Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Wind Blow Straight From Hell Jeep

When I was 15 we went to Hawaii for Christmas. We flew into Honolulu…I love the Hawaiian language; although, it is more fun to speak it than to write it. We rented a jeep. A decade and a half later the “Wind Blown Straight From Hell Jeep” still lives in infamy in our family lore. Even I have to admit, it seemed like a good idea at the time. And, besides Kali Murphy’s family had rented one when they went the year before and I wanted one too!

Of course we had to unzip all of the Jeep’s plastic windows and put the top down. It was great driving out of the airport, zipping through Honolulu. Air is different everywhere you go. I can still recall the delicate and fragrant humidity nestling up against my epidermis and lapping back and forth between layers of skin like gentle tides on a sandy shore. Stopped at stop signs, the heat wrapped around our shoulders like a tropical version of the stylish Parisian pashmina. My very straight and very long baby fine hair just laid on my back, too dense for the hot moisture to creep between the strands and raise hell like it was doing to my mom and my sister. Their hair had quickly turned into half curly, half straight messes. I smugly chuckled to myself, and am almost positive that my mom caught me in the rearview mirror, because she took a sharp right and rapidly accelerated onto the freeway, quickly passing the much slower local drivers.

My sister and I fought over everything. One of the most coveted things in our young lives was the front seat of the car. My mom devised a brilliant plan that quickly put an end to all the fights over the automotive throne. Since my birthday is on the 23rd, and my sister’s is on the 20th on all of the odd days the throne is mine. Even though we are both well into our adult lives now, this practice is still used whenever the two of us are riding in the same car. And, it is how I came to be seated in the back of “The Wind Blown Straight From Hell Jeep” that fateful Hawaiian afternoon as three tourists made their way to the North Shore for Christmas.

My long hair quickly became a hair hurricane, a furious flurry funnel whipped into a frenzy on top of my head. My hair was going every direction, except the strands that were stuck in my lip gloss like hand prints in the sidewalk concrete. I would like to share the details of the Hawaiian country side speeding by us, but I couldn’t see a thing. It was a plot from a crossover movie of the Adam’s Family and National Lampoon’s Family Vacation and I was playing the love child of Chevy Chase and Cousin It. Even my follicles were flipping out.

“MOM! MOM! DO YOU HAVE AN EXTRA HAIR CLIP?” my shouts didn’t make it through the hair barrier.

“What, I can’t hear you, it’s too windy.”


She didn’t even pretend to ignore me, but looked at my mom and laughed. It was a two hour ride to the North Shore. I was going to have to devise a MacGyver like hair contraption if my mane was going to make it. I fished around in my backpack and pulled out a long sleeve shirt I wore on the plane ride over. I lifted it up to my forehead when a gust of wind went straight up and over the front windshield, missing the front seat and was sucked into the backseat. I managed to get the sleeves tied around my head but the torso of the shirt was flapping about madly in my face. I tried to smooth it over my head to contain my locks but then the wind got underneath it and flung the shirt off my head and out of the back of the Jeep. There was no hope.

I begged my mom to pull over. I knew there were extra hair-ties in my toiletry kit, if I could just get to it. My mom maneuvered the jeep to the right lane. The black of the asphalt began to fade as we slowed, and I could see the red volcanic dirt on the shoulder. My hair finally calmed down. I reached back to smooth it out but my hand got stuck in a giant nest. It was tied together in finely woven knots that my fingers, and even finger nails couldn’t comb through. My hair had congealed together and formed a dreadlock for survival. I managed to find a hair tie and pulled the majority of my hair back. I threw on a baseball cap for added protection. As we moved back on to the highway and sped up another gust of wind whisked into the backseat, lifted the bill of my cap off my face when another gust that felt like it was coming from the side launched the hat completely off my head. Another article of clothing lost to the Wind Blown Straight From Hell Jeep.

At this point even I had to laugh. However, to this day I have an irrational fear of dreadlocks.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Chicken Stock

I’m reading The Pat Conroy Cookbook, Recipes of My Life right now. I just read him for the first time over the Christmas holiday when I stole my Aunt Julie’s copy of South of Broad, her gift from my Uncle Jeff, before she could get her hands on it. I’d heard of Conroy before, I’m sure most people have. Prince of Tides: Barbara Streisand, Nick Nolte. But that was all I knew, and I never actually saw the movie.

I was hooked after the first paragraph.

His words, his sentences, the way he fits them together to evoke images and emotions are truly a gift, to the one who possesses it and those who it is shared with. I consider myself lucky to have collective and personal memories of some of the places that Conroy holds dear to his heart, they are in mine as well. I spent summers in the South Carolina low country. I spent my summer breaks playing in the inter-coastal waterways, where violent and beautiful summer storms sparked by afternoon humidity and low pressure systems moving off the coast lit up the sky and shuttered in my soul. Thunder storms still make me feel like I am 8 years old laying in the hallway underneath the skylight in my Grandma Ann’s house on Hilton Head Plantation.

I had to leave my Aunt Julie’s house half way through South of Broad—because of work, not because of the book. As soon as I got home I ordered my own copy from Amazon. I usually can’t stand being up-sold but Amazon got me this time, and I am glad they did. It was brought to my attention that people who bought South of Broad also like Recipes of My Life. I’m half way through Recipes of My Life and I love it. The short stories accompanying each recipe are so delicious you could scoop them off the page with a spoon.

“The making of stock is for poets and philosophers, dreamers and deep thinkers with a dinner party coming up populated by only people you love.” Pat Conroy, Recipes of My Life

I’m sitting on my couch with the smell of thyme rising from the chicken stock simmering on my stove. Like finally getting around to reading Conroy, cooking is something I’ve always wanted to do. I mean real cooking. I can prepare meals but cooking is different. I’m sitting here writing while the stock is wafting through my house, and I’m wondering what took me so long. The smell is wrapped around me like a blanket. It is new and old at the same time. I started with the chicken, picked it a part, like a moment that unfolds into a story. I halved and quartered the onion, pulled its layers back like revealing the subtext of those moments in a story, with tears in my eyes. I added in the supporting cast, carrots and celery, and gave the leading role, accidentally to thyme. This story isn’t over yet and I don’t know what I’m going to make with my chicken stock, but like any good story, you don’t know exactly what you are going to get out of it until it’s done.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hey Hey Susita

Since I was whining about genre in my last post I figured I'd better switch things up this time. Here's a little poem thing. When I read it, I sing it to myself--in my head, even I don't want to hear my singing voice out loud. I don't play guitar or piano or anything except the radio but maybe someone will read this and strum a little melody to sing it to. have fun.

Hey Hey Susita

You blew into town

And burned my tera cota childhood down

I told them so

That they should leave

That you wouldn’t go

Hey Hey Susita

You blew into town

And burned my tera cota childhood down

Your ashes rained down something new

Your flames lapped up the old

Cauterized by your heat, the wounds of time healed fast

Burn it down and start it again

Dust to ashes

Ashes to dust

Its nature’s way

Hey Hey Susita

You blew into town

And burned my tera cota childhood down

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Irony, Guacamole, and Santa Ana Winds

Irony, Guacamole, and Santa Ana Winds

Why I Don't Like Genre

“Carson doesn't have much faith in the notion of genre, or at least she pays very little fidelity to it, “I'm not sure if that's fair to the reader, but I just really have no idea what I'm writing most of the time,” she says, claiming, “I still feel most at home making things into blocks of prose”; “there are all these kinds of fun available in poetic forms, and I experiment with them from time to time, but I never feel very adept at any of that.” ”

by Craig Morgan Teicher

Let me start off by saying, I have never read, or even heard of Anne Carson. I found an article about her new book “Nox” in last week’s Publishers Weekly Newsletter still bolded in my inbox. Without knowing anything else about her, I instantly liked her. I don’t like the notion of genre too much either. Like Carson, I feel most comfortable writing in blocks of prose, although my blocks tend to be paragraphs forming a short story. I am stalled, and sometimes intimated by the rules and formats of more structured styles. My problem with genre is that I often don’t know what I am writing—again, something I share with Ms. Carson. I don’t know what my story is going to be, and I don’t want to force it to be anything, it’s not a boyfriend after all…I kid, I kid.

I don’t like favorites either. I like a lot of things, and often it depends on my mood. When I am writing, I like quiet and solitude. I feel least alone when I am alone writing—oh the irony. I lied, I do have some favorites, and irony is one of them, so are guacamole and Santa Ana winds. In the most crowded of places I feel alone. Which makes me wonder…what does it mean to be lonely? (I’m not going to answer that right now.) Genre is in the business of defining things. As I writer, I am in the business of describing them—I think there is a conflict here. My problem with genre is most likely somehow tied to my issues with authority.

Carson's book comes in the form a xeroxed copy of her journal. It is filled with photos and old postcards, as well as her prose and her translations from the Roman poet Catullus. According to the article it is billed as a book of poetry but the author herself refers to it as an epitaph, and it is also described as an accordion. I am more drawn to it now that it lacks definition. I can not wait to open the box this story is packaged in. And isn't that what genre essentially is, a box in which the story comes. I don't like to be put in a box, I don't think anybody does. And I especially don't like to put my stories in them.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lavender Has A Wild Side

“God gets pissed off when you don’t notice the color lavender.”

I read this on someone’s Facebook page last week. A side from the fact that I don’t believe God gets pissed off, I do think people should notice lavender. It is a cheerful herb, the greeter of the garden. It is not to bold or bright. It doesn't yell at passersby. It draws them in, first by their nose, then by lifted head, its tall blossoms stand like a proper English gentleman rising to greet a lady as she enters the room. It echoes the grace and beauty of bygone days filled with formal pleasantries and propriety.

Lavender has a wild side too. In the unfettered days of my youth (yesterday and hopefully tomorrow) lavender was the crop of hippies and the flirt of alternative therapies. Lavender got around, ending up in everything from my sock drawer to my honey. How could lavender go from proper lady of the English garden to wild seducer of household products, and then I realized, it must be the French variation. A flirty cousin, raised in strict plots and narrow rows had finally found her rebellion in chocolate bars and cheesecake. A place in Santa Barbara used to make an amazing lavender chipotle cheesecake. I wonder if this naughty temptress is the one who will save the bees, inviting them all over to pollinate so their population doesn't keep declining. A lavender light district is what those bees need. Maybe being easy is a good thing for bees. Those gentlemen callers buzzing around gardens like shored sailors make our gardens grow—urban rooftop plots, unruly country side spots, forgotten shacks, and neglected drives, English and French alike.

Growing amongst other herbs like basil and rosemary, lavender is always the prettiest, with her pale purple bouquets. Rosemary, despite delighting just about every plate it touches, doesn't do much for the eye. It is a bit aggressive, overbearing. One hot summer it quickly took over the whole yard. I thought we should let it go, especially since there wasn't anything else growing there. But the man of the house hacked it to pieces and discarded it. Basil is also bright and cheery, with a fragrance rivaling that of lavender but without little bouquets of its own. I grew basil for the first time this year, right in the kitchen window-box. I used old bright yellow coffee cans for pots. Watching the stems stand up out of the cans gives me a sense of accomplishment. I watered it when it was just dirt, and watched as stems started popping out and growing taller. One day two little leaves started venturing off the stem. Another day, buds formed on the leaves and two more little leaves grew out of the center. I like checking for new leaves while I drink my morning coffee.

It is still no match for lavender though, that well rounded lady of the garden, whose impeccable manners and innocent fun make her an invited guest just about anywhere she grows. Her scent reminds me of summer, of being a kid, of farmers markets, of harvest parties, of fields, of socks, and of my mom. She is a constant companion, undemanding and easy to be around, whose company I always enjoy whether it is in tea or honey or just to see her as I glance out the window. No, I whole heartedly disagree, lavender shouldn't be noticed, it should be felt.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

First Motorcycle Stop: Cambodia

My Day Trip To Prey Veng

By Kara Petersen

While staying in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in the spring of 2009, just the beginning of the rainy season, I was invited to visit a friend’s family village. Prey Veng is roughly 3 hours from Phnom Penh across the Mekong River, and rough the road is! Much of it is unpaved, like most Cambodian infrastructure that is still standing, it is a haunting whisper of a beautiful and sophisticated past destroyed by one of the bloodiest genocides in the history of the word. The journey to Prey Veng is a perfect day detour from the occasionally overwhelming city. Though the city is full of colorful life and sites worthy of your time, without a trip to the quiet Cambodian countryside a stay in Cambodia is not complete.

Once outside of Phnom Penh, a ferry escorts travelers across the Mekong. We wait patiently for our turn on the ferry, trying to sympathetically ignore the peddlers and beggars. Curiosity pulls my eyes out of the window to see what type of bug is roasting on top of that stick, but a glance is perceived as intent to buy, and therefore must be avoided. My curiosity hasn’t taken over my tongue, and I have no desire to actually taste the bugs.

Cars, people, vans, bikes, and tuk-tuks cram together for the short ride. I get out of the twelve passenger van and stand against the rail to gaze down river. I take a deep breath of the humid air, filled with exhaust, and close my eyes. For a moment I am a young Marguerite Dumas in French Indo-Chine, a scene from one of my favorite books, The Lover. Despite the petrol scented smog, the ferry provides a respite from the bumpy road as we glide over the smooth and gentle waters. My imagination slowly fades and I return to present times as we land on the other side of the river.

This is my first glimpse of the Mekong, a moment I have been waiting for all of my life, on a crowded ferry my ankles are caressed and welcomed with splashes of murky green water. I wish I could dive in and take the river through Vietnam to the South China Sea.

On the other side of the river we stop in a little cafe, not resembling any cafe I've been to before. It has the salty odor of fresh seafood, although I think technically the fish come from the river and therefore, it is riverfood. A man is plucking live crawfish out of a laundry basket and throwing them into a bucket of water. It reminds me of my Grandma Bonnie’s story of a crawfish whose fate is much kinder. Fate has not been kind to the people of Cambodia. Everyone you meet has a scar, in the form of a story or literally on their body, from the torture of the Khmer Rouge. Yet, like the hero in Grandma Bonnie’s story, their smiles reveal the hope that a kinder day is coming to them soon.

The traffic on the other side of the ferry is worse. It is like waiting in line to cross the border from Tijuana, Mexico to San Diego, California, which is probably why I kept trying to speak Spanish to all the Cambodians. We stop for coffee and lunch. If there is a Starbucks in Cambodia, I did not see it. Because I have an internal Starbucks honing beacon, I know this means there are no Starbucks in Cambodia. Coffee in Cambodia is found on the streets, in plastic bags, with straws sticking out of the plastic baggies, which are held closed by rubber bands. I order mine with sweetened condensed milk, and as long as you drink it before the ice melts, it tastes exactly like a grande-iced non-fact-vanilla-latte. For lunch, our group brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips but I didn’t spend $1200 on a plane ticket and 12 hours on a plane to eat peanut butter and jelly. To the Cambodian food court I go!

Only the men in our group, two Cambodians and one South African, head toward the street food, I follow them. Mordegai (The South African, I could tell you what he is doing in Cambodia but that is another story—check back soon.) our scenic and culinary guide enlightens me as to what each item is. In a glass case, on top of a little cart, there is a grill with four different plates of food. The first plate is glazed chunks of meat with bones sticking out of them and little red flecks of chili pepper in the golden sauce. "Short ribs," Mordegai says. In the second dish is thinly sliced silver dollar sized flat portions of meat, also probably pork. Seeing as they lack the enticing glaze, I skipped over them. The 3rd dish is in a bowl and far too adventurous for me. It is a mix of different hunks of meat, including oblong round portions I am quite sure are some poor male animal’s testicles. I quickly pass the testes over. The 4th dish appears to be noodles with vegetables and piqued my intestinal interest. I opt for that but Mordegai points out that it is actually ginger and not noodles. Following his suggestion I order the short ribs.

I eat short ribs on rice, not sure what kind of meat it is but after seeing the six pigs bundled together and tied up on the back of a moto, I was hoping it wasn't pork. I eat two of them, and although the flavor is good, sweet with a little kick from the chili peppers, the meat is a little tough and intertwined with fat and sinew. It is served with a condiment of sliced ginger, carrots, cucumber, and chili peppers—delicious poured over rice. A cup of soup similar to miso but without the tofu, accompanies the meal. Its warm broth is a nice compliment to the spicy chili.

Unfortunately, I think, we have to skip dessert and get on our way. But then, walking back to the van, Mordegai points out a cart full of upside down turtles. (Sorry Mom!) And, I am relieved to be leaving.

Driving a short distance down National Highway 1, we make a quick right onto a narrow dirt road. We bounce through bicycles and honk our way through motos carrying all sorts of things. I see more pigs. This time in a woven basket in the shape of one of those things they use to spin bingo balls around in. They are packed in there and squealing like, well like pigs. I was surprised by my lack of concern for them. Being a lifelong lover of the swine, ever since reading Charlotte’s Web, I thought for sure this site would have tugged at my heart strings. But here it doesn’t. I am positive if I saw such a thing driving down State St. in my hometown of Santa Barbara, California, I would be horrified. But in Cambodia it is part of the landscape, like the babies on motos and cows in the middle of the street. The large blonde skinny cows pop up with more frequency the further we get from the city, and cause traffic jams. Twice, cows pulling wooden carts of hay block the path entirely, and despite honking and other coercion we are completely at the mercy of their will as to when we will be granted thoroughfare. The houses are mostly well kept. Built on stilts, each has a miniature pagoda in the front where offerings of fruit and incense wait for Buddha. Some of the houses are surprisingly nice, you can almost imagine living in them as you romanticize about the simple country life. There are beautiful bright flowers and bushes. Some of the houses are painted in a friendly blue and have adornments leading up the front stairs. Roosters, chicks, hens, and cocks run from beneath houses and roam around the yards.

The family has a small store. They don't sell anything labeled or immediately recognizable but I guess it is a variety of spices, soaps, and other household items. Their small store is adjoined to their house, and they invite us inside to sit on the mat in their living room. I am quickly awakened from my romantic ideal of country living on the Mekong when I see the car batteries under the table powering the television and realize they have no electricity.

After greetings and small talk we make our way through the back yard and down a little path to the beach. We pass a small concrete structure that barely comes up to my chest. They call it "The Little House" and it is their bathroom. On the left of the path is a small patch of pineapple plants amidst a grove of King's Fruit trees, large round fruits that look like coconuts covered in thorns. I have yet to try them but am told they smell like sweaty feet and taste the same. After being told this I am not sure why anyone would want to eat them?

I taste milk fruit for the first time after only hearing of its existence hours before. It is a small green fruit with thick skin that peels away to reveal milky layers of white and magenta until you reach its center. In the middle of the fruit is a translucent cocoon with six chambers spaced out like a three dimensional star. In each section is a dark seed. After sucking the sweet tissue from the seed, I spit it in the bushes.

As the brush backs away from the path and spreads open, it reveals the river just ahead. It is wide. It shifts from dark to light and back with the passing of clouds across the sky. Its beach is broad, and I am disappointed to find it laden with trash. The brush thins out to meadow like reeds that grow shorter and shorter until there is only sand, stretching miles and miles out before me. I spend the rest of the afternoon swimming in the Mekong with a group of villagers who are bathing themselves and their cattle. The Mekong is one of the 10 largest rivers in the world. Its width is quite a sight to behold. The world is a wondrous place, and just when I think God can't have created something more beautiful than what is before my eyes, I turn a corner and he says: Hey Kara, look at this!

Welcome To My Blog: sit down, take your shoes off, and stay awhile.

This is my third trip to blog land, and you know what they say about the third try--it wears three shoes. In the past I’ve written about sleeping on my mom's couch, which luckily for me but unluckily for the blog didn't last very long. In the second round I wanted to write colorful profiles of my rainbow colored explorations on the CTA, except that I frequent the Brown Line most. So this time, I’m giving myself permission to follow my whims. This blog will be about story, which I seem to find everywhere, and beauty. Beauty is a constant and welcome distraction. It tugs me out of my mind, beckons my eyes elsewhere, and gives my imagination a motorcycle; on which I ride through the possibilities of the world with the whisper of words blowing like wind through my hair.