Eggplant Zucchini Okazu (Okazu Nimura-Style)


When Josh and I were in college and just learning how to live together, we also had to figure out to cook together. It didn’t take long to find our go-to multicultural meal plan: chicken, vegetables, rice (Asian nights!). Or, chicken, vegetables, pasta (Italian nights!). We had lots of variations: stir-fry chicken teriyaki chicken, BBQ chicken, chicken cacciatore. For vegetables: salad, steamed broccoli. For carbohydrates: rice or pasta.

Every once in a while, we’d break out of the routine and splurge on some ground beef, and we’d make okazu.

In Japan, okazu is just a name for “side dishes to accompany rice.” The rice is meant to be the star of a meal. I’m guessing that this is because the Japanese value rice so highly, and because their “food pyramid” looks different than the American version. In my family, it means something different. Until about 10 years ago, I thought that “okazu” meant just one specific dish. If you said “okazu” to me, I’d tell you without hesitating: it’s eggplant and zucchini, stewed with some garlic and ground beef, all in a light sweet-soy sauce broth. Never mind that I’d never seen our version of okazu anywhere else, including Japanese American potlucks and restaurants.

Okazu Nimura-style is meant to be a main dish, a one-pot dish that you ladle over rice into a dinner bowl. As I heard my aunties tell it at one New Year’s gathering, okazu’s a dish that grew out of necessity. My grandmother had to stretch a pound of hamburger into a meal that would feed six kids and two adults. What did they have in abundance, maybe from their vegetable garden or from the farms where they worked? A lot of eggplant, a lot of zucchini. Brown a pound of ground beef. Maybe add some garlic cloves or garlic powder. Add a couple of flavorings that taste vaguely like teriyaki (soy sauce, sugar), and let the whole thing stew, and there you have it. Okazu.

Some of my Internet research tells me that versions of the dish grew out of the Sacramento valley, where I grew up. There are a couple of recipes floating around with green beans or cabbage instead of eggplant and zucchini. You could try those; they’re not so different than the recipe I’m going to give you. But if you like ratatouille, what happens to eggplant and zucchini in that dish, you might try this okazu instead. The vegetables turn silky, if you let them stew long enough. Mixed all together with a bowl of rice, it’s simple and comforting.  I grew up with so many meals ladled over rice. I still miss those brown Noritake stoneware bowls, large enough for a meal but small enough to fit on the wide arm of a comfortable couch.

Okazu is simple farm fare. it’s hearty, it’s Japanese American soul food. It takes minutes to put together, and it stews obligingly while you take care of other matters: giving the kids a bath, watering the plants, sweeping the kitchen floor. Just don’t forget to turn on the rice cooker.

I don’t have a finished picture for this dish. Okazu’s not very photogenic; it doesn’t look very appetizing unless you’ve tried it. I’ll just have to trust your palate—does the combination of flavors sound appealing to you?—and maybe your sense of adventure, if you’ve never tried it before.

If adobo is my Filipino home, okazu might just be my Japanese one.

Eggplant Zucchini Okazu (Nimura-style)

  • 1 lb (more or less) of ground beef. Ground turkey works in a pinch, too, but dark meat is better. (A lot of the flavor comes from the meat.)
  • 1 globe eggplant or 2-3 Japanese eggplant, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2-3 medium zucchini, cut into chunks
  • About 1/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce, to taste
  • About 1/3 cup white sugar, to taste (note: while trying to cut back on white sugar, I  used maple syrup a couple of nights ago, which worked out nicely)
  • 2-3 minced garlic cloves, or about 1 tsp garlic powder if you don’t have fresh garlic
  • Water, barely enough to cover the ingredients above when in the pot (See notes below)
  • Cooked rice for serving (I like to mix white and brown together)
  1. Brown the ground beef in a medium-sized pot until it is cooked through. If there is a great deal of grease, drain the grease from the pot and continue browning the beef.
  2. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and minced garlic to the beef and mix well.
  3. Add the eggplant and zucchini to the sauce and meat. Then add a little bit of water, about half a cup. Note: The vegetables will release a lot of water, and you don’t want the sauce to be too watery, so don’t add too much at first until the vegetables have cooked.
  4. Let the dish stew, let the vegetables cook, and then add a bit more water if the eggplant is still tough and leathery and the zucchini isn’t sinking into a nice velvety oblivion. This step should take about 25 minutes over medium heat, although you might begin checking after 20 minutes to see if the vegetables are cooked the way you like them.
  5. Check the broth and see if it has enough flavor (too salty, too sweet? Need more water, soy sauce, sugar?), and adjust to taste. Check to see if the vegetables are cooked enough; the eggplant and zucchini should be fork-tender, if not melting (the way I like them). Serve over hot rice.

Girl’s Day (Hina Matsuri)

It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve been writing bits and pieces, but not a nice satisfying chunk of writing. That’s okay–at least, I am trying to remind myself that this is okay.  All of it is part of the process. But it’s hard to trust the process on some days. Yesterday I took Anne Lamott’s “one-inch picture frames” approach and just tried to write as many small moments as I could. I’m not sure that these will make it into the book, but it’s clear so far that I needed to write them down, if only to download them from my brain.
I promised you some small breaks from the writing process here. So I wanted to tell you about the Girl’s Day celebration we had this year.

About Girl’s Day
Girl’s Day is a Japanese (and Japanese American) holiday, originally intended for little girls and their families and celebrated every year on March 3rd. We have a book about Girl’s Day and Boy’s Day, with photos and traditions, mostly intended for kids in Hawai’i. When C read about Girl’s Day and asked if we could celebrate it too, I couldn’t say no. I want her and her sister to know about Japanese culture, to know that this is part of who they are.

Girl’s Day (Hina Matsuri) is the Festival (matsuri) of Dolls (hina). Most traditionally, the family has a set of  hina that they take out every year for a few weeks before March 3rd. The hina are usually dressed in the court robes of the Heian era. Some sets are as small as just the emperor and empress on a stand, while one famous set in Japan has over a thousand dolls.

I never celebrated Girl’s Day when I was growing up, but this fact also means that I got to play with the day and the traditions as I went along. There are lots of traditions about Girl’s Day, and while I love some aspects of these traditions, I also like adapting tradition in order to keep the day meaningful and fun.  Hiragana Mama‘s collection of links about the day was especially helpful.

We made the day about dressing up fancy, eating special food, and playing with dolls. Josh finally finished making the dollhouse from a kit that we bought for Christmas, so the girls got to play with the dollhouse, too.
Ultimately, I wanted to keep the intention of Girl’s Day, which is about connecting girls to their families,  letting the girls know that they are loved and cherished.

The food
All of the food served on Girl’s Day symbolizes something, including hopes for the girls’ longevity, strength, and purity. A clear soup with clams is sometimes served, but I didn’t think any of our girls would like it this year. (Some of the food is offered to the dolls themselves, but I forgot this part. I’ll buy a small bowl to place by the stand (hina dan) next year. A sake cup might also work, since it’s the right size.)

Other foods that we served:

  • Thin egg crepes over rice from this recipe
  • Orange slices cut into flower shapes. We used to cut these up for dinner parties when I was little, and my family still likes to serve these on New Year’s Day.
  • Pink and green mochi. The mochi are supposed to be diamond-shaped, and they’re supposed to be pink, green, and white. I almost made the mochi, but decided it might be too much work (with everything else). Josh brought some guava and kiwi mochi from Uwajimaya, which was just fine.
  • Crepes. Yes, I know these are French, but here’s my reasoning: Japanese people are really good at making crepes. And some of the best crepes I’ve had are from places in Japantowns. I sweetened some cream cheese with powdered sugar, and made some strawberry sauce. I also had some ham, turkey and cheese. We presented them as fancy pancakes, and the girls loved them.

Girls usually dress up in kimonos and have their pictures taken next to (or in front of) the hina dolls. I actually have two things which were appropriate here: the yukata that my relatives had made for me when we visited Japan, so long ago, and an orange Korean robe which my sister sent to C. M didn’t want to wear her robe, which was fine. I just let her (and her cousin) ventolin tablets 4mg dress up in fancy dresses. C looked adorable in the yukata, though. Both girls wore hair accessories that my auntie had bought in Okinawa.  I wanted them to feel comfortable, but fancy, and special.

The hina (dolls) and their hina dan (doll stand)
This project took a while, but I’m a crafty sort of girl. I love taking materials that are available and then transforming them into something else. There are a whole bunch of wonderful cutouts online that you can download and print off. But these didn’t feel right to me. (I did print off a coloring page for each of the three girls, as a sort of party favor for the day.)

  • The dolls: I made the emperor and empress dolls, adapting this set of origami guidelines along with a washi ningyo kit that came with black crepe paper for hair and cutout white circles for faces. I made a small gold sensu for the empress, who often appears with an open fan. The emperor’s hair is shorter and more like a topknot. And then I made very simple stands (shaped like Vs, attached to the back of the dolls) which help the two dolls to sit up.
  • The doll stand: The emperor and empress appear on a stand, which is usually striped. I took an Altoid tin and drew stripes on the front. I also used a folded sheet of gold cardstock as a makeshift screen behind the dolls. Next year I’d like to make the screen fancier, maybe with a cutout decoupage from origami paper.
  • Cherry blossoms: And I knew that I wanted to make cherry blossoms. I’d been looking at this project for a while. So I picked two twigs from our backyard that looked small and interesting enough. I twisted small triangles of pink tissue paper and glued these onto the branches. I took paper cups, deconstructed one to make a template, and then covered the paper cups with blue origami paper. I turned the cups upside down and stuck the branches into the bottom.
  • The hina dan (doll stand): The actual stand is a black box that contained some beautiful Japanese bowls. Over the front, I draped a swath of obi fabric that my friend Marcy had sent me from Japan. It has gold origami cranes embroidered all over it. And, just for good measure, I folded three tiny cranes and put them in front of the dolls. Here’s how it turned out:


I wanted this day to be a day of celebrating little girls and family. So we invited my niece, as well as her parents, though they’re not Japanese. And we invited one of my best friends, B, and her boyfriend. Though B grew up in Kansas, she had read about Girl’s Day when she was a little girl. My girls have adopted her as an aunt. She brought a copy of an old children’s book, The Japanese Twins, which is about a little boy and girl growing up in pre-World War II Japan.

And I wanted to connect the day to my family, too. I mentioned that I didn’t celebrate the day while I was growing up. However, I have a picture that my sister framed and gave me. It’s a picture of the two of us in front of my grandmother’s set of hina. I put that picture next to my hina dan, and then put a picture of my daughters and my niece next to that. I wanted to connect those little girls with the little girls that my sister and I once were.

Traditionally, a big focus of Girl’s Day is marriage. As I understand it, this is why the hina are supposed to be from a Heian wedding. The day is supposed to represent your hopes for the girls’ future. But I didn’t really want marriage to be the focus here. If they want to be married eventually (far, far, far in the future), that’s great; if not, that’s great, too. Instead, my sister-in-law and I wrote short notes to the girls, describing our hopes for them. I’ll keep these notes and I hope that we’ll add to this jar of notes every year.

What special holiday traditions do you celebrate in your family? How have you adapted these traditions (or not), and why?

My Father In A Facebook Age

Oh, I think he’d be all over Facebook.
Even if he died before e-mail, before cell phones,
before desktops or laptops,
before dot-coms, before the Web had a capital letter.
Our olive green rotary phone still had a bell. And a cord.
An Orwellian year, we thought, nineteen-eighty-four.
Who knew then what we would want to see?

But I can see him now.
He’d post pictures of his granddaughters,
narrate his online travel slide shows,
review The King’s Speech,
tell you about books he’d been reading,
rejoice over the latest Giants or Niners win.
I can see him writing status updates,
searching Epicurious for his dinner parties,
asking me about Twitter.
He’d still be playing all-night chess games
with my cousin, just on Facebook.
(A show tunes guy at heart, yes:
he might even DVR Glee.)

Before Dad died
he bought one of the first VCR’s,
the remote control still
attached to the silver machine
with a long black cable.
Over decades of photography
he took rolls of black-and-white photos,
carousels of color slides,
albums upon albums of Polaroids.

The film changed, but not
his love of holding on to the moment.
Dinners were for eating together,
houses were for gathering the family.

So I think he’d know what to connect, and how,
and why.
I think he’d know what all this noise is about.


(A bit of fun here, while I’m working on the introduction to the book. More on next steps in the next post.)

What uncertainty looks like

“We just need to get to the ocean,” Josh said.

Really? I thought. As much as I love the ocean, I wasn’t sure if we should really go. We have two littles, after all. Even with each other, with rock-paper-scissors,  drawing materials, and an Ipad for company, they can get impatient on road trips. Did I really want to drive for about three hours out to the coast just for one night on Thanksgiving weekend?

We hadn’t gone anywhere on a family vacation, getting-away-for-getting-away’s-sake in far too long, almost several years. Over the last few holidays, and over the last two summers we had promised ourselves a vacation, even a staycation. Things never quite worked out, and money was far too tight.

But we had to get away. It had been a month of waiting, layered on top of other months of waiting, layered on top of months of career transition. A couple of weeks ago we’d been waiting to hear about job news for me. When news came—not quite a simple yes, not quite a simple no—I had to rethink what uncertainty means, and what stability would mean.


Despite my slight misgivings, the four of us piled into the car. I’m a terrible camper, because I want to take EVERYTHING with me. I packed ridiculous amounts of clothing and two grocery bags of snacks for the girls, for an overnight trip. We drove down the coast. On the way down we drove over long bridges, crossing wide rivers, and as we neared the coast, we caught glimpses of the ocean behind the hills. But then we got to the cottage, half a block from the beach. We knew we had to catch some time on the beach before it got too dark; the Northwest winter sunlight ends by 4:30. So we bundled up, and walked out to the sand.

To our left, Haystack Rock reared its head. It was low tide. Part of the beach was so wet, it seemed to overflow with pieces of sky. The wind whipped around me, the horizon stretched into the distance. And, there, unexpectedly,  were all those crucial times I’d spent near the ocean.

There were all those coastal road trips that Josh and I took to the Oregon Coast in grad school, before grad school. We’d been to Cannon Beach, and Manzanita, and Coos Bay: quick weekend trips, or even part of a week.

There was our honeymoon, where we drove back from Mill Valley and San Francisco to Seattle, up the coast. That week we saw more moods of the Pacific than I’d ever seen, from an optimistic turquoise to a stern cobalt grey.

There was the morning after we’d slept next to the ocean in a cabin. I woke up to the sun rising over a village where the Russian River meets the Pacific, in California. It wasn’t the sunlight that woke me up that morning; it was the reflection of the light on the water, as pink and as golden as the haze in a Maxfield Parrish painting. I looked over Josh’s shoulder, and saw that glorious light.

Why was I surprised that the beach would insistently tug the memories right out of me?  It was the power of the waves: pounding slowly in, pancaking towards you, and foaming away. It was the sharp wind, clear and cold in so much open space. And this surprised me: it was the sound of the ocean that I’d missed the most. Oh, we have polite wavelets in Puget Sound. But nothing like these waves.

And it was the pull of the horizon—it stretched so far away, I couldn’t really see where it ended.

Back at the beach cottage, the little girls were simply thrilled to be somewhere else for the night. They squealed their way through each bedroom, opened each kitchen cabinet, and climbed onto the mountainous easy chair multiple times. The toddler, who loves putting things away, happily unpacked her clothes into a dresser and began work on my overnight case. I laid on the couch, as relaxed as cooked spaghetti. By nightfall I had a book in one hand, a toddler sitting on my stomach and the other curled up next to my legs. We were all in front of the fireplace, content as kittens. Josh had gone grocery shopping and was making us something with pasta in the kitchenette.

Lying there with the girls, my memory traveled still farther back. In seventh grade I visited Mendocino with my GATE class. For part of the trip we sat near the ocean in near-silence, and wrote about what we were hearing and seeing. There I wrote some of my first prose poems. It was my first stream-of-consciousness writing, and words poured out of me almost faster than I could write. We also made lists of our favorite words, and had to read the first fifteen words out loud. (As steeped as I was in fantasy novels at the time, I remember that unfortunately the word “darkling” made it onto my list.) But I  remember a certain small silence that fell over the group after I’d read my list out loud. I was so uncertain and so afraid of so many things, but even then I knew that I wanted to be a writer.

In our cottage, I left the bedroom window open before I went to sleep. And the ocean roared all night long.

(P.S. Photo credits here should go to my husband, Josh Parmenter. The batteries on my camera were out that day.)

Love letter to a small Japanese grocery store

Breaking news (and my, the online news world moves fast!) I’ve written my first article for Seattlest, a Seattle news/events/restaurants website. I’m going to be writing for the Food section of Seattlest, and I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to be a food writer. Here are some behind-the-scenes notes about the story.

This story is a love letter of sorts to Maruta Shoten, a small Japanese grocery store south of downtown Seattle. Maruta made me so homesick when I walked in, that I almost cried. Maruta carried umani in its deli section, a dish which I’d never seen outside my family’s kitchens. When I saw the umani I missed my California family intensely. I miss them still, living in Washington after all these years.

I grew up going to Sakai’s, in downtown Sacramento, which closed down eventually.  I have so many childhood memories of exploring the crowded and dark aisles of Sakai’s, and eventually leaving with some Botan rice candy and some Kern’s guava nectar. I remember my mom buying fresh tofu from the 5-gallon tubs of water, and watching the butcher cut up char shiu for us to take home. I remember the clear crackling cellophane bags of curry powder and other spices, and the porcelain buy ventolin 4mg teakettles crowded in the storefront window. These are the kinds of sensory memories that I want to pass on to my daughters; it’s a form of infusing cultural heritage like no other.

During the editing process I had to delete the personal “I” and exchange it for the royal “we”, deferring to the website’s overall voice: a useful lesson for an I-centric blogger (like me) to learn.

This post also marks my first foray into something like food photography–I have a nice point-and-shoot digital camera, though, nothing very fancy.  That’s our red couch, and my smoky lavender sweater serving as color backdrops for the food shots. Time to take some photography lessons!

A good number of folks in Seattle know all about the largest ethnic supermarkets in the ID (International District), Uwajimaya and Viet Wah–but I wonder what is going to happen to the much smaller markets like Maruta. It seems to be doing fairly well, but I wonder what will happen to it if it ever closes down. That’s why I wrote this article. I hope we can continue to support small mom-and-pop markets like this one. They often yield something that the larger supermarkets usually cannot: a sense of intimate community and history.

In print

Here is a link to Kartika Review, the wonderful Asian American literary magazine that accepted my creative nonfiction essay, “How It Feels to Inherit Camp.” You can download the essay and the issue, but please consider buying a copy of the journal itself–it is a small, volunteer-operated nonprofit organization. Even before I submitted anything to the journal, I had been reading and using it as a resource in my literature classrooms. It incorporates both established and emerging generic ventolin inhaler voices in Asian American literature, and I’m honored to be included in this season’s issue. This month’s issue includes an interview with Jessica Hagedorn, who is one of my very favorite Asian American authors.

As some folks might remember, I tried out a version of the essay here, in this space, and the comments here encouraged me to submit it. It’s a heady thing to see it in print. Thank you, everyone, for reading.

Assignment #4: How I eat (A letter to E)

Dear E,
How do you eat? you asked in an e-mail message last week. How do you establish a form for this part of your life?

I have written versions and drafts of this to you in my head, upon waking in the middle of the night, on the mat at yoga class, during my run along the grassy median in my neighborhood. Places where spring’s starting to poke out of the ground in crocuses, swell the budding tips of branches, blossom in the cherry and plum trees. And I have written it at my laptop, which is usually next to the kitchen.

I have to begin, I think, with our neighborhood grocery store. It’s less than a mile up the road from our house, and it is our version of Cheers: everybody knows our names, or at least our faces. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that we go there almost every day. We get our double iced Americanos and caramel macchiatos there, our daughters have had birthday serenades and we’ve eaten family cups of gelato there. We’ve made friends there. So it is partly a place where we find community.

Sometimes we do plan our meals for the week, but more often it’s a day or two in advance. Partly because of the store, and because of its proximity, planning what we’re going to have for dinner is one of my everyday pleasures. It is where most of our disposable income goes. We don’t go out to movies very often anymore, we don’t even go to bookstores and music stores very often. But we do allow ourselves the pleasure of our grocery store. And, though we don’t have a year-round farmers market in our city, we do live within five miles of three farmers markets when the season begins. We try to go there even in the rain and cold.

Breakfasts are usually staples on hand. My latest breakfast obsession is peanut butter granola. (Before this it was toast with jam; before that it was peanut butter and jelly toasted sandwiches; before that it was smoothies.). Homemade peanut butter olive oil granola, Greek honey vanilla yogurt, sometimes with a spoonful of homemade rhubarb compote, blackberry jam, or cinnamon-vanilla applesauce. Usually in a glass ramekin, sometimes layered in a jam jar and smuggled in my backpack to school.

Lunches for me are usually leftovers from the day before. Sometimes I will pick up a bagel and cream cheese, or a salad, from one of the campus cafes.

Dinners, it must be said, mostly involve my cravings, and I usually crave some sort of Asian or Italian meal. Sometimes I’ll read about a recipe, and want to make it (parmesan-squash cakes). Sometimes I’ll think about what we have on hand already, and should use up soon (French toast for dinner, or Greek salad because of that stack of pitas in the fridge). Some days I’ll think that we need to have a vegetarian meal (spinach-feta lasagna), because we’ve had a lot of meat lately (kalbi) or that we need something warm because it’s been cold outside (minestrone) or something soothing because one of us has been sick (sinigang). Or something very quick that’s both savory and comforting (adobo).

It’s funny that you mention diet restrictions because we do have them, but I haven’t thought about them in a long time. Josh and C and M are lactose-sensitive, so nothing with cream or cow milk. We try to eat things that taste good to us, and are good for us. We’re not always successful with that balance, but we try to balance it out over a week.

But most of the time, it is about craving. And time: what can I make in a half hour, an hour, sometimes two hours, that will fit my mood and the contents of our refrigerator and the constraints of bathtime for our little girls and our workload for the evening?

I’ve been thinking about your questions, for other reasons, as well. Like you, I have experienced a difficult event recently, though I hope you understand that I am not trying to equate them. I have thought about why you would ask your questions: how do you eat? what enables you to eat? What kind of control do you exert over this part of your life, and why? And I think you might be asking, at some level, how do you find the appetite? In the churning wake of trauma, how do we reach for the hunger that is, by definition, an urge towards life?

And I can tell you about weeks when I ate purely for fuel: a handful of almonds behind my closed office door, a circle of leftover crust from the girls’ morning toast, a few pieces of cold pasta at dinner. I know that I am lucky that I had eating options. But most of my energy went towards getting out of bed, walking down certain hallways, stubbornly clutching the cool mask of a normality that I hope I never have to forge again. How the hell to reach for anything else?

Miraculously, appetite returned: at first as tentative as the signs of spring, then inexorable as the tide, luminous as the full moon, seductive as the inside of a peach. If we ever get to spend more time together, I hope I can tell you how. Maybe I’ll have figured it out by then.

See, my mind keeps circling back to your very first question. You asked how I eat. I’ve talked about how I prepare to eat, and what I eat. All of that pales compared to the family that shares my table nearly every night. With them, I eat gratefully.

And I think you know something about this.  Where and how and why I eat are actually the same…with love, with love, with love.

Hugs, Tamiko

Readers: how do you eat? (See my previous post for more of E’s questions to get you going.) E and I would love to hear from you.

Tsunami: What the Waves Leave Behind

When I am dreaming, it’s usually my body’s emotional response that wakes me up. Dreams have shaken me awake out of joy, out of fear, out of desire.

But last night an image woke me up: Hokusai’s “Great Wave at Kanagawa.”

You probably know Hokusai’s “Great Wave,” or have seen a version of it, somewhere. It’s one of the most famous Japanese woodblock prints in the world, and it’s nearly two hundred years old. I think there’s even a copy of it in my favorite local Japanese restaurant. I loved this painting for a long time, just being attracted to the vibrant blues, the serene curve of Mount Fuji in the distance, the perfect arc of the wave.

But for an embarrassingly long time, I never saw the boats—perhaps because I only saw reproductions of the print from far off, or in small-scale reproductions. A lifelong reader, I’m used to seeing things so clearly in my mind’s eye, but I’m appalled at how often I must train my physical eyes over and over again. How could I overlook the fishing boats, the rows of bodies straining in unison against that wave?

Once I saw the boats—and there are three of them!— the entire painting changed. The wave, like Stevens’s jar, “took dominion everywhere.” The foam at the crest of the waves started to reach like claws, or thorns, or teeth. Terrifying.

It’s been hard not to think about this image lately. As far as I know, none of my family members have been directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or their aftereffects. Yet I have been stunned and overwhelmed, like so many others, since Friday. After seeing this footage, or this footage, it is hard to write anything or even read very much. A picture of a mother carrying her toddler on her back can undo me. It feels disrespectful to write about anything else, and even for me (but not for the Japanese) to want to return to anything ventolin inhaler like normality.

And yet, as a literary critic, I have to admire the narrative tension of the woodblock print itself.  Literary critics call this “in media res,” beginning in the middle of the action. A wave itself is narrative: with calmer waters moving into larger waves, then breaking, and receding. The boats and the humans in Hokusai’s painting add a patina of fear to the entire scene, and become story: what will happen to the people? Adding all three elements together, the wave, the mountain, and the boats, we wonder: when will the waves break, and where, and how? When the waves recede, what will they leave behind?

There are two steps in my usual response to tragedy and grief: first, to picture the worst-case scenario; and second, to detach. I don’t say this with pride. Recently, because I’ve been writing this book, and because I want to be more available for people in my life who might need help, I have tried to deal with grief differently. I have tried to stay available for them.

None of it is easy. But at the center of this impulse, I hope, is my urge to connect humanity: the reason why I read, the reason why I write. What will happen to us? When will the waves break, and where, and how?

Perhaps most importantly, Hokusai’s Great Wave forces us to ask: what should we do with the nearly unbearable tension of such a terrible moment? While our impulse might be to resolve that tension, Hokusai instead asks us to stay there for as long as we can bear it. As the Japanese people know, and as my Issei and Nisei ancestors knew, grace and knowledge and strength can arise from that space.

Please consider making a donation to Japan earthquake relief efforts, if you have not already done so.

Where I start

I know I’m in trouble mentioning the word “miracle” during the holidays. I’m beyond saving if I add the word “family” to the same sentence. But I want to tell you about my family miracle.

Around 10AM on every New Year’s Day of my life, I have had breakfast with my extended family: all five of my dad’s siblings, plus my cousins and their families.  We all eat. Then we go home and cook. We return for dinner: more eating. Unlike other family reunions I’ve heard about, we don’t have T-shirts, we don’t travel anywhere exotic, and we don’t rent out a restaurant.

Longevity is part of the miracle. As far as I know, New Year’s has never been cancelled in over five decades; one year, my grandfather sold his wedding ring to make New Year’s happen. Maybe it’s because my father died over twenty-five years ago, and in some families that would mean that my link to his family died, too. Maybe I’m more aware of longevity now that I have two daughters to bring to the table.

Part of the miracle is also what I get to eat. At breakfast we’ll sip ozoni and eat its mochi, along with its shiitake mushroom, nori and shungiku. We’ll eat my uncle’s sabazushi with pickled mackerel. I can’t wait for my cousins’ carefully timed barbequed teriyaki ventolin inhaler albuterol chicken. At dinnertime we always start by lining up for Auntie Nesan’s chow mein. Another auntie brings arroz con gandules from her husband’s Puerto Rico. My Filipina mom will make lumpia; I’ll make sukiyaki using my dad’s recipe. My cousins and aunties will stuff the inari zushi and roll the maki zushi. There will be teriyaki Spam musubi, oden, crab legs, hijiki, tai, char siu, and umani. Dessert has its own table: fruit salad, pies, finger jello, multiple flavors of leche flans.

As well as we eat, I don’t want this piece to be a “savor the ethnic traditions” one. I’m also resisting the predictable family potluck cliché, about every contribution being valuable.

Yet New Year’s is miraculous: an annual family table. It is my touchstone, and what I think of first when I think of family. The meals are a staggering amount of work, the day has evolved over decades, and it will not always stay the same. Nevertheless, I’m a fairly sane and grounded person…and if anyone asks, New Year’s is where I start to tell the story of my sanity.

(I submitted this piece to a publication–they asked for a 400-word piece about “family” or “holidays.” It wasn’t published, so I get to publish it here! Happy holidays to everyone, and thanks for reading. Back in the New Year, if not before.)

Next to the road

Dear baby bird M,

This morning I found a car rental receipt for May, 2007. I had to do a double take—the date was May 17, and I had one car seat so your older sister was with me, and I flew in and out of Sacramento…but the year was 2007. Were you born yet? I had to ask myself. No: that was one year before you were born in May 2008. About five months before we knew about you.

When I realized this, I was stunned. I can’t believe that it has only been two and a half years since you were born. Since that day, I have felt so protective of you, my second child, second daughter. Your dad and I are oldest kids, and now your big sister’s an oldest kid. You’re a youngest kid in a household of oldest kids. So I have felt protective of you in different ways. Maybe you don’t always want to play what your big sister is playing (although this is rare, it’s true); maybe you don’t want to watch that movie that she chose; maybe, gasp, you have your own choices and preferences. I want to protect yours, if I can. I understand big sister urges all too well: we want to express our love through teaching, protecting, guiding. But I want to honor you, too.

When I knew I was pregnant with you, I remember being worried. How could I love you like I love your sister? And of course, the answer was that I can’t. And I don’t. Loving your sister taught me that I could love someone differently than your dad—but just as equally, just as helplessly, just as deeply. You taught me that of course I can love a daughter differently from your sister. And yes, just as equally, just as helplessly, just as deeply.

Now, I know there are older and younger sibling gripes. Your dad and I try to manage these as best as we can. Older siblings gripe about how younger siblings get more attention for being “the baby.” But younger siblings gripe about being treated permanently like children. Older siblings gripe about having to go first, or “breaking parents in” to the first sleepover, the first driving lesson, the first time away from home. And younger siblings gripe about how little documentation there is for them, compared to the oldest child.

And oh, this last one is so true. I’ve talked to a number of parent-friends who have two or more kids, and it’s not just you. I wrote down daily, weekly, monthly things about what your sister was doing at this age. Milestones: first steps, first words, first meals. She had her own web page. We do take pictures of you, but not as many; we update your shared web site every three months, rather than every week or every month. I have felt, keenly, the lack of documentation that we have had for you, compared to what we had for your sister. It happened with me, too—there are so many picture albums of just me, the oldest and for four years, an only child—and not as many picture albums of your auntie, my younger sister. So this is something like an apology for not having enough pictures of you, or equal documentation of you.

But it is also a letter to tell you this: if the older sibling is about the magic of the milestones, the younger sibling is about the magic of the middles.

When your dad and I held your sister as a baby, we were terrified most of the time. We didn’t really know what or whom or how to trust, as parents. Good students and lifelong readers to the core, we consulted What To Expect (both before and after her birth) every week. We loved it, but we were also gut-scared.

And you? By the time you were born, we had learned better how to trust ourselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my very favorite pictures in the world was taken on the day you were born. It’s a picture of you, burritoed up in the white flannel hospital blanket, and your big sister C, with the biggest look of surprise, looking up and laughing. I asked my sister, your auntie, to take these pictures, as many as she could. I knew that I’d still be in surgery for a little while after you were born. And I couldn’t be there when you met your sister for the first ventolin inhaler price time. It broke my heart a little, to tell you the truth. So first you should know this: the urge to document was there the day you were born, even though I couldn’t be with you, and the urge is still there.

And second, you should know this, immediately: very early, you taught me how to enjoy the in-between. As a baby, you were a world-class champion cuddler. Even now, your body melts into my lap, pours itself onto my shoulder. Your head still snuggles into my neck, that sweet spot that babies seem to seek and find, automatically. What will I do when you no longer want to sit on my lap in the morning during breakfast, or lounge against my legs as you eat your snack? You crave physical contact, lots of it. I’ve never been that way, but I love that hunger in you.

For the first three and half months of your life, you were colicky at around the same time, around 4-6PM. It was usually dinnertime, which meant that we had to take turns, or eat later. I never thought that I would have been mostly all right with holding a screaming, seemingly inconsolable baby, but there were also times when I was so happy that I got to hold you. I wasn’t so scared. I didn’t take it as a personal insult or parenting comment that you were screaming every day. And every once in a while, when I held you, pacing, swaying, singing, breathing deep… you’d calm down. I like to think that it was because you knew me, knew my smell, in the most mama-baby animal primal way. I wasn’t looking for your first smile, your first anything. I just knew that I loved holding you, breathing you.

Now you are making new leaps and bounds with your language, it seems almost every day. You’ve gone from naming, to demanding, to describing, to pretending, and even to analyzing (“Can I sit down to put my pants on?” you asked this morning. “It’s easier.”). You love wearing the same clothes as your older sister: “We have twins!” you like to say to her. You’re catching your balance more, and you can now trot sturdily after your sister, chirping “OK! C!” Your Japanese-manga-size eyes stare up at us from under your blowsy, curly bangs, and all three of us, we who live with you, are at their mercy. Your sister even runs to get a tissue when you sneeze.

Your moods are usually sunny or stormy, and most of the time you like to be sunny, silly and funny. I don’t remember the first time you said your first word, but I do remember when you said to me, without any kind of prompting, “I yahv yoo.” You still want to be carried a lot (“uppy!”) and you still love your “chocky milk” from the store. You love to pretend to put your baby doll to sleep, and you want us to pretend along with you. Tonight I was a crocodile. A couple of weeks ago I was the Cookie Monster. Who knows what I’ll be next? I can barely measure, much less document, when and where and how all of this is happening.

But we are learning how to express ourselves in newer and better ways, you and I. Though I can remember what life was before you were born, I am amazed by how richly you and your sister have textured my life, how thoroughly you ask me to live my life every single day. Stitches that outline a shape? Pretty, sure. But intricate embroidery in lush, multiple colors, unfurling designs: now, there’s something like my life now. A century of stitches.

That’s why I can’t believe that you’ve only been alive two and a half years.  And that’s why I’m not writing this letter to celebrate any developmental milestone. You, the younger sibling, have taught me that the journey of parenting is not only the direction of the road, the distance to the next rest stop, or the relief of the endpoint (and really, how to envision an end to parenting now?).

Thank you for teaching me to see the beauty of the landscape next to the road. You are the long tall grasses waving in the wind, the green hills relaxing in the distance, the white lace dancing on the waves.  You taught me that parenting’s also holding you, breathing you. These are the journey of parenting, as much as anything else.

Love, Mama