Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Things We Are Grateful for in September

Mara here:

Well, as seems to happen every year—the days start to zoom by once Fall arrives. It's crazy that we're already at the final Wednesday of September!

Here are a few things I'm grateful for this month:

My husband. September is our anniversary month. I always appreciate my husband Brad, but I appreciate him more in September. And I feel very lucky that he loves me despite the fact that I have a lot of trouble remembering what day our anniversary is. I really think it's on the 26th, but it's on the 28th.  (I actually asked him to confirm this last week.) This year, he gets extra husband/father points because he took our daughter and her two friends to a three-day music festival in Las Vegas.

Leaves that turn orange. I find nature mesmerizing. I am not someone who just loves being outside all the time. And if there is such a thing as having a "black thumb" (or a person who kills plants when they are trying to keep them alive), then I have one. Pretty much every plant I've ever owned has died a rather pathetic underwatered or overwatered death.

And maybe because I clearly don't understand how to keep plant life alive, I love seeing flowers and trees. When I'm jogging, I am always amazed by the beauty of the flowers and their colors, or plants and their delicate leaf patterns. I love seeing the sunlight filtered through tree branches. I have thousands of pictures of flowers, plants, trees, and leaves on my phone's camera roll. And in the Fall, seeing the bright orange leaves appear on the trees (even if we don't have that many trees that change with the seasons in southern California) always makes my heart flutter. It feels like magic to me.

Dustpans with long handles. This is an appreciation out of desperation. I don't have any great love of dustpans.

We call our cat, Demetrius, "The Lizard Slayer." He kills lizards. He also kills rats. And he doesn't just kill them; he likes to leave them for us on our back porch. And it's not usually the whole animal he leaves for us, it's usually the bits and pieces he decides he doesn't want to eat. It's pretty much a horror show. And for the past year, I've tried to dispose of Demetrius' poor victims in a variety of ways, all of which have brought me perilously close to having to come closer to the remains than I want to.

So I have purchased a long handled dustpan. They're very popular in Japan. Recently, I saw one at the Asian food market and it occurred to me that it might be the solution to how I can clean up what I have dubbed "the killing grounds." I haven't actually had to use it yet, but I feel better knowing it's out there, ready for the next time Demetrius decides to leave us a "present."

Toni here, with three things I've been grateful for in September:

Tom, the handyman. My reason is simple: he fixed the leak that no one else could fix, not even the person I paid $700 to fix it. Our side door has been leaking for years. Every year, I think we've got it fixed...and it leaks again. I hope I'm not speaking too soon here since the rains have yet to arrive, but I'm 99% sure that the rotting door frame (not visible to the eye because it was at the bottom of the door) was the culprit.

Discovering audible + a new use for my iPhone + ear buds. I'm embarrassed to say that at the beginning of September, I was still listening to audiobooks using my old cassette player. Because new books aren't available on cassette anymore, this means I've been listening to the same books over and over again for years. This hasn't been a bad thing—after all, we listen to music we love over and over. But a couple of weeks ago, after listening to Howard's End for the fifth or sixth time, I could not find book on my cassette shelf that I wanted to "read."

My husband came to my rescue (which he's been trying to do for years on this very issue) and got me set up with an audible account in which I can download audiobooks to my iPhone and listen through my new ear buds. (How odd this delay on my part is since all three of my published books are available from audible!)

"The Flinger" aka Chuck-it. We call that ball throwing device "the flinger" and always have. It enables me to exercise the dog in the backyard without exercising myself, the latter being something I can't do much of. I do take the opportunity to walk around a bit and sometimes even prance (prancing coming under the category of weight-bearing exercise that helps prevent osteoporosis). Perhaps I should add a fourth item to my gratitude list: I can still prance!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Little Bits of Tao

Mara here. 

The Tao Te Ching

It's probably one of the most famous books in the world. Its history is a little fuzzy. We know it's an ancient Chinese text, but other than that, there is no definitive date of when it was written or even who it was written by. It is generally thought to have been written by Lao Tzu, the philosopher and founder of Taoism, sometime during the 4th century BCE, but no one knows for sure.

Loosely translated as "The Way," the Tao is thought of as a guide to the universe. 

If it seems like a lot—it is. And if it seems like it's an awfully short book (it's only around 5000 Chinese characters or 85 pages of English text) to cover all that is (and is not), you are correct. 

My introduction to the Tao Te Ching came about sort of randomly. About a decade ago, I was training for a marathon. (I decided to do a marathon after watching my husband do an Ironman Triathlon. Look it up; a marathon seems entirely doable after watching an Ironman.) However, jogging is not something that comes particularly naturally to me. To help pass the time and keep me motivated, I listened to music on an mp3 player. However, after a few weeks of listening to the same songs over and over (my training jogs were often two or three hours), I decided I would listen to audiobooks.

Audiobooks in 2007 were still a relatively niche market, and they were pretty expensive. So, to save money, I'd borrow books on CD from the library, convert them to mp3's, and listen to them during my longer jogs.

The audiobook selection at the library was limited. It was mainly classics and, oddly, a pretty good selection of Wayne Dyer books. Wayne Dyer is a big fan of the Tao Te Ching and references it often in his books. So this was my introduction to the Tao.

After my third or fourth Wayne Dyer book in which he referenced quotes from the Tao, I decided I wanted to check it out for myself. I eagerly ordered a copy and waited for it to arrive. 

Much to my dismay, once I got my hands on it, it made no sense to me. I could read the words, but they didn't mean anything to me. So I put it away on the bookshelf.

Over the next couple of years, I would periodically pull it off the bookshelf and give it another try. I thought, "Maybe it will make sense to me now." It didn't, and back on the bookshelf it went.

Finally, after hearing the Tao referenced by pretty much every modern day philosopher/spiritual teacher I came across, I decided I needed to really try and understand it. I didn't want to just learn a few quotes—I wanted to read it in its entirety. 

So I decided I would copy it out. 

I'm a visual learner. I've always used something like flashcards to help me memorize things. It helps me to write things down, because having to write things out slows me down. It forces me to really see (and in my head, hear) each word. And the mechanics of writing things down helps me absorb the information.

I also thought that maybe just focusing on little bits of the Tao would keep it from feeling overwhelming. 

As I mentioned, the Tao Te Ching isn't very long. It's 81 brief chapters or sections. Each chapter has a theme and, depending on which translation you are reading, the chapters may have different titles. 

I'm a journal writer. I usually write in my journal several times a week. There have been times when I was traveling that I didn't write much, but over the years, I've been fairly consistent. 

So I decided I would copy a chapter of the Tao Te Ching each day into my journal. I didn't worry about whether or not it made sense, and I didn't try to analyze it. I just copied the words. And if I didn't feel like copying a chapter on a particular day, I didn't. I tried to not make it into more than it was. 

I did this for several years. 

Then one day, I realized that what I was copying made bit of sense to me. A particular chapter on a particular day resonated with me. Slowly but surely, more and more of it made sense to me every time I copied it.

I have probably copied the entirety of the Tao Te Ching seven or eight times. I get to the 81st chapter, and I take a break from copying it for a few weeks, or even a few months, and then I start over again at chapter 1. 

To this day, I can't say that I feel as if I totally understand the Tao Te Ching, but it's become a comforting ritual for me. When I'm feeling particularly anxious, I sit and copy a chapter of it down. And as I copy a chapter, I now underline whichever line stands out to me on that particular day. 

Here's one of the chapters that I particularly like (copied from Wikipedia):


We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

I love how this reminds me that what is not there, or what is not seen or what is not said, can be just as impactful as what is there, or what is seen or what is said. 

When I was teaching dance I often told my students that the beauty of dance is in the stillness as much as in the movement.

And I find comfort in knowing that concepts that helped explain life and the universe thousands of years ago still make sense today. Neither modern technology, psychology, or sociology have changed the essential essence of the human experience.

Each day that I sit and copy the ancient words of the Tao Te Ching, I find that little bits of wisdom reveal themselves to me.

(Note: I have also copied Bible verses and quotes, but I haven't yet tried to copy the entire Bible because it''s really, really, long.)

Here are a few questions I asked my mom about the Tao Te Ching:

I assume you have read it...

You assume correctly!

What do you think of it?

I first read it many years ago and, guess what? It didn’t make any sense to me either! But, like you, I was intrigued by it. What you did—writing it down—was a stroke of genius in my opinion. That’s a great way to internalize something so that it reveals its meaning to you. 

I did something completely different, but it had the same effect. After striking out at understanding it despite reading it several times, I bought five translations. I’d pick a chapter and read it in each of my five books. They were all slightly different since translations always reflect the translator’s sensibilities. 

Doing this allowed me to, in effect, make my own translation. I was taking those five translations and making a sixth one, only mine was a translation of English not Chinese! Doing this, I slowly came to understand the Tao Te Ching better, although some of its chapters still remain obscure to me. But that’s okay. I don’t need to understand everything.

By the way, I love the chapter on Emptiness that you included. 

Do you have a favorite translation?

My favorite translation is Stephen Mitchell's because he used contemporary language so it's accessible to me. Speaking of the Bible, Mitchell also translated the Book of Job and I recommend it highly too.

And Mara, I loved your essay. I had no idea you've been copying out verses from this book all these years. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Pets Are Quirky Too

Mara here.

I don't know why, but I am always still surprised at how quirky our fur-babies are. Why are these little creatures, covered in fur with have adorable little faces, as strange as they are?

Because they are strange.

Just like every person I've known, every pet we've ever had as part of our family had weird little quirks about them.

It's still so odd to me, when I think about it for more than a minute, to realize that these little fur blobs that run around our homes have their own wants and desires. They have their own little furry agendas. And they have their own bizarre ways of dealing with the world.

I think that's why we love them so much. If they were, in fact, just little complacent balls of fur, they wouldn't be very interesting. I would still want them, but we wouldn't get as attached. It's their uniqueness (um, weirdness) that makes them so loveable. It gives them their unique personalities.

Here are a few of the weirdest quirks my pets, current and former, have had:

Cat elevator 

We have the bowl of our cats' food on top of our clothes dryer because we don't regulate the cat food and we don't want our dog to eat it. Well, our cat Jasmine decided she didn't want to jump onto the dryer (even though at the time she was perfectly capable of doing it) so we would give her what we called a "cat elevator." I think my husband came up with the term. 

It just meant that she would meow and stand by the dryer, and whichever human was available and in the vicinity would give her a lift to the food bowl. However, if nobody was around, we knew she could get herself up there. Well, fast forward 10 years, and now Jasmine has a hard time jumping up onto the dryer. Normally, we are around and can give her a lift when she needs it, but when we are out of town and we have a pet sitter come, I wanted to make sure she could still get to the food more than a couple times a day—especially because she's shy and will often hide when the pet sitter visits. 

So I taught her she could jump onto her kitty litter box and then jump onto the washer, which is right next to the dryer.  She reluctantly learned how to do this, and now can do it with ease. But usually she still meows at us when we're around and she's hungry. However, if we just point to the kitty litter box after she meows, she dutifully jumps herself up to her food. It's actually very funny that we all play along with this ritual.

Food treat spot  

Our dog Pidu likes Milk Bones. Milk Bones are little crunchy dog biscuits. Our dog doesn't have a very strong jaw, so these treats, that many dogs would easily chomp down in a matter of seconds, take him some time to eat. And several years ago I realized he never eats them around me. He always takes them off to a special place he has designated as his treat spot. I'm not sure why he does this because it's not as if he's ever had to fight over his food or treats. We aren't people that give him treats and then yank them away. 

And, the cats have zero interest in the Milk Bones, so he doesn't have to fight for them. But he takes them and scurries away to a his special spot anyway. He likes his privacy I guess. Once I experimented by not letting him leave my side after I gave him the treat. And he just sat with it in his mouth for several minutes. I'm not sure how long he would have stayed in that position, but I got bored (and felt like a mean human), so I let him take it off to eat in private.

Mice in the toilet

For the record—not real mice. I am referring to the toys you can pick up at the grocery store that look alarmingly like real mice. Actually I don't know if they still sell them, they're probably some kind of choking hazard. They were very realistic looking, colored grey and white, and they had something inside them that rattled. 

We had a cat named Mika who would a) immediately eat the leather tails off the toy mice, and then b) dump the bodies into the toilet. So when people innocently went to the bathroom they would look down and see what appeared to be a dead mouse in the commode. This was particularly alarming in the middle of the night. The number of times I had to fish these toys out of the toilet was numerous and she always somehow knew when I was doing it. She would always appear out of nowhere and anxiously try to reclaim her property, and then have the audacity to get very distressed when I would throw it in the garbage. Silly cat. If she didn't want me to throw them away she needed to put them in a more sanitary place!

Fear of farts

Pidu is afraid of farts. And it's not the smell—it's the noise. If he hears farts, or farting noises, he slinks away like the little baby that he is. It's actually very funny. And since I don't normally fart around other people, this is sadly an experience I don't get to share with other people. Lastly, because I'm a horrible person, sometimes when it's just me and Pidu hanging out, I will purposely fart as loudly as I can just because his reaction is so funny. You don't need to tell me I'm a mean human, I know it. But honestly, his fleeing from farts is very entertaining.

Toni here. It will be hard to beat Mara's last entry, but I'll try. I've had over a dozen dogs so far and each one had its quirks. But the quirkiest prize has to be split between Winnie, our sweet standard poodle, and our current dog, Scout

Cries like a baby

For some reason, when Scout chews on certain squeaky toys, she  whimpers and weeps as if something is wrong. It's definitely a distressed sound. We used to rush into the room, thinking she'd hurt herself. Now we recognize the sound. I think it's some kind of primal puppy weeping thing, like maybe she's remembering her litter, but honestly, I have no idea why she does this. And every once in a while, she puts the toy down and begins to howl as if her heart is broken.

Drops a ball into the pool so she can jump in and get it

Scout loves to fetch balls in the pool but I can't sit outside all day and throw them for her to retrieve. One day, I heard a splash and realized that she had dropped a ball into the pool so that she could jump in and retrieve it as if it had been thrown for her. She's done this several times and it's so funny to watch.

Eats anything

Ah, Winnie, our dog who would eat anything. The list is long and includes a whole basket of chocolates that had been given to me for my birthday (I know...chocolate is supposed to be toxic to dogs...but it wasn't to Winnie); an entire jar of Noxema skin cream; a bunch of firecrackers (yup); a bottle of estrogen pills (sometimes I think it was those estrogen pills that led to her living to a very old dog age).


How about you? Mara and I would love to hear about the quirky things your animals do!


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Where Were You on 9/11?

Mara here. September 11th, 2001.

Especially if you're an American, it's one of those dates that will always evoke strong memories.

Every year, I approach the day with a little bit of dread because it feels tainted. It's just another day of the year, and we do all the normal things that we always do, but it's impossible not to remember the trauma and the tragedy.

I guess I can't say there won't be another event that surpasses 9/11 in terms of my emotional reaction. But so far, it's the one that is seared into my consciousness the most memorably. Even my wedding and the birth of my daughter aren't as clear in my mind. Of course, I have more emotional attachment to those two events, but they were expected. My wedding was planned for months, and with the birth of my daughter, although I didn't know the exact date, I knew it was going to happen. I had mentally prepared.

The attacks on September 11th felt like being struck by lightening. It was so out of the realm of possibility that it took time to be convinced it was real.

Most of us can remember exactly where we were when we first heard what was happening in New York.

Since I live in California, it was early in the morning. We had an eight month old baby, so I awoke around six. As usual, there was news on the television playing in our bedroom. At the time, I regularly watched The Today Show, and Katie Couric was saying something about New York. There was an image of the World Trade Center towers, and there was smoke coming from one of the buildings. The volume was low so I couldn't hear what they were saying, so I reached for the remote to turn up the volume.

As I was doing that, a plane flashed on the screen and all of a sudden there was an explosion.

The second plane hit the second tower—on live television.

What had I seen? I wondered if I had been mistaken, that it wasn't in fact The Today Show I was watching, but maybe a movie. Was I awake? What was happening?

And Katie Couric was equally confused.

Nobody could believe it was happening.

Was it an accident? Had two airline pilots somehow gotten confused? Was there something wrong with air traffic control?

All the people who were supposed to know what was happening were just as confused and scared as I was.

I remember going out into the living room where my husband was getting ready to go out for his regular pre-work bike ride. He hadn't been watching the news and didn't know what was going on.

I can't remember if he went on his ride. I don't really remember what we did. But at some point, everyone realized that the United States was, in fact, being attacked. And panic set in.

I remember I went to the store to grab some food because, for some reason, that felt like the right thing to do. I remember there was unease amongst the customers. And I remember there was a woman in line in front of me who hadn't heard what had happened. I told her and she walked out of the store bewildered.

Later, as the day went on and horror after horror continued to unfold, it became clear that things were not going to go back to "normal" any time soon.

Business closed down for the day. Fears of additional terrorist attacks all over the country spread. Airlines shut down. People were stranded.

My husband worked for Universal Studios Hollywood at the time, and he was told to stay home. The theme park was not going to be open that day because nobody knew if additional tourist attractions were going to be attacked.

Then the Trade Center towers crumbled and images that looked like something out of the movies flooded the television.

That's when the real horror of the situation in New York became painfully clear to me. All those millions of people were trapped on a small island, with limited options for getting to safety. They were literally trapped while buildings were being attacked and the streets were becoming wind tunnels of ash and debris.

It was horrific.

And then the additional attack on the Pentagon. And the plane that crashed in the Pennsylvania field.

It was nothing I had ever imagined possible before.

Even after that tragic day finally ended, the heartbreak continued. It was prior to social media, so the streets of New York were plastered with thousands of posters from family members searching for missing loved ones. People were desperate for answers that nobody had.

The stories of the emergency workers who gave their lives that day were particularly heartbreaking to me. As news footage emerged of the heroes who ran into the burning building, knowing they would likely not make it out alive, for the first time I truly understood what the reality is for firefighters, police, doctors, and EMT's: they run towards danger when others are running away from it.

And, as new mother and relatively new adult, I finally understood the weight of responsibility we have for each other as fellow humans.

But the day was not without its bright moments. Stories of heroism began to emerge, and the feeling of shared community that the world had in support of the United States gave me hope. The hundreds, probably thousands, of stories of everyday heroes that were shared proved that we are a country—a species—of people who are mostly good and kind and brave.

And now, 16 years later, I look back on the day and can see what I couldn't see in the moment—that we do live on and things do get better. Life continues, and we rebuild, and we move forward.

I know a couple of kids who were born on that very day, miraculous moments of birth in the midst of horror. But now they're grown up. They're almost adults. They were and are proof, that the country was not stopped that day. They are proof that the human spirit is strong and that life goes on.

But the country did change. And I changed. There's a part of me that no longer thinks anything is impossible. My concept of safety changed. My scope of the evil and danger that exists in the world has broadened. I've had to come to terms with the reality that there are some events that no amount of government readiness or personal preparation protect us from.

There has not been a morning since 9/11 that I have not woken up and checked the news to make sure nothing catastrophic has happened.

And even after 16 years, there's no singular event that stands out more to me in my mind than 9/11. I'm not sure there ever will be. In many ways, I hope there isn't. Because I hope that we collectively never have to experience something that horrific again.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about 9/11.

What are your memories of that day?

I was sick in bed, only months from what I didn't realize at the time would become a chronic illness that continues to this day. Your dad had left the house early to drive to Marin County, about an hour and a half away. He had the radio on in the car and heard about something terrible going on in New York. 

At that point, he turned the car around and drove straight home to me. I was still asleep when he came in. He woke me up and said, "Put on the television." I couldn't believe what I was seeing. When the first building collapsed, it almost felt like I was watching a movie because what was happening was beyond anything I thought could ever imagine happening in real life.

Do you have any lasting emotional reaction to what happened on 9/11?

I do. Like you, I always think about the first responders who gave their lives trying to save others. Sometimes I have an image of them climbing the stairs in the twin towers in a fruitless attempt to get to people. But they did it anyway. You're right. They're true heroes.

I also think about the stories I've been told by friends who were there. Most of them lived or worked in Manhattan, and they each had a personal tale to tell about that horrific day, especially their frantic attempts to find family members who might have been in or near the towers, or their equally frantic attempts find family members so they could tell them that they themselves were okay. 

When these come to mind, it hurts emotionally. I don't think I'll ever get over the images of the first responders climbing those stairs.

In your life, where does 9/11 rank in terms of memorable dates?

It ranks second only to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But I was young then so the shock changed my relationship to the world forever. I think if I'd been young when 9/11 happened, it would be foremost in my memory.

I wish the world would change, Mara.


If you have any memories to share, please add them in the comments section below. Our best to everyone.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Do You Have an Emmy Favorite?

Mara here. So once again, because I live in Los Angeles, it's impossible for me to not think about awards shows. The Emmys—the television's programming awards—are this Sunday.

People unfamiliar with the entertainment industry might not realize that Emmy winners aren't chosen by random people voting on their favorite TV shows. Similar to all the other major awards shows, such as the Oscars or the Golden Globes, the Emmy winners are chosen by a select group of people in the television industry. And there is serious marketing that's targeted specifically at Emmy voters. So living in Los Angeles, where the bulk of Emmy voters live, there are billboards all over the city promoting the nominees.

People who are members of the Television Academy are sent promotional materials that include fancy marketing brochures and screeners, or copies of the television programs. (I am a member of the Screen Actors Guild, so every Fall I get the screeners for several of the films and television shows eligible for SAG Awards.) And the reason they do this promotion is that it's a huge marketing benefit for shows to win Emmys. They get to add the Emmy to the show's accolades. It makes producers and advertisers take the show more seriously. It means that they can get more money for advertising, and it means the network is going to get a lot more recognition for keeping that program on the air. It means there's a good chance the show will even more money through syndication or DVD/streaming sales.

So the Emmy awards are not like getting a Good Student of the Month award at school. It's a big financial boost for the show's producers and network. And so, they spend a lot of money to increase their show's chances of being nominated and hopefully become a winner.

This has become a bit controversial because the money spent on promotional materials can be a significant part of a production's marketing budget. This gives a major advantage to established producers and networks over the smaller cable or independent networks.

But regardless of the validity of the process, I always enjoy hearing who gets nominated.

This year, there was some great television programming. Here are the nominees for Best Drama, along with my comments on the ones that I've seen:

“Better Call Saul” (AMC) - Don't watch it.

“The Crown” (Netflix) - Love, love, love it. The acting was really well done. The production was immaculate. It's beautiful to look at. And I love history shows. Even though I know this is dramatized, it was based on actual events.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu) - We actually subscribed to Hulu just to watch this, and we were not disappointed. It's a great story and it was compelling to look at visually. Also, I'm a fan of Elisabeth Moss from her "West Wing" days. She did a really impressive acting job here.

“House of Cards” (Netflix) - Haven't watched it even though I know, given my political background, I should! 

“Stranger Things” (Netflix) - This was fun to watch. I didn't like it as much as some people did, but I thought it was well done. The kids were definitely fun to watch, and I was happy to see Winona Ryder having some success.

“This Is Us” (NBC) - Haven't seen it. Now that we have Hulu, I might go back and watch it because I've heard great things.

“Westworld” (HBO) - Strange. The acting was great and the concept was great. I liked it, but didn't love it. I'll watch the next season, but again, it's a little weird.

Two shows not nominated in the Best Drama category that I thought were amazing were "Big Little Lies" on HBO and "Genius" on National Geographic.

The acting was great in "Big Little Lies," with amazing chemistry between the three female leads: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley. The kids in the show were particularly charming. And I was very impressed with the adaptation the writers did with Liane Moriarty's book.

"Genius" was beautiful to watch and the acting by Johnny Flynn, who portrayed a young Albert Einstein, was masterful. If you watch the show, YouTube Johnny Flynn to see videos of him not in character. Once you see how different he is from the character he played, you'll be even more impressed.

Toni here.

Okay. This is odd. I watch every evening, and yet I've only seen one of the nominated shows: "The Crown." I thought it was superb. The only other show here that I'm even familiar with is "Westworld" because my husband and I tried watching it when it premiered but found it too strange, even though we like so many of the actors in it. And so, my pick for best drama is, of course, "The Crown."

The dramas I love all stream on Netflix and are from the UK: "Shetland," "Vera," and "Hinterland" to name three. They're all police detective dramas that are filmed in remote locations, and I love getting to know each of the locales. "Vera" takes place in Northumberland. Shetland is an island north of Scotland and "Hinterland" takes place in Wales (and I read that every scene in "Hinterland" is shot twice—once in English and once in Welsh).


So how many of the shows nominated for an Emmy for Best Drama have you seen? Did you have a favorite?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Are You Prepared for a Natural Disaster?

It's hurricane season. 

Let me start by saying that I hope everyone in Florida is safe. This post is being written before we know the exact places where Hurricane Irma will land.

And this, for me is why hurricanes are so scary.

Honestly, as a person who has never lived in a place that has to annually prepare for hurricane season, hurricanes seem like madness.

Anytime I talk to people about natural disasters, because I'm from California, people always shudder in fear at the thought of earthquakes. 

And earthquakes are scary. Having the earth move erratically beneath your feet is frightening.

But big earthquakes that actually cause disruption to everyday life are rare. Most earthquakes are unnoticeable. And the ones we do feel are kind of like feeling a bug bite. Yes, it's surprising, but it's over by the time you notice it. What was that? Was that an earthquake? And then we go back to doing whatever we were doing.

Am I aware of earthquakes? Yes. Do I think about anchoring large furniture items to the walls? Sometimes. Do I think they're scary? No.

I think I don't find earthquakes scary because we don't know when they're coming. We don't get earthquake forecasts. We don't have time to stock up on water and board up our windows.

Hurricanes are a different story.

They make landfall with alarming regularity and you have to be prepared for the worst.

My first adult awareness of a major hurricane was Katrina in 2005.

And much like my experience after September 11th, my sense of security in the world eroded after witnessing the aftermath of Katrina. 

Perhaps it was because I was a mother with a toddler. Perhaps it was because it was the age of cable news. Whatever it was, Katrina devastated me emotionally.

Prior to Katrina I didn't know what a storm surge was. Prior to Katrina, I didn't understand that the real danger of hurricanes is not the storm itself, but the days, sometimes weeks, of rising floodwaters that follow it.

Prior to Katrina, I just did not realize that literally drowning inside your home from storm flooding was a possibility. 

I mean I knew it was possible, I just didn't think it actually happened. 

Then watching the government struggle to respond to the horrific aftermath of the storm was another shock. Watching people literally dying on the streets of New Orleans from dehydration and exposure seemed unreal.

As a result, after Katrina, I went a little crazy preparing for a natural disaster. 

I filled our garage with water supplies. I put together backpacks with supplies like radios, extra clothes, batteries, medical kits, dog food, cat food, etc. I filled our pantry with canned goods. I bought candles and made sure there were flashlights and glow sticks placed throughout the house.

And then, as happens with everything, life goes on. The panic subsides. 

The water supplies in the garage started leaking and I eventually got rid of them. The food in the emergency packs went bad. The batteries corroded, and the clothing I had packed for my daughter no longer fit her. 

And eventually I just forgot to be panicked.

Then Harvey hit Texas this year, and many of the feelings I had experienced in 2005 returned. Not to the degree that I had experienced during Katrina, but I was reminded of the panic. I was reminded of the need for emergency preparedness. And I took stock of what remained of all my previous preparations.

Here's what I still have prepared:

—An easily accessible bag with all our important papers like passports, social security cards, old driver's licenses, and proof of our street address. (If I only grab one thing as I run out of the house, that is what I would grab.)

—Digital copies of all these documents in several secure places online in case hard copies are destroyed.

—Several large candles with matches and lighters.


—Several cases of bottled water in the house at all times.

—Approximately a week's worth of food in the form of canned goods or granola bars at all times.

—Several portable batteries for our cell phones that are charged at all times.

—A large box of batteries for flashlights or radios.

—Cash in the form of some small bills in case stores cannot take credit cards.

And I know that I'm not as prepared as I could be. What I discovered after Katrina was that it seemed as if no amount of preparedness felt like enough. And I could spend every minute of my life worrying about what might happen.

So I had to let some of the worry go. 

But I am more prepared than I used to be. If someone tells me that I have to evacuate my house, I know what I need to grab. If we suddenly find ourselves without power, we will be okay for a few days.

We sincerely hope anyone affected by Hurricane Harvey or Irma are safe! We send you our prayers!

I asked my mom some questions about her disaster preparedness.

Is there anything you’d add to my list?

Your list is impressive. I've taken notes so I can add to what we have! 

I only have one thing to add, even though your dad and I have to work on it ourselves. Sheltering in place is one thing, but I would have a plan for if you have to leave or evacuate and the three of you aren’t together. Think about how you’d find each other if cell phones and the internet were out. Maybe have a set meet up place. This is easier said than done, obviously, because where you want to meet up depends on where the source of the disaster is. This is something your dad and I need to think about, too.

Do you and Dad have an emergency evacuation plan?

We have what you have—a "go bag" with essentials in it—but we haven’t discussed where we’d go. Obviously, we’d head away from the disaster. 

If your dad weren’t home and I had to evacuate on my own, I’d grab the “go bag” (and Scout) and try to connect with your dad by phone or over the internet. I need to find a site online that will give me good information on how to decide where to meet up if you’re separated and phones, etc. aren’t working.

Do you have emergency supplies in case the power goes out?

We have a fireplace, but we don’t use it because it tends to make the living room too hot while the rest of the house gets very cold. Even though we don’t use the fireplace, we have a large pile of chopped wood in back in case the power goes out in winter.

That pile of wood is there because a few years ago we were not prepared when a big storm hit and our power was out for three days. It was so cold in the house—even with jackets on. And we had no firewood. Thankfully, at some point, our neighbor down the block at the time, Nhi, let us use a bunch of her firewood. And now we have our own.

I also have this crazy plan in case the power goes out during one of our blazing hot summer days. I bought two battery operated fans and some cheese cloth. I read that if you wet the cheese cloth and put it over the fan, you’ve, in effect, made a little swamp cooler. That would take the edge off the heat.


What about you? Have you thought about what you would do if you were stuck without power for a week? Do you have an emergency preparedness plan?

Cars on a flooded street on the island of Saint-Martin after Irma hit

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What Do You Love About Fall?

Mara here. Ah, it's September.

Even though the temperatures where I live are still in the 90s, and we have a rash of crazy wildfires, now that it's past Labor Day—it's Fall!!

I love Fall.

It's exciting because I love that the temperatures get cooler but aren't cold. I love that the days get shorter. I love that we "fall back" meaning we get to reclaim an extra hour of sleep. I love that it means that it will soon be Halloween, then Thanksgiving, and then Christmas.

When Malia was younger, it meant that she was back in school, which was always a welcome change from the chaos of summer. I know Spring is supposed to be the season of rebirth and rejuvenation, but that's how Fall feels to me. By the end of Summer, I feel wilted.

Fall makes me perk up.

In theory, Fall means that leaves on the trees change colors. But I live in Los Angeles, so all it really means is that the days start to get shorter because Southern California doesn't really start to get cold until November.

I have lived in places where there were actual seasons—and the mass color change in leaves is pretty spectacular to witness. When we lived on the East Coast, I remember how surprised I was to actually feel a change in the air when the seasons changed.

But even as a kid growing up in Northern California, Fall meant being able to play outside without worrying about heatstroke, and getting to wear new sweaters that we bought for back to school. Fall meant that we could start planning our costumes for Halloween and dream about all the candy we would get to eat. In grade school, it meant being excited about school pictures. And as I got older, it meant looking forward to the first school dance of the year.

Now I just look forward to getting away from the heat of summer and enjoying the winter holidays, which are my favorites.

And you can make fun of me if you want, but I like pumpkin-flavored things. I like pumpkin-flavored drinks, pumpkin-flavored pastries, pumpkin-flavored candy—and pumpkin soup is one of my favorites!! (We make the Bobby Flay recipe and it's delicious!)

Life has always just felt more festive to me in the Fall. Fall is by far my favorite season!

So yay!! It's finally here.


Toni here.

I love that, by Fall, the sun has moved far enough south to shine into the three south-facing windows in my bedroom. It makes the room feel like a greenhouse (and my indoor bonsai thrive in sun lit windows).

I love that, by Fall, the few perennials I'm successful at growing—lantana and plumbago—are at their fullest and brightest.

And I love that Fall comes before Winter, not before California's Central Valley blazing Summers.

What about you? What do you enjoy about Fall?

A "line and wash" watercolor by Toni with Fall leaves

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Few Thoughts About Race

Mara here: With everything going on in the U.S., I have been pondering writing a blog about race for a while. I haven’t done it previously because it’s obviously a hot button issue. And race is not something I want to get into a heated discussion with anybody about.

But I have a unique perspective on race because I am an Asian woman who was adopted into a family of Caucasian people. I have no underlying identity with Asian culture. All the people I had as role models growing up were white. My family, my friends, celebrities, politicians—for the most part they were all white. And I grew up in a small town in Northern California that was mostly a white community. 

I grew up wishing I was the same as everyone else. That meant I grew up wishing I was Caucasian.

I know it pains my parents to hear that. But if they thought it would somehow be different, they were kidding themselves.

It’s human nature to want what we don’t have. People with straight hair want curly hair. People who are skinny wish they weren’t as skinny. People who struggle with their weight would give anything to be skinny—even if it’s too skinny. People with freckles don't want freckles, and now people who don't have freckles are getting fake freckles tattooed on their faces.

So even my Caucasian friends wished they were different in some way from how they were.

But it ran deeper for me. I was Asian in a sea of Caucasians. And I was adopted at a time when adoption was not common—especially inter-racial adoption.

I spent all of my adolescence wanting to be the same as my friends. I didn’t want people asking me questions. I didn’t want people to think I was strange. I foolishly spent a lot of years thinking that if I did this or did that, maybe people wouldn’t notice I wasn’t like them. I spent a lot of years trying not to do things that seemed too Asian because I wanted others to realize that I wasn’t different from them.

Obviously that never worked. And the end result was simply more confusion and isolation. I spent a huge amount of energy on a goal that was pointless.

What I didn’t realize was that what I was trying to achieve was impossible, not because I’m Asian, but because I’m human. No teenager growing up feels secure. No teenager walks through a crowd of people thinking they are like everyone else. And while being a different race exacerbated those feelings, I know now that I was not unique in feeling insecure.

But I didn’t know that then. I blamed all my insecurities on my race.

That said, some of my difficulties can be blamed on race because race is not nothing. We are not a race-blind society, even as much as people with kind hearts wish it were true.

Growing up as a non-white person in America is hard. Not like third-world country hard—I didn't have to sew garments in a factory from the age of six. So, not hard like that. But it was hard nonetheless.

I don’t remember exactly when I became conscious of the concept of race. But I do remember not getting to be in The Sound of Music because I wouldn’t look like the rest of the family being cast in the show. I remember being told I could never play Annie because Annie’s not Asian. I remember someone telling me during PE in junior high that I was flexible because Chinese people are flexible (I'm Korean). I remember being told that the prettiest girls are blonde with blue eyes, and on and on…

Race is still an issue for me because it comes up a lot. I'm not saying that people of color in this country have to deal with racism every day. What I'm saying is that even if we're not being threatened or abused, we're faced with constant reminders that we are considered different. And most of the time, different means not as good.

Race relations have come a long way in a short time in this country, and I’m sure what I experienced in the 1980s and later is nothing compared to the generations before me. And I know that my experience as an Asian person from a Caucasian family was not as hard compared to what many African American people experience in this country.

But here are a few things I’ve experienced and still experience on a regular basis:

“Are you Chinese?”
“Do you speak Chinese?”
“Do you eat Chinese food all the time?”
“Do you do Karate?”
People randomly speaking foreign languages to me.
People saying “Chink” to me or around me.
People pulling at the corners of their eyes to make fun of me.

“You must be really good at math.”
 “Asian people are good at school.”

“I like Asian girls.”
“Aren’t Asian girls usually skinny?”
“Where are you from?”
“I mean really where are you from?”
“Wow, you speak English so well?”
“What are you?” (They’re asking whether I’m Japanese, Chinese, Korean etc. but this is how it’s phrased.)

And here’s when I am acutely aware of my race:

When I’m in public—all the time. Unless I am at home, I am almost always aware of being Asian.

That’s because things that bring my attention to being Asian can come out of nowhere. I can simply be walking around in the grocery store, and one of those questions or comments I just listed can come out of nowhere. 

Recently, I was getting breakfast at a hotel buffet when an older man told me I spoke English very well. Out of the blue. Zing, right to my heart. So I’m always prepared.

Sometimes I might hear something that’s not even directed at me but makes me acutely aware that being anything not-white is considered different. People saying negative things about any race around me makes me realize that there are a large number of people who think white people are superior. And even if they don’t think they’re superior, it’s just who they prefer. It’s who they’re comfortable around.

This means that they aren’t comfortable around me even though they don’t even know me. I'm already put in a defensive position around them. And the most pathetic part of it is that they don’t realize I would have done anything to be white, like somehow I chose to be Asian because being Asian seemed so much better.

Not everyone who isn't Caucasian feels this way. I feel this way because my family was white. Everyone I knew and loved was white. It was all I knew. I didn’t know any other Asian people. The few who were around our town were not American. They spoke with accents and ate strange foods. I felt different from them even though they were Asian. I felt white. Asian culture was foreign and strange to me. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror it was such a disappointment to realize I could never make the outside of me match what I felt on the inside.

The term white privilege has been thrown around a lot recently. And it has a lot of connotations that are associated with power or wealth. But for me white privilege means you don’t have to think about being white. You don’t have to wonder if people won’t like you because you’re white. You don’t have to wonder if your friends’ parents are going to get that brief but unmistakable look of surprise in their eyes when you meet them for the first time. It means you don’t have to wonder if you didn’t get that job because of your race. It means you don’t have to worry about walking into the strange bar and wonder if someone is going to say something awful to you.

It means not having to worry about meeting your future husband’s parents after you find out that they’re from the South. And even if they act like they’re okay with you, will they actually be okay? It means not having to be nervous about meeting your future husband’s grandparents because they live in Tennessee and that terrifies you. And it means not being worried about going to your now husband’s family reunion in Nashville because you know you will be the only non-white person there.

That was my reality in the early years of my relationship with Brad.

It turned out that his grandparents were wonderful to me, and I came to love them very much. But they were an older generation from the South. They used words they shouldn’t. Brad's “Big Daddy,” as everyone had called, him fought in World War II and was angry at the Japanese.

So I worried—would he associate me with being Japanese simply because I was Asian? Would he say things in front of me that I didn’t want to hear? What would I do? How would I react? If they treated me badly, would my husband stand up for me and defend me?

I didn’t know.

I came to love Brad's grandparents as part of my own family. In fact, I love his whole family dearly. And I probably didn’t have to worry so much. But I did. Because things have happened before.

And that’s not something my husband—being a WASPy Caucasion man—has ever had to worry about. It doesn’t even occur to him that I have to worry about these things. And it never crossed his mind to worry about dating me because of what his family might think.

But he has that luxury.

So that’s what I think about when I hear white privilege. It simply means that people who are white in this country have the choice to think about race or not think about it. They can say, "don't worry."

I have to worry.

I have to worry when there are public leaders who are racist. I have to worry when policies in this country appear to be limiting people's rights.

Because when they're talking about not wanting foreigners, not wanting far will it go before people are telling me that I don't belong here? I wasn't born here. Sure, I didn't choose to come here, but that doesn't matter to some people. There are people who think that African Americans should go back to Africa even though their families have lived here for generations. They were brought here against their will, built much of this country with their blood and sweat, and there are still people saying they don't belong here.

And it's not a small number of people who feel this way. It's millions.

I have friends who want to brush off my concerns, saying that stringent immigration policies would never apply to me, and I shouldn't worry. But that's because they have the luxury to assume everything will be all right. Because nobody will ever tell them they don't belong here.

I feel as if I have lived a bit of a split life. I was raised in a white family, but I don't have a white face. When I'm apart from my family, people assume things about me because of how I look. And I don’t even have an Asian-sounding name to indicate to people that I am not white. People hear my name (both my maiden and married names) and/or hear my voice on the phone and assume I’m Caucasian. There’s often an uncomfortable moment of surprise when I meet people for the first time, where I can tell they’re figuring out that my name doesn’t match my face. It doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but I have often been greeted with, “Oh, I didn’t know you were Asian” (accompanied by uncomfortable laughter).
And as much I've had to deal with not being white in America, I wonder what other non-white people go through. Because let’s face it, I’m one of the whitest non-white people I know. I don’t identify with Asian culture at all. I am culturally and behaviorally as “American as white bread” as they come. I don’t have any Asian cultural history or influences. Yeah, I like Hello Kitty, but I think that’s because most girls like Hello Kitty.

With the benefit of age I am slowly but surely starting to come to accept myself. I no longer avoid Asian-ish related things in an effort not to bring attention to the fact I’m Asian.

I care less now what other people think. And I’ve also realized that other people aren’t as worried about me as I am worried about myself, so I’m sure many people aren’t noticing me at all, which is comforting.

Honestly, that’s all I’ve wanted most of my life. To just not be noticed in the crowd—to be like everyone else.

I know I will still hear hurtful things. I know people will still say stupid things to me. But it’s fine. People say stupid things to everyone. And nobody’s life is without hurt.

That’s the ultimate lesson that I’ve learned. We all want to be happy. We all want to be accepted. We all want to be loved.

In the most important ways, we are all the same.


Mara's mom here. I went back and forth on whether to add to Mara's piece because it's such a powerful essay and definitely stands on its own. But, here I am, with a few things to say. 

First, reading this didn't make me feel guilty as a parent—I'm fortunate that guilt is not something that's part of my emotional repertoire. That said, I want to apologize to Mara for assuming that she wasn't struggling with being Asian just because we lived in a liberal and progressive town (although a predominately white one), and just because I thought love was all that mattered. It never occurred to me to ask her if she was encountering any difficulties growing up here. After reading this piece, now I wish I had.

In fact, I'm suddenly feeling naive about the state of race relations in this country in general, especially after watching the events in Charlottesville. And not just race relations, but prejudice against people based on their religion or their country of birth. Even in this liberal town of mine, we're dealing with a recent incident of anti-semitism, something that I thought, in California at least, had been left behind years ago. (My parents were faced with anti-semitism in the 1950s in Los Angeles, both at some restaurants and when they tried to buy a house there, but I've personally never experienced it.)

And so, Mara, I wish I had been more aware of the fact that you were being raised in a white family and that almost everyone around you was white. Part of the reason I may not have paid attention to it is that my brother was adopted—as a white baby into a white family—and so the issue of race didn't arise with him. As a result, with Mara, I focused on joy of adoption...not on her experience of being the only Asian in a sea of white faces. 

I have a lot more I could say, but I'll restrict myself to one other thing. I want to comment on Mara's explanation of white privilege. It's the first time it's been explained in a way resonates with me. Prior to reading her piece, I'd balked at the phrase because I never felt privileged to be white. 

But Mara nailed it. White privilege means that I have the privilege of not having to think about race when I go to a restaurant or a store. I have the privilege of not wondering if I didn't get a job because I wasn't white. I have the privilege of not wondering if I wasn't rented an place to live because I wasn't white (something I recently learned happened to my African American daughter-in-law, Bridgett, resulting in my son having to find apartments for them when they lived a conservative community in southern California). 

So now, I get it. I get it Mara. I get it Bridgett. Love may not be enough but it's what I have to give and I love both of you with all my heart and would do anything for you. I think you both know that.

Mara (with her mom and brother) becomes a U.S. citizen at the Federal Courthouse in Sacramento