The thing about Liz

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I was 19 when we met. I’ll never forget the moment. She was a new waitress at a microbrewery that I was working at for the summer in Seattle. I think it’s fair to say she blasted into the place from the start—long blonde hair, sassy New York attitude, a confident smile—and made a life long impact. She was older than I was and I was in awe. We were instant friends.

I had never really thought about why I was so starstruck. She always stood out in mind as such a powerful and unique person. In thinking about her now, though, I see what was so unique about Liz.

She was truly authentic; fearlessly herself.

She was fearless in other ways too, but it was the ability to be and show herself (for better or for worse) that I admire most, what made her a real artist, and is such a huge accomplishment in life. She wasn’t afraid to fail, or take risks or work hard, or be the fool—or if she was, she didn’t let it stop her; courageous in the hardest way.

Liz was also a connector, a builder, a maker. She took action, she made things happen. She was incredibly warm and she made life exciting. She was always doing things that you had heard were off-limits. She said things no one else ever said and she laughed about them. She was honest and funny and bold and she possessed a certain kind of freedom. That summer, as we worked together serving beer, dancing, talking, staying up too late, I was drawn to how true she was, how real.

When I got a better job at Cafe Sport at Pike Place market through my friend Shannon, I got Liz a job there too, and the three of us worked together cementing our friendship into the kind of thing that doesn’t disappear just because distance and time separates you.

There’s a feeling that I’ve always had about Liz, the magic she brought into the room and the way she made life seem: everything is possible.

You will be missed.

When I’m twenty-two…

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I’m late to the Taylor Swift party. And I may not stay long.

At the 2012 Grammys, she sang her hit single, Mean, and needless-to-say, I connected. Me, and the millions of others who had already made her platinum selling album, Speak Now, a hit. Let’s face it, is there any person on the planet who can’t turn to someone and say, “Why you gotta be so mean?”

But a beautiful exclamation point on the universal story of wanting to get to the metaphorical “big city” came at Grammys. I had to reverse engineer the story, because I only listened to the original song after seeing her perform, but it was no less powerful in the remembering.

Taylor’s got two things in the story of being picked on, oppressed, and maligned that she’s aspiring to in the chorus. Living in, “a big old city” is my favorite. The quintessential get-out-of-your small-town-living-well-is-the-best-revenge-move-on dream. She’s also got, “big enough so you can’t hit me.” All you’re ever gonna be is mean, she sings.

It’s a nice when the heroine of the story looks and sounds like Taylor, and by age of twenty-two is a mega star. But that’s what makes us want to imagine that we’re her. That our little sad story ends so well; in a golden dress with a Grammy in each hand.

At one point in the song, the music stops and the beat is maintained by clapping. When that happened at the Grammys, Taylor swapped out the lyrics, “living in a big old city” for, “singing at the Grammys.”

That’s got to be a great moment to live through. Then she won a Grammy for the song, and one for best country performance.

And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.

Pay now

I’ve got a good parking situation. Both at home and at work, which is a rare thing for San Francisco. Usually, I can park in the building where I work at a greatly reduced fee. Sometimes, if that lot is full, I walk one very long block to park in another garage, also generously subsidized.

Paying at this lot has an unexpected pleasure. Going through the automated payment process gets you to this sentence (spoken by computerized woman’s voice: You can now pay in cash the amount…

I like this strange arrangement; a tune I can’t get out of my head. In my mind’s eye, it is unpunctuated, pure.

It reminded me of the first writing class I ever took. It was with Daphne Merkin, a writer I love and admire. There was a Japanese woman in the class who wrote these wonderfully evocative sentences, as only someone writing in a second language (with a lot of talent) could muster. I was doubly jealous, of the second language, and the sentence construction.

A colleague recently asked me if I was going to suggest a certain writing rule at my company. I said no. I like rules, but mainly so they can be beautifully broken.

birthday cupcakes 2012; who’s in charge?

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Chemistry is important. I’ve written about this before here. I like to watch whipped butter lighten or sugar transform. But this year, around M’s birthday, I was busy. I found one cupcake recipe that sounded good but called for three sticks of butter for twelve cupcakes. Uh… and it took an hour of prep.

So I turned to Cooks Illustrated, where after “much testing,” they dumped all the ingredients (and just 1 stick of butter) into a kitchen aid and mixed for 30 seconds. Voila! as they say. Then I doubled the recipe (again) and made another twenty-four.

I had picked out this lovely butterfly pattern for decorating but M overruled me (she’s about to be 6). She wanted Backyardigans and Backyardigans only, which meant a Backyardigans ring set in the middle of green (like a backyard) frosting. I got to add the dark green sugar and purple sprinkles. And that’s what it was.

I’ll post the recipe shortly. And here’s the frosting (minus the lemon zest) + food coloring.

the hands that wind the clock of fate

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It makes sense to have a plan B. Good, practical, common sense, especially if your plan A involves making it as a painter, actor, writer, or singer. It’s what your parents want for you. It what you have to do, just in case.

But, in watching The Voice (TV) an oh-so-guilty pleasure, I’ve started to think about what it means to have a plan B. Most singers on TV are working, somewhere, somehow; they are all dreaming, and mostly they are really good.

It got me thinking, though, some people have a plan for when they fail and some people don’t. I don’t know if that’s more a function of stuff behind the scenes, like how much money they have in savings, if they have families that can support them or if it’s really about how much they believe in their own talent (and then, if they are delusional or not).

Of course, talent as we know, is just a small percentage of what you need to go the distance. Hard work, luck, good timing, these are the hands that wind the clock of fate. So having a plan B makes sense and yet a part of me has this feeling like if you really want it, don’t bother.

Maybe it’s a function of youth and how much time you think you have, and where you are before other responsibilities alter your priorities. I haven’t settled on an answer to which is the best way, but I do love to watch them reach.

Mathai on The Voice

In Africa…

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My grandma is blessed with the most excellent, innate, and timeless style of anyone I have ever known. As I tried on a red knit hat with an oversized flower that I got as a holiday gift this year she said, “It will look better with your hair down.” And it did, of course.

At ninety, my grandma has Parkinson’s disease, and very serious memory loss. Sometimes, she cannot remember what has happened in the prior sentence, ending one definitive statement about something with a question about what has just happened. “It was so great to see them,” she says. “Is it just us here today?” She will often remark on the darkness of the night. Again and again. The darkest night she has ever seen. What day is it? Isn’t it dark tonight? What day is it? Isn’t it dark tonight? This is the darkest night I have ever seen.

I modify and streamline my answers until my response is honed and perfected. Yes, the darkest night on the longest day in December. She nods. Isn’t it dark tonight?

Some number of years ago, and before it came back into fashion, my grandma suggested I purchase a white shag rug for my living room. That was a year or so before everyone started doing it. Her apartment still looks modern, although now some of the paint near the top of the 13 foot ceilings show their age. The rugs are slightly worn, but still lively with color. But the chocolate brown wall in the dining room is still perfect.

My grandma has never really worked, she but was the daughter of an immigrant who did. My great grandma was a single mom, before the term had been coined. She owned and ran a successful business when women were thought incapable of it, and later, she bought and managed real estate properties, and her son joined her in the business. Not her daughter.

She raised her daughter very carefully. My grandma was excellent pianist, careful not to to play tennis so as not to damage her hands. She was charming. She elevated conversation to an art; you were lucky to be seated next to her at dinner. She knew just how to go to lunch, buy the best presents for friends. She gave lovely dinner parties, dressed beautifully, shopped creatively, wore her hair just right. She was current on art, music, theater, ballet, opera. I still have and love Japanese flower scissors she bought for me from Takashyimaya on 5th Avenue. They are beautiful.

She always knew what color to paint the walls. You would still choose the same wallpaper she has in her den (if you could find it) even 42 years later. All this is not to say she was perfect, that she did every thing right, that she didn’t struggle with not having a career, or never becoming a concert pianist, or raising her three children. She was human. I know many people feel that, especially for women, pursuit of excellence in the aforementioned areas is considered worthless, or even demeaning, but for my grandma, it was a life well lived. She seems to be the last of certain kind of person. Her life was her art, and she, the maestro.

“It is not easy being a woman in Africa,” says Issac Denison in Out of Africa (played by Meryl Streep). Or any place else for that matter. And the rules of womanhood, femininity, equal rights, equal pay, stay- at-home-moms, right-to-life, when to get married, and many other issues will not be settled anytime soon. I am not convinced anyone knows, well enough, the answers to these questions.

When I was 13, she gave me just the right length pearl necklace for a girl that age, with an extra strand to add when I turned 16. You may not have known that there is an  appropriate length necklace for a girl that age, but there is. And it does not change with fashion or time. Before she lost too much of her memory, she gave me another set of pearls that had been hers, the grown-up version. She knew many secrets in that magical process of turning a girl into a woman. They have not been lost.

She is a kind, wonderful, lovely person, even now, even though she is not who she was. There are still the same moments of grace and kindness and charm in her. When I am in her apartment, there are many memories. Opening the medicine cabinet in the guest bathroom, I remember, many years ago, when I accidentally broke an expensive bottle of perfume. I was horrified, but she didn’t get angry, she didn’t even seem upset. She just wanted to make sure I wasn’t hurt. She got married at 22 and has been married for 68 years. My grandfather is with her still, taking care of her, making sure these final years are okay.

A friend of mine told me recently that if you go to a foreign country and teach a man English, the language will be lost in one generation. But, if you teach a woman, the language lives forever because she will teach her children, and so on, and so on…

Password as mantra or, a short tour of my brain

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I type in my password countless times in a day, even though I’ve got it saved into various browsers. Still. I’ve got a good password too. My fingers skim over the keys with the lightest provocation, the briefest glace at an empty password box. Recently, gmail suggested that I change my old password, which I did.

As I was thinking about what to change it to, an incident from the night before came to mind which I remade into a concise reminder for myself. Then I proceeded to type it a million times as I changed all my passwords, and I felt it reverberate around my brain.

That reminded me of something Rabbi Mordecai Finley said once a long time ago when I attended Ohr HaTorah, a synagogue in Los Angeles. He told one of those little anecdotes: once his watch was broken and it beeped every five minutes and he couldn’t figure out how to turn it off and it was driving him crazy. Then he decided to think of God every time the watch beeped and use that previously annoying beep to think about God (I’m paraphrasing, but something like that).

It’s an obvious and good idea. So I remade my password into a little something I wanted to remind myself of, a lot, since it was going to be in my brain a lot.

Rabbi Finley, by the way, is one of my favorite living thinkers. His teachings/talks are an amazing cross between pysch/philosophy/religion/self-help/moral code/linguistics. They are filled with scientific and literary references… anyway I could go on, but you can listen for yourself🙂

Interestingly, I happened to see Race at ACT a month or so ago with friends. David Mamet’s whole author’s notes in the playbill were about Rabbi Finley and some ideas that he turned Mamet onto. I can’t say I was in agreement about the politics, but I wasn’t surprised to see that Mamet had been influenced by Finley. He’s that good.

I always remembered the thing about the watch.