Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturday, June 30, 2012

I know what I want to eat for my birthday dinner: this chicken braised with leeks and peas in a balsamic vinegar sauce.  Lovers of French cuisine, gather 'round.  This was so good tonight, Akemi and I unabashedly licked the platter clean.

Come to think of it, this would be a perfect entree for a cool fall evening with sparkling cider.  Bon appĂ©tit! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I keep hoping that one of these days I’ll move beyond having to put on events. 

One of my first responsibilities when I came to USC 24 years ago was to put on the university’s first conference for the real estate development community.  We were startled, amazed, delighted, and terrified when the phone and fax machine started to ring off the hook (remember this was before the advent of online registration) and we were looking at nearly 300 people showing up.  

The Lusk Center staff at that point was, well, me.  But this was the “coming out party” for the Lusk Center, critical to the new mission of the then-little School of Urban and Regional Planning and where our dean had planted his flag, so the entire school staff pitched in.  Bing closed his fledging dental office for the day and came down to the Bonaventure Hotel to be an additional set of helping hands, placing astute priority on the importance to our family well-being that the conference succeed so I could keep my job.  

That first conference was, thankfully, a roaring success.  We went on to become a well-oiled event machine, creating a national presence for the Lusk Center.  In fact, it was because of the Lusk Center’s conference collaboration with the ULI Los Angeles District Council that I ended up migrating to the Urban Land Institute, another organization that has lived and breathed by its events and sophisticated event management philosophies and techniques.  After years of seeing me at a podium and shaking hands at receptions, people find it hard to believe that I’m truly an introvert; I’ve just learned to kick into “event mode” and turn on the public persona.

Since returning to USC in an academic affairs capacity, my events mercifully are more along the lines of admissions open houses, faculty talks, and student workshops.  What, print name badges?  Nah, just make sure we have enough food ordered from La Taquiza.  But then last summer, I knew my conference number was up again, as June 2012 would be USC’s turn to host an annual international symposium for students, alumni, and faculty of eight graduate liberal studies programs.

So again with a small army of volunteers and an incredible half-time assistant (always hire someone with a film production background), this past weekend we hosted 90 visitors, guiding the Stanford and Reed College contingency to the Metro station on their quest for Philippe’s French dip sandwiches, explaining sopes and tamales to the European students, making sure everyone’s AV worked for their presentations, and calling a lot of audibles along the way.  I do look forward to talking with my fellow program directors, all great scholars and fun folks, and managed to work my favorite Tennyson quote (the end of “Ulysses”) into my closing remarks. 

The returns are in, and everyone had a great time.  In fact, we might have overdone the hospitality.  They all sound so impressed that they are eager to return.  Like taxes, just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you want to keep doing it. . . .

Monday, June 25, 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

"But friendship is the breathing rose, with sweets in every fold."

~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

One of my first orders of business after we got home was to have the piano re-tuned.  It had gone predictably wonky as it settled in while we were gone.  Until it was re-tuned, there wasn’t much point in playing with Akemi.  And while we were away, she had her violin in the shop for some maintenance and to have her bow, much abused with conservatory use, re-haired.

So yesterday and today were the first chances we had to hear how the violin and the piano, and Akemi and me, sounded together now.  For old times’ sake, we played through some of her childhood pieces.  Every now and then, she’d stop to say, “I can’t believe I used that fingering” and other such gems of perspective. 

We’re always on the hunt for decent “salon pieces,” the short crowd-pleasers for church musical numbers, receptions, and dinner parties.  She’s tired of Gluck’s Melody from Orfeo and Euridice and Elgar’s Salut d’Amour; too bad, because I like how she plays them.  We ran through some new hymn arrangements and a new classical possibility which we both think is beautiful: “Je crois entendre encore” from Bizet’s Les PĂȘcheurs de Perles.  

I can't get enough of the tactile joy of Steinway action that plays again like Steinway action. I keep saying it's like driving a race car.  We had fun reveling in marvelous sound together before Akemi had to return to the business of practicing.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

One evening during the holiday break, Akemi let loose a loud “ARGH” in her room.  She had just read on her computer that NEC canceled the music history class she had signed up for spring semester, meaning she now had to scramble to find a substitute music history elective that fit into the Rubric’s cube of her Tufts-NEC schedule.  And so she ended up in a graduate seminar on “The Music of Courtesans,” not because she was interested in courtesans, but because the course time plugged her schedule hole. 

Almost as soon as the semester began, the class members had to identify potential paper topics.  She bounced some topic ideas off of me, but was having difficulty mustering any enthusiasm for any of them.   I had her read to me topics from her syllabus: well, okay, what about something geisha related, we both wondered. 

The instrument of the geisha is the shamisen – what my dad called the Japanese banjo – and it so happens that my mother’s mother, her great-grandmother Shizu Kurose, was a renowned shamisen teacher and performer.  She had a following in Little Tokyo, and in camp, she organized and produced a recital of her students, complete with staging and kimono.  In addition to being an accomplished musician, she also was quite the impresario. Maybe it would be worthwhile to learn something about shamisen music, since at least there is a family connection there.

In a class larded with doctoral students, it sounds as if Akemi more than held her own, getting an “A” for the course and for her paper “Paradox and Parallel: The Geisha and Their Music.”  Her thesis was that geisha paradoxically lived a life of both independence and restriction, and that this contradiction could also be found in the geisha’s music and in their performance practices.

The connection to her great-grandmother came, for the most part, in her class presentation.  She impressed her professor and classmates with this photo of her great-grandmother with her shamisen and her daughter, my mother and Akemi’s grandmother, kneeling to her right playing the koto

I’ve often thought that my maternal grandmother must be some ancestral guardian of Akemi’s, as both of them love to play a stringed instrument that is part of their core identity.  I remember my grandmother sitting in her room in our Peralta Hills home, playing her shamisen for hours.  My dad told me she had high, exacting standards; a real perfectionist.  Gee, I don’t know anyone else like that, do you? 

I don’t remember what course Akemi got zilched out of.  I’d like to think she would have gotten something out of that class, if she could have taken it.  But for whatever reason she ended up learning about courtesan music and geisha, in particular, she now knows a few things about her great-grandmother which she didn’t know before.   Not a bad outcome for a course taken practically under duress. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The peonies are from Trader Joe's, but my garden provided the rest of the flowers for the bridal shower Akemi and I hosted yesterday.  And here's my lemon chiffon cake. 

Great times!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

If you’ve been a faithful reader from this blog’s inception, you know that it was born out of expediency, a way to keep you updated as my WM experience unfolded from my diagnosis almost two years ago.  As I got into it, I grew even more self-conscious just talking about how my health (and figured you’d tire of a one-note samba, as well), so these posts roamed into new territories.  Because many of you have told me you enjoy reading all of this and encourage me to keep writing, I do.

Today I return to terra firma to give you good news from yesterday’s check-up and treatment.  The lymphoma marker continues to drop, my “good” immunoglobulins which were being eroded by all the chemo held steady and did not drop further, and my platelets increased to hit Dana-Farber’s minimum of the normal range.  

Although the rate of the IgM drop seems to be slowing down, probably a consequence of the less-frequent treatment schedule, Dr. Treon’s strategy appears to be working and Dr. Weiss said overall she was happy with these numbers.  Perhaps the three-month instead of the two-month cycle gives me more time to recover between treatments.  I certainly have more energy than I have had in, well, years.  This particular protocol which I started over a year ago has reduced my IgM level by 75%, so in the big picture, I am very, very grateful.

And I can’t say enough nice things about the USC Norris day hospital nurses.  If I had a dime for every time I’ve been told I have small veins, I could afford medical school.  I can just tell when a blood draw or IV start is going to be a miserable and bruising experience by the level of anxiety the phlebotomist or nurse exhibits when sizing up my arms.  More than a few times, the truly intimidated has called over a supervisor after a couple of failed attempts, which then is much to my relief.  

But the Norris (and Dana-Farber) folks take their time and then act sure-handedly.  My nurse yesterday went to some length to coax my veins into cooperation, and she didn’t pull out a needle until she was good and sure it’d strike gold (or red, I guess, as the case may be).  I tell you, this is very much something to appreciate. 

Even though I’ve gone through the infusion drill many times now, I am always startled at how quickly the funny taste comes into my mouth after the line is opened.  Last night and today, I am back in the familiar routine of drinking a lot of fluids and am sticking with smoothies until I feel like eating again.   I thought I was doing pretty well with the chemo brain until I tried to return a call to an office colleague from my home number and dialed only the on-campus extension.  At that point, I figured I needed to go back to bed for awhile.  

So, faithful readers, there you have another progress report.  Everyone involved is doing their best to keep the reports favorable.  

P.S. I enjoyed seeing these ever-present offerings with incense in Bali.  Wayan makes this one each morning to set by the pool. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rice paddies were as close as around the corner from the villa.  As we drove through different climate zones on the island, we saw many other crops, as well.  In the cooler volcanic mountain region, cabbages and peanuts form neat rows under orange trees.  Squares of taro, corn, tomatoes, and strawberries patchwork with groves of pomelo, papaya, bananas, pineapples, pears, and durian.  During the trip, we tried mangosteen, dragonfruit, rambutan, and snake fruit.  Trellises of long bean edge the fields.   

We enjoyed a stop at a coffee, tea, and spice plantation, sampling ginger and lemongrass teas. Bali may be famous for its "lewak" coffee, but if you heard the story of what makes it "special," you may not find it very appetizing.  As souvenirs for our coffee-drinking friends, we opted for a different kind of premium coffee bean.

Shrines are ubiquitous in the fields, and everything is done by hand, including the rice threshing.  Some crops are prepared for export, especially dried fruit, but most is consumed locally or is subsistence farming.  Families get by with their own rice, vegetables, fruits, some chickens, and a duck or two.  Tourism and deforestation are eating away at the arable land.

We quickly realized that the quality of the groceries which Wayan was buying for our meals was far superior to what the ordinary Balinese would have.  Her family can only afford to eat meat once a week.  How excessive we Americans must seem.  We were not ones to waste rice before, but now every kernel seems more precious.

If I had to pick one memorable aspect of Bali, I'd have to say it is its spectacular natural beauty.  Little wonder that in the version of Hinduism practiced by the majority of Balinese, gods inhabit the physical world, making cliffs, mountains, and trees significant.  Out of the countless temples, we strategically selected two where the land met sea in dramatic fashion: Pura Tanah Lot and Pura Luhur Uluwatu.  On a sacred part of Kuta Beach, we chanced upon a ceremony in which loved ones were sending ashes of their family member into the surf.   Palm leaves and bark were crafted into small baskets and outriggers bearing offerings of blossoms fruits, grains of cooked rice, and even cookies and cigarettes.  Incense is offered everywhere.

Our driver showed us the resort beaches of Nusa Dua and the little cove of Padang Padang, now unfortunately known as the "Eat, Pray, Love" beach.  It's much smaller yet more beautiful than how it appears in the movie.  Bob said be sure to have a grilled fish dinner on Jimbaran Beach at sunset, and we are glad we did that.

Our last day, we headed north to the volcanic mountain areas unfrequented by tourists.  We rambled through the terraced rice paddies at Jatiluwih, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site on the slopes of Gunung Batukan, the second highest peak in Bali.  Akemi tackled an adventure course with zip lining in the Bali Botanical Gardens; I watched this one from below.

Driving for miles more on a narrow winding road through cloudy mist, we came to a beautiful lake in the volcano caldera.  Since we were coming off the rainy season, the water level was still high enough to surround the temple Pura Ulu Danu Tambligan and we approached it by dugout canoe.  We were the only visitors there.  Akemi had a field day taking “art shots” with our driver Dean, an enthusiastic and experienced photographer who gave her tips on angles and framing.  He was pleased to give us a unique experience.

In contrast with all that is lovely and graceful about Bali, we also were struck by the homes of cinder block walls, rusted corrugated metal roofs, and earthen floor next to piles of trash.  Motor bike congestion causes traffic jams not unlike LA's and young people struggle for education and gainful employment.  But all the Balinese we had contact with were warm and friendly. 

Bob's house staff has been with him for years, and are like family.  As we left to return to Singapore, they urged us to come back. This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and yet it would be wonderful to see them again.

On our stop-over night in Singapore, Bob treated us to an incredible Peranakan dinner at the Grand Hyatt Straits Cafe.  Early the next morning, we were on our way back to Changi Airport on the MRT, old pros of the system now.  We could hardly believing our big trip was coming to an end.

Akemi and I have had a non-stop return to reality since getting home on Friday.   Our adventure is now one for the memory books, yet we also are now looking forward to many other excited things lined up for this summer.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

We rousted ourselves from the villa’s seductive calm to sightsee.  There’s much to do in Bali.  We made a compressed round of the handicraft villages around Ubud, learned about Balinese architecture, and never tired of hearing a gamelan orchestra play.  The first temple we visited was Gunung Kawi, which dates back to the 11th century.  We can now describe the differences between barong, legong, and kecak dancing.

When Akemi heard there was whitewater rafting, she added it with gold stars on our to-do list.  She is a rafting enthusiastic, a veteran of Class IV rapids.  I, however, have previously declined past rafting opportunities – the danger of being bounced out into currents and onto boulders has not appealed to me.  With assurances that these were Class II and III rapids, at best (“Mom, think ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ meets ‘Grizzly River Run’”), I resolved to be a sport.

I needn’t have worried.  Our fellow rafters were a Korean family with two cute young boys.  As it turned out, I out-paddled not only Korean mommy, but also Korean daddy.  The boys started out terrified, but our guide had them laughing by the end, purposefully propelling us through waterfalls and spinning us around.  Because they didn’t speak any English, they missed all the guide’s wisecracks about the “ancient” carvings made a few years ago by the local hotel and his shouts of “Crocodile!” as he smacked the water with his paddle every now and then.  When he winked at me, I thought, to continue the Disneyland references, that this was pure “Jungle Cruise.”

For all the light-heartedness, though, it was an amazing opportunity to see the beauty of the jungle forest from the river.  I was really glad we did that, and we returned to the villa surprisingly exhilarated.