2018-packingpurse10

My House Salad

To say that my family didn’t eat salads while I was growing up would be an understatement.

We didn’t eat raw vegetables, full stop. My parents’ avoidance of pesticides was so deeply ingrained from their Chinese upbringing that, even in America, we peeled every single piece of fruit we ate. With a paring knife and impressive alacrity, my mom could transform the skin of an apple into a long, unbroken spiral, leaving so little flesh behind that it passed for a party trick. To the never-ending astonishment of my American friends, I peeled each individual grape before I ate it, delicately splitting the skin apart with my fingernails.

Even in adulthood, long after I’d learned to bite into the skin of an apple and pop whole grapes into my mouth, I still couldn’t understand the appeal of a bowl of raw vegetables, smothered in creamy dressing. I knew intellectually that salads were healthy and nutritious, but the visceral experience of eating them felt like a chore instead of a pleasure. I experimented with creating cooked versions of salads, blanching the greens to soften their fibers, adding in sautéed slices of zucchini. Gradually, I discovered a combination of ingredients that could be palatable to me.

So now I have a house salad. My go-to salad. The salad I always make. Here it is in its simplest form: Greens. Fresh Fruit. Dried Fruit. Nuts. Protein.

And here is my favorite version:

  • anywhere from half a bag to a full bag of Trader Joe’s Sorrento Salad (a mix of baby arugula, baby spinach, and baby lettuce)
  • an apple (in the winter) or a peach or nectarine (in the summer), cut into wedges and then each wedge cut into three or four pieces
  • a handful of Trader Joe’s Jumbo Raisin Medley (a colorful blend of golden, flame, and regular raisins)
  • a handful of walnut pieces
  • chicken or salmon, cooked at home, complete with the oil from the pan in lieu of a more traditional dressing

I’ve made plenty of other variations, too, from using a simpler spinach base to a vegan version with stir-fried tofu for the protein. I even toss in cooked vegetables once in a while, if we have some leftovers in the fridge. I still wouldn’t call myself a salad lover, but learning how flexible a salad can be has helped me to understand the appeal a little better.

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2018-packingpurse10

The Parents I’ll Never Meet

Today, I finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, in which she details the way her life shattered after her mother’s sudden death and the way her grueling long-distance hike along the Pacific Crest Trail helped her to reassemble it and herself, and I found myself thinking of Lawrence’s parents, who too died young, abruptly, and of cancer.

I never met them. Our romance started the year after their deaths. In some ways, it may have been their deaths that facilitated our relationship: Lawrence and I had been friends for a number of years by then and had kept in touch on and off, but it was my learning of his parents’ deaths that spurred the particular reconnection that led to the online message that led to the phone call that led to the visit that led to those heady days when it felt like we didn’t need sleep nor food because we could subsist on love alone.

In all these years, I’ve lived among the ghosts of his parents. His dad was a saxophonist who took up painting late in life; his mom was a schoolteacher with a penchant for fairy tales. I inhabit their apartment, eat from their plates, sort through their possessions. I have seen their art and their instruments, their furniture and their books and their clothing. I have met their siblings and their cousins, read their letters, heard recordings of their voices.

I suppose that, in Lawrence, I must see each of them daily in ways I can’t identify. After all, they created him and shaped him with their values, taught him the color of love and the shape of a family. They encouraged his creativity and his curiosity but left it to me to encourage his environmentalism. They introduced him to Buddhist philosophy and Beat poets but not to how to scrub a bathtub. In countless small and incalculable ways, I will spend the rest of my life responding to the consequences of their choices.

Despite all this, they are as insubstantial to me as strangers. No matter how much I learn about them, no matter how many stories I hear about them, I will never know them. I will never have a relationship with them, my future parents-in-law already lost to the past. Sometimes I think back to the close relationship I had with the parents of the boy I dated throughout college, the way they counseled me and comforted me as though I were their own daughter, with kindness and affection and generosity, and I feel the peculiar loss of these parents I have never met, who should have been my parents too.

It isn’t the kind of grief that takes a thousand-mile walk in the woods to shake. But it’s a strange absence, losing something you never had. I miss the possibilities that could have been.

2018-packingpurse10

Impressions from Two Weeks of Jury Duty

It’s been two weeks yesterday since I first reported for jury duty.

On that first morning, a Thursday, I arrived to find a line snaking out the entrance of the courthouse. I made my way through the security screening and up to the jury assembly room, watched the video and filled out the forms as the court clerk instructed. I had brought my laptop with me, but before I even pulled it out, the clerk drew and read out the names for the first selection panel of the day. Mine was among them.

I spent the rest of the day, apart from lunch, sitting in a tightly-packed, windowless room with 34 other prospective jurors and four attorneys. By the end of the day, they had whittled us down to sixteen. The selection panel resumed the next morning and continued through lunchtime. On Friday afternoon, I learned that I had been chosen as one of the six jurors who would be seated for the case. The court clerk told us to call Monday evening for instructions and dismissed us for the weekend.

On Monday evening, I dutifully called the designated number and listened to the recorded message, expecting to learn where and when to report the following morning. Instead, the recording instructed the jurors on my case to call back the next day. On Tuesday night, the recorded message was the same: call back tomorrow. By the time I called again on Wednesday night, I was half-wondering if I had only imagined that I would need to serve on a jury. But that night’s message was different: it said to report to the courthouse Thursday morning.

The next morning, I met the rest of the jurors on my case, and a court officer led us through narrow corridors and winding stairs to a jury room designated for our use. There, we waited nearly two hours before she returned to bring us to the courtroom. The judge read us instructions at length, then dismissed us for lunch. That afternoon, we heard opening statements from both sides. At the end of the day, the judge instructed us to return the following Tuesday to continue the trial.

This week was the first full week of the trial. We’ve spent three and a half days listening to testimony and waiting out of earshot while the attorneys and the judge debate points of law. All of the courtroom drama that I assumed was fabricated for television has played out before our eyes: the crescendo of questions striving toward a narrative, objections overruled or sustained, rapid-fire cross-examinations. It seems to be a matter of excruciating importance what we see and don’t see, what we hear and don’t hear, in what order and from whom.

I’ve settled into this unexpected routine as much as I can. Every morning, like clockwork, I catch the local train at Times Square and transfer to the express at 14th Street, although there’s no particular reason why it should work out this way. For the rest of the day, time moves in languorous ebbs and flows. The clock on the courtroom wall is frozen at 5:59, and sometimes sitting in the jury room reminds me of my long flights over the Pacific, a simultaneous doubt and faith: Is time even passing? Surely time must be passing. On the night of the third day of the trial, I went on Etsy and ordered a wristwatch, something I haven’t owned in over a decade. I hope it arrives before the trial ends.

In these two weeks, the temperatures in New York have creeped from brisk to scorching. The jury has relaxed into our role, swapping button-downs for neutral tees, slacks for jeans and shorts, dressy flats for summer sandals. We’ve developed a strange sort of camaraderie in our shared seclusion. “Maybe we’re on reality TV,” one juror quipped. One brought Italian espresso to share, and another passed home-baked cookies around the jury room. Now and then, someone reads aloud from a newspaper. We take turns politely stepping into the sonorous stairwell to make phone calls that are all the more audible for the echo.

In this way, we’ve slowly learned about one another’s lives. We’ve learned the courthouse’s secrets: the basement entrance that never has a security line, the paths and patterns of the tangle of corridors and stairwells. Day by day, I’m receiving an education in esoteric and highly-specialized areas of knowledge that I have never before needed and will probably never need again.

The judge tells us that we are the judges of the facts. It’s astonishing sometimes to think that I’ve been entrusted with the power to decide what is true. Every day, we hear two diverging versions of the same story, told in puzzle pieces. We are the archaeologists of the real story, reconstructing a fractured picture that will never equal the original. Every day, the judge reminds us to keep an open mind, and I re-examine how trust works for me, how truth works for me.

2018-packingpurse10

The Great Honeymoon Decision

After months of deliberation, we’ve finally committed to our honeymoon destination!

Hint: it’s one of the places we saw in miniature this past weekend at Times Square’s newest attraction, Gulliver’s Gate.

I think the most surprising part of the decision was how much of an impact our three-week jaunt across China had on our honeymoon plans. In China, we enjoyed full and exhausting days one after the next, walking for miles on a city wall one afternoon, and climbing up and down a mountain the next morning. By the end, we were too worn out to take full advantage of our last days in Beijing and Chengdu.

Coming home and getting back to planning our wedding and honeymoon turned out to be the travel version of shopping for groceries while you’re stuffed instead of starving. It’s not in our nature to travel too slowly, but we agreed that for our honeymoon, it would make sense to slow down at least a little.

So although I’ll probably always fantasize about it just a little, we aren’t taking that big backpacking trip from one end of the continent to the other. Instead, our first of what we hope will be many future European adventures will focus on a single region — the British Isles — with stops in six cities in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Here’s a little of what we’re looking forward to this fall:

London, England

We’ll be jetting off for London the day after our wedding! Unfortunately, our first choice Brixton AirBnB fell through, so we’re still trying to iron out where to stay, but we’re looking forward to walking for miles among London’s famous landmarks, getting lost in some of its many free museums, and sampling diverse ethnic cuisines. We’ll also take a day trip to Stonehenge, possibly in combination with Avebury.

York, England

After the bustle of London, we’ll spend a couple of days relaxing in York, where we expect to be charmed by the historic architecture, the specialized museums, and the city wall. (After spending time in Québec and Xi’an recently, York will be our third walled city on three continents in 15 months.) Maybe we’ll even get out to the moors for a day.

Edinburgh, Scotland

From York, we’ll head up to Scotland, where we’ll spend a few days in Edinburgh, possibly the city I’m most excited to visit. From Edinburgh Castle to Arthur’s Seat, we can’t wait to experience Edinburgh’s picturesque landscapes and rich cultural history. There are also day trips in every direction, should we wish to take them: from St. Andrews to the borders to Stirling to Inverness.

Glasgow, Scotland

After Edinburgh, we’ll head to Glasgow for a couple of days. We’ll use Glasgow as a springboard for a day trip to the Scottish highlands, but we’re also looking forward to getting a taste of its distinct flavor. Plus, our AirBnB here might be my favorite of the whole honeymoon: it’s a private garden studio overhanging the River Kelvin.

Galway, Ireland

From Glasgow, we’ll fly over to Ireland and head west to Galway. We chose Galway for how well-situated it is as a base for day trips ranging from Connemara to the Cliffs of Moher, but we also hear that it has a great music scene, and we’re looking forward to walking along the coast.

Dublin, Ireland

We’ll wrap up our honeymoon with a couple of days in Dublin before flying home. Dublin is actually the second most populated city we’ll be visiting (after London), but we expect it to be pretty laid-back for its size, which will be a good fit at that point in our trip. I expect we’ll mix the usual sightseeing with some local music and maybe a day trip to Newgrange.

It’s still months away, but I’m already looking forward to starting off married life by sharing this grand adventure.

2018-packingpurse10

The May of Life


At a poetry event recently, I read a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, “Love Letter to Stories.” One of the lines was this:

My endings
are narrowing all of the time.

While I spent most of my time with my grandparents on previous trips to China, it was my aunt and uncle who accompanied us on our outings during this most recent trip. I visited my cousin in his own home, met his wife and his newborn daughter. I felt a stark sense of all of us having aged out of one era and into the next.

At age 31, I’m aware that I’m still young, but I feel increasingly conscious of my aging. In photos from even four or five years ago, my skin seems smooth and unmarked compared to the face that greets me each morning in the bathroom mirror. Not only do I have two white hairs (I resolved on my 30th birthday to stop pulling them out when they appeared), but my white hairs have been around for so long that they have split ends.

Often, it feels too late to make sweeping changes in the trajectory of my life. I’ve hurtled myself into the space of time, and while I may be able to steer a few degrees this way or that, surely the course has already been set.

Recently, I thought of the perfect analogy to remind myself of how many possibilities are still open to me. If I can reasonably expect to live to the age of 90 (based on the lifespans of my ancestors), then 31 is at the beginning of the second third of my life. 31 is the spring of life. The May of life, if you will.

Right now, in early May, there are some things that are already impossible for me to do this year. If I want to give birth to a baby this year, too late. I’m not pregnant, and even if I could conceive today, the only way I’d give birth this year would be a medical emergency. Similarly, at age 31, there are some possibilities that are already off limits for the course of my life. It’s probably too late for me to have a serious ballet performance career, like my sister does; she expects to retire around my age.

But, even if we haven’t taken a single step toward them yet by early May, there is still room in this year for enormous undertakings and changes for any of us. The year I ran a marathon in November, I started training in May. My parents married about six months after they met, so someone single in May could be married by December. Between May and December, you could change jobs, move somewhere new, or meet a whole new circle of friends.

At age 31, there are still countless things that I can do from here, the May of my life. Not only can I steer my ship a few degrees, but I can swing it in a wide arc in any direction.

My endings may be narrowing all of the time, but they are not narrow.

2018-packingpurse10

The Animal in the Room


Once, at a dinner buffet on the Las Vegas strip, I ate meat from eight different species of animals — beef, lamb, pork, chicken, duck, turkey, salmon, and shrimp — in a single meal. Another time, in St. Louis, I made a friend wait with me for an hour in the August sun so I could have Crown Candy Kitchen’s Heart-Stopping BLT — an avalanche of bacon inadequately buttressed by a couple of slices of grease-soaked bread and a wimpy leaf of lettuce — for lunch. And, in a classic example of confirmation bias, I readily accepted as truth the fad “Blood Type Diet,” whose recommendation that people of my blood type eat high-protein diets was confirmed perfectly by my body’s food cravings, if not by science.

I may be engaged to a vegetarian, but I usually introduce myself as a carnivore.

But in Xi’an, trying a roujiamo (a local delicacy roughly translated as “meat sandwich”) that happened to be filled with donkey meat, I felt suddenly squeamish. Do I eat donkey? I wondered. Would I eat a horse? Is eating a donkey like eating a horse? I took the tiniest of bites. The meat was flavorful, and the bun was warm and soft and crispy, but I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

A week later, in Beijing, I yelped as I dug into a whole roast chicken we’d bought in a supermarket near our hotel. The chicken was delicious, but I hadn’t expected to find a long neck with a head attached, complete with beak. Whole chickens in American grocery stores don’t come with heads.

I guess that’s just one of the many ways we try not to think about what it means to eat meat. What it means to eat animals.

I’ve been coming to the realization that I can’t honestly claim to be approaching my decisions with mindfulness while continuing to follow my modus operandi of the past three decades when it comes to food: deliberately, automatically, and willfully not thinking about where the meat I eat comes from. I’ve started feeling like a hypocrite when I talk about not wanting to buy cosmetics from companies that test their products on animals, while at the same time ignoring the fact that I eat animals daily, indiscriminately, and with great relish.

This month, I plan to experiment with reducing my consumption of meat. Maybe I won’t eat any mammals, or maybe I won’t eat meat more than once a day, or maybe I won’t eat meat one day each week. Maybe some combination of those, or maybe something else altogether. At the moment, it’s not my intention to become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, and certainly not overnight, but I am committed to becoming more mindful and deliberate about my consumption of meat, and I’m open to following this exploration wherever it leads. I want to see how difficult or easy it will be for me, already an exceedingly picky eater, to find palatable food options that are focused on plants rather than animals. I want to discover how my consumption — and conception — of food changes if I approach eating from outside of a meat-centric perspective.

To be honest, this endeavor feels like it’s been a long time coming. I keep running across vegans on YouTube extolling their plant-based diets when I seek out videos about minimalism. I’ve been noticing my growing reluctance to post pictures of meat on Instagram next to my vegan friend’s photos of rescuing farm animals. Considering that we’re about to get married, it would be nice for me and Lawrence to find more foods that we would enjoy sharing. And, most of all, I want to be healthier, live in a more environmentally-friendly way, and be a better human being.

Health

Health is a major concern for me, especially in light of how much weight I’ve gained and how much fitness I’ve lost since my marathon (two and a half years ago tomorrow!). I still feel comfortable in my own skin, but I’d love to have more energy and more of a sense of physical wellbeing and capability. Over the years, I’ve formed healthy habits in some areas of my diet (drinking almost exclusively water, for example), but I still have many major stumbling blocks (my insatiable sweet tooth, for one). I’m hoping that being more attentive about what I eat and having more plant-based meals will lead to visible improvements in my health. In terms of eating meat in particular, my current understanding is that lean meat and fish, eaten sparingly, are generally considered part of a healthy diet.

Sustainability

I love the beauty of nature, and I want mountains and rivers and trees and elephants to live on into the future. At least in theory, I want to act in ways that are consistent with reducing the environmental impact of my behavior as much as possible; in practice, with my human failings, I probably do this as much as is easy. I recycle (unless that plastic takeout container is too greasy to rinse out); I take public transit (because I happen to live in a city where that’s convenient); I bring reusable bags to the grocery store (but still wind up with enough plastic bags to line my garbage cans). The truth is, I do enough to palliate myself into believing that I behave in environmentally-sound ways, but there is still much more that I could do. I don’t compost; I don’t buy clothing secondhand; I eat animals.

I’m not very well-informed about the subject, but it’s my understanding that humans currently consume meat at a rate that is not sustainable in the long term. That’s why we occasionally see those articles about how insects are the food of the future, right? And I’ve heard that eating meat is inefficient (because more than one pound of feed goes into each pound of meat) and contributes to greenhouse gases (thanks to a combination of deforestation and methane emitted by ruminants). This would seem to suggest that, in terms of eating meat, eliminating beef and lamb from my diet would have the greatest relative environmental benefit.

Ethics

When I was a kid, I had pretty black-and-white views about right and wrong, but one of the best parts of growing up is gaining an appreciation for nuance. At this point, I don’t believe that it’s possible to live in a way that does no harm, only relatively less harm. Still, from a moral standpoint, it’s hard to justify something like eating meat, which isn’t strictly necessary for my survival, and which relies on the deaths and suffering of animals.

But, surely, even without becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, there must be changes I can make in my consumption of meat to reduce the amount of animal suffering that I cause. Would it be better if I only ate meat from animals that were humanely raised on local farms? If I only ate meat from wild game or fish? I read one article arguing that eating beef is more ethical than eating chicken because fewer animal lives are lost for the same amount of meat, but it doesn’t really make sense to me that the most ethical way of eating meat would be to eat very large animals. Does a shrimp feel pain in the same way that a goat does?

Is this the wrong time to confess that I unsympathetically massacre hundreds of fruit flies every summer when they invade my kitchen?

I have a lot to learn and a lot to think about.