Friday, January 22, 2016

Snowstorms, Shit, and Hot and Sour Soup

My dad asked me today if I was glad I wasn't in DC.

The truth is, I love Washington, DC in a snowstorm. The whole city shuts down. Everything slows. The only things you can do are the following: sleep, enjoy each other's company, go for a cold and sloppy walk, party until you run out of booze then return to simply enjoying each other's company because everything is closed and you can't buy any more booze and the people you are around are awesome anyway, sleep again.

In the four-year period I lived in DC for college, I had two such stretches of time. The first happened my freshman year, when the snow started just after everyone had arrived back to school but before classes began, so none of us had homework or reading or tests. It was a perfect moment because there was so little opportunity for stress. We had a few days trapped mostly in our dorms with crazy escape runs to the national monuments to sled illicitly on cafeteria trays. I kissed a couple boys in a couple days. We all did.

About a week after the perfect, icy days of freedom, I came down with the worst case of flu I have yet experienced. (How long is the incubation period for the flu? In other words, who should I blame for this monstrosity of illness?) I passed out in the shower. My roommates, who in most ways for the first two-thirds of the year barely tolerated our co-existence, banded together to take care of me. My friend, my first and life-changing friend in college, S., came to check on me while I was so sick.

I remember his face floating in and out of focus in front of mine as I lay feverish on my lofted bed. "You're right, she does look like shit," he told my roommates. He fed me Nyquil and hot-and-sour soup. Eventually, when I became more mobile, he and another friend walked with me, slowly—so slowly—to student health services. There, the doctor gave me antibiotics and told me to sleep and drink lots of fluids, just as S. had been helping me do.

Two weeks ago, S. was in the city for a conference. I hadn't seen him for years, but when I picked him up from the airport, our friendship picked up right away. In my memory, I knew how funny he was, but it had been so long since I had felt it in person. He delivers jokes in a perfect deadpan, then laughs a couple seconds afterwards with a goofy "he he he." He's colorblind, so he asked me—just as he had almost every day of his college life—if his jacket matched his pants. He's still kind and genuine, interested and interesting. I had met his strong, fiercely intelligent wife independently of him before they got together in college, and I was there at the party that sealed their future. I joyfully participated in all three days of their wedding. I love them both, even through time and distance.

Sophomore year of college, in the year after the first big storm and the year before the second, S. helped me not through illness but through a very debilitating breakup. During this time, I spent all the hours I wasn't in class in bed. S. may or may not have brought me hot-and-sour-soup then—I can't remember—but I do remember he did whatever he could to distract me from my own misery and try to help me appreciate all the goodness that surrounded me. He was honest with me. He was also hilarious.

One damp autumn day during that gray time, he lured me out of my dorm room down to the muddy playing fields near the monuments to watch him and his team play intramural football. Standing on the sidelines, I watched them cajole each other and cheer each other on, smiling so big I could hear their grins. They loved each other and they loved the game. Towards the end, S. made the most beautiful play I'd seen in an intramural game: it was a near-impossible interception made with Inspector Gadget-like elastic limbs. He stretched arms and legs—telescoping antennae—to make the connection. The edges of his fingers touched the ball, he coaxed it into his palms, pulled it to his chest, then fell to the ground, rolling and laughing.

I screamed like the cheerleader, for him at least, I was.

After the miracle play, he ran towards me, arms wide, grinning again. "That was for you, baby!" he yelled. He threw his arms around me, laughing. It was a great hug. It was also funky, because he had rolled in dog shit when he hit the ground after his interception. I ended up with shit all over my sweater.

Two weeks ago, we talked about all that had happened to each of us since we left the city that hosted that game. We've both had joy. We've both rolled in more shit. And even after all this, every time I looked at him, I wanted to laugh with sheer happiness. He's such a good man, so funny, generous, smart, and warm-hearted. After I spent the day with him, I keep thinking how wonderful it is to have people like this in my life. Good friends do something remarkable: in their goodness, they encourage greater goodness out of us; in their specialness, they remind us of how special we are.

It's snowing in DC right now. Damn, I have such a hankering for hot-and-sour soup.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

In Cars

He called me Tiger.

I met him when I was seventeen. M was a friend of a friend, and I picked the two of them up with other friends to give them a ride to a home football game. I was always giving people rides because Scarlet, my 1974 Jeep Wagoneer, was generous in space and opportunity for story. People wanted to go places in that Jeep.

When the second trimester rolled around, M and I ended up in the same physics class. We got to know each other through learning physics, and though the subject was very difficult for me, I loved the class. It was so fascinating. It was why everything worked. We had a passionate, very funny teacher who recognized my struggle and struggled beside me to find ways I could learn in his class: he bought a book for me titled something along the lines of Physics for Humanities Students, he used me as an example in all demonstrations involving electricity (I received a near-weekly electrical shock in that class), and he made sure to still be at school at 4pm when I needed him to be there. Right after school let out, I (often accompanied by M) would go straight to Denny's and get jacked up on bad coffee while working furiously on physics homework. If I got it done by 4pm, I'd head back to school, and Mr. K would be there waiting to go through my work with me and guide me where I went off track. I would then have the evening to make corrections so I would have quality homework to turn in the next day in class.

M and I enjoyed each other in part because we were both so excited about learning. After starting the love letters that he left in my locker with "Dear Tiger," or sometimes just "Grrrrr," he'd go on to tell me something fascinating that he learned or why he liked the project he was working on in his history class. Our relationship wasn't entirely academic, of course. We spent hours in Scarlet making out and making each other laugh. I remember collecting a group of friends and all of us heading to a sledding hill well after the lift closed and the flood lights shut off. We snuck into the park, dragged the tubes up the hill ourselves, and hurtled over and over down in the velvety dark. Our laughter eventually attracted a pebbly-faced, slow-talking security guard on a snowmobile who escorted us out. That Christmas, I gave M a careful pencil portrait of Scarlet, all shiny chrome and seventies weighty steel. In each other, we saw curiosity, creativity, humor, determination, and a whole lot of high-energy fun.

Though it may sound like I have some romantic longing for this boy from my past, I don't. Our relationship was necessarily short-lived. Though so kind and curious, even at his young age he already had some demons he hadn't yet figured out how to set free. When M and I were finished soon after Christmas, I was confident in our relationship's end. Though I don't still carry a torch for him, I do for someone else: Tiger.

**********

Until yesterday, I owned a 2007 black Yaris, one that was stripped down, free from cruise control, antilock brakes, and power windows, and what little the car did have was manually controlled. In this car, I drove across deserts and through mountains. It was my mini farm truck, and it hauled manure, lots and lots of manure that I used to build my garden and orchard. It was perpetually dirty and not very comfortable. I appreciated this car, and when I first got it, I really liked it. But, there was never any passion. The Yaris was all serviceable efficiency, small and necessary.

I donated the Yaris. A large-grinned man came to my house yesterday, hooked it up to tow, and carried it away to auction. It's not pretty, but it runs really well still, and it—hopefully—will be for someone a good, efficient car that will get that someone where that someone needs to go. The proceeds from auctioning the Yaris will go to my local animal shelter. Even in its going away, the Yaris is serving.

I was able to make this donation because in July I ordered a new vehicle. Unlike when I bought the Yaris, this time I did spring for more than just what was necessary. I bought a vehicle that has removable roof panels so the whole sky can be mine, a build and trim package that will allow me to skitter over boulders and through sand dunes when I so choose, space enough to fill comfortably with people and stories, and a color that makes me happy. GMC built my orange Jeep Renegade in Italy and took forever to ship it over the Atlantic, across north America, and finally to me.

Tiger Lily arrived in December. I can't wait to see what happens in her.


Saturday, January 02, 2016

In the Snow

When my mother was in graduate school, she had a French roommate. There are very few stories about this French roommate, and the few that do exist revolve entirely around food. The two didn't have a real kitchen in their room, but they did have a hot plate and a sink. My mom tells about good Southern corn just pulled off the stalks, boiled on that hot plate until the kernels were crisp-tender, then slathered with butter and salt. From this roommate, my mom also learned how to make crêpes, a skill that has flavored my entire life, since many family weekends, special occasions, and sunny Saturdays have been marked by their fragrance. 

The night before she makes them, in an old plastic quart-size measuring cup with a sharp nose of a spout, she beats as many eggs as people she's feeding with enough flour to make a stiff paste. She gradually loosens the paste with milk until the mixture is the consistency of light cream. Into the refrigerator goes the mixture, which she returns to the next morning after it has thickened a bit, when she loosens it further with milk and perhaps a little water. In her blackened steel skillet over a blue flame, she plops a tablespoon of butter and swirls it around until it is melted and covers the bottom of the pan. Once the butter stops spitting, she tilts the pan this way and that as she pours in a slick of crêpe batter, rolling the pan around until the batter coats the bottom. It becomes a rhythm as she makes one after the other: drop butter in the hot pan, spread butter, pour while swirling pan, swirl pan until the bottom is coated thinly, rest a minute, edge a spatula under, flip over. Steam rises around her as she works. She stacks each crêpe on top of the other until the platter is a tower of plate-sized, laced brown, eggy silk. The kitchen fan makes conversation loud. Gradually, the whole house comes to smell of browned butter.

My mom made such a feast this past Tuesday, her birthday. We ate the crêpes with sour cream, powdered sugar, and, frozen this summer to grace the winter table, fruit from my parents' trees—this time cherries and peaches. We also ate them my favorite way: drizzled with melted butter and lemon juice, then snowed with powdered sugar.

Rabbit tracks.
After we stuffed ourselves with crêpes, my mom and I went on a walk, visiting neighbors in the small, close-knit neighborhood, warm adobe to cold snow and back to warm adobe. We saw puppy tracks, rabbit tracks, elk tracks, bird tracks, and other, unidentifiable tracks, sometimes cutting straight across the fields, sometimes crisscrossing, sometimes suddenly appearing trail-less and disappearing just as quickly.

Elk tracks.
I wonder if my mom's graduate school roommate, whose name I do not know, knows that this skill, making crêpes, has been such a part of our family's life. I wonder if she knows the tracks she left.

Crow tracks.

Any idea what tracks these are? Bird wings beating the snow?

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Day Short of the Darkest

A year ago today, a day short of the darkest day of the year, I left my former home and drove up the state to this one. Yesterday I sat down to reflect on this past year, and I created a list of what I've lost, maintained, and gained.

A few hours after making my list, I had dinner at a friend's house. She made a good lentil stew, I brought a salad, and we drank beer and played board games. From the sitting room of her house on the hill, we could see the lights of downtown glimmering in the rain. I had brought, for dessert, one of my favorite wintertime sweets, Gramercy Tavern's Gingerbread. Instead of baking it in a big bundt pan, I had baked in two loaf pans, so I could bring one loaf for this meal and freeze the second for another time worthy of such a dessert. I served her a piece, and each of her roommates wanted a piece, then she and a roommate wanted a second piece, and I did too. And then the loaf was gone.

It's good, this cake, almost black, spiced with loads of ginger, some cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and a little nutmeg (and I add a pinch of salt, too). The base of oatmeal stout and molasses turns the whole cake moist and rich, and I cut down the white sugar by half so it's not so sweet that all the other flavors can't shine. But it's also something much deeper and older that a simple dessert. Eating gingerbread is eating history, the convoluted and violent intersection of slave and spice trade. It's dark. It's horrible. It's delicious. It was an appropriate capstone to the year I've had.

In the long run, according to both my logical list and the wisdom of my heart, I've come out ahead. Talking to my friend about this the other night, she told me that sometimes she chooses difficulty and darkness in order for the psychological and spiritual payoff. That's not my modus operandi. I didn't choose the darkness of this year, but so much sweetness has come out of it, that now, I wouldn't change it.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Post Feast

Yesterday, I gave thanks with a friend's large Sicilian family with deep roots in San Francisco.

We ate shrimp and more shrimp, pasta and more pasta, ham, deep fried turkey, mashed potatoes, winter squash, San Francisco sourdough, several desserts, and we drank lots of wine. The family extolled the virtues of a particular old school Italian spot for pasta, claimed there was only one good bakery to go to for sourdough, and explained facetiously that the difference between old and ancient vines was 40 years. I learned who to ask for help if I wanted to find a good flush of porcini. At the table, four people in as many generations of family members shared the same first name. Jokes, told a thousand times before, rolled out, polished and perfect. I laughed so hard.

Last night I came home very late after the meal that lasted for hours. My dog was happy to see me. My cat crawled into bed and immediately started to snore. I fell into dreamless sleep and didn't wake up—not once—until well into today.

I'm so grateful.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Chiles and Hope

An outsider may think I'm living in a gray cloud in my new post-marriage-implosion reality, yet that isn't true. In many ways, the clouds have lifted in this unexpected life.

From the pots on my sunny deck, I just harvested almost all the ripe chiles: Aji Omnicolor, Cayenne, Pilange, and Chupetinho. A couple times in the last month, I have sat in the sun to eat one, mouth flooded with flavor and pain, my lips numb, sweat jumping up under my eyes. It hurts. I don't do this often. But when I do, the endorphin response is just so strong, and I feel amazing, hopeful, and alive.


I feel like tearing the chiles off the city and stuffing them in my mouth, until I'm crying and happy. I want to string them around my neck, inviting others to chew them off.

I feel hot.


Friday, November 06, 2015

Down One

In the past two and a half weeks, my dog has taken to the habit of sitting immediately behind where I'm standing and leaning into the back of my legs. He didn't used to do this, but now, whenever I'm standing and static, he makes sure to have physical contact with me. My cat, always a fan of of the crook of my arm at bedtime but less likely to choose to cuddle at other times, has recently spent more time in my lap than in years. In fact, nowadays, whenever I sit down, there is dog curled up against me on one side and a cat draped across my lap. They are creatures of deep empathy for whom I'm so thankful.

Because, two and a half weeks ago, the small two-person, two-animal family became no longer when one of the persons decided to leave it. Now it's a tribe of three: a dog, a cat, and me.

My people have been wonderful supports. But, when each day ends, it's just the tribe of three again, and for the millionth time in my life I'm glad I'm an animal person. Upon waking up one recent morning after sleeping on my side with my cat snoring gently against my spine, I remembered a brief passage in C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy, one of the Chronicles of Narnia, a children's series I have read probably twenty times in my life. Here, the main character Shasta is terrified, stranded alone in a graveyard outside the city gates at night, without his (talking) horse and other companions, and something has just startled him by touching his leg.

He looked round; and his heart almost burst with relief. What had touched him was only a cat. 
The light was too bad now for Shasta to see much of the cat except that it was big and very solemn. It looked as if it might have lived for long, long years among the Tombs, alone. Its eyes made you think it knew secrets it would not tell. 
"Puss, puss," said Shasta. "I suppose you're not a talking cat." 
The cat only stared at him harder than ever. Then it started walking away, and of course Shasta followed it. It led him right though the Tombs and out on the desert side of them. There it sat down bolt upright with its tail curled around its feet and its face set towards the desert and towards Narnia and the North, as still as if it were watching for some enemy. Shasta lay down beside it with his back against the cat and his face towards the Tombs, because if one is nervous there's nothing like having your face towards danger and having something warm and solid at your back. The sand wouldn't have seemed very comfortable to you, but Shasta had been sleeping on the ground for weeks and hardly noticed it. Very soon he fell asleep.