Lake Tahoe | Into the Darkest Woods

I was worried about driving with tire chains.  This would be the first time that J and I drove into Tahoe on our own, and snow season was right on the cusp in mid-November. We were not an outdoorsy couple, although we enjoy a good ski and boarding trip now and then.

The idea of driving into Tahoe on snowy, icy roads and struggling to attach chains to the tires of my little car gave me a thrill of both excitement and dread.  Our friends and family weren’t so concerned.

“We go all the time to Tahoe.  The chains aren’t a big deal –I’ll show you how to use ours,” my good friend assured me.  During a family gathering, my uncle said that we could pay a worker at a snow stop to put chains on for about $40.

I monitored the road conditions and weather forecast nearly every day for 2 weeks.  I researched the past weather predictions for Tahoe in November.  I read articles with tips on driving into Tahoe.  Nothing gave me answers.  Finally, I succumbed to the fact that I couldn’t prepare for this one; we would have no idea until right before our trip.  J consoled me and said, “We’ll be fine.  Let’s just see what happens.”

I agreed.  Driving into the unknown and trekking into Tahoe on our own would be a fun adventure and the perfect way to celebrate our 10th year anniversary weekend.

We were lucky.

Lake Tahoe

The roads were clear, and we sailed right into Tahoe in less than 4 hours.  The weather in North Lake Tahoe was a sunny 60 degrees in the daytime and a chilly, but bearable 40 degrees in the evening.  Some patches on the side of the road had bits of snow, but most of the snow blanketed the mountains in the distance.

The Hyatt Regency hotel was located directly across from the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, where we walked across the bridge to catch the beautiful sunset behind the Sierra Mountain Range. Sunsets always remind me of a scene from the romantic comedy “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” when the lead actor tells Janeane Garofalo that if she listens carefully, she can hear the moment when the sun hits the horizon.

Lake Tahoe

My favorite amenity in our room was the large corner window that offered panoramic views of the trees, mountains, and the lake far in the distance.  I would wake up and feel the thrill of opening the thick curtains to reveal the sun slowly peeking through the thick forest of trees.  Beneath the corner window was a comfortable lounge chair to sit, where I did my morning writing and reading.  I took frequent breaks just so I could indulge in the blue sky and green landscape.  Next to the lounge was a working desk, where J sat next to me to also work on a personal writing project.  It was like a dream –spending a peaceful morning side by side and writing with a view of the woods.  No wonder writers long for a retreat place and a room of one’s own.

I felt far away from home, and I felt like I was at home at the same time.

Every time we walked outside, J and I deeply inhaled the cold, mountain air, wishing we could bottle up and capture the feeling in our lungs.  We swam in the outdoor pool and sauna, reveling in the fact that we were swimming amidst the backdrop of the forest.  Our last morning was out by the lake, stretched out on the wooden chairs talking and laughing beside the shining, blue body of water.  We could hardly see the edge where the snow-capped mountains stood in the distance.

What is about being immersed in nature that feels so restorative?  Feeling the stillness of the trees, the sun rays, and the lake was calming –almost like an open meditation room.  One of my favorite podcasts, On Being, featured an interview with researcher Esther Sternberg who talked about the science behind the healing power of places and our environment.  We inhabit both external and internal landscapes: one influences the other. When we see beautiful scenery, our bodies and our brains create healing properties that bring us peace.

I use that outdoor space to quiet the noise, the worries, the fears, and the stress.  It pulls me into the present moment.  I learn how to pay attention to the small details of my life that I forget about on a daily basis–breathing deeply, walking slowly, listening to the stillness, and seeing the scenery.  Being present in a vast, beautiful place and celebrating an occasion as big as a 10th year anniversary made every stressful part of my life pale and reduce in comparison.  I felt humbled by the presence of the earth’s grandness.

Lake Tahoe

“This whole earth in which we inhabit is but a point is space.” 

― Henry David Thoreau


We drove a lot during this trip.

We crossed state borders of California and Nevada every time we ventured into the nearby city of Truckee to eat or explore.  We drove to the western part of the lake, parked at a small, dusty road for brunch at the popular Fire Sign Cafe.  Sitting beneath an old wooden sled perched precariously on the ceiling, we split a large serving of the gouda cheese omelette and a side of veggie potatoes.  We braved the dark, winding roads to have dinner at Cottonwood Restaurant and Bar, one of the country’s oldest ski lodges that served hearty portions of French onion soup, a butternut squash enchilada with mole sauce, and seared steak.  Switching gears, we calmed our appetites during the last leg of the trip with sushi at the Drunken Monkey and corn chowder and a roasted beet salad dressed with apple creme fraiche at Nine41 Eatery.

I both loved and feared the night-time drives.  There were long periods on the road with no other cars on the winding stretches.  As the last bits of light faded away, I could see the silhouettes of the trees outline the silent, still lake.  Our car was enveloped in the darkness, only able to see just a bit beyond where our headlights could take us.  We had a faint idea of where we were headed, but having never been there.  Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird quotes E.L. Doctorow who had compared writing to driving at night: “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

He might have been talking about writing, but the message reflects my relationship with J.

I don’t think either one of us realized where the relationship, wrought with its twists and detours, would take us.  One decade ago when we met in the school coffee house, I was an optimistic, aspiring educator and he was a confident, pharmacy-school-bound student.  We had our lives planned out, first as independent individuals and then as a couple who was curious to see if our lives could intersect.  The journey took us in unexpected directions.  We endured a long-distance relationship twice, we moved to Los Angeles then back to the Bay Area, we encountered disillusionment in our careers, we saw our relationships with our friends and families change, and we discovered that our approaches to life, success, and happiness had fundamentally shifted since our first coffee house encounter.  We changed as individuals, which ultimately affected our relationship.  With every new challenge, we had to ask ourselves “Do we still want to keep going?”  Often, it was a unanimous yes.  Other times, there was someone who wasn’t so sure.  It was a painful process, but we faithfully kept our eyes forward on the road –the pale, yellow headlights that could lead us somewhere better.

Some friends think that getting married represents the end of the journey.  I used to think so, too.  Dating is already a complicated and stressful process.  I thought that the purpose of dating and relationships was to find someone to commit to.  For those lucky enough to do so, getting married symbolizes crossing the great, romantic finish line.  I was dismayed to realize that being married was merely completing one leg of a very long marathon.  Like climbing to the top of a hill, and looking up to see that it belongs to the base of another towering mountain.  The obstacles are new, and the stakes are much higher.

As incredible as 10 years sounds, I know it’s still a young relationship.  We still have a lot to learn as we head towards 15, 20, and 30 years of commitment.  I don’t believe that the journey ends and the work stops when a couple gets married.  It is the beginning of a different type of journey.  I am humbled when I think of my grandparents whose love endured for decades and had survived a war and beginning new lives in this country.  I am humbled when I realize that as much as J and I love each other now, nothing is ever guaranteed nor should be taken for granted.  I hope that when we do face those unknown and inevitable detours, that these past 10 years gave us the foundation that we’ll need to sustain us.

Lake Tahoe

Dear Sugar advises us to “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”  Even if we don’t know where we will ultimately end up, what matters is that we were brave enough to take the journey.  We keep on driving.

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Meeting of land and water

Point Lobos photos

There’s a beautiful natural state park near Carmel called Point Lobos – “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world” as the artist Francis McComas said.  I like to think of it as my now secret park, even though it’s a renown public reserve.

It’s filled with sandy trails that lead into secret beaches and coves, eerily intricate trees with twisting branches and copper-colored moss, hollow caves with noisy sea lions, and rocky cliffs that overlook the ocean. I discovered it last month when my dad, stepmom, and younger sister invited me to spend the day with them in Carmel to celebrate my birthday. I’ve been to Carmel a few times now and visited sites such as Pebble Beach, the charming downtown scene where J & I shot our engagement photos at the L’Auberge Carmel hotel, and the coastal views along the 17-mile drive. I have never heard of Point Lobos. My sister and I were impressed that my stepmom had discovered the park and lovely Mission Ranch via a simple Google search. She was excited that we could explore the new scene together. My dad was excited at the opportunity to capture more landscape photos. I was excited to spend an entire day with them –an event that has not happened for several years.

Point Lobos photos

We started with brunch at the Mission Ranch, which provided a beautiful countryside backdrop –sprawling green meadow, hazy ocean in the distance, and a herd of sheep. Sheep during brunch! I sipped my mimosa, sliced into the prime rib with au jus, and bit into my french toast while I watched 35 Scottish Blackface sheep idly resting beneath the shady tree. The scene was odd and comforting.  Another odd fun fact: I learned that Clint Eastwood (former mayor of Carmel!) helped restore the Mission Ranch and were fond of the sheep, the popular pets of the establishment. A worker in the gift shop told me that after one of the sheep had surgery for its broken leg, he was named Clyde as an homage to an Eastwood film.

Point Lobos photos

We spent a few hours meandering through the Point Lobos trails to counter our sleep-inducing brunch buffet. My dad snapped the polarizing filter onto his trusty DSLR Canon and slung the strap over his neck. It was a move as familiar to him as tying his shoes or adjusting his glasses. These days, my iPhone snaps more travel photos than my Canon Rebel XS or newly purchased Canon S95, so I admired my dad’s consistency and dedication for quality images. We stopped every 15 minutes to admire the scenery and attempt to capture the rich landscape with our devices – my stepmom and I with our iPhones and my dad with his more substantial camera.

Point Lobos photos

Point Lobos photos

I felt like I was wandering through the haunting and enchanted forest of a Tim Burton film. I imagined that the shadows of a headless horseman could very well have dashed across the ghostly thicket of trees. It was fun trekking down the path and turning the corner to be delighted by sights such as the Gibson Beach or China’s Shore. It was an enclosed spot that invited lingering, long talks on the soft sand or dipping your toes in the chilly water.

The photos could not capture the blue-green water of the coast, the way the fog gently draped above the mountain top, the earthy smell of old rock, seawater, and trees, and the delicate cobwebs of moss adorning the branches. It also couldn’t capture the pure elation I felt rising in my chest.

Point Lobos photos

I loved the sight of my dad with his camera and excitedly leading the way down the path. An adventurer in worn jeans and brown walking shoes, his khaki baseball cap turned backwards. I wanted to be next to him, peek over his shoulder and wonder how his world looked through those heavy lens.

Perhaps taking me and our family on these fun trips and vacations was his nonverbal way of sharing that perspective and excitement with us –with me. My dad and I don’t engage in a lot of deep, ongoing conversations. We love each other, but our exchanges are usually affectionate and light in nature. For lack of speaking, my dad made up for it with small acts and grand gestures of family trips.

When my sister, brother, and I were kids up until our tween years, my dad and stepmom planned family trips every year. Childhood summers brought road trips to Los Angeles and Disneyland, camping in Yosemite, weekend stays in Reno and Las Vegas, and one time, a trek to Phoenix, Arizona. I would rest comfortably in the backseat and drowsily stare out at the left window to see the sunset and night air fall. Sleeping to the sounds of the moving car along the freeway and my dad and stepmom humming along to a CD was a safe, familiar place. My dad led our family through thousands of miles, steering with his hands and tired right foot. This was my dad’s way of communicating his world with me. I just wasn’t listening carefully.

And like we had done so many times for several years, my sister and I nodded off in the backseat while my dad contentedly drove us home from Carmel. As we were headed to get pho for dinner, my stepmom spontaneously decided to take me somewhere new. My dad turned around and drove to a Vietnamese restaurant in a ubiquitous Asian plaza where she ordered the staple dish cha ca –sizzling fish with turmeric seasoning and dill. The fish was perfectly crisp and charred on the outside. At the light touch of chopsticks, it easily came apart. It was meant to be devoured with small bowlfuls of cold rice vermicelli, shredded mint, basil, and parsley leaves, and a plentiful sauce of nuoc mam and mam — fish sauce and shrimp paste. It was my first time that I could recall eating and enjoying cha ca. It’s been a long time when I had felt completely at peace sitting around the table with my family after spending an entire day together. The flavors were all familiar, yet the combination surprising and satisfying.

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Birthday cake1

This month, I will turn 30.

Even though some of my peers dread the enormity of this number, my journey to turn 30 feels like a victory. I learned so much about myself and the way I see the world — shaped by a decade of internal struggles for self-acceptance and forgiveness to the external challenges that come with exploring careers, owning a home, and getting married. It was a decade of turbulent growth, and I am grateful for it.

In honor of my milestone year, I wanted to reflect on the major lessons of my 20s and to celebrate a better, wiser version of myself. Thank you to my husband, family, friends, mentors, students, and admired writers and artists for showing me the way. I dedicate this entry to you.

1.Dream big, and start small.
2.Perfection is not ambition and happiness.
3.There is no one path to success.
4.Forgive my parents. They did their best.
5.Forgive myself. I did my best.
6.I am enough.
7.Allow those whom I love to choose their own lives.
8.People show love differently.
9.We all are climbing our own mountain.
10.Ask for what I need.
11.True listening is an act of love.
12.Give support more than advice.
13.Ask big questions.
14.It doesn’t have to make sense to feel right.
15.Jump and have faith.
16.I can change my mind.
17.I can choose to change.
18.Thinking positively is a practice.
19.I can’t prepare for everything.
20.Failure has been my biggest teacher.
21.Be humble about how much I still have to learn and grow.
22.It’s okay to still dream about who I want to become.
23.My health involves my mind, body, and spirit.
24.Write from a real place, even if it’s messy.
25.Be brave enough to say “thank you”,“I’m sorry”, “I don’t know,” and “I love you.”
26.Practice gratitude everyday.
27.Life is not a race; it is a marathon. We can finish strong together.
28.Be both a map-maker and a traveller.
29.The world can be good.
30.Begin with love.

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Deciding how to eat and live | In Defense of Food

Healthy Eating

Last year, I was truly unhealthy in mind and body. It was a rough, emotional period, and I lacked the motivation to eat well and live well. I stopped caring about certain activities that used to matter. I stopped writing (for awhile). I stopped exercise, cooking, and physical activity. Toward December, I was ready to put an end to the many “stops.” Dear Sugar once said that the way out of a hole is to climb out. So I dug deep and began the hard work inside to begin the steady climb.

By the new year, I vowed to pay more attention to my health and diet. I signed up for a gym membership with my husband. Slowly, I began to incorporate a healthy habit of exercising three times a week. I also started to plan out some of my meals more in advance, including a daily, hearty breakfast of toast, almond butter, and a protein smoothie. I cooked large meals to have leftovers to bring as lunch for work the following day. I wanted to limit the number of times my husband and I went out to eat at restaurants or buy take-out food, which can get expensive.

I also read a book that changed my entire perspective about healthy living. I read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. He starts with the conundrums of our time: How is it that a health-obsessed nation such as ours is one of the highest in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates? Why are magazines, books, diet fads, and celebrity culture saturated with information on healthy living and yet we still don’t know the right answers?  It seems that the entire, confusing industry of healthy living has been defined and dictated by a select few –nutritionists, the food industry, medical professionals, and journalists. Pollan’s book shows that we as a society have greatly overcomplicated and disconnected ourselves from the root issue of health –eating whole, natural foods that our families and culture have cultivated and cooked for generations. He distills healthy eating down to a simple food philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

At first I thought the reasoning Pollan proposes seemed far too simplistic. On a common sense level, I assume most folks know that eating vegetables and fruit is good for the body. People even know that diet and exercise are suggested. Why is there such a huge disparity in our country? As I read, I start to see the dots connect.  Our culture’s response to food, health, and diet are constantly in conflict. Our culture’s priority on convenience and fast-paced lifestyle puts a high value on fast foods, restaurants, and processed food items. With the evolution of our working families and booming economy, it was a prime time to industrialize food en masse.

We cook less at home and have less control over what we put in in our food; we are letting the food industry decide what to create for us to eat. To maximize profits, they are constantly tinkering with new ways to give us the greatest amount of artificial and cheap flavors and textures for the lowest cost. And we keep buying it.

While we do eat fruits and vegetables, we also eat plenty of other “food-like substances” such as processed breads, sugar bowls of cereal, yogurt, and oatmeal for breakfast, and snacks with an astonishingly high shelf life. We eat “light” versions of things in the hope that we are making healthy choices, and we don’t realize that foods with health claims are cleverly packaged and contain greater amounts of processed, artificial ingredients to maintain flavor and texture.

We are expected to read confusing nutritional labels because the discourse of food revolves around invisible nutrients, not foods we can easily recognize. We are told to eat a diet rich in proteins, fiber, good fats, and Vitamins A – Z, which the food industry exploits by enhancing and labeling their products with those nutrients. The language of nutrients remains confusing so that average consumers can’t decipher them and must rely on information from food industry experts, scientists, and nutritionists. Instead of eating a diverse diet of meats, vegetables, and fruits, we pick and choose based on the current fad nutritional diet such as low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar, etc.

We are also eating excessively. We mindlessly eat when we are distracted –usually in front of a television, in a hurry, or grab onto whatever is front of us. In a culture of more, portion sizes are larger and cheap, super size options are the norm. We also stop paying attention to when we are satisfied and when we are full. We stop listening to our bodies.

In the Information Age, with countless articles and videos on proper work-outs, diets, labels, and new X factor nutritional ingredients, we become paralyzed with the inundation of information. We see extreme reality shows and celebrity diets and think that being healthy is too difficult without a personal trainer like Jillian Michaels or a food program like Jenny Craig. As we shop at larger convenience stores, we become further disconnected from the food we consume — including the knowledge of our foods’ origins and growers. We become passive recipients to our health and nutrition because of fear, uncertainty, and a lack of knowledge. When I see how complicated and contradictory our culture’s answer to the health problems is, I can understand why so many people are defeated. I was the same way. If only we realized how much control we truly had –that we already possessed many of the resources that we need to live healthier and better.

Pollan ends the book with a message of hope and empowerment. We can be the ones to change the tide and demand a new way of eating and living. We can vote with our forks and choose an alternative to the default stream of fast, convenient, and unhealthy eating. We can make small, everyday choices on what we buy and support. We can decide how we want to eat and live, and how we want our families and communities to eat and live. There is a better way out of the hole.

I liked that Pollan’s book is not about the latest trends or exact set of rules. It is not a diet to follow, a list of bad foods versus good foods, the latest gadget to buy, or even that I should never eat at a restaurant again. Much of what our society looks for is a quick-fix solution to our health concerns: this over-simplified and immediate-gratification approach is part of the problem. Pollan’s goal is to provide guidelines and a new philosophy of eating –eat everything in moderation, cook more, learn about where your food comes from and who grew it, eat slower, savor the food, eat a diverse range of natural whole foods, and eat enjoyably. This is not a revolutionary philosophy. Many cultures in the world already eat this way. We used to at one time, but have forgotten how.

After Pollan’s book, I started to read a few other books and resources throughout these past months such as Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat, Marion Nestle’s What to Eat, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, Cooking Light magazine, and Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks website. I educated myself on the consequences of a diet based on processed foods, the difference between real food and food-like products, the industry and supermarket’s subtle, powerful influences on persuasive selling tactics, and an array of other healthy, delicious alternatives that exist. Hungry and inspired, I am ready to eat healthier. The possibilities are hopeful and fruitful.

Healthy Eating

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Road Trip with CiCi

roadside in Sonoma

Last month, I retired my old car and bought a new one.

A brand new gleaming white 2013 Honda with the scent of installed buttery, black leather. She’s quite pretty. She’s also technologically savvy –equipped with bluetooth capability, eco drive button, and a rear camera for those awkward reversals. This new baby is a huge upgrade from my former car, a glamorous makeover from its humble predecessor. I’m not used to it.

Letting go of my previous car, a 1999 black Honda Civic affectionately named CiCi, felt like the end of an era. If a person is approaching 30 (like moi), the last ten years of one’s life warrants being called an era. My car definitely showed its battle scars from a long life lived. My ’99 had two nearly identical scratches on either side of its front bumper from two separate parking incidents in the same damned garage, a visor that no longer stayed put and would occasionally bop the driver on the head, a faded Civic marking on the back from where the car label fell off, and a disintegrating parking sticker in the back windshield from an apartment complex back during my undergraduate college years. She was a beauty weathered by age and experience. She was certainly eye-catching to the various carjackers throughout the years who had unsuccessfully attempted to steal her (at least four times) and to the occasional admirers who randomly inquired if I would be willing to sell her.

She was my companion on many road trips and milestones throughout my teens and twenties. She was the first car I inherited when I got my driver’s license –a moment I reverently prepared for by burning five mixed CDs for my driving ambiance and by promptly calling my best friend. “Hey, what are you doing? Let’s go hang out at the mall. [dramatic pause] I’ll come pick you up.”

I took her with me to college, memorizing the windy stretches along the route to UC Davis and anticipating when I’d need to gun the accelerator during the steep upward hills. She was the first car I had when I met my then-boyfriend J, who would later become my husband. We drove it on our dates to Sacramento, to the fairground, and to stand in line at the popular buffet sushi spot –a treat for all college students on a scraping budget. As my birthday gift, J and a friend, had “borrowed” my car and installed it with a shiny, sleek mp3 car deck. I finally had an MP3 player of my own –no more measly 15 track songs on one CD! Now I could fit entire albums on one disc! In a pre-iPod world, this was mind-boggling. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. It would get stolen three months later. Only to have my second deck stolen about two years later. So far, the third one has been a charm. I’ve learned a few car-savvy lessons along the way: a brake lock works wonders.

She was the car I took when I drove to Los Angeles for the first time, taking along my two younger brothers who would see me off for graduate school. As a small car, she thrived on weaving in and out of Los Angeles traffic on the I-10, though she did start to break down a bit more often. Tired and old as she was, she still carried me home to the Bay Area where I started a new career and eventually got married. While I was busy transitioning from a teen to a young adult to a full-fledged adult, my car noisily struggled to keep up. At some point in the middle of last year, J began to mention the prospect of buying a new car. I pretended not to hear him –in denial of what was inevitable.

I suppose it’s bittersweet that the next car I owned would be one that I purchased together with my husband. I felt like I was betraying my ’99 CiCi as I started the process of car shopping and hunting around dealerships. As much as I could appreciate nice-looking cars, I never saw myself driving a luxurious one. I had never thought about driving any other car period. I assumed that I would always have the same car, and run it to the ground. I much preferred a practical car –a loyal car. And right then, I felt like the opposite of loyal.

“How about a Prius?” J suggested. “The Prius-C looks cute for you. Great mileage, and it’s compact.”

“A PRIUS?” I scoffed. “That dinosaur egg? It’s pretentious and annoying.”

“Fine. A Passat? A Corolla? A Civic Hybrid? A Honda Fit?” he countered. Too foreign-sounding. Too boring. Too expensive. Too boxy. I had different excuses to combat each car.

After several months of hemming and hawing on my end, he declared that by the middle of March, I will decide on my top three cars. End of story. He was no longer amused by my sentimentality (or stubbornness). When I shared with him my choices, he assured me that once I went and started test driving cars, I would feel better about the decision. That I might find something I liked. That I would be okay with moving on.

Of course, he was right.

During the last week of March, and after much haggling and expert game-playing on J’s end, I drove home in my new car. Later that weekend, we took the car out to test its legs on a mini-road trip to Napa. It was a fun and romantic trip, and I slowly realized that it would be the first of many trips that we would share in our new car. New trip, new memories. It will likely be the car that will carry our first family. The smell of leather is still fresh, the odometer is clocked at a clean slate, and the stories in the car are still untold and waiting to fill the space. It’s a road trip that I’m finally ready to take.

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