Don’t Be a Stranger

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The night my mom came back from the hospital, I installed myself in my childhood room next to hers and decided to finally tackle the unwieldy bookshelf, a tall, white, unsteady Ikea number, which looms over the head of the bed (unattached to the wall of course).

I started by removing the knickknacks. The wooden red devil face mask, which came from…where? Did I bring it back from Morelia after that spring quarter abroad my freshman year? That would be consistent with the book near it on the shelf, Distant Neighbors, which was assigned reading for that class (Span 4x5x was it?). Worth rereading? Not sure.

I pulled down three soccer trophies. Only one of them is somewhat special me. I was eight. We were the Cheetahs. We wore purple and white and made it all the way to the final, championship game. In overtime, I broke free, my thin body streaking down the field, my thick, helmet-cut blond hair flapping in the breeze. The goalie ran out to stop me. I shrugged, laughed, dribbled around him and buried the ball in the back of the net to win the championship for the Cheetahs.

I toss that a trophy into a plastic “Maybe” bin.

There is also a large Peewee Herman doll sitting on the shelf, but I swear that’s not mine. It appeared at some point…I suspect my sister. I’m not saying Peewee didn’t play a crucial role in my life. He actually did. When my dad died, my brother, sister and I watched his first movie and laughed and laughed. Then we watched it again. And again. It has been woven into the fabric of our sibling jokes ever since. “I like you, Dotty, LIKE.” “I can’t hear you, the connection’s really bad [sounds of static].” And, of course, the laugh itself.

After the knickknacks, I go to the books. Some Tintin comic books (why haven’t I rescued these already?!), a bunch of Latin American Studies books, books in Spanish, random novels which have floated in from other sources. Amid all the madness, I pull out a tattered copy of Notebooks 1935-1942 by Albert Camus. This is clearly from my dad’s books.

Camus started a literary notebook when he was 22 and these notebooks are filled with bits of dialogue, ideas for novels, plays and essays and stories, favorite quotes, and descriptions of the view outside his window on travels. In his twenties, Camus was already incredibly wise. By 29, he had published The Stranger. By 44, he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As I read, I am lost half the time but still moved by the beauty of his thoughts. As an added bonus, my dad, gone now 30 years, has underlined favorite passages, which we get to both enjoy now together. Here’s one:

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Over the next few nights, while my mom recovers from a fall and broken ribs and a collapsed lung, I return to my bed in the wee hours after checking on her and flip open this book with the crackling old cover, and read these words, “and this great sob of poetry makes me forget the truth of the world.”

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If They Can Do It In Mexico City…

One plush Sunday morning in La Condesa neighborhood, Mexico City, my family of four hopped on bicicletas and rolled down to the corner of our tree-lined street, rode a block to the right, and came to an intersection occupied by a special tent and a team of bike helpers. Feeling deflated? They got you. Need a spokes-person? Bike tools and expertise await. From here we were tapped into 35 miles of closed roads and safe bicycle passage through Mexico City.

This happens every Sunday in Mexico City.

We rolled through neighborhoods and were periodically stopped at intersections by helpers with little stop signs. Many of them pulled out megaphones and rattled off bicycle safety speeches before the light changed. Then they waved us along, imploring us to have “un día excelente!”

We rode up to the main drag, Paseo de la reforma, circled fountains and statues, zipped around rollerbladers, and cruised without problem.

The fact that a megalopolis of 21 plus million with a history of “creative” (digamos) driving can pull this off blows my mind. In the Bay Area there is occasionally a “Sunday Streets” event where a few blocks are closed off in Berkeley or San Francisco, and it’s great, but it always feels like such a novelty, and if you miss it, you miss it. This is clear, exciting proof we can do much, much better.

After a long cruise down Paseo de la reforma, we rolled up in front of el Palacio de Bellas Artes. From there, it was an easy roll to the main Zócalo itself, again filled with soccer fans, where we happened to arrive in time to watch on the big screen as the Russians knocked Spain out of the Copa Mundial with penalty kicks.

Our final stretch took us all the way back up Reforma to beautiful Chapultepec Park and where we strolled through the song of the venders and rode back to our neighborhood to complete a great day on two wheels.

Grab an elote in the Zocalo before bed.

Zócalo

The Zócalo. Ancient center of Tenochitlan, where Moctezuma II might have gone for a smoke. Next door to the National Palace, where Diego painted his incredible history of Mexico. A place to swear in a viceroy or to protest a rigged election.

Or a place to watch the World Cup. They are broadcasting La Copia Mundial, on a giant screen placed before the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos (don’t forget the “a los cielos” hombre!). Tens of thousands have gathered. The national flag flaps above you as you maneuver for a good view of Mexico versus Sweden. With every near miss of Chicharito, the crowd oohs and ahhs and moans in agony. With every amazing save by Memo Ochoa, the crowd goes wild. It’s electric. If only they could get the elusive “gollllllllllllllllllll!” the plaza could go nuts.

But they don’t. And Sweden scores. And scores again. And you hear a man say, “Adiós México de la mundial.” And you hear a boy say, “C#&@% tu madre.”

As it nears the end of the game, those who have studied their flow charts are asking, what about Germany? What about South Korea? Is there still a chance? For some reason there is no cell phone service in the ancient plaza and the municipal government doesn’t seem to have ponied up for the rights to broadcast the other game (it has something to do with Carlos Slim), so information is at a minimum. Then, suddenly, announcer comes on and suddenly tells the thousands that Germany is still tied 0 – 0 with South Korea and the crowd goes bonkers, bouncing, applauding, smiling.

But who could really hope that Germany would not score a late goal against South Korea? It’s what they do, after all. They have no interest in Cinderella stories. They crush hope for breakfast.

We wait. Mexico is now losing 3-0. They try desperately to get a goal. Then, a rapid fire announcement rolls over the crowd and they burst into a roar of applause. We bounce up and down and cheer too. Then we wonder, why are we cheering? Did the Koreans escape the final whistle? No, they scored a goal! Soon, another goal! Both games end. The Mexican players are on the field, crying, tragic, but the fans in the stadium have gotten word and are jumping up and down and we are jumping up and down, chanting, “Ko-re-a! Ko-re-a!”

It’s a strange scene in the Zócalo.

Later, as one driver put it to me, there is a great celebration of the loss. A mariachi band is sent to the South Korean embassy. The consul general is carried around on the shoulders of Mexican fans chanting, “Coreano, hermano, ahora eres Mexicano!” It is a strange path to citizenship and to the next round of the World Cup.

Days later, we return to the Zócalo after a long bike ride, rolling up just in time to see Russia knock off Spain in penalty kicks. The crowd appears to have mixed loyalties. Here, where Hernan Cortés launched New Spain, the giant screen, blocking the cathedral, portrays the Spanish being vanquished from la Copa Mundial.

Chapultepec Park

 

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Saturday, one day before the Presidential Election, two days before the next World Cup game.

Turbulencia

We flew into Mexico with the lightning. The flight attendant pressed the button and said, “For the next hour we will be in danger of turbulence” and I wanted to point out to him that for a moment there he had just told a plane full of people, “For the next hour we will be in danger…” I wanted to tell him, hombre, you can’t take that back. That shit is frozen in our bloodstream and bones. If cannibals eat us for lunch one day they will find the fear of that moment inside of us. He then did the whole thing over in Spanish and the other half of the plane fainted.

I braced myself for el peligro de la turbulencia, but to be honest it never came. The plane flew strong and true through dark clouds and flashes of lightning, as if we were being reborn, viajeros, Mexican travelers, and soon we were looking out on a city that never ends. We went lower and Milo said, “It has a lot of trees” and then we landed and the wheels held firm on wet tarmac, which to me is like a milagro and we were there, which is here, in the city of some 20 million, seven thousand feet into the clouds, in the final week of remarkable presidential elections, in the midst of World Cup mania: Mexico City.

Perspective

In the final month leading up to our big family trip to Mexico, it dawned on us that some people get “travel shots” before they head off to foreign lands. We raised the issue with a few friends and they said the same thing, “As long as you don’t eat street food you’ll be fine.” At this point we would all look at each other because so far our research consisted of googling best street food in Mexico City and best street food in Oaxaca. This feedback set a process in motion.

Next thing you know, it’s the morning of our trip and we have to stop at the Kaiser Injection Clinic to get Maya’s typhoid shot because she was too busy with school and then camp and, well, here’s the last chance. The Oakland Kaiser Injection Clinic for kids, some of you may know, is on the 11th floor of an old building. We arrived en masse, family + suitcases + backpacks, rode the elevator up 11 floors and then sat down at the end of the hall to wait.

We had been running around nonstop for a couple weeks, with Amy trying to get an impossible amount of work done, with me dealing with an injured cat (apparently a cat fight, hurt paw, infection, he’s all right!), with trip logistics, with housesitter logistics, crossing off items from our to do lists, and now the last item was crossed out except for “Maya shot” and here we where on the 11th floor, outside the Injection Clinic, about to hop the Kaiser shuttle to the MacArthur BART to SFO and off to Mexico City. Our belongings now rode on wheels at the end of a long handle. We were free of work and cars and day-to-day life.

In this first moment of travel, adventure, escape, transition, I glanced out the window of the 11th floor.

Down below I saw a home town filled with trees and nice houses and inviting hills. I thought, why the heck are we leaving this place?! I thought, this is it. I thought, I’m alive and this is going to be awesome. Maya emerged with a band-aid on her shoulder.

Adventure on.

Coming Soon

Mr. Peabody Goes to Mexico!

Imagine

Imagine writing something just because you wanted to, because the words were like dancers there to follow your commands. Imagine feeling free and easy with these straight and curved lines, enough that a glance around the room could be quickly captured in a flash of code and meaning, sent out to the far reaches of the reading universe. Suddenly a man at a Turkish cafe looks over from his backgammon game, reads his phone (much to the annoyance of Orhan), nods, wipes away a tear and rolls the dice. Life changing? Perhaps not. But liberating.

Sandwich Log: Roasted Pepper and Goat Cheese

First attempt. I had blindly printed up a recipe from the Barefoot Contessa and added the ingredients to Amy’s shopping list. Now I settle into my laboratory today to make this sandwich for the first time. Only now do I notice such phrases as “place in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes” followed by “set aside for 30 minutes” followed by “refrigerate for a few hours to allow the flavors to blend.”

Blend this, buddy. You think I’ve got all day? I’m hungry now. This freaking thing has you roasting the red peppers whole and then, presumably, reaching into their burning flesh and tearing out burning seeds, ripping off volcanic stems, then shoving them into the deep freeze, then pulling them out to marinate, then in again…

I decide to go with what I know.

I cut up the peppers intro strips, of course carefully clapping the halves of the peppers together over the compost can to send seeds flying into the sink, the floor, and onto the wall. I dump them on a pan, oil, salt, pepper, and mix them all up. As usual, I’ve used way too much oil, so I wipe up a bunch with a paper towel and chuck that as well.

I slide the pan into the oven. The recipe called for 500 degree super roasting of the whole peppers. Normally, I’d roast the strips at, what, maybe 450 tops, but I’m too lazy and just leave it at 500. After a while, I check them and they’re quickly blackening. I give the pan a shake, which does nothing, and close the oven door, clapping my hands together like a real chef. I think about it and then remember that in the past I’ve decided that it’s actually worth carefully flipping flippable roasting things in the oven to get them roasted just right. I pull out the pan and use tongs to flip each and every pepper. Must have been 27. I put it back in. A master chef.

I’m supposed to use a delicious loaf of ciabatta but yesterday Amy went to the store late in the afternoon and all they had left were baguettes. I could criticize Amy’s choice of store-going, except she was hoping I would go earlier and I didn’t. Somehow I end up getting out of going and it involves teen logic as Maya wants me to catch up to them in watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” so we can all properly binge. The baguettes give me an out when the sandwich doesn’t taste right. This is known as the baguette clause. So I cut the baguette and toast it.

I mix up the olive oil, balsamic, garlic, salt and pepper. The recipe calls for two heaping tablespoons of salt. I cut that in half, which still seems like a lot. Now I pull the peppers out and mix them around in this little vinaigrette, stirring in capers. I can’t say I’ve ever added capers to something before (I’ve also never spelled vinaigrette before. Quick, close your eyes and spell it.)

Now it’s time. I slap on a layer of goat cheese to the bread, add a layer of roasted peppers with drizzled vinaigrette, some fresh basil leaves, three thin strips of red onion each, a dash of salt and pepper, top bread, and there it is! Sounds good, right? I serve one to Amy and one to Maya and we eat them without comment. No “Oh my god!” No “Wait, is that vinaigrette?!” They just munch on the day-old baguettes and finish off the sandwiches.

I shake my head and laugh. “Baguettes! Am I right?”

Nothing.