An Unsanctioned Field Trip

Honestly, I blame myself for the rain this winter. I spent all summer and most of fall complaining about the L.A. River, or lack thereof. Although more than once I was tempted to throw on my Pink Ladies jacket and race my Prius through the dry and dusty channels. I looked longingly at the new chicken wellies I had bought at the Tractor Supply Store on our way out of state last May. October approached and they still had the tags on them. 70 and sunny every day. I didn’t even bother to check the Weather Channel app before getting dressed. I didn’t check to see if we could play outside or needed to seek shelter indoors. Groundhog Day, Jim Cantore-style. I was completely bored.

And then the first storm came. Unfortunate timing, though, because wildfires had just ripped through Malibu and Thousand Oaks. Parts of the Pacific Coast Highway were buried under mud and debris. Traumatized wildfire survivors were put on alert: your house withstood the blaze, but it might slide down the hill. It rained for a week. Everyone thought winter had passed.

When Mom and Anna arrived on a Delta flight on the second day of 2019, the sun was shining. But then it rained for pretty much their entire visit. We scrounged for things to do because everything in Southern California is outside (or closed on Mondays). Soon after, the murmuring started…There might be a super bloom this year. I didn’t know what a super bloom was, but it sounded like a reason to stock up on lemon, lavender and peppermint oils. And Kleenex.

We had already been let in on the secret of Antelope Valley when we first arrived.

“That’s the place to see the poppies in the spring,” they said.

“It’s a drive and you have to go north of L.A., but it’s worth it,” they said.

And then Lake Elsinore, which is significantly closer to us and south of L.A. (that’s an important distinction when accounting for traffic), reported a super bloom in one of the canyons.

And people lost their damn minds.

There were Instagram followers to delight and photos to be re-tweeted. Everyone was ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille. Until Lake Elsinore was forced to shut it down and re-group. And still someone landed their private helicopter in the middle of the wildflowers, jumped out for a selfie, and took off as authorities were racing toward them.

And although I was appalled, I wasn’t shocked. Because when you have 40 million people living side-by-side, someone is bound to drop their aircraft on private property just to say they did. The other 39 million will spend a week on Facebook threads trying to sleuth out who it was. Just settle in with a bucket of popcorn and read the comments.

So, we passed on the $30 shuttle to the Lake Elsinore super bloom and by the time it seemed like things were calming down, I overheard a gentleman at the Grunion Run say there wasn’t much left. Nature had taken its course, hastened by human nature. Next up was Antelope Valley, where the Poppy Reserve staff had gone to great lengths just a couple months before to say they were not expecting a super bloom this year. I didn’t blame them. Who would want to reveal their hand after the shit show at Lake Elsinore? But thanks for taking one for the team, Riverside County.

Pictures were starting to trickle in, though. The woman who runs the Mommy Poppins, Los Angeles website posted some photos she took of her kids at the fields over the weekend. It didn’t look mobbed. And what if we went on a school day? What if we left at 7:00 in the morning and tackled the 110 with the Fast Trak pass and a cooler of snacks? I talked myself into it. Then the night before, I saw a story in the L.A. Times about a 15-passenger van, loaded with poppy field visitors, that slammed into the back of a Mini-Cooper, presumably because the driver was too busy looking at poppies to drive.

I talked myself out of going. It just isn’t safe. Too many people. It’s not worth it.

And then I talked myself back into it. We may never see this again. What if next winter is dry? We can leave early. Super early. We will have zero expectations. That last one is crucial for being happy in L.A.

We were packed and ready to go by 7:15, but then a peacock walked across the street in front of our house and it was such a delightful surprise that we spent the next 15 minutes following it around the neighborhood.

By 9 AM, we were enmeshed in the 110 traffic, which leads right through the heart of downtown L.A. And I was deeply regretting that cup of coffee on the way out the door. I just have to make it to the 5. Then I can pull off somewhere and pee. It took a long time to get to the 5 and I seriously considered my ability to simultaneously drive and pee into a Starbucks coffee mug. And on that note, thank goodness that guy sued Starbucks for barring him from using their bathroom. At least I always know that when the need arises, there’s a public restroom in Starbucks. And they usually get an order of egg bites out of me in the process.

Blue and I started seeing the hills turn orange about 12 miles south of the preserve. Blue had been full of questions on the way north…like why there’s no Easter chicken (because bunnies are mammals and don’t lay eggs) and what he would use to wash Jesus’s feet (Children’s Motrin because it smells like oranges) when all of a sudden, the landscape blazed with color. Orange, of course, but also yellow and purple, all of which was edged in green. We had grown so accustomed to seeing brown all year, that we couldn’t stop looking. I checked for 15-passenger vans.

The road to the reserve is lined with places to pull-off, not just to step out and take a picture, but to leave your car and hike the trails. I made a mental note of that as we inched closer to the entrance of the reserve.

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Turning in and taking our place in a line that snaked all the way out to the main road, I realized that the parking lot was probably already full and they were only letting people park as other people were leaving. I calculated how long that would take. I decided the appropriate answer was forever. We didn’t wait to reach the turnaround point. If the mini-van behind me could turn around completely after 5 tries, I could do it in 3. It’s kind of like driving a lawnmower sometimes.

We parked at the head of a trail (where a sign was posted that we would not be able to access the reserve from this point – which we decided we were cool with) and started up the hill. We met the jolliest woman coming down the trail and she offered to take a picture of us, which is decidedly better than any selfie.

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Then we took out our cameras and began to explore. Blue tried to figure out what the life cycle of a poppy is (there are buds and small discs at the base of each bud, so which comes first?) and I tried to figure out how to accurately photograph the majestic beauty of a million wildflowers setting the hills on fire.

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And I don’t know that I nailed it. It’s like trying to capture the vastness and the detail of the Grand Canyon. Plus it was almost noon and the sun was hot, high, and unforgiving. Blue was hungry and all I had was water on the trail. We were starting to sweat through the sunscreen.

“Take 40 more pictures and then let’s go,” Blue bargained. I thought that was fair. But I’m the mom so I took 42, although the last 2 sort of looked like the first 40. We made a game of counting the snake holes. We lost count at 29 when a woman in an RV stopped to tell us we should hike to the top of the hill for a better view. She had just driven there in her air-conditioned Winnebago. We said thanks and kept walking.

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The road had gotten busy and people were now parked in front of and behind us. The trails closest to the cars were clogged with visitors, squatting for the perfect poppy shot. Look, Marge. If you take it in this direction you can get it without any people. I used to be Marge. But Mom taught me that it’s the people in a photograph that make it interesting. Neal still asks me why I’ve taken a picture of strangers – on the beach, at the farmer’s market, in an art museum.

20190408_110652Because people are part of the landscape. And besides, maybe someday my photo will help to solve a crime or reunite a family. Well, maybe not this photo…

We devoured our pb&j sandwiches, drank the sun-cooked water, and said goodbye to the poppies. It was someone else’s turn. Plus, when they number in the millions, they don’t smell very good. It’s almost rancid and made me wish for just a second that it was a super bloom of jasmine or mint.

And then I saw the sign…

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Oops. But that’s typical. A rule with no one enforcing it. Sometimes California is cool like that.

We decided it would be in our best interest to stop at the barn of antiques on our way back to the freeway.

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And we weren’t wrong. Blue found a microscope, some Army patches, a wood folding rule (which smelled like every trip I have ever taken with my dad to Lowe’s), an old hotel key tag, and some Cub Scout books from 1968. He also made a friend.

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I almost bought a glass juicer, but saw a chip in the top and thought maybe I shouldn’t juice a lemon over broken glass. With our arms full and our tummies empty again, we cruised down the Civic Musical Road (which plays about 10 seconds of the William Tell Overture as you drive over it) and headed for Baskin-Robbins. And then to Starbucks for their bathroom.

By the time we got on the road at 4:00, Waze was routing us through the Angeles National Forest, which is a spectacular landscape, but not for anyone who gets car sick or is hesitant about heights. Some of it had burned recently and the charred trees were fascinating to Blue. He begged me to pull over and get a piece of rock so he could study it under his microscope on the way home. I had already indulged him a raggedy Security Officer patch and some peanut butter and chocolate ice cream. What was a rock going to hurt? He exclaimed his findings from his mobile laboratory. “It’s a rock from an asteroid! It has space dust!” I started to correct him and then remembered he’s 6. There is plenty of time for that later. Today, he just found a piece of the universe under a burned out stump on the side of the road in the Angeles National Forest. And he is examining it under the lens of a $15 microscope we found at a barn of antiques next to a field of poppies (where he is convinced a coyote went savage because…poppies). There is nothing to be corrected. It’s perfect, exactly as it is.

 

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Answers From the Fridge

“What are you giving up for Lent?” I asked Mom last weekend. She looked at me from her seat on the couch across the room and said, “Chocolate?” We both laughed because our DNA makes this nearly impossible. My grandparents kept a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream in the freezer, a stash of Hershey kisses in the cut crystal candy dish on the bar, and at least one package of generic brand Oreos in the pantry. No, neither one of us would be giving up chocolate for Lent.

“Wine?” Again…belly laughs as I reached for Mom’s empty glass on the way to the kitchen. We were half-way through a bottle of Fess Parker dry riesling (from our whirlwind tour of Los Olivos in January) with a bottle of Wilson Creek almond champagne speed-chilling in the freezer. No, wine was not an option, either.

At this point, you are probably mumbling to yourself something about sacrifice and pain and how we were completely missing the point. But that idea had already occurred to us, almost at the same time as I was refilling our glasses. We felt some guilt about being lazy, stubborn Christians until I read this article about doing something for Lent that had some lasting consequences for someone other than myself. Sure, if we gave up chocolate and wine for Lent, we would probably lose a few pounds and Neal would welcome the extra savings on the grocery bill, but that really only directly affects me. What about doing something that has an identifiable ripple effect? Whether I observe it actually rippling or not is unimportant. What about giving up plastic for 40 days?

As it turns out, giving up all plastic is hella hard in 2019. I went to the grocery store today. I handed over my reusable grocery bags (with images of iconic L.A. landmarks splashed across the sides because they came in a pack of 4 at Costco) and began to unload my cart. Two bags of broccoli slaw…bagged in plastic (because who actually wants to shred cabbage? Not this girl.). Plastic tub of low-fat strawberry yogurt. (Not my fault – that is part of Neal’s breakfast ritual.) Ground turkey and lean beef, both in plastic packaging. (How the hell does one get around that? Just fill this mason jar with that ground chuck, please, butcher. Thanks.) Powdered peanut butter. (Totally my fault but I’m going to blame it on Weight Watchers.) OH! Asparagus, cucumbers, and lemons in reusable net fruit bags. WIN!!! Next to a plastic bottle of Aunt Jemima and a half-gallon of milk, also in plastic. (Glass bottles of milk here cost roughly the same as both of my foot surgeries. And that’s with the bottle return discount.)

So, giving up plastic completely is not only a sacrifice, it’s basically impossible. Until we move back to Amish country, where we can buy a 1/4 of a cow and pack it home in a Coleman, plastic is just part of life. I can be more aware of how much I buy (a person probably shouldn’t be eating that much powdered peanut butter anyway) and I can recycle or reuse when I can.

I was stumped about my Lenten sacrifice as I hauled my bags into the house. I set them on the kitchen table and began to unpack. I shuffled around tubs of sour cream and leftovers from 2 weeks ago, trying to make space for the milk and Neal’s yogurt. I accidentally tipped over a jar of Trader Joe’s Carrot Cake Spread, which, I suddenly remembered, I bought right after Thanksgiving to have for the holidays.

Ew.

I pulled out leftovers from more than 2 weeks ago, a mostly empty jug of applesauce, a mostly empty jar of salsa, moldy sour cream, and an unopened container of slimy arugula. Looking at it all piled up on the counter, I thought, waste not, want not. But also…starving kids in Africa. They would love to have had those penne noodles that I refused to eat before squeezing into a formal gown last weekend. They would have been thrilled to eat the butternut squash that I cubed, but never got around to roasting or the lemons that I let rot in the darkest corner of the second shelf. There are very few things that bring me shame. One is when my child calls the newest kid in our neighborhood a dumbass. And this is the other.

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So, for the next 40 days, I vow to have no food waste, other than scraps like strawberry tops, seeds from a bell pepper, and apple cores. We will eat what we cook, we will cook what we have. I will not buy 2 more red onions without first checking to see if there are any in the bin. I will use the 6 red onions now in the bin. I will not buy something like unsweetened almond milk, try it, deem it disgusting and unworthy of future consumption, and let it spoil over the next 3 months. I will fry that stupid package of turkey bacon that mocks me every time I open the fridge.

I will accept any suggestions for preparing turkey bacon that doesn’t result in it tasting like wet cardboard.

It isn’t the same as giving up all plastic, but it’s infinitely more feasible…at this point in my life, anyway. And I think it will ripple, I just wonder how. At the height of the most recent government shut-down, my freighbor (friendneighbor because not all your neighbors are friends and not all your friends are neighbors), who also happens to be a Coast Guard wife, was scrambling to cook dinner with groceries she had on hand. Except…within the first few days she began to realize that there were a lot of cans pushed to the back of the pantry and frozen meat stashed in the bottom of the freezer. They didn’t dine like kings, but they certainly didn’t go hungry. How much food do we have that was bought for a specific recipe, but never used? Or used, but only a tablespoon? I’m looking at you, capers…impersonating rabbit pellets in a vinegar brine. Ironic that Jesus fasted for 40 days and we are going to eat all the things, but it’s easier than bringing home chicken breast in a mason jar. There’s always next year for that.

Sparking & Spreading Joy

What the world needs now is Marie Kondo. I mean, yes, of course…the world needs love, but also Marie Kondo, which can be kind of the same thing. Although she is getting absolutely skewered by critics, who say she really isn’t doing anything life-changing or even that admirable, I have to respectfully disagree.

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One of my last set of blog posts on Magnolias & Mimosas was about my mission to apply the KonMari method of de-cluttering our home last January…before the Netflix show was a thing, but after her New York Times bestseller was starting to pop on the shelves at Goodwill. And full disclosure: I did not read the book. I read some blog posts by people who had read the book and then took what they learned and used it. My philosophy was that I didn’t need to read the book and who had time for that anyway? I had a 3200 square foot house to tidy. I just needed the bullet points.

At the end of about 3 months, we had a yard sale. We sold (or donated) about 4,000 pounds of stuff and made about $8,000. Now some of that was bulky living room furniture that looked fabulous in our first home with the cathedral ceiling and the open floor plan, but had since made moving every 24 months more challenging. The question loomed with every new house: It’s great, but will the entertainment center fit? So, out with a bunch of furniture, sound systems, molded plastic toys with enormous footprints, and so. many. clothes. Also, a lot of gifts that I had held onto because I valued the relationship with the person who had given it to me. But when I held that particular item in my hands and asked myself if it sparked joy, nothing. Not even a cricket. That was an eye opener for me and a tremendous weight lifted that I didn’t even know I was carrying. Marie Kondo had given me permission to free myself of things in our house that were taking up space and consuming energy.

Someone once said that Marie Kondo said that if you do it right, you should only have to KonMari your home once. I don’t know if she actually said that. She mentions in the very first episode that her daughters, who are very young, make organizing and cleaning difficult sometimes, but I’m here to tell you that I nailed it the first time and that there will definitely be a second time and probably a 22nd time. Not everything will have to be measured for joy, but when you stop to think about how much…stuff…is coming into our houses constantly, well there’s no way you will only have to do this once. If for no other reason, at some point we forget how good it feels to throw out and pare down. And right now, I want to keep every single school paper Blue brings home. Like all of them. The math worksheets, the daily writing assignments, the spelling tests, and this adorable picture he drew of Martin Luther King Jr. last week. They are all precious to me…right now. But as time goes on, I will be able to view them with a more objective eye and decide which ones are truly worth the space I give them. I think as Marie Kondo’s daughters grow, she may address this part of parenting. Or perhaps it will get lumped in with de-cluttering sentimental items. But even now, she is always demonstrating to her young children how to embrace what brings joy and release what does not.

I do believe the Netflix show, Tidying Up, is perfectly timed for the world we are in today. Marie Kondo has gotten a lot of undeserved flack for saying she likes to keep her book collection limited to 30 books, for being too chipper while she’s tidying, for being too…I don’t know…Japanese? She does “weird” things like greeting the house and thanking items for their usefulness before getting rid of them. But if I had read the book before diving in, I would have learned why she does this and, most likely, deemed it a worthy part of the process, too.

Kami, to way oversimplify things, is the spiritual force in animate and inanimate things, according to the Japanese religion, Shinto. There’s much more to it (and some who practice Shinto believe it is reserved for inanimate objects specifically in nature), but for the purpose of de-cluttering your home with a Japanese professional organizer, the reason we thank items before sending them out of the home, is because they have kami. This life force is also the reason we clean and organize our possessions that we have chosen to keep. By folding our clothes, by dusting our shelves, by cleaning the toilet, and washing the sheets, we are honoring the kami in each item. We can also respect how many people, how much work it took to create the things we own. Who made the ottoman? How many hands touched my arc lamp before it found its way onto the Target shelf? Just by thinking of what I own in this way, I have inadvertently started taking better care of it. I put things back where they belong and make sure they are clean before doing so. It takes a lot of work to maintain a home and everything in it. It certainly makes me think twice before bringing anything else in and helps me have gratitude for what we do have.

What the world, and especially America, needs now is a tiny Japanese woman in a wool skirt and cardigan showing us how to rediscover what is most important by peeling away the layers of junk, both physically and emotionally. Our possessions are either adding or subtracting from our enjoyment in life. Keep what sends a zing down your spine when you hold it, thank and get rid of the things that don’t and your home will always bring you joy. And you will enjoy it more with the people you share it with, which will spill over into how you interact with others outside of your home. Clutter and possessions that don’t bring us joy take up space in our houses and in our minds, making us less creative and less able to problem solve creatively. It is a weight that is unnecessary and completely self-imposed. A woman outside of our culture, who speaks mainly through an interpreter, is teaching us how to live more fully with less. She is sparking joy in Americans who take the time to embrace her method and complete the process, which is partially rooted in a Japanese religious ideology. Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is not about competing, but it is about winning; it isn’t about being judged, it’s about being grateful. We haven’t even made it through the entire series yet and she has already changed our lives so I call BS on all those couch critics.

Tidying Up is streaming on Netflix (or you can add it to your DVD mail if you’re resisting the streaming trend like my mom). Also, check out this article from The Atlantic for a fabulous description of the rest of the series and this article from HuffPost that describes the Shinto roots of the KonMari method.