Sunday, January 23, 2011

Vlasta

Pat was a lifelong Chicago resident.  At the time she and Matthew first met as neighbors across the hall, she was in her 70s, had long since retired from her secretary job, and was happily volunteering as a reader for the blind.  She was always impeccably dressed (sometimes in dresses that she knitted herself), with her grey wig placed perfectly on her head.  She never had an unkind word about anyone, not even the bike messenger who knocked her over on the sidewalk one day.  She walked everywhere from her South Loop apartment, enjoyed a strong martini with lunch, and chuckled when she told us how much she liked her evening hot toddies.  At one point, she had season tickets to see her beloved Bears and Cubs, but gave them up when she said that she could stand the disappointments anymore.  And when they were neighbors, she would often write a friendly note in her timeless cursive handwriting, and slip it under Matthew's door with a newspaper clipping or a joke that she thought he would enjoy.  Even when he moved, those wonderful notes would follow him from time to time.

For the first few years that Matthew and I were together, we weren't sure how to tell Pat about me.  So they would go out, just the two of them, and I didn't want to intrude on their catching-up time.  But, gradually, I was introduced as a friend, and while I'm sure she figured it out soon enough, she accepted me as warmly as she did Matthew.  We took her to see her favorite Peter, Paul and Mary at Ravinia twice, and, when we had a car for a day, we would chauffeur her to and from our home for dinner.  As was her custom, she would send the warmest thank you notes the very next day.  And from time to time, we would get a batch of her world-famous lemon squares that she could probably bake in her sleep.

The first time I met her, she told me her real name was Vlasta, which is apparently Slovakian for Patricia.  She was typically very guarded, and never wanted to dwell on any unpleasant subjects for long, but, over the years, she would slowly reveal more about herself.  Like the fact that she and her sister became orphans when they were young children.  Their father died at a relatively young age, and their mother had a breakdown from having to take care of two children during the Depression era.  They came back from school one day to find that their mother had packed some belongings in suitcases, and she took them to an orphanage.  They would see their mother infrequently until she passed away a few years later. 

Another subject she didn't talk much about was her bout with breast cancer in her 70s, even though she underwent successful surgery, and went into remission without any additional treatment necessary.  It was a disease that claimed her sister, but she never betrayed any doubts or fears for her own mortality, probably because of her faith.  She was a devout Catholic who attended mass daily, and she must have had a direct line to God, because whenever you were added to her prayer list - with your name written in the tiniest handwriting on the tiniest piece of paper in her purse -  miracles happened.  Like when it seemed as if my green card application had been languishing in limbo forever, we mentioned this to Pat and she added me to her list; just a few weeks later, my card arrived in the mail.

In August 2008, we had planned to take her out for a late birthday celebration.  We called to confirm the time, and while we were a little worried when he hadn't heard back from her, we thought that maybe she was just busy.  Still, we had a nagging feeling when we made our way downtown to her apartment building. 

We knew something was wrong when the doorman wouldn't call up to her apartment, and wouldn't tell us why, so we went to the building manager's office, where we were told that Pat had passed away that week.  She wouldn't tell us much more than that, but, as we were leaving, a building resident who had overheard our conversation with the doorman stopped us and filled in some of the details.  Apparently, Pat's neighbor across the hall had left a note on her door.  When it wasn't taken down the next day (as Pat was a habitual early riser and would always go downstairs to the convenience store for her daily Sun-Times newspaper), the neighbor became worried, and called building security.  They discovered her body.

It wasn't until her funeral a week later that it really hit me that she was gone, because the first of many tears I shed for Pat were when her coffin was being wheeled out, covered with flowers, and I thought about her tiny body in that very big coffin, and how she had died alone.  Our only consolation was that if we hadn't planned on that August outing with her, we might not have known about her passing until perhaps weeks or months later, and we could have missed her funeral altogether, which would have been even more devastating.  At least we had a chance to say goodbye.

We'll probably never know how she died, as we don't know her two nieces in California, nor anyone else who was close to her.  She was buried in a cemetery on the very far South Side, and some day we hope to visit her grave.  We're lucky to have taken some wonderful photos with her that we treasure.  And sitting in our freezer are the very last lemon squares she ever made for us, because we just haven't been able to part with them quite yet.

I still wonder what happened to the coffee mug that we gave her for Christmas, with this photo of the three of us from one of our Ravinia outings.  She was so excited when she opened it, saying that she would have coffee every morning with "her boys."  And even though we never came out to her, we sometimes joke that Pat's looking down from her perch in the sky - sitting right next to Mary Travers - saying: "You fools - I may have been old, but I wasn't blind." 

But, most often, I just remember how special she was to us, and how much we both miss her.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Productive

I didn't mean to spend almost the entire day in the kitchen, but with the Martin Luther King holiday and long weekend - which is much appreciated so soon after Christmas - I decided to do some major food prep work on Monday for the week ahead.  I've been trying to do as much as I can in advance on the weekends, so that weekday dinners are easy to throw together when I drag my tired butt in the door. 

But first on the agenda was dealing with six pounds of ground pork that I had been stockpiling in the freezer for a few weeks to make a serious batch of shu-mai.


My grandmother is an amazing cook, and never more content than when seeing her family enjoy her food.  While she's in good health, she's getting up in years, so she doesn't have the energy to make her legen-(wait for it!)-dary shu-mai very often.  In the past, when we visited, she would give us a batch to take home, which we would store in the freezer and ration ourselves to just a few every few weeks until they were all gone - to our great disappointment - and until our next visit.  And whenever I told my grandmother that we were hoarding them, she would always feign horror ("Eat them up, eat them up!"), but I think inside she was so proud to know that we enjoyed them so much.

So a few years ago, in an attempt to stave off the crazy hankerings we would get during our shu-mai droughts, I asked my grandmother to teach me how to make them.  She had never actually written down the recipe, and I'd never seen her make them, so I roped in Matthew as annotator to capture the ingredients while I got my hands dirty next to her.  I think she got a big kick out of having one of her grandkids - the gay one, to boot - listening so intently to her.  And with Aunty M. - the chemist - "translating" some of the concepts into actual measurements, we got pretty good instructions that I've been able to use whenever I've got, oh, a few hours to kill.  And a whole lotta ground pork. 

So on Monday I ended up with almost twelve dozen of these pretty puppies.  And even though we had to taste test...ahem...a few - you know, just to make sure they were okay - I still managed to pack away a good number in our freezer for the coming weeks. 

Chicken!
So if you read my Thanksgiving post, you'll know that I've never actually roasted a bird, even though it's apparently the easiest thing to do.  I do a lot of cooking with chicken - mainly boneless, skinless breasts, because neither of us likes bones in meat - but I decided to take a page from my mother's book and bought a store-roasted rotisserie chicken for the first time this weekend.  And in following my Everyday Food magazine (one of my two Martha-branded subscriptions), I shredded and prepped the chicken for a chicken and spinach casserole that we enjoyed that night next to a batch of oven-roasted Yukon Golds, and chicken with couscous and orange that I threw together last night in under ten minutes.  (I'm not a huge fan of mint, so I used scallions instead.)  With plenty of leftovers to spare, one rotisserie chicken ended up as four meals.  Awesome.

Sausages!  (well, kinda)
Turkey sausages were also on sale this weekend, so I grabbed two batches.  As I've been doing recently with any type of sausages, I cooked them all at once, and put small batches in freezer bags that I can defrost overnight for dinner the next day.  Two minutes in the microwave, and voila! dinner is ready.  ("Voila" being French for "Could this be any easier?" - emphasis a la Chanandler Bong.)

Apples! Cranberries! And Special Guest - Blueberries!
I love this apple-cranberry crisp, again from Everyday Food.  And since Braeburns were on sale this week, and I had stockpiled some cranberries in the freezer when I had thought I would use them in my holiday baking extravaganza, it was a good time to crank it out again.  And for good measure, I threw in some blueberries - that have held up remarkably well in the freezer - from our summer picking with M and J. 

So after hearing about all of my productive cooking adventures, someone at work asked me what my freezer looks like.  And being the obliging fella that I am, here it is, in all its overflowing, probably-energy-inefficient, frozen-food-gloriousness.  And no, you're not going to find money in my freezer - because there's no space.


I am so my mother's child.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Belated

I had meant to write this earlier in the week, so I'm sorry it's belated. 

I remember...

...when I was a kid, I cried that time I won a game of Snakes and Ladders, because it meant that you lost.  Because I didn't want you to lose.  Ever.

...how you used to fill the kitchen sink with water so that I could play with pots and pans (and apparently learn important dishwashing skills that have carried through to this day).

...how you took me to swimming classes or tennis lessons, without complaint.  Except when we were late, because that meant wasted money on those precious minutes we missed when I could have been paddling or working on my forehand swing.

...how you cried when we learned that Bor-Bor had lupus and you told me that you felt helpless because we were so far away.  But she made it through that struggle - because she knew you were thinking of her - and so did you.

...when the immigration offical saw our Chinese-soon-to-be-Canadian faces, and asked you, "Do - any - of - you - speak - English?" you looked at her incredulously and said "We all do" in your most proper English, which slapped the condescension right out of her.  And it was your command of the English language, and your English degree, that inspired me to pursue the same in college.

...when - for three months - you spent four, painful hours on an irregularly-scheduled bus every day to take D. to school in another suburb, so that she wouldn't have to change schools partway through the year when we moved.

...how you came to all of my school concerts with Dad, even though the music was probably miserable to hear, and how you came to my parent-teacher nights, even though you didn't have to.

...how you packed Thanksgiving dinner "to go" and brought it to my little dorm room - five hours drive away - in my first year of college.  With plenty of turkey leftovers for those weekends when my sad college meal plan meant I had to cook.

...how you taught me so many cooking skills.  And apparently raised a tyrant in the kitchen in the process.

...how you came to love my partner because of who he is, and what he means to me.

And I'm grateful...for all these wonderful memories of the things you've done for me over the years, and that you still continue to send me recipes and jokes that you find online, and that you still haven't found the birthday card you bought for me a year ago and keep promising to send, and that you're still in good health, and that we get to talk every week and sometimes more. 

And I'm grateful to be your son.

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Mom.  I love you.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Heroes

I'm a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to superheroes.  I never had many comic books when I was a kid (apart from the occasional Archie and Jughead), and while I watched Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends - an 80s animated series with Firestar and Iceman - it wasn't until I got to college that I learned more about the Marvel and DC universes.  I shared an apartment with two guys who were fanatical about Punisher and X-Men, and they each had a large collection of comic books that were kept in pristine condition in plastic covers with cardboard backing.  And when we weren't reading those comics, we were crowded around Aidan's computer playing his X-Men game, and because he didn't have any controllers, his poor keyboard had to endure our violently-keystroked flying kicks, laser blasts and psychic blades.  Take that, Magneto!

And so began my somewhat mild obsession with superheroes and graphic novels.  I'm hardly steeped in the superhero lore as some - I don't own any graphic novels because I'm too cheap to buy them, nor do I collect action figurines - but there's just something fun in seeing the good guys beating the crap out of the bad guys with well-placed lightning strikes, sonic screams and admantium claws.  And then strike a pose.

I've been asked if I have a favorite hero - I don't.  (There many that I don't like at all, but that's for another posting.)  Sometimes I find the individual story lines to be a bit boring (too many words in those bubbles, and not enough action - hey, I never said I was an astute reader...), so I generally prefer teams, where the mayhem is super-sized.  X-Men is how I started out with superheroes, so I've never lost my liking for this ever-changing roster of characters, including Cyclops, Storm, Rogue, Shadowcat, Emma Frost, Colossus, Angel, and the rest of the gang. 

After reading through Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run, I'm now making my way through the New Avengers series, which features the unlikely crew of Captain America, Luke Cage, Dr. Strange, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman and Iron Fist, up against Iron Man and the rest of the Marvel Universe after the Civil War sparked by superhero registration.  And since I love pretty much anything Whedon-esque (including his Buffy Season 8 comic book series through Dark Horse), I'm looking forward to seeing what he does for the Avengers live-action movie that he's been signed to helm.

I'm not a huge fan of the DC Universe, except for the Justice League and Teen Titans.  I own four seasons of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited on DVD that I've watched countless times.  What's really cool is recognizing several voices as belonging to actors that I know (again with the Whedon connections) - Morena Baccarin (FireflyV) as Black Canary, and Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse) as Huntress - and other actors, like Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) as Hawk, and Jason Hervey (who played Fred's brother on Wonder Years) as Hawk's brother, Dove.  And, I have to admit that even a good storyline like Identity Crisis - which focuses on the DC Universe's response to the murder of Elongated Man's wife, Sue Dibny - choked me up a bit, which I attribute to amazing artwork and fine storytelling.  Even if it is only in 2-D. 

So, with this in mind, it should come as no surprise that I just about peed my pants with excitement when I saw these "vintage" metal posters at a store in Wicker Park.  And though they adorn my office wall, on their own as characters, I find Batman a bit dark, and Superman a bit too goody-two-shoes (although Superman Returns is among my favorite superhero movies).  But as part of the Justice League, they're among a larger group of characters, so I don't mind them so much.  And Spider-Man is growing on me, especially as part of the New Avengers team.


Oh, and if I could have any power I wanted, I'd want to be telekinetic.  So I could do the greatest damage from a distance and not have to get my hands dirty.  Like Jean Grey.  Before she was Dark Phoenix.  And before Marvel killed her off.  Again.  And again.  You get the picture.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Toys

I’ve always known there was something different about me.

Scenes from my childhood, part 2

The setting:  The toy store.  It’s close to Christmas.  Aunty M. has brought me here to buy my four-year-old-mischievous-but-sensitive-self a gift, under the premise of getting anything I want.  It’s every kid’s dream.

Aunty M.:  "So, what would you like for Christmas?  How about He-Man?  Or GI Joe?"
Me:  "No.  I don’t want those.”

My eyes glaze over the veritable smorgasbord of gun-toting, sword-wielding, hyper-masculine action figures of the 80s, and I point.

Me:  "I want the Ken doll."

Epilogue

I don’t remember what I actually got that Christmas.  I just know it wasn’t Ken.  Or My Little Pony.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Genesis

So I appear to be doing things a bit backwards:  rather than starting a blog with the first posting being about why I'm starting a blog, I thought I'd wade right in, sink or swim, and get to the whys-and-wherefores at another time. 

Hello, another time.

Creativity makes a comeback.
I spend most of my workday writing.  But what brings home the bacon is writing in someone else's voice, or representing someone else's viewpoint (and that of my organization).  And while I really love my job and my colleagues, and am truly passionate about the cause - which I'm not saying just because my boss reads my blog - it's good to have something that I feel is just me, and that doesn't require anyone's approval, nor is tied to a paycheck.  And since music has been on the back burner of late, I've found that writing has been a really wonderful, creative outlet.  Plus, I've always found it easier to express myself in writing than verbally, in the same way that I retain things better when I read them than when I just hear them.  Go figure.

Dipping a toe.
I generally consider myself a pretty guarded person.  I have a tendency to keep things close to the vest, for the most part, which I think has sometimes led to people perhaps not really getting to know the real me, beyond a close circle of friends.  I'm also very self-conscious - all the time - and that's probably why I've never had an alcoholic drink in my life, because I'm afraid of what I'd do if I got drunk.  (By accident, of course, since we know Asian men can't hold their liquor.) 

So this is an exercise in...stepping outside the box.  Dipping a toe into unknown public waters.  Not trying to live up to anyone's expectations.  Not giving a crap if my long-winded blog postings would give a grammarian a coronary by my overuse of the ellipsis and sentence fragments, and a propensity to end sentences with prepositions.  Just telling my story as authentically as I can.

Love/hate Facebook I do.
I think there are many good things about social media, in general, and while I don't have a Twitter account, I do have a connection to the time suck that is Facebook.  I've enjoyed reconnecting with people from my past and present, and seeing what's happened/happening to them - especially if we haven't communicated in a while - and being able to (self-servingly) drive traffic to this blog. 

On the other hand, I sometimes feel like Facebook is the equivalent of "drive-by" friendships, in the sense that we see short snippets of people's lives buried in a big long newsfeed that we feel dysfunctionally attached to, because if we don't read it, then we're not going to know that someone had a ham sandwich for dinner.  And do we really get to know who a person is through briefly-worded updates, or 140 characters or less?  Sure, people come to Facebook and other social media for different purposes, and that's okay.  I guess I just feel differently about its overall purpose.

Plus, I've also found that I seriously lack the art of posting witty, insightful Facebook status updates. 

And I'm bitter about it.  So I'm going to write more words.  More words than will fit in a Facebook status update.  So there.  Ha!

Into the West.
So what can you expect to read here?  In all honesty, I'm not really sure.  Probably a collection of life reflections.  Good things, bad things, food things, political things, gay things, Asian things, Canadian things, or just things that I've been meaning to get off my chest for a while, but haven't found the right time nor outlet.  Or maybe I'll just write about my day and my bone-headed move in not realizing that I had forgotten my wallet at home until just before I was about to get on the bus.  I'm trying to keep the language clean (though I can curse like a sailor), so I've been betraying my infatuation with the rebooted Battlestar Galactica by using frak a whole lot.  And if I express views that are different than yours, well...you don't have to read my blog if you don't want to. 

But, if you're interested in hearing more from a proud-Democrat-in-waiting, BSG- and Buffy-loving, superhero-worshipping, gymnastics-following, Everyday-Food-cooking, gay-as-a-three-dollar-bill guy who's trying to do something a bit out-of-the-ordinary, then please - in the immortal words of Karen Delaney Walker - "grab a bottle, hunker down and pray for daylight."  I'm glad to have you on board for the ride.