Mise en Place

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The winter rains set the stage for bountiful wild harvests this spring. 

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Sage, lemonade berry, and pineapple flowers

I stirred the lemonade berry in water and sprinkled sage flowers on top. The pineapple flowers made a nice topping on vanilla ice cream for a tropical and herbaceous flavor. Yum yum yum!

Before becoming a farmer, I was much more interested in harvesting from nature’s provisions. This fascination was incited during a walk with my mom when I was 5 years old. As we passed by a neighbor’s house, my mom stopped next to their front hedge. It looked like any old hedge, and only upon closer examination did I notice its green and red leaves, and clusters of tiny fuchsia-colored, apple-shaped berries. My mom plucked a few, wiped them, and handed one to me. “Watch out for the seed in the middle,” as she demonstrated biting into the fruit. The audible crunch from such a small fruit and pink juice on my mom’s lips made this berry every more mesmerizing. I slowly sliced off a piece with my front teeth to take note of minute developments of this curious encounter. Tangy, sweet, bright, yet followed by a slight astringency, this berry was not only delicious but MIND BLOWING. I suddenly realized that my surroundings are more complicated, more delicious than I thought, and I just needed to pay attention. Move aside, Willy Wonka, the whole world is edible!

From that point on, I viewed the world in a dichotomy: Food / Not Food. The obvious food items are in grocery stores, but then there’s everything else — flowers, leaves, berries, and delicate forms that don’t make it into formal establishments. I wanted to try everything, to  and figure out how to do it in a way that didn’t cause pain or death.

Well, the last part of that goal was added after a summer of living off of purely what the Sierra Nevada offers. I was 20 years old and at the height of militant environmental activism. I wanted to shed off industrial comforts, eat from nature, drink from streams, and live with minimal resources. I brought a knife, pot, tarp, rope, flashlight, Nalgene bottle, flint, and a Western Sierra Guide to Edible Plants. I was going to hike and forage through the mountains.

The feeling of being in the mountains
Is a dream of self-negation
To see the world without us
How it churns and blossoms
Without anyone looking on

The lakes in the deep back country are still, blue almost black, and engulf you in an otherworldly abyss when you dive in from the granite boulders above. Surfing on continuous thickets of manzanita bushes feels like walking in a world with weaker gravity, every step giving you a bounce. Berries and roots tasted dense with flavors and burst in flavor as though they were building up all these complexities for a moment to explode in your mouth. I fell in love with spring Douglas fir tips that taste like tropical makrut lime and the Sierras had a baby. Camas roots brought a sweetness to my diet of otherwise vegetal flavors. It seemed miraculous to me that these plants could find a perfect confluence of conditions to survive. It is a miracle, but one that slowly unfolds over time, life cycles, adaptations. Plants have come, gone, crossed with the intervention of geology, animals, humans. Some of my favorite things to eat weren’t endemic, but introduced by waves of different groups of people. Take that pineapple flower up top for example. It’s from South Africa when laborers were brought over during the Gold Rush. The mustard is an introduced annual. And so I came to understand the landscape as an interplay of nature and humans, or rather that we are one. My escape to nature turned out to be a lesson in human history.

I related to the plants as something from out of place but also adaptable and fitting, as humans have done. I hiked and harvested for weeks, enjoying new vistas, smelling new profiles, and tasted flavors wholly new to me. I felt my senses and thoughts fully engaged, but also my energy dwindling. My diet, while diverse, was not enough in quantity. I spent more and more time meditating so I could pass through times of hunger and would eat loads of miner’s lettuce. Then, I began to behave the way animals did: raid the camp sites. Sunday afternoons were smorgasborgs when campers emptied their bear tins and cabinets. They threw away many half-eaten protein and energy dense bars and camping specialty items that lasted me until the next set of weekend campers came. Feasting time!

It was in these moments of examining edibility of cucumbers and carrots that I came to appreciate human intervention in food production, aka farming. I understood why people traded the diversity of wild, yet rarer finds for a secure bounty of a narrower selection of foods. But along the way we’ve traded complex, sustainable ecosystems for controlled, homogeneous landscapes to grow a few foods owned by a few companies. It doesn’t need to be a trade off. We can still forage and feast. As stewards who are part of nature we can keep our diversity of food in a diversity of hands across a diversity of landscapes, be it in our forests, farms, or neighbors’ yards. 

Happy spring, happy harvesting!

Cooperatives at Risk

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A rainy day affords me time to catch up on bills, bookkeeping, and news articles and not just headlines. I noticed a pattern of responses to various items in the White House budget, so I figured I may as well read the budget itself. Closing off one section is a simple bullet point:

Reduces duplicative and underperforming programs by eliminating discretionary activities of the
Rural Business and Cooperative Service, a savings of $95 million from the 2017 annualized CR
level.
This is concerning for three reasons:
  1. Rural cooperatives are the foundation and remain integral to the US agricultural economy.
  2. Cooperatives provide services and job opportunities in remote areas and among marginalized populations.
  3. The Rural Cooperative Service houses the only federal grant for people of color, the Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant.

Let’s take a look at our history. African and African-American slaves who built American agriculture cooperatively pooled money to buy each others’ freedom. With the abolition of slavery, former slaves created cooperatives to own farm land, access credit, and engage in a democratic process to create livelihoods for themselves with lasting impacts until today. The Grange movement in the late 1800s mobilized rural Americans, mostly farmers, to create cooperatives that aggregated food and supplies, while distributing profits equitably. This model enabled people to acquire needs and sell goods, and created the foundation for rural and farming economies. As the need for electricity, banking, and housing increased in rural areas, where developers and investors did not see reason to invest, people formed cooperatives to meet these demands. Cooperatives permeated many aspects of rural life to meet necessary services.

The formation of cooperatives to meet needs in rural America translated into serving the rest of the country. We enjoy the rural cooperative efforts of TreeTop and Organic Valley when we enjoy a glass of apple juice or milk. In California, our Sunkist and Sunmaid cooperatives provide people with a taste of our sunshine in orange juice and raisins. Co-op farmers provide more than 190,000 jobs and annual wages of $8 billion.

These jobs that uphold rural lives and businesses that affect all of us are under threat in the White House budget. The Rural Business and Cooperative Services programs provide assistance to beginning and existing cooperatives, from writing incorporation documents, understanding tax and financial management, and navigating group decision-making. This kind of support enables people to create jobs, gain financing, and secure housing.

In my case, I gained affordable housing in the Bay Area during school thanks to cooperative housing. This meant I could eat and sleep somewhere secure and comfortable while also gaining an incredibly valuable world-class education. As a grain farmer, cooperative ownership of necessary harvesting and cleaning equipment enables me to get grain to market. Not only me, but my fellow co-operators, so we can collectively bolster regional food supply.

Us small scale grain farmers a minority in the agricultural system. Cooperatives are a means for minorities to gain strength in numbers to address common needs, pursue shared dreams. Take the Hi Desert Jujube Cooperative.

Amidst the stretch of the sandy hard-pan flatlands of California’s high desert, star-shaped flowers of lemondrop yellow can be seen annually. These aren’t part of the widely anticipated wildflower super bloom, but it’s a moment awaited by the farmers who read these flowers for signs of their harvest. These are the jujube farmers. The arid conditions lead to exceptionally sweet and flavorful jujubes with a crisp crunch when ripe, and give way to a subtle smoky and raisin flavor when sun-dried and transformed into a marshmallow-like texture.

Jujubes are enjoyed and cherished in many cultures from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. They may not be part of the Anglo-American mainstream, but are in high demand. Beginning about fifteen years ago, farmers of Korean descent began growing them in Lucerne Valley, California. At first there were a few farmers, then more came and learned to plant, nurture, and harvest these fruits. They shared growing practices, introduced each other to customers, and eventually turned their cooperation into an official agricultural cooperative business. Through this cooperative, farmers have increased their market power, skill base, and farm viability and collectively produce on nearly 1,000 acres to serve an ever increasing market demand.

Being rural and selling fruit that mainstream markets and their associated distributors and brokers are unfamiliar with necessitates cooperation. Collaboration among farmers helped them create solutions to shared problems, and cooperatives provided a structure to anchor their connection.

I get to work with many cooperatives across the state. One of the businesses I’m very excited about is Yolo Eco-Clean Cooperative, which is a group of Latinas who run a home and business cleaning business. They make all their own products from scratch for the sake of personal, client, and environmental health. They determine their schedules so they can be with their children, they decide about wages and business investment, and this is a job they have full ownership of. Isn’t that what we all want — self-determination and time with those we love?

The White House budget is being negotiated and must be approved by April 28th, 2017 for this fiscal year. We ask Congress and readers who will contact their representatives to keep in mind that cooperatives employ over 2.1 million people in the US, and xx in California. They generated over $220 billion in revenue in 2015. Cooperatives create rural jobs and sustain a vibrant food economy. Let’s cooperate to keep them.

Spring Planting

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I am not a spring planter. There’s too much risk involved: can you get into the field when it’s dry enough, but will it be wet enough for seed to germinate? Will there be enough rain at the right time afterwards for the plants to grow? The advantages for spring wheat, though, is that you can fit a cover crop in the same field beforehand and mechanically rid of weeds and the cover crop before planting. Depending on where you are, winter planting may also water log seeds or foster diseases in the roots and plants. Diseased crop or no crop? Take your pick.

This back and forth of whether to winter or spring plant has gone on for centuries. The passage above comes from a book written in the 1940s. Same story.

What’s tricky for California farmers seeking winter and spring wheat is that those names don’t really apply to us. You know that an East Coast winter is very different from a West Coast winter. Winter wheat refers to an East Coast-style winter. The wheat needs cold in order to germinate well, and we don’t get that cold on the California coast. It means we should probably winter plant spring wheat.

But here I am trying to plant spring wheat in April…without irrigation. I’m planting in Petaluma where it rains through April and has experienced slightly more predictable weather timing than other places I’ve farmed. Note that I said timing and not intensity. This year’s been pretty intense rain wise, with houses shifted from their foundation. I hope it’s saved some of that for April!

Right now it’s all about field prep. Getting everything mowed and ready at the right time. Again, you want to be able to get into the field when it’s dry enough, seed when the ground is still moist enough, and do this before a good rain to help with soil contact and settling. This may in some ways be like being pregnant. You know generally when to expect, but the exact timing is unexpected and no matter how much preparation went in you still end up scrambling.

 

 

Heart and Grain

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The National Young Farmers Coalition helps elucidate the state of US agriculture by inviting young farmers to share their personal stories of what it’s like to engage in this aging industry. What does it mean for a 10,000 year old practice to age? How can a process that sustains all humans age? The average age of the American farmer is 58, and most people are being replaced by new technology. The human element is aging. If we want to keep jobs, transparency, accountability, and environmental stewardship, we need young farmers.

Today kicks off the 7th NYFC blog series: Heart and Grain. Three young grain farmers from across the country will broadcast their wins and woes through monthly blog posts on different topics. The first set of posts are up, so you can get to know these farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and, well, the last isn’t such a stranger to you: me! I’m very excited to participate as a way to contribute to this body of knowledge about grain growing, to (hopefully) inspire young farmers to grow grain, and to learn from the others. SO EX CI TED!

The first video focus is on Meadowlark Farm’s Halee and John Wepking and how they’re introducing ecologically-mindful practices to a farm partnership in Wisconsin. You can read about them and watch their video by clicking on their photo.

Halee and John Wepking

Clean Air, Clean Water, Livable Future

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President Trump will sign an executive order to dismantle the Clean Power Act today. This action comes in tow with his undoing of other environmental legislation to minimize air and water pollution.

I haven’t been around as long as Keeling, Carson, Shiva and other environmental activists to feel the defeat and regression from decades of struggle to get climate change seriously discussed and addressed. I can say that it goes against current scientific knowledge and farming, and the future of humanity.

What’s happening today reminds me of a statement I wrote for the National Young Farmers Coalition of why I’m a farmer. Before I became a farmer, I was a climate researcher. I modeled changes over thousands of years and created visuals on the computer. I soon decided to step into the field to witness the earthly impacts no pixel could capture, and what I saw changed everything.

From my NYFC statement:

Freezing arctic winds blurred my vision, obscuring the number on the meter. Up from yesterday. Every day I fought through the cold to log the rate of atmospheric carbon coming from the arctic tundra, which stores 50% of Earth’s carbon. I squinted against the hard wind: 554 ppm — 164 ppm more than the global average, and higher every year. The meter told me the number of particles, but in its predictable climb, year after year, it was also saying that the world in the near future will be a much drier, harsher place. Living at an arctic weather station gives you lots of time to think. I spent mine thinking about how we got to this point. Cities, factories, industrial development, yes, sure. But the main way humans transform our landscape is still through agriculture—the production, the transportation, the storage, and the waste of food, the whole system—that’s still where we impact our world the most. To make the difference I wanted to make, that’s where I needed to be, I realized.

Six years later, I was farming, growing grains. When I lived in cold climes, eating seasonally, I relied on grains to get me through half the year and relished the nuanced differences between wheats — hard red vs. soft spring, etc. As an eater, I appreciated the flavor and color diversity. As a farmer, I value all the benefits grains offer. They provide year-round food and farm income. They can provide a drought tolerant food source, can act as sustenance for animals and seed for future cops, and capture carbon, especially when managed in rotation with animals. Grains are essential, yet they’re hardly found in local foodsheds. We used to grow a great variety of grains, even wheats. Now we buy “All Purpose Flour,” or “Whole Wheat Flour,” the labels eliding the varieties of wheats in the bag, each of which has been chosen for certain qualities like greater starch, longer shelf life. Their effect on health, the agricultural practices that produced them, their impact on the environment—these factors have all been erased. (I won’t get into the political economic history of why we grow the wheat we grow; I’ll just say it’s complicated.)

Knowing all this, I work to grow alternative wheat and grains and to revive old, rare seed stock. These grains are not only ecologically beneficial but also delicious and mesmerizingly beautiful in the field. They also contribute to biodiversity. Growing these rarer grains, and on a small scale, presents many challenges: infrastructure needs (land, equipment, seed), environmental unpredictability (drought, storms, new diseases), and lack of government and community support. The challenges are formidable. But I know I am farming to address the biggest challenge: humans’ relationship to our environment. Producing food and sharing it with others enables me to engage the current food system, ecological management practices, and ultimately the climate, all while working with others to see (and taste!) what’s possible.

As a climate researcher, I read about the environmental changes and impacts of people and ecosystems. As a social justice organizer, I saw how lack of water pollution regulations meant companies could dump toxins in water ways and how young children would cry at their friend’s funeral who passed away because they had played in the water.

As a farmer, I see how the unpredictable weather stresses plants and animals. The drought pushes people to pump from their wells, which increases the salinity of what remains. The springs in the hills dry, so the deer and wildlife go to the lower grounds for water — where the roads are and where the roadkill count increases with the desperation for hydration.

I am trying to farm to capture and not release carbon, prevent water and soil contamination, and grow food in a way that doesn’t compromise our current and future health. I stress about planting with the rains, competing against weeds in a no-till system, and acquiring and raising drought-resistant seeds. I feel like what I’m doing is small, but that my generation is tasked with cleaning up over a century’s worth of industrialization’s waste. These years of foregoing cars only to be hit by one, of living local foodways, and of activism for environmental justice seems like a drop in the bucket compared to what will need to be done. The task just got harder, dirtier, and longer.

PDX Grain Tour

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The week after the Big Party, my partner had to attend a conference in Portland. I went up for the weekend as an attempt at a mini-moon, but I proved myself incapable of thinking about grain. Plus, I met some fun and interesting bakers at the Cascadia Grains Conference in January who are based in Portland: Annie of Seastar Bakery and Tissa of Tabor Bread. Not wanting to miss out on any gems, I consulted with Amy Halloran the Flour Ambassador about who else I should meet. She introduced me to Adrian Hale of Thousand Bites of Bread, who then generously offered to take me on a grain tour. As you might’ve gathered from this blog, I love tours and samples!!!

Our first stop was Seastar Bakery. It’s both cozy and lively, and seemingly with a nook for anyone and everyone. Can you pick out the quirky qualities below? Comic book lamp covers, Brian Froud/Labyrinth-like creatures, and a poster of Bread and Puppet Theater are just a few. You should see what’s in the opposite corner.

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PDX by Me, Adrian, and Annie

Don’t come just for the decor. The bread was delicious and their special is something I still yearn for: dill beet pickle egg sandwich. Look at this beauty!

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Seastar was bustling by 10:30 AM, so we booked it to Tabor Bread. Tabor takes up a corner lot and looks like a stately mountain lodge. Opening the door gives way to warmth, friendly chatter, and a direct view of the turtle oven.

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The turtle belly is lit early in the morning and fed loaves at one time. Rather than doing continuous baking that would create much smoke, they use one firing for the day. The bricks certainly keep the place warm.

To the right of the oven and across a corridor is the large Osti roller stone mill that produces freshly milled flour. Tabor’s principles are simple: whole grain, freshly milled, and naturally leavened. From that simplicity comes a great complexity of artisan effort to work with the dynamic qualities embodied in those three characteristics.

Tissa and the Tabor team do it extremely well. Check out this spread:

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MUST HAVE Morning Mash in the front. Then there’s hard red, soft white, morning bread, einkorn, rye

We surely stuffed ourselves, and I’m glad I got to share it with my sweetheart and new friend, Adrian. Beyond bread, Adrian and I share an affinity for salt, which we both carry around at all times! We swapped salt tins as mementos of our excursion, and I’m glad we had occasion to keep hanging out and discovering shared enthusiasm for many more things. Honestly, this is my favorite part of traveling: meeting new people and delighting in the world together.

20170318_12054820170318_185847Bread bread bread. I took it back to my friend’s place where I was staying. This friend is my oldest buddy — we’ve known each other since kindergarten. She’s the one who introduced me to rainforest conservation when we were in first grade, and she convinced me to help her petition to save the monkeys in third grade. She says I introduced her to the internet. We’ve always shared musings, observations, and ideas, helped each other nurse kernels of ideas into bigger projects and pursuits.

She’s now an artist and professor in Portland, and her love of nature 20170319_145417is glaringly evident in her work. She made this fantastical installation of mushroom stages of growth cast in glass. The figures are haunting like the ghost of life and decay. I’ve only seen photos, which you can find at emilynachison.com. These figurines lingered in her studio.

Ironically, her studio is in an old seed cleaning facility. Few remnants of the company remain except a few hand-painted signs. They’re now seeds for something new.

 

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On an unrelated note, I happened upon the last day of a Magnetic Fields gallery exhibit that featured representations of all 69 Love Songs. O M G. I think I need a new heart.

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Super Bloom

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Growing up in California’s desert led me to be acutely attuned to rain patterns. Rain would come after Thanksgiving, lightly until Christmas. January would be sunny for awhile, and the hillsides became bright green with new growth. Then rains would return and pour into March. June gloom would make a brief visit with a little rain.

This year is the first time in fifteen years that the weather feels like it used to. The hills have brightened and I encounter subtle, familiar smells in the chaparral. The desert has also come to life, and I couldn’t let myself pass up this super bloom. YOLO!

I still regret not going to the Death Valley super bloom in 2005. So this time, avoiding some severe FOMO. And it was very much worth it.

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20170309_151804 Boom boom bloom!

The most salient aspect of the super bloom isn’t the colors or flowers. It’s opening the car door and being smothered with what smells like creamy lotus seeds. Thick and sweet but not saccharine. The desert doesn’t produce sharp, sappy scents. Rather, it produces languid, nuanced, yet rich smells that elicit a gentle intoxication.

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Sniff sniff sniff

I felt thrilled by the sights, smells, and sounds of desert life activated by the rain. I hope we’ll see this rain again in predictable, regular intervals. May these blooms remind us of the beauty that water brings and life it gives. We shouldn’t make water so rare and precious such that life is a surprise when it should be the norm.

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I’m Rich!

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A year ago, I told my partner that I wanted to tell everyone I know that they should anticipate seeing us together for a long time. I said, “When people invite me to something, they should know you’ll be there, too. But they should probably meet you first. Perhaps all at once.” That’s how my partner and I ended up throwing a big party.

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Now that all the planning and partying is done, I can look back at how wonderfully love-filled the event was. And that was really the point: to celebrate all the love between family and friends. We wanted to bring together all the people who made us who we are, to cherish those relationships, and for everyone to meet as we all create a future together.

I feel some reluctance in posting this because it seems self-indulgent, but in the spirit of celebration, I’ll share some highlights.

We stated our commitment to each other in the temple that I grew up going to. My family helped it grow from a small house into a ceremonious, capacious temple. This is where my grandmother taught me how to make delicate rose-shaped dumplings for hundreds of people in the congregation. This is where we’d see family friends — people my parents met while they were in refugee camps. This is where I laid on cool tiles during Santa Ana winds. I go here to see the photo of my grandmother on the altar, and think of all the prayers and philosophies she taught me.

This is where my partner and I promised to support each other for the rest of our lives.

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It’s remarkable to look at a crowd of faces and know every one. To have memories and really your whole life before your eyes. To see Andrea and think of biking through sequoias and diving in waterfalls. To see Uyen and Hanh and remember our Vietnamese dance troupe. To remember all the joys and sorrows you’ve shared that make you, you. And that after all those experiences, two people from different places and histories can come together to find a kindred spirit.

If it’s too much to think about, the reception comes along just in time. Our friends did a stellar job of making a 20170305_133325wonderful evening. I’m saving all the thank yous for the cards I still need to write, but I’ll name a few. David Kaisel of Capay Mills made 20 pie crusts out of his Chiddam Blanc and Edison wheat — grown and milled. My friend Rachel experimented with sweet potato and blackberry fillings for months and ended up flying out with filling she made in New York and transferring them to the pie crusts in California. They were the best pies I’ve ever eaten. I wish I still had some. Mark Stambler of Pagnol Boulanger made 20 loaves of bread with my wheat and everyone was in love with it. My friend’s 7-month-old ate it, and it was the first bread she’d ever eaten. I nearly melted when I heard this!

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Hand-drawn by yours truly

20170403_165432Food food food. How about drinks? Despite good advice, I wanted to provide home-made sodas because I couldn’t live with the idea of serving high fructose corn syrup. Especially when some family members have diabetes — I’d be such a jerk! I came up with some cocktails, and one included the fermented ume juice from the Cal Specialty Produce Cooperative that I work with. Shameless plug for the co-op and its delicious ume juice!

After food and drink, I announced that anyone could come up to sing and kick off the dancing. As I moved off the dance floor and my partner went towards the bathroom, I heard my dad clear his throat. He had cued the music and I instantly grabbed my partner’s hand. “Huh?” was the shocked facial expression of someone who doesn’t feel comfortable dancing and can see what’s coming. “My dad’s singing and we’re right here,” I said as I walked to the dance floor and my dad started to sing “Love Me With All of Your Heart.”

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My dad is a tough act to follow. Only Elvis can try, and that’s what happened. We got a surprise visit from Elvis and experienced a spectacular performance. What isn’t captured in this photo is Elvis outstretching his palm to give this child a high five. There was a pregnant pause, hand open but no movement from the kid. And right as the chorus ends and on the final beat: high-five contact. We all cheered and carried on dancing, laughing, and enjoying the company of people from across seas, across continents, across life’s diversity of experiences. I felt humbled, grateful, and in awe of this richness of family and friendship. I am rich with love.

 

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