Before my Grandpa Bowers went to heaven, he left his family with a beautiful gift. The sum of his entire life was lived as a story to be passed down to his children and grandchildren. When he finally felt that his tale was beginning its final chapters, he sat down with a pen in hand and wrote it down.
He told tales of a simple Kansas upbringing where he ran through fields and got ice cream from soda shop. He wrote about leaving home to enlist in the Navy during World War II and how grateful he was to return home again. And he wrote about the love of his life, my Grandmother, Grace – “the pretty red haired, blue eyed girl who sat next to the water fountain”.
Two years of late nights, early mornings, and more than a few frustrated sighs from my grandmother later – Grandpa was finished with his draft.
Wanting to give his family the finest he could offer, he asked his best friend Ted to help him edit the work and transcribe it into print. Ted, being a true best friend, refused Grandpa’s request. At first, my grandfather was a little hurt, than confused. Didn’t Ted understand?
Ted smiled. “If your dad had done this for you, would you want it edited? Or just like he wrote it in his own hand?” To Grandpa, the answer was clear.
My bookshelf new holds a copy of “Down Memory Lane with Bill Bowers”, copies of my grandfather’s hand written notebook bound together – “warts and all”, as he would say.
The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree in my case.
Just like Grandpa, I’ve spent a great deal of energy trying to organize and edit my life into something perfect and presentable for the people who I love most. And generally speaking, I think I’ve been unfortunately successful at it. Everything at the office is checked and rechecked before it leaves the door. Everything at home is dusted and polished. There are fresh flowers on the nightstand every Sunday.
But if I really think about it, perfection is only worth so much. My family doesn’t love me more when the cookie jar is full than when it is empty (contrary to what they might tell you). My best friend won’t stop being my best friend because I didn’t vacuum before he arrived at my house.
Every so often, I pick up Grandpa’s book. The familiar handwriting takes me back to the birthday cards of my childhood, the letters he sent to me at summer camp, and the Christmas card he handed to me in person because he knew it was going to be his last.
Things don’t need to be perfect to be of value and neither do we. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give to others is the honesty of our imperfection. We all have good days, bad days, and days that are in between. The people who love us will be there no matter what kind of day we had. They love us for who we are – warts and all.
The Champion Within
The past week has left me reflecting on the role of sports in our world. It’s amusing enough to observe somebody when they are running, playing ball, swimming, eating, riding horses, or lifting weights. But let’s be honest. Nobody is going to win a Nobel Peace Prize for those acts. Wars aren’t won by crossing a finish line or winning a game. Yet there is something that compels us to watch, to feel the disappointment of defeat, and to experience the thrill of victory.
It has been one year since one of my friends, who is an avid surfer, went to the doctor for what he believed was water in his ear. After a round of testing, he received a diagnosis of cancer. The familiar, smiling face that brightened my office each day was suddenly missing.
We did whatever we could to keep his spirits up during treatment. We sent cards, gifts, email, and good thoughts, but it seemed like so little. What difference would those things make?
Fast forward twelve months and he is cancer free.
After a long overdue hug, the first thing he said to me on his first day back at work was, “I saw you! I saw you on TV with the hot dogs. I was on my second round of chemotherapy and I saw you! I was so excited. I was shouting at the cat, telling him that I knew you. It made me so happy that you were there with your hot dogs.”
For Moe, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest person. What mattered to him was that I was giving it my best, even though the odds of winning were stacked against me. If I could hang in there, so could he.
Regardless of whether the game involves running 26 miles or eating 68 hot dogs, sports remind us that in spite of the sickness or sadness that exists around us, there is within every person the ability to keep moving, to push boundaries, and emerge victorious. When we cheer for our favorite athletes, we are really cheering for ourselves. If they can give it their best, so can we.
Winning isn’t about keeping score. Games will end and records can be broken. Names will be forgotten. Winning is the driving spirit that compels us to hope, to dream, and to love. It makes champions of anyone who is willing to live it. It is a spirit that cannot be broken.
Seize the day. Find the champion within. Be victorious!
My Super Duper Cotton Candy Adventure
Today is a holiday! Don’t worry. You didn’t forget your mother’s birthday (again). Today is special because it is the only today that will ever be. Yesterday and tomorrow will be different.
A few weeks ago, I was celebrating “Today” with a good friend. We went to a party and had fancy cheese and wine. We ate steak and cotton candy. I ate lots of cotton candy! I had my hair done especially for the occasion. Drinking straws placed end to end created a memorable look for a special night. I was princess of the universe.
At the end of the evening, I was looking unusually happy. Or maybe I should say that I looked unusually happy compared to the world around me. I like to believe I look happy most of the time. I am happy most of the time.
A stranger observed my happiness and asked what prompted my joy and my hairdo:
“Is it your birthday?” he asked. “No.”
“Did you get married?” he asked. “No. I’m just having fun.”
“Is your hair an artistic statement?” he wondered. “No! It’s just for fun!”
“I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t understand”, he said.
Sad and confused, the stranger walked away.
I’ve lived in the world of the stranger on my darkest days. It is a world where happiness takes work to create, a place where magic must have a reason for being and where great pain is put into making dreams real. In that world, dreams collapse under the weight of logical reasoning. It is a world that I don’t plan to visit again any time soon.
There are some things in life that cannot be explained. They simply are. We like to believe that joy, love, and happiness are the product of our efforts to create them. But what if being happy was as simple as choosing to find the joy in each beautiful moment?
There was nothing particularly special about my cotton candy princess day until I found a friend to share in my happiness. We made our own holiday, just for fun. No reasons, no explanations necessary. We did it “just because”.
For my part, I’m grateful to have people with who I can share the happiness of “Today”. No matter what “Tomorrow” brings, I know it is going to be a grand adventure. Are you in for the ride?
You Never Told Us Not To…
Several months ago, a colleague pulled his car into the driveway after a long day at work. Being the end of summer, his three children were happily playing in the sprinkler, laughing as they splashed water on each other to keep cool from the heat.
Still inside the car, my co-worker saw this scene and seriously considered backing the car out of the driveway and returning to the office. Under normal circumstances, he would have relished in the joy of watching his children play. The problem was that he was watching the children and the sprinkler through the living room window.
He counted to ten… Then he counted again a couple more times. He gathered his things from the car and walked through the front door, passed his children (who were using the tile floor as if it were a Slip-N-Slide), and went straight to the back of the house. His wife was quietly folding laundry.
“Honey, do you know where the kids are…?” he asked. “Yes. They’ve been playing in the sprinklers for about twenty minutes.”
“Okay, but where are the sprinklers, dear?”
Upon returning to the living room with his unsuspecting wife, my friend realized that water was not only coming from the hose and the sprinkler that had been dragged into the house. It was coming from the above, where water had been collecting on the ceiling fan. Water was on the floor. Water was on the walls. Water was on the furniture. And of course, water was on the kids.
After a few more counts to ten and a memorable evening of family mopping, he asked each of his children what possessed them to bring the sprinklers inside. “It wasn’t my idea…” said the first child. “I dunno”, said the second kid.
Though I think my colleague shared his story in search of some sympathy for what soon became an expensive living room remodel, I could only laugh. I was inspired by his youngest child’s explanation of the origins of their adventure.
“You never told us not to…”
I don’t know any grown-ups who make a habit of playing in the sprinklers, but I do know of many who have a creative idea or an exciting thing they would like to pursue. But instead of dreaming of the possibilities of what they can do, they become focused on the things they have been told they can’t do.
“You can’t play basketball. You’re too short… You can’t create something new because you don’t have money… You can’t have fun at this office. You have to be serious.”
It’s easy to let these types of statements control our lives, but are any of them actually true? And even if they are true, why can’t we do the things that the world never told us not to do?
If I can’t play basketball, but what sport can I play?
If I don’t have money, what would it take to find an investor who does have money?
If I can’t have fun at this office, where can I go and what can I do that would be fun?
Having sprinklers in the house is now officially on the list of “Things Kids Should Not Do” (unfortunately), but I wouldn’t be surprised if my colleague soon has another wild story to tell. He’s going to have some adventures with his youngest kid for a while, but it won’t be long before he’s telling the story of how his daughter became one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs.
At the very least, he is raising what is certainly a promising young attorney.
Chasing Fairy Tales
I am 100% convinced that my obsession with shoes began with Cinderella. As torturous as the idea of spending a night out dancing in glass shoes seems (never mind the ridiculous notion of singing mice), there’s a part of me that believes in the magic of the perfect pair of Jimmy Choos.
Forrest Gump’s mamma was right when he said, “…there’s an awful lot you could tell about a person by their shoes. Where they’re going. Where they’ve been…”
At the tender age of three, my pink patent leather Mary Janes with the little hearts stamped around the edges made me feel like the prettiest little girl on the planet. They made a “tippity-tap” sound that announced whenever I entered the room. My beautiful pink shoes were there with me on my first day of preschool and when I learned to climb a tree. I loved them so much that I didn’t dare tell my mother when they started to get too small. It was when she discovered tiny bruises on my toes that my secret was revealed and my shoes went to heaven – where all good shoes go.
When I turned eight, my father correctly assessed that any self-respecting girl who was learning to ride horses required a pair of boots – red Justin ropers to be exact. They were my adventure shoes. In my boots, my forty pound body could go racing down the dirt road with am animal that was more than twenty times my size. My dusty ropers, Frank (the fast horse), and Shortcake (the gentle horse) showed me that by caring for all creatures, even the smallest among us can be empowered to go wherever we wish in the world.
I was wearing brocade Steve Maddens when Pomp and Circumstance played and I took my first steps toward life as a professional. Though my pumps were considerably taller than the pink Mary Janes of my childhood, they made the same “tippity-tap” sound as I walked across the stage to grab my diploma. The delicate patterns were an outward reminder of the sophisticated woman I wanted to be, even though I still felt like a precocious toddler on the inside.
Black lace stilettos brought me luck in San Francisco. I was wearing suede pumps when I did a face-plant in the streets of DC. And nothing says “I had the time of my life” better than carrying a pair of heels through the lobby of a Las Vegas casino.
Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother may have shown a serious lapse in judgment with the glass slippers. (If they fit so well, why did they fall off?) Yet every girl knows that when she loses her way, the perfect pair of shoes can remind her where she’s going, where she’s been. It turns out that the magic in the fairy tale comes from the girl. The shoes simply give her the power to choose what her next chapter will be.
Eat Better, Love Better, Dream Bigger
Before the end of the year, a friend of mine asked if anyone remembered their New Year’s resolutions for 2012. I am pleased to say that I kept my resolution from January through December – “eat better”.
He was quick to point out the ambiguity of last year’s resolution and I am in full agreement. Perhaps it is ambiguity that allows us to accomplish whatever our heart desires. It would have been simple enough to resolve to eat more vegetables, to stick to a strict diet, or to cut back on sugar. But would I have missed out on other opportunities if I had narrowed my vision?
Though I’ve been eating every day since I was born, it never really occurred to me that I could do it “better”. A few buffet adventures with Juan “More Bite” Rodriguez, my first trip to the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Championship, and breaking into Major League Eating’s top 50 taught me that there is always something more that we can receive. For every dream realized, there is another one to be chased.
As it turns out, “eating better” held a different meaning every day. Some days it meant cooking a new recipe or tasting a new food. Other days, it meant teaching children the importance of making healthy choices. And there were days when “eating better” meant taking the time to share a special meal with friends and family.
So where do I go from here?
As with all years, 2012 was a year of hope and heartache, joy and sadness. I can’t help but notice that it often takes a holiday, a life event, or even a tragedy to transform our daily routines into something more meaningful.
How different could the world be if we were willing to genuinely care for one another regardless of the circumstances? More importantly, what would it take for us to begin expressing it?
With those questions in mind, I am resolving that this is the year I will “love better” – whatever that means. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea where to begin. I use the word “love” to describe my fondness for hot dogs, designer clothing, and my best friend… which is odd.
But if I learned anything from “eating better”, it is that every day is a new day with new opportunities and dreams to be realized. With any luck, “loving better” will be a more exciting adventure than my recent discoveries with food (which are still in progress).
Whatever your wishes for the coming year, it is my hope that you eat better, love better, and dream bigger than ever before.
Gnome for the Holidays
GNOME – \ˈnōm\ 1: a maxim, aphorism (Greek gnōmē, from gignōskein to know) 2: an ageless and often deformed dwarf of folklore who lives in the earth and usually guards treasure (French, from New Latin gnomus)
Though Merriam-Webster has done a fine job of defining the ‘Gnome’ their description omits an important piece of information. In addition to gold, precious gems, and array of useful items that gnomes count as “treasure”, they also count food as a highly valuable, highly prized commodity.
How do I know this interesting fact? I have experienced the magic firsthand.
It was a sunny Memorial Day weekend and I was looking forward to spending it doing nothing in particular. I had every intention of sleeping in, reading a book, and joining the neighbors for a relaxing picnic at the park. But my plans were interrupted when, to my surprise, I had an inexplicable overwhelming desire to paint a garden gnome.
I had nothing against gnomes at the time. In fact, I had taken part in constructing a seven foot tall gnome as a benefit for the L.A. Food Bank a few years earlier – to great success. The problem in my mind on that Memorial Day holiday was that I had no garden in which a gnome could reasonably live. I had a small patio with one small, pathetic, dying plant.
Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling… “I have to paint a garden gnome today or my life is going to be incomplete”!
Garden or no garden, I realized the only way to stop the insane feeling that I needed a gnome was to give in, go to Color-Me-Mine, and paint the silly creature. I found myself at the shopping center, ready to go up the escalator to paint a gnome for a garden that I didn’t have. And then it happened…
I saw a sign. I guess it could have been the “heaven kind” of sign if you really think about it. But in my case, it was also a literal sign.
“Derby Deli Presents the West Coast Hot Dog Eating Championship Qualifiers”
That could be fun to watch! Gnome forgotten, I went into the deli to ask about the contest. I thought they would hand me a flyer with the details of when I could watch the show. Instead, they handed me an entry form.
The rest they say, is history.
I never got around to painting my garden gnome. But I did follow my “knowing” that day. I found a different kind of gnome.
Sometimes life doesn’t make sense. We can find excuses – “I already have plans for the weekend… I don’t have a garden.” Or we can act on what we know in our hearts is true.
Give yourself some credit! You know more than you think you know. Trust your instincts. Follow your inner gnome. You will most certainly find treasure when you do.
Food Relationships: Be Kind to Yourself
My first day of preschool was disappointing, even for a three year old. For starters, I thought I would be attending “pretty school” – a place where I could twirl around in frilly pink dresses and play with sparkly makeup. I was eager to go to the place where pretty children go to play. Preschool – a place where children go to learn the alphabet and how to count was of absolutely no interest to me.
The more heart wrenching disappointment however, was the realization for the first time in my young life that I was different. I had always loved the story of the ugly duckling, but it never occurred to me that I might be the duck. But there I was – dark hair, squinty eyes, and stubby Asian nose among a sea of blonde haired, blue eyed children. The plains of Colorado were known for cows and corn, but not for diversity. By the time my dad put me into my kiddie seat for the ride home from not so pretty school, I was an inconsolable fountain of tears.
That kiddie seat would be the source of even more frustration as I entered elementary school. I was nearly in the third grade by the time I was big enough to go without it. As the smallest kid in my class, I was every bit the outsider until it was time for a round of dodge ball or crack the whip… then and only then, was I the most popular girl on the playground.
I wasn’t bullied by the other children. In my case, I was the bully who made my days miserable. Being different became my excuse for being self-critical and unhappy. (To the parents who are reading this post – never assume that because your child is young that they do not have the capacity to be self-critical or anxious. Children are often just like adults in a smaller body.) Eager to please, I tried to make myself as much like the other kids as possible. I started counting calories at the age of seven in hopes of making my body taller and thinner. I did get taller, but so did my classmates – relatively speaking, I was still the shortest kid. By the time I was twelve, I realized my body wasn’t getting any thinner. It was getting curvier in spite of my best efforts. Hello puberty! I kept trying to change my body, failing, and then criticizing myself for not trying harder. And I would do it again….
Trying, failing, criticizing again…
And with each attempt I would get more frustrated, anxious, and depressed.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
In spite of numerous attempts to make myself exactly like everyone around me, I am pleased to say that I am a complete and utter failure in the subject. I’m entirely certain that I possess the ability to be me and only me. What’s more, I would be missing out on some really cool stuff if I were still criticizing myself for something I cannot change. I am proud to be a dark haired, squinty eyed, curvy, short Asian with a stubby nose. Come to think about it, I might not be modeling if I were the tall, thin blonde with blue eyes.
When we are able to accept the things that make us unique and stop criticizing ourselves for being who we are, new and unexpected opportunities find their way into our lives.
As it turns out, “pretty school” is a real place. It’s the place where we learn how to treat everyone, including ourselves – with kindness. Pretty school is a place where everyone is loved, no matter the color of their hair, their eyes, their size, their abilities, or ambitions. It’s where we learn how to be pretty not just on the outside, but from within. It is a place with no self-judgment, anxiety, sadness, or tears – and there is no more crack the whip.
Be kind to yourself and the world is yours for the taking.
Food Relationships: Spend time doing things that support and enhance your relationships with food and with others
If you were a superhero, what kind of extraordinary abilities would you possess? Would freeze time or fly through space? Would you be a mind reader or be strong enough to lift a train?
Most of the time, I live the life of Clark Kent. Like most people, I wake up, go to work, run errands, go to sleep, and do it over again the next day. Forget date night on Fridays – most weekends I turn in early so I can look fresh and pretty for morning photo shoots. If my life were anywhere as exciting as my mother thinks it is, I wouldn’t be calling her every Saturday.
But every once in a while, I become Supergirl. I feel strong, capable, and limitless. Food quakes at the sight of me and my glue gun. I eat without any trace of indigestion and I look adorable while doing it!
Yet even superheroes have heroes – look at the X-men or the Justice League, for example.
Only days ago, I encountered some of the most powerful and amazing individuals on the planet.
It was a sunny day in the City of Los Angeles and a crowd was gathering at the Nisei Week Festival in eager anticipation of the Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship. Little did they know they were about to witness exceptional acts of superhuman strength and courage.
Not more than twenty four hours earlier, Juan “More Bite” Rodriguez received the news that he had lost the friend who had grown alongside him from the time they were first-graders eating play-doh. Perhaps death is no different than being alive, in that we are never alone. Juan “More Bite” was joined in his grief by Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, who said “goodbye” to his loving grandmother in those same hours.
In spite of the clouds that darkened their skies and the sadness that rained down with them, both men can be proud of what they achieved at the World Gyoza Eating Championship. Sometimes, the only way to move forward is to honor the memories of the past.
Just down the table from Stonie was Michelle “Cardboard Shell” Lesco, a hero who was demonstrating a different kind of strength. Having observed the affects of breast cancer in the world around her, Michelle saw gyoza as not only a meal, but an opportunity. Driven by the desire to help others, she used the contest to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer research through the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Since becoming a competitive eater in 2011, Lesco has raised nearly $3000 toward charitable organizations throughout the United States. They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But in Michelle’s case, it is through her stomach that you see her heart.
I can’t tell you what prompted Crescenzo Rillo to follow his gut in the literal or the figurative sense, but after seeing a news segment on KTLA- 5 he was compelled to attend the Nisei Week Festival. A visitor from Australia, he doesn’t live in the community that will ultimately benefit from his generosity. But because of his winning bid for the final seat in the gyoza contest, the Nisei Week Foundation will be able to provide programs that celebrate diversity and encourage global unity in the coming year. It seems an appropriate feat for a man from half a world away.
Heroes are everywhere in this world. They inspire us to be resilient in the midst of our pain. They are advocates for a greater cause. They act on their intuition to help a stranger. Whether they come from places near or far, heroes bring us together and give us something in which to believe.
Look and you will find them… Who knows? If you are lucky, you might even find a superhero staring back at you in your own mirror.
Food Relationships: Take the bargaining out of food and search for win-win solutions
It has been decades since the battle of all battles occurred in my family. Children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren have all been told about the heroes and the warriors of that fateful day.
After a long day of work and play, the troops were especially hungry. Gathered around the dining table in as orderly a fashion as children can be, they were eager to fill their waiting bellies. However, only moments before there had been a tragedy in the kitchen – the pasta was not a perfect al dente. In fact, it was cooked to the consistency of something like glue.
There was grumbling and perhaps a few tears, but brave and valiant Aunt Carol could not be discouraged. Instead, she did the only obvious thing – she picked up a handful of spaghetti and threw it. And the Great Spaghetti Fight found its way into the history books (or at least the family photo albums).
It is from this line of relatives that I derive my love of food, as well as the mild insanity that comes with it.
Fast forward a few years and a couple of generations and here I am. A little more than a week has passed since I made my Major League Eating debut at the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. While I didn’t walk away with a win, the experience was worth its weight in gold… or hot dogs, as the case may be.
One of the most meaningful moments of the Coney Island experience occurred away from the cameras and the crowds in the quietest part of the day. I was heading back into the city with my friends on the subway. A little girl of maybe four or five years old kept glancing my way, tugging on her mom’s shirt. After a while she whispered something in her mom’s ear. Smiling, the girl’s mother handed me a napkin and a marker. “She was wondering if she could have your autograph.”
She asked how I became a competitive eater and how I got to Coney Island. I told her how my friends had encouraged me and how fellow competitors had helped me train. “See how much someone can accomplish by helping others?” the mom asked her daughter.
It turns out that my Aunt Carol and the mother on the subway understood the same truth – a truth that has radically changed my perspective and opened more opportunities that I could have ever dreamed possible:
Food can satisfy physical hunger, but it can also satisfy our need for community. It can be the source of broken barriers and new memories. When we share in those moments together, everybody can be stronger, better, more resilient than before. Everybody can win.
We can use food as a means of separation by judging ourselves, our diets, and our bodies – bargaining with sandwiches and cupcakes as if we are in criminal court. Or we can use food to build bridges and teach future generations the importance of helping others to make a difference in the world.
I am proud to be a part of the joyful food legacy of the Great Spaghetti Fight. As for the veterans of that battle? They recently made a new memory by gathering together to cheer for the family’s newest food warrior on the Fourth of July.