Small culture note: Mochi is made from short-grain glutinous (vs. glutenous) brown rice, also called “sticky” rice. It has a naturally sweet taste and substantial chewy texture. One can cook it soft, then pound it in a large mortar and pestle for a very long time (perhaps while sharing the work with others, ideally while singing traditional mochi-pounding songs). Eventually this crushes the rice grains to form a thick adhesive dough. It can be sliced or patted thin, then baked. It puffs up to form a cake, crunchy on the outside and taffy-chewy on the inside, often served with a drop of tamari soy sauce and fresh ginger. (It has to be eaten hot and fresh before it turns hard and dry.) Mochi is fortifying and delicious. You can also buy it pre-packaged, now even in fancy flavors like cinnamon-raisin for the American palate. When I studied traditional Asian cooking we classmates used to pound mochi together. It was a big treat.) Anyway…
Wednesday’s weather report promised a July Buck Moon, rising at 9:50 pm.
A mile up the road, the country club has an eastern view. It’s a closed neighborhood with entry gate and security guard booth. To stroll there I always say hello to the guards and walk just to the trees for the view, and so far nobody has asked me to leave. So I texted some neighbors to suggest a moon junket. We could meet at 9:25 and walk over.
Angelina texted right back. She is my new neighbor and peep. Just this week for the lowest tide of the year, she went to the beach to look at things wobbling around in tidal pools. So to her this notion made sense, even when the other invited adventurers needed to cancel. Finally only the two of us planned on going. So I put on a fluorescent vest and at 9:25 showed up at Angelina’s, texting and waving at her window upstairs.
The hardworking family downstairs were planting flowers in the dirt strip at their door. Their daughter Kip was a big help. She is smart as a whip and deferentially courteous and happily bilingual and studious in school and a fun-loving gold nugget of energy and cheer. Her neat limber Grandmother was settled on a low crouching foldable bench seat, neatening the soil and stones. I approached and greeted her, asking whether Kip would enjoy going with us for an hour to view the moon. Grandmother was friendly but seemed shy about speaking English, so Kip interpreted the question. After a short family council indoors, Kip let us know in English that she could come with Grandmother.
Sweet! Our enrollment had just doubled. Angelina put a leash on Super Pup, her tiny jet-black fawnlike doglet. I put the fluorescent vest on Kip. That turned out to be a good thing, because she is so nimble and fleet. This way we could see her well in the dark, and so could any passing drivers at the crosswalks. We impressed upon Kip that the club has coyotes, so she and Super Pup had to stay close to us. We walked past streets of flowering lavender and wisteria and bigcone pines. “Good Evening, Officers!” I called to the security guards at their booth. “May we come in long enough to see the moon?” The guards laughed and waved us in. We passed multi-storied private houses with soaring glass sunrooms on every floor, rock gardens, stone fountain waterfalls, and potted palms. We reached the edge of the golf course with its soaring conifer trees and view of manicured plush lawn and a little glimpse of lake and twinkling lights on its farther shore and the mountains like ghostly shadows on the sky.
Then, we had a problem. The clubhouse and facilities outbuilding to the southeast were brightly lit. Those buildings were going to block the dramatic moonrise, and their lights would drain the promised coppery glory from the supermoon. Nevertheless, our valiant band stood at attention, trusting my idea even though its feasibility looked dimmer by the minute.
Grandmother had brought along her gardening seat. Now she set it on the grass and settled down. Kip stood beside her in poised stillness with folded hands, waiting in perfect courtesy for my promise to come true.
At the end of her leash, Super Pup’s wee black form was only a vector of motion as she explored (and rolled in) interesting smells. At one point she snapped to battle attention, rising on hind legs, staring at the tall trees down by the water. “Are there coyotes down there?” asked Kip. “Would they hurt a girl?” I reasoned that coyotes prefer to avoid people, “but for them, Super Pup would be a tiny bite of coyote candy. We’ll just stay together. That way any coyotes will see that we are all one pack.”
With a sharp yip Super Pup tried to charge down there like a bite-size Light Brigade. I crouched down to talk to her. “Pup? At this time of night there is nothing in those lake trees that is good news for somebody your size.” So Super Pup expressed her fighting spirit by spinning around Kip, winding her leash in tight and tighter circles. Angelina had to do some fancy lariat work, unwinding the leash in circles around her head. First Pup chased Kip with high squeals of hilarious glee. Then Kip chased Pup with equally high squeals and more glee. They were perfect playmates, yipping and dodging in the dark. Pup moved so fast that twice she splashed right up against my shinlike a soft velvety misfiring bat, flipped over, and darted off.
Grandmother gazed at the sky and overhead at the tall trees. My moonwalk was a total bust, and she must have known that. But she and Kip were too well-bred to let on. Instead, they were making the best of the evening, just as it was.
With uneasy chagrin I was about to call it a halt and take these dear people back home. With a heavy sigh I turned my back on the disappointing sight of those bright outbuildings. And then, straight due east, there was a hot red-orange eyelash like lava floating among the mountains. “Hey,” I said. “What’s that?” Then everybody turned and looked.
The hot red eyelash melted out as a brightening horizontal crescent. Before our very eyes, the blood-orange shape peered up over the mountains and began to bloom. Kip clapped her hands, and cried “IT LOOKS JUST LIKE ANCIENT TIMES!” It was heartwarming to hear such a young person express enthusiasm for ancient times, or ancient anything. “You have an excellent point,” I told her. “It’s true. In ancient times, people were very aware of nature. They watched and talked and painted and wrote about the moon more often than we do now.”
The moon bloomed open as an impossibly deep red-orange globe. We’re familiar with “moon,” and with “red-orange,” but I’d never seen the two in one shape before. Grandmother and Kip exchanged a murmured observation. Kip explained to us that Grandmother had never seen a moon of this color. “Neither have we,” we said. “Is there a term in your language for a moon like this?” Kip didn’t have to think twice: “We call it ‘Rabbit Makes Mochi in the Moon.'” Angelina and I burst out “Mochi! Yum!” Grandmother pointed to one star after another as they appeared, giving them soft names.
In Chinese I sang them the moon song “Quiet Night Thought,” the 8th century poem by Li Bai: Before my bed, a pool of light / like frost upon the ground. / Raise head, I see the bright moon. / Lower head, I long for home. After the song and a moment of respectful silence, Kip asked a wonderful question. “Is that your CULTURE?” I explained that it came from Mandarin class from years ago.
The evening grew cold and late. We headed back past the tall houses with their murmuring fountains and glass sunrooms. “Good Night, Rich People,” I said very softly to the houses. “Thank you.”
Kip was skipping up ahead, telling Angelina with enthusiasm all about her schoolwork and her love of reading. Walking beside me, Grandmother asked “How… old… are… you?” For her, back at home, this is a polite interested question between new acquaintances, letting them shift smoothly into the most gracious social register and style of speech. When I told her, holding up fingers, she looked surprised. In return, observing her slim lithe light-footed manner and thick healthy hair, I said, “And YOU look much younger.” Then I realized — I had just minimized the age of someone from a country where seniority is social capital for status and respect! Well, I’ll just have to explain to the family next time.
Kip’s mom opened the door, happy to see us. Kip ran in to tell about her new adventure.
Epilogue: Today, Kip practiced skateboarding tricks on the sidewalk. I stopped to watch her. Kip’s Grandmother came outside and handed me a wrapped plate of piping-hot chicken, vegetables, and glass noodles to take home for my dinner, plus a heaping side plate of hot-spiced fermented vegetables.
It will be fun thinking up some nice recipe to make for these new friends.