Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Kitchen Nazi

Over the last year, I've cooked in how many kitchens? LA condo, Tokyo residential hotel, Tokyo friend's house, my mom's house, Paris apartment, Montreux apartment, The Ranch, Eureka house-sit, Waikiki condo 1, Waikiki condo 2, the DogFather's… Furnished rentals rarely have decent knives and many Americans use serrated knives which I have trouble with, so I've gotten in the habit of traveling with one decent kitchen knife and a pair of cooking chopsticks. The chopsticks work as a fork, spatula, tongs, egg beater…sort of a "zen" Swiss Army knife!

The DogFather's has all these great appliances from the late 40's. We were just commenting on his beautiful gas range yesterday. It's totally Post-War Modern and designed so beautifully, it makes me drool.

"Plus, I think your electric beater is the best I've ever used!"
"I think we got that not too long after the stove."
"Well, it beats the heck out of those expensive KitchenAid things! I think the only people who have them are those who don't really cook."

I do. I have a terrible phobia of chemicals (and pharmaceuticals!) so I usually make everything from scratch.

"The supermarkets in the US are giant," I tell people back in Japan. "They're the size of warehouses. But I rarely go down the aisles. Nearly everything I need is along the walls -- produce, meat, fish, dairy."

"My grandmother was a great cook." Big Dog's told me that for decades, but it wasn't until we were in the Delta last year that I found out that she cooked professionally. His grandparents had a little eatery in Greenville, Mississippi, and then another one in Bakersfield when they moved out west after The Great Flood and The Grandmother made all the food for the eateries. Maybe that's why the DogFather is more interested in food than the rest of his family. Unfortunately, he lives on mostly packaged food these days and the family members who live nearby have long ago gotten used to the conveniences of processed/instant/packaged foods. It’s been fulfilling for me to make soups (which the DogFather loves) and pies (favorites of both DogFather and Big Dog) and Southern food with an Asian twist (collard green cooked with a little soy, fried steaks with panko breading, etc.) during the last two weeks.

I realize that I've been a bit holed up in the kitchen, using it as some kind of psychological refuge. Big Dog calls me a "Kitchen Nazi" because I'm so particular about my kitchen utensils (I think) but I think I'm more the "Kitchen Hermit."

Monday, May 28, 2007


My mom turned 76 today. What an amazing life she's led.

The last of seven children (actually there was an eighth but he died shortly after birth) she was the baby of the family. Once I asked her how she got her name and she told me, "By the time I came around, my grandparents were old and couldn't care less so my mother finally got to name one of her children. I guess it was Grandma's favorite name."

Her father was a wholesaler of hanao, the thong part of zori, sandal-like footwear for both men and women. As a child, I thought, wow, a wholesaler of such a small part of footwear! It's like being the Shoelace Emporium. But, of course, when your footwear is as simple as zori, the hanao becomes a Big Deal. They were a multi-generational Tokyoite family of well-to-do merchants and had servants and housekeepers and indentured serfs. Well, maybe not serfs, but they did have poor farm kids who came out to the city to work in shops as errand boys or nannies. I imagine my mother had a Very Pampered Life.

Their house and shop were destroyed by the air raids over Tokyo during The War and they moved to the Shonan beach area, south of Yokohama. Still, as the youngest of the family, my mother probably did not suffer too much. Even after she got married to my father, her mother (my grandmother) would occasionally go to the newlywed's home to cook and clean for them -- especially when she had to entertain her in-laws!

I guess the turning point came a few weeks after I was born, when my father was sent to LA and she suddenly had to become a single mom. Since then, she's had to take an infant to California by ship, deal with a Very Foreign Country, learn to drive (as well as learn to shop, use American household appliances, be charming to my father's clients even with limited English……) give birth to a Giant Baby in the Foreign Country, put up with a Terribly Unruly Daughter, go through an agonizing six months with a dying husband who left her with two children, one of them still in grade school, a $300,000 mortgage on a newly purchased house (and that was a LOT of money back then,) no insurance policies and no money in the bank. But that wasn't all! She went to work for the first time in her life outside the home at 45, became a good enough accountant to be promoted several times and paid off the mortgage. But that wasn't all! She was fiercely independent and together we retiled the bathroom, fixed leaky roofs and faulty plumbing. But that wasn't all! Now she's stuck being live-in nanny to my brother's son. My brother who refuses to move out of her house.

Moreover, she's a fabulous cook, seamstress, knitting pro. She can be charming, coquettish, flirty. She can walk miles without getting tired and swims every week. I can't say she was a great mother . I don't think she really wanted to be a mother -- she hates that kind of stress and responsibility -- but she did a pretty good job raising us. And ever since I became an adult, our relationship has gotten better and better.

She's not an instigator. She doesn't set the direction for her life, or pursue lofty goals, but she'll rise to any challenge life throws at her and then some.

Best of all, though, I have some of her DNA. I can only hope she's got her mother's genes that kept my grandmother healthy into her late 90's. Happy birthday, Mama!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Rock Inn

Encouraged by the DogFather's miraculous recovery, Big Dog took up on his friends' offer to go out for the night. After preparing some creamy potato soup and an oriental steak salad for the D-Father, we drove into the afternoon sun to CVM's house.

I have learned a lot from Big Dog about the value of friendships and how much effort it really takes to keep them alive. Growing up on the move makes you see friends as something temporary. Until our family moved to Japan, we were in one place for less than three years. In each city, I had friends, but they were attached to the location and when we moved on, I moved on from those connections. Big Dog, having grown up in Lancaster, has friends from before kindergarten! Still! Friends that last through his whole boyhood, young adulthood and beyond. I can't imagine what that is like! But he also puts a lot of energy into keeping these connections alive. Since he was away from the States for decades, he was the one who wrote, the one who phoned to say he was in town so let's get together.

CVM is not one of his friends from early childhood, but from the turbulent 60's. I couldn't possibly write about all of their misadventures without getting into serious trouble, but CVM, his buddy D who owned the pottery shop with him, and Big Dog were every parent's nightmare back then, I am sure. With time comes change, and now CVM and D are both Married, Responsible Dads with jobs, mortgages, teenage kids of their own.

CVM (the V is Von -- he is from German aristocracy) and his family live out in Antelope Acres, past the edge of town, close to the California Poppy Reserve that glows orange each spring with miles of poppies. I tell my friends in Japan that being in the Antelope Valley is like being inside a Little Feat song, but out in Antelope Acres, it really IS a Little Feat song. It's all open sky and yuccas, dusty and windy, with tumbleweeds rolling down the street like wayward dogies. Lovely!

"If I had to live in Antelope Valley, I'd live in a place like this," I commented. John French, drummer for the Beefheart Band and also a friend of Big Dog's, also lives in Antelope Valley but also out of town, away from the strip malls and everything suburbia.

CVM's place is large and sprawly. His wife of 30 years, S, is a landscape architect and has done up their yard with all sorts of gorgeous plants. I had been here before, but always at night, so this was the first time I was seeing their yard.

"Oh, let me show you around," S said and took me on a garden tour (the red house in the photo is SVM's "ICU" for sickly plants) while The Boys went to inspect CVM's latest creations in his barn/garage. (A very talented artist, CVM creates fantastic pyrotechnic helmets, among other things.)

We could easily have stayed there all night, but they had other plans. Well, S had other plans.

"Do you still want to go?" CVM asked.
"Yeah, we should!" SVM answered. "I'll be so bummed out if I miss their performance!"

As we learned later, SVM picked up a young man at a tanning salon a few years ago.
"I was suffering from depression after H left for college. It was that Empty Nest thing. I needed another boy to nurture and there was this beautiful boy who needed nurturing, so I brought him home and nurtured him!" Since then, he became a budding musician and was having a gig at The Rock Inn with his friends and SVM, being the nurturer, had to be there to give him moral support.

The Rock Inn is a stone structure near Lake Hughes. Today it's a biker bar but it had its incarnations as an inn, a grocery store, a restaurant…during the 100 plus years it's been here.

We arrived a little late and the musicians, all in their late teens or early twenties, had already been performing on the tiny stage for a while, but SVM needn't have worried. They had plenty of moral support. The place was packed with friends and family. All of their parents were there.

"What is this with kids and their parents these days?" Big Dog wondered aloud, later.
"I don't get it either. I would be horrified if my mom came to see me perform! Even today. In my teens or twenties, I think I would have died."

Time changes much, and more for some people than others. Who we are, how we behave, our relationships, our wants and needs. Even if on the outside, like the Rock Inn, we look pretty much the same.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Desert Magic

"Get the door! Stop making your father hold it open for us!" I nudge Big Dog in the arm. I can't believe he rang the doorbell! The DogFather just had surgery! No one's there and we've made him crawl out of bed to get the door!
"Shouldn't you be in bed? Isn't anyone here?" Big Dog asks, his father still holding the screen door open for us.
"Oh, they all went home."
"Well, you're looking better than ever!"

And Big Dog was right. The DogFather was standing tall, looking younger and healthier than ever.

"If I knew I was going to feel this good, I would have had the operation months ago!" he laughs.

Some of my "babies" weren't looking as good, though. I had entrusted my newly sprouted seedlings to S and Horse Girl…but only half of them. As a film/video producer, you always think of backup. You are always asking yourself "What if this fails?" My backup was carried in the back of our truck, all the way from The Ranch to The DogFather's.

"I can't believe you brought your seedlings," Big Dog rolls his eyes at me. "Like they would have survived the trip?"
They did look sad. I had put the trays into a plastic container but couldn't decide if it was better to put a cover on the container and protect the seedlings from wind or if they needed the sun more. In the end, I opted not to cover them. Bad choice.

The little okra sprouts were all mashed against the dirt. Out of all the lettuce sprouts, I think 3 survived. It was too depressing to deal with and it was already late by the time we got to Lancaster.

"I'll do something about it tomorrow," I say and leave the container on the front porch.

Lo and behold! The next morning I go out to get the container of seed trays and…THERE'S A GIANT BEAN STALK! Actually, no, there is no giant bean stalk, but the plants that managed to survive the roadtrip have doubled in size! There is some kind of magic in the air……and in the night sky, a sexy sliver of a crescent moon with it's own big bright star.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Faraway Eyes

It was another gorgeous day as we drove over the hill and out of our valley on Thursday. Los Osos Valley was a patchwork of dazzling greens and chocolate browns appliquéd with brown and black and white cows. It doesn't last long, unfortunately, when you are driving a truck, however. In no time at all, you are in the town of San Luis Obispo and the south end of town is mostly housing developments and strip malls.

San Luis Obispo…the beach towns of Avila, Shell and Pismo…Arroyo Grande…Nipomo…

Big Dog had read on some website that the gas station at Tefft in Nipomo was the cheapest in Central Cal, so we get off 101 to fill up, only to find that we could have gotten gas for a penny less just before we got on the 101.

Late in leaving the ranch, it was already after 4pm when we filled up and if we were driving to Santa Monica, BD would have been going insane thinking about the hellish traffic ahead, but we were heading to the Antelope Valley, turning onto Highway 166 just before Santa Maria.

166 takes you through the Cuyama Valley, to Maricopa on the edge of the San Joaquin Valley. There is something wild and raw and captivating about the Cuyama Valley. As you go further east, the land gets drier and even wilder. Cattle ranches turn to brush, then large stretches of barren nothing. My mother who was born and brought up in Shitamachi (the old part of Tokyo,) and can't understand why I would want to live outside a city, sees absolutely nothing in barren land, but vast stretches of land untouched by human hands never ceases to make my heart sing. I figure it's my father's DNA speaking -- pulling me back to the open dusty fields of his Manchurian Life.

I remember going to a tiny town near the north end of the Big Island (Hawaii) when I was in my early 20's and seeing a Nisei grandmother shopping at the only store in this town. "She had faraway eyes -- vision not shortened by life in the city," I wrote in my journal. Well, it might have been different words, but I still remember how connected I felt to this beautiful, wrinkled lady and secretly hoping that one day, I, too, will have that "look."

Maybe I already do, I think, as I narrow my already narrow eyes.

The orange groves start just before Maricopa, and then, as you approach the I-5, the vineyards begin. The Grapevine Pass…Gorman…Hungry Valley…Tejon Ranch…I wonder if it's changed much over the years. Aside from a few truck stops, it's still relatively undeveloped here. We turn off the I-5 before it heads into Canyon Country and take the highway that turns into Avenue G…and before you know it, we are standing in front of The DogFather.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dogtown Dramas

We are leaving Rancho Kuma today, for the DogFather's place. He's just gone under the knife and we'll be there to help him around as he recuperates.

Big Dog has not put the ranch up for sale yet, although all the paperwork is in place to do so. Somehow I keep hoping he'll have a change of heart. That hope has lifted my spirits the last few days, as we went on a watering/tidying spree. And yesterday, much more was on my mind than losing the ranch…

"Do you know if The Girls took Pooka somewhere?" I asked BD. "She's nowhere to be seen…" We call Horse Girl and her mom "The Girls," collectively. Pooka is their 15 year old Chihuahua.
"You know, I went to give them a treat last night and only saw Magic. I thought Pooka was just in her house, so I said to hell with it and gave the whole milk bone to Magic."

What could have happened? Pooka's an old girl, so I sure hope she didn't have a heart attack in the middle of the night… I go to her house in the orchard and pull out the quilt that she likes to hide under. She's not there, but there IS the tiniest beige frog.

Oh, my god, she's been turned into a frog!! (I am suddenly Delmar of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- "He's been turned into a toad!")

I look around the Waka Orchard as I water the 10 apple trees, hoping I don't come across a Pooka corpse.

"Unlikely. Magic would have raised a ruckus if anything happened to Pooka while they were there," I think.
"Magic, where's Pooka?" I keep asking. Magic, thinking I am asking him if he wants a treat, wags his butt (he has only the smallest stub of a tail, so wags his entire butt when excited.)
"Maybe she became Bob's dinner," I wonder. "Like little kitty, Tabiko…"
No one has seen Tabiko since…well, since I saw Bob near the creek. We all suspect foul play. Pooka being the next smallest creature on the ranch, might have been Bob's dinner the night before. Who's next?

"Scruffy?" asks BD.
"Naw. Signor Gatto is street smart, or rather, farm smart. He can hold his own."
"Yeah, fat old Patches might be next."

All day, we wonder. Did Pooka get crushed under the wheels of one of the nursery trucks? Eaten by Bob? Strangled by a gopher snake? Carried off by a falcon? Mauled to death by Ty and Pepper who decided they had enough of her barking incessantly? Or secretly killed by Magic? I don't know how to break the news to The Girls, but I having to tell them that Pooka is missing is waaaay better than having to tell them that she's dead.

When Horse Girl comes back from school, that's what I do.

"We haven't seen Pooka all day."
"Ooooooh, didn't Mom tell you guys? Jeez. Mom took her to Lee's because all that barking got to be too annoying. Lee's got an old dog, too, and it's like Old Folks Home there, with the two dogs yapping all day long."

Mom seems to be on a We're Going To Straighten Things Up Here Campaign. Today she tells us that in two weeks Magic is scheduled to get "fixed." Guess there will be lots of Ch-ch-ch-changes in Dogtown while we are away!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Happy Chappies

Bob, the bobcat, is NOT a bobcat but a MOUNTAIN LION! I guess people who know more about Big Cats than I had already figured that out from my ignorant entry. A BOBCAT has a bobbed tail (duh) and is smaller than a mountain lion, maybe 15 inches high at the shoulders. It also has black spots. A MOUNTAIN LION is larger (the size of a Lab??), has a long heavy tail, no spots and is either gray or tawny.

We had the organic farm people over last night, along with S, the Ranger Lady, who lives on our property, Colorado J, who had asked me why I knew Bob was a bobcat and the rest of our Ranch Family. The farm people and S were all excited when it turned out that Bob was a mountain lion -- sightings are much rarer. Too bad I didn't have my camera!

Jim, from the farm, brought some more of their outrageous strawberries and we all sampled the three different varieties -- Albion, Chandler and Seascape -- waxing poetic about them like wine. I couldn't pick a favorite. Some of us preferred Albion, the hot, new variety. It's firmer and has a sharper, zippier strawberry taste. Tastes like it would go fabulously with champagne. Chandler has the most traditionally "strawberry" flavor. And the Seascape berries seemed smaller but the sweetest, mellowest.

"I'm grumpy and grouchy when my strawberries aren't doing well," Jim laughed.
"Well, then, you must be a very happy chappy right now!" we laughed with him.

I must admit, although I was bummed out at having damaged my PowerBook (slid off the dining table and hit the stone floor -- she's still up and running, thank god, but the fall dented the bottom left corner and now she won't close) and with the news that we will have to leave this ranch momentarily next week for who knows how long, when I was popping those strawberries in my mouth, I was a Very Happy Chappy, too.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


J came by yesterday, on his way out of town for another series of horse events, with two tubs of strawberries from the Organic Farm. When he commented on how good the strawberry pie was the day before, I told him, "If you bring some of those strawberries over, I'll make the pie." So, there he was, with the berries.

I had sort of made a deal with the farm people while we were over there on Sunday -- apples for strawberries -- but apple season is a long ways away and I didn't want to go get my berries so soon after we spoke about it. Maybe I'll go and bond with them a bit more before being so brazen, I thought.

You'd think that with this fab weather and all these luscious strawberries, I'd be in great spirits but there's a dark cloud on the horizon. Big Dog has decided that he wants to sell the ranch, and while I am contemplating buying him out of his share, realistically, I don't think that will happen. I've been trying to meditate on the transitory state of everything -- it's ridiculous to hold onto anything since we lose all of it one day -- but I need another lifetime of training before I can really put aside all desire. What's happening with me is just denial, I know. I want to hold on to this land forever. I don't want to let go. I have strong desires and because of that I also have fierce feelings of jealousy. But I am also good at denial. I tell myself that I am looking forward to the adventures I will have once this ranch is gone. I tell myself that if the world is my home, then why should I be stuck in only one part of it forever? I tell myself a lot of things to make it easier, but I still love her and my heart aches at the thought of having to give her up, let her go. Sigh.

Even the animals seem to sense it -- they look sad. Magic, the blue eyed Shepard, has been moping and the horses don't like goofing around with me anymore. The chickens no longer peck at my blue and silver toes.

Strangely, though, the cats come to me more -- maybe cats like melancholy! Day before yesterday, I went to investigate a commotion near the creek. There's some kind of animal there. The size of a Labrador, dust colored. When it turns around, I see a giant cat face. It's a bobcat! It looks at me for a while, then turns around and heads back towards the creek. In the late afternoon light, it, too, looked a little sad…

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Friends & Neighbors

Wow. A week since my last entry. I really have fallen off the face of the planet. But you'll be interested to know that we are starting to socialize a bit here at the ranch. Thanks to others around us!

First, we met two thirds of our easterly neighbor. PG&E had to get an easement from us so that they could move a telephone pole out of our neighbor's front pasture. We had heard about them ("The old man's a kind of a hermit but he got together with this woman who had two children and when the daughter was old enough, he got more interested in her…") and often hear this creepy radio sound coming out of an old abandoned truck in their yard, but the mother and daughter finally came around to our place to explain the telephone pole situation ("We want to build a barn but the pole's in the way…") In doing so, we found out that 1) the old man is now married to the daughter (!) and 2) the mother has been banished to a trailer (!)

Then we met Miguel's family yesterday.

Miguel is a classmate of Horse Girl. His family recently moved into our valley, into a strange building across the street that looks like a giant barn. This is a temporary home for them while they rebuild their home. We had heard from the mother/daughter of Incestuous Family that the owners had built this structure to be a giant barn with living quarters above it, but when they were told by the county that they couldn't build their main home ("The living quarters above the barn have a full kitchen and bath, so that's it.") they moved somewhere else. I'm not sure who owns it now, but in any case, the owners don't live there. Miguel's Very Large Family does.

(At this point, I must tell you that "across the street" is on the other side of the creek and past two big pastures, but in a place like where you are "neighbors" if you live in the same valley, they're almost next door neighbors.)

It was Cinco de Mayo and Horse Girl, her mom, Big Dog and I were invited to their place for a barbeque. We were the only guests but with Mammy and Pappy, two sisters, two brothers, a fiancé, a Very Pregnant Chihuahua, a spotlight chasing Stud Chihuahua and a black and white terrier, we were quite the party! (Miguel also has another brother and sister who weren't there.

While Pappy was grilling the chicken and carne asada and Mammy was roasting some pumpkin seeds (yummm!) Miguel showed us the strange building.

"Wow. It's a giant garage!" Big Dog was impressed. Maybe as impressed with the size as much as with all of Pappy Felix's landscaping tools and vehicles.
"Wow. What a cool place to have something like a rave!" I said.
"Yeah. Wouldn't it be awesome?" Horse Girl agreed.
"And guess what this is?" Miguel asked, pointing to something that looked like a concrete bathroom stall , except with a standard white entry door.
"A toilet?" Big Dog thought of the obvious.
"It's an elevator! It goes upstairs," Miguel told us.
Oh. It would have been much more interesting if the elevator went DOWN into yet another cavernous room.

Already, I was waaaay over my Social Activity Quota. Not only had I been having my "Meet The Neighbors" Week, but our friend, J, from Tokyo/Tennessee/Colorado is staying on our ranch during the winter (when he's not out at all these horse events -- which is to say, maybe a night or two a week) and he and the Glass Blower who lives above him had been over to our house several times during the past 10 days.

So did we stay home today, having a quiet dinner by ourselves? No. Big Dog and I went with J to meet yet more neighbors. I guess you can call them neighbors, even though they are on the other side of the hill and not in our valley.

These people live at the entrance to our No Way Out road and run a horse boarding facility and organic farm. It's where J kept his horses last winter and will do so again, starting this week.

My farming is all play compared to what these folks do. They went at it the old fashioned way -- with a down payment on the land and lots of bank loans to get going -- and have been working hard to make it all happen. Now, they have the horse boarding, a polo field, and ducks, pigs and goats in addition to the organic farm. J's friend showed us her tiny miniature pony, a pretty, blue-eyed princess ("Her name's From Russia With Love. We call her Russia, for short.") and her adorable newborn ducks and we all marveled at how perfect the day was.

They get a lot more wind, being on the Los Osos Valley side, but Sunday was windless, sunny and warm all day and into the rose colored evening. How many times did someone point out that "this is heaven"? At least once during the orange, pink and purple sunset. Again, listening to the frogs…and seeing a shooting star…but most of all when we were scarfing down Jim's divine strawberry pie, made with their fresh organic strawberries.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Full Moon

It's a clear night tonight and we watched the full moon rising from the hills in the east. Bugs are chirping, owls are hooting. The frogs must be mating, they are making quite a racket. It's the Season of Love at The Ranch. I had to gingerly avoid spraying water over a pair of lizards engaged in their own Afternoon Delight.

I have dropped off the face of the planet again. That's what it's like when I get going here ar the ranch. I am so in the moment, every moment that I have little time or energy or patience for other things -- even other creative things. It's like a drug. The land calls out to me -- "Touch Me! Feel Me! Love Me!" -- and I can't wait to heed its call every morning.

First few weeks, we were totally immersed in weeding, hacking, hoeing, cleaning up the place, trying to resuscitate the plants that died in the frost, getting rid of the ones that are beyond resuscitation. At the end of the day, I was so at the end of my physical capacity that my hands were shaking, hardly able to grip the knife as I prepared dinner. I kept dropping stuff, each time moaning as I bent down to pick it up. And then I hit the bed.

Now, I am more physically in tune with what I am doing so it doesn't hurt as much. We've progressed to soil conditioning, planting some things, fixing the irrigation systems. There's still a lot of weeding and hoeing to do but everything is starting to look pretty sweet.

I want to write more, to draw, to make something, but I just don't have it in me right now. Work, eat, sleep. That's about it for me these days, but I am not unhappy. In fact, I am quite content… it's a Zen thing!