>Writing

>Talking about writing is something that’s hard to do without sounding extremely pretentious. There are different ways people write. Some people plan. Some people are methodical. Some people write out whole plots, do character explorations, and nail down fine points. Some people do research, not just for details, but to look at how they want their story to go: how do other stories in this genre go? How does pacing work? Some people try to come up with ideas and some people are delievered ideas by their minds.

Some people set out to write–they try to write. Some people just write. There’s something to be admired in supposed dedication; there’s something to be envied in the supposedly intrinsic talent of some people.

Sometimes, I sit down to write determined to write. I plan and plot and contrive. I do research. I make outlines.

But sometimes, sometimes I become this manic monster. I no longer feel like a person; I feel like I am posessed and suddenly nothing else in the world matters, nothing else is important, and not writing makes me ache with a depression and longing I can’t imagine ever falling in love with anyone or anything else.

Right now I feel the latter way and I write this to try and center myself, to try and create an excuse for my poor show at work, my poor show among friends, and my poor show at blogging.

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>Past

>When I was in high school I knew this guy, SS. SS had a King of the Geeks thing going on for him. Tall, distinctive bouncy walk that CC described recently as a “hunker,” (though not in reference to SS). He would wear bright Hawaiian shirts and you could tell it was him even from over a block away. He had more games than everyone else I knew combined.

I used to go to church with SS, even though I was (and am) agnostic, unable to believe in anything that doesn’t have evidence I can experience. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow because I have experienced it so many times. I believe my parents love me because of how often they have told me. I believe in things presented to me simply. That is to say, I didn’t believe in his god because I never had proof of it presented to me simply. But then I never had proof against it presented to me simply either.

Church was a brilliant spectacle. It was a small Baptist church with a pastor who had an undergraduate degree in theater. She put on shows for us. We talked about simple, basic things. We sang. After church, which I rather diligently went to every Sunday, I’d spend a bit of time talking to MP–SS’s mom who would also go.

At that point in my life, I spent a lot of time at SS’s house, talking to him, hanging out, playing games, fighting the cat, poking about the garden, being really ridiculously hot during the summers, and trying to talk to MP and MS–his other parent.

MP and MS really brought out everything that was awkward and teenage about me. They were some of the few people in my life who I -really- wanted to like me. I wanted them to refer to me with affection and amusement–the way they described someone to me as “brilliant and completely unaware of this fact,” smiling as they said this. Around them, I’d fall over words, I’d not know what to say. Other adults–who were really just people to me–would find me charming and talkative, but around MP and MS, I would stutter and stumble over every syllable, sentence, and concept.

You see, SS’s parents were cool.

Really, really cool.

I -dreamed- about being as cool as they were when I grew up. I would fantasize about this the some way some people would fantasize about their wedding or college. In my little fantasies I would be an equal and I was just as cool as they were.

On Friday night, they were in town. Politely, they invited me to a little party they were having. This blew my mind.

The last time I was in Philadelphia, I tried, rather actively, to see them and it never quite worked out. After returning to Somerbridge, I emailed MS and he never responded. Being the bundle of insecurity I am, obviously, I concluded, they didn’t like me, or want to see me, or talk to me. These fevered visions of them sitting down in the morning to have coffee haunted me when I let my mind drift too far into thinking about how I didn’t see them. MS would say “So, m. called. She’s in town.” MP would frown–a formidable sight–and say something like “What’s she up to? Still a talentless, awkward hack?” And MS would nod. “I think I’ll just say we’re busy,” to which MP would nod and then comment about something wonderful in the paper.

Of course, I knew this isn’t really what happened, but I worry anyway.

On Friday night, I stood by their door, my pants wet and grit stained from the ride over.
MP let me in and explained a series of photographs they had on display. She sat down while people came to talk to her. MS sat in a chair and then stood, needing more of himself to tell us about his new book, about their research trip to Moscow, about a book he had just read. I just stood there, listening to everyone else, sitting and chatting, holding their wine glasses while I drank watered down limeaide.

It brought me back to being in high school, when I first met MP and MS and realized I wanted to be these people when I grew up. Friday night I realized I still want to be these people when I grow up. These wonderful, wild people with this wonderful, wild life. Much like in high school, I found myself unable to say anything interesting or contributive. For someone who likes to play at writer, I sure fail at communicating. I’m just -bad- at it. In my mind, I have little optimistic voices play over the New Yorker profile that will be done of me some day. In it, the writer will talk about how they were surprised when they met me: how someone who writes so brilliantly, who so cleanly evokes the spectrum of emotions, capturing a wonderful new reality of new ideas and humanistic understanding, can communicate so poorly when being asked questions. They’ll talk about how I ramble on senseless things, telling other people’s stories I can barely relate to the topic at hand. Breaking down into long awkward silences that are then punctuated by my inane explanations of what I had just been saying.

Other than being awkward, which I did a lot in high school, I listened, which I also did a lot in high school during the time I spent around MP, MS, and their friends. I listened. I listened to the way they both tell stories, the way they share information. How every word is not only meaningful, but usually brings a strong image. As they talked, I was able to, for a brief time, see the world from where they stood. I desperately wanted to be part of their world, a part of this thing and these lives that come together in ways I used to be a part of.

When I left, after a few late snippets of personal discussion and hugs, I biked home feeling strange in that way when you’re just not sure how you feel at all.

>Assignments, 01

>My whole life my father has given my brother and I assignments. For me, these are usually lists or paragraphs to write. Occasionally they have been to learn how to do things. When I was younger, my father made a list of things for me to learn. I have been working on them since then, focusing on different ones at different periods. I still can’t do three pullups in a row.

The most recent called for me to make a list of every place I’ve been. This is difficult, in one way, because it requires first deciding what “having been there” counts as, and how specific one should get.

At this point in my life, I’ve spent about a day in Amsterdam, between the handful of times I had layovers in the airport there. But that doesn’t count because I’ve never actually been out of the airport. There are other places I’ve been, that I say I’ve been, that I saw very little of, or small sections. Philosophically, I wouldn’t say I’ve been there, but in casual conversation I would say I was there. Then there’s specificity. I’ve been to South Korea. Do I say South Korea or do I list the places in South Korea I’ve been to? I’ve decided to make these personal decisions on a cast by case basis. I don’t count Hull, MA because we sat at the beach for an hour and then left. I do count Lowell, MA because we wandered around for a few hours. I’ll make a separate list of places I’ve biked sometime.

This list, annotated and without real dates, is in reverse chronological order, as best I can do. I hope my parents and friends can help me add dates at a later date. For places I’ve been to several times, I’ve tried to list it in reference to the first time I was there. There are likely gaps.

-Reykjavik, Iceland
-Highland, MD
-New York City, NY
-Lowell, MA
-Salem, MA
-New Hope, PA
-Songtan, South Korea
-Seoul, South Korea
-Suwon, South Korea
-Los Angeles, CA
-Santa Clara, CA
-Marin, CA
-Medford, OR
-Yelm, WA
-Salt Lake City, UT
-Louisville, KY
-Cambridge, MA
-Somerville, MA
-Chicago, IL
-Berlin, PA
-Irkusk, Russia
-Ulaan Ude, Buryat, Russia
-Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
-Saen Shed, Mongolia
-Hohhot, IMAR, China
-Beijing, China
-Phoenixville, PA
-Pickney, MI
-Clarkdale, AZ
-Kent, OH
-Salzburg, Austria
-Zagreb, Croatia
-Wein, Austria
-Various places around the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas, MI
-Filey, UK
-Providence, RI
-Valatie, NY
-Boston, MA
-Pittsburgh, PA
-Sedona, AZ
-Phoenix, AZ
-Baltimore, MD
-Ft. Lauderdale, FL
-Washington, DC
-Space Camp and Space Academy, FL and AL
-Williamsburg, VA
-Savannah, GA
-Poconos, PA


There’s a jumble before this. Before these were years that included driving out to Dillon, Colorado, trips to North Carolina, which set up going during Spring Break at school, trips to Florida, which also set up going there for Spring Break. We went to New Hampshire, my family that is. I don’t remember the cities. My aunt lived in Riverton, NJ and I’ve been there countless times. I visited another aunt in Punxsutawney, PA once. I’ve skipped things, like the time Dad took us to the Baltimore Aquarium when we were really little. The trip to Boston, and the trip to DC, we took as a family for just the evening. We’ve been to Brigantine, NJ for family reunions. I grew up in Philadelphia.

There are other things I didn’t know what to do with. There were a lot of places I visited for a few hours when driving around the US. I only counted the ones I stayed at for at least a day. I don’t know what to do about the Transsiberian, but I feel as though it needs to be mentioned. There was the drive I took around Arkhangai and Overhungai with the M.Y.U.C. psych department in the summer of ’08.

There are upcoming trips. New London, CT this May for a wedding. Seattle, WA this June for another. I haven’t really been to either of them before. There’s the vast list of places I want to go and the equally intimidating list of places I want to go back to.

Whenever searching my memory for places I’ve been, I found myself unable to remember factual details of the trips. I can’t list itineraries, what happened when. I could not draw a time line. Instead, I remember things that happened in no particular order–being the volunteer in a fake trial in Williamburg, walking around in that tricorner hat I begged my parents for. Walking down the steps of the stone walls in Savannah. Wandering through Baltimore, JHU’s campus, at the exact same time AL and KG were there. I remember driving up on Salt Lake City and how like a flower it bloomed. I remember outrunning a storm in Punxsutawney and hiding with my grandfather from the rain at his house in Florida.

I remember getting out of my car in Oregon, walking to the river, and falling in love.

My father says try to stay in the present, even as you recall the past. I don’t think I’m lost, I don’t feel lost, but right now all I can think of is that river.

>Wimp

>I am a wimp.

Saying this always gets interesting responses from my friends. I say it out of a mix of self-deprecating humor and honesty. I -am- a wimp. I apply this terminology to different situations.

“I’m a spice wimp.”

“It’s cold and I’m a wimp.”

“I bike -super- slow right now because the roads are icy and I’m a wimp.”

There are innumerable situations in my life during which I look around myself and can only mumble out what feels like an obvious truth: I am a wimp.

This is, of course, not true. Not entirely. I am a wimp in comparison to my friends. At university my friends, my beautiful friends, with their ability to eat foods spiced for Indians, would devour food that merely tasting caused tears to well up in my eyes. They would move quickly across the ground in the winter, making their way across ice. In Korea, my friends could drink more than I could, ate things I couldn’t bring myself to try. They could -stand- longer than I could. Since moving here, everything about my friends feels so much more than me. I slowly skid, nervously, over the hard packed snow, dodging patches of ice and walking my bike while my friends fearlessly pedal forward. BT recently asked me if I wanted to go hiking sometime, something I would love to do, but BT is -so- hardcore. He hikes up mountains in winter. He biked up Mount Washington. I concede that while I would like to, I can’t exactly keep up. When I walk across the ice and one of my feet slip, when I almost fall but stop, when my bike shakes and skids my body goes cold and then a rush of warmth starts somewhere in my stomach and uncomfortably spreads across me making me cringe and shake.

As a child, I fell a lot in traumatic ways. This instilled a fear in me that ruled my life, that dictated how I acted reaching down from my root desires to seemingly inconsequential details. I would cry as my parents tried to get me to ride a roller coaster. I cried at the mere prospect of going skiing. Hiking off a clearly defined train made me grab for someone’s hand. When I would wake up in the middle of the night, if it was really dark, I would scream. Over the years, my fear, how wimpy I am, has transitioned from affecting every aspect of my life to mostly managing the large decisions and overall driving forces. I ride, and enjoy, roller coasters now. I still creep along ice, gritting my teeth and hoping I don’t fall.

Whenever I bike with my friends, I feel like a wimp. MH and MM biked across Long Island into NYC in one day. I’ve met a bunch of people who did the Seattle to Portland ride (two-hundred miles) in a day. My friends climb hills and zoo ahead. They lean down into their drop handles and let themselves fall.

I lightly press my breaks, controlling my fall.

Biking home the other night, I climbed Spring Hill. The roads were clear enough, and it was late so the road was empty. But I was climbing. My front gears are stuck in their hardest position, so I knocked the back gear as low as I could without rubbing the chain against the derailleur. Pushing, slowly, wavering my way up the hill. It wasn’t as hard as it was the first time I ever tried to go up Spring Hill, but it wasn’t the easiest. My muscles ran out of oxygen and lactic acid built up as, struggling for energy, as aerobic processes became anaerobic. My lungs burned from the cold air that didn’t seem to do anything. At the top, I crawled over the last ridge where I turn off the main street onto my street.

After I carried my bike up the stairs, I got ready for bed. Looking in the mirror, I though “this is what a wimp looks like.”

>Poe

>When someone is alive, we call the day they were born their birthday. After they die, once years have passed and the people who knew them are all dead as well, we call it the anniversary of their birth. On the anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe’s birth, fans pay homage at his grave. There was one fan in particular who, for sixty years, would leave three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac where Mr. Poe is buried.

However, this tradition appears to be over.

At some point in time, man came forward and told people he was the “Poe Toaster.” He goes on to say that it was something conceived of as a marketing strategy, a promotional ideal. Or at least, it started out that way.

According to the Fox News article, some people around the Poe House arranged for the Poe Toaster the first year, and since this time someone -became- the Poe Toaster in the same way a victim becomes a superhero–it becomes necessary, as far as they see it, to become something that is a work of fiction.

When the TSA added their full body scanners, someone I know told me a story about a professor they had. Their professor, they told me, was visiting the USSR, hanging out with a Soviet mathematician. When the professor left, they smuggled a manuscript–Kepler, or something Greek–out of the USSR. They took a microfilm and wrapped it around their thigh.

D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane, stole two hundred thousand dollars, and then jumped out of the plane over the stretch of land between Seattle and Portland. He has never successfully been identified. Several people have claimed to be Dan Cooper.

These stories add something to our world. The unknown hijacker, the daring academic, the mysterious visitor are all part of a strip that lies between reality and fantasy. They give our world unexplained depth. They give us wonder and, in a sense, they give us hope.

As a culture, we love these stories because they tell us that there is more to the world than we see, that there is more than is easily explained, and that normal people can do extraordinary things. Not even just that–but that these crazy things we read about and hear about can be perpetrated by anyone, a normal seeming person who might be your neighbor, your coworker, or your friend.

And that’s pretty great.

>Cake

>I made my first vegan cake last summer. I was visiting pika, an “ongoing experiment in cooperative living” supported by MIT. That is to say, officially, it is MIT student housing. Friends of mine who lived there were cooking dinner and invited me along. We made a cake, a six minute chocolate vegan cake. The recipe, I think, is from Moosewood. It wasn’t a very fancy cake. It wasn’t hard. It wasn’t advertised as vegan, it simply was a chocolate cake. It just so happened that it didn’t call for eggs or butter or milk. The chocolate was easy to handle, the cocoa powder was vegan, finding that isn’t especially difficult. Six minute chocolate cake is so easy, KM once made it all by himself. He’d never made a cake before.

Sometime after my first vegan cake encounter I landed myself in a Columbia University dorm for a week. Somewhere in there, I learned that the dorm had a functioning kitchen in the basement–an experience nonexistent in my dorm experiences. Obviously, this meant we needed to bake a cake.

What ensued was some interpersonal angst over what kind of cake we should make–the ingredients necessary for a carrot cake recipe we had were too ridiculous to procure–and help from a local whose parents were kind enough to lend us mixing bowls, spoons, and other kitchen parts, we set down to make a cake. The six minute chocolate cake recipe came out, except this time we didn’t use chocolate. We also didn’t use vinegar.

Six minute chocolate cake works because it has vinegar and baking soda in it. After everything else is mixed together, the vinegar is added and swirled around. The reaction, that same one that I still delight in every time, makes the cake fluffy. Vinegar also helps hold everything together. I don’t know how, but according to the internet, it works. I’ve used it in cookies since reading about that, and it seemed okay. Without vinegar, and with no one looking, I scoured around the kitchen hoping. Instead, I found some lemon juice. I shrugged, poured it in, and hoped for the best. To compensate for this, I poured in an extra half-cup of oil. It allowed me to finish up the container, rather than leaving a stray half-cup of oil floating around Columbia’s campus. It was such a scaled up version of the recipe, I hardly thought it mattered. We (vegan) iced the cake and put some strawberries in a stylized Debian Swirl.


I tried.

The cake was devoured. The vegans, as they always do, lit up upon being told that the cake was vegan. The non-vegans didn’t ask, and only afterwards expressed surprise, and sometimes disbelief, that the cake contained no eggs.

To this day, AP claims it’s one of the best cakes he’s ever had. He had had a lot of beer that night, but I am still pleased with this. Whenever I make a cake, he slips in that I should just make one like I did that night in New York.

Iceland brought more adventures in cake baking. I made the first non-vegan cake I’d baked in months. It was CC’s birthday, and MZ, her husband, really wanted her to have a cake. An angel food cake. He and I took turns beating the egg whites stiff. The flour there, a little grainer, a little more flavorful than flour here, made a good basis. The cake had collapsed by the time people ate it, but it still seemed good. The vegans, some six of the group, lamented the loss of a cake eating opportunity, but knew there’d be future cake. Since we had acquired a box egg replacer (which as far as I can tell is potato starch, tapioca starch, and some other things that are preservatives or decaking powders or something), we decided to experiment.

Up until this point, every vegan cake I made was based on the Six Minute Chocolate Cake recipe. It’s a great recipe, but I lamented–and still do–the loss of all the lovely cakes I used to make. Egg replacer claims you can beat it stiff, but until Iceland I had never actually had a box to experiment with. My life has been, generally, devoid of things like sponge cakes and lady fingers, pound cake and macarons. Those little almond squares. Cheesecake. All of those things I used to spend hours trying, and failing, to make perfect, whipping and beating, mixing and stirring, were gone. So, I put the egg replacer to a test.

I made a regular cake recipe, using egg replacer instead of eggs.

Unlike a lot of other amateur vegan bakers I know, I rarely look for vegan recipes. I usually look for recipes I love, recipes I grew up with, and try to change, tweak, them into a vegan equivalent. With this supposedly magical egg replacer–and I was skeptical, I mean, it’s just starch–I could try an older recipe I knew.

Of course, this meant Julia Child.

Recipes I make don’t really all come from Julia Child. Some are family recipes. I first learned to cook using Chocolatier magazine, Captain Cook’s Cook Book (for kids!), a collection of recipes from World War II, and the Fannie Farmer Cook Book. While those books (well, not Chocolatier magazine) set me up for being able to cook meals at home, Julia Child has so far not let me down when it comes to wowing my friends and impressing people with the delicious magical taste of French cooking and lots of fats.

I think I double or tripled the base recipe. I almost never make a basic recipe anymore.

½ cup of rapeseed (canola) oil
1 ¼ cups of sugar
3 egg replacer eggs
2 tsp Vanilla
1 cup coconut milk
3 tsp baking powder
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt

Mix. Bake at baking temperature (350 or “about 175 on the dial”) for 30-40 minutes. The decision to use coconut milk instead of almond or soy milk was based in fats. The original recipe calls for whole milk, specifically whole milk. Soy milk or almond milk didn’t seem quite heavy enough. The cake was crumbly and delicious.

Picture 1, from This Is Chris.Com. Our cake looked something like that. But it was bigger. And not as evenly iced.

Picture 2, Picture 3, Picture 4, and Picture 5, by Asheesh Laroia, and are licensed CC-BY-SA

>Bicycle, 05

>It was after midnight and negative sixteen Celsius. I sang “I’m So Tired” to AL. He pedaled next to me. Slowly, cautiously, around the ice and snow.

We passed a man walking a dog. He looked at us and began to sing too.

He was pretty good. We were in tune.