Category Archives: Memories

I Say High, You Say Low…

… You say why, and I say I don’t know
Oh, no
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello, hello
I don’t know why you say goodbye
I say hello

– The Beatles

“It’s an acquired taste.”

For the first fifteen or so years of my life, when I would hear that statement attached to description of food, I would immediately assume it tasted weird or bad. I never even took the time to break down the meaning of the entire sentence. It just entered my mind phonetically–its eyn uh-kwahyurd teyst–then my mind would spit out meaning: don’t bother.

Can you blame me though? Think back to your eight-year-old palate. Now, think about how you felt about beer, asparagus, salmon roe, brussel sprouts, coffee, licorice, and liver. Did you like these foods? Well, I sure didn’t. They were foreign and unpleasant flavors to me, and when grown-ups described how it tasted, they used the word, acquired. Maybe I just assumed it was a word with double meaning like fine, or right.

"No thank y--I mean, thank you!"

In any case, as I got older, I developed a liking for many of the aforementioned foods, and the meaning finally clicked: Ah, you acquire a taste for the food over time. Now, I cannot imagine turning down liver pate or fish eggs of any kind, and asparagus and brussel sprouts are among my favorite vegetables.

Looking back on it now, I think I was jarred by the unknown. I was uncomfortable with the new experience of consuming these unfamiliar flavors, and I immediately cast them aside, categorizing them as other, weird, disconcerting, and ultimately not worthy of my time.

I have come to realize that people, too, can be an acquired taste. A perfect case in point would be one of my good friends, whom I met six years ago, roughly around this time of year.

I was working in Burlington, Vermont at the time, and I was finishing up my last day at work. It was blazing hot, and I was just trying to put in my hours, which were all but pointless, since there was little I could do on my last day. It was explained to me that this particular day also happened to be one of the first days of work for the office’s new summer intern from Maryland, and we were to share an office space for about six hours. Honestly, I did not care. I was heading off to my new job in San Francisco in a few days. It was hot. I was in the office, but not present–just going through the motions while in a bit of a foul mood due to the circumstances.

After getting settled in at my desk, trying hard to move as little as possible so as to avoid sweating further, a tall, thin Black man, with neatly trimmed hair, and a big smile came walking into the office. It was the new intern.

Two things struck me immediately. First, despite the fact that this man seemed to be over six fee tall, he took remarkably quick, tiny, careful strides; it was as if he were literally walking on egg shells. Secondly, along with a snappy polo shirt and matching belt, he was wearing the tiniest shorts I had seen on a man, since the 1980s. His long legs, which had clearly been treated with liberal amounts of body lotion (as the chocolate glossy shine suggested), and deck shoes worn without socks (coordinated with the outfit, of course), actually made the shorts look tinier (if that was possible).

The Intern and the Captain shopped at the same store for shorts.

So here I was, in the midst of a pointless day of work, with sweat dripping down my brow, and I was being greeted by a giant chipper pair of legs from straight out of a recent J.Crew catalog.

He introduced himself with a kind handshake; his giant, cool, dry hands made me even more insecure about my sweaty palms. We exchanged pleasantries, and I began to take notice of his pronounced and intentional Southern twang.

Sitting about six feet away from me, at his desk, the intern engaged me in a bit of small talk. I commented on how hot it was. The intern explained that he was from North Carolina, and it was, “hot as Hades,” back where he grew up. I asked him about going to school in Maryland, and he told me that it had been a challenging transition, but the journey had been rewarding, he was appreciative for the learning he was experiencing, and I am pretty sure he mentioned that God or Jesus put him on this path for a reason. When I asked him how he felt about his new internship, he poured on the praise for the woman who helped him secure this opportunity, and he accentuated his complements with, what sounded like, a bible reference. All the while, the intern did not show a sign of discomfort with the heat. Maybe it was the shorts.

In any case, I pegged him as very Southern, conservative, religious, exceedingly positive, with teeny-tiny shorts. For this Berkeley raised, hippy-influenced, decidedly nonreligious, pragmatic wearer of over-sized shorts that extend below the kneecaps, the intern was very foreign, and completely indigestible. We spent much of the rest of our day in silence. And, while we were both at a gathering that weekend, I pretty much avoided him.

Flash forward one year, and I am coming off of some time away from work. My supervisor tells me that the division has a new hire, and this person in the new position mentioned that he knows me. She mentions his name and nothing clicks. She mentions that he interned at Vermont, and… it clicks.

“Ah,” I say with a smirk, “that guy is… special.”

"I'm sorry, what's not to love here?"

When his first week comes around, I go down to greet him. He is very well dressed, and on this occasion, wearing pants. One thing leads to another, and for some reason, I end up offering to take him to lunch later that week. The day of our lunch comes around, and I take him to pick up Good Luck Dim Sum, one of my favorite bargain bites, down on Clement Street in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Knowing he is from the South, I do my best to pick out the items that are most palatable for the every-day person. We leave with three huge boxes of dim sum–enough to feed a small family. Upon arriving back at work, we find a place to sit down, chat, and eat. He is polite, but eats very little. Apparently he does not have a taste for dim sum. I’m a bit put off, as unadventurous eaters easily annoy me. He does little to change my opinion of him. To me, he still is not quite my cup of tea.

Over time, we continue to find ourselves in each other’s company. By the end of the year, I realize that he is one of the brightest professionals in our division, and I want to work with him whenever I can. By the end of the next year, he ends up being one of the few people from work with whom I feel close enough to invite to my wedding. By the end of the following year he becomes one of the only people in my life with whom I can argue, debate, and/or engage in authentic dialogue. We mainly argue about the compatibility of a conservative agenda, and social justice, and it does get heated, but we stick with it. Now he is one of my closest confidants, and I cannot really imagine my life without him.

My perspective on the “Intern” has clearly shifted over time. I do not think I would describe my friend as weird. Rather, I would say he is quite unique, especially by California standards.

I have adjusted to his cyclical way of speaking, and now recognize that his style is conducive with great storytelling. I find it charming, the way he uses similes to explain everything under the sun. I smile inwardly as I watch him tiptoe around situations in which he is tempted to speak unkindly of another (“Well, his inability to finish his end of the project provided me with an opportunity to explore creative options within a short window of time”). I have begun to repeat many of his favorite sayings, such as: “teamwork makes the dream work,” or, “it takes a village to raise a child.” When my friend references his Christian faith to thank me for something I may have done–“Brother, there is a place in The Kingdom for you”–I take it as one of the highest complements I could possibly receive. I have witnessed him become a more adventurous eater (though he still wouldn’t touch the tuna tartare when we went out to eat the other day). We laugh together often, reenacting the scene with Randy Watson and his band, Sexual Chocolate, from Coming to America. We greet each other every day with another Coming to America reference, asking one another if one’s “soul is aglow,” in honor of the infamous product from the movie. I have even mastered the Southern art of carrying on a conversation with him about one thing; when in reality, we are speaking about something else all together. The two of us can carry on a twenty-minute conversation about coffee, while we are actually talking about his dating life.

Clearly, over time, I have come to acquire a taste for my good friend. I now realize that my previous distaste for him had less to do with how weird or foreign he was to me, and more to do with my own xenophobia and bigotry. I may have thought of myself as open-minded, but in reality, I viewed him through a lens of judgment, bias, and perceived supremacy. I was the one with an unadventurous palate.

Only happenstance brought us back together. Had our interactions been limited to those few hours in Vermont, I would have missed out on developing a relationship with one of the kindest, funniest, most brilliant, and most thoughtful individuals with whom I have ever had the pleasure of crossing paths. He has changed me. I am a better person for having known him.

Alas, our time together is now limited. My good friend will be headed back to the South for graduate school in less than a week. He will be missed.

Recently, during a conversation about his upcoming migration to the South, I asked him if he was excited about being closer to home, and around people that were more like him. “Aren’t you excited about blending in? Aren’t you looking forward to being with your people?” I joked.

“Well, Brother,” he exhaled with his Carolina drawl, “I worry about that,” he said, adding a long pause. “I think they may not get me. My ideas might be too liberal for their liking.”

The irony of his statement was not lost on me.

I hope that he finds a home in the South. For as Maya Angelou says so eloquently:

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

My good friend shared that quote with me. He taught me that this understanding of home should guide the way we co-construct community for all. He is very wise.

If I could write a letter to the people of the community for which he will shortly be a part of. I would kindly request that they sooth my good friend’s ache for home. Moreover, I would ask that they give my friend time to grow on them. For in my opinion, a taste for my good friend is well worth acquiring.

Don’t Want to Hear About What Kind of Food You Hate (ooh)…

… You won’t get no dessert ’till you clean off your plate
So eat it…

-Weird Al Yankovic

I love food. More to the point, I love well prepared food. I long for beef that is well seasoned, and not overcooked. I find handmade pasta to be inspiring, and dried pasta, so long as it is not over-saturated in boiling water, to be quite good as well. I despise over-reliance on processed sauces of any kind–Thai sweet chili to chipotle honey glaze. And to me, the chain family restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Applebees, and Outback Steakhouse, are the worst (even more so than fast food restaurants).

I believe food has the capacity to inspire. If one is lucky, a thoughtfully, and/or lovingly prepared plate of food can facilitate an exciting, comforting, jarring, and even an euphoric moment; fleeting as it may be. I have experienced these moments, myself, and I hope others get to have inspiring food experiences due to well prepared food too.

Quite often there is an added cost attached to my qualifier, “well prepared,” and as such, I have been labeled bourgy, elitist, and a bit of a food snob. This may be unfair, or it may be true. If the latter is the case, I think I can accept it as one of my many permanent character flaws.

I have one friend in particular who likes to remind me of my food snobbery. Recently, we ordered takeout from a restaurant called India Clay Oven, rather than

"What can I say? Their chicken tikka masala was just... better."

our usual spot, Star India. After I remarked on, what I believed to be, an obvious difference in quality (Clay Oven proving to be superior), my friend shook his head, and smiled. Food, he explained to me, was food. He could not, for the life of him, differentiate between the quality of the two. All food was good to him. He pointed out that my understanding of quality was socially constructed and subjective. Furthermore, he explained, food was fuel, and he believed we should be appreciative to have food of any quality, as some go without.

I agree that we should be appreciative of the food we are privileged enough to have. I do not, however, believe I should settle for poorly prepared food. I’m not saying we should spit out sub-par food and berate the chef. I do, however, believe in frequenting establishments that prepare things that I like, and foregoing the establishments I do not enjoy as much.

As for my friend’s assertion that my idea of quality preparation is something that develops through socialization… I had to let that one fully sink in a bit.

He is probably right. Is there really an objective and universally accepted set of criteria for a “refined” palate? Some folks find rare meat to be revolting, so who am I to say that their  perspective on meat is wrong. Raw fish was mostly seen as abhorrent (and to some, still is) before sushi became mainstream. And, while one can be taught to notice and appreciate the nuances of an ingredient or food, ultimately all the analytical stuff falls short of answering the most important question one can ask about a dish: Does it taste good?

Taste–in the face of food competitions, food blogs, food critics, and foodies–is

"In all fairness, the title suggests subjectivity."

subjective. I am guilty of being judgmental of the palates of others; secretly waiving them off as picky, unadventurous, underexposed, unimaginative, or just plain wrong. Reader’s choice awards, and “best ofs,” may reflect the populous, or an astute person’s perspective on food, but the fact of the matter is, one can never be wrong about what one likes.

Take one of my favorite meals on earth, burritos, for example. I have observed countless ways people have chosen to use a flour tortilla as a pocket for flavorful ingredients. Clearly, folks have different understandings of what a burrito should be. In San Diego, there are a lot of places that do burritos without beans and cheese. Also in San Diego, I consumed a burrito the size of a small baby, deep fried and topped with sauce (This was not bad, just different… and potentially life-threatening). A friend of mine, who is considering opening up a restaurant of his own, says that in Mexico, the quality of the tortilla is as important as the filling, if not more so.

So in the spirit of acknowledging my friend’s assertion that food quality comes through socialization, here are my personal socialized beliefs when it comes to burritos:

I have been socialized to think of a burritos as flour tortillas filled with rice, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, and meat (guacamole, hot sauce, and sour cream is optional),

There are ways to ruin this beautiful parcel:

  1. Stiff Tortilla/Failure to Heat the Tortilla– During my two-year stint in Burlington, Vermont, I was pumped to see a burrito shop open up near my place of residence. Sadly, the burritos from this eatery turned out to be a disappointment, mostly due to their inability to get the tortilla right. I watched as the woman pulled out the stiff flour disk, laid it upon the cold steel counter, spooned meat rice and beans onto the disk, and folded the disk around the wet contents. The tortilla cracked, thus failing to hold the package together. Moreover, the tortilla was cold, contrasted poorly with the hot ingredients, felt crumbly, and tasted chalky.
  2. Ketchup/Marinara Sauce–I hate to pick on Vermont, but this should really go without saying. Ketchup or Marinara sauce is no substitution for salsa. I should be more understanding, considering my aforementioned adolescent theory that ketchup should replace tomato sauce with pasta, but I’m not. Grown people with a business should not substitute salsa willy-nilly with other tomato-based condiments/sauces. Thanks for teaching me this lesson, Vermont (by the way, this egregious mistake was actually made another “Mexican” restaurant, not the burrito place mentioned above).
  3. Undercooked Beans–I didn’t even know that one could undercook beans until I tried our cafeteria’s version of a burrito. I found the hardness of the beans to be unpleasant among the otherwise palatable ingredients. Similar to the cold tortilla, the beans were chalky.
  4. Lettuce–I am not necessarily a stickler for this one; it is more of a preference. I don’t like lettuce in my burrito. I can, however, take a little. I do believe that too much lettuce, and especially the wrong lettuce–romaine, and especially lettuce cut up–romaine cut like it is being used for a Caesar salad,

    "I know you all are friends and all, but STAY OUT OF MY BURRITO!"

    can really ruin a burrito.

  5. Peas and Carrots–Personally, I’m just not a fan of peas and carrots in my rice.

If a burrito does one or more of the following, there is a good chance it will make my mental list of burrito debacles. On the flip side, is my all time favorite burrito spot, which can do no wrong, Gordo Taqueria, specifically the one on Solono Avenue in Albany, California. Would it be selected as the best, highest quality, and most authentic burrito place of all time? It is debatable; I have seen it on a few lists, but it also has its long list of detractors.

Gordo’s, however, if I am being completely honest with myself, makes the burrito I have been socialized to believe is the epitome of excellence.

When my parents decided that their two pudgy sons should cut down on Burger King and McDonalds, it was the Gordo Taqueria burrito that helped my brother and I ween our way off of trans fats. When my parents were too tired to make dinner, Gordo’s. After long games of pick-up at the elementary school, Gordo’s. After our middle school basketball games, Gordo’s. After our high school basketball games, Gordo’s. When I came home on break from Vermont, the land void of burritos, the first thing I wanted was Gordo’s (Yes, I know it is called Gordo Taqueria, but we call it Gordo’s).

I have come to think of the men at Gordo Taqueria as masters of the burrito-making craft. They effortlessly construct each burrito with blinding speed. The tortilla goes into the steamer with cheese, the lever is pulled, a sound like a small locomotive coming to a stop sounds; the tortilla fused with cheese is tossed on to the counter; rice, choice of beans, choice of meat, “tomatoes?” (pico de gallo), “cream?” (sour cream), “guacamole?” (which I think is actually a combination of sour cream and guacamole), “hot sauce?” (“yes, please”). The master splatters the flour-based canvas with each ingredient like Jackson Pollock. Then, with a few flicks of the wrist, the maestro has the burrito neatly wrapped up. With a silver flash, and a few more flicks and twists of the wrist, the burrito is in tinfoil. A minute later, the burrito is out the door.

I drool a little bit, just thinking about a Gordo burrito. The cheese melts and congeals beautifully with the beans. A chewy tortilla encompasses the meal. Loose, yet not overly seasoned rice acts as a canvas for the rest of the flavors. Simple, juicy, lightly-charred chicken, hot sauce that is actually spicy. The burrito is not overly-soppy with excess salsa or sour cream, which I like, since personally, I want my burrito to be more composed, and less drippy. In the end, this dense torpedo becomes a product I would rank among my favorite comfort foods.

Now I must admit, I was a bit unfaithful when the flashy High Tech Burrito opened a block away (seriously, it was called High Tech). I also believe that Cactus Taqueria, about eight blocks up, might be a better restaurant. Yet after all these years, I still believe Gordo’s serves up the best burrito. Does this really mean anything? I don’t know… since it’s all socially constructed in the end.

Grandma’s Hands…

… Used to hand me piece of candy
Grandma’s hands
Picked me up each time I fell
Grandma’s hands
Boy, they really came in handy

-Bill Withers

It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday recently. Our family made a trip down to Los Angeles to surprise her. She was definitely caught off-guard by the unexpected presence of her bobble-headed great grandson… in a good way.

Despite the fact that I tend to downplay my own birthday, I do like how the tradition of birthdays forces me to stop and celebrate the life of people close to me. I enjoy having the opportunity to do things with the people I love; things that make them happy; things that make them smile.

Usually at some point in the celebration, the guest of honor will do something or say something that reminds me of something they did or said in the past–usually a funny story–and I find myself smiling inwardly; wading blissfully in the nostalgia.

In the weeks leading up to my grandmother’s birthday, I found myself reflecting early. Cherry picking stories about her turned out to be more difficult that I expected. For some reason, I had trouble peeling away individual stories, as they have mostly seemed to congeal into a single collage of memories.

I spent the better part of a day feeling guilty about not being able to recall stories about my grandmother. I found myself picking bits and pieces out of my mind; but not just a few, tons of them! They were like an infinite number of  little rice-sized pieces of spaghetti–taking up a lot of space all together, but not the fully intact strand that I could wrap methodically around my fork; not the fully fleshed-out story I was looking for.

The segments of memories of Grandma or memories I associate with Grandma came in flashes:

Grandma calling the dogs back when they came to welcome my brother and me as children, with their somewhat scary jumping and slobbering.

Grandma feeding the golden retrievers cooked vegetables.

Grandma taking me to the museum.

Branch’s strawberry candy in a bowl on the coffee table.

The smell of chlorine-treated water drying on hot concrete by the swimming pool.

Grandma talking about how wonderful Trader Joe’s was when the first one opened up.

Grandma toasting my brother and I egg bagels and serving them up with peanut butter.

Grandma being a very careful driver.

Water wings!

Rye bread.

Picture collages.

Throw pillows.

Lavender scented hand soap in the bathroom.

Vibrant orange and purple birds of paradise.

Matzo ball soup in shallow bowls.

A jar filled with chocolate almond squares in the refrigerator.

Grandma just smelling sweeter than anyone else in the world…

… the list kept going.

After I took a step back and began looking at the memories, not as individual specks, but as a collection, I noticed a reoccurring theme. I tie all of these memories to feelings of nostalgia and comfort.

I have, absolutely no memories involving fear, guilt, anger, or trauma tied to my grandmother. While Grandma was never a push-over, I cannot recall ever thinking she was mean, even in my most immature and self-centered days.

For me, I now realize, Grandma was, and still is, the living embodiment of comfort and kindness. She always did her best to foster a sense of home away from home when we went to visit her.

This ethic of care actually ties to one of the stories of Grandma I eventually unearthed:

Throughout my childhood, probably since the age of four, I wondered why my dad bothered making chunky tomato sauce with spaghetti. I hated big chunks of tomatoes, and I yearned for something with less texture to pair with my pasta.

Eventually, I learned that ketchup, which regularly acted as a dip for the food I deemed the pinnacle of eatable excellence–french fries, was actually a product of tomatoes; the same tomatoes that made up the chunky sauce on my pasta.

I remember regularly asking my mom and dad if I could have pasta with ketchup, since it seemed like a logical enough substitution to me. They would both reply, with scrunched faces, “No,” giving little justification for their resistance; only going to far as to say that the idea was “disgusting.”

"Culinary genius, no?"

Little did I know, Grandma would provide me with an opportunity to experience this ketchup-laced concoction in due time…

When I was about eleven years old, my brother and I came down to Los Angeles during our annual summer visit with the relatives. For some reason, we stayed for one night in a house my grandparents were occupying for the days in between moving out of their old house in the San Fernando Valley, and moving into their new house in Santa Monica.

I do not know why it was only one night, nor do I remember why only my brother and I stayed with my grandparent that night, but I do remember the house being filled with boxes stacked so high that navigating through it all made me feel like I was in a labyrinth.

We got in fairly late, and it was already dark outside. My grandmother knew we had not eaten dinner, so she went to the kitchen to prepare us a meal. About half an hour later, my brother and I sat down at the kitchen table and my grandmother brought out a heaping pile of my culinary theory put into practice–spaghetti mixed with ketchup.

I was excited. The sharp scent of the ketchup’s vinegar still lingered in the air. This, was my moment! This was my opportunity to prove my long-standing culinary hypothesis, which had been thwarted for years by my parents, who clearly lacked the common sense and vision to combine these two ingredients in an effort to facilitate this flavor and textural dynamo.

Eager to confirm that which I already knew to be true–ketchup and pasta would be awesome together–I clumsily spun a large clump of noodles around my fork and slurped it into my mouth. My resulting state: confusion of the senses. How could something that looked like pasta and tomato sauce produce a flavor so distant from this savory dinnertime staple? Slightly tart and almost sugary sweet, even as an eleven-year-old with a palate that was easily satisfied by Skittles and Doritos, I knew the combination of ketchup and pasta had gone completely awry.

My brother and I quietly consumed the rest of the food on our plate, brushed our teeth and went to bed. That night I went to bed… confused.

Now, it would be easy to preserve the story in my mind as a culinary  disaster perpetuated by my grandmother. However, context, and a few details I neglected to mention actually help make Grandma even more endearing to me.

First of all, it was pretty late, maybe eight thirty or nine in the evening when we got in. It was time to go to sleep. She could have sent us to bed without dinner, but she didn’t. Grandma could have quickly taken us to McDonald’s, which was right down the street, but she didn’t. Grandma provided us with a home-cooked meal.

Secondly, how on Earth did she pull that meal together? We were practically staying in a storage space! She pulled that meal out of thin air! Did I mention there was meat in the dish? Now I don’t remember if it was chicken or turkey cold-cuts, but I do remember there was meat in it, and I think she might have sprinkled in a little dried basil too.

My mom later told me that Grandma felt really bad about feeding us that meal. I feel bad that she felt bad. Grandma did the best that she could in the situation she was in with the time that she had.

So I will always remember the night of spaghetti and ketchup, not as the failed meal, and not for the crazy laberynth of boxes. Rather I will always associate the night of spaghetti and ketchup with Grandma’s successful efforts to create a feeling of home within a moment of chaos.

She Said Don’t I know You From The Cinematographer’s Party?

… I said who am I
To blow against the wind

-Paul Simon

It was like a scene in a movie.

Our family is waiting for a table at Jerry’s Grill in Union City, and a waitress is gathering beverages behind the bar. I walk into her line of view as she is pouring coffee, and she freezes, only to be brought back to reality by scolding hot coffee burning her hand. The mug crashes to the floor. She apologizes profusely.

Eventually she gathers herself together, and realizes, “you are not him.”

Who is “him?”

“You look just like the guy from American Idol,” she tells me, “and I wanted him to win, too.”

Since I haven’t seen a second of a meaningful moment of American Idol in well over a year, and based on her comments, I assume she has poor eye site and thinks I am David Archuleta (can we talk about how nonsensical that sentence is on multiple levels? Meaningful?).

Truthfully, even I know she couldn’t have confused me with David Archuleta; I don’t care how bad her eye sight is. I mean, this is David Archuleta:

And this is me:

There is absolutely no conceivable potential for mistaken identity here.

If left unresolved, I know this case of mistaken identity will gnaw at me for a while.

Serendipitously, that night, I happen upon an online piece on American Idols: Where are they now? I cannot help but laugh out loud when I stumble upon a picture of this guy:

Danny Gokey: apparently, to the waitress at Jerry’s Grill, my celebrity doppleganger. Glorious.

By the way, the fried beef ribs were phenomenal.

Teach Your Children Well…

… Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

-Crosby Stills Nash and Young

Last week my mom was honored with an award for being teacher of the year in her school district! Alas, distance and baby care made witnessing this event unfeasible, which was sad, because my mom said that the people who preside over this event wear hats that look  like upside down ice cream cartons. So not only did I miss my mom’s big day, but I missed seeing people in ridiculous hats.

While I was not physically present at the banquet, I’d like to think that I was there in spirit. On the day leading up to the event, and during the evening of, I thought about my mom and what a truly great teacher she is.

While in middle school, I tagged along with my mom to work when my vaccation days didn’t quite line up with my mom’s. Mostly, I think I just played with legos in the corner. However, I do remember the kids seemed to get their work done when it was asked of them, and they seemed to be happy and entertained in between assignments.

Not a stellar review? Well, seeing my mom teach on two random days isn’t really a fair way to evaluate her teaching. Moreover, the smiles and engagement were just subtle indicators of that which I already knew–my mom loved teaching, she approached teaching creatively in order to best figure out how to help students learn, and students reflected her passion and effort in their own love of learning.

How did I know my mom loved teaching? How did I know she approached teaching with out-of-the-box thinking? It could be that I developed this knowledge over time as I would be part of my mother’s captive dinner time audience. Every night my mom would talk about what she was doing in class–what one particular student said, the upcoming project she was looking forward to–as she literally could not keep her excitement to herself.

"Cheese, Gromit! Cheeeeeeese!"

One night she would talk about one of the boys dressing up as Coco Chanel for the class report and assignment during Women’s History Month. Another night she might talk about the puppets they were making for a show as they learned about storytelling. Some nights she would talk about how she got the entire class to imitate Wallace’s reaction to cheese from the claymation series Wallace and Gromit. Other nights she would talk about how epicly inept she was at math, yet she was finding ways to teach them nonetheless. On occasion, my mom would talk about story time–I believe she called it “Stupid Story Time”–which she would use as a reward when the entire class behaved well. Stupid Story Time consisted and continues to consist of less than five minutes of my mother improvising a story with almost no point whatsoever. There was no end to her sharing.

Still, my mother’s utilization of oral tradition during dinner time to chronicle her adventures in the classroom does not fully inform my knowledge of her excellence as a teacher. I know she is a great teacher because, along with my dad and brother, she has always been one of my best teachers.

Story time was a staple in our home before it became a regular element in her classroom. My mom would read us stories, changing her voice, and infusing emotion and excitement into the dialogue. My brother and I had nearly every Roald Dahl book read to us. I think we asked her to read The Phantom Tollbooth to us about eight times over. Had the Harry Potter series come out during our childhood, I don’t think there would have been any way that my brother and I would have not become writers, as I am sure my mother’s readings would have become mesmerizing events.

It was my mom, not my elementary school teachers, that truly taught me how to write. She always told me, “Make it easy. Write the way you talk.” And in order to assist me in in writing “the way I talk,” she would explain how a comma was “a short pause,” and a period was “a breath.” So while I may not be the most creative, competent, or grammatically excellent writer, I definitely have her to thank for being able to string words together in any sort of semi-coherent form.

It was my mother that was my primary teacher of empathy. Whenever my brother or I wronged another person (and usually it was the two of us wronging each other), it was my mother who asked us to reflect upon how we might feel if the wrong had been done unto us.

She might have actually been too good at teaching us empathy. My brother, during his toddler years, actually took to repeating my mother’s rhetorical questioning when he found himself being scolded. With his fists pinned to his waist, he would ask, “How would you like it if I yelled at you for not putting away your toys? How would you like it? Would you feel good?” I, on the other hand, now often internalize the hurt of others so deeply that I am paralyzed with guilt for causing others even the slightest bit of discomfort. Yet, I probably wouldn’t change a thing. As one of my mentors once said, “Your weaknesses are often your greatest strengths gone awry.”

Yes. It was my mom who taught me my multiplication tables in the car, as we would drive from place to place. It was my mom who taught me mnemonic devices in order to attach dates to important events in history, and to remember the correct spelling of fundamental words (“You wouldn’t want to fri the end of your friend–friend.”). It was my mom who taught me my sense of humor (for better or for worse).

So congratulations, mom. The award you have just received is long overdue. A committee of people wearing ice cream cartons as hats has finally validated that which hundreds of children and parents already knew: you are a truly extraordinary teacher.

Just remember, before the ice cream carton hat people, two decades worth of students, and their accompanying parents had any clue that you might be the most excellent teacher of all time, your children were already well aware of your greatness.

You Spin Me Right Round, Baby…

Right round like a record, baby
Right round, round, round

-Dead or Alive

Last Monday, my partner and I transitioned from being a couple, to being a family of three. Despite our best efforts to educate ourselves on the birthing process, and general care for tiny sleeping infant, the last week and a half have been a bit of a whirlwind filled with joy and discovery.

Personally, I do not think I am an adequate enough writer to convey the range of emotions tied to labor, birth, and the first week of taking care of an infant. I can, however, share some moments and my accompanying thoughts regarding things that may only interest me. So here they are:

  • There are some examinations and anatomy-related processes that go on leading up to birth, which can simultaneously be TMI and take the intimacy of a relationship to a whole other level. I will leave that statement as it is.
  • After a complicated and semi-traumatic birth, to me, the most beautiful and relief-triggering sound on Earth was the sound of our son crying.
  • Being thoroughly uneducated on the details of cesarian birthing, I placed myself in the position to be completely shocked by its realities. Thus, as I sat behind a curtain, which separated me from the gory surgery, the statement, “Okay, now let’s put the uterus back in,” caught me a bit off guard. [Two statements that could have been worse: 1. “Wait! Where’s my sandwich? It was sitting right by the scalpel a minute ago…” 2. “Why do we have extra pieces here? This never happened in the video game.”]

    "Jeez... picking bit of lettuce and onion out of here is going to be a pain in the ass."

  • Apparently epidurals are no joke. My partner had  one, which definitely helped with the contractions. During her C-section, they numbed her from the neck down. During recovery, she could move, but couldn’t feel anything, which lead her to punching herself in the face in an effort to move hair away from her eyes. This traumatized her so much that she refused to hold the baby for a few hours afterwards.
  • It is scary holding an infant’s neck while it is so weak and floppy. I thought its head was going  to roll off.
  • I was grateful for the chair that turns into a bed at Kaiser Redwood City, but it gave me the worst back spasms.
  • Speaking of Kaiser Redwood City, their staff–from the nurses, to the, anesthesiologist, to the doctors–were all awesome. I had my concerns with Kaiser, and still have some regarding the organization as a whole,  but their Ob Gyn and pediatric care professionals were amazing.
  • Our son came looking like a miniature version of my partner. He also came out with peach fuzz that extends over his entire forehead–eyebrows to the “hairline” as well as on his back and arms,  and a cone-head, thus making him look like a harry alien wingless bat. A friend pointed out that when I pair these two observations together, I seem to be suggesting that my partner looks like a large harry alien wingless bat. Just to set the record straight, this is not the case.
  • I try to avoid cafeteria food at all costs, so when my partner’s sister asked what she could bring for me as I was being contained within the walls of Kaiser, I would answer, “a burrito!” every single time. Over the course of forty-eight hours, I ate five burritos. I have decided that they are the perfect self-contained meal, and there is little that anyone can say to convince me otherwise right now.
  • Six pounds, three ounce–we knew our baby was small. With the exception of his freakishly long fingers and toes, everything about him was miniature… including his tiny little cry. Nothing solidified these observations in our mind more than when a second mother moved into my partner’s recovery room. Her baby seemed to be a giant next to ours, and his deep throaty cry was like a tuba in comparison to our infant’s kazoo-like yelping.
  • Being super excited about all the free stuff we were being given by the hospital, I haphazardly packed anything up that was still in its wrapping. My partner almost split her C-section stitches with laughter when she discovered, not only did I pack the hideous pink floral hospital gown that leaves one’s entire back side exposed, but I also packed three bed pads meant to absorb anything that leaks out due to one’s water breaking.
  • Our newborn’s nails were sharp little razors. I think they could have cut through class.
  • Wow! Not all bottle nipples are alike! Some can actually cause an infant to get really painful cry-inducing gas. Good to know.
  • I have found that a bottle de-sterilizer can actually act as a semi-functional crucible. I can now see all of the brown murky impurities that come from tap water despite the usage of a Brita filter.
  • On day two I was changing the baby’s diapers, and I turned away to get a fresh diaper ready. When I looked back at the little one, I found a wet splotch on the couch seat. “Wow!” I exclaimed, “You managed to spray all the way over there. Amazing!” As I continued to adjust his clothing for changing I noticed the legs of his outfit were soaked. The following stream of consciousness observation ensued: “Incredible! The legs of this outfit are soaked through… and… how did you pee on your own chest? Wait a minute… your cap is soaked… did you pee on your own head? How did you pee on your own face?” Needless to say, he required a washing that day.
  • Friends and family know me well. We were gifted four separate copies of Goodnight Moon (which I love). I was going to to take it off of our registry, but I wanted to see how many copies we might receive if we didn’t say anything. Furthermore, my brother explained to me that you can never have too many copies of a book. Children tend to slobber, chew, rip and do any number of destructive things to books.
  • The little one pretty much just sleeps, eats, poops, and cries. Trying to facilitate or clean up after such functions can be exhausting… but it is amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

You Think I’d Crumble…

… you think I’d lay down and die
oh no, not I
I will survive
-Gloria Gaynor

The other day, I unintentionally participated in a values clarification exercise. You know, those  would you rather-scenarios that can help one prioritize their values. They are usually hypothetical and fairly mundane; something along the lines of, “Would you rather work outdoors or indoors?” Maybe, “Would you rather work on a project on your own, or in a group?”

I have seen these exercises turned into a party game with extreme would your rather-scenarios: “Would you rather your upper lip smelled like crap all the time, but nobody else could smell it, or would your rather have terrible halitosis that you never notice?” I saw one online that asked, “Would you rather immerse your naked body in a bathtub of cockroaches, or dive head-first into a pool of tobacco spit?”

I imagine the mundane ones can be useful in sets so as to prioritize one’s preferences, needs, or values. Some of the creative ones, when answered, can actually provide some incite into an individual. And more still can be just gross.

In this particular situation, I was put in a position where I had to choose between avoiding something I loath, and potentially experiencing something I love.

I had to ask myself, “Would I rather avoid the company’s Christmas party, where I will be subjected to large crowds of people I barely know, forcing me into situations that require nauseatingly plastic small talk, or would I rather go to the Christmas party, which is catered, might have some good free food, and there might be a chocolate fountain?”

The aforementioned “would you rather” is a bit long. The essential question is, “What level of discomfort am I willing to go through for the possibility of food that may lead to some fleeting joy?”

Both elements in this equation require further exploration, so allow me to provide some perspective.

How deep is my obsession for good food? Please review Exhibit A–select food-related behavior:

  • I would rather eat a great meal than see a great show. For my partner’s birthday, we went to see the musical, Wicked, and to a nice restaurant, Jardiniere. While Wicked was an amazing production, the dinner afterwards was the highlight of the evening for me.
  • One of my top ten goals in life is to eat at all of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants despite the fact that this is an ever-changing list, and I could possibly go broke trying.
  • I almost always plan trips and vacations around visiting a great restaurant if one is in the area. When we went to Las Vegas, my partner looked into seeing a show, finding a fun dance club, getting a massage. I, on the other hand, was trying to figure out if we could eat at both Mario Batali and Bobby Flay’s restaurants during a trip spanning roughly thirty-six hours. On a trip to Napa, during which my

    Three down, two to go!

    partner was looking to relax, do some shopping and go to a spa, I schemed and planned our way into dining at two restaurants on the top 100 list.

  • I will decrease my quality of life for a period of time if it means I will have one delicious meal. In graduate school my partner and I attended a professional conference in Philadelphia. At the time, I was obsessed with the Iron Chef (who am I kidding, I am still obsessed with the Iron Chef). I actually convinced my partner that we should go all out at Morimoto’s restaurant despite the fact that we barely scrounged up enough money to attend the conference, let alone splurge. We ordered Morimoto’s Omakase menu–a seven-course meal, and the most expensive option on the menu. The two of us ended up eating cereal, macaroni and cheese, and anything still lingering in the freezer for the next month. In my defense however, it was, and still holds up as the best meal I have ever had in my life.
  • I will inconvenience others for the possibility of having a good meal. The aforementioned example proves my point. A more egregious example of my blatant lack of consideration would be from this past sumer. I dragged my pregnant partner, with swollen blistered feet, around three quarters of Rome, on foot, in search of hand-made pasta that ended up being literally five blocks from our starting point. Again, in my defense, we later agreed that it was one of the best meals of our summer.
  • Moreover, I have trouble making rational decisions when food is involved. Earlier today, I seriously debated whether or not to interrupt my supervisor’s one-on-one meeting with her supervisor to find out if she wanted me to order her take-out for lunch. This was a serious dilemma for me, as the folks going to pick up the food were leaving at noon, right when her meeting was supposed to end. In my mind, I was thinking: If it were me, I would definitely like to have sushi rather than being subjected to whatever the cafeteria has to offer. I would want to be interrupted, and I would be really upset if I missed the opportunity. It turned out that, yes, she wanted sushi, and no, she would prefer not to be interrupted should a similar situation arise.

Yes, I know this is a bit of a problem. I know there are more important things in the world than the food I deem to be delectable. Maybe food is my vice. I would certainly be a financially more stable and considerably slimmer individual if I had little regard for the work of talented chefs. To put a more positive spin on it, I’ll just say, I love delicious food.

Conversely, I am a socially awkward creature that tends to avoid uncomfortable situations. On the spectrum of discomfort–on the low end, mild annoyance, and the high end, actual physical pain, both small talk with people I don’t know very well, and large crowds actually rank  fairly high as you can see on my personal discomfort scale below:

"Come on! Come on!

MILDLY ANOYED
itchy tags on tee-shirts
sticky condiment bottles
Mark Wahlburg acting (with the exception of Departed)
SOMEWHAT IRRITATED
face talkers
playing defense against sweaty hairy shirtless guys who like to initiate contact
VH1 reality television
NOT SO COMFORTABLE
men resting scrotums on communal locker room benches without towel as buffer
throat swabbing
large crowds
SERIOUSLY UNCOMFORTABLE
raisins
wedgies
getting vaccinated
FAIRLY PAINFUL
phony small-talk
(tie) a minor kitchen accident involving some sort of blade & public speaking
trip to the dentist involving drilling
OUCH CHARLIE, THAT REALLY HURT! (click to understand reference)

I think the fact that I would rather get vaccinated than engage in fairly painful small-talk speaks volumes. Compound that with large crowds, which I dislike far more than when men rest their manhood sacks on communal seating without a buffer, and you have yourself a situation I would really like to avoid.

So what happened when my most powerful vice engaged in an epic battle with my personal titan of discomfort? The vice won! Intellectually, I cannot believe that the possibility of a decent morsel of food was strong enough motivation to brave an almost unbearable social situation.

I ended up going to the Christmas party. How was  the food, you ask? Eh, it was so-so. There was some succulent roast turkey with cranberry sauce and horseradish aoli, but other than that, not much to write home about, and alas, the chocolate fountain did not make an appearance.  I gambled and lost.

I was able mitigate the impact of the crowds and small-talk, sort of. I dragged a friend of mine to the event, for she had not yet to experience its fabulousness. After braving the food lines, I set myself up against the wall between two trash cans and subtly maneuvered four friends into position to act as a buffer between myself and the crowd.

The experience was till slightly agonizing. Vaguely familiar people would pass stop and talk about the weather. Individuals, who’s faces I remembered, but names escaped me, would smile and talk about how they can’t wait for Christmas break. I found myself daydreaming about what rehab for my food addiction might be like.

I did experience an entertaining moment during which I accidently paid the awkwardness forward. The president, complete with festive Christmas hat, walked by. I have only met the man once, and he has probably met thousands upon thousands of people. But in that moment I decided to smile and wave.

About eight feet away, he stopped, smiled, and waved back. Then the president paused just for a split-second, and through his made-for-shmoozing smile, and glazed eyes, I am pretty sure I could read his thoughts: “Wait… I don’t have the slightest clue as to who this guy is. Just keep smiling and waving. The awkwardness will be over soon.”