Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When Does the Mind Close?

This Christmas we were with relatives and people of every age. And being with them made me wonder again something I have wondered since I was about 16: When do people's minds close?

Is there an age until which people are open, and then their mind closes? Is it caused by an event? Boredom? Socialization?

As a child I remember vividly how different my Godmother seemed. She was old, yes, and wise, but so open. She was curious, about me and what I thought. About new books. About the news. About new ideas. She knew so much, but she was as inquisitive as if she knew nothing. I knew so few adults like that I found her remarkable. Something in her remained soft, flexible, young. Not naive. Very wise. But open.

Other people seem to close up at age 20. It is as if all new inputs of information after that age will fit into pre-existing structures. New ideas, new experiences simply cannot penetrate. They have ossified. It is over. Of course they keep living. But their minds are closed. It is like a grate that shuts over their minds and hearts. Tiny slivers of things will go in through the grate--but nothing in its entirety--not the wonder, the ecstasy of something totally new. It will be made very very small so it can fit through the tiny slats. And then it won't feel so remarkable anymore.

What do you think? Do you think people's minds close? Why? What causes it? Is it just the passage of time? Or something traumatic?

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Jonathan Gold Moment

Last night after ice skating in Pasadena we went to Chinatown for dinner.

I love Chinatowns, even L.A.'s Chinatown, which never feels as bustling and healthy as other American Chinatowns. But I could sit in the main square forever, staring at the colorful pagodas and the strings of Chinese lanterns.

We went to go to Yang Chow, the best Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, according to Jonathan. But the line was so long, and our boys so tired, we headed down Broadway to try something new: the colorful and crowded Hop Woo. There were peking ducks hanging in front, the restaurant was all garish red and green (which I love). The booths were lime green with strings of crystal beads hanging down, and huge tanks of fish adorned the back wall. Not aquariums--tanks of fish to reach into to pull out your order.

We sat down in the back in a green booth, next to a table of Chinese men. Everything on their table looked delicious.

"What's that?" asked Jonathan, pointing to a huge pot of fish.

"Oh, Tilapia bowl," said the waitress. "It's not on the menu. They are Chinese."

We ordered it.

"What's that?" he asked, pointing to a mound of sauteed something or other, heaped on a pile of noodles with veggies. She went over and talked to the Chinese men.

"You no like it," she said. "It is Chinese. They are Chinese."

"Yes, but what is it?" Jonathan pushed. She went back and chattered away again.

"Frog," she said. "I'll see you later, OK?"

Theo looked stricken (he had seen the Muppet movie where Kermit goes on a cross country odyssey to escape some hungry frog leg eating bad guys)

We did not order the frog.

But we felt bold, brave, and very Jonathan Gold.

"Jonathan Gold would definitely have ordered this," Jonathan said. "This is real. A real Chinese experience."

The duck was delish, sticky and so flavorful I found myself sucking the duck out of the marrow of the duck bones. The skin and sauce and cruncky scallions were all mushed into a fluffy bread like a squishy taco. Divine. The tilapia bowl was homey and what felt to us foreigners like authentic Chinese cuisine. Who knows. The broth was full of hongo mushrooms, ginger, tofu skin and other secret spices.

We left full and happy, ready to head back to Hop Woo very soon!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Question of Human Nature

Dear Reader,

Do you think it is just human nature to take and take whatever you can take?

I wonder about this sometimes. I think about our corporations--how they take and take from employees until the employees threaten to leave, or sue, or go public with their mistreatment. Until then corporations will do anything--cut salaries, double health care costs, take away vacation. If you do a good job and do not complain, you are vulnerable. Unless you have a group that can threaten mass action.

Same in relationships. If you give freely, without complaining, does that mean it comes at no cost to you? Does that mean that your gift, your time, is the new standard for what should be given? Give once, it is a gift. Give constantly and it is just the way it is. Soon someone will ask for more, and forget that what you are doing is already as much as you can give. That it was a sacrifice, something special, given out of love.

I hate to go all Germaine Greer over the holidays, but it makes me think about women. We are trained professionally to be kick ass and hard working. But socially, we are still taught to care for people, to think about how others feel, to serve with a smile. Even if you reject this notion wholeheartedly, this is our society, and this information seeps into you somewhere. It is present in expectations, in social interactions.

Children intensify this. Because you must give wholeheartedly with children. You cannot be on guard, or questioning what they ask for. You must give with love, and give as freely as you can, always. This does not mean spoiling. But it does mean often, very often, putting them before yourself.

And so I wonder, in a capitalist society, where on some deep level we are all trying to get something out of other people, are women at a disadvantage? Are we unwilling/unable to be as ruthless as we need to be? Does love, family, make us vulnerable to those who wish to take advantage of us?

Sure, there are non monetary rewards. Many. But it can also be a total mindfuck. And on some level you have to decide--do you want to be the US of A (a power to be reckoned with?) or Tunisia (beautiful, you should visit sometime, no power at all on the global stage, better join together with 100 other small, powerless nations to make your point on the international stage, at which point the point you were trying to make will be so diluted it will no longer be comprehensible--this was my lesson from Model U.N. in High School, where I was a representative from lowly Tunisia)

How do we walk this line? How do we navigate? How do you stand up without saying I can take advantage of YOU as much as you can take advantage of ME? How do you love and give and take care of those who need it, while also constantly staying on guard, and letting no one take advantage? Or, let's make it less overt and agressive--simply being taking for granted?

(Note: I remember after giving birth I could no long play ruthlessly on the racquet ball court, nor be really aggressive in interviews. I simply could not maintain both personas--the nurturer and the warrior)

How does an act of love turn into an act of weakness in a power play?

Any thoughts wise women of the world? Or wise men?

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Year of Great Books

I attended a top liberal arts college, and believe in the value of that type of education.

Still, despite four years at Wellesley I have great holes. I have not read Balzac or Cervantes or Borges or all of the Odyssey. As I sat and listened to Carlos Fuentes on Saturday night I wondered how this is possible. I read voraciously. I read junk, yes, but I read high-brow, too. I like the slog. I enjoy baroque language and writing that makes you really think.

This year I will try to read 30 great books. I will make up my list over the holidays. And I will let you know what I find right here on this blog. Do they stand the test of time for me? Will they change my life the way they have so many others?

I will let you know.

And, dear readers, are there any great books that changed your life? your philosophy? your mind?

Amir's Garden

It rained all weekend and by Sunday the air was clear and crisp. Like New England, not California. After we dropped off Jonathan's mother at the airport we headed into Griffith Park to hike, vowing to find something new. We drove down a road we have driven only once before and hiked up to a water tower. A man on the trail told us there was a garden there.

Sure enough, we got to the peak--just a peak between other peaks in a part of the park we had never seen--and there was a magnificent garden planted by citizens. It was full of crazy, secret paths, fences of broken trees, strange exotic plants and staircases to nowhere. It wound round and round the hillside. At the top were picnic tables and views of the zoo.

A red tail hawk circled above us, so close I thought it wanted to eat Benji. Magnificent and a little scary.

On the way down we saw a rainbow--which always feels like a blessing.

Thank you, Amir and friends, wherever you are, for creating this beautiful place for us. We will be back with oatmeal cookies and hot chocolate.

Do you know any beautiful secret places in Griffith Park? Share!

Knights and Damsels

Behold the tiny fencers! Theo and Benji are to the far right. This was a local birthday party--with real knights who came and taught our children fencing and flirted with the mothers (fair damsels!)

The boys were fantastic, the knights even better. Every woman should know how to fence! Like the intellectual/swordswoman/whore of Venice in Dangerous Beauty -- one of my favorite movies at one point in my younger days. Another resolution for my 44th year: Learn to fence with handsome knights!

(We tried finger fencing in the kitchen that night and I jammed my fingers when sparring with Jonathan--a skilled and trained fencer. I violated rule # 2: do not fence without armor, or a judge)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Writers Inspiration

On Saturday night, courtesy of Aliza Murrietta, whose husband was out of town at the Second City 50th Reunion, I got to go see Carlos Fuente speak. I almost didn't go. I said no, because it was the second night of Hannukah, and Jonathan's mother was visiting, but then I told Jonathan and he said, "Oh, you must go!"

Fuentes taught Jonathan at Harvard and somewhere in our house is a box of signed books from the great man. He is great, Jonathan told me. Then he began to imitate his former professor. (Something about a great negress's giant wet vagina)

We drove over. It was a dramatic night--very Mexican. There were sheets of rain, rivers of water running down the boulevards, and in Beverly Hills all the street lights and traffic lights were out. The city was dark. We arrived at Royce Hall at UCLA soggy and exhilarated.

The great man spoke. I bought some books. We listened. He gave a lecture. It was A-Z, This I Believe. It was OK. I was drowsy at first, after the adrenaline of the ride over, a belly full of latkes and apple sauce, and sitting in a big warm hall in the dark. I would awaken at certain letters and they would drill into my consciousness, beautiful images, incredible language. (J is for jealousy, O is for Odyssey, M is for Mexico, A is for Amor, L is for the Left) Others were more bland, or drifted by.

Then he answered questions, and here he was brilliant: quick-witted, hilarious, warm, witty, sharp, alive. He answered questions political, personal and literary and made us laugh and think deeply. Being in the presence of a mind like that is exhilarating, inspiring.

At the end someone asked about dreaming, and the writing process, and this is what he said:

At the end of each day, around nine or ten at night, I sit down to write. I jot down the plot points of what I will write th next morning, Important events, conversational turns, things various characters say, surprises and challenges that will arrive--maybe thirteen or fourteen in all. Then I go to sleep. I dream. I awake in the morning and the story is there. It is not usually what I have written down the night before. My subconscious has been at work, and tells me what to write. It is as if, during the night, I have been visited by a second me, who takes over from the first me, and then feeds the first me what to write in the morning.

This is a paraphrase. But it captures the magic of what can happen.

I think I am going to try.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Sadly, it has reached this point: where most of the new inputs in my brain come from books I am reading my children. One such book was called Snowflake Bentley. It is a children's book based on a true story about a Vermont man named Wilson Bentley who became obsessed with snowflakes. It was in the early 20th century and he so loved snowflakes and their shapes that on his sixteenth birthday he convinced his family to buy him either a microscope or camera, so he could look at htem more closely. Then he got a camera, and began to photograph them.

He spent his lifetime refining how to shoot them, where to shoot them, how to get them before they melted. He amassed a collection of thousands of snowflake photos over his lifetime. That wasn't his real job, just his passion.

Neighbors thought he was crazy. But he didn't care. He just kept shooting.

By the end of his life university libraries were collecting his photos and using them to study crystals and snow. That is the story, more or less. Somewhere in Vermont there is a town square with a simple monument to him.

The other night I was looking for snowflake designs for my annual Christmas card and I stumbled on some of his photos. Stunning! I printed them out. The detail, the miraculous patterns of these flakes. I love patterns. I love Islamic art and Oriental rugs and shapes and colors. I was trying to draw these snowflakes and they were wondrous.

I told Jonathan about Wilson Bentley and he had never heard of him either.

I am telling this story because he discovered something beautiful and devoted his life to it. No one cared much, but he advanced science, and helped us to understand the beauty of this world. I am inspired.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Subtle Energies

I am always astounded by what we pick up from each other without ever exchanging a word.

Of course that is true with those we love the most, where every gesture is loaded with meaning.

But I am more amazed by what we pick up, and put out, and is never formally acknowledged, but EVERYBODY knows. And in this case I mean with people we know less well.

For the last month and a half I was wholly and completely focused on my writing. Every waking moment, if I was not writing I was thinking about writing, interviewing for writing, blogging, pitching, rewriting. I was completely and wholly dedicated. I did not talk about it much. I just did it.

Jonathan backed up and made space, supported, helped. I did my thing.

When NANOWRIMO ended on Monday I told myself I could have a week to rest and regroup. To fantasize, to open up, to rest, and to prepare and plot for the next round of whatever it is I am trying to do. This week, I told myself, was to love, to eat, to help out, to think about the holidays.

Suddenly, out of the blue, I got a raft of requests for playdates and pickups and help from other mamas. I am happy to do it now, because this week I can, and someday I will ask back. But more amazing to me is what these women (who I like, but do not know deeply) picked up from me. Somehow when I was focused people backed up and made space for me and my work, when I open up again, that is out there, too. She is available. She can help.

No larger conclusions here. Just, it makes you think about every little thing we put out there. We all feel everything. And it guides us, and those around us, even if, in our culture, we do not acknowledge that power.

Do you believe this is true? Do you believe in the subtle energy? Or is it all too New Agey to be believed?

Tell me, dear readers.

Benetton Boys

From our Holiday photos, shot at the Los Feliz Charter School photo fundraiser--where we went to follow the amazing, astounding Lisa Franchot. But this photo was shot by another of their celebrity photographers. I love it because, as he said when he shot it, it looks like a Benetton ad. But also, I love how they look like mournful children from the far North. I have a sad streak that must be fed.

If you ask for a happy photo I will post one.

Letters from Writers

I wish NANOWRIMO went on all year long just so I could keep getting inspiring letters from amazing writers. All through the month you get topical, practical, earthy tips from published writers of every genre--and I confess this year I had read not one of them.

Yesterday we got our final letter from writer Peter Carey. The letter was so wonderful, I printed it out to post beside my desk, and went off to visit his web site.

How had I not heard of this man, a two-time Booker Prize winner, an adventurous Australian, and a man who has traveled to Japan and written about its crazy culture (soulmate!!!!!)?

I spent a half hour ignoring my children and scouting out his works (he also has the coolest author web site that I have ever seen, complete with reviews, summaries and video promotions of the books, like small abstract tiny movies!)

Today I will go to the library to find Peter Carey. I love finding a new author, a new ouevre to dive into.

Have any of you discovered any fabulous new authors I should check out?

Natalia post post post script

I have written an essay about my friend Natalia which I hope will appear somewhere soon--for real. Not just on my secret blog. It is about Natalia, the last trip I took with her, but also the tensions between my dear friend and my beloved husband--and what it was all like in those final months. I hope to offer a referral here to a national magazine when it appears. Cross your fingers.

But yesterday I realized I will have to change my ending.

We were sitting at TRAILS, Jonathan and I, munching on our organic baked products cooked with love and sipping our fair trade coffee, and I said, "Natalie would have loved this place. She would have opened this place. I miss her."

And then my husband startled me.

He said, "You know, I dream about her. I dream about her a couple of times a week."

What is she doing there? I asked. Is it a good feeling or a bad one? (I prayed their tensions were not carrying on in the sweet hereafter)

"Sometimes she is just standing around, in the room," he said. "Other times she is giving me something good--offering me a massage, or helping me with a yoga pose."

I guess healing can continue after death.

It fascinates me.

Has anything like that ever happened to you? A relationship actually evolving after death?

Practicing Non-Attachment

This Buddhist concept is important--perhaps the most important of all--but so hard for me.

As a Navy brat I did not get a chance to be attached to that many things. So the things I clung to--the very few--which I don't like to tell people about because some deep superstitious part of me believes then they will be stolen away--I keep secret. Or close to my heart. And I become VERY attached to.

They are not usually material things. They are usually a thing I do which brings me great joy, or a friend, or a place I love. Perhaps I pick things like these because they feel harder to take away. An activity is portable, a friend can still be reached if you try, and a place remains--like a perfect postcard--waiting for you to come back.

But even these rules do not hold. Activities change depending on where you live and what you have access to. Friends are tops-but the sweetest moments are still ephemeral. Just true--no matter how much you want it not to be true. And places--you promise yourself you will return, but it can take longer than you think, or worse still, you go back and it is different.

But I expect my yoga teacher to remain the same. She is one of the ones who espouses Buddhist precepts, and I need her to help me do so.

But my beloved yoga teacher is going on a journey. She is Tara Judelle, yoga star of the Hollywood YMCA, beautiful, flexible, philosophical, wonderful. I never speak or tell her what I think. I am a quiet, diligent student (except when I am breathing heavily in parsvovapassana, or something that sounds like that, when my liver is being wrung out and my hamstrings are about to snap) preferring to express my appreciation through effort.

She is going to Bali, and I am so happy for her. She deserves for some major good karma to shower down on her. I hope she visits the monkey temples, dances the dances, climbs Gunung Agung, the belly button of the world. But I will miss her.

She is a wonderful, sustaining, steady force in my life. I am trying trying not to feel attached--to believe another yoga teacher, who has much good to offer--new poses, new wisdom--will enter my life, via the YMCA. I am grateful for what I have gotten.


Vaya con dios, Tara

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Our favorite Christmas tree vendor is back at the bottom of the hill, making our whole neighborhood smell like a stand of Oregon pines.

I took the boys down to smell them, and to check out our prospects, even if we don't buy for two more weeks.

The air is cool, inside the fence it smelled like the country, and the boys raced around the temporary set-up like it was a real forest, so happy.

Is it a mistake to raise boys in a city?

Do they need a farm, a ranch, an ocean, a mountain? Or will they be OK?

Tell me all you mamas of boys out there. Or wives of woodsy men. Or sisters of mountain climbers and adventurers.

What do you think?

Daytime Date

We used to mock date nights--now we barely go on them, unless Jonathan has an event vaguely related to work, or we have something related to school, or a friend invites us over. Months go by, and we barely have a chance to speak alone together uninterrupted that is not on the phone, by email, as one of us is falling asleep, or at the Y, when one child is in childcare.

So today we stole a morning. We went to Griffith Park and did our most favorite hike--up from the cave, to the top of the park, down to get a drink of water at Dante's view, a minute to appreciate the skyline of downtown L.A. glimmering like a magical city, under huge shafts of golden light, then down down down, towards the ocean and the city and real life again.

It is our grounding hike. We hiked there on dates, when we were engaged, when we were newlyweds, when I was pregnant, when I had one boy, and then when we had two. We have taken soccer balls, strollers, and backpacks over the ridge. We have hiked in when the park was shut down, snatched our children from coyotes at twilight, climbed over washed out sections and smelled the mustard grass in the spring. We cried when the hill burned, and now we are back. Regrowing, just like the hillside.

Afterwards we stopped at Trails and sat under the crows and twinkly lights and drank coffee and ate a ranger tart and some apple pie.

Hours of conversation without interruption. Ability to follow tangents to the end of all ends and then back. Walking briskly with no children to drag, carry or bribe.