Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sometimes More is Not Better

Mara here. I'm sitting in an empty Costco. It's 7:00 a.m., the store is lit, and there are a few workers milling about. Someone is on one of those floor cleaning machines that looks like a ride on lawnmower. 

But otherwise it's empty.  And it's quiet. And it's clean.

I'm here because I need new tires for my car. Costco isn't a place I've thought of to get my car worked on, but we got a large Costco cash card when we bought our daughter's car (it was some kind of promotion), so when I needed new tires for my car, we thought, hey, let's use that Costco card.

So here I am. 

There's a rather convoluted story behind how I ended up at the particular Costco I'm at. There are probably four Costco's within ten miles of my house, but this one is further afield. Instead of trying to get a ride home and then have to turn right around and come back to pick up my car, I decided to stay and wait for it to be finished. So here I sit.

It's strange to be in the store without the normal feelings of stress and frenzy I associate with Costco. Usually I'm worried about how crowded it will be and whether or not I'll find a place to park. 

But today I'm just sitting here. I'm not free to roam around because I'm in the little auto repair area, but I can see almost the whole store. It's stacked from floor to almost ceiling with stuff, so years of memories of shopping at Costco start to flood my brain.

I remember I was in elementary school when my parents got a membership to the Price Club. They were members of a small local credit union and that allowed us to get a much coveted membership to this new warehouse-style bargain store. It was amazing! I had never seen anything like it before. My dad and I would get into his old VW van with its metal interior and no air conditioning. I can't even remember if I wore a seat belt. He'd drive for what felt like hours to the closest Price Club. I'm guessing it was probably 45 minutes away, but it felt like a long journey at the time. My hometown was small, so our normal trips to the grocery store meant driving down the road a mile. 

This is why a day at the Price Club was an event. We would plan ahead and make lists of all the stuff we wanted. We didn't just get the normal boring food. We'd get things like bagel dogs, egg rolls, and frozen pretzels—huge boxes of them! Toilet paper was boring, but 48 rolls of toilet paper was amazing! Ketchup was boring, but two half-gallon bottles of ketchup was fantastic! And it seemed like such a bargain. For families who wanted to get a good deal on groceries or household appliances, the Price Club was a great place. And let's face it, as a kid, we didn't think about budgets so having more of everything seemed like the best policy.

In addition, having a Price Club membership was special. Not everyone could get one. The membership rules were much stricter back then, so friends would often call and ask us to get them supplies for school events or for their parties. Everyone wanted to know someone who had a Price Club membership.

So, growing up, shopping at the Price Club was the ultimate grocery shopping goal. One of the things on my list of "adult to do" items was to become a member of the Price Club. By the time I was actually old enough to get a membership, the Price Club had become Costco. My husband and I eagerly signed up for our annual membership and made the trek to the Costco closest to us. 

But those childhood memories of the Price Club that stayed with me all those years didn't match my adult reality. Trip after trip, we discovered that there wasn't anything at Costco that made much sense for us to buy. At the time, there were just the two of us, and we didn't require much. We didn't throw many parties or need to buy supplies for large events. And we didn't have a garage, so there was nowhere to store extra quantities of things.

After a half dozen trips to Costco where we'd buy bags of chips so large that we couldn't eat them before they went stale and cartons of Cup O'Soups that would take up a whole cabinet to store, we reluctantly stopped going. If nothing else, going to Costco over-stimulated my "need" to buy things that were a bargain. Even if buying six tubes of toothpaste was a little cheaper than buying one, it didn't make sense for us to spend $20 on toothpaste when spending $4 got us what we needed. 

I could never figure out how to make budgeting for bulk shopping work for us. Even after our daughter was born, the three of us didn't consume enough to warrant buying pounds of things when ounces of things were more than enough.

Perhaps if we'd had a boy it would be different. (I remember my brother and his friends could clean out all the food in our kitchen in an afternoon.) Or if we'd had multiple kids or even if our kid was was the kind who always has a lot of friends over, then going to Costco would have made sense. But as it is, more for us wasn't better, it was too was wasteful.

This was a hard lesson for me to learn.

I like to joke that I'm a hoarder, which is kind of a horrible joke because there are people who actually suffer greatly from hoarding. I just want lots of stuff. My impulse is to feel as if I don't have enough. For example, when we still got plastic bags at the grocery store, I kept them all. Even when the cabinet I put them in was bursting and they'd spill out onto the floor, I always wanted more. 

There's no "right amount" for me. We either don't have enough or I we have way too much. 

Costco definitely triggers the desire in me for more. It's difficult for me not to buy the 100 pack of granola bars. Or it takes a lot of will power not to buy another 12 pack of Diet Cokes, even though we have three sitting in our garage. This is because a part of me blares out alarms saying, "What if we run out? What if we can't get more? What if I need a granola bar and we don't have any!" But those are false alarms because, the reality is that for most items, if I run out, it's not a big deal. It's not as if granola bars are the only source of sustenance in our house.

We live in an era when stores are open 24 hours. And very few things suddenly stop being available. So buying a dozen of the same item simply because it's on sale—and I might need it one day in the future—is not rational.

It took me decades of constantly wanting to buy more stuff than I needed, of always feeling like we didn't have enough, of struggling to stay within budgets, to finally realize that there really is such as thing as enough and, more importantly, there really is such a thing as too much. 

Physically there was a limit. My closets and cupboards were spilling over with things that we were never going to use. And mentally, I noticed that there was a real drain to always wanting more, to always feeling like I was lacking. And there was no end. Once I got something, my mind immediately moved onto the next thing I felt I needed. I never felt satisfied. I was always putting pressure on myself to get more and have more, which meant I was never happy with what I had.

It's taken years of forcing myself to not buy things and of forcing myself to ask repeatedly, "Do I actually need this? What happens if I don't buy this? If I already have three of these, do I need more?" for the panic that came with feeling like I didn't have enough to start subsiding. I still have moments when I find myself starting to slide back into the "more" mindset. But now I can usually talk myself out of it.

After years of paying for a Costco membership we never used (it seemed so wrong to not have one!), we finally didn't renew our membership. It was only when we were offered the gift card to go along with our daughter's car that we signed up again. There are so many discount stores now, like Target or Walmart, where you can get bargains in smaller quantities, and Amazon has made it so easy to find great deals online that we're not going to Costco very often.

Now, on the rare occasion when we do find ourselves at Costco, we usually don't end up buying anything. Even so, I always still want to buy things. Memories of the 48 variety pack of lunch-sized chip bags make me happy. But spending $20 on chips is a waste for us, so I walk past them now. When we're at the store, I enjoy walking around, getting a free food sample or two. I enjoy looking at the other families who are there with baskets piled to the brim. Most of all I enjoy the freedom of not feeling like I have to buy anything.

I asked my mom about how to handle this tendency to always want more. Here's her answer to that and two more questions:

I feel like everyone in one way or another experiences wanting more than they need. Are there Buddhist practices to help manage those feelings?

I'd say that the best Buddhist practice for this would be mindfulness, which to me means simply paying attention to what's going on around you and in your mind. In this context, I'd say that, first, you should make an effort to become aware of the object of your desire and the feelings of wanting that arise around it.

Then notice how that feels. Is the "wanting" pleasant? It definitely can feel pleasant to envision how happy you'll feel if you get the object. But it can also feel unpleasant. You mentioned this in your piece—how this wanting can trigger a feeling of lack in our lives when, in reality, we have plenty.

This is true for me, not so much about concrete objects, but when it comes to simply wanting something to be different in my life. When I truly pay attention to it, "wanting" doesn't feel good because I see that it comes from feeling dissatisfied with my life in some way, and I know from experience that I only feel good when I accept my life as it is.

So, start by paying attention to how you feel when you're faced with an object of desire—whether it be a concrete thing or something about your life that you wish were different. Does it feel pleasant? Unpleasant? 

As far as trying to manage feelings of constant wanting, it's also important to pay attention to how you feel after you obtain that object of desire. We often say, "If only I can get this, then I'll be totally satisfied from now on." But we don't work that way, at least not in my experience. As soon as we get what we want, our attention turns to something else we want. So we're fooling ourselves if we think that getting what we want will satisfy us for good. 

So what can we do about our "wanting minds"?

I used to struggle with this a lot more than I do now, thank goodness. I manage feelings of constantly wanting, first, by accepting that "wanting" is a natural feeling—it just arises. We can't control that, but we can learn to control our reaction to it.

Here's something I write about in my book How to Wake Up. It's about how to react to that wanting mind. I have a friend who calls it the "Want Monster." When her kids were young, she taught them to identify that intense feeling of want as the Want Monster. For example, she'd have them do it when they'd be walking down the aisle of a toy store and saying over and over, "I want this. I want that." It taught her kids to separate themselves from their wanting minds and to just notice that it was happening. 

She did this with her kids when they were young, but I found it tremendously helpful as an adult. It meant that instead of falling under the spell of constantly wanting, I could leave that wanting on the shelf, so to speak. I could just not take it up by saying, "That's just the Want Monster, but I don't have to feed it." 

I know some people say you can get over "wanting" completely, but I'm not convinced of that. So, for me, what matters is not the wanting itself but how I respond to it. 

You said there's a mental drain to wanting, and I agree. I've come a long way toward taming the Want Monster. It's given me a sense of freedom to be able to simply identify my wanting mind, but to know I don't have to do anything about it. 

[Mara: Yes, for my daughter, I think she feels like she's experiencing actual physical pain sometimes when she wants something.]

I can understand that. Again, I'd suggest becoming aware that that's what's happening. It can take away its hold over you. It's so helpful to know that it's a feeling that will pass. [Mara: And to know that you survive even when you don't get what you want.] Yes, absolutely. With practice, you don't have to be ruled by that wanting. You can acknowledge its presence and then be patient and wait until it passes. All thoughts and feelings are impermanent after all!

Do you remember when you and dad first started going to the Price Club? What did you think of the huge quantities of stuff?

I never liked the Price Club. I don't know if you remember that. It occurred to me while I was reading your piece that maybe that's why you and dad went so often without me. I just don't like big warehouse-type stores with all the concrete. It's a cold atmosphere. So I don't like going to stores like that. I wouldn't go even if I weren't chronically ill.

But your dad is going to Costco today. He doesn't go that often, but  I'm always amazed at the bargains he comes home with. He gets these dog bones that Scout likes. I can buy them online, but they're so much cheaper at Costco and it's the same brand. 

So Costco is clearly a trigger for me and my instinct to buy too much or to get a bargain. Is there anything that acts as a trigger for you and makes you want to acquire more than you need?

Yes, because there's this silly thing I do. I did it when I used to shop in person, and I do it now when I shop online (which is how I do all my shopping now). If something is exactly what I want, I often buy two of them so I don't have to spend hours trying to find the right one again when this one wears out or breaks. So when you ask if I acquire more than I need—I don't need two bath mats, but I have two! 

I obviously don't do this with big items, like a bed, but I just did with a quilt. I found a quilt that I liked so much that I went back online and got another one in a different color. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What We've Been Grateful for In July. What Are You Grateful For?

Mara here. Wow, July is almost over! It's hard to believe that summer is already half over. It feels even shorter now that schools go back into session much earlier than they used to. 

July was a busy month. I have lots of things to be grateful for this month!


Going to Mexico! My husband decided that since neither of us had ever been to Mexico and our daughter is out of town for a few weeks, we should take a few days and go to Mexico. I can’t write about it at this moment because I’m writing this before we go. Yet I'm already grateful that I get to go on an adventure to a new place with my husband whom I love.


So, as I wrote about last week, my daughter is away for a few weeks in New York State. We live in California, so that’s almost 3,000 miles away from us. I am so grateful that she has her cell phone so that I know she can get ahold of me whenever she wants. I know that technology has its plusses and minuses, but in this case, I am really glad that I feel as if she still has a connection to me, even though she’s so far away.


I love watermelon. I’ve been eating a lot of watermelon this summer. I buy them at Trader Joe’s and cut them up into little chunks and put them in a bowl in the fridge. I learned to do this from a roommate of mine in college. Somehow, before I met her, it never occurred to me to do this to watermelon. My family had always just cut them into slices for special occasions, so they were a bit cumbersome to eat. But when you pre-cut them (as if you were cutting them for a fruit salad), you can quickly grab a few pieces out of the bowl throughout the day. 

I’m not sure why, but this feels like a treat. Even though I’ve been doing this for decades, it still feels like a little surprise every time I open the fridge. I'm always a bit sad when watermelon season is over, but it does make it more special when the temperatures start to rise and the big bins of watermelons reappear!

And now, here is Toni's gratitude list for July:

My granddaughter Malia visited!

I don't get to see Malia very often because, at 16 1/2, she's a busy teenager. But she made time in July to come and visit me (my husband goes down to L.A. regularly to see her but I can't travel). It was so wonderful to have her here. She's a young adult now and so we can talk about serious things. She keeps up on current events and had a lot of questions for me about law school—what it was like, etc. We had some great conversations. It brought back so many memories for me and it was such a treat to be able to share them with Malia. 

My granddaughter Cam is playing in a traveling softball league!

Although I'm not able to go to her games, my husband has seen her play and my son Jamal texts me videos of her at the plate or stealing a base. She's loving it and that's enough to make me happy. As a bonus for me, when Jamal sends a video, sometimes I can hear him cheering Cam on and that reminds me of all the years I spent in the bleachers cheering him on when he played baseball.

The second half of July: My terrible-pain-in-four-different-places-in-my-body has subsided substantially

Starting in mid-July, I felt like a new person. I'd been suffering with pain (unrelated to my chronic illness) for six weeks. I had a flare up of osteoarthritis in my right knee and then in my hip. That led to a limp that caused my left achilles tendon to flare up in pain. And the icing on the cake was an unrelated pinched nerve in my neck that was causing a searing pain I could not stop no matter what position I got myself into. And so, I'm grateful right now to just be my regular sick self!
What have you been grateful for in July?

Camden playing softball

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Living in LaLa Land

Mara here. Los Angeles. People usually have strong feelings about it—they love it or they hate it. (My brother falls under the hate it category.)

Even though I often call it LaLa Land, living here isn’t anything like you see in the movies. People don’t suddenly burst into song and dance—unless they're on Hollywood Boulevard and on drugs!

People who tell me they hate LA usually complain about it being big and crowded. And it definitely is those things. But for the most part, I don’t notice the size because we have our little neighborhood where we do our grocery shopping and go to movies. My daughter, Malia (when she wasn’t being home-schooled), went to our local elementary school and middle school. I run into friends at our closest Trader Joe"s. In many ways, it feels like a small town.

I can’t argue with people complaining about the crowds, because it is crowded. And there is a lot of traffic. But the traffic has never really bothered me. I’m used to it. There’s sort of a system to the madness…and I just anticipate that I’ll always arrive places early or late. (Usually early because being late makes me crazy.)

But there are things that make Los Angeles very distinct from other cities, even other big cities.

Driving. Life in Los Angeles is very focused around our cars, the traffic on the freeways, and whether or not we can find a place to park. People like to joke that Los Angelinos will get in their cars to drive a block down the road—and that’s mostly true. We love our cars. And the amount of time we calculate to get anywhere is a hundred percent dependent on what day of the week it is, what time of day it is, and in what direction we're driving.

Celebrity. Most people here know someone who is famous—an actor, a musician, a writer…you name it. And I don’t mean famous like your local newspaper reporter might be famous. I mean world famous. Magazine cover famous. And you run into celebrities everywhere: at restaurants, the farmer's markets, grocery stores, yoga studios...gas stations. I used to regularly see Drew Barrymore at our local hardware store and CVS. And my dog and Steve Martin's dog would often sniff each other hiking through Fryman Canyon.

This culture of celebrity is part of growing up here. The pressure to be “famous” on social media or to become successful as a child is unique here. For many kids, it’s simply a side product of having a famous friend or a famous parent. My daughter has many friends whose social media accounts are sponsored: either they receive compensation for posting things or they receive free products to post about them. For us, that’s normal. I suspect that’s not normal most other places.

Working kids. Los Angeles is one of the only places where there are a lot of kids working as actors. Every year, parents pour into the city with their children for "pilot season." They uproot themselves from their hometowns to spend six weeks in Los Angeles, hoping their kids will book acting jobs. If they do, they're pulled out of school (most child actors have to be home-schooled), uprooted from their friends and family, and sometimes, if they're successful, wind up financially supporting their parents (or they at least they support themselves and whichever parent is living in Los Angeles with them).

It’s a strange world. And while there are a lot of benefits to having the experience and opportunity of getting to work as a child actor, there are a lot pitfalls. When people hear that Malia is an actress, they sometimes get a concerned look and ask me if I’m worried she’ll end up like Drew Barrymore or Lindsay Lohan. And the answer is "no" because there’s nothing inherent about being an actor that leads to kids be out of control. Being successful doess make it harder to control kids—but it's the same with adults. And having a child who financially supports a family puts that child in the role of being the “adult,” which means that the parents no longer have the authority to set rules and limits.  

The biggest pitfall for actors is that there are a lot of people whose job it is to make sure a production (which costs millions of dollars) runs smoothly. A smooth production often means trying to make sure the actors are happy—regardless of whether or not it’s right or even good for the actor. Things get messy when that mentality becomes part of the parent-child relationship. If it becomes more important to you that your kid gets up and works than it is to make sure your kid feels comforted and supported, there will be problems. Or you if you get sucked into the celebrity lifestyle and it becomes more important to you than being a parent, there will be problems too. Kids need parents; kids need limits; kids need rules—even kids who are actors.

The bottom line is that acting is an adult world. There is a lot of money at stake with the production of a film or television show. It’s a business. So kids who are actors get treated like little adults, and they are expected to act like little adults. That’s why the job of parenting kid actors becomes so important. Parents of kids who have power and responsibility have to make sure those kids still are kids in as many ways as possible—even in some of the yucky ways, such as doing chores, getting a limited allowance, and sometimes being grounded.

Wealth. Everyone knows that the big movie stars are rich. And that’s true. Headlining actors make a lot of money. But what most people don’t realize is that a lot of people other than actors make ridiculous amounts of money in the entertainment industry. Writers, producers, directors, production crew, agents, managers, studio executives—lists and lists of industry people—can all make even more money than actors do. So there are a lot of people in this city with crazy amounts of money.

This makes living in Los Angeles a little wacky. One of Malia’s friends lived next door to Justin Bieber. You had to pass through two security checkpoints just to get to her house. (And those checkpoints were just for the housing community itself—not because of Justin Bieber.)

It’s hard to keep a healthy perspective when you have friends who arrive at the dance studio in a rented limousine because their mothers couldn’t drive them that day, or when a friend rents out the Rose Bowl for a Bar Mitzvah. 

Of course, it’s not always that extreme. We have many friends who aren’t outrageously wealthy, but they're still extremely well-off. Most of our friends eat out at nice restaurants several times a week, drive luxury cars, have multiple kids in expensive private schools, and regularly vacation abroad. 

We don’t live this lifestyle. But it’s considered “normal” in our circle of friends. And the crazy thing is that in most places, we would be considered very well off. But in Los Angeles, we are "fine" but not "well off" because, although we can afford nice cars, we can't afford luxury cars. We do go out to eat sometimes, but we do have to live within a budget, and we wouldn't be able to afford to send Malia to an expensive private school. For most of our friends, though, those things are just expected—they're normal. Many of Malia's friends have access to their parents credit cards with no real limits restricting what they can spend. For Malia that seems "normal." But I think normal in Los Angeles is a different normal from other places.

Success. So, we live in a city where there are kids who are movie stars and may even be headlining a television series’ by the age of ten. Let’s just say the bar for success is Los Angeles is high. I’m not saying that's a negative thing, but it makes it hard to have a realistic sense of accomplishment when you are surrounded by people who have achieved extraordinary amounts of success.

On the one hand, I think it’s positive because it makes everything seem achievable. It feels possible to be a writer who can sell scripts when you know a dozen people who have already done it. Something like being an actor or a makeup artist or a cartoonist all seem within the realm of possibility because we all know people who are doing it—and making a lot of money doing it! On the other hand, if you're not successful at your dream job,sasss feelings of failure can be magnified. 

It can be hard to feel as if being a Girl Scout and getting good grades means you're a success when the kid who sits next to you just got back from three months of filming a movie in Africa. Or if you are an adult who is not able to make a living doing your dream job, it’s hard to understand that you’re not a failure, when so many of your friends manage to make their dreams come true. 

For me personally, the benefits of living in Los Angeles have outweighs the negatives. I love the city and it will always feel like home. My family and I, we have had experiences here that we never would have had if we had settled somewhere else. It may not be for everyone, but I wouldn’t have wanted to raise Malia anywhere else.

My mother grew up in Los Angeles. Although she left the area after college, she still has a sentimental attachment to the city. And like most people from Los Angeles, she had her brush with celebrity.

You grew up in Los Angeles. Did you have any sense of how different your growing up experience was compared to kids in other cities?

Usually not. That said, I knew that I might see a movie star or someone famous at any moment. Back then they drove their own cars; they weren't in limousines with dark tinted glass. We lived in West LA, but my dad's store was on Hollywood Boulevard. When I went to work with him, we'd drive down Sunset Boulevard—right through some of the the most expensive houses in LA—and it was very common to see a famous movie star or singer driving alongside of us. [Mara note: It's still common to see that. When I used to drive through Laurel Canyon a lot, I'd always see Jay Leno.]

But other than that, LA didn't feel different from other cities to me, for the same reasons you mentioned in your article. Like you, we lived in our own little neighborhood. I grew up in Westwood, near UCLA. Westwood Village was my territory. 

It doesn't feel like a small town today, but it did then. [Mara note: Westwood Village is still there.] We did all our grocery shopping in the Village, went to the movies, and even my doctor's office located there. In many ways, Westwood Village back then felt like my relatively small town of Davis does now.

Of course, Westwood has completely changed now. There are lots of high rise buildings and chain retail stores. But when I was growing up, it was like a town within a bigger city—very much like what you were saying about where you live.

Was your family connected to the entertainment industry in any way?

My mom worked for one of the big movie studios before I was born. One of my most vivid memories from childhood is of a family we were very close to who were in the industry. They were driven out of LA during the McCarthy era Communism blacklist/witch hunts. 

They had four sons, and I was very good friends with one of them, Victor, so when they had to leave it, was a big loss for me too. Victor's dad was a very successful screenwriter in Hollywood, but he wound up living out his life in a small town in British Columbia, Canada as a public school teacher. I stayed with them for a month in the summer three times when I was a teenager. It was a beautiful setting, but the dad was never really happy again. For the rest of his life, he suffered from serious depression. Even though the town welcomed them with open arms, he never got over being forced to give up his profession. It was very sad.

So that was one of our connections to the industry. Another was that our closest family friends, the Kaplans, were connected to the industry because Lee, the father, was an entertainment lawyer.

Tell people the story of being able to visit the set of the movie South Pacific in Hawaii.

As I said, my parents' best friends were the Kaplans and Lee Kaplan was a successful entertainment lawyer. He had a lot of famous clients including Yul Brynner, Burt Lancaster, and Gregory Peck to name a few. Another of his clients was Oscar Hammerstein, half the musical writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. They wrote so many great musicals: Oklahoma, Carousel, The King & I and, of course, South Pacific. I had seen all of them performed in the theater with each show's Broadway stars because my mom had tickets for us to go to the Civic Light Opera. In fact, going to those shows was the only time I went to downtown LA. It was a long drive for us to get there, and it always felt like a separate city to me.

So when they decided to make a movie of South Pacific, the Kaplans were invited to stay at the same hotel as the cast and crew. They took me, my brother, and my mom along with them to Kauai. (My father had passed away by then and I was like a daughter to the Kaplans because they had two sons, but no daughters.) The hotel was called the Coco Palms. I mention it because it was the most beautiful place I've ever stayed. It wasn't a typical hotel. It was a set of bungalows along a lush and windy lagoon. To get from your bungalow to the lobby or restaurant, you could get in a canoe and paddle your way along if you didn't want to walk. Unfortunately, it was completely destroyed in the big tsunami that hit Kauai in 1992 and, as far as I know, it was never rebuilt.

The best part for me was that, although I was only about 12, I was given free access to all the rehearsals. I remember how, after breakfast, they'd clear the dining room so they'd have space to rehearse some of the big song and dance numbers, like "Bloody Mary." I'd just sit and watch them rehearse.

My absolute favorite memory, though, was going to one of the bungalows several times and watching Juanita Hall, as Bloody Mary, and a young actress France Nuyen (who later was in The Joy Luck Club), as Liat, rehearse the song "Happy Talk." I would sit there for hours and watch. Any reader who is familiar with the song knows that it involves a lot of miming and choreography, especially with the hands. I learned it all and, for years afterward, I'd listen to the song or sing it to myself and do the hand movements.

So that was my favorite memory, but I also remember spending a lot of time around the swimming pool with the cast members, some of whom were quite famous, like Mitzi Gaynor was cast in the starring role of Nellie Forbush. She was so friendly to everyone. Not all of the actors were friendly, but she was. I also developed a huge crush on Rossano Brazzi who was cast as the male lead. For years after we came back from the trip, I followed all of their careers.

So, although I don't think about it often, that experience is still one of the highlights of my life. It's been fun to remember.

Behind the scenes monitor shot of Malia with actor Christopher Lloyd on the set of Granite Flats

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Our Quirky Habits. What Are Yours?

Mara here: 

People are strange. For the most part, we are strange in ways that aren't too dissimilar. Yes, we have our preferences, but most of our behaviors fall within a certain spectrum of predictability.

That said, we are also all different in unique ways. Everyone has something about them that seems completely foreign to their friends. So what is it that makes you unique? Do you have habits that people think are weird? 

I have a lot of weird habits. I like to think it's what makes me interesting, but it might just make me weird. 

Here are a few:

I imaginarily type out words as I hear them 

This is a very strange, and I sometimes wonder if people know I do it. I started doing it when I was a lot younger. I didn’t learn to type until around 8th grade, so it must have been after that. But I remember trying to figure out if I could play a song on the piano—without the piano. It was harder than I thought it would be but I kept practicing the song for many days, miming the pressure of the keys with my fingers, realizing that without the actual piano it was very hard to mimic the rhythm of what it’s like to play the instrument. 

Once I mastered the miming of the song on the piano (I can’t remember the name of the song, but I can still mime some of it), I switched to pretending that I was typing words on a keyboard. Soon I was doing it to see how fast I could type. So now, when I’m watching TV or a movie, or sometimes even talking to someone, I often try to keep up with the words by fake typing. Weird, I know. 

I crack my hip 

It’s a dancer thing. Many dancers do it, so the only thing that makes it a quirky habit is that, outside the dance world, most people don’t do it. It certainly looks awkward. It sort of looks like I am about to pee on something, but that's because of the angle that my leg needs to be in to get my hip to pop. I grab one of my knees, lifting it to the side of my body and then hinge forward from the waist. I don’t know if you can correctly visualize what this looks like, but I can tell you that when I do it in public, I often get stares. The very loud popping sound that comes from my hip also usually gets a reaction.

I obsessively clean out my wallet 

I have a small wallet. I bought it in Japan and, although it's not the smallest wallet I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t hold much beyond a few credit cards and some bills and maybe a few coins. I clean it out—constantly. I go through and take out all the change, any receipts, and most of the one dollar bills so that it doesn’t get too crowded. 

I sometimes do this several times a day. I don’t like having to search for things, and watching other people go through their gigantic over-stuffed wallets makes me uncomfortable. My daughter Malia’s wallet probably weighs about 5 pounds and has stuff in it that she hasn’t touched in years. It's actually hard for me to look at her wallet. My wallet is probably missing some things that should be in there but, whatever, I’ve survived so far.

Toni here:

I had a lot of trouble rising to Mara's challenge of coming up with quirky habits (I must be "very dull indeed" to quote from Jane Austen's Emma on the 200th anniversary of her death that many people have been writing about this week). At last, though, I came up with three things.

If I can't sleep in the early morning, I pretend to sleep

I made up this quirky rule when I became chronically ill. I'm not allowed to get out of "sleep mode" until at least 7 1/2 hours after I turn off the lights at night. This is because if I sleep 7 1/2 hours, I have a good chance of feeling a bit refreshed when I get up. So, if it's only been 6 1/2 hours since I turned out the lights but I'm wide awake, I have to lie in bed for another hour pretending to sleep. Somehow, thinking that I've been asleep for 7 1/2 hours makes me feel better the next day (at least psychologically). I may not have actually been sleeping all those hours, but a girl can hope, can't she!

I have an unusual relationship to audiobooks

It's hard for me to read, so I listen to audiobooks. But I listen to them the way people listen to music they love—over and over again. Think of the last piece of music that was new for you and that you loved. You didn't just listen to it once; you listened to it over and over. This is what I do with my favorite books. 

Instead of listening to new books that people keep telling me I simply have to read, you'll find me listening to an EM Forster or a Somerset Maugham novel or to a P.D. James mystery for the umpteenth time, even though I know everything that happens in them. Right now, I'm listening to Carol Shields' Unless for the fifth or sixth time. I learn something new every time I re-listen to a book I love. 

I sleep with a pillow over my head

Ah, pillows. Let me count. I use five of them for sleeping or napping, and each one has to be in a particular position. It's true that two of those positions are helpful medically, like the one I put between my legs to keep my spine straight. But where did I come up with the ridiculous idea that I can't sleep unless I have a pillow over my head? I have this standard-sized pillow that's so thin that it lies quite nicely over my head, whether I'm sleeping on my side or on my back. I have no idea where I got the pillow and I doubt I could fine another one, so I'm always mending the seams on it before covering with a pillow case just how worn-out it looks.

P.S. A word to the wise: don't mess with my pillows!


What about you? What are your quirky habits?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Have You Had to Face Being an "Empty Nester"?

Mara here: My husband and I are about to have a test run of being empty nesters. Our daughter Malia, who is 16, is going off to an academic summer program at Cornell University for three weeks. 

For most kids, going off to camp or a summer program is not unusual. By the time their children are 16, many parents have had a chance to experience an extended period of time without them. I know I went off for weeks at a time when I was young.

But because of the relatively unusual experiences my daughter has had with dancing and acting, so far, all her extended times away from home have involved me being with her. When we were in Utah (where she was on a TV show for several seasons) and Japan (where she was a cast member in a Sesame Street-type set of educational DVD's), I had to accompany her as her guardian.

But this time she’s going off by herself. She’ll be staying in the dorms and getting a preview of what college life will be like.

And I’ll be at home. 

I’m not a particularly sentimental person. Between my husband and me, I know that life without Malia around is going to be harder on him. He’s more of a people person. In addition, he and Malia have a very special bond, partly because they’re a lot alike. They’re more bubbly and full of "life zest" (for lack of a better expression). And although everyone knows I don’t love Malia any less than he does, I'm less exuberant in general about being around other people. Plus, I’ve had a lot of one-on-one time with her. All those months I was traveling with her while she was working, he was at home without us. For three years, there were big chunks of time when he didn’t get to share her life. 

For some parents, being a “stage mom” makes them cling more to their kids. For me, the experience made it even more important to me that she understand that she needs to be able to take care of herself. (And honestly, it turns out that there is such a thing as too much time with a 13 year old girl...)

But my 13 year-old is now 16. And she's already very independent. So, in a practical way, there are many things that won’t be much different when she's not living at home. I don’t do her laundry, manage her schedule, monitor her homework, or take care of her in many of the typical ways that parents take care of kids. 

That said, she's a major part of life at our house. She’s a big presence (i.e. loud) and, as our only child, obviously her needs often get first priority. So it will be weird to go to the grocery store and not be trying to remember what food Malia wants me to get. And I won’t need to worry about whether or not she's driving safely, or whether or not she'll get locked out of the house.

I know that I'll still worry, but it will be the worry that comes from simply not knowing what she’s doing. And it will be a source of worry knowing that I won't be able to get to her (without a lengthy plane ride) if she’s having a rough time. Most of all, it will be the worry that probably never ends for parents: whether or not she’s happy.

Fortunately she’s not at all worried. She’s excited and has been looking forward to the program for several months. And I know that she’s ready. She knows how to take care of herself—except when it has anything to do with spiders—and she’s good at making friends and enjoys adventures. And she has her trusty phone with her so she can reach out to me at any time she wants. And I can (not very subtly) stalk her social media accounts to see what she’s up to and hopefully get a glimpse of her new friends.

For her, it’s just an exciting trip that will be full of new experiences. For me and her father, it will mean adjusting to a different version of our everyday experiences. While many of my friends who are parents have openly lamented the idea of their kids leaving for college (pretty much since their kids’ birth), I’ve never really worried about being upset when that time comes and she leaves home. But maybe it’s simply that the enormity of what her leaving means is something I can’t fathom until it happens. 

I used to feel very sure I would be prepared for her leave when the time came. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after this summer.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this subject:

How did you feel when I went to my first extended summer program away from home?

It was really hard. The things you mentioned in your piece, that you say you might be worrying about when Malia goes off, that's what I worried about too. I just had to hope you were enjoying yourself and that you weren't lonely. When I went to summer camp as a child, I used to get terribly lonely for home. So when you went away, I worried about that for you. [Mara note: I don't remember getting homesick.]

Just like you said, parents want their kids to be happy—even though no one is happy all the time. But that's what we as parents want. I still want it for you and your brother, even though you're both in your forties. 

We didn’t have cell phones or internet back then. Was it hard not to be in regular communication?

That's an interesting question because, back then, we had no concept of being in the type of regular communication that's possible now for parents and children due to cell phones and texting. Today, if you were a teenager and left home and I couldn't been in touch with you via cell phone or texting—I would freak out! But when you were young, I just accepted that when you weren't here, I wouldn't know what you were doing for big chunks of time.

I will say that if you were 16 now, I would feel much more comfortable about you leaving home because I'd know I could get in touch with you easily. But when you were young, we didn't miss it because it didn't exist. Hopefully this new ease of communication makes parents more comfortable when their kids go off to summer camp or for other reasons.

When I left home and you and dad were empty nesters, was it a hard adjustment for you?

The adjustment was a lot easier when you left home than when your brother, Jamal, left because you went to college in the same town we live in. That said, it was still hard. I'd come home and expect you to be here. I missed the sound of your voice in the house. I'd turn a corner and think I was going to see you. So, yes, it was hard. 

It just wasn't as traumatic as when Jamal left because he went to a college that was 600 miles away, and this was before cell phones and texting. You said in your piece that you think you'll be fine when Malia leaves. Well, I thought I'd be fine when Jamal went off to college, but I wasn't. Actually, I wrote about the experience in one of my books. We drove him to U.C. San Diego and helped him move into his apartment (he didn't live in the dorms). Your dad was driving us back home from San Diego, and I suddenly started sobbing uncontrollably because I could not imagine living at home without him. I was sobbing so hard that your dad pulled off the freeway. I like to joke that he was worried I would grab the wheel and turn the car around in the middle of the road. 

Even though it was less traumatic with you because I could see you more, I still missed each of you as much. I don't know if it's true for all parents who have more than one child, but I didn't miss you any less just because I had already gone through the difficulty of a child leaving home with your brother. It's a major life transition. 

I've watched other friends who are younger than I am go through coping with their children leaving home. It can be really traumatic. Parents seem to feel better about it after their children come home for the first time—usually at Thanksgiving. That first visit home from your brother seemed to be the final healing from the trauma I felt that day on the freeway. It was easy for me to see him off to college again after that holiday. Of course, I didn't have that happen with you because you lived nearby even though not at home. Actually I don't remember how often you came home once you moved out. [Mara note: I didn't come home, but we'd meet on campus for lunch probably once a week or I would pick you at the law school and we'd go to a restaurant.] 

Right, so we saw each other regularly.

How did being child-free change your relationship to dad?

I think the way it changed my relationship with your dad was obscured by the fact that, at the time, I was in an incredibly stressful job. I was the Dean of Students at the law school and I was overwhelmed by the volume of work and the stresses that came with having to counsel students who were troubled and having a difficult time. (I actually bought some books on counseling because I had no training for that!)

Because of my job, when you left home, I wasn't able to just turn all my attention to your dad. And he was busy at work too.

But it did happen a few years later. We started traveling more and we did a lot more things together. But I don't feel as if our relationship was so centered around our kids that when your dad and I were left alone together, we realized that we didn't have anything in common. I have heard of that happening, but I am thankful that didn't happen to us.

In fact, you and your brother had friends who confided in me that they were worried their parents would split up after they left home because they thought their parents had nothing in common other than raising them. But interestingly enough, those couples, maybe 25-30 years later, are still together.

I'm sure that some couples do break up after their kids leave home, but other couples are able to rediscover each other and that can be a wonderful experience.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What Are Your Biggest Packing Mistakes?

Mara here: Last weekend, my husband and I talked about traveling around the United States or abroad, and it made me think about some of the trips we've taken. Then my thoughts turned to how much I hate packing for trips, which then reminded me of a couple of times I'd make some ridiculous packing mistakes. Let's face it, we all forget things—toothpaste, Q-tips, a shower cap. But there have been a few times I forgot pretty significant things—items that you can't just run to the front desk of your hotel and request a replacement for.

So here are a few of the dumbest packing mistakes I've made:

No jacket in a snow storm. We took Malia to the mountains a few months after she was born. Like the good mother I was, I bought and packed cold weather gear for Malia—a puffy coat, a thermal hat, socks, boots—the works. We got up to Lake Tahoe and when the snow started falling, I realized I hadn't brought a jacket for myself. 

I can't remember what I did. I think the place we stayed in had some extra coats hanging in a closet or maybe Brad gallantly gave me his jacket (which he had managed to remember to bring), but that was definitely an "I'm a tired new mommy moment." (I do want to point out that my mother-in-law came on a trip to Nashville several years later with us; there was a freak April snow storm in the forecast and she had only packed flip flops, so I feel better knowing I'm not the only one.)

No underwear. I can't even remember where we'd travelled to, but I arrived with no underwear. I think we ran out to a Wal-Mart and I bought some for the trip, but it was not my best travel moment. Now underwear is the first thing I pack. 

No matching socks in Japan. It's the custom in Japan to take your shoes off when you go inside, so of course, that's what we did. But shortly after arriving, I realized I hadn't brought any matching socks. I wear these little short sock things. I have a lot of different pairs and who has time to sort them all the time? Plus, at home, I don't usually wear socks unless I'm jogging or wearing boots. But in Japan, it's polite to wear socks. So I wore my grubby, mis-matched-socks for three weeks until I did buy some cute new Hello Kitty ones. There are sock stores everywhere in Japan.

Six shirts and no pants. This was a trip when I was worried that my shirts would get dirty. I was so focused on making sure I had enough clean shirts packed that I didn't pack any additional pants. As a result, I wore my same jeans for the whole time. Honestly, I am rolling my eyes at myself just remembering.

A bonus one: no bottle opener. This is really my husband's recurring packing issue. And it's only an issue because he'll buy bottles of beer (never cans) to have in the hotel, but then he gets back to the room and realizes he has forgotten to pack one of his millions of bottle openers. In fact, I have started buying them for him as a running joke. He has shoes with bottle openers, wallet cards with bottle openers, key chains with bottle openers. Somehow they never make it into his travel bag. 


Toni here: I've made a few packing mistakes over the years, too. Here are a few:

Essential medications. I've done this twice, but in an unusual way. I pack the prescription pill bottle but fail to open it to see how many pills are left in it. One time, I needed six pills for six nights. I opened the bottle and there were two left in it. I called the same chain pharmacy that had the prescription on file in my hometown and begged them for just four pills to help me through (they weren't even pain pills). The pharmacy said "no" but agreed to call my health insurance. The insurance company said it was okay, so I dodged having go without the pills for the duration of the trip.

Hot in Davis; cold in San Francisco! My husband and I live in the Central Valley of California and used to frequently visit his parents in San Francisco on the weekends. In the summer, the temperatures are often over 100 degrees (F) where we live in Davis. The hotter it is in the valley, the more likely San Francisco is socked in with a cold, wet coastal fog. This is because hot air is less dense and so it rises and that pulls the colder ocean air in to replace it. I loved looking out the window of his parents' house in San Francisco and watch the fog roll up Portola Drive and eventually cover my their house. 

The problem is that we'd be so hot in Davis (and in our car because we didn't have air conditioning) that we'd wear the coolest clothes we could find when we took off for San Francisco. For me, that meant putting on a spaghetti-strap sundress. For my husband, it meant putting on his thinnest T-shirt.

Then we'd get to San Francisco and be freezing! I'd wind up borrowing a jacket from my mother-in-law, telling her that next time I'd bring my own. But I'd always forget to pack it. I think I just couldn't stand the thought of even touching a jacket when it was so hot outside where we lived!

A packing mistake that wasn't. One year, your dad and I went to Hawaii and I forgot to be sure he packed a swimming suit. If I'd not packed a suit for me, I'd have had to buy one immediately upon the plane landing because I headed straight to the ocean as soon as possible. For your dad, however, it was no problem because he's one of the few people who goes to Hawaii and has no interest in going in the water. I still can't imagine being like that!

The reason I haven't made very many packing mistakes is that I'm a list maker...and always made a list of what to take. After all, I took that pill bottle with me. I just didn't check to see how many pills were in it!


What about you? Have you ever found yourself on a trip and discovered that you didn't pack the right things? 

Are you a careful packer? Do you make lists and prepare ahead?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Moment to Appreciate America

Mara here: 

It was the 4th of July this past weekend. I love the holiday. (I pretty much love all the holidays.) Growing up, I remember it as something that stood out in the haze of school-free days. I would spend the day swimming with friends, my dad would maybe barbecue some hamburgers. In the evening, everyone in our small town gathered in the local park to watch the fireworks. 

I have some vague memories of pathetic attempts by my dad and my brother to set off some of the smaller fireworks in our backyard. (We'd drive outside our city limits and buy them at a stand on the side of the road). They'd spin around and make loud noises. For some reason, we weren’t very successful at actually getting most of them to execute whatever effect they were supposed to create. Perhaps we did it wrong, or perhaps our trusty side-of-the-road supplier wasn’t selling the highest quality merchandise. It didn’t really matter. My brother is four years older than I am, and he and his friends mostly liked that they got to light things on fire. 

My fireworks request was always for sparklers because those were my favorite. I loved holding the long wires and watching the sparks burst off of them as I waved them around in the air, spelling out my name, or just twirling—letting the bright light trail behind me. It was a little scary because the sparks would fly all around everyone. But it was thrilling. They felt like magic.

And I get a kick out of red, white and blue food. I can’t help it. I’m a fan of dishes that are cleverly composed of things like strawberries, whipped cream, and blueberries. They add another patriotic flair to the day.

I think that what I love the most about the 4th of July is that it’s one of the few times a year when we focus on our country itself and what it means to us to be American. It’s not a celebration of a particular person or group of people—it’s the whole country. We're celebrating our nation. It’s not the fashion these days to be overtly patriotic, but perhaps because I was adopted and because my family was always politically active, I’ve always felt a deep love for this country. I feel lucky to be American. 

It’s not a perfect country. 

Believe me, there are times when I wonder what is happening to us as a nation. And there are times when I haven’t been proud of the actions of some of our citizens or our government. But my deep-seeded belief and pride in being an American has never wavered.

When I was 20, I had the opportunity to be a White House Intern. My boyfriend (now husband) and I packed up his old Toyota Corolla and drove across the country from Davis, California to Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. As we drove, it was amazing to see the different landscapes pass by: the salt flats, the mountains, the Mississippi River, the National Parks and lakes, forests, and endless miles of farm land. 

By the end of our 2,700 mile journey, seven days later, I felt I understood the country better. I’d seen so many different cities with my own eyes; I'd felt the country's different climates; and I experienced its size—as opposed to just having read about all these things. You don't get the same experience when you get on a plane and arrive in a completely different place a few hours later. You can’t feel how it’s all connected. If you drive or take a train, you see the majesty of the land. It’s beautiful. I truly believe our country, the land, and the spirit, is amazing.

So, in honor of the 4th of July, I thought I would take a moment to think about a few of the things I love and appreciate about America. 

History. We’re a relatively young nation. Compared to Europe and Asia, we’re a toddler. But in the short time that the United States has existed, we have accomplished a lot. I think our lack of history, our lack of historical identity, has meant we have evolved quickly. There’s still work to be done. But we keep moving forward.  If you look at where we were just 75 years ago, it’s amazing to look around today and see changes that were achieved.

Spunk. The creation of America was sparked by rebellion. Our founding fathers were rebels who believed in their right to govern themselves so strongly that they created a new form of government. That took guts and a fierce determination. It took spunk. And I believe that those qualities are still the driving force behind much of what makes America great today. We are a strong-willed, opinionated, driven group of people who don’t want to be told what we can and can’t do. 

Size. We’re massive. I never thought about it much before we spent a year living in London. It was strange to me that it was so easy and quick to hop around to different countries. Most people think of America as racially diverse. And we are. But we are also spatially a huge country, and it means we have a lot of diversity simply because of geography and weather and proximity to sea or mountains. 

The American Dream. One of the things that’s unique to Americans because of our history, is the idea that anyone can become anything. It’s the idea that if you work hard enough, you can become anything you want. This idea has, in fact, become so engrained into our culture, that we perhaps have forgotten that we need compassion for those who are less fortunate than we are. 

People do find themselves in situations where simply being strong-willed and determined can’t dig them out of a bad situation. But there is the idea of the “American Dream” where anyone can achieve their dreams with hard work and passion. It’s something that was unique in American for a long time. We didn’t have a defined class system. I guess you could argue that we do actually have a class system, but when you visit countries like England or India that have established aristocracy, you can understand why people say we don’t. Our kids aren’t born into a society that pre-determines their future. We all tell our kids, girls, boys, rich or poor, they can be anything they want. 

And even as the world gets more cynical, and perhaps the American Dream isn’t the same as it was 100 years ago, I am still proud to be American. I am proud to call this country my home. And while I haven’t traveled to all the states, I have been fortunate to discover many cities I love in all different areas of the country: San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Austin, Denver, New Orleans, and New York just to name a few. 


Here are some questions I asked my mom!

When you were growing up, how did your family celebrate the 4th of July?

Before I answer that, I wanted to mention that some of my best memories of raising you and your brother come from that trek we made to Community Park each year to see the fireworks. We'd spread out a blanket, lie on our backs, and watch the show. Then, in line with what seemed to be a Davis tradition, we'd complain that the fireworks didn't last as long or weren't as good as the year before. 

Today, even though I'm in the same house I was then, I stay at home. Sometimes alone, if your dad is out of town. I wait until 9:45 p.m., when the fireworks start, and then turn up the volume on the TV really loud. This is because our dog Scout is terrified of fireworks-type noises. (Thunder is another example.) The SPCA site I consulted said to turn a sound up in the house so it's really loud. It works. She's still uncomfortable because she can hear some "booms" outside the house, but it's not as bad. At least she's shaking in fear as she's been known to do. This is using noise that doesn't bother her to cover up noise that does! It's no big deal to do though. 

Back to your question. When I was a child, the Fourth of July was one of my favorite days. Fireworks weren't allowed in the Los Angeles city limits where we lived, but my parents had good friends in L.A. County who were outside the city limits, and they could buy fireworks. They'd buy the fanciest, most high quality stuff they could find, and we'd set them off in their backyard as soon as it got dark. It was a pretty spectacular display. So that was my 4th of July growing up.

I do have to say that though that, like you, my favorite thing was always the sparklers. I wish I had one in my hand right now.

How much of the U.S. have you seen?

Well, thinking about this, I think it would be easier if I told you what parts of the US I haven't seen. Your dad and I did a lot of cross-country driving when we were in our teens and twenties. So here are the states I've never been to: Florida, Alaska, Alabama, Mississippi. Michigan, and Wisconsin. So I've been to all the states but six. Alabama and Mississippi are next to each other and so are Michigan and Wisconsin, so I guess I could say that I never got to those small areas of the south and the north. Still, I've seen most of the country. Much of its natural beauty is spectacular.

Do you have a favorite region?

I love New England, but I can't handle the humidity. Davis gets hot, but it's dry. New England can be 80 degrees with humidity so high it feels hard to breathe. I'm sure that people who live there get used to it. At least I hope so! Oh, and there are a lot of bugs. Bugs that bite.

I'd have to say Yellowstone Park is my favorite part of the country. It has such a diverse landscape that it seems as if there are several different Yellowstones. There's Yellowstone Lake, there are forests and there are plains, often with rivers running through them. And, of course, there are all the geysers. The last time I was at Yellowstone was with you and your dad, soon after a devastating fire. It was sad to drive through. I hope it's recovered well. 

Besides Davis, what are your favorite cities?

I have a soft spot for Los Angeles because I grew up there and you live there now. But I can't say it's one of my favorite cities because it's so spread out. I think of it as a lot of different cities, some of which I do love, like the beach communities. But it's not a favorite city for me. 

If I consider big cities, not my little "hamlet" of Davis, my favorite cities are San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York. 

I spent a lot of time in San Francisco when I was younger. In Northern California, we call it The City. Your dad grew up in The City and his parents lived there for many years after we got married, so we went there a lot. Your dad would drive around so I could see everything. My favorite place was Fort Point where you can stand under the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. That is the most beautiful bridge I've ever seen (second to the Brooklyn Bridge). And I love the summer fog that can cover the whole city. We used to watch it roll up Portola Drive from the ocean until it covered the house your dad grew up in and we couldn't see a thing outside the windows. And I love how San Francisco is really just a small peninsula of land. 

I also love New Orleans. I've been there twice, both times with you in high school as part of Jazz Choir you were in. One year I was in charge of the choir and another year I was just one of several adult chaperones. Even though we were in charge of the kids, we had time to explore the city. I had a blast. I loved the music. I loved the architecture. I loved the food. I loved strolling through the funky stores at the far end of the French Quarter.

I have a favorite story from one of those trips. One night after the choir was (supposed to be) in bed, five of us parents decided explore the French Quarter. As we were walking around, we passed a bar that had terrific sounds of rhythm and blues coming from inside. So we went in. 

We ordered drinks and were enjoying the music when someone came onstage and said they had a treat for one of the musicians because it was his birthday. Then, he brought a stripper on stage and she stripped! It was pretty awkward at our table because we were just a group of parents who didn't know each other very well. But there we were, watching a woman strip in front of us!

That story is typical of my experience in New Orleans. Almost everything I did turned out to be an unexpected adventure. It's why it's a favorite city of mine. 

I then I'd say New York City, specifically Manhattan. I would never want to live there. And, if you go, be prepared for loud noise no matter what time of day or night. It's noisy and crowded, but unique among all the cities I've gone to. I remember the joy of simply gazing up at the marquees with the names of Broadway shows on them. I loved wandering around—Times Square, Central Park, Greenwich Village. And there are so many fabulous museums. NYC just holds a magic for me.

Have you gone other places than the U.S. and, if so, did it make you appreciate this country more?

I've gone some other places, but in truth I haven't had the experience of coming home and saying, "Whoa, am I glad I'm an American and this is where I live." But I do know a lot of people who have had that experience. 

Maybe I haven't because the only places I've been outside of the U.S., bear quite a resemblance to the us. I've been to Canada—lived there for five years, in fact— and to England and Paris. That's it. So, after being these places, I didn't come home and feel relieved to be back in this country. But, I know a lot of people who travelled extensively and they've told me that when they fly back to the United States, as they get off the plane, they feel incredibly grateful to be living here.

And I agree. We're fortunate to live where we do—our freedoms, the diversity, the natural beauty. I must point out, though, that there are people in this country who aren't able to enjoy it like many of us can. For many people, life is about getting by day-to-day—trying to keep food on the table for their families or figuring out how to pay for health care. We have a lot of work to do before we live up to the ideals expressed in documents such as The Declaration of Independence and many of the amendments to the Constitution over the years, first and foremost, The Bill of Rights.

So, if you live in the U.S., how do you celebrate the 4th of July? Do you have a favorite American city? If you’re not from the United States, how do you celebrate the national holiday in honor of your home country?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Do You Crave Sweet? Or Do You Crave Savory?

Sweet or Savory?

If you had to choose, would you say you prefer sweet foods or savory foods?

Mara here: 

I have a sweet tooth. I always have. When I was younger, I remember being about to eat a whole bag of candy corns. Cake has always been my favorite special occasion food. It doesn’t need to be fancy. In fact, I prefer the basic sheet cakes that you get at the grocery store. But my primary food desire is candy: sugar candy. I’m not a huge lover of chocolate. Don’t get me wrong, I like chocolate, but when I’m craving something, it’s usually a sugar candy, like Hot Tamales, Skittles, or Starbursts. I also really like Cinnamon Bears and red licorice. 

And for some reason, about twice a year, I get a super strong craving for an ice cream sundae. As with chocolate, I like ice cream, but it’s not something I pine after. Every once in a while, though, I really want a big ice cream sundae with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, almonds (only because I’m allergic to peanuts), lots of whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry. If we’re really going all out, some caramel sauce and marshmallow cream are excellent additions. 

But, aside from those isolated occasions, what I want is candy. I used to like those weird sugar buttons we'd get at fairs. You pull them off the strips of paper and, even though the paper sticks to the backs, you eat them anyway! Or Fun Dip. For some reason it seems like adults all think Fun Dip is disgusting, but I love Fun Dip. It’s basically sugar sticks dipped into flavored sugar. And then there are Necco Wafers. It seems as if people also have very strong opinions about Necco Wafers. They’re old fashioned and hard to find now. They’re sort of chalky, oddly flavored disks of sugar. It’s hard to describe what they taste like, but I love them. Maybe it’s because my dad loves them. I think they could be called an acquired taste.

But really, I’m not that picky when it comes to candy. If it’s mostly sugar, I will probably like it.

Sadly, now that I’m older, my body can’t process sugar the way it could when I was younger. I hardly eat candy anymore except in very small quantities, or I feel shaky and sick. But when I do treat myself and eat a little candy, it’s a blissful experience. And when I think about candy, it’s always with a wistful longing.

Toni here:

My contribution here could simply be comments on the sweet stuff Mara loves so much because, as you're about to see, I'm very opinionated about sweets. I do not like Skittles or Starbursts. The items on Mara's list that I love are hot fudge sundaes (but hold the nuts); Necco Wafers (but only the pink ones); and hot tamales (but they're not as good as those tiny, hard cinnamon hearts that I don't think are made anymore). I don't eat any of these anymore though. And the only one of them I still crave is that hot fudge sundae, but that's because my favorite food is chocolate.

But I'm picky about chocolate too. It has to be bittersweet. I order organic powdered cocoa from Amazon and, now and then, I'll eat a spoonful right from the bag. That must be proof that I've "recovered" from my sugar cravings because that spoonful is not sweet!

And so I'd say that I crave savory over sweet. I looked up the word savory and it said "salty or spicy." It's a good thing my blood pressure is so low because I crave salt. In fact, I'm supposed to eat it because of my chronic illness; it supposedly helps with my blood circulation. 

Loving salt is a dangerous habit, though, because anything that's salted, I can chow down fast, from Fritos to potato chips to Cheetos. Not exactly heath foods. I control the craving by telling my husband not to buy them at the store.

I also put myself in the "savory" category because I love spicy foods—not "hot spicy" but "flavorful spicy." We have a great Nepalese/Indian restaurant in town. My husband and I recently discovered that we could order from the place online, specify a time, and, for four bucks, the food is delivered to our door. Yum. I definitely prefer savory! 


So what’s your food preference? Do you like sweet or do you like savory? What’s your favorite special occasion food?