The Perils of Consumerism

After my grandfather passed away, my family packed up their belongings and relocated to a new house across town. The idea was not to abandon our old home, a seven story building on a quiet street in a bustling part of town, but to renovate and move back in a year's time. Most people know though, there's nothing like a move to make you aware of how much stuff you have. Consumerism is a global epidemic and Americans are no less guilty of it than the Taiwanese, but because space is far more limited than the suburban sprawl of southern California - from the size of apartments to the width of the streets - the "problem," (isn't it a problem?) is paradoxically magnified. Pair this with the tendency to walk and take public transport and everyone's shopping habits, however long the ride, are on display.

What to do, what to do? Nothing, if like what seems like ninety-nine percent of Taiwanese women and young men, you believe that retail therapy is the best therapy - a panacea for ailments such as a stressful job, broken heart, and worst of all, the green-eyed monster. In their small houses one can only hope they are organized or have the good sense to throw out or donate what they no longer need. If not, they might, during an earthquake, become victim to what my grandmother once joked as "the world's most convenient morgue."

And now: the Culture.

We start with things close to home: one of many drawers in my cousin's closet. A penchant for t-shirts of any color. I folded them for her so that more could fit in one drawer and after having done so, said, "You cannot buy anymore t-shirts."

 The as of yet unorganized storage room in my aunt's house. When I first arrived, she opened the door to show me and shook her head, defeated, "Most of it is junk," she admitted.

Somber Chinese paintings still waiting to be hung, some of which, because the new house lacks wall space (new cabinets to accommodate the stuff), will never be hung again.

The culprits. The instigators. The aiders and abetters.

The original Pacific Sogo - a Japanese department store that despite its age, remains one of Taipei's most popular if not THE most popular shopping destination. I ought to go right ahead and blame the Japanese, since most of the department stores here are of Japanese origin. In addition to Sogo (of which there are four in Taipei alone) there is Takeshimaya, Mitsukoshi, and the latest baby, Hankyu.

Even the ubiquitous 7-Eleven, founded in Dallas Texas, is now owned and operated by a Japanese parent company and stocked with Japanese goods. There is literally one of every corner. Sometimes, these convenient stores are the most dangerous places of all, especially when one is terrible at math and ill-informed about conversion rates. 

Fancy a drink? Good luck deciding.

 The Japanese really do take everything and make it better. I am addicted to the hot pot ones on the right. Addicted.

 FF for French Fries. Amazing.

 I am addicted to these as well. Damn the Japanese. Damn them! No, I take it back. I love these.

One of Taipei's more popular bookstores (though the mother of all bookstores is Taiwan's own Eslite Bookstore) is Japanese as well. In Kinokuniya, a woman skims a book she doesn't need and if she buys it, won't read (sometime I am often guilty of). 

But it would be wrong to blame the Japanese entirely.

Taiwan itself has its own national retail personality, comprised of a peculiar breed of shop: the tiny but exceedingly satisfying "We Sell Everything" hole-in-the-wall.

Socks, umbrellas, hosiery, and, towards the back, scarves, gloves, hats, bags...

 One of thousands, a random snack shop carrying everything from Japanese goods to cans of abalone, an expensive delicacy.

The victims:
 This man stood proudly next to his car and told anyone who would listen how much it was. I forgot the number, it was so ridiculous.

This morning she thought, "What should I wear today? Oh I know, EVERYTHING!"

Young boys poring over their lottery ticket - big business in Taiwan - hoping to make it big the fast and easy way so that they might be like the man with the red sports car.

Older gentlemen wishing the same thing.

It doesn't matter. It all ends up in the same place anyway:

Happy Birthday, Formosa

I never pay attention to things like this, but Taiwan turns 100 this year. Last evening I randomly accompanied my cousin to a company basketball practice and walking out, looked up and saw Taipei 101, formerly the world's tallest building (that honor, I believe, now belongs to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). I often forget that Taiwan is as young as it is, much younger than the United States. The humidity and smog - when it was bad - blackened the grout and discolored the porous tiles and bricks of certain buildings, giving them a gloomy, aged look comparable to people forlorn because they had aged prematurely. But contractors are getting wiser and more tasteful - now steel and glass are the materials of choice - or have long been, since construction on Taipei 101 began in 1999. I used to think the building was ugly, saying that it resembled a stack of take-out boxes, but now I cannot imagine Taipei's skyline without it. Such things grow on you.

But that's enough of an architectural digression - see for yourself.

To Market, to Market

When I was young, I hated going to the Taiwanese open air markets with my mother, preferring the air-conditioned grocery stores in the basements of department stores where produce prices would sometimes match that of the designer merchandise upstairs. During the summers it was hot and sticky and the market almost always guaranteed that your nostrils would be assaulted by a million smells from fish to pork to durian (the smelliest fruit in all the world and my mother's favorite) and your face and vision by random billows of steam. Pushing and shoving in an endless train of other sweaty, shouting people also didn't help, but somewhere between then and now, I grew up and while it's not my favorite destination in Taipei, the open air market is one place where one can observe some of Taipei's most interesting interactions: images of Taipei's citizens from wealthy society ladies with their Philippino maids to aging grandmothers to young children dragged along by their young mothers, as I once was. People from all walks of life squeeze through, mingling and looking, all speaking the same language: food.

Now that Chinese New Year is fast approaching the markets are particularly packed with women (and some men, looking lost or hungry) on the hunt for the best meat, fish, poultry and produce to bring home so that they might prepare a meal whose quality rivals Taipei's finest restaurants. Many families, such as mine, eat out, but it doesn't hurt to stock up for those quiet days after Chinese New Year's Eve, when groceries and markets close.

This is where I passed my first two mornings in Taipei: yesterday in East Gate Market and today in South Gate Market, one of Taiwan's oldest open air markets, as old perhaps as the Republic itself. My aunt likes the company, though she complains that it's rare for my cousin to go to the market with her. "You young women nowadays don't know anything about picking produce and meats, and even less about cooking. I wonder what sort of wives you all will be." I wonder too. My camera in hand, I touched nothing, occasionally bending down to take a macro shot or smell something. Most of the food was familiar to me, but only in that I knew how it tastes and not how it is prepared. My uncle laughed when I came home, looking slightly flushed from the crush of people. "To market, to market," he said, "What's tomorrow, West Gate Market?"

We'll see. Here are a few photos from Taipei's finest markets:

The Garlic and Ginger lady. 

 Pink ladies - serving up some ready made, homestyle dishes for those ladies who, after shopping for groceries all day, will be too tired to actually cook them. 

Faithful patrons waiting for their favorite brand of cured, dried pork. 

 One of many meat vendors, whose swiftness with their cleavers and calm amidst the chaos and corpses fascinates and unnerves me.

Her sister, the sausage vendor.

 At another sausage vendor, business is very good.

 Bright green chili peppers. After all that meat, some produce was refreshing.
A head above the rest. A colorful vegetable stand.

And then I turned around and saw this: a pan of roasted piglets... Just as quickly it was whisked away.

I hoped this guy was fixing something and not looking through inventory...

Roasted pumpkin seeds. 

Black chicken feet, waiting to be steamed...actually, I'm not sure Taiwanese people eat it that way.

As it is the year of the Rabbit, these lascivious images were everywhere.

As were these decorated honeydew melons and other fruit. The character means "prosperity" but it's upside down, which in Chinese is a homonym for "has arrived." Thus: "Prosperity has arrived in the shape of a honeydew."

A woman working in the rare, quiet corner of the market.

This man saw me eying his large, dried fish and said, "Here, take of picture of me and my fish." I obliged, and it is a pleasant picture. Man and his work.

Hella mushrooms. 

And in the middle of it all, a monk begging for alms.

Return to Taipei

The last time I was here was August 2009, for my grandfather's funeral. Much has changed: the house (remodeled), my cousin's job status (employed), and the location of my extended family (spread out in three points across Taipei). But some things never change - or at least they won't for a long long while.

My uncle wakes up every morning at the crack of dawn to exercise. On weekends, he's responsible for buying breakfast.

My uncle: the middle child (my father is the eldest).
Interests: long walks to the temple, the stock market, the newspaper, fried pork sung, and living to 100 at least.

My breakfast: Tuna sandwich with a cup of sweet hot black tea (or 'red' tea, as they call it here).

Chinese New Year is just around the corner...I can't wait!

Vanity Express Begins

For years now, I've been ogling photo blogs and mulling over whether to start my own, but the thought of messing with all that technology (digital cameras, uploading, formatting, HTML) made my eyebrows furrow and my brain go: !?!?!?!?! But basically, I want in. I want to share my real-life ogling with other fellow on-line oglers. So ogle away! That's what Vanity Express - like Chinese takeout - is all about.

Lunch in Downtown LA, with a childhood friend.

We planned to lunch somewhere else, but walked by this bustling diner and thought, "Plans be damned! We're eating at the Nickel Diner!"

I love this. In the future, I'm going to paint this on my front door.

Typical sugar addict behavior: Yelping a place to eat dessert when a.) The hostess presents you with complimentary doughnut holes and b.) Lunch hasn't even arrived yet.

Pulled pork BBQ hash with two poached eggs on top. 'Nuff said.

Really bomb seared tuna salad. That tuna tasted like beef.
The cozy interior with a bit of false advertising. But things don't sure cost ten or twenty cents anymore.
Onto Syrup for dessert. I liked what this girl was wearing, even though she gave me a dirty look when she turned around. 
Cream? Sugar? I love this set...
It's two stories. We went upstairs and were met with the cold glares of students studying and bloggers blogging. We took our food back downstairs.
A florentine and red velvet ding dong with a scoop of vanilla bean ice a small french pressed coffee. Divine combination. 

That's it for now. I'm heading to Taiwan in a few days so it'll be a change of pace. But Fiona here is Taiwanese, so she's my transition point. :)

You Lucky Dog

Leaving my grandfathers' house after lunch, my mother was nearly out of the neighborhood when she braked suddenly in front of Sunshine Park, in which I had spent many hours as a child. She leaned forward, gazing into the rear view mirror and then out the passenger window.

"What is it mom?"

"That woman, she's waving at us."

I turned to look out the window and indeed a woman was jogging up the sidewalk, waving at us, though I didn't recognize her. She was dressed in a faded peach, over-sized sweatshirt and in her puffy sleeves, cradled a small, anxious looking dog. A short man with graying hair stood next to her, wearing a fleece jacket and jeans that seemed several sizes too big. He pushed what seemed like a baby carriage until my mother had backed the car up considerably and I saw that it was, in fact, a dog carriage. Another small dog sat in the basket, peering out nervously from within the basket's netted frame and as my mother parked, I rolled down the window to say hello to the strangers.

The woman was breathless, but held her dog firmly as she went around to my mother's side. "I thought it was you!" She said, then, ducking down to peer into the window, saw me and her eyes grew wide.

"Is this Betty?"

"Yes," my mother said.

"Goodness! The last time I saw you you were three or four!"

"Hello," I said, then paused, knowing what was coming next.

"You look just like your mother!"

My mother smiled, then gave her usual spiel, "When she was younger, people said she took after her father, but now people are more likely to say she takes after me. I suppose it changes by age."

"Speaking of age," the woman said, still stooping into the window, "I've gotten so old you probably don't even recognize me."

"I'm sorry," I said, "I don't."

Apparently her younger daughter and I used to play in the park as toddlers, but I had no recollection nor would, I'm sure, her daughter.

The woman sighed, "We're all aging so fast." She nodded in her husband's direction and then down at the furry bundle in her arms, "Even our dogs."

My mother raised her eyebrows as she looked down at the dog, but stood patiently to the side of the street as the woman commenced the long and complicated medical history of her aging fox terriers. Both dogs were seventeen years old, which in dog years is 119, and both were suffering from such a myriad of health problems that they could no longer walk but must be carried or carted. The dog the woman held in her arms was faring better than the one in the dog carriage, but both alternated between howling and whimpering at night so that the woman could only sleep for a few hours at a time.

 "I have to get up every three hours to comfort them, stroke them, give them pain meds, walk them to their bathroom," she said, stroking the dog softly on the head, "It pains me to hear their pain, and my husband, well, he gets up early so I have to let him sleep."

She looked at my mother with a pained expression, "It's no way to live, but when you love them, it's what you do. They've been with us for seventeen years and gave us so much happiness. How can I not?"

My mother and I nodded sympathetically. They continued talking so I left the car and went to talk to the man, who until then had stood quietly to the side, one hand on the dog carriage.

"She doesn't look so old," I said, touching the dog softly on the head. It's eyelids drooped as I did so and I noticed how feeble her front legs were, shaking under the perceived weight of my hand.

"She is," the man pointed at the dog's white head, "The fur on her head used to be brown, and now it's white, just like the hair on my head."

I smiled and turned to look at my mother, whose hand had come up above her eyes to shield the sun's rays.

"...You haven't changed at all," I heard the woman say, "Still look as young as ever..."

"...No, you're right about age..." returned my mother, " one escapes it...I've just come from lunch with my father. He's home alone now because my mother's in the hospital with lung problems..."

"Oh I'm sorry," the woman said, "I did notice I haven't seen them walking in the park for a while."

I turned back to the dog, sitting serenely in her basket.

"She's deaf and blind now too," the man said. There was a scar above her left eyelid and the man said it was an old wart, the least of her problems now. The dog had long suffered from spinal problems which necessitated the daily administering of pain meds, which he said, his wife lovingly crushed into the dog's food.

"It's hard work like my wife said, but I'm nearing retirement and I can work from home more often now," he said, "So today, I thought I'd stay home and take the dogs out. I don't know how much longer they'll be around."

He was an engineer at Raytheon, formerly known as Hughes ("We make missiles," the man said.) and described his position as "The highest ranking Asian man" in his department.

"Sounds like you like it a lot," I said and he nodded, not without a hint of smugness.

"I have a lot of freedom now. They used to send me on a lot of business trips, but now I can pick and choose my trips. I was supposed to go to Florida today, but I choose not to, and next week I'm due in the Stanford area. I'll visit my eldest daughter there as well. She's doing a PhD in physics."

I smiled, wondering what it was like to jet around the country and advise engineers on missiles and radar and other things I had no idea about, but before I could ask anymore questions my mother called and said it was time to go. I could tell by her expression that she was tired and that she had not intended to stop for so long to talk to these people and inquire after their dogs. The woman waved enthusiastically and the man wished me good luck on my own job hunt, "The times are different," he advised me, "You won't necessarily find a career like mine that you stick to for over thirty years."

"They seem nice," I said as my mother turned onto the main road.

"They are. They're nice people. Smart. Engineering PhD's, the both of them with two highly intelligent, successful daughters."

"I know," I said, "The eldest one is at Stanford doing a PhD in Physics."

My mother nodded, but her lips were pursed and I could sense that for whatever reason, she was less happy than she'd been before we ran into them.

"What did that woman say to you?"


"What did you guys talk about?"

"Oh, her dogs, her younger daughter. Then she asked after grandma and grandpa."

"That's nice."

"Yes, and I asked after her parents."

"Okay. And?"

"Not doing so well either."

"They're sick too?"

"Yes. Her father passed away a while back. Her mother has Parkinson's."

My mother merged onto the freeway and I thought about the perpetually occupied rooms at the Alhambra Medical Center, where my grandmother currently stays, waiting to be discharged with an oxygen tank. Just two evenings ago, she was diagnosed with COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a progressive disease resulting from years of smoking in enclosed parlors while playing mahjong. She had snorted at my hopes that she wouldn't need the oxygen tank. "I'll carry the damn thing if I have to," she said, "If I need it to breath then I need it to breath. I didn't live so long to just drop dead now, not with half my grandkids still unwed!"

On the freeway, my mother told me that the woman's mother was in a bad way. The woman felt powerless to help her mother."

"That's how everyone feels when someone is dying of any awful disease like that," I said, "Did you tell her all she can do is just comfort and care for them? Like her dogs?"

Now it was my mother's turn to snort. Her voice rose sharply, "Exactly! Like her dogs!" Then softening, she sighed, "I don't know what some people are thinking when they lavish such care on their pets but neglect the human beings closest to them."

The woman's mother ails in Canada.

"Does she have siblings there to care for her?" I asked.

"I don't know," my mother said, "I didn't ask. But does it matter? Siblings or not, it's her mother too. It's not that she doesn't have the money to go and see her."

"Maybe she has to work."

"She hasn't worked since she got married twenty-some years ago. She has time. Her daughters are grown. Her husband is nearing retirement..." my mother's voice trailed off, "But to each their own..."

My mother has a tendency, when she drives, to slow down when she speaks or is deep in thought. As cars filled with busy people on their ways whizzed past us, my thoughts returned to Grandma, who was no doubt taking another turn around the floor, peering with a combination of sadness and smugness into the rooms of other patients, few of whom had visitors as often as she did.

I admired her spirit, but I understood that our presence fueled that spirit. The continual flow of visitors confirmed to not only herself but to the nurses and the other patients that she had a family, that she had people who cared. She indulged in the attention showered upon her both by the nurses and by us, her children and grandchildren and despite her hacking cough, walked with her walker around her wing so often that the nurses have started to call her "Barbie."

"She's one of the most active elderly patients I've seen," one nurse told me, "She doesn't speak English, but she smiles. We all love her."

As Tolstoy wrote, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." On the whole, we consider ourselves a happy family - large in number and strong in its ideology: love your family - every single member, and try to see the good in each person. I will venture to say that other happy families do the same, regardless of what intermittent, minor unhappinesses fly their way. To each their own, yes - people have jobs, children, diseases of their own, and a week goes by when other people and events and occasion crowd their calendars so that they say, "I'll visit mom next week," or "I'll call dad tomorrow," or "I'll plan that trip with them next month," etc., etc., but the week turns into two then three then four and suddenly seventeen years have gone by and they haven't seen their parents, only spoken to them over the phone, their elderly voices faint with yearning. Seventeen years seems like an exaggeration, especially in this day and age with technology and cheap(er) flights, but as she drove, my mother listed friends and acquaintances who had poor relationships with their parents or were simply too busy to visit or to be there or to care. One woman did indeed let seventeen years go by between visits so that when she finally saw her mother again, the expression on the old woman's face rivaled that of someone who had just seen a ghost.

I wanted to say to my mother that I would never allow seventeen years to go by without seeing her, but I knew she wasn't telling me as a warning of how not to be. What would my reassurance mean to her, at my age, anyhow? I am, it seems, always about to leave - for school, travel, whatever. I can say plenty of things right now, promise worlds and worlds of care and tenderness, closeness, but it will mean nothing until the day comes and I am there. Assurance, security, my barb-tongued father teaches me, does not come with words but with actions. My mother, my aunts and uncles drive hours to and from the hospital; they discuss diagnoses, medications, visits to the doctors and make sure my grandpa, home alone, is cared for. They don't do it because they have to. They don't do it because they feel obligated and because it's better to feel obligated than to neglect those obligations and feel shame or guilt - no, they do it because they want to. It's their mother. It's their mother now, was and could be their father later, and perhaps in the future it'll be a brother, sister, son or daughter. Regardless, it's family. Life only gives you one.

Steve Jobs on Death

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true."

From his 2005 Commencement speech at Stanford University

Neuroplasticity (1)

I can't change my father, so I must change myself. This is what my mother said to me this morning and what she says to me every time I have an argument with my father, every time about the same stupid things.

This morning it was about pancakes. A few days ago I bought a single box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix along with a jar of maple syrup, intending to bring both on our family trip at Big Bear Lake. I never got to make pancakes because the adults packed too much other food that would spoil if we didn't eat it. The pancake mix came back intact, along with the unopened bottle of syrup.

My father's pantry is stuffed to the gills with teas, dried beans, and ten different types of ramen. On the bottommost shelf my mother stores rice alongside aerosol cans of weed and ant killer. In the cupboards, there are extra pots and pans, serving platters and most irritating of all, empty jars that stand like a silent mismatched army, waiting to be repurposed for my parents' homemade prunes and date wine. There is little space for something as silly as pancake mix. My father opens the cupboards every morning, sees the pancake mix, and finds it necessary to point it out to me, to remind me that there is no place for pancake mix in his pantry and would I please just use it up so that it won't have to assault his vision anymore. The first time he points it out I nod and say, "I'll get to it, I'll get to it." The second, third, fourth times, my reaction is the same, though increasingly more exasperated.

"I'll make it when more people than me want to eat pancakes," I say to him, and far from resigned, he closes the pantry door in a huff, as though I were trying to poison him with the presence of pancake mix. I didn't understand, but now I do: it's his pantry. His and my mother's. I'm at the age where I shouldn't be putting my things around his house. I should be employed, moved out, living my own life and only occasionally stopping by to eat meals bought and prepared by them two, not to plague their storage space with my own American foodstuffs. Every time he opens the cupboards, Aunt Jemima grins at him, a strange black face occupying precious space in his already overpopulated shelves.

I know this. I don't want to be at home either, screaming at my father to stop pestering me about my damned pancake mix. But moving out requires money, of which I have very little. What little I have my father gave to me. Thus goes the tune of my predicament.

This morning my father brought it up again and I erupted like Mt. Vesuvius, my anger smothering the optimistic mood of a family just waking up and threatening to overshadow the sunlight. I was violent. I hit my father twice on the arm, stunning both him and myself. I am not one to strike out, finding physical force distasteful. But this morning all the calm I had ever prided myself upon went flowing out my mouth with the escalation of my voice and soon I was screaming, clutching the pancake mix and the organic maple syrup to my chest and stabbing my finger at the cupboards, daring him to find in its depths anything else that was mine.

"Look!" I screamed, "Look! Find and purge anything and everything that is mine and I will put it away where you can't see it!"

My father tried in vain. I could see, as he slowly pulled out each drawer and examined the contents, the glimmers of realization settling on his face; I was right. He knew it. Nothing else in the cupboard was mine.

I have since relocated the pancake mix to a seldom-used cupboard stuffed with empty jars. The chances of my father seeing it there are slim, but possible, and I hope I'm not around when he finds it. My mother spoke for me during our argument: "This is her home too, cannot she have some things of hers in the cupboard?" My father wanted to, but could not bring himself to agree. No longer will I ask him to. He is right in his gut - that I should not be here much longer. Though our house is big and the cupboards many, space, both tangible and visible, is limited.

I did not eat breakfast. Instead, I returned to my room and waited for my father to leave for work. My mother and brother took turns coming in, comforting me and urging me to change.

"You know how he is," my brother said, "He can't change. He can't control his tongue."

"If you don't change, your life will be very hard," my mother said, "Your father, unfortunately, is fine with the way he is."

I listened to him shuffling in and out of my brother's room next door, grimaced at the sound of his voice and imagined a life on my own, of my own. It seemed very far away. I thought I heard him leave and stood up to make my bed when my door opened. my father came in.

Always, this pattern. We fight, I cry, he is indignant and insensitive, and then when I least expect him to, he comes into my room and apologizes in his own way. It means everything and nothing. Everything because I have only one father. Nothing because we will argue again and I will scream again and cry again and want to strike him again.

Unless I change. My father apologized and as he did, I realized I would change. I will change because my father cannot. This pattern works for him - this is the only way he knows how to operate: put the fire out after everything but the hearth has burned. His mind is set, but mine is not.

"There will always be room for you in this house," he said, "Not just this room, not just that cupboard."

It was the truth, and I love him for it; it has changed me for the better.

The Digital Park Bench

"Neuroplasticity" is taking me longer than expected, most likely because I'm spending too much time
a. reading other things
b. eating pop chips
c. waiting for laundry to dry
d. trolling my favorite websites, among them:

A few days ago, he posted a mini-documentary in which he starred, by Intel in a series called Visual Life. It's always interesting to see the man behind the camera, and I can't help but compare his face, his gait to that of a pro-fighter. But his voice is smooth and there is something resolute about the way his lips are pursed. An artist at work, and one who understands his place both in the streets and in cyberspace. Beautifully, he called it the digital park bench.

Happy New Year

I failed to write a timely New Year's post which is not to say I did not try. In the days leading up to January 1st, I jotted down several ideas ranging from the run of the mill list of resolutions (not one have I ever successfully carried out) to an introspective essay on self-improvement and reaching my "full-potential," which, I fear, will remain mysterious and vague. I am not out for reinvention. I am not even one for too much introspection. I have yet to post it, but there is an essay in the works entitled: "Introspection is Overrated."

2010 was, writing wise, my most introspective year. And here many of you laugh, raise your brows and chide: "Well Betty, if that was you at your most introspective, then you've maxed out rather pitifully." But what I mean is, I wrote very little outside myself. Every post was "me, me me me me and me." In October my friend Elena visited me in Berkeley and one evening, as we were riding home on the BART, she remarked upon my utter reluctance to acknowledge the rich scene playing out before us. A smelly homeless man sat in front of us and struck up a conversation with a young man across the aisle. He held a beat-up guitar case in his lap and despite his scruffy beard, seemed genial. The homeless man pointed at the boy's guitar case and rasped, "Play a song for me, boy." I grimaced at his sour breath, his crusty eyes, his dirty hands. I expected the young man to turn towards the window, but he gamely unclasped his guitar case and produced his instrument, covered with decals and logos. He began to strum, then played in earnest a light-hearted tune that could be heard even as the BART went underground. "Play a song for me and these bitches," the bum rasped, and catching a young woman's eye, began to whisper dirty things. "Show me your titties," he said, "Show me your pussy, will ya? Will ya?" She was clearly uncomfortable, but smiled kindly and nodded towards the young man playing guitar, "Listen to the music," she said.

Watching, Elena smiled and whispered to me, "That guy is so nice," she said, "and he's good too." And it was true. The young man was very kind, and played beautifully to distract the bum, who seemed almost hypnotized by the music. It was the only music he would hear in a long time and caused him to leave not only the girl but also the rest of the carriage alone. But I heard neither the music nor saw the kindness at play - I concentrated on the bum's obvious filth - his smelly clothes, skin, hair, mouth, mind - a diseased human being sitting in front of me, wrecking the already dismal air of the BART and sexually harassing a young woman to boot!

"Yeah, yeah," I muttered, "Bums are disgusting."

"Betty!" Elena said, "I'm surprised at you. I thought for sure you'd be taking notes to write about it later. This is such a special scene right here."

And it was, but I refused to recognize it as such. Just another dirty ride on the BART, I thought.

Now, months later, the scene replays and I am looking at it with fresh eyes. I thank Elena for pointing it out to me. Now, having finally graduated from college and celebrated Christmas with family and New Year's with friends and experienced all the tiny mechanisms of daily life that glide or crash together - all in that particular year and at that particular time - I have come to feel a very peculiar way (bordering on epiphany). The feeling cannot be summed up with any one list or anecdote for it is the result of an entire education, magnified in both my last months at Berkeley and my last days at home as a dependent. These past few weeks, what has been on my mind are two things: family and friends.

From both, a multitude of lessons to be learned:

The Hammer/Axe/Carving Knife

Happy New Year, to my readers and writers.
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