Following Ansel’s Path

Way back in 1989, I had to declare a major in college. I toyed with an architecture major, but the prof for the prerequisite: History of Cities was horrific and scared me from that path. I considered math (very briefly) before settling on Fine Art with an emphasis in photography and ceramics (yes, two opposite ends of the fine art spectrum). Art degrees are funny, you spend hours practicing this thing you know very little about, and then you read about and memorize all the masters in your specialty. Then you’re meant to fill in the giant chasm between your work and theirs from your own guts before graduation.

Since my college years I’ve had it on my list to see Yosemite. I mean, it’s been there since 1890, so I’m a bit over due. So when the chance came, I went… with 27 teens on a school trip as a chaperone. Below is my photo essay of the three national parks we visited in that six day stretch last week. Happy 100 years, National Parks! Descriptions in line.

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Aah Frisco. The tourist tour. The entire week was spent on this tour bus – the one whose wind shied I am shooting through. Hey, you do what you can.

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We began a series of about 10 hikes by walking across the Golden Gate. It was a good break-in.

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This was the visit to San Fran that let me see things a bit differently. Through childrens’ eyes, perhaps?

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Sunset from our city camp site at the Presidio. Who knew you could camp there? As we set up tents, the tour bus owners brought halibut from one of their Alaska tours, and crevelle (like a grouper) from one of their recent Baja trips. He fried it up in camp while I gushed over the fact that he was feeding these hard-caught delicacies to kids!

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Before we knew it we were on a gorgeous California beach. “Where are we?” We asked… Marin county, so this is the Marin Headlands beach. Quintessential.

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I watched the surfers when I wasn’t on alert for random kids running into the sea.

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Before we knew it there were dorsal fins in the surf. I noticed all the surfers were turned away from the beach at once. I thought they were looking for the next wave, but then I realized they were spotting the fins.

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By their spray we could tell it was mammals, not sharks. The surfers relaxed and paused, even, to watch the small pod pass. But the dolphins paused as well and played in the surf along with the surfers.

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You can see one on the left of the image above.

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And closer here.

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Photographically I had several challenges. The largest was shooting with available light. Meaning, high noon most of the time. This is what Yosemite looks like at noon. (Photographers cringe, but I like the challenge.) El Capitan on the left, Half Dome in the middle, Bridal Veil Falls on the right. I look forward to playing with these in black and white.

Another challenge is that I have done no post production work on any of these shots. They are all right out of my new camera, jpg crunched at the moment they were shot. (At noon, can I say that again?) I hate spending time in post production (done enough darkroom hours for a lifetime), so this was a fun challenge: Get it right the first time; no messing, no fixing. (And bless Fuji for making this camera like my Minolta of 1985!) For the first time since my film days it felt like it should. And it feels luxurious. I love it.

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Of those 10 hikes we did in a week, this was the doozy. I offered to lead the Upper Yosemite Falls Hike. It spends 3.4 miles going up switchbacks next to the waterfall and tops out 2700 vertical feet later at 6500 feet elevation. So it’s like Mt Si, but starting at 3800 feet elevation instead of ending there… in about 80 degree weather. We felt it. And we almost got to the top, but since I only had 9 of the kids, we had to meet back up with the rest of the group at a certain time. We were all pretty tanked anyway (yes, me.)  But 4 of the kids really wanted to make the top and ran ahead of me for the last 10 minutes. By my estimates they had 3-4 switchbacks to go until the top. So there you go. A peakbagger I am not. I turned them around.

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This will be a pretty black and white when I get to post. Taken on the way back down.

Here’s the fun part about this tour bus: You eat dinner under El Cap, you fall asleep on this moving hotel, and you wake up to imminent sunrise over Death Valley. As a landscape photographer I truly appreciated rolling over in my sleeping bag, so I could face the giant picture window, and run video of the sun rising over the thirsty brown mountains.

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By noon we were fed, sweaty and marching across the Mesquite sand dunes in 105 degrees. This is where I will tell you my third photo challenge: I was limited to one lens: 18-55 mm. That’s wide angle to standard portrait. No telephoto. I knew this, but these dunes are one of the few places where I wished for more reach. But more than that, I wished for sunset. I’ve always had visions of standing in the Sahara as the last camel caravan crossed a shaded ridge in the low light. This is what I’ve got. It’s more than I had a week ago.

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After cooking in daytime temps with the kids as they attempted sledding (in saucers) down the dunes, I strolled back to the parking lot shade shelter. Along the way I studied lizard tracks…

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And snake tracks, and wind tracks.

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And I realized in looking at these, there is no way to express how freaking hot it was at this moment, as sweat evaporated before it dripped from my head to my camera, and every step was … well it felt like an old Western. The cracked-lipped-dry-wineskin-stumbling-through-the-desert-type. We hadn’t showered in three days.

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Our third hike of this day was a loop around the rim of this lovely volcano: Ubehebe. I took the short route and turned around here, so I could (rest) take photos of the other group. And sit in the shade of the bus, and drink water.

We pitched tents in an oasis that night: Furnace Creek. Appropriately named. One thermometer read 120 degrees. It looked like this (below).

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This is also my Ansel-channeling moment: All I could think was, Moonrise over Hernandez must have felt like this. It’s a fun read if you want to know the history of that photo. Sotheby’s probably doesn’t want my rendition, however. It was still steaming as the sun went down, colors and light realized after the heat of the day dropped to a level that we could actually appreciate the space we were in. It was about 95 degrees as we tucked into sleeping bags that night.

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Death Valley Sunset

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More hiking the next day. Zabriskie Point – a photographer’s trap in the desert. It was gorgeous at mid-day. I can imagine the row of photographers who gather at sunrise to shoot it. We hiked down into it instead.

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We took a wrong turn along the path through the Golden Canyon and ended up on a slightly longer hike than we planned. It was 105 again. We were hiking. This sign caught my eye. It felt so perfectly placed.

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Traveling light, 1.5 mile trail down from top to bottom… the bus will grab us at the end… if we find it.

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An hour later we were at the edge of Death Valley, visiting a date ranch. I must admit, this is the first time I connected the term “date palm” to the actual thing you eat. Hmm. They grow here. Along with the saguaro cactus.

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So of course we had to hike through them. And if you’re counting (I left out the salt flats) this is six hikes in two days. All in Death Valley. It’s a dry heat.

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I trotted up one of  the near ridges and got a good look at the date farm (and the oasis that feeds it). It looked like what I imagine Saudi Arabia looks like. Gorgeous in its inhospitable terrain and climate.

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A few cactus shots… these guys were dancing in the last of the sun.

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Aloe vera

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last light on the rocks.

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The remains of beehives among the junk and rubble of the date farm. Bees are really useful creatures, folks.

Once more we converted the bus into what they called “the miracle” so that we could sleep during a night drive. When the bus stopped it was dawn in Joshua Tree. I was itching for some early light (and temps) so I grabbed my camera, crawled over a dozen sleeping bodies, and ran kidless (!), amok through the poofy trees and rocks as the day came alive. Click. Breathe. Click, click, scamper… look. Listen. Silence. Click.

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As I returned, the bus was waking and setting up breakfast.

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And on our final hike in J-Tree, we ran across this lovely gopher snake. He was about four feet long, and played it really cool when 27 kids encircled him to get a look.

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If you look on a map of California, Joshua Tree is in the southeast – almost centered in the triangle that is made by Los Angeles (west) Phoenix (east) and Las Vegas (north). So it took one more night drive, aka The Miracle, to return us to San Francisco for a 11 am flight the next morning.

Thanks for reading.

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The Origins of American Excess And Enoughness

I was visiting New York for the first time since the 1980s. My friend Gambu is an immigrant from Nepal living in Queens, so he picked me up and took me to his flat for a warm Sherpa welcome complete with multi-family homemade meal, and precious idle time spent communing slowly over spicy brown food. More about the time I spent with him here. But after a quiet family-oriented evening in a very modest, two-family flat, he dropped me off in Times Square at my hotel. And it felt like I’d eaten an entire chocolate layer cake. Alone.

That’s how it felt to go from Gambu’s flat in Queens, to Times Square. Gambu’s family and another family share a two bedroom flat on the second floor of a row house. It’s decorated only in a few wall hangings – Thanka – or Buddhist monk paintings surrounded in silk cloth, and the family shrine above the TV. We’d just had a handmade Nepali meal: While Gambu and I entertained the other family’s young daughter, I heard the slam of a meat cleaver repeating on a wood board in the kitchen, cutting fresh pork into pieces for curry. The smell filled the house as much as bubbly conversation and laughter. Gambu’s teenage son joined us for the meal as we ate from the simple seating, off our laps in the living room. It was comfortable and genuine and unpretentious.

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When it was time, Gambu took me back to my hotel in Times Square. Right in the middle, on the 19th floor, overlooking the bright lights, digital activity, sensory overload. Overlooking the giant advertising that shouted its way into my room. And it felt horrible. Like someone scooped me up off the sidewalk of my childhood and dropped me in the original pool of excess.

There is so much visual overload in New York, it’s hard to know what to be overwhelmed by. The million theaters, the giant screen with flawless models walking toward you indefinitely, the stacks and stacks of playbills, animated advertisements, the masses of tourists gawking, camera snaps, selfie sticks, the repeating vertical columns of window squares up almost to infinity, and the light reflecting off of everything metal and glass.

But I also thought about the core of this place. This giant city with people from everywhere, built from dreams and desires of generations of hopeful people. I think of the hundred-year old photos of workers on I-beams high over the city streets, when the buildings were just going up. The history of taking immigrants into open arms, from homeland to island to new home. And what does it now display? At its heart, giant electric billboards of excess. Too much of everything. It’s what taught us to eat American portions, and want McMansions and then fill them with all that American-sized stuff. It was born here among the hopes and dreams.

New York is beautiful. It transcends everything that’s ever been said about it, and every song that’s ever been written. From what I remember of thirty years ago, it’s become immaculate since I was there last. Its people are friendly, proud, hardworking, especially the public servants. Adversity and diversity has made it a very strong and tolerant city. During my most recent subway ride a NYPD cop boarded at the stop after mine. I watched his demeanor as he entered. He was acutely aware that the gun on his hip carried a myriad of messages, and the passengers dictated what it conveyed. He made eye contact with everyone who noticed him, a relaxed smile on his face. His body language said so much in a single second. At that moment I took a relaxed breath, and thought, every city should train their PD like the NYPD is trained to interact with people.

The city is so easy to navigate. A glorious, numbered grid. A haven for logical, orderly people like me, who can keep 46th Street straight from 146th and 64th effortlessly. I live in Seattle, whose numbered streets change every few blocks, and randomly shift from north-south to NE-SW while intersecting with several other roads at once. I think we love roundabouts here because we can just go around and around until we can snatch a view of the water and guess which way is correct.

But New York is full of everything. Every imaginable kind of food, every sort of shop, lights, activity. It’s hard not to want to buy, eat and own the whole entire thing. But I think about Gambu, about many of the immigrants who have come to New York and settled, and what they might think about America, if they use New York as their barometer. There seems to be never enough in New York. That’s part of its mystique. It never sleeps because there is so much, that if you slept… you’d miss it. You’d miss your bite of the Big Apple… how could you do that?

While it’s not the only place in America full of excess, the empire city flaunts its excess without the passive aggressive tendencies that Seattle does. While Seattle may ramble on in a dry whisper from behind the log home near a hill that was recently covered in pine trees, and from behind a wall of smoke from a joint, pausing only to nod and take another toke, NYC just says it in a brazen Brooklyn accent, like, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!”

So by example we’re teaching excess when we should be teaching enoughness. The articles are endless about filling our simple needs with artificial, purchased band-aids. Instead of a weekend with friends, you’re running to appointment A, meeting B and obligation C. No time for simple people interaction. No time for making your own food. The city beats and we pace to match it. So we acquire more and more superficial content – a closet stuffed with more Prada, Gucci and Armani than we could ever wear, because we deserve it, from working so hard. A fridge stuffed with more food than we could ever eat before it goes bad, because all it takes is money to do that. And then we go out to eat anyway. And water. The way we use simple, gift-of-life things like water from our tap, electricity, gasoline, air. We don’t have time to think about that. And it’s killing us. We’re ignoring it and chasing excess instead.

My friend and photographer, Cristina introduced me to the idea of enoughness. The idea that things which make us most fulfilled, most happy, are the basic, life-giving necessities: A simple meal together, an unhurried conversation with friends, a roof over our heads that doesn’t suck resources from the earth, or endless money from our pockets. Growing our own food. Raising our children as a village. Things that developing countries still do. People who leave their country to come to the US leave those simple, beautiful, life-giving things for Times Square. And I won’t say I don’t see the draw. But I also see the damage that it has caused us. As a society of unhappy, depressed, underemployed, overworked people, we’re sick from excess. And we seek more of it instead of remembering enoughness. It’s not taught here. It’s taught back there, where we all came from. Before we decided to chase excess.

I only hope we can re-learn enoughness before it’s too late.

 Reflected flawless models (complete with handbag and shades) walking toward me on the 40-foot high video screen.
Posted in American Dream, Cristina Mittermeier, Culture, enoughness, excess, Immigrants, New York, opportunity, Times Square | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Wealth and Poverty

“Genius is only a superior power of seeing.” – John Ruskin

I was in a Sherpa home last night. It was a business meeting, but with people I already knew, so they invited me and my family in for dinner, because that’s how Sherpa culture works. Over seven amazing handmade courses, some pulled right out of their backyard garden, we discussed the business, but also talked about culture and home life. We talked about Nepal and I listened intently to their thoughts about the recent Indian blockade and political issues surrounding the little country. I can spend endless hours contemplating how different life is for a first generation American Nepali than it was for their parents. And I ask a lot of questions. So between them, “Is your sister in New York, too? Tell me the name of your home village again… I remember going through there. What is this dish called? What do you do for your other job?” I enjoy seeing how their perspective and experience affects their answers. How the things they see are different because of their heritage and culture. She reminded me that we had stayed in her sister’s lodge when we passed through her home village in 2013. Nunthala is off the tourist track, so it’s unusual that random American trekkers would pass through. I didn’t know her then, but I had met her brother who lives in New York, when he came to Seattle with one of my other Sherpa friends who lives in New York. Sherpa circles are tight and tangly. There is rarely a time when I meet a Sherpa and they don’t know most of the Sherpas I know. Sherpa names repeat frequently, so most people are described through family association or where they live, or what their occupation is. A sumptuous amount of time is spent describing friends, acquaintances, relatives, before talking about them. That way we’re all sure who we’re talking about. The only confusion tends to happen when I describe someone as a climber. That doesn’t narrow the Sherpa lot very much. I’ve gone into Sherpa names before. Calling someone by their given name doesn’t work, so we talk in personal descriptions instead. It’s lovely.

As we talked, my kids played basketball and skateboarded with their kids in the cul-de-sac down the street. Then their cousins arrived, followed by auntie Lhakpa, “My older sister, I am youngest of six. She just lives a few blocks away and they come down all the time.” Appetizers were served formally, each plated individually, but Lhakpa and her sister shared a plate, complete with sisterly bickering about “you eat that one, no, you, that’s enough,” in Nepali.

We talked about Nepal’s struggle to regain its footing after the blockade (which is widely believed to have been more detrimental to the country than the earthquake that killed nearly 10,000 people). “It’s such a poor country,” they said more than once. Nepal lists in the world’s poorest countries by GDP and by purchasing power pretty regularly. To make matters worse, it’s land-locked, dependent on the two largest economies and powers in Asia for enough food, fuel and medical supplies to feed and care for its people.

But I see beyond the financial poverty, privileged as that might be (financially). It might take a lot of looking and some experience in financially barren places to see this next part. I don’t see poverty first when I go to Nepal. I see a wealth there that we lack in our own culture. I see families that will move across the country to be closer to each other rather than farther away. I see the time they take every day to fill seven silver bowls on the altar of the family shrine, as an offering to the gods. “And we empty them before dark… or anytime after four.” I see shared meals as a regular happening, and a pile of kids playing in the street with no watchful eyes hawking them. I see a desire to give to each other, to community and to strangers without reservation.

The kids came in after a half hour and my oldest asked about some of the Tibetan Buddhist decor in the living room. We shared a second cup of tea and noticed the ornate symbols in Himalayan rugs over hardwood floors. There is an amazing luxury of time that happens during a Sherpa meal… the relaxed conversation, the enjoyment of the food, discussion over the preparation. I asked about the spices in each bowl of their spice box. He chopped chives, cilantro and mustard greens fresh from their yard. I only asked about them, and was instantly ushered out to the garden and offered some seeds from the mustard greens and cilantro they were growing (seeds originally from Nepal, of course) and a green vegetable that we don’t have here, from the chayote family. “Put it on good supports, let it grow big.” In the living room one of the girls played on piano, the notes spilling into the kitchen. “Is she taking lessons?” She’s teaching herself… unstructured music and art time happens regularly in this home. Values we have shunted, over-structured and commercialized so they are nearly sterile in our culture, are radiant here. We’ve managed, in our “wealthy” culture, to manipulate every bit of love out of our food, our creativity, our play time. And that’s the wealth I think about when I think of Nepal. If we could only see it when we consider wealth, perhaps countries we see as impoverished would be realized for their depth in wealth instead.

Nepali Food

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The Value of Grassroots Efforts

I’ve steeped in heart work over the last few years. Five years ago I was a photojournalist in Nepal on a tour raising awareness on global warming and how it affects the inhabitants of the Himalayas. Three years ago I worked to install education infrastructure in rural Nepal. After that, I worked with a travel organization that does volunteer homestays in developing countries, building community projects and infrastructure. And in the past two years, I’ve done a little work with two other creative non profit organizations: One is a photo-based project to tear down media-built stereotypes, called The Everyday Project. The other is Leaving the Life, about the reality of human trafficking in Seattle and your own community. All of them are grassroots operations. Incredible work is being done in places where you never hear about it. Small groups are going to great lengths to build a better world. Sometimes it feels incredibly fractured, to be doing random work for organizations because I connect with them on some level. Sometimes it feels like so much work for small, local progress. But working at this level feels like where I should be.

Last night I attended a screening of The Mask You Live In, a documentary about how boys are raised in our culture. The short of it is, our culture bends boys toward growing up without the ability to share emotion, without being able to show feeling or connection to anyone, even though that’s what they desire most during coming-of-age years. Violence is bred in the isolation created from this lack of emotional connection. During the course of the documentary, we’re taken to an Oakland school where the kids are dealing with the toughest of the tough: Homeless in high school, beaten by parents, estranged from fathers, gang activity, drugs, shootings, on and on. Or, that’s the story that I latched on to. There was also a story about an ex-NFL player, who has turned from the tough-love, hazing culture of sports, to being the supportive, emotionally-aware father figure that many athletes need. He coaches with heart. And there was the San Quentin juvenile lifer who, after years of reflection, described in detail how his low self-worth and emotional disconnection led him to taking someone else’s life. Many of the men in the movie talked about taking their own lives. Gun violence, video game violence, media violence, sports violence, and Hollywood violence were all sited as contributors to breeding men with armor, men with masks over their emotions who are unable to live an emotionally engaged life. Quick clips of data supported it. And still our gun culture flourishes.

See the film. Every man in America should see the film. It’s a great example of several grassroots organizations in action. You can stream it for $6, but of course it makes a bigger impact if you screen it in your community (also an option on that same page). It’s done by The Representation Group, the same operation that made Miss Represenatation in 2011.

The Mask You Wear screening

Now back to Oakland – the story I latched on to. Ashanti, who graduated from this high school, was accepted to Stanford for an engineering degree. Raised by a single mother in the ghetto of Oakland, he wanted to be an engineer, and had his sights set on the lucrative career that would come following that Stanford degree. But instead of engineering, he steered toward his high school community when he saw them faltering. He saw that the boys needed to be freed from armor and masks they are being forced to wear so they can be accepted members of their school, their community, society. Ashanti quit engineering and became a teacher (and assistant principal) for his own high school instead, where he immediately saw how the kids needed a place to connect and father figures to connect with. He offered to buy them lunch once a week if they would sit in a group with him and tell him how to be a better teacher. Simple but beautiful ideas like this always make me sit up and pay attention.

(Side note: not excluding women here, rather removing the pressure of having female players in this forum allowed the boys to open up more readily. The impact on women is reflected in the way men treat them and can relate to them better, especially on an emotional level, once the masks have come off.)

Some boys volunteered, showed up and gave him feedback. He fed them lunch. “I still had some engineering money back then,” he added in story, after the screening. And so his organization was born. Now he leads groups of these same kids (all joined voluntarily) in removing their masks. He gives them a safe place in their own community to be who they want and need to be: People with real emotions who can express it in ways other than through violence and anger. Incredible work from the inside out, instead of from The Capitol Building down. And while politicians belt out catch phrases on primary stages across the country, and many of our state and federal officials can’t seem to move related laws forward at all, this method, the grassroots work that is being done at the community level, feels all the more effective, necessary and useful.

After the screening there was a panel of speakers, including Ashanti and even one of his students who had become a mentor in the program himself. They each told stories, answered questions. It was a packed house, but afterwards, I made my way down and talked to Ashanti for a minute. On the car ride home, five of us moms-of-boys talked over the key points of the evening. Someone asked me what I talked to Ashanti about. “I tried hard not to cry while I shook his hand and thanked him for the work he is doing.” I would have hugged him, but that would have surely opened the floodgates. Hmmm. Heart work.

Mask photo 1

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Cooking School

One of the common threads for PKU kids (and adults) is that they play down the emphasis that our society places on food. Think about it – if your meal is restricted every day such that most things that are offered aren’t viable options for you, you spend less time being absorbed with that topic at all. I think of it as a coping necessity. You don’t regularly go play in a field of daisies if you are allergic to them, even if everyone else is out there. As fun as it would be, it’s not the reality you can easily live with. So imagine my surprise when I realized how much my little guy with PKU enjoys being in the kitchen, helping me cook. We make dinner together, and bake cookies together, we figure out what goes on a sandwich. He slices the fruit or peels the carrots, but will also ask to crack the eggs or take the meat from its package (both things he can’t eat). This struck me as strange, since it seems a bit like an amputee who designs shoes: how do you?… and then how can you want to? But he enjoys the creativity and the mixing and everything that goes into the process. It often doesn’t matter at all if he can’t eat it. So I involve him when I can. Enter culinary experts.

Le Cordon Bleu, the acclaimed cooking school, hosted our entire group of PKU families for an afternoon of cooking! Three master chefs, teaching chefs, and assistant chefs led us through recipes that were all acceptable for the PKU diet. As you might expect, the creativity in their solutions to the PKU diet were wonderfully refreshing. I spent the first two years of my son’s life scouring lists and committing foods and protein numbers to memory. I consider it my nutrition-degree-by-fire. Those two years of knowledge have carried me to most of the recipes that I make for him regularly. I have hundreds of items in my head and their respective protein and phe amounts per serving. I use that list to make every food decision for him. Having pro chefs and master chefs run through this process was incredibly refreshing. To have someone else do my homework, look through new foods, and make familiar foods into new epicurean delights. They had done their homework and prepared an amazing, creative menu.

So here’s some of it.

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Making pizza dough that he can eat!img_7723_std

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Waiting to taste…

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He loved using the giant chef’s knife

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And roasting romaine lettuce (what?! – it’s pretty good!)img_7739_std

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Three amazing main course saladsimg_7746_std img_7749_std

This chef made me cry. He’s been teaching students in standard culinary school for years and I could tell how much he enjoyed the PKU food challenge. He was truly impassioned by the challenge of finding a food solution for these kids. I suppose it’s like taking brushes away from the painter; he will still create, but the format changes, the rules change, but the methods and creativity shine through just the same. So he showed us amazing ways to make low-protein burgers and stirfry dishes. He showed unique ways of using cellophane noodles and low-protein rice. In the middle, occasionally, like he does when teaching regular students, he offered a substitution, and then paused, remembering the restriction. “Does this have too much phe? (Phenylalanine, what we call phe, or “fee” is the component of protein that is counted for PKU folks, the way sugars are for diabetics.) And we, the parents of PKU kids, could all tell him without a pause, yes, or no. It’s in the mental catalog. Then he would offer another substitution and wait to see if that was a better choice. “No, but you could use A, B, or C.” we’d occasionally offer. He’d think about it, then say something like, “Ok, that would work, but that one doesn’t have the body or the texture that this option does. Let’s see what we can figure out.” I watched the artist at work, struggling just enough with the tools he’d been given, to find a viable solution to the problem. Those few moments filled me up and made me realize that what I create every day in the kitchen is pretty magic. That the knowledge I have absorbed from this method of feeding my child is not inconsequential, and not an easy set of parameters to work with.

On our way out I thanked this chef for his insights and suggestions for new foods for our kids. “Oh, no, thank you all,” he said, “you have taught us all so much. This is a very challenging menu and I very much appreciate what it takes. Thank you for showing us for one day, the things you work with everyday of your life.” It’s rare to find that level of passion and gratitude, so I spent a moment soaking it in before I wiped my tears.

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Soulshine Concert and Bali Green School

This is a photo story about a unique day we had in Bali. It included a giant bamboo structure, snakes, a concert and yoga. Grab a cup of cleansing organic tea and have a little holiday.

Before we began our Bali escapade, we selected our hotels, flights and vaccinations. The rest we left open, except one thing: All eight of us bought tickets to a concert fundraiser to benefit Bali’s Green School. They weren’t cheap tickets, but it was for a good cause… The only thing I knew above that, was it involved Michael Franti. He’s what I would call a free-love music front man, conservationist and yogi. He calls himself a poet, musician and activist. He calls Bali home, or at least spends a lot of time there. And he was headlining this fundraiser to benefit the school where it was held.

I’ve never been to a yoga concert before, so why not make Bali the place to try it out, right? As it turned out, it was the most Western of our adventures in Bali, and much of it felt comfortable, like a Hippie home away from home, in a gorgeous tropical setting.

The venue and grounds were one of the most interesting things about the evening: a school  called The Green School, it is aptly named. It’s a lovely, heartwarming idea, and also a great example of reverse innovation – creating solutions in developing countries that can also translate to developed countries. The sisters in this TED talk are Green School students talking about how they are making environmental change in Indonesia – a very populous, developing country (which includes Bali, Java, Borneo and Sumatra, among others). The central building of the Green School is a gorgeous two-story structure made entirely of bamboo. (Bamboo, being a fully sustainable building material, and readily available locally, made this a wise choice.)  But it’s also a unique form. Not a box, like most other schools – they sent packing the architects who suggested a cube-like structure and made it a double helix shape – natural, organic, open air. It’s called The Heart of School rather than the box-proposed “administration complex”. A very bold statement for thinking outside the box.

It’s a school where they make 70% of their power needs from solar.  I was impressed enough that I took a photo of a photo of their solar panels (which are tucked away, invisible to all but the sun). They do more than that, though. They grow their own food to feed the students, cook with sawdust and reclaimed methane from their farm animals, and they teach forward thinking about how their own students can become leaders to promote environmental change. It was voted the greenest school on earth in 2012. I love that a developing country is home to this. It is a hopeful sign. (In case this is intriguing to you, the founder of the school has a TED talk about why he did what he did.) My only further hope was that the school itself included local, indigenous folk as much as the expats who were there on this day.

Gentle marimba music trickled through the bamboo gate as we arrived. Late afternoon sun spilled through palm fronds onto the grassy center lawn. Spicy satay wafted on the air, and musical acts were entertaining gypsy dancers, half-dressed children and long blonde dreadlocks in the gathering crowd. It was the biggest Hippie party I’d been to in a while. Probably the biggest since that Hurricane Hugo raggae fundraiser I went to at some Minneapolis community center gym years ago, but back to Bali…  The event was comfortable, relaxed and low key, if not entirely attended by expats. I sat for a long while and thought about how it might feel to live on this island and send my kids to this school.

 

The audience sprawled comfortably on blankets across the lawn with naked babies, listening, and chatting (mostly in English) while their children played on rope swings and bamboo playgrounds. Ours blended in and did the same. It was a little taste of familiarity, a break in the middle of an otherwise very foreign trip for my kids.

 

 

Inside were jewelry vendors, artists, dancers, body painters (and related photo shoot) and as you would expect, snakes.

Just outside there was a pig. For eating.

And across the lawn… there were drum circles blooming organically on the grass, casting a warm, woody rhythm across the crowd.

The star of the show wandered among the people, randomly spotting aerial yoga poses. That’s Franti, on the right, drumming, (above) and on the left, spotting (below).

Across the grass, under another cover was the stage. As the sun fell, the volume rose, encouraging dance and revelry.


 

 

And as I had taken to capturing the food we ate…

This is locally grown (on the school grounds) raw-foodist pesto-vegan pizza, I think. Served in typical Bali style – on a banana leaf. Perfect Franti-concert fare, but I stuffed myself on satay instead.

 

Then the light faded and we faced a four-hour drive back, along thin, winding, dark roads, to the villa, so before Michael Franti even took the stage, we headed out.

Posted in Bali, Bali Green School, Michael Franti, Soulshine | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Blinders Off

I almost titled this “There is too much, let me sum up…” but that’s actually counter to the point I am about to make. There is so much to read now, so many people casting words and videos and snaps into the ether, that if you aren’t careful, you drown. And from what I’ve noticed, you tend to drown in a very narrow slice of the thoughts which are cast out. Meaning, all the algorithms that send us article after article of “you may also like” are doing us a disservice.

This week an absolute jerk (who doesn’t deserve to be named) proved to the entire world just what an asshole he can truly be, when he is at his best. The entire cyberworld paid attention and countered his idiotic thoughts, and much of the next three days was nothing but rallying, countering, counter-countering, ass-covering and miles of words cast into the ether about this one topic. I said almost nothing because clearly, it would have drowned unseen. My friends who cast a wider net were saying more effective things along the lines that I would have written. They were doing it better. So I let them, and I liked and shared it. Because I like and share those sentiments. Nota bene: What I am about to say should not be construed as me not caring or not taking a side in the above issue.

There are, believe it or not, quite a few other things going on in the world. The asshole above simply stole your attention. I’d encourage you to not let him do that. Just a quick trip down NPR’s top international stories, and a few other sources reveals much more intelligent and worthy content:

Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive large countries, is allowing women to vote in this “partial election.”

The Climate Change Conference in Paris is making strides, in session overtime.

I am always looking for the bright lights after a black cloud is cast over media and the majority of our cyber-attention. I found one in this piece. One of our local philanthropist’s companies was integral in creating this beautiful campaign. You might notice that some commenters think it’s stupid. To which I’d reply with this piece.

Just in case you can’t stand all the positivity, and need negative headlines in order to consider it “news,” here’s your lede: India has been blockading Nepal’s borders for more than two months. The reason: Nepal wrote the country’s first constitution (following monarchy and civil war) and ratified it in late September. India didn’t like what Nepal’s constitution said, so it cut off the tiny land-locked country from supplies of fuel, food and medical supplies. The article above has a poignant snipit: “The impact of the Indian blockade on Nepal’s economy has now far outstripped damage from the earthquake.”

Me meeting the Prime Minister of Nepal in 2011.

“Oh, right… that’s the country that had 10,000 die in a 7.8 earthquake in April. I had forgotten….” Because perhaps you’d rather wallow in the attention-mongering asinine actions of certain presidential candidates. The UN has called for India to quit the blockade and they haven’t. I know a handful of Nepalis who are posting occasional images from nearby the border blockades. They’re showing up on Everyday Nepal. I’ve written more about my personal experience with this situation here. But my guess is, if you didn’t know me, you’d know nothing of this situation. Because of our cyber-blinders. Think I’m full of it? This should help. As  much as I hate that style of journalism, it’s a good teacher.

We view the world through our own very narrow tunnel, whether we mean to or not. And perhaps we’re taught to own our convictions. But that’s exactly what’s caused the polarization we’re experiencing now. Especially once we reach a certain age, we repeat very small circles. Media since the internet has encouraged and honed this because it’s algorithm-able. Pile more on what you clicked on. Add to the base coverage that was clicked on most yesterday, feed it to the people who ate it yesterday. I’m tired of the internet telling me what I should eat.

So after you’ve clicked on the tenth asshole-political-candidate article which supports your view, try clicking on one of the links above or below that you know nothing about.

I know I am in the minority of people who actively goes out and searches for information outside of my own interests, but I encourage you to try it. If you are a devout Christian, go learn something about Hinduism. If you are an animal rights vegetarian, go learn about the benefits of meat as a protein source, or about hunting. And I don’t mean the raw-vegan site that talked about it one time, in language you are accustomed to. Go to a hunting site and listen to what the other side has said. (Not about guns, for cripes sake, about meat as food… start reasonably.) And prepare to quell your own heart palpitations and red-faced denial. Sit outside of your own ideology for just a minute and listen. Or if you’re a hunter or devout carnivore, research a couple of meatless meals you would be happy eating. Find the intelligence there (and by intelligent, I don’t mean, “things that agree with you”). Find curiosity in foreign topics and figure it out a little bit.

Learn what people who are NOT like you know. Wait, read that last sentence again… I’ll wait here. Good, now I’ll place quite possibly the most intelligent of all these links. (Though, as an editor and like being inclusive, I’d change “Buddhists are not free of it either” to Athiests. Everyone. Humans.) It’s about how your own truth is no more valid or truthy than all those you hold counter to your own. It’s about being devout in any belief, and how that devoutness can damage you. Seriously, even if you didn’t click on any of the links above, you deserve the wisdom in this one.

Read something outside your own comfort content. Most of us haven’t done that since high school or college. Who knows, you might learn something new that opens you up to a more complete, fulfilled life.

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Posted in Culture, freedom, happiness, intention | Leave a comment

On Interrupting Jimmy Buffett

I was going along, doing my normal house-mommy activities, washing dishes, folding fitted sheets – king size, alone – how does a person do that?… trying to decide if I’d started searing early enough to complete the roast before dinnertime. I was scrubbing the pan from yesterday’s attempt at baking and contemplating running out to the store to get a can of Guinness at 10 am. I’d woken up singing Magaritaville, but tequila doesn’t go in a roast. Guinness does. You know, your regular Monday morning thoughts. I was also thinking about socks; wondering why there are so many unpaired holey beauties and counting the hours that the roast needs to sit in the crock pot, because those are the deep thoughts I have when I am not thinking about discovering tertiary revenue sources and divergent directions for obscure online publications.

The phone rang, interrupting Jimmy Buffet-in-my-head and my morning routine. The caller ID let me know it was a telecall type of thing, and I answered it so I could tell them to remove me from their list personally since they obviously don’t understand what the national do-not-call register is. It’s okay, I am patient like that.

Inside of three seconds, the thick accent on the other end was frantically “ma’am, no ma’am, ma’am-ing” me while trying to convince me to give him details about my computer’s operating system. It’s obviously broken and he’s going to show me right now before anything else bad happens. Yes, apparently problems bloom on my computer and just in time, The Ether sends me people like this lovely angel direct via Ma Bell to fix it. So I thought I’d have some fun. He knows me intimately, of course, I am “Chriserika” and he has my registration number right here, “I’m just looking it up, one moment ma’am, just one moment while I look it up, please.”

“Which company is this?”

“Computer Services, ma’am and we have a record from Windows that your computer needs to be fixed.”

“Uh-hu.” I’ll invite a little fun, I thought. I like to mess with computer scammers whenever the opportunity presents itself. Turnabout and all that. I asked him the company name again. Now it was Computer Tech-something-in-California. I asked again why he was calling me. Obviously, it’s because I have problems with my computer and if I would just get on my computer, he would be happy to show me the problem, ma’am, with ma’am, ma’am in between every other word for politeness freaking sake.

After letting him know in no uncertain terms that I was in fact having no computer problems, he got pushy, and then we had our little dance again where I asked and he offered the name of his company, except it was Tech Center this time, not anything computer. So now I’m in the land of a million ma’ams and revolving company names. Isn’t that cute. He told me he knew exactly where my problem was, if only I’d look at my computer. So I asked which computer it was that was having the problem. Certainly if Windows gave him authorization to call and he had “my registration number” (that he was still searching for) then he would know which computer was troubled. Silence. Oops, he didn’t anticipate the fact that I have more than one computer. I let him ma’am-ma’am me for another moment before I interrupted his stream of frantic begging by threatening the BBB on him. Then I waited for him to relent and hang up. But I got tired of listening and did the hanging up myself.

My next objective will be to see if I can get them to hang up first. Now, back to my Guinness and roast.

Posted in humor | Leave a comment

The Good The Bad and the Ugly-Writing History

It was my job yesterday to write to my group of Nepali photographers that are working on Everyday Nepal and remind them that we’re not a news outlet or a political forum. That was actually a really hard thing to do because the people in that country are currently writing a very important page in their history.

The good: After a decade of shuffling prime ministers and trying to organize their government, Nepal has finally written a constitution for their country. Nepal was a kingdom from 1799 to 2008. After a decade of unrest with Maoist guerrillas hiding in the hills, riots, and the country trying to figure out how to recover after losing its monarchy, it settled into a parliament and prime minister. But it’s not easy for a country that is used to operating with a monarch at their helm to fulfill such a requirement. So they kept unseating their prime ministers (because they weren’t acting like monarchs) in hopes of someone who could undertake that large task. In 2011 I met the fourth prime minister that had taken the post since the monarchy was dissolved and a democratic republic was formed. Since then there have been three others, for a total of 7 in 8 years. I remember sitting in a room full of prominent men (myself the only female) and listening to the prime minister speak slowly and carefully in English about how it was his job to write the constitution for his country. And now it’s finally been done. Parliament voted to accept it in late September.

The Bad: Not everyone is happy with the constitution, of course. There are 125 different languages and cultures in the tiny country that’s about the size of Tennessee (with China and India surrounding it on all sides). As a result, some of the cultures who look to benefit the least (or be most marginalized -the Madhesi in particular) are rioting down by the Indian border.

The Ugly: This is creating problems for supply routes and supply trucks entering the country, as Nepal is dependent quite heavily on Indian supplies like gasoline and produce. India claims the rioting groups are keeping the trucks from passing the border, but the rioters (and much of Nepal) place the blame squarely on India for blockading the crossing, to enforce the laws they believe should be changed in a constitution that isn’t even theirs. (News articles from The Times of India, another view from BBC, and My Republica/HuffPo – clearly blame is being traded far more than gas and food). As a result of the blockade, currently Kathmandu is without gas or enough food to feed the people of the city. Half the restaurants in the city are closed, as well as hotels. Many people are not working. Many don’t have fuel to run their cook stoves to make dinner for their families. And this after only beginning to rebuild from the devastating earthquake that killed 10,000 in April. Deep breath.

Now back to my little job of telling photographers what to portray on a non-political non-news site. Several of them live down near that border crossing and have done a fair job of reporting and posting photos without taking too much of a political bent, even though it most certainly affects their family and entire village. My words included ‘history’ and ‘together’. It felt really big. I was pretty nervous when I pushed the send button on that email. I waited, with a stone in my gut, to see the response. It was really refreshing to get an almost immediate note back from one of the more active photographers, “Thank you, Erika. You just spoke my heart here, I’ve thought the same.”

Shortly afterwards, one of my Sherpa friends messaged me that they were out of fuel for cooking and he had just walked from Kathmandu to his wife’s village and back (because there is no other way) and my gut tied in knots again. India and China may well bat Nepal around  like a ping pong ball. So I sit on the far sidelines, cheering silently for the tiny country full of heart to make it through this piece of history: Go Nepal! You can do this.

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Posted in Government, Kathmandu, Nepal | 1 Comment

Girls Work: From School to Government

The air is thick and hot and hazy. It’s ninety degrees. Mary Beth and I are in a circle of makeshift chairs. We’re outdoors on a dusty patch of ground with a dozen community leaders from this group gathered around us. We drove for eight hours over treacherous roads, in rugged landscape, through valleys, across ridges from Kathmandu to get here. There is a slow, steady hum of human activity in the village around us. The lazy market entertains a few locals bargaining, and a bus carrying too many travelers is offloading luggage and passengers from its roof. Chickens are being gathered from the compound next door and beheaded in preparation for dinner. We’re here in order to visit a school. We’re on a project for a non profit organization that is helping this local school to expand its classrooms because they can’t accommodate the the children they currently have. They house many of the children in an attached, affiliated orphanage and those kids live on the school grounds. They grow vegetables on the roof of the orphanage, which resembles a barn as much as anything else. We’ve walked the grounds of the school, stood in the classrooms, each of which is open air, edged with woven palm fronds and bamboo windows. The playground in the center of the school grounds is dusty orange clay with an outhouse building on the far side. The painted sign on it reads, “Investment in children gives us good return,” in English, as if it’s an advertisement just for Western visitors.

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Our circle of chairs have been moved from a meeting room in one of the village community buildings, so we could sit in an outdoor space to get to know each other a bit after an intense meeting and negotiation about the school. This border town on the south edge of Nepal is in plain sight of the Indian border which divides the two countries by invisibly crossing a hill in the distance. Sitting with twelve community leaders was meant to cement negotiations and build trust on both sides.

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During a break, when one of the village women went to gather tea for us, I walked to the corner of the building to take a look at the surrounding area. Rolling hills faded quickly into the haze of the sticky afternoon. One of the community leaders followed me, as is customary, to show me around and make me feel comfortable. He began describing the village and territory around it. “Do you see that hill, there? That is the Indian border. We are so close to it, but the kids walk across many kilometers to get here every day.” It was less than five miles away. We turned to head back to the chairs as people were reconvening, and he finished the story while the rest of the circle listened. “We’re close enough to India here, we sometimes lose children to human trafficking while they’re walking the route to school.” A few others in the group nodded in agreement, eyes low, solemn looks on their faces.

Now, I knew AC was being really careful with us down in this area. He had told us before we went that he was uncomfortable because he hasn’t spent as much time down here as his own territory, and he knew some areas were sketchy. He always wants his travelers to be very safe. As part of that, he usually guides conversation by only talking about certain things. But there was genuine concern in this circle that the children were not safe in walking from their homes to school. They weren’t safe from being abducted and taken across the border into India where they’re sold into slavery or prostitution, never seen by their families again.

I swallowed my shock, then managed to ask out loud of the group, which spoke some English but very broken, “Do you teach in your schools, how to keep the kids safe? So that they’re less likely to be taken? Are there measures in your community that you can take to keep your children more safe?”

An answer came back, “We cannot get the government to agree to that.” From my view, it wasn’t surprising, since the government wouldn’t even agree to funding the full school rebuild, which is why we were there in the first place. Over discussions right then, AC interpreting on both sides, an interesting exchange of culture and information played out. Several of them, especially the women in the group lit up at this and spoke among themselves, working it out for a moment before they calmed down. I only got the sense of what was going on but it seems to me that the government gal, the Minister of Tourism’s assistant, was one of the most vocal and concerned. She had flown in the day before and driven the last two hours in a jeep with us to the village as a representative of the central government in Kathmandu. The community revered her and appreciated her willingness to support their school project. (As a side note, I remember feeling proud of her in her position, a woman in such a male dominated culture. She was outspoken and firm, unlike most of the other women we’d come in contact with.)

I offered up another suggestion, thinking as the words left my mouth, “There must be away for your community to become more safe. Can you… Is there a way to educate the children in your school without involving the government? Can you just talk to small groups directly, and would that help?”

There was a short silence, then multiple conversation rumbles through the group, all in Nepali, with AC moderating and explaining my meaning. They hadn’t considered presenting a unique local message, a curriculum without universal sign off. I was amazed that they hadn’t done the troubleshooting to figure out how to save their own children from this. Mary Beth and I sat silently while they exchanged thoughts and ideas. After AC translated my words for them, the group got quiet, then one of the leaders spoke. AC didn’t translate for me but what he said to me in an aside was, “They are not used to working in this way.” It must have been a delicate dance with a member of the central government sitting in on the whole thing. A few moments later the conversation turned back to the school buildings.

In the following weeks, with AC interpreting the government and the culture, I came to understand further what they meant. “The government will not allow us to teach those things in schools.” They had said. Because it’s a cultural faux-pas, an unmentionable. It’s not spoken about among adults, much less children and as such, many don’t even acknowledge that it happens. But also, I asked AC why they don’t push for a closed border. He explained that Nepal’s economy (and government leadership) is intrinsically tied to India and that border with India must stay open or Nepal would shut down. This sort of information always stops me cold, how an entire country of 33 million people could operate day after day under that premise, then I remember that Nepal is the size of Tennessee, surrounded by the two largest countries in the world. India and China, no one else. It still messes with my head to think of being in that tiny village in that smallish country in that particular position, so culturally and sociologically different from my own. With problems that seem so accessible, so potentially fixable when seen with Western eyes.

Since that meeting and since that moment I’ve wanted to go back to Nepal and work in human trafficking and work on the problems of the border crossings and all the girls that get stolen across every year.

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Posted in Chitwan, Nepal, victims, village, volunteer work | Leave a comment