• Anitra Carol Smith

I wanted to live. But clumps were stockpiling in my blood and getting ready to stop my heart like a head-on collision. The email from Dr. Antons said: “You have no alternatives left except a drastic change in your lifestyle. I recommend that you become vegan.”


Become that weirdass shit, a vegan? I’d have to turn my back on my French roast chicken rubbed with cayenne and salt and stuffed with fresh thyme. And no more crunching into squares of Tillamook extra-sharp cheddar on Wheat Thins. Goodbye to my childhood soul food: graham crackers dipped in milk.


I couldn’t do it.


But I had to. Fortunately, I had my friend, Marge, owner of a business dedicated to helping people learn how to eat plants. She gave me a hug and bought me a cookbook called, “Vegan Baking.” I tried out the cornbread. It tasted suspiciously good.

As the months passed, even though I was no longer eating animals, I didn’t think much about them. Then, cats started wanting to curl up in my lap. Dogs began pushing their head under my hand for a scratch. My husband suggested that maybe I didn’t smell like a predator anymore.


But after I’d been vegan for a couple of years, things started falling apart. Back in my meaty days, I loved being in the kitchen, loved the sizzle of bacon and the smell of prime rib roasting in the oven. Even though now my meals were healthy and plant-powered, I found myself thinking: “I’ve slurried up a clutch of veggies and grains and spices, but it’s not that different from the last slurry of veggies, grains and spices.” Sometimes I felt like I was eating compost.


On a trip to Portland, my husband and I heard about a vegan restaurant called Blossoming Lotus. I felt wary. It sounded like a place where your cupcake has wheatgrass in it. But we went.


Because we got there during Happy Hour, we made a dinner out of the small plates: Thai BBQ soy curl wraps with sweet ginger dressing, polenta artichoke fritters to dip into lemon ranch sauce, creamy pesto and white bean dip with blue corn tortilla chips and basil oil with scallions, plus roasted beet and curried cashew salad.


My husband and I looked at each other over our forks and I said it out loud: “Who knew that vegan food could taste like this?” At that moment, I saw the path forward.


We bought Blossoming Lotus’s cookbook, “Vegan Fusion,” which led us to other cookbooks from restaurants with inspired vegan chefs, like Veganopolis, and Candle 79. And I have new friends in the kitchen: Mirin, a sweet Japanese cooking wine that chefs sprinkle in to add the secret “wow” factor to a dish. Pimienton, a smoked paprika well-known to Mexican cooks. Amchur and sumac from the Middle East. Plus I discovered Indian curries, Moroccan tagines, Spanish tapas. And I’m circling back to some much-loved cookbooks like Alice Waters’s “In the Green Kitchen” because now I know how to veganize beauties like saffron rice and Irish soda bread.


After I was converted by Blossoming Lotus, I noticed one day that whenever meat doesn’t shoulder its way into a meal, I’m more aware of all the other flavors. Six or eight tastes may jostle each other, meld with each other. It fascinates me to watch which ones can be friends, which fight. Some, like lemon zest, are your high school class president: it can get along with just about anybody. Grate it into hot oatmeal with pears, scrape it over your couscous salad, brighten an eggplant casserole with it just before serving. Other flavors like cloves are your persnickety Aunt Prudence who loves you but turns up her nose at the rest of the world.

And being vegan is not just about avoiding unhappy heart events. Even more, it’s about pleasure. Soon the boundaries start to blur. You lean your hips against the sink as you press a dripping peach into your mouth. You gather armloads of fresh basil for your pesto, but get waylaid by the scent and sluice off your clothes onto the kitchen floor, rubbing basil all over your body.


But I’m getting distracted.


Not everything I’ve cooked has turned out well. I’m trying to forget, for example, spending three hours stuffing pasilla peppers. They were so drab they made turnips seem like a hot date. But then, just often enough, along comes grilled portobellos and red onions marinated in a fresh oregano and chive sauce, or oven-roasted French fries with garlic ketchup, or beet Reuben spilling its homemade thousand-island dressing over the sides of a hot sesame bun.


And all the time, those inspired vegan chefs in Hawaii, in Portland, New York, San Francisco are my silent partners, putting edible plants together in ways no one has tried before. It’s something to live by and I’m hungry for more.




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  • David Hart, Ph.D.

Let me tell you one of my favorite stories. When I was a child, my grandmother proudly and confidently asserted that I would be the first person in my family to attend college. In an effort to prepare and inspire me, she would drive me around the campus of the University of California, Irvine – in a 1984 bronze Buick Regal – and educate me on what makes a college a college and a university a university and that if I wanted to impress people in life, I should attend the latter. To the mind of a 10-year-old boy, her proclamations were taken as fact. Indeed, I grew up to be the first person in my family to attend and graduate from a 4-year university. Sadly, the person I wanted most to attend my graduation was not present on that special day. After eight years of battle, my beloved grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s disease three months prior to graduation. But the story doesn’t end there.


Post-graduation I traveled to Europe on a four-week backpacking trip with one of my best friends. We traversed the continent by foot and train meeting fast friends along the way. The experience was glorious and while the grief of my grandmother’s transition was palpable, I could feel her cheerful presence every step of the way.


On the day before our planned return to the United States, we were walking down Paris’ famed Champs Elysees when a woman tapped me on my shoulder and asked if I spoke English. She had four tickets to sell – tickets to see my favorite pop star Madonna in concert. Truth be told, I had unsuccessfully attempted to obtain tickets to her show in Los Angeles the following September. Could this be real? How could it be that I randomly stumbled upon the perfect number of tickets to see a pop icon perform in one of the most romantic cities in the world?


To this day, I am positively convinced that the perfect timing of the experience was not random at all. I trust and believe that tickets to the concert were the ultimate graduation gift from a proud grandmother on the other side of the veil. What a story, huh?! And yes, it’s a true!


I wonder how you feel after reading this short narrative about an experience I had nearly twenty years ago. There’s a neurobiological effect of storytelling that can in some ways trick us to have emotional experiences, depending on the type of story we tell. Stories about heroism and resilience increases the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, a chemical that regulates motivation, focus, and memory. Stories about love, relationships, and community stimulate production of oxytocin, which is the same hormone that endears parents to their children and is the physiological foundation for empathy and relational attachment. In combination, this cocktail of neurological chemicals can fuel creativity, enhance memory, strengthen resolve, identify purpose, and fuel resiliency.


Had I chosen to reference a story that was inherently negative, you might imagine experiencing feelings that followed suit. For instance, the television news media generally shares information that would likely be described as terrible by the vast majority. Negative news affects our brains by causing an influx of the stress hormone cortisol and flushing our system with adrenaline. In combination, these neurochemicals are intended to activate our fight, flight, and freeze response. Living in a constant state of stress not only affects us somatically, including increased headaches, forgetfulness, fatigue, and exacerbating chronic health conditions, it also impacts our mood and behavior, which can manifest as irritability, anger, anxiety, depression, fear, and intolerance.


As we move into a new year together and take stock of the threats to our physical, political, cultural, and spiritual bodies, I advocate storytelling: the telling of personal and historical accounts of resilience, finding purpose, experiencing joy, overcoming obstacles, finding solutions, loving each other especially our neighbors, finding common ground, and above all, hope. It wouldn’t hurt to turn off the television news, too.


The New York Times recently published an opinion article written by Toby Levy, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Brooklyn. I encourage you to read her submission as well and seek out her lectures as a volunteer docent at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Ms. Levy tells the story of her father building a 4 foot by 5 foot room in the barn of a neighbor and friend who agreed to hide the entire family, including her parents, aunt, uncle, grandmother, and three siblings. They survived two years there while most of the Jews from their town did not. Against the odds, her family, through faith and the courage of others, survived.


Ms. Levy shares the miracle of her life by telling a story of resilience. Even in the midst of the pandemic, she’s resolved to adapt to the challenges we all face together. In closing, Ms. Levy writes, “I am already thinking, planning where I am going first, what I will do first, when this ends.” She has a choice. And so do we. I encourage us all to follow her lead by sharing our own stories of resolve as we write the next chapter in the books of our lives.


For those readers who experience hopelessness, excessive anger, thoughts of suicide/homicide, and have a difficult time managing your day-to-day tasks, please reach out for support. Help is available at www.dmh.lacounty.gov.


Dr. David Hart is a counselor, educator, advocate, and writer from Long Beach, CA. You can reach him at dhart@abc-seniors.com.




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  • Jeanette Miura

あけましておめでとう

Japanese New Year, Oshogatsu, is the most important holiday in Japan. It can be likened to Christmas celebrations when families come together from near and far to usher in the New Year. As a Japanese-American my husband has been ringing in the New Year Japanese style all his life. Oshogatsu is a cherished cultural tradition we practice in our home so that our children can enjoy the rituals passed on from generation to generation. Oshogatsu is seeped in beautiful traditions that symbolize the “new” brought by the New Year. We sit in gratitude as we reflect on the year that has passed and prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the year ahead.


Here are some of our favorite Japanese New Year traditions:


Omisoka

On the days leading up to the New Year and on New Year’s Eve the entire family participates in a “big” cleaning of our home. This is the time when all the Christmas decorations are put away, floors are vacuumed and mopped, all surfaces dusted, and walls and cupboards cleaned. This is also the time we throw away anything that is old and broken that has been cluttering up our space. We remove the dirt and broken items so we don’t carry these over to the New Year.


Kagami Mochi

With the house clean it is then time to decorate and make the traditional kagami mochi. In Japan beautiful decorations made of Shinto rice, pine, and straw are purchased and hung on the front of the door similar to wreaths to ward off evil spirits. Inside the home we take two rice cakes, mochi, one larger than the other and place the smaller mochi on top. An orange adorns the the very top. The mochi symbolize the year being left behind and the new year ahead while the orange represents the continuation of family from generation to generation. Then on the 2nd week in January we eat the mocha to release the ancestral spirits that have celebrated the New Year with us.



Toshikoshi Soba

All our friends that have spent New Year’s Eve at our house know we eat soba before midnight. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat. Eating these noodles represents living a long, healthy life. Buckwheat is a very tough crop that can endure difficult conditions and still thrive. The use of buckwheat symbolizes resiliency and strength for the New Year.



Otoshidama

On New Year’s Day children receive money from their parents, grandparents, and relatives. The money is given in appreciation of how hard children work to help the family unit and in appreciation for the effort they give their studies at school. We purchase beautifully decorated envelopes for each one of our three kids to hold the money and give it to them at breakfast on New Year’s day.



Nengajo

In Japan it is traditional to send New Year’s Day cards to family and friends. These cards are specifically for the New Year and typically include words of gratitude and appreciation. Families that have experienced a death in the past year would not be given a card out of respect for their loss.


In addition to sending nengajo to family, one of my favorite rituals includes our New Year’s Eve intention setting tradition. We spend time thinking about what we want the New Year to bring and how we can be of service in the coming year. We write these intentions on stationary that is decorated and folded several times. The folded intentions are then hung on our Christmas tree. We remove all the Christmas ornaments from the tree, but keep the tree lights on to enjoy the sparkle as we hang the intentions. The intentions from the previous year are then brought out from storage and burned or released to make way for the new intentions.



New Year’s Day Food

On New Year’s Day we start the New Year by eating traditional foods including osechi ryori, an assortment of different foods arranged in a bento box. Each item represents a specific New Year’s wish like the lotus root which represents good fortune. We also make traditional foods like ozoni, a delicious mochi soup, futomaki rolls, sweet black beans, and drink sake. New Year’s sake is called otoso. Sake is infused with specific herbs that make it festive and meaningful for the New Year celebration.




A Visit to the Buddhist Temple

The last tradition we have involves a trip to Little Tokyo and a visit to a Buddhist temple where we light incense and purchase our omamori, good luck charms symbolize various blessings like good health and good fortune for the New Year. All the temples in the area have New Year’s Day services and ring their temple bell 108 times at the onset of the New Year. This is known as Joya no Kane and is one of the most important Buddhist traditions in Japan. At the temple we offer a donation and sprinkle incense at the shrine while making wishes for the coming year.



We then join our friends and the local Japanese community in a lively celebration featuring mochi pounding at Weller Court along with performances that include Taiko drumming, Kendo demonstrations, and traditional Japanese folk dancing. Many attendees wear their beautiful Japanese kimonos and there is also a fashion show. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic we will not be traveling to Little Tokyo this year as we typically do, but instead will stay home and stream the New Year’s Day service on Zoom.


Thank you for learning about the Japanese New Year traditions our family loves. From our family to yours, we wish you a wonderful New Year filled with blessings and good fortune.


Akemashite omedetou!

あけましておめでとう




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