Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Autumn in Austin

photo 5 (36)The bee isn’t small; the flower is just that big. Well, it is Texas…

Today is the autumnal equinox, which marks the official first day of fall. Says the calendar, anyway. It certainly doesn’t feel that way in Austin. As excited as I always am for this season - the changing leaves, the fall colors, the crisp cool air, the soup on the stove, the pumpkin everything, oh my! - I know I can’t expect the same here as what I’d experienced in Chicago.

And I’m right to be cautious, because while the colors have also changed here, it looks like anything but fall. No hues of gold, auburn, and rust to dot nature’s palette in these parts. Instead, what I see is stunning, bold, vivacious, technicolor life after a long, hot summer that fried much of my yard. After nearly two weeks of torrential downpours and thunderstorms that flooded the creeks and low lying areas, all the grass that died and the plants that hung on by a fiber are back in full, glorious force.

It’s gorgeous, I have to say, but I’d be lying if I don’t also say that I’m going to miss the fall that I’ve known and loved for the past 20 years. There’s something to be said about snuggling on the couch with My Guy under a blanket with a mug of hot toddy on a crisp October evening. Or dressing in boots and cozy layers, accessorizing with scarves and knit hats. Fall is so my season.


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But this is what fall looks and feels like in Austin: Still green. Still warm. Still summer. I procured some ingredients to make pumpkin muffins today, but really, who am I kidding? It would feel like those celebrities trucking in fake snow to their homes so their children in southern California would experience a white Christmas. Yeah, just like that.

Yet, part of me wonders if I learned to love fall because, well, what else could I do, living in Chicago? We learn to make do. We learn to love orange and amber, we learn to embrace wool (which I never did, by the way), we learn to sip cider so we could also warm our always-cold hands, and we learn to distract ourselves with fall’s best to avoid thinking about the inevitable, impenetrable grey and frigid cold of winter.

In the winter, we also learn to love the snow. I did, anyway.

We all deal. Whether it’s what we tell ourselves or whether it genuinely becomes a part of us, we learn to find ways to love where we are planted. I can’t imagine being happy any other way.

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If I ignore the fact that fall looks entirely different in other (colder) parts of the country, it’s kind of nice to drive up to my house to see everything so alive and vibrant again. It’s my candy-colored happy. The sun has let up, and we’re seeing cooler temperatures, rather than the blistering heat of the past months. We can actually enjoy being outside in the middle of the day again. In fact, the fall is looking to be a pretty fantastic summer.


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In our summer dresses, the girls and I ventured to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center this past Sunday with My Guy, and I was taken aback by all the beauty that surrounded us that day. They did an astounding job in showcasing the indigenous plants and flowers, and I am ashamed to admit that, before moving here, I expected to hate the flora and fauna out here. Leaves that don’t change in the fall, soil that barely holds any water, rain that rarely falls - what could I possibly expect from this part of the country?

Apparently, quite a bit.

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Have I mentioned how much I love majestic old trees? Here, you could swing from them in myriad ways.

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Or climb them.


And every day, I’m learning to love it out here a little more. While I’m still getting used to the fact that I could see a family of five deer grazing in someone’s lawn, three large buzzards landing on the street a couple of hundred yards from me, and a snake crossing my path on the sidewalk (eek!) all during my one morning run, I realize that this, too, is part of the area’s charm.

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This was at the Wildflower Center, but I’ve seen this Beware sign more times than I can remember now. Sigh.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not quite #TexasForever yet. I vacillate back and forth everyday between expressing disbelief that we moved out here and gratitude that we did. But the fact of the matter is, I’m here. I can’t change everything that I don’t love about this place, but I can eventually learn to love what I don’t. Or at least peacefully live with it. If this girl from the tropics could enjoy her run on a snowy 30-degree winter afternoon, anything’s possible right?

So. There may not be hot toddies under the blanket by the fire anytime soon for us, but ice-cold cocktails by the pool in October?  Surely I could get used to that.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A childhood memory: Laksa curry mee

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I was maybe 10 or 12 , somewhere around there. I know I was in primary school, and we were still living in Brickfields, a neighborhood in the middle of Kuala Lumpur, with my Kuma, my dad’s oldest sister who had helped raise me. For lunch, my dad would take me to this hawker stall* that made killer laksa curry mee near our flat, and there I would order the same thing every time: only meehoon, no mee, extra fried tofu, raw cockles and extra spicy.

It may be a bowl of curry noodles, but with many ingredients (different types of noodles, such as the thicker yellow noodle, “mee”, or the thinner rice vermicelli, “meehoon”, beansprouts, tofu, chicken, chili paste, known as sambal, cooked or raw cockles, and sometimes fishballs and hard-boiled eggs) we could configure it to our personal taste. We went there so often that the lady who ran the stall knew us, and she would prepare our food the way we liked it even before we placed our order.

Eventually, I would see less of my dad, when he started to be away from the family more than he was with us, but I never stopped going to the curry laksa lady. A valuable lesson from an absentee parent is that you just have to learn to do some things on your own. My mom worked a nine-to-five job, and I would just make my way to the stall myself for lunch. As an only child of working parents, I became independent at an early age. Dining alone was never an issue for me, and so there I was, slurping my spicy noodles in the middle of a 90-degree day and sweating into the bowl at the same time. Good times.

I still think about that laksa lady to this day, although I’m pretty sure she’s no longer there; it’s been more than 20 years since I’d seen her. I’d order curry mee in Malaysian restaurants in the States, and sadly, it wouldn’t taste like hers. Now that we are here in Austin, there isn’t even a Malaysian restaurant in the area, which means if I’m homesick for the food, and if you know Malaysians, you know we’re always about our food, my only option is to make it myself.

And that I did, one day last week. Laksa curry mee, nonetheless. I was hesitant because it is a spicy dish, but you know how sometimes you’re just so desperate to experience something from your childhood that you would go to any lengths just to have a taste of it? Well, that was me. A Malaysian friend of mine swears by this laksa spice mix from back home, and because she could easily get it from Colorado, where she lives, she so sweetly mailed the packets of spice to me. I purchased the rest of the ingredients - all except the fresh raw cockles, which were hard to find here - and made it for dinner one evening.

I was surprised at how delicious it was. In fact, it tasted similar to what I remembered from the laksa lady, and slurping it on a hot Austin evening with sweat forming on my forehead, it took me, no, threw me back to the hawker stall I once loved. I hadn’t experienced anything quite that visceral in such a long time, but food does that doesn’t it?

As much as I loved it, however, I was a little worried about the girls. It was as spicy as I remembered it, and with a five- and three-year-old who weren’t raised on sambal and chilies, I had low expectations when it came to their reaction. I approached them with one bowl to first offer them a taste and braced myself as they took their first bite. Immediately, their eyes grew wide and they sucked in their breath, asking for water in between gasps for air through their teeth, making the “sss...sss...sss” sound.

Oh shit, this is too much.

I went to the kitchen with the bowl of laksa in hand to get their water, and looked around for a contingency plan. I don’t normally make the kids different food from what we’re having, even if it’s spicy or if it has a particularly strong flavor, but that evening, after their initial reaction, I felt guilty. Perhaps it was too soon for them to try this, let alone like it.

But as I was scanning around the kitchen for an alternative, I heard Pickle calling, “Mommy, where’s the food? I want another bite!”


I came back with water and after a few gulps, they went back for the next bite. And the next, and the next. I was floored. Just like I did, they savored each spicy bite and alternated it with water, with beads of sweat forming on their little nose. And that made me wonder if appreciating bold flavors is something that’s passed on by blood or by exposure. Either way, it’s working in my favor.

Now I can have my curry laksa at home, and eat it with my family too! It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to share a childhood favorite with the people we love isn’t it? After all, isn’t that why many of us spend all that time cooking in the kitchen? For sustenance, yes, but also for love – both for the flavors and the people for whom we’re cooking - and legacy?

I asked if they liked their meal and both nodded yes but admitted that it was “a little spicy”. I laughed and squeezed them. Oh, how I adore these girls – they never cease to amaze me. If I had any doubt about whether they really did enjoy their food, Pickle put that to rest the next day while her sister was at school because when given the option between leftover tortellini soup from dinner two nights ago or leftover laksa for lunch, she quickly answered, “laksa”.

Was I surprised? Hell yes. I was sure she’d pick the palate-friendly soup, but I should have known better than to expect otherwise from this little girl who’s as bold and complex and fiery as the bowl of noodles in front of her.

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* If you’d like to learn more about these ubiquitous hawker stalls in Malaysia, here’s a good site to visit about the best hawker foods in Penang, an island state in Malaysia known for their beaches and food. You will see how crazy we are about our food -- we don’t care if the stall is by a roadside ditch or if it looks grungy; good food is good food, and we’d travel miles just to taste it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A new kind of life

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Life hasn’t been the same since Little Miss started Kindergarten. At least not for me. The back-and-forth trips for pickup and dropoff and managing the schedules of two girls in two different schools have me in the car a lot, which I loathe. That’s the price we pay for finding a home tucked away at the end of civilization. Sure, we get to watch bunnies and deer (eating all my pretty flowers – agh!) in our yard, but that also means there’s no walking to anywhere for us. I know I’ve mentioned this before, and this will probably keep coming up because of all the changes we’ve made since our move here from Chicago, the inability to reach anywhere on foot may be the biggest and worst adjustment I’ve had to make. For nearly 38 years of my life, I’ve always been able to easily reach many places on foot – restaurants, cleaners, convenient stores – and now I think my body is creaking in a funny way from the lack of use. I also feel cut off from the rest of the world, and when you’re new to the area, the isolation is more acute.

Maybe that’s why I was eager to join the PTA at Little Miss’ new school. I wanted to know more families around us – perhaps people we could walk to visit! – and I needed to rebuild the community we lost when we uprooted from our last real home. And that’s how I found myself organizing the annual school picnic scheduled for the end of the month. When I saw an open slot for this I quickly volunteered because me? Plan a party? I could do that in my sleep. I am also on the Board now because I’m the committee lead for communications. Surprise, surprise. My inbox has more PTA-related emails now than work-related ones. Yes, I’ve become that parent. I just need one of my kids to get into soccer to complete the picture. But the thing is, I’m okay with it.

My Guy had to leave town for five days the week both girls started school and admittedly, I was not happy about the timing. Really? Could he have found a more inconvenient time than the first week both girls were back in school with two different sets of needs coming from different directions all at once? After the first-day-of-kindergarten fiasco, I was pretty sure I was going to stumble again somewhere. Except, you know what? I’m happy to report that I didn’t screw up once.  Lunches were made, no one was late, nothing was forgotten – it was a freakin’ miracle. I was amazed at how quickly we embraced the routine, as unfamiliar as it was to us. 

And I have to say, I’m loving this new life. Not only do I get to savor my Mondays and Fridays alone with Pickle while her sister is in all-day kindergarten, I pick Little Miss up from school at 2:45 every day while Pickle is still in preschool so we get to spend the afternoon together. We’ve established a mini routine there, too, where we get home, I check her backpack for school announcements and crafts, I unpack her lunch bag, and we sit down to read and chat together for a little bit before moving the conversation to the kitchen, where I start dinner and she’s learning to help, or she’ll just keep me company, all the while talking about her new school, new friends, new teacher – anything she likes. I absolutely treasure this part of my afternoon with my big girl because when it’s just the two of us, when she doesn’t have to compete to be heard, she’s a different girl, and this girl is an absolute delight. I love how we can now actually laugh about the same things, dream about a far-off vacation or discuss life in general: friendships, heartache, challenges. And I think to myself, you know, as a mother of daughters, that’s the stuff; this is it right here.


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What do you make when you have a sous chef and tomatoes in abundance from the garden?


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Spaghetti and meatballs from scratch of course!


On Friday, to celebrate the end of a successful week with my girls, I took them to a mom-and-pop bounce house near our neighborhood, we had popsicles and watched a movie at home in the evening. I made kale chips instead of popcorn, which the girls gleefully devoured. Oh yeah, we know how to party. That weekend, I took the girls to one of Austin’s best places for kids – the Thinkery, a kids’ museum but with plenty of science-based play – with another mom and her kids, and for lunch, they didn’t have to twist my arm when they suggested In-n-Out Burger. I was really digging the solo-parenting thing; I guess it’s easier when I feel like I’ve got this.

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My Guy would be home on Sunday, but on Saturday, after many evenings at home, I hired a sitter so I could go out with six other moms to see an 80’s cover band in an outdoor venue. I only knew one of them and met the rest for the first time. Four out of seven of us met for dinner and drinks first, and during introductions, a mom with a demanding career said, as she pointed to each person at the table “so you’re an entrepreneur, and so are you, and…” then she pointed to me, “what about you?” It took me by surprise that I didn’t really know what to say. “I write,” I feebly attempted, then added, “I also stay at home with my girls,” which steered the conversation towards the direction of oh how nice to be able to stay at home, which always makes me a little uncomfortable because I don’t know if people say that to be nice or if they really mean it, and it somehow makes me second-guess my own choices.

In a group of ambitious, career-driven women, I felt self-conscious about my own lack of ambition. I work part time from home, I don’t aim to be an executive at some corporation, and I don’t care to run my own company. I’m exactly where I wanted to be, yet, in this setting, I felt suddenly unsure about my own choices. I am that PTA parent in stark contrast to their leaning in in a way that would make Sheryl Sandberg proud, and I forgot how I was once closer to their end of the spectrum and had been unhappy. I forgot how rewarding it is to spend unhurried time with my girls in the middle of the day. I forgot, as a latchkey kid with full-time working parents, how I’d wanted to do things differently for my girls so they would have someone to be here when they come home, to be available for school functions and activities, to be involved in a way that my parents weren’t or couldn’t be.




But as the night progressed, and as we whooped and hollered at songs that took us back to our childhood (“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun! YEAH!”), I was starting to forget my own insecurities as well, because in the end, despite our different backgrounds, as moms, we had more in common than not. For one thing, we all shared the gratitude for an evening away from home, untethered to little creatures demanding our constant attention. At one point during the show, I think we all looked up and around us, observing the downtown buildings towering above, the low moving clouds reflecting the city lights, the (somewhat inebriated) people having fun around us, and we exhaled in relief that there we were, feeling like real people again, having real conversations without the mommy this and mommy that interruptions, and at the same time, trying to recall the last time we saw the city after dark.

When we left, we knew it was back to the usual – the routine of juggling needs that are mostly not ours, the working guilt, the parenting guilt, and now, the PTA emails. All of us isolated in our own way, all of us grasping for some sense of balance to keep going. Always hoping and wondering, but never sure, that what we’re doing is enough. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Oh, Pickle

New clothes arrived by mail, and I’d asked Pickle to try them on for me in the living room, since that’s where we were at the moment. But she insisted on running back to her room to change into her new outfit, and as usual, my inability to tolerate inefficiencies refused to acquiesce: “Why can’t you just change here? Why go all the way back to your room for something you can do here? What’s the difference?”

To which she countered with animated hand gestures for emphasis, “Yes, mommy, what’s the difference? What. Is. The. Difference?” and turned my own argument against me. Good point. She won. At three, Pickle is already quite a force in the house. She has always been the “No, I want to do this!” kid, exerting her independence and refusing help every chance she gets, which I both admire and get frustrated with because I am an impatient person. I like things done quickly and efficiently, and that’s not the mode in which she operates. But as strong-willed as she is, she’s also extremely sensitive to emotional changes. “Are you mad at me mommy?” she’d tremulously ask upon detecting my frustration and would react strongly if she knew I was upset with her, not so much remorseful about her actions, but unhappy that she’s not in my good graces.

It’s this same sensitivity that made her stop mid-activity at the playground when she heard a boy crying, and just like her daddy, who is compelled to find a solution to fix a problem, she took her own balloon – the one she was fighting her sister for just minutes ago – and offered it to him, probably hoping to stop him from crying, to make him happy. It was an unprompted gesture, but My Guy and I weren’t surprised. In fact, we were watching from afar and when he spotted her looking around after staring at the boy with visible concern, he said, “I bet she’s going to give him her balloon.” She just likes to make people happy.


This girl is all surprises, and yet not surprising at the same time. She’s afraid of ants, but would think nothing of picking up a beetle the size of her thumb to bring it along on our evening walk with us. She’s been potty trained since she was 2.5 but she’d wake in the middle of the night, walk all the way to our room, holding her crotch and doing what I call the pee-pee dance, just to tell me, “Mommy, I need to go potty” and wait until I mumble something like “okay, sure,” in my sleep before dashing back to the bathroom she passed to get to me to complete her business and eventually climbing back to bed by herself.

She’s certainly confounding at times, but nonetheless utterly delightful. And perhaps that’s why, during Little Miss’ first week of Kindergarten, we were happy to wait another week before sending Pickle back to preschool so we could have her all to ourselves and vice versa. As a second child, her one-on-one moments with us are rare as she had to compete for attention from the moment she was born. That week, while her sister was figuring out kindergarten, we took time away from work to explore Austin with our little one just to spend time with her.

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More than savoring the sights of our new city, more than learning about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s considerable contributions to American history, more than the cake they were serving at the magnificent LBJ Library in honor of what would have been his 106th birthday, we were relishing our little sprite, who giggled and danced and squirmed and snuggled and ran as fast as her legs could take her.

Ever since we moved to Austin, the girls have shared the same preschool schedule, so they often coexisted together at home. They were either both away or both in the house. Now that Little Miss is in kindergarten, Pickle will once again have her parents all to herself on Mondays and Fridays – the days she stays home from school. I remember luxuriating in that time we had together back when she was a wee baby up until this spring. She, who would continue to pepper me with random kisses as we walked, who would regale me with stories of her “new mommy and daddy,” an alternate universe that she had conjured, who would use every excuse in the book to fight naptime obstinately: “I heard (pronounced hear’d and not herd) sumping making a noise in my woom…did you heah that?”, who would still speak with a lisp and mispronounce words, like lellow and wunning, and misuse them and hers, as in: “Them are not mean; them are nice” in reference to beetles, and “I was holding hers hand.” 

The same girl who would let out a banshee wail from the injustice of not having her way would also, when she actually naps, sweetly and wordlessly climb onto my lap and just hold me and hold me and hold me. With a constant devilish glint in her eyes and yet the most tender of hearts, she is an enigmatic creature of extremes, both exhausting and exhilarating, infuriating and inspiring. 

Back in preschool now, she’s a little sad that her sister is no longer with her, but she went into her classroom and into the familiar routine without a moment’s hesitation all the same. Ready to start a new year. Ready for anything. And as always, I watch her in awe.

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