The Yellow Brick Tao

The Yellow Brick Tao
New Ballet Ensemble' s annual holiday performance Nut Remix is Nov 20-22, Cannon Center
New Ballet Ensemble’ s annual holiday performance Nut ReMix is Nov 20-22 with the MSO  at the  Cannon Center

One of the great graces of my work life is the chance to meet and make numerous new friends. Many of them, in fact almost all of them,  are energetically engaged in constructive projects for the benefit of others. Most are volunteers, some are toiling as non-profit administrators, and others are board members–but all could be doing something far less selfless with their time. In a day filled with deadlines and eternal cropping, tweaking, and edits,  the faces and voices of these kindhearted people who represent this city’s better angels are like espresso for my soul.

One such woman, whom I met this past week, I already count as my shiniest new friend–she’s a real sunflower. Her devotion to the young people’s dance ensemble known for putting the “jook” into ballet is intense and personal. As we sat talking about what our business can do to help–we enjoyed getting to know each other a little better. And that’s what I mean about how lucky I am–what could be more exhilarating than discovering the beauty of a person?

Jackson Browne had a great line in a song called, “I Thought I Was a Child”. In it he wrote, “It’s such a clever innocence with which you show myself to me.”  What a priceless gift to give another person!  Doesn’t it seem like so often it’s almost easier to understand someone else and their needs– than it is to understand our own? I’m so grateful for this spontaneous grace of insight and reflection. Still, I was very surprised when my new friend presented me with a small poster that read “If the music is good you should dance.”

Well yes. You should. And yet at some point,  I had simply stopped dancing. Somehow, I stopped, and I hadn’t really noticed, until one night, just recently, someone said to me, with a grin,  “I bet you like to dance.” Just out of the blue. And somewhat bemused by the somewhat random question, I answered,  “Well, yes, I do.”

The next morning, when I woke up, among other things,  I thought about how I used to love to dance. I’m talking barefoot Isadora Duncan dancing, as well as dance-until-you-are-hot-and-sweaty-dancing because the music is in your bones. I studied dance at a studio called SculpturEssence as a young mom, dancing to the  stirring beat of an African drum line while my kids assembled Legos off to one side. Even when I was as young as three, my mother would pull silk scarves from her drawer, pinning them together to make a worthy dance costume for my toddler fantasies. Then, after carefully buckling the tiny strap of my black patent Sunday school shoes, I would dance to Ferrante and Teicher like a wild little fairy or a nascent Stevie Nicks (take your pick) on the magenta cabbage roses of the living room rug.

So what happened? Somehow, I just began to slumber in the seven sleepers’ den.  I lost something integral to myself–and to dance: a sense of joy. I forgot what joy even felt like. I needed to be reminded, I needed someone to show myself to me, someone to say, “I bet you like to dance.”

Last week, I went outside, and under the full yellow moon, I danced on the lawn behind the house as the stars twirled around my head and the strains of Rob Thomas’ concert throbbed through the soft night air from an outdoor concert several blocks away. Even so, his song, “Lonely No More,” was clearly understood, articulating the possibilities,   “What if it was paradise? What if we were symphonies?”

Yes, what if?  Sometimes you just don’t know until you try. Who knows where your road, or my road will lead us, or what lies beyond the yellow brick tao?  But as Elton sang, sometimes, it’s there our future lies—waiting for us to find it.

Drums performing with New Ballet Dance Ensemble

Five Septembers of Wu Tao

Five Septembers of Wu Tao
Steamed  Gingered Sea Bass
  Steamed Gingered Sea Bass

Five years ago,  I began what I expected to be a 30-day project.  I had a Point A to Point B goal–to lose weight. In 30 days, no jiggity or messing around, or as Bugs Bunny used to sing on Saturday mornings– with considerable sass: “No more rehearsing or nursing a part–on with the show this is it.” (Right, who quotes Bugs Bunny? But mine is an American mind, a melting pot where John Donne, George Washington, and Bugs Bunny rub elbows with T.S. Eliot, Charles Barkley, and William Faulkner. Think Yoknapatawpha meets yabba dabba doo.)

At any rate, exasperated with my own repeated failures to move the ball,  I reasoned that if I chose someone who was walking the walk, who had a healthy body and peaceful demeanor to show for it, then all I had to do was emulate that person’s daily habits and diet, and walk beside them.  Mr. Wu, the successful owner and executive chef of the Royal Panda, a trim and serene man with a healthy lifestyle was the perfect candidate–not only did he walk the walk–he even ate what he cooked–and so could I!

Well, you know what they say…and it’s true: it’s all about the journey. Thirty days became a year, and now, five years later, finding that elusive balance that makes for a healthy mind, body, and soul is still a project in progress.

Although my entries have become inconsistent, my admiration of Mr. Wu has remained constant–and his support has been cheerfully unwavering. So for the next 30 days, I plan to honor his kind encouragement with a re-dedication to daily entries. I’ll start today, on September 3,  with one of my favorite dishes–his fragrant gingered sea bass on a raft of vibrantly green asparagus. This fresh, light dish dancing with flavors and textures is a celebration on a plate– and proof that walking with Wu takes you down a very beautiful path. Here’s to Wu Tao!

My Father ‘Tis of Thee

Portrait of My Father
Portrait of My Father

One day and perhaps not much else separated George Washington and my father –at least in my childhood mind, and maybe, to some extent, even today.

I grew up in a time when George celebrated his own birthday, on February 22,  a day un-glommed into a generic President’s Day suited to the workaday business of a federal workforce. But it’s  not something I think the first president would have minded. It seems to me that Washington was his own man,  had his own things going, secure in his own talents and resources and thus not needful of all the fawning royal  hoopla that some of his day wished to bestow upon him.Washington loved his country and served it, but he had his own life.

My father was born on February 23, and to me, as a child, my self-reliant, independent daddy was heroic, the embodiment of all things noble and good, so that when the birthday of George Washington was celebrated as it used to be, I equated it with that of my father. Or my father’s with his. They were somewhat interchangeable.

No one need care about any of this—what’s interesting here is not my individual perspective on George Washington or my own dear father, but rather the question of how children’s feelings about their own fathers might alter their relationship to their country’s forefathers.  What if daddy had been abusive, or deserted our family, left us to shift for ourselves and we had to find our own way, relying only on our wits and luck? Perhaps a cracked liberty bell could ring less true?

Could it be that the dress blues that hung cool and immaculate in the hall closet through the  span of my father’s lifetime quietly whispered a mantra that liberty must be defended?  Would I have experienced the same patriotic sensibilities that shaped my childhood  if I had experienced a different father/daughter relationship?

By the time I came along, Daddy was done with WWII and the Korean War and was finally done with his time in the service. With the help of his brothers and my great uncle he built a home  for our family on the old homestead property where the cabin in which he was born once stood– and where one October night he would later take his last breath. The same oak trees he played under as a child also  shaded my childhood.

His retirement came during a recession that swallowed up the pride of many men  and probably his as well, but for me  it was a golden age of unlimited time, happily spent with my father, who called me his shadow, and much to my pride, his “little war buddy.”

His war buddy. Probably nothing daddy could have said to me or called me could have had a greater impact on my life. I learned to change spark plugs, build a fire, fish and most importantly, I learned to watch and listen and how to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. He spent many quiet hours with me, catching tadpoles with the  zest of a Jacques Cousteau,  and capturing glossy coated beetles during the day and lightening bugs at dusk. He led and I followed, whether it was along winding cow trails  in the woods or long straight rows of beans, squash, and corn.

A certain clearing in the midst of the tall pine woods was a magical spot where arrow heads and grinding stones could be found in the dry red clay dirt. His observations and stories of the past created within me  an awe for nature and an awareness that our footsteps fall in the footprints of others who have gone before us. We gathered limbs and tied them to trees, laying short branches across them and covering these crosshatches with pine straw to make teepees where my friends and I would lay woolen blankets and eat picnics of bologna sandwiches and potato chips while playing with bubble bouffant-ed Barbie dolls wearing chic sheathes and billowy ballgowns.

Very importantly, daddy  taught me how to hold my cards until the time was ripe to rummy– a lesson in the rewards of patience and the sweet pleasure of taking a calculated risk. Even as I washed and ironed my hair ribbons and wore petticoats to Sunday school, I knew myself to be a courageous and strong girl; I was that “war buddy” that you could depend on through thick and thin. I was strong and I was loved for being me.

I am completely humbled to think of the thousands of unearned blessings that have given shape to my life. And this makes me think of others. Perhaps a uniform also hangs in another child’s closet, but there is not a father coming home to hold them on his lap because  folds of fabric on a hanger are all that are left. Perhaps like my own children, they will grow up without a father to imbue their lives with daddiness. It is a great loss. For them,  and for us all. I’ve always been grateful to those who have picked up a trowel and in their own myriad ways attempted to help fill in the chinks left by the death of my children’s dads. Teachers and coaches, my own friends and beloveds, neighbors and unwitting but helpful strangers. You never know.

But one thing I think we do know. What we know of family is what we come to believe of the world.

Happy birthday, yesterday George. And happy birthday to you tomorrow, too. But today, happy birthday to my  father. May both of these men,  the one who helped father a nation, and the one who fathered me,  be remembered for the way they lived their lives as well as the life they gave to us.

Wu Can Leave Your Hat On

My first fortune of 2014 suggested Chapeau Therapy.
My first fortune of 2014 suggested Chapeau Therapy.

Meals at Mr. Wu’s end with a sweet and fragrant postscript.  Soon after the table is cleared,  a small white plate arrives with a juicy half-moon of orange sliced into easy to eat sections. Mr. Wu tells me that it is considered good luck to munch on oranges after dinner.  This rings true–good luck and good health make excellent dinner partners.

Accompanying the auspicious citrus orb, on either side is the sweet part of dinner’s “P.S. de resistance.” Like Randall Jarrell’s postcards of Hope, tiny manuscripts enfolded in crisp sugar cookies arrive in unaddressed cellophane envelopes. You are faced with a momentous decision. Which fortune cookie to choose? I am of the opinion that the prevailing best practice is to take the cookie nearest to you. Applying logic to karma can be tricky, but the way I figure it, if Fate managed to FedEx your future to your table, then Fate has enough sense and know-how to put it as close as possible to your waiting hand.

Rather ironically, the most disappointing fortunes can be the ones predicting the most outrageously optimistic,  exotic outcomes. I am relatively certain that I will not “soon travel to a faraway land” or “receive a windfall next week.”

An actionable fortune!
An actionable fortune!

So I was thrilled that my first foretold experience of the new year was not only possible–but one that I could ensure came to pass. The sweet tweet read: “Try a new hat for a change in looks.  Be creative!”

Indeed! Done! The next day I donned a chapeau and headed for the office. After all, being creative is my job! It was a cold day, and the black felt hat with the velvet bow not only changed my appearance–it felt good.  I shared the slip of paper and we all had a good laugh.

One of my ads in a glass vase made for a creative hat stand.
An ad placed in a glass cylinder made a creative, if somewhat creepy looking hat stand in my office.

I was reminded that  big changes that are challenging and that seem almost beyond our control  often evolve from small seemingly insignificant changes that we can control. So in 2014, I’ll try something different more often–and I’ll feel free to be creative.  I guess sometimes the postscript can be the prelude to the future.

“You give me reason to live…Suspicious minds are talking/ They say my love is wrong/ They don’t know what love is…I know what love is.”

From “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, by Randy Newman.

On this new morning with Wu

Orange lacquered salmon fillet and ribbons of yellow and zucchini squashes
Orange lacquered salmon fillet and ribbons of yellow and zucchini squashes

Look for inspiration and you’ll find it–even if it’s some place you’d never think to look, like for example, NBC’s  Today Show. There I sat this morning with mug in hand and the TV on, wondering where all the flowers had gone, and whether  the sight of billions of God’s petals and seeds spilled and progressing along a Pasadena parade route would strike me as elating or depressing–when suddenly,  behold! Lo! A guest/expert on the show was encouraging folks to choose an inspiration word for the coming year that would serve as a “buck-me-up-and- remind-me-again-of-what’s-important-to-me”  inner signal.

Enchanted with the economical notion of substituting  one word  for the coming year’s  lengthy syllabus of resolutions, I resolved immediately to chuck my long list of “oughta-do’s”  and replace them with…what?  I’d have to think.  It would take more than a bon mot. It would take a mighty mot!  Thumbing through the dictionary of my psyche promised to  be an enjoyable endeavor.

Now New Year’s Day can be a really groovy day if you can stay in the glorious moment of possibility.  Which I can,  it’s a gift, and I like it. A lot. I can be good for one day. Even in the kitchen, where I can be my naughtiest bad girl self.

Isn’t it just the best when you find a dish that you can substitute for one that is less healthful–and you love it!  Great example:  shaved slices of zucchini and yellow squashes poached in the smallest amount of chicken broth and finished with the tiniest dollop of butter and lemon.

The squash ribbons cook to al dente very quickly.
The squash ribbons cook to al dente very quickly.

It’s so easy to make –I actually don’t have a mandolin so I use a regular vegetable peeler to make the long “noodles.”  The colors are amazing and are the perfect contrast to a nice wild-caught piece of salmon.  I coated the salmon with a slight dusting of cornmeal and sauteed it quickly in a bit of olive oil before tossing it into the oven at 425 with a smear of orange marmalade and lemon juice. Happily there will be enough to warm up for future meals.

Later, because as I said–I can be very, very good for one day, I went on a lovely walk through the neighborhood. The first thing I noticed was that the sky was not only a vibrant blue, but it was covered in sweet white curls of cirrus clouds as if a child had painted over the sky with a brush dipped in white tempura paint.

And yes, it was the opposite of that cloudless azure sky etched so deeply into my memory, the day that my daughter died, and Icarus fell to earth.

Looking up at this sky of blue and looking all around me, I felt so  glad and happy to be alive. And that’s when my “be-all” word for 2014 came to me: New Morning.

Look it up in Wikipedia and the song has the lamest of descriptions.  Something about expressing the simple joys of life on the farm. But it’s so much more. It’s about being happy just to “be.”

Morning is when I feel the promise of the day and when I feel the most energetic.Before I set a foot on the floor, I meditate on things that I want to understand and let my mind have its own way. It’s when all my most creative ideas come to me. Problems that glittered like isolated stars become graphically connected like constellations, so that the facts come together and make sense. Morning is good. And a new morning–that’s even better, because it means you have turned a page.

As the day grew colder and darker,  I threw on a heavy coat and drove to Mr. Wu’s  to celebrate all that is sentimental and true by lifting a cup of kindness with an auld acquaintance that should never be forgotten or lost to mind.

We both wished Mr. Wu a happy new year and settled in a for a dinner of Royal Panda shrimp, preceded by a small plate of Mr. Wu’s crispy and scrumptious shrimp rolls.

In all truth, the first day of the year could happily serve as the perfect blueprint for the rest of 2014.  It was a new morning, just like Bob Dylan wrote about:  “This must be the day all my dreams come true. So happy just to be alive underneath this sky of blue, On this new morning with you.”

“And there’s a hand my trusty friend, And give me a hand o’ thine, And we’ll take a right good-will draught,  For auld lang signe.”

                                            A black-and-white photograph of Bob Dylan


Just Surprise Me

Blooming in the midst of my neighbors immaculate yard was this surprising rose-shroom.

There are them’s that like surprises and them’s that say they don’t.

I don’t know what I’d do without surprises. I love them. In fact, I spend everyday in eager anticipation of being surprised.

And usually I am rewarded. This is partly true because anyone living an examined life is going to be treated to a panoramic vista of wee to huge surprises as the day unfolds –but also, because people as a class all by themselves are  slap full of surprises.

In addition, Mother Nature holds a full hand of bizarre cards–like this, well, fungus thing that I encountered on a recent walk through my neighborhood. No need to travel to the wilds of the Serengeti or to the Amazon rainforest to witness something amazing–here it was, right at the tip-toe of my New Balance–a beefy-lipped mushroom thing the size of a charger that looked, as the ole Irish ditty goes, “Mighty Lak a Rose.”

It was the kind of surprising discovery that makes one long for grade school days, when those minutes of show and tell time allowed us to share the good, the weird, and the surprising news of our individual lives. Relevancy was not required.

Maybe somewhere there is an enlightened company, probably a start up company, that begins the day by allowing its employees to share whatever strikes their fancies. Much of what might be said could be dull as dirt–but I doubt it. I think that most days we’d walk back to our offices with a nugget of gold in our pocket–a detail of someone’s  life that surprised us.

What I like about surprises is that they quicken our senses, and quicken our minds. Surprises make us more creative, and bring us into the exact moment that is now.

This past week, Mr. Wu presented me with a wonderful surprise. It was one of those evenings when I just couldn’t think anymore, and I had no idea what to order–other than for some reason I did crave asparagus.

As I walked from my car,  the air felt muggy and oppressive. The storms from the gulf were coming up river from the gulf, sending strong gusts of wind that were twirling  the tops of the tall pine tress outside the Royal Panda. Inside, Mr. Wu surprised me with a light dish of  vibrantly green asparagus and sweet white scallops dressed with a spicy sauce.

Allowing other people to surprise us is a smart thing to do. Sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves.

Wu, Fruit and a Figgy Treat

The figs in my black bucket that cost a buck at the dollar store.

Mr. Wu embraces fruit and enjoys serving it–and eating it–for dessert.

I like fruit, too, but sometimes finding fruit in its fruitiest state is at best a gamble. More than a few flavorless or mushy apples, pithy oranges, and rock hard peaches will put a serious dent in one’s ardor for the arbor.

Thank goodness for the summer months, when local farmers bring their fresh produce to roadside stands and farmers markets, and mouth-wateringly pungent,  drippy peaches and sweet juicy berries are abundant and just waiting to be had.

This past week though,  I’ve been enjoying my very own harvest–thanks to a very generous neighbor who doesn’t give a fig about figs.

“Take them all!” she encouraged, but I didn’t need much encouragement. Indeed, I’ve had a covetous eye on her tree for the past several weeks, and have been watching patiently  as the figs that began as hard little green knots  grew soft and fat –until finally the limbs of the tree began to droop ever so slightly.

Sliced figs on the baking sheet.

Then last Sunday I walked over and gathered a bucket of the lovely golden green globes. The rest is delicious history.

I cut all of the figs  into slices and baked some of them for future use as garnishes. Spread out and touching on the cookie sheet, they looked like a mosaic or a stained glass window.

The rest of the figs were stewed on the stove top with butter and brown sugar until they formed a beautiful sticky goo of fig preserves. I trolled through a variety of recipes, some of which called for the addition of balsamic vinegar or of a liquor of some ilk.

But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to add a single extra ingredient–their darn figginess was just so sumptuously figgy. Why mess with perfection?

Sourdough toasts with fresh chevre and homemade fig preserves.

But I did play with a variety of fig aps, like framing the colorful slices in tiny  squares of pastry and sprinkling them with a just a bit of  brown sugar before popping them in a hot oven.

But the hands-down favorite was a triple combination consisting of the rosemary and garlic sourdough rolls that I sliced and toasted and then spread with tart, creamy chevre and topped with the hot fig preserves.

What a delightful way to start the day with a cup of coffee–and it was equally good with a glass of crisp chardonnay as an appetizer.