from the tower, and how she stopped to rest as the building crumbled.  Even though they had helped carry her down, she stopped at the perfect spot, cocooning them in the stairwell and protecting them.  The tears welled in my eyes as they reunited, the four tough men stooping to hug the lady.  Tonight I watched the real-time footage documented with the fire department.  As they entered tower one, filling the lobby, my body tensed and I had to keep myself from shouting, “get out!” at the television.  As off-duty men arrived at the station and suited up, racing into the destruction, the tears came.  All of the fear and devastation came back.  The bravery and unimaginable humanity overcame me as they did then.  It was all raw and real, just as confusing and painful as the day it happened.

Ten years has been a long time.  I am a different person and the world has changed.  But it also feels like yesterday, like the dust has not yet settled.  In some ways, it hasn’t.  But today, I know that I love this country.  I love the people who love it.  I am humbled to live under the same flag that flew over those men and women who rushed to their deaths to spare others from theirs.  Today was a very different day.

“The real differences around the world today are not between Jews and Arabs, Protestants and Catholics, Muslims, Croats and Serbs.  The real differences are between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it, between those who look to the future and those who cling to the past, between those who open their arms and those who are determined to clench their fists.”  –Bill Clinton, 1997

A Dark Day

Standard

“In the future, can’t wait to see/ If you open up the gates for me…It’s kinda hard with you not around/ Know you in Heaven smilin’ down/ Watchin’ us while we pray for you/ Every day we pray for you/ ‘Til the day we meet again/ In my heart I’ll keep you friend/ Memories give me the strength I need to proceed/ Strength I need to believe… I still can’t believe you’re gone/ Give anything to hear half your breath…”  –Puff Daddy, “I’ll be Missing You”

September 8th is a difficult day.  It marks the anniversary of my aunt’s death, which rocked my family.  My mom’s only sister, her death was incredibly painful and something that we just don’t talk about.  In fact, her name is only mentioned with the greatest caution.  While she crosses my mind throughout the year, the day we lost her always comes with an empty ache, a fog that makes everything else so much less important.

Terry was the first person I knew who died.  I had friends who lost parents and knew of some girls who had tragically died when we were in junior high school, but no one that I knew, that I loved, that I had a relationship with, had died before.  I remember the frustration and deep, novel sadness that overcame me.  As a freshman in high school, I was in a difficult middle place between wanting to be comforted and coddled and feeling compelled to comfort my mother.  It pains me that we do not talk about her.  I hate that she is taboo, too hard to remember because she was wonderful.  I know that we turn the dead into saints, and she had plenty of demons that she faced and conquered in her life, but she became a wonderful woman.  I actually spent very little time with her, but she was an inspiration.  On top of defeating addiction, she was the mom I hope to be–she led her daughter’s scout troop, shuttled her children to archery and AWANAS, loved her grandbaby fiercely, and met the neighbor kids at the front door to pray with and for them before they walked to school each morning.  Her family fell apart after her death and now, twelve years later, I still do not see the silver lining, the reason, the good that came of all this.

This unresolved anger, the senselessness of her passing, is perhaps why I feel so unsettled on the anniversary.  As I drove to work, I was incredibly stressed and tired.  I had (big shock!) computer complications that made me miss an important conference early in the morning and was running on just a couple of hours of sleep as I left for a long day of work.  For the last month and a half, the only thing that I have listened to in the car has been the Avenue Q soundtrack.  I closed at work the night before, so I had listened to the radio on the way home because Love Line is a super secret shame of mine.  As I started my car, the radio was still playing.  Before changing over to my cd, I scanned my presets just to see what I was missing.  In a moment that makes me think that “coincidences” are just a simplistic word for God at work, the song that opened this post, good old Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You,” was just starting.  My eyes flooded and throat closed, but I couldn’t turn it off.  A cheesy remnant of my adolescence, this song is so full of sorrow and strikes me as painfully sincere.  It was a reminder of Terry, of her day, that sadness and anger is okay, and that her memory and legacy live on.  I haven’t heard that song in years, but it made its way, in its entirety, into my drive.  Mourning with the radio made me feel a little less alone.

As the day dragged on and the city baked in an above-average heat, the day looked to be as bad as it could be.  And then everything went black.  From Mexico to Orange County, the Pacific to Arizona, electricity disappeared.  Of course.  Because when it rains, it pours on the day I forgot my umbrella.  Sitting in the darkness, unable to leave work, I thought about the fatigue overtaking my body.  I thought about my stressful morning, about how tired I am of having the worst-case scenario always play out, and then I thought about Terry.  The day was just overwhelming.  I felt small and helpless and very, very alone.

I finally got home and quickly rounded up candles and flashlights.  I called home quickly to tell my parents I was alive and, if something more sinister struck while we were without power, that I loved them.  I settled for the most edible of my food and finally gave into the darkness and went to bed.  Laying in the still, hot darkness, willing my open window to carry a breeze instead of the roar of freeway traffic, I drifted in and out of light sleep.  I woke up and hoped that when I checked the time on my phone that the night had passed, that dawn was near.  It was 10.  I lay in sweat, near tears, and resolved that it would be a sleepless, endless night.  No tv, no reading, no video games, and no phone.  I knew I would never make it.  And so did God.  As I lay there, feeling the hot darkness crush me and my spirit, it happened.  About ten minutes after I woke up and panicked at the long night ahead, the lights came on.  My fan kicked in and the air swirled over my hot skin.  He really wasn’t going to give me more than I could bear, but as Mother Teresa said, “I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” 

I do realize how insignificant a dying computer, mean customers, no lights and a hot night sound compared to my aunt, who no long can fight those little battles.  It was just a long day,  a hard day, a day that I was more than glad to see end.  But, as I fell asleep, with most things back in order, the words of my beloved Avenue Q ran through my overwhelmed mind:

“For now we’re healthy/ For now we’re employed/ For now we’re happy/ If not overjoyed/ And we’ll accept the things we cannot avoid, for now… Only for now!/ For now there’s life!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s love!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s work/ For now there’s happiness!/ But only for now!/ For now discomfort!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s friendship!/ Only for now!… Each time you smile/ It’ll only last a while/ Life may be scary/ But it’s only temporary/ Everything in life is only for now!”  —Avenue Q, “For Now”

Summer Solace

Standard

“If a June night could talk, it would probably boast it invented romance.” –Bern Williams

I am not a summer girl.  I loved school and hated to see it end.  Yes, a little rest and freedom from homework was welcome, and the night owl in me embraced the late nights and sleeping through the morning, but in general, I do not love summer.  I hate the heat.  I miss school.  I get lonely and bored.  I get antsy.  I am not a swimmer, not a sunbather, not a traveler.  The months creep past with slow, oppressive heat and the stale smell of sweat and lethargy invades the house.

But my disdain for the sunny months does not dim the nostalgic ache I feel for childhood summers.  I hated them in the moment, but look back with longing for those small town heat waves.

Summers were hot.  I remember lying still on the living room carpet, fighting my brothers for position in front of the big metal fan that stood on our hearth.  At night, after darkness crept through the valley, we opened windows and amped up fans to blow what little cool air existed through the house.   I remember the little brown fan, oscillating on my dresser, and the welcome touch of its breeze as it swayed side to side in the darkness.  Mornings started with a welcome chill, clean bright sun stretching across the neighborhood.  The moments were brief before the sun began its cruel work.  We bathed in sunscreen before swimming, hid in the house during midday.  Summer nights came slow, late, and never as strong as we hoped.  The heat never left, but there is something magical about a starry night, barefoot on the warm cement and cool grass.

I remember splashing in our wading pool out on the cement.  My brothers and I would fill it with cold water from the hose, sliding through the cool stream that penetrated the heated water from the day before.  We wore swim masks and snorkels and would lay on our stomachs and “swim” circles around the pool, dragging our half-submerged bodies in circles to create a small current, and then let it push us as we sat still.  I played dress up in old bridesmaid dresses with my friend, pretending we were brides and princesses, and we picked questionable berries from the shrubs to use for “real” food to play house.  I watched Stick Stickley in my bedroom as I moved furniture and cleaned out drawers until I could no longer stand the afternoon sun baking my windows.  We painted pictures and wrote poems and tried new recipes for the fair.  It was frightening and thrilling to walk the halls and find our entries, some with ribbons, and find other names we recognized.  I can smell the 4H livestock and feel the straw beneath my feet as cotton candy melted on my tongue.

As I grew older, summers changed.  It meant summer school to get ahead and to get my driver’s permit.  It was my first regular job, working at the city’s summer camp.  That was when I got my first honest to goodness tan, spending afternoons watching kids swim in the public pool.  We were mobile and employed, so we spent the summer free.  We had barbecues and parties, spent late nights at the lake and in back yards.  We walked the empty streets and played running charades at the elementary school.

Then, just like Harry Potter’s owl, letters came each August containing our school supply lists.  I loved shopping for notebooks and pens, but secretly feared that first day back.  It was so scary to see everyone for the first time, see new faces, see how everyone had changed.  There was so much at stake when we returned, frantic phone calls comparing class lists and finding someone, anyone that was in our classes.  There were new uniforms to iron and new outfits to assemble.  There was so much anticipation in the end, such a far cry from the endless, lazy days before.

I remember shorts and swimsuits, popsicles and fireworks.  When I think of summer my skin grows feverish and the heat hugs its way around my body.  I can see my mom’s beautifully browned legs as I sat between them while she covered me in cool, creamy sun screen.  I can smell the metallic water, dribbling from the hose, as we made a “safe” path of wet cement, between our chalk artwork, to walk barefoot on.  The crickets and bicycle tires echo through the dark streets in the cool of late night, as the neighborhood comes to life.  I hate the sweat and the loneliness and stagnation.  I hate summer.  And as I remember those moments, the summers of childhood, tears fill my tired eyes and I know without a doubt that I would give anything to return to those blistering days.

“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”  –Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams