her morning elegance


Some things would ONLY happen to you in New York. Like late-night ping pong at McFarren Park. Biking through lanes of pedestrians watching a free outdoor concert in Union Square. A conversation with a slightly crazed trash man looking for rats in the bushes. A laugh attack in a Chinese restaurant (actually, this could happen anywhere). Discovering two independent book stores within a couple blocks of each other. Trying to distinguish plain tart from Euro tart (they taste the same) at a yogurt spot.

This is a low-key trip. I’m trying to really imagine living here this time around. If I imagine hard enough, maybe the universe will hear me and grant me this wish.

I’m staying in Brooklyn tonight. The pearl in the oyster that is New York city. Behind the boarded windows and inside the bedraggled buildings is an aesthetic paradise that artists flock to — a secret that hipsters strive to protect. This is the territory of the searching, the struggling, the inwardly beautiful. You can’t tell by just looking at it. Then again, that’s not the point.

In a city like this, you can be lonely, though barely ever alone. The best moments in life are those you share with others. No matter how breathtaking a solitary sunset, how thrilling a busy city street, or how ambrosial a soy chai latte, life is incomplete without friends to share these things with.

Despite having to lug my suitcase everywhere for most of the day, I’m having fun. Hung out at NYU and met with a counselor there. She was warm and helpful. Worked from a cafe not too far away. I’ve been traversing lower Manhattan ever since I got here. I even worked out at a 24 hour fitness, free. Now I’m at a bookstore reading Sartre and what I can manage of Let the Right One In, the creepy Swedish thriller I mentioned.

Dinner plans tonight with Nick. Chinese food on the menu?

This time around, I feel that if I really want to be here, I have to work for it.

I don’t miss home. I feel like I’m already here.

on kierkegaard in vegas

Sitting in the Vegas terminal between a Chinese family and some slot machines. No one is gambling on a Wednesday night. My connecting flight leaves at 11:59pm. I’m anxious to cross over to east coast time, which is the future. My life is about moving forward lately. As a creature of habit (and a handful of bad ones at that), I’ve made a thing of being stuck in the past to a certain extent. I’m nostalgic by nature but at some point, it becomes a hindrance instead of something cute.

Swedish crime/mystery novels are a new favorite. There’s something about Stockholm that lends itself to creepiness.

I have a stack of library books at home that towers over my bed. I’m quite proud of it. Of the stack, I only took two along with me for this trip. One of them is a book of essays on Kierkegaard. He came to my attention when he was mentioned in another book I was reading, The Philosophy of Mad Men. Strangely, I feel like this Danish philosopher/psychologist/theologist reached through the years, all the way from the 1840s, to pat me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, it’s okay.” He seemed to have a way to reconcile the big things I’ve been going through lately.

“Kierkegaard maintains that most people are not selves at all. Being a self, being an individual, is challenging and it is something that few attempt. Instead we “construct ourselves” so that we are acceptable to others – we become a copy; we put on a mask. Truly being a self is too hard and one of Kerkegaard’s main aims in forcingus to look at ourselves is to ask ourselves who we are…”

“The lack of being an individual, our failure to e a self, leads to despair — a fact which most of us may never acknowledge. We convince ourselves that life is “happy,” that there is meaning and purpose to our lives, when often this is not the case. We throw ourselves into activity of various kinds which is subconsciously designed to prevent us having to think deeply about ourselves at al. However, instead of considering despair as negative, Kierkegaard actually believes that the pain of despair can help us to recognize our situation. Thus despair is positive as it can force us to look at ourselves more deeply — to consider who we are. This can be a prelude to our taking charge of our live, beginning the long painful, slow journey to being an individual.”

 

how ella got her purr back

Fate moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes it collapses on you, like a tree in the middle of a street full of traffic. It might even rain on you in the middle of  a summer vacation. In my case, it meowed at me on my way home from the gym.

Before I begin this story, you should know that I’m not a cat person. This wasn’t always the case. When I was little, I loved cats. My mom told me that I was born the year of the cat, according to the Vietnamese zodiac. This accelerated the need within me to connect with these elusive creatures to somehow better understand myself.

When I was 7, I thought it’d be fun to trick a stray cat who frequented our backyard into being mine. Tactfully, exhausting the supply of sliced turkey that my mom kept in the fridge, I lured it into my house, then quickly shut all the doors, preventing its escape. The poor thing freaked out and hid underneath sofas and behind doors. Being seven, I didn’t understand that this meant it didn’t want to play. “Fetch, kitty!” I’d scream in vain. You could say I learned the hard way that cats could care less about the fact that you want to play with them, and more about where they’re going to take their next nap.

I quit cats cold turkey (ha). I also discovered later on in life that there was no such thing as the Vietnamese zodiac, and that I was really born the year of the rabbit, according to the Lunar calendar. So continued my confused childhood.

Enter Ella, a hapless and helpless stray that instantly pawed at my heartstrings. On our way to our cars from 24 Hour Fitness, Felipe and I found her meowing and running between parked cars, looking for shelter from the world in general. Judging from her bite and scratch marks, she had good reason to be hiding.

I don’t know when, why, or how it occurred to me to catch her. But I knew I had to, or else she’d risk getting run over by someone or something worse (at least that’s what I told myself). The only problem was that I had no idea how to catch a cat. For at least an hour, Felipe and I chased her around aimlessly,  to the amusement of other people leaving the gym.

At this point, it was nearing 1:00am, and we hadn’t had any luck. Just when we called it quits, the cat climbed into — yes, INTO — Felipe’s car engine through the undercarriage.

After much debate, we decided to try turning on the car engine to scare her out. No luck. We tried driving back and forth slowly in the parking lot to see if she’d jump out. Still, nothing. My house was only two miles away, so we decided (I decided) that it was getting much later than we intended to stay out, so we should try to drive her home and coax her out there, since she obviously wasn’t affected by the car moving.

Felipe parked the car in the garage and left the front hood open. We left some of my dog’s food out in the garage in case she got hungry and a bowl of water in case she was thirsty.

When I walked into the garage the next morning, I half-expected it to still be hiding in the car, so I tapped the hood to see if she’d make a sound. I heard a timid meow coming from behind me. I turned around and saw her standing on a bookshelf in the garage. So meek, innocent, and eager all at the same time. We fed her some canned dog food from a plastic spoon, which she devoured. She probably hadn’t eaten in days.

That night, I brought her into the house and gave her a bed and her own blanket. Felipe and I picked up some food, litter, and flea medication, the latter of which was of utmost importance. She was infested with fleas to the point that it was disturbing. Some flea bath, a trip to the vet, and 2+ hours of handpicking dead fleas from her coat did the trick.

We still haven’t exactly decided what to do with her yet, but neither of us can imagine parting with her at this point. There also seems to be a separate time zone enveloping her. Whenever we sit down to play with her, the hours pass by without either one of us noticing.

This cat has unexpectedly brought out my maternal side, one I strangely tucked away in my quest to define myself as a strong, independent woman. For some reason, I had convinced myself that being a strong, independent woman had to exclude the desire to one day start my own family. I tried so hard to be the foil to the stereotype without realizing that doing so was denying an inherent need in me to be compassionate, to provide, and to love. I’m grateful for this gift from life. For however long she’s in my life, I’ll always love her for reminding me to open back up.

Now she’s soft, happy, and new. Ella’s story is a testament to the fact that your life can change for the better. Or you can change your life for the better, even if it means having to jump into a car engine and back out to get there.


if you ain’t got that swing

Swing dancing, which I always thought would be my thing, didn’t come as naturally as I expected. It turns out that I’m a terrible follower, which in real life, ain’t so bad. When it comes to couples dancing, though, quickly became an unfortunate handicap.

Felipe and I took a west coast swing dancing class for fun. We were inspired by to 40 to 60-year old dancers that come out to Carnation Gardens Plaza every weekend at Disneyland to smoothly glide and sway to live jazz.

The “fun” part of it melted into my beet-red embarrassment as soon as we rotated couples. Felipe was my comfort zone, and dancing with anyone else would be me pushing mine. My two left feet don’t do too well under pressure.

“You’ve got to let your partner lead!” I heard, repeatedly. Only I found this funny.

Was I really that much of a square that I couldn’t let loose? I interpreted my inability to flow with the music and my partner as a reflection of my current self — the one that had been chiseled away by work, repetitive tasks in the office, client phone calls, and editing manuscripts. My once-smooth contours were now angular, rigid, and offensive.

That night, I put my vinyl records on and asked Felipe to work with me (rather, bear with me) while I tried to figure out steps in my head. Then, I tried something new and closed my eyes as he led me. Suddenly, all I had to sense where we would go next was the pressure from his hands and arms. Outside turn, inside turn — everything seemed so much easier when I didn’t distract my mind with whether I was doing it right or now. I started to get it. Finally, I started to have fun.

Yesterday, I had a very uncomfortable and sad conversation with my boss about leaving my job in the fall. I told him I had to get back to my creative self — my music, doing my own writing, and living the bohemian, impoverished — yet happy — life I once led. This past year has shown me that I am capable of doing anything that I set my mind to, but I also learned that just because I can do something, it doesn’t mean that it’ll keep me fulfilled.

I’m looking forward loosening up again — to being led as opposed to thinking too hard about the next step.

peach fuzz

Tonight I bit into a peach.
It was supple, wet, and saccharine. 
I tasted the humidity from a summer evening
Swirled with a tinge of saltiness from my sticky, sticky skin.
I smacked my lips and loosened my shoulders
In fruity ecstasy.

Leave it to me to write a poem about food. I’ve filled my head with French, Garrison Keillor, and Geoffrey Chaucer for the evening, all of which are much more fulfilling than the news headlines today:

A Vietnamese woman was charged today for cutting off her husband’s penis.

An 8-year-old Jewish boy was suffocated and cut to pieces, then stashed in a refrigerator.

What is the world coming to?

Tomorrow is D-Day, whether I like it or not. Time to confront the beginning of the end of another chapter. I’m nervous but eager to get it over with. Funny how the world has bigger fish to fry, yet I’m still here complaining about my own small potatoes.

Again with the food metaphors.

mezze forte

This week, I pledge to adjust my attitude to the positive side of things.

We had dinner tonight at the restaurant my brother works at in Los Angeles. The whole family went out, and we all had a positive experience. We talked, laughed, swapped stories. The food was delicious. There was lamb, chicken liver, foie gras, wine, pita, chala bread, fatouche, and other dishes I can’t pronounce. Kevin enlightened us with what it takes to make each dish — all the preparation and the TLC that goes along with each bite. It’s taken a significant amount of time and a lot of effort for us all to get to this point together. At the core, we all want this family to work. Tonight was all we could have asked for.

For the first time in ages, I have left no burned bridges. This is something to be thankful for. I feel as if the knot inside of me is unraveling.

It’s time to focus my energy on what I really want out of life and not just what I think is the most responsible thing to do. Being the oldest child, I often bestow responsibility upon myself even when I don’t have to, digging myself deeper into holes I don’t need to be in. Soon throwing myself into the world of “what if’s.”

 

 

a midsummer night’s engagement

art by sockmonkee

A week ago, my parents decided that our house was in dire need of a makeover. In the course of 3 days, they had the exterior repainted, the carpet cleaned, and the furniture rearranged. The fuss was over my cousin Helen’s engagement party. Her fiancee had proposed to her a few months back, and our families decided that we needed to acknowledge it with food and festivities. Not only that — it had to be done the traditional Vietnamese way.

Traditionally, in Vietnamese culture, the groom “proposes” to the bride on the same day as the wedding ceremony. He brings his groomsmen to the bride’s house, each bearing gifts for the wife’s family, an insurance premium that he will take care of her and provide for her relatives. Then, there’s a prayer ceremony similar to the one that you’re used to seeing on television in a church. They’re then considered married in the eyes of the family and celebrations ensue.

This contrasts the western view of being engaged, which entails a period in between the proposal and the marriage. To reconcile the two views, we decided to have the engagement party this past weekend and inviting all of our extended Vietnamese family, then hold the actual wedding ceremony next year.

A rational compromise that came with its own kinks. This is best illustrated by a conversation that we all had at dinner in June, a month before the actual weekend:

Helen: All right, let’s talk about food. What kind of food will we serve?
Helen’s mom: Buffet food!
Helen: NO. We are NOT going to have buffet food.
Helen’s mom: Then we can have a catering company come in. Kevin can recommend one.
Grandma: Well, who’s going to cook the pig?
Helen: [bewildered stare] …What pig?

(As is custom in Vietnamese tradition, a large pig is served to the guests at every engagement party. Helen would have nothing to do with it, while my grandma treated it as if it was plain as day. As an observer, I found this hilarious. Helen didn’t think it was too funny.)

Despite everyone’s bickering and worrying beforehand, it was a beautiful event. Our backyard was transformed into an image of a high-brow country club — white patio chairs on a freshly-mowed lawn, a jazz band in a gazebo (us!), wine and spirits, suits and summer dresses, catering, and tiki lamps.

Our family doesn’t often have the opportunity to share collective memories, so we all relished the occasion. Everyone eagerly tried to purpose him or herself by helping in some way — whether it was productive or counterproductive.

Some highlights:

  • Helen’s dad trying to rush and grab something from the backyard for the ceremony, not realizing the sliding glass door was closed, and running into it head first
  • My dad taping a giant blue “X” at eye level on the sliding glass door so that no one would make the same mistake
  • Helen’s dad not realizing the cranberry juice on tap was spiked with rum and unintentionally getting drunk
  • Helen’s dad, while drunk, offering the alcoholic cranberry beverage to the Buddhist monk who attended the ceremony
  • The band playing an impromptu set after our planned first one and continuing to jam out even after everyone was gone
  • Asking the band to act as the groom’s party during the engagement ceremony, since the groom didn’t have any actual groomsmen
  • My bed, littered with ao dai traditional dresses from all the girls in our family opting out of wearing them all night
  • My uncle Phuong deciding (without telling anyone) that putting up pink, curly streamers  that read, “Over the Hill” would be a good idea
  • Helen flipping out when she saw these decorations and tearing them down in front of everyone
  • My family trying to appeal to Chris’ caucasian parents by decorating our garden with American flags

It could have been a disaster — with everyone wanting something slightly different out of the event — but it was relaxed, placid, and — dare I say it — fun.

When it comes to big social gatherings, I play the introvert and prefer to observe. Small talk is not my forte, so I took to hanging out with the band most of the time. However, seeing everyone together in such good spirits lightened my heart.

The next day, we spent the morning cleaning and wrapping leftovers. The pressure to perform and entertain had finally dissolved into the summer heat, and the relatives who were still staying with us were finally able to relax. The maternal core of our family convened to debrief. In passing, I found my aunts sitting at the kitchen table, gossiping over peeled fruit. They talked about who did what, who said what to whom. Their laughter erupted in intervals. My grandma busied herself with sweeping in the cool kitchen tile.

Since most of us are grown now, our mothers have taken to adopting pets to fill their empty nests. The dogs are just as much a part of our family reunions as we are. While they barked and chased each other around the house, I, the constant observer, couldn’t help but smile.  There was life in our home.

On Monday night, we lit up the sky with fireworks and laughed like children do. Something about staring at sparks and explosions for a couple hours immediately returns you to innocence. The fireworks marked the evening with a sense of finality after a long weekend. When we finally extinguished the last of the flames, I breathed in a sigh of content.

Summer was here.

stardust

Catherine Lepage

Important things are happening and life is changing!

Headed east again soon.

Yesterday, I had a very important phone call that will hopefully shoot me into a different direction than the one I’ve been traveling, which is a very exciting thing. Let’s see what the future holds. Right now, I am very grateful to a woman named Dori.

My cousin and her family are in town for July 4th weekend. She’s having her engagement party this Saturday, so our house will be filled with relatives. The band will be performing that same day. I’m so content with our group chemistry. Through time, we’ll be adding more people, I hope.

I got my Hoagy Carmichael vinyl record in the mail yesterday. “Stardust” is my current favorite, with the potential of becoming my all-time favorite.

So many beginnings.