Alphabet: A History (C) – Cous Cous and Crudite

This is a series of autobiographical vignettes inspired by Dear Wendy’s series of the same name. The idea is loosely based on Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.

All of my stories can be found here.
***

I remember the first meal Garrett ever cooked for me because it was the first meal any man had ever cooked for me: Grilled Chicken Breasts, Cous Cous and Steamed Vegetables. We were just friends at the time, dancing around what to call this connection of ours, and while it sounds simple, it was a meal that changed my life.

The chicken breasts were seasoned with a dry rub he had mixed himself and then grilled on a miniature Coleman in his backyard. It was summer and the windows were open and the house filled with the kind of pleasant smokiness that you can only really get with charcoal. The Coleman was small, black and spherical and when it came time to flip the chicken from side to side Garrett had to crouch down more than was probably comfortable. The grill had been a gift from his father, given to him when he first moved out on his own — one of many totems of manhood passed down from father to son. While it was the first of many meals we would grill in that yard that summer, it was one of the last we would make using that particular apparatus. I would eventually purchase a larger Propane Grill for Garrett’s first birthday we would celebrate as a couple.

While the chicken was cooking he came back inside and forked cous cous on the stove top like it was his own personal zen garden. Over glasses of wine I admitted that at 25 I had never eaten anything like that, let alone prepared it, so I watched with the excitement of a child learning to do something new for the first time. Though I was a well-established cook at the time I remember feeling so impressed and full of anticipation because of this simple dish. What else would he teach me that I had no idea I didn’t even know yet?

Surprisingly one of the biggest lessons he taught me involved a standard bag of pre-chopped crudite. He took the bag out of the mostly empty refrigerator and poured into a flowered Pyrex casserole dish that his mother used to use in their kitchen growing up. He steamed them in the microwave in a shallow bath of water and topped them with a hefty pat of butter that melted amidst the steam, just like my heart. While we had eaten lots of vegetables growing up in my house, I don’t ever remember feeling quite as excited about them as I did in that moment.

Months later I would meet his parents for the first time over dinner in this same kitchen. I’d watch his mother grab the same bag of vegetables from the refrigerator — though this time instead of being empty it was overflowing with the kind of bounty that only parents can bring when they visit their children in college — and then prepare them identically to the way Garrett had that first night. As she brought them to the table smiling, in this kitchen that had already opened my heart in ways I’d never anticipated, I realized — simple as they were, those vegetables were an act of love. And as she passed me the serving spoon, I smiled right back.

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Alphabet: A History – (B) Brentwood

This is a series of autobiographical vignettes inspired by Dear Wendy’s series of the same name. The idea is loosely based on Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.

All of my stories can be found here.
***

It’s 1995 and I am about to turn 17 years old. My parents have binders full of SAT information, transcripts and college brochures that they spend their evenings painstakingly organizing after putting in long days running their own business. We are about to embark on a week long trip to tour colleges in southern California. The thought of college paralyzes me.

I am mired in the day to day of my friends, of boys, of high school in general. All of that is already enough. I don’t do my own dishes or cook my own dinner. I have a job and a car payment but I am hardly independent. I avoid thinking about the next stage of my life at every opportunity. I want it all to stay the same so badly — I want to hit the pause button on my life. I want to scream, “WAIT! I’M NOT READY!” But the universe has other plans. The next three years of my life will be full of change. So much change, in fact, that the current life that I am dying to hold on to will almost become unrecognizable at the end. But I don’t know this, and I wait for the next step to unfold.

We pack up the family Suburban — The Urban Assault Vehicle, as my dad calls it — and we head down to Los Angeles. It is sprawling and I hate it. Too much traffic, too many people, too much asphalt. I feel a lump of panic bubble up in my throat just sitting on the 405. I don’t know where I want to end up but I know this isn’t it. Unsurprisingly, I hate UCLA. “It feels like a concrete jungle” I tell my parents. But before we leave Los Angeles we *HAVE* to drive through Brentwood. This is 1995 and my mom has spent the entire summer glued to the television watching every detail of the OJ Simpson trial unfold. She can map out all the streets and routes, she knows the time lines and the key players. She needs to see it in person instead of through the filter of Court TV.

The 10 year old Urban Assault vehicle has no hope of being incognito next to the luxury cars parked in the garages of Rockingham Avenue, and my mom with her camcorder pointed out the front seat window does nothing to help detract from our tourist vibe. Even though I want to roll my eyes because I am 16 and I know it all, and I am OBVIOUSLY way too cool for this, I allow myself to share a giddy laugh with my tiny family, our mouths hanging in awe at all of this opulence and infamy in real life. Though the scenario itself is tragic, the place itself feels a bit magical.

My dad navigates all the streets and our final drive-by includes the last place Ron Goldman was seen alive — the restaurant Mezzaluna. If only he hadn’t left his job to return that pair of sunglasses his story may have had an entirely different ending. I’m struck by the amazing power of one small decision to change the entire course of your life. I wonder if any of my big life decisions even matter at this point, or whether it all just comes down to the ticking clock of fate. When we get home I don’t apply to UCLA.

I end up at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo the fall after I graduate. I take courses in Political Science and work at the Starbucks downtown but good friends are hard to come by and lack of interest in my course work causes my grades to suffer. I am so confused about what to do next but finally during the winter quarter of 1998 I realize I do not want to finish college here. I have no other plans but I just know this isn’t where I want to be anymore, so I tell my parents. You can imagine their delight. I move home in June despite repeated discussions of alternatives because I am stubborn and it just feels right. I’m sure I will convince them it is the right move once I’m back at home. Two months later, however, my dad is gone and no more convincing is needed. The move was a blessing.

I spend the year after his death living with my mom while we piece together a new existence. It never becomes comfortable or familiar, and it certainly no longer feels like home. I don’t know what I want to do but I know I can’t stay in that town and continue to live that life. I am 20 years old and a friend attending UCLA says I should move there and try something new. In August I pack up the pieces of my life and head into Los Angeles with no money, no job and no idea what the hell I’m doing with my life. One day on a long drive alone — something I will do often during my time here — I find myself in Brentwood again. I am suddenly and profoundly aware of the Before and After of my life — a palpable emotion that will become commonplace over the next few years. At the same time that I feel such a huge loss I also feel more at home than I have in a while.

There is a Peet’s Coffee & Tea opening there. It is minutes from my house, I am unemployed and I have experience working for Starbucks. Obviously, I apply. At the last minute I almost don’t go because I figure a job in coffee is not going to pay my bills. The interview goes well and they offer me the job on the spot. The store will open in two weeks and they are not fully staffed — can I start immediately? I drop the bomb about how much money I need to make per hour in order to stay afloat here in this big city and the interviewer actually laughs out loud.

Looking back I can’t blame her, but I am 20 years old and short on life experience, so I think I am doing her a favor. Part of my behavior is ballsy. Part of it comes from a sense of entitlement that I will later feel embarrassed by, but at that point I can’t tell the difference and so I play hard ball about salary. A few phone calls are made and they agree to my magic number. I will tell this story over and over later on in my life as an illustration of the simple magic that sometimes happens when you ask for what you need.

I walk out the door excited about my new job right as a tour bus goes by. Every seat is full and all heads are cranked looking inside of my new place of employment. My face must have had questions marks written all over it because a man walking by gives the store a little head nod.

“This is the old Mezzaluna. They go by at least 10 times a day.”

And in the end, they do.

Day in and day out people will drive by gawking so often that I eventually won’t even notice unless someone points it out. My life has changed so much between the day that I was doing the gawking and now. The novelty of this event and of this place where I work now — even of the famous people who patronize it — will eventually wear off. But in this city and at this job I will begin to build a home. It will be where I begin to build my own life. For so many reasons Brentwood will end up being full of magic. And no one will be more surprised by this than me.

Alphabet: A History – (A) Advice

This is a series of autobiographical vignettes inspired by Dear Wendy’s series of the same name. The idea is loosely based on Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.

All of my stories can be found here.
***

In one of my earliest memories my dad picks me up off the ground and throws me over his head. He is wearing a matching red Adidas track suit with black stripes down the side. It is the early eighties and this outfit is worn without a lick of irony. There are many Adidas track suits in my memories, actually. Also baggy mesh shorts, and soft heather grey muscle-shirts sporting XXL across the front. There are practice jerseys and logo’d sweatpants from just about every team my dad every played for.


Our garage contains an array of fitness implements — an incline ab-board made of shiny red leather, a pull up bar I enjoy hanging from and a bench press that is fun to lay on. A worn looking speed bag by his work bench has surely seen better days, but so have the hands that inflicted all that damage. There is an inversion table, and another medieval looking contraption in the middle of the room where one must wear gravity boots to hang upside down.  All at once they are the tools of the trade and the side effects of his 7 year NFL career. As I child I assume this is how everyone’s garage looks: one part home gym, one part work bench, one part archive of a suburban life packed neatly in matching boxes.


I am about 9 when my dancing begins to evolve into a more competitive outlet, rather than a social hobby. Since our rehearsals become more intense, my dad rearranges his equipment in the garage to assure I have a space of my own. My hot pink stereo plugged in at the tool bench, I am free to tap and twirl at all hours of the day. We spend hours together perfecting my craft, and while he is well qualified for the coaching job, I hardly believe this is how he envisioned using his years of hard won competitive experience.


You would never know considering the time he dedicates to my dancing. There is at least a five year window where he spends each Super Bowl Sunday driving my family up to a dance competition in a Sacramento Hotel that will be one block away from the building where I nail an interview and get my first real job 15 years later. Rather than join the other dads who are off at the hotel bar cheering on their teams, he stands in a banquet room cheering on Team Holly hoping all the while that I employ the breathing techniques he learned while playing in the playoffs.  He promised they would work when my nerves would try and take over.


Back at home his disciplined athleticism shows up while I rehearse. When I have trouble nailing a certain routine, he teaches me how to close my eyes and visualize. When he tucks me in at night we sit together and meditate as I see myself executing perfectly it in my mind. I will use this technique again and again to comfort myself in my adult life when the anxiety of something impending keeps me up at night.  “If you can see it, you can be it.”  When I confess that I am nervous about an upcoming performance, he tells me over and over, “What the mind can conceive and you can believe, you can achieve.” And I am certain he is one of the most brilliant men I know to dream up a philosophy that rhymes.


Of course when I lose my focus, he is right there to call me on that too. When I am half-assing it, he asks me if that is how I would do it if I were in front of a table of judges. Would that performance win a 1st Place Rosette? Or do I have something better inside that I’m holding back?  Being the smart-mouth that I am I tell him that I don’t need his opinion. “I KNOW dance, dad. You know football. The two are very different, obviously.”   I am annoyed with his hard nosed approach in these moments and I tell him I no longer need his help.


“Always be coachable, Holly or you open yourself up to getting beat. If you already know everything, you don’t have anywhere to go. Appreciate feedback in all of its forms. Show me someone who is defensive and I’ll show you someone I can beat. The person who is always willing to learn how they can be better, always has a chance to be the best.”


I’m sure I sighed and walked away rolling my eyes at the time, but 20 years later what I would give to have just one more piece of that advice.

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