The Beauty of Being Alive

These are such unusual times, I’m really not sure how to do this, but I guess I’ll give it a whirl. I thank my lucky stars that I am still alive, given the horrific alternative of covid-19. As California rolls out its reopening in the coming weeks, my days are obviously accelerated, and I’m compelled somehow to put these last few months in some sort of perspective. Perhaps they’re encapsulated in the natural beauty and sense of community in my neighborhood in which I had to take refuge these months.

I was reading this piece in The New York Times about locals reclaiming their over-touristed cities pre-pandemic. I may feel the same when I finally find the wherewithal to explore my city and region again, especially if most people decide to hurry back to their homes after venturing out. In the meantime, my neighborhood is where I am right now.

Battening Down the Hatches

93441672_3474262592589250_1547091325038362624_oI am now on Day 35 of shelter-in-place, and it’s now sinking in my body that it’s time to wind down. Life, as I had known it, is not going to return to normal any time soon, and perhaps taking a nap would help to cope and eventually accept the current situation. The “screens,” a term from my 11-year-old nephew Finn who’s doing online learning, are my main interfaces throughout the day but for my mom, with whom I am quarantining. Now I’m feeling like the first few days arriving for my grandfather’s funeral in the Philippines 21 years ago, sequestering in a bedroom and wanting to sleep most of the day due to jet-lag from the longest flight I had flown at the time. But my mind still has not caught up to my body, and I am typing away on my bed, hoping it will finally capitulate and fall into a deep slumber “to sleep perchance to dream” of a life I had hewn and grown to love passionately and most profoundly.

Foggy Bottom

IMG_2119Since being shelter-in-place due to the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, I’ve felt like I’ve been living in a fog, disoriented and unsure of the ground under my feet. But then I’m reminded of a hike my friends and I had taken in Sibley Volcanic Preserve in the East Bay, and it hit me in that rather misty morning venturing into thick brush and hardy stalks of flora deep within the canyon of a silent volcano characterizes what I’m feeling at the moment. However, I was with friends, and I was reassured these are the women I could rely on in an emergency, even an apocalyptic crisis. At one point in the hike, we reached a plateau that provided a view of rolling, golden hills for which California is known. While the region, state, nation and the entire planet is being ravaged by this pandemic, memories such as these are meant to evoke better days when we could breathe freely, and nature will assert her incredible power when it is pushed to the brink.

 

Never Grow Old

It is quite true the axiom that no one could avoid, and that is of course about growing old—a constant, befuddling challenge after another Christmas holiday that at times renders us ageless until January rolls around for a reality check.

Closest model I could find of Tony’s car
I am reminded of Tony, an elderly portly fellow I met ten post-Christmases ago when I was returning a Zipcar. He was emerging from his 1983 Mercedes-Benz coupe and required a hand since the car was built low to the ground. I was at first wary of being drawn into such circumstances with a stranger, especially during the holidays in San Francisco. So I compromised and half-heartedly held out my hand for him to grasp, while giving myself enough space between us, should I need to let go and escape.
We started chatting once we were on level ground, and as we dove deeper into conversation he decided he was selling his impeccably maintained car that survived only one major accident (maybe it’s more like averted), being smacked in the middle of its windshield by flying rebar. Not exactly a muscle car, it is built like a tank. While it seemed like a snap decision, perhaps in his storytelling it was a natural conclusion. I told him I would think on it, but his parting words were “Rachelle, just never grow old.”
I passed on the car and never saw Tony again, but he gave me that impossible truism that nags me into the twilight of another decade. What does it mean, and how does it look like?

Artful and Festive

It’s quite amazing how quickly we come to the end of another year, and typically I reflect on its arc and narrative in this sliver chapter in my own life. However, this month I’m throwing that out the window and focus instead on particular art festivities over the years. The invitations normally come from my friend Wendy, my longest-known friend in the Bay Area, and thematically around post-modern art and museums with which she has memberships. Here are a few that pop to mind. With that, enjoy the holidays!

“Soft Power” is a rather dark exhibition currently in SFMOMA about disenfranchisement and recognition of refugees and immigrants in light of the current political and cultural mood. The installations exude layers of complex meaning and creativity in terms of material and ingenuity. I appreciate the global perspective and challenge to my own experiential approach to art.

Rene Magritte Exhibition

 

 

One of the more commercial exhibitions in SFMOMA that I briefly blogged, I was pleasantly surprised to know curators sought the services of an architect to design the interior space displaying the artist’s work. I worked for architectural firms and therefore have a soft spot for their efforts big and small.

Traveling Yurt

I’ve been meaning to write about this since 2013 at which time SFMOMA was under construction and its exhibitions were “on the go,” being shown in other locations. “Station to Station” was in Oakland’s rotting and graffitied historical train stations, a tantalizing artists’ lair. The customary yurt (see aforementioned “Soft Power”) seems to follow me and Wendy around our art excursions. I would say one of the most avante garde exhibits I’ve seen due to the venue.

img_3416-1This member holiday party has to be one of my favorites because of the backstory behind it. I had a few serendipitous dates on my dance card that day, and Wendy and I had libations of the mini-bar fridge variety. All told, a very merry good time.

East Coast Revival

Of all my vacations, I had to work myself into this one, as though bigger girl panties were required emotionally. I wasn’t feeling particularly strong for various reasons, but I eventually found my footing due to familiarity like my family home and quite frankly my second family, as it were, of friends. I had intentionally focused my time with them on this trip—so much life has happened since I was last there in 2016.

Even on the first leg of my journey, there was a tinge of sadness. New York City, while still electric, seemed quite frankly deserted due perhaps not only to the stifling heat and humidity in July, but also the steep cost of living residing there. My consolation, though, is I had more of the city to myself. On my last evening, I happened to go into a local Target in Gramercy Park and mixed with ordinary Saturday shoppers and neighbors, some strutting shirtless on the sidewalk, absorbing the early evening sun before nightfall. It was like any other urban neighborhood I had known, and it felt like home. Only fitting, raindrops fell on the morning of my departure.

But my hometown beckoned, and I was on an Amtrak train heading for the Burgh as I had done on previous trips before. However, as I do more traveling solo, it’s more and more about me and how I evolved since 2016, ergo the mandatory bigger girl panties. I am a lot more at home in the world than not, and being more in charge of my destiny is my constant wish.

It has occurred to me that coming home this year, my friends and I are facing challenging situations, like ill parents, struggling marriages, death of a spouse. After all these years, we are still connected as adults as we were in our younger days. As if by design, the states of our unions remain strong. In other words, we are in this lifeboat together until it no longer exists.

To be sure, it was a short homecoming, and I left Pittsburgh well-fed and entertained. It is always personal with opportunities of going deeper. But I somehow prevent myself from diving too deeply for fear of never resurfacing. However, as years go by and I grow older, there’s no avoiding it.

Lengua Franca

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Deneng Deng (left), the Ilocano pinakbet (simmered vegetables in fermented shrimp paste), and lumpiang Shanghai (top right; mini meat egg rolls), fresh tomatoes and atsara (pickled papaya)

I will be visiting this summer my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA after three years. Trips there have been few and far between, so like anywhere else, I try to do and see as many things as possible.

It’s amazing how my folks put down roots in a place like the Burgh, so foreign to them in the beginning, but they eventually grew to love. After all, they raised a family and own a home. I would consider it my family home but not necessarily mine. As years pass, I realize home to me is somewhere else. Yet, there’s no denying my palpable sense memory, especially around food.

Lumpia (egg rolls) and Q BBQ Recipe are delicious staples in my family’s food culture.

My parents are often at their best when they are in the kitchen. In 2012, I wrote this unpublished essay for a food magazine, and since I’m feeling rather nostalgic, I will fit it in here as well as the recipe:

Having beef tongue for the first time one weekend when I was a teen was such an addictive experience that I went into a kind of all-day grazing mode, consuming it and playing into my parents’ hands to stay out of trouble. I recall it had the texture of my own tongue, with its subtle bumps and ridges. Obviously, I got past all that and discovered it had this nice mouth feel (no pun intended), as tender as any piece of meat should possibly be.
The real kicker, however, was the divine tomato sauce in which it was swathed. Lengua obviously wasn’t carried by the regular supermarket, so my Filipino parents would often drive to a butcher shop in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. Our trips into the city felt like an adventure away from the suburbs where we lived. I learned Foster’s Meats and later Butcher on Butler are now defunct, but there, in a nondescript brick-red building and hurricane-glass block windows, they found rare meat products and “nasty bits” for such native fare as karé-karé (braised oxtail in peanut butter sauce) and the Ilocano version of dinuguan (pork parts stewed in pig’s blood). My siblings and I would wait in our boat-size hunter green Mercury Marquis, as one of my parents or both would go shopping for those delicacies.
You could say beef tongue as it was prepared by my dad that weekend not only made me a really good girl, but also kept me from completely assimilating, lest I would lose my delectable and soulful food culture. From my standpoint, I am more than sated by it.
Filipino Dad’s Beef Tongue in tomato sauce
Beef tongue from the butcher’s

Vegetable or canola oil (1 to 2 tablespoons)
Tomato sauce/puree and/or fresh diced tomatoes
Garlic (2 cloves, sliced)
Onion (1 medium, sliced)
Soy sauce and pepper to taste
Sugar (optional)
To prepare the beef tongue, cover it in water and boil for 3 to 5 hours (1 lb./50 minutes is the conventional wisdom). You may also use a pressure cooker to shorten the cooking time (follow its recommendations).  When done, cool and remove outer skin or covering and any gristle or sinew.  Cut quarter- to half-inch slices.
Tomato Sauce:
Sauté garlic and onion slices in oil until soft. Add 2 cups of tomato sauce/puree and/or diced tomatoes and simmer till thickens. You may also add a little water to thin out the consistency if it’s too dense for your liking. Season with soy sauce and pepper to desired taste; cook for two minutes. Add beef tongue slices to sauce and let them meld together, basting the gravy over the beef to help heat it through. Once done and the meat is tender, serve and enjoy over rice or by itself. Green olives (or pimento stuffed ones) for some briny flavor would also take this dish to another level.