Where I'm Coming From

My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

I struggled with this last self-portrait; I thought, how many more ways are there to introduce oneself? And it occurred to me that my struggle had nothing to do with "how many"; the problem is more fundamental, and that is that I hate introducing myself. I hate saying look at me, listen to me, I have something to say. My instinct when I'm with other people is to hide. I hide behind words; I chatter. I feel as vulnerable if I am silent as if I were naked in a crowd. I'm going to take a risk today and not explain the photograph I have taken. That's the way I will introduce myself in an honest way: by staying quiet and letting the image speak or not speak for itself.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Food Fever

This weekend I had my first adventure baking vegan chocolate chip cookies. I used a recipe in my Vegan Planet cookbook, and was skeptical because it required canola oil instead of a solid butter substitute. But the cookies turned out wonderful -- crispy around the edges and on the bottom, and chewy at the center. They contain some maple syrup and I wonder if that's the secret to this perfect texture. I haven't baked non-vegan chocolate chip cookies in a long, long time, so my memory could deceive me, but these vegan ones taste better to me than the regular ones I made before.

I've also experimented this Sunday with making a Bechamel sauce with Earth Balance, soy milk and a soy mozarella that I found by accident at Trader Joe's (and that is not one hundred percent vegan because of the lactic acid that's added to the soy milk to curdle it). I thought the sauce turned out delicious; I had missed it so much. But Husband wasn't quite so impressed. He's an expert at making the real thing, and compared to that my quasi-vegan Bechamel was a rather mediocre concotion. No matter. I was happy. I had missed so much the velvety, creamy texture of the sauce, and the slightly bland, sweetish taste.

Lately I've had a crazy craving for macaroni and cheese and am looking for a truly vegan recipe for the dish. I found a "Macaroni Hates Cheese" recipe on a website; the sauce contained soy milk and nutritional yeast. It tasted very unusual but not bad. And I was so happy about being able to eat mac and cheese. It's hard to give up these comfort foods, though I find that as time passes I have fewer and fewer cravings for cheese, which was one of the toughest things to give up as a vegan.

Here's the first vegan cookbook I've found that looks absolutely beautiful: The New Vegan Cookbook by Lorna Sass. It has glossy pages and luxurious photographs. None of the other vegan cookbooks I own have pictures that make your mouth water and inspire you to tackle a new and slightly complicated recipe.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Two Trees

I went for a walk. I found a tree with young yellow leaves. I thought about its stillness. I thought about my parents who are fighting again and for whom I've become a go-between again because I'm afraid that if they talk directly with one another they will hurt each other in a physical way -- again. They've been caught in this cycle for years, and I've been caught with them. I want it to end. I'm tired of it all. I'm tired of clinging to hope when my parents have long ago given up on it.

I found another tree. The sun was behind its trunk and it made it glow. The world doesn't seem real sometimes. If you look at it from certain angles it seems like a dream someone is dreaming, one of those in which you find yourself naked in front of a crowd and try to run and can't, and think desperately of ways to cover yourself but there aren't any.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


"Hey, Rosie!" the man shouted from inside the house. A small black dog scampered down the front steps through the open door. Her collar tinkled. "Rosie!" the man shouted again, but the dog ran to the sidewalk and stopped for a moment to sniff a blade of grass. I passed by and she looked up at me cheerfully, her head cocked. She had a white stripe down her neck.

A shadow appeared in the open doorway. It was the man, barefoot, with stiff grey hair. He started slapping his thigh. "Come back, Rosie! What's wrong with you?" The dog eyed him. The man eyed me. I was walking too slowly; I was waiting for the end of the story. "Come on!" the man said and took a step forward. The dog, startled by his movement, scurried towards him, her collar tinkling frenetically.

I had almost reached the corner of the street when the man finally closed the door behind him and the little black dog. But I caught his last words -- vehement, loving words. "Were you going to leave me too?" he asked the dog. "Were you just going to go away when I wasn't looking, like that bitch?" For the rest of my walk I tried hard to picture his left hand slapping his thigh. Was he wearing a wedding ring?

But some stories are like that. No matter how hard you try and how long you wait, you never get to the end of them.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

I try to stay in the light and not let my body with its density of fear and its thickness of doubt block too much of it. Yesterday I failed. Today I managed to get another milimeter out of the way. I worry about tomorrow. But I'm reassured by the fact that light will be there tomorrow as it has been every day of my life, waiting for me to wrestle with it, waiting for me to win or to lose, and smiling either way, being unchanged either way.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

All I Ever Need to Know I Learned from a Gypsy Girl

After my grandfather's death, my paternal grandmother lived with her sister in a huge house that smelled of cured bacon and old things, in a neighborhood at the periphery of my hometown. The river was nearby, crossed by a black steel bridge wide enough for two sets of railroad tracks and nothing else. Sometimes I saw young men up there walking on the ties and then, when a train whistle blew, pressing themselves quickly against the railing as the train sped by. The gypsies' houses were nearby, too. I saw them in the street, the women with their gaudy pleated skirts that brushed the dust on the sidewalks, and their babies in slings tied over their shoulders; the men with their black hats and white faces; the young girls with their thin long braids tied with bright red ribbons.

I was afraid of them, and afraid of my grandmother's house with its strange smells and its large rooms crowded with furniture, armoires and armchairs and high beds in which no one ever slept. I couldn't puzzle out my great-aunt, who was a seamstress and had gypsy women as her only clients. She sewed skirts and blouses and vests for them from glossy fabrics in the most outlandish colors I had seen, magenta and gold and peacock green. But she spoke of the gypsies and to them in a tone of contempt and annoyance and every once in a while a begrudging sort of respect. I happened to be there once when some gypsy women came for a fitting. I gaped at their gold-capped teeth and black mocking gleeful eyes. I was shocked by their politeness. I marveled that they didn't smell; I marveled that they smiled and weren't nervous and didn't seem to realize that my great-aunt thought very little of them.

In the back yard of the house, right next to the pig sty and the chicken coop, there was a shack that was little more than one room with whitewashed walls and a very small window that faced the same direction as the door toward the main entrance to the house. My great-aunt sometimes rented it out, and I remember that the steadiest renter was a young gypsy girl who once invited me to visit the room and see what a nice little home she had made for herself there. I don't remember her name. I know she was extremely talkative and friendly, which made me suspicious; I remember she smiled a lot and gesticulated incessantly and invaded my personal space. I didn't want to go see her room. But she pressed and pressed. I must have been ten or eleven and my father was with me and didn't tell me to go or not to go, and so out of guilt I went. The room was very clean, though it had that smell of old things that filled the main house. The bed was made very tightly. There was a stove in a corner and a rug on the floor. The gypsy girl was very proud of that rug. I sat on the bed and tried not to think too hard about how badly I wanted to leave. She told me her life story: how she was an orphan, had grown up in a goverment home for children, was in high school now and loved to run and had won some track and field competitions.

At long last I said I had to go. My father was already outside, with my grandmother, waiting for me. I felt so guilty about not liking the gypsy girl who had been so kind to me that I interrupted my father's conversation with my grandmother and said that he should go back there and see what a nice room the girl had; it was such a nice room, really nice, and it had a rug, a rug that she had bought herself with her own money. My father looked at me as if he didn't recognize me. But I kept chattering and insisting he visit the gypsy girl's room. I don't remember how he made me shut up in the end. What I remember so vividly it pains me even now is waiting at the tram stop in the dark for a tram that was very late and my father telling me, "Don't you see that we're different? That gypsy girl and us, we're different. You have to know that you're above her and that becoming associated with her would be shameful. Do you understand?" I was mortified. The mistake I thought I had made was that I hadn't liked this gypsy girl because she was a gypsy. And now my father was saying that it was a mistake, and even more than a mistake, a sin, to like her because she was a gypsy.

After coming to America I wrestled a lot with racism. I didn't understand it; I couldn't imagine how a people of one colour could think a people of another colour inferior, less than human. But then I remembered the gypsy girl and my feelings about her, and the weight of guilt and prejudice against gypsies that I absorbed by just being the daughter of my parents and by the accident of having been born in a certain culture and a certain social class. I have a fear that despite my conscious effort not to be prejudiced, deep down I have remained that little girl who convinced herself that a gypsy was a lesser person than herself because the gypsy wore strange clothes and spoke a strange language and lived in a shabby rented room. I fear that some things that I learned cannot be unlearned, not deep down in the layers of myself where my awareness doesn't reach. But then the best I can do is to begin at the top layer and dig slowly down, changing a little at a time and never telling myself that I'm done (un)learning.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


A few months ago I started rereading War and Peace. The first time I read it, the summer between my junior and senior year in college, I was helping my mother at an elderly care business she was running at the time, and my memory of reading the book is interspersed with the image of an old woman with dark red hair -- her name was Rosalie -- who sat on the loveseat next to the couch in a corner of which I was huddle with the heavy book propped on my knees, and every once in a while, when an airplane rumbled distantly overhead, would say, "My son Blake was a pilot. Have I told you? My son was a pilot." Her son was dead but she didn't remember that. I would look up at her, dazed, my hands shaking a little from the effort of thinking up something to say, my head, my whole body was full of Tolstoy's words.

Before I started rereading, I remembered very little from War and Peace: the beauty of Natasha Rostov; Pierre's love for her; the double self of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the arrogant, distant one that irritated me, and the troubled, questioning, deeply intelligent one that made me love him. The war, the battle scenes, left no imprint on my mind after that first reading. And now, the second time around, they are the ones that strike me the most. I have to read very slowly through them in order to understand what is happening, to keep track of all the characters. So it takes me a while to notice Tolstoy's skill, to become aware of how deftly he handles these dozens of characters, and how he never fails to see them as individuals no matter how many of them crowd in his mind and on the page. Take Captain Tushin, who is in charge of the cannons and who mutters tenderly to the biggest cannon as it spits out its shells toward the village where the French are stationed, "Come Matvyevna, old lady, stick by us."

I ask myself over and over, sometimes with frustration, sometimes with nothing short of awe, how Tolstoy can refrain himself from making judgments about the war. Why doesn't he say clearly, passionately, that war is horrible, that the people who start wars are horrible, that there is no honor and no victory for anyone in a war? Even as he describes the chaos on the battlefield, the fear and exhilaration of the soldiers, and the arbitrariness of the decisions made in the heat of fighting, his equanimity remains intact. He isn't there to make judgments, he seems to say under his breath, between the lines. He's there to see, and to see as thoroughly and deeply as he can. He's an artist, not a politician.

After I put down the book and return to the routines of my day, I begin to think about the war in Iraq and how, if the president had ever read Tolstoy, he would never have started it. I want to send a copy of the book to him with a letter that says nothing except READ in huge red letters. But even if it got to him -- it might not, since the book is so big it's hard to believe it's a book and not some kind of bomb; and the truth is, it is some kind of bomb, the kind that explodes it your mind and throws blinding light on your darkness -- the president wouldn't have time to read it. He's a politician. And what has politics to do with art? Sadly, these days, nothing at all.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

Books and Chocolate

The chocolate is Green & Black's Organic, dark with hazelnuts and currants. The books are from my always too small and always growing library. This is what my heaven is made of: paper and cocoa beans.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Beauty & the Beast

These tiny purple star-like flowers grow in a cascade in my parents' back yard and stream between the bars of the back yard fence. This image struck me because it's such an accurate reflection of my relationship with my parents: beautiful but divided always by these black bars of things that we cannot say to one another. Sometimes I wish these obstacles were cleared. And sometimes I wonder if the fact that they are there isn't a good thing, because they have pushed me to build a life of my own, separated me from them enough so that I could become my own person.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


I gather, from reading others' blogs, that memes are guilty pleasures. You resort to them when you're too tired to think of something original to say. The assumption is that there are such a think as a purely original idea and a purely imitative one, and that the former is good and the latter bad. I find this assumption peculiarly American. I succumb to it too, and that dismays me a little bit because it shows me how deeply I've changed in the years I've lived here, how my sense of history has eroded. I had misgivings about using a meme (I found this one at Maven Haven's) but I talked myself into going ahead with it anyway. Good things come from imitation; just ask Aristotle.

ACCENT: Romanian. I often wonder what I sound like to native speakers of English, and how much their idea of me is shaped by my imperfect pronounciation and the occasional grammatical mistakes I make.

BOOZE: I can't drink much at all without dire (physical) consequences so I sip from the same glass for an hour and gulp down large quantities of water with my drink. I like gin and tonic the most, and a banana-flavored beer that I discovered at Trader Joe's a few months ago.

CHORE I HATE: Cleaning the bathroom. All the hair (my own hair!) that accumulates in there makes me sick.

DOGS/CATS: I don't get along with animals. I don't like the idea of having pets, of imprisoning them in human houses for our own human pleasure. However, I read recently that the ability to be domesticated (which only a very small number of animals on the planet have) can be an evolutionary advantage; domesticated animals reproduce with more security and in higher numbers (though some, like pigs and cows, pay dearly for that by being slaughtered for food).

ESSENTIAL ELECTRONICS: I know it doesn't belong in electronics, but it uses electricity so here it is: I love my washing machine. I love it more than my computer and my electronic dictionary because I can't imagine my life without it.

FAVORITE PERFUME: Absolutely none. The smell of clean skin is the headiest I can imagine.

GOLD/SILVER: I'm excited about growing old and having silver hair that I will wear, with the courage given to me by age, in a very short haircut, like Judi Dench (on whom I've had a relentless crush for years).

HOMETOWN: Oradea, Romania.

INSOMNIA: I wish I had it, so that I could spend more time reading.


KIDS: I'm slightly afraid of other people's children, and awfully afraid of having my own. I don't know how to behave around them.

LIVING ARRANGEMENT: Happily, with Husband, in a condo with a big beautiful kitchen and an office stuffed with books.

MOST ADMIRED TRAIT: I honestly don't know.

NUMBER OF SEX PARTNERS: Um, no. This is not the place to say.

OVERNIGHT HOSPITAL STAYS: Three that I can remember. As a child, I spent a lot of time in the hospital, once with one of those infectious diseases you're supposed to be vaccinated against, once with an illness of the digestive system, and once with a tubercular infection.

PHOBIAS: Claustrophobia, but not very bad.

QUOTE: From a poem by Mary Oliver: "I don't know/what death's ultimate/purpose is, but I think/this: whoever dreams of holding his/life in is fist/year after year into the hundreds of years/has never considered the owl--/how he comes, exhausted,/through the snow,/through the icy trees,/past snags and vines, wheeling/out of barns and church steeples,/turning this way and that way/through the mesh of every obstacle-- /undeterred by anything--/filling himself time and time again/with a red and digestible joy/sickled up from the lonely, white fields--/and how at daybreak,/as though everything had been done/that must be done, the fields/swell with a rosy light,/the owl fades/back into the branches,/the snow goes on falling/flake after perfect flake."

RELIGION: Although I don't go to church any more, although I'm agnostic about God, I still think of myself as Orthodox Christian. The Orthodox church is still a part of me although by any measure I'm not part of it. I find that strange and illogical and immensely reassuring.

SIBLINGS: A younger sister. It puzzles me how complicated and unpredictable and rewarding my friendship with her is.

TIME I USUALLY WAKE UP: Between 7 and 8. I wish I could get up between five and six because early morning, when it's still quiet outside, is my favorite time of the day. It feels like sacred time.



WORST HABIT: Worrying.

X-RAYS: This reminds me of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. A character looking for the first time at an x-ray of his body is an occasion for Mann to talk about seeing and how science has removed the barriers to seeing inside one's own body. It's a stunning passage and a stunning book.

YUMMY FOODS I MAKE: Vegan pound cake is my personal favorite.

ZODIAC SIGN: Virgo. In the Chinese zodiac I'm a Dragon, which amuses me no end because I see absolutely nothing dragon-like in myself.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

There is a specific moment in every drawing that I do when I want to give up. It comes early on, after I have drawn no more than a handful of lines are on the page. I stop for a second to take a deeper breath in and I realize that what I have so far on the page resembles nothing at all, not the image in front of me, not the reflection of that image in my brain, not anything that I can recognize. The lines look utterly random, utterly empty of any potential for transformation. And I want to throw pencil or pen or charcoal or crayon on the floor and stomp on it; I want to go outside and burn my drawing pad and give up drawing forever.

It feels like a small miracle every time I step over this momentary despair and keep going. I scribble and trace and erase and scratch and scrawl more lines, and then the marks on the page begin to take shape; I can see a leg and the shadows on an arm and, if I squint, even a believable face. It isn't so hard to finish the drawing any more, even if it's not a good drawing. It isn't so hard to imagine myself trying again on the next page of my drawing pad, and getting better.

I get so easily discouraged that sometimes I marvel that I have gotten as far as I have with writing and drawing and learning. In grade school I dreaded those endurance races we had to run in P.E. class; I always came in last, made horrible time, and had to stand for five minutes bent over with my hands on my knees to regain my breath. I get a knot in my stomach just remembering that. The most I can accomplish are short spurts of work, and then I get tired and upset and lose faith in myself. I learned to rest for a bit, then start over. I still can't fully accept the fact that I have to stop more often than other people, that it will take me longer to get to the finish line, that once there I will need more time to recover than everyone else. But I'm trying. I keep telling myself: whatever you do, don't stop. After all, even if you get to the finish line when it's dark and everyone has gone home, it still counts.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Guilt and History

"I hear," she said in a crispy, melodious accent, "that Romanian government is plan to kill all Shiite Muslim in Romania." She had stopped me in the parking lot after the drawing class that we're in together. She is Iranian, around sixty, wears beautiful cashmere sweaters and has a loud, infectious laugh. I stared at her with my heart suddenly pounding and my mouth dry.

She had heard this bit of information on an American news channel. I said, my voice unsure, that I didn't know anything about it, but that it seemed so absurd that I couldn't believe it. My parents have Romanian cable, I added, and I would ask them if they'd seen anything on the Romanian news. My mom is an avid watcher of Fox News, too, so I knew that she would have heard about this supposed extermination of Shiite Muslims in Romania.

The ten minutes it took me to drive home from the college and phone my mom and get on Google, were some of the scariest I've had in a long time. I thought: no matter how absurd it seems, it is possible for the Romanian goverment to have decided to kill Muslims. It is possible, because the Holocaust was possible, because slavery was possible, because the Darfur genocide was possible. I was overwhelmed by guilt for a deed that I had no control over but that I still felt responsible for because of my nationality, the accident of my place of birth and my first language. I understood for the first time what it must be like to be a non-Jewish German living with the memory of the Holocaust. History places unexpected burdens on people's shoulders and it's a hard lesson to learn how to carry them without being crushed.

There was no trace on Google of an attempt by the Romanian goverment's to exterminate Muslims. I had a moment of trepidation when I typed in the search box "Romania kills Muslims"; I imagined an FBI officer somewhere perking up at seeing such a search topic and descending hours later on our house to interrogate me. My parents got a little mad when I asked them if they'd heard anything about killing Muslims on Romanian television. My father especially gets extremely irritated when people here in America behave as if we've come from a country that hasn't developed past the Stone Age.

I'm loath to assume that my classmate's mistaken information about the Romanian government resulted from the difficulty she has with the English language. That she doesn't speak it perfectly doesn't mean that she doesn't understand it perfectly. But surely her blunder can be no more than a matter of some words or phrases that she misunderstood. I found out on Google that some Romanian hostages had been taken in Iraq, and that a Muslim organization in Romania had sent the captors an open letter to ask for the release of the hostages. By some strange alchemy of language, this story might have become in my Iranian classmate's mind a story about Romanians killing Muslims rather than of Romanians being threatened to be killed by Muslim insurgents.

The taste of guilt still lingers in my mouth, and though it is bitter I do not wish it to go away too fast. It has forced me to do some soul-searching about history and my place in it that sorely needed to be done.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


I heard this woman -- quiet face, quiet eyes, a swath of long red hair down her back -- say, "Are you kidding? A woman doesn't belong in the seat of a fighter pilot. We're too emotional. It's hormones really. Half the time we're having our periods, or getting them, or getting over them. Some jobs aren't for us."

I had to stop. I had to close my mouth. I had to remind myself that I'm not a violent person and that I don't believe in punching someone in the face. I said, "Okay." I said, although the words burnt my tongue as they came out, "Let me think about it."

It took me years to admit that my periods affect me emotionally and mentally. I get volatile; I eat when I'm not hungry; I don't feel like doing anything; the smallest glitch in how my day is supposed to be going makes me shut myself up in a dark room and turn into an irritable existentialist. I get nauseated in the Sartrean sense.

I don't want to be a fighter pilot. But just for argument's sake I wondered how I would do as a fighter pilot with pre-menstrual syndrome. Not well, I thought. Not well at all. I remembered how excited I was when the drug Seasonale was announced some time ago; it allows women to have only four periods every year. I didn't know the details but it sounded pretty extraordinary. I felt another revolution in the making, like the one brought about by the birth-control pill.

But something disturbs me about all this: it's that so much of our lives are controled by biology, that our minds have to fight our bodies in order for us (I mean women) to make progress in the world, to be truly free in it. A fallacy lurks here, though. There isn't only one kind of freedom to be had; each woman has to define it for herself. It can be the freedom to believe that a woman can be as good a figher pilot as a man; or the freedom to believe that a woman can't. I can't help feeling betrayed by this latter belief. But I don't want either for all women to agree on all things and stick together in their convictions like frightened sheep. There's a place for sisterhood; and there's a place for dissent.

I have to remind myself over and over to check my definitions when I think about women and men's places in the world. I can say: yes, periods are a fact of my life. But I don't have to accept, like the beautiful red-haired woman, the definition that a woman having a period is a woman who cannot think clearly. After all, I get a lot of practice at this menstruation thing, and I learn every time how to cooperate with what's happening instead of fighting it. When my menstrual alter ego rears its pugnacious head, I say hello. I say, how are you. And then I go on with my business, a little flustered maybe, but still me.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday