What I Did on My Summer Vacation, 2018 edition

Some of you might know this already, and maybe a lot of you don’t. Blogging is actually hard.

It’s especially hard for writers like me, who have periods of creativity and then periods of drought. (I actually think of it less like a drought and more like living life, priming the pump, re-filling my stores.) I’m also an Aries sun sign blessed with Virgo SOMEwhere in my chart, which means I get excited about my projects, organize the hell out of them, start them, and then get tired. I’m also a Scorpio rising, which means a lot of my projects stay private, so no one ever knows what the fuck I’m doing.

I digress. What I was saying: blogging is hard for writers like me, who started out writing so many years ago with notebook paper and pen. Who carried notebooks and binders around with them everywhere so whenever they had an extra minute or an idea, they could sit and physically write everything down.

I used to be a prolific writer. Poems used to come easily, and prose even more so. The real work was in the revision, and I did it, but not with so much attention. Because I was also busy being young and living and not understanding that revision is not only about what’s on the page — it’s also about reading the self and understanding what it’s trying to say to you. These days, I sit with poems in their revision phase for months at a time. Sometimes years. I think about intent. I think about voice. I think about character. Who is the voice that is speaking through me? Why are they speaking through me? Is it me? Is it someone else? What do they want? (What do I want?) How are they saying it? What matters about how they say it?

So anyway. I forget where I was going with this. Oh yes. My point: blogging is hard for me. When I’m writing for the page, I do not (and cannot) blog. When I am not able to write for the page for whatever reason, I blog instead. And when I cannot do either, I live. I try to stay present, in the present.

This summer, I’ve been doing a little bit of everything. I went on my first-ever writing residency in Knoxville, Tennessee. I stayed at Sundress Academy for the Arts’ Firefly Farms, caring for a dear donkey named Jayne, a sass-machine goat named Munchma, tons of sheep, and some pesky (but entirely relatable) chickens. And when I wasn’t throwing down bales of hay or hand-feeding Jayne treats, I was reading and writing. I wrote pages and pages of prose about food and family and memory and relationships and everything in between. I wrote more poems than I’ve written in the past year. And I’m excited. I finally feel like my full and actual writer self again.

***

M and I moved to a new place. It’s a townhouse in the same neighborhood we’ve been in for the past 6 or 7 years. We weren’t expecting to move, but when we made the decision to do it, it felt like exactly the right thing to do. We hit hiccups here and there, and there was sweat and there were tears, but I’ll tell you one thing: if you can, hire movers. I can’t tell you what joy I had watching two young college-aged men efficiently carry all our furniture and all our heavy boxes out of our old apartment and into our new place. If you can afford it, it’s well worth it, even if you can only afford to hire them to move your heavy stuff. I swear to you. Worth. All. The. Pennies.

***
We also took a spontaneous trip to Seattle to see Pearl Jam. I came home from work one night, and M said, “So…you want to go to Seattle tomorrow? To see Pearl Jam?” It’s been a dream of M’s to see Pearl Jam in their hometown, so we did it. We spent 36 hours in my favorite city, and we didn’t get to see or do much outside of waiting in a merch table line for 4 hours, or actually watching Pearl Jam perform a truly epic 3.5 hour show, or getting within an arm’s length of Eddie Vedder.

But we did have some delicious and unexpectedly comforting noodles though. I still think about them.

***
What else did I do this summer? I got a new job. At a bakery.

Do you remember that scene from Office Space? The one at the end when Ron Livingston’s character is finally free of his cubicle job, and he’s relishing in his new job as a construction worker? That moment when he stops shoveling for a minute, smiles at the sunshine, takes in a deep breath of fresh air, and finally looks content?

That’s me these days. It’s not easy work, and some days I come home with my body aching and cramping in places I didn’t know could ache and cramp. Sometimes I find gigantic bruises on my legs that I don’t remember getting, but then I vaguely remember that something happened and it hurt a lot, but I kept moving and then I forgot about it. (Kind of like life.)

But I learn something new every day. How to make neat-edged cookies. How to wrap treats and box them neatly. Remembering complicated orders. How to work quickly without fucking up, which I am not always successful at, but I’m learning. All of these are little things that, if you’ve never worked in the service industry, you take for granted.

(Also, an aside: tip your servers. Always. At least 20%. If there is an option to tip (do you see a tip jar? when you pay with your card, does it give you the option to tip? etc.), always do it. The people who serve you bust their asses every fucking day and they don’t get paid enough to do it with the amount of patience and grace that they do. Believe me. Okay, stepping off my soap box now.)

So anyway. I’m doing something completely new and different. It’s hard work, but I like it. It’s teaching me a lot in terms of tangible skills, but also more important things about truly and actually caring for the self physically. I’ve learned so much over the years about emotional and psychological self-care, but physical self-care has come as an after-thought. This new work is forcing me to pay attention to my body and listen to it. If I don’t, I literally cannot do the work.

***

What’s ahead? I don’t know yet. I’m working on some things. After the heat and excitement and ever-changing days of summer, I’ll be shifting my attention to writing projects outside the blog for awhile. Friday Bites will not be making its regularly scheduled appearances, but I’ll still be writing about cooking and baking and sharing my home creations on the blog. Scary movie season is upon us (although it’s really year-round for me), so I might jump back into my Days of Horror series soon.

The name of the game these days is staying open and flexible, working with what I have, and, as always, staying grounded amidst the vast fields of uncertainty that life is made of. Stay tuned.

An Ode to Anthony Bourdain (feat. Banana-Rum Icebox Cake)

I’ve started this post over and over. A lot has happened in the past month and a half. I got married. I went on an epic mini-honeymoon road trip. We had a second reception in my hometown, right next door to my high school’s prom. I couldn’t decide on whether I wanted to write about my wedding cake, or make a top 5 list of the things we ate on our honeymoon, or whether I should just steam ahead and write about what I was cooking.

And then Anthony Bourdain died.

***
I always forget how torturous baking can be in the summer in Indiana, whether or not you have air conditioning. No matter what you do, the oven turns the entire apartment into a sweatbox. There’s an icebox cake cookbook that I’ve been checking out of the library for the past couple years, but I’ve never made any of the recipes.

This year, I’m determined. There are so many good options. A Milk Dud cake. A black pepper rum cake. Peanut butter cup cake. Lavender-blueberry.

What I decided on: banana-rum cake.

***
I’ve loved Anthony Bourdain for a very long time. Over the past few years (that, interestingly enough, coincide with the years I spent at my last job), I lost track of him. I think part of me had given up on him. I was tired of seeing and hearing about the world through the lens of a snarky white guy. I was disappointed with his choices to do things like hang out with Ted Nugent. I was tired of the “bad boy” thing, of the Hunter S. Thompson-inspired aesthetic thing. Of all the testosterone and macho stuff.

In the last few months, I began following him and his girlfriend Asia Argento more closely on Instagram. I watched as he vocally and strongly supported Asia, particularly at the Cannes Film Festival when she publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her. I watched as he supported the #MeToo movement, and modeled what it looked like to be a self-reflective man who realizes that he’s been contributing to rape culture. He asked himself why the women in his life didn’t feel comfortable enough to come to him with their stories of assault? He asked himself not only what he did, but what did he let happen? What did he let the men around him get away with?

***
The technically-late-spring weather here has been erratic. One week, it’s unbearably humid, sunny, and in the mid-90s. The next week, it’s overcast, humid-ish, stormy, and in the low to mid-80s (which feels a whole lot better than a humid 95 degrees, trust me).

This week is a stormy one, which means it’s cool enough for me to cook. So I started to caramelize bananas.

The bananas had been ripening on the counter for the past week or so, so they had lots of brown spots. I sliced up six of them, then threw them into a large sauce pan that had a nice chunk of nearly-browned butter in it.

Yes, I have a shitty red, plastic cutting board that has been with me for the past 10 years. I want to get rid of it, but I also love it?

Yes, I have a shitty red, plastic cutting board that has been with me for the past 10 years. I want to get rid of it, but I also love it?

As soon as the bananas hit the butter, the sweetest and best smell filled the air. I love the smell of browning butter and I love the smell of bananas. I didn’t know that, together, they make a knee-buckling aroma that I would gladly swaddle myself in for the rest of time.

After letting the bananas soften up a bit, I put in some brown sugar, a healthy glug of spiced rum, and a pinch of salt. Caramelizing things is the best thing.  

***
It feels important for me to tell you that the day Anthony died, I made boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner. I also made an avocado cream out of yogurt and spices (and avocado), and a lime sour cream made with lime zest and spices. I ate the mac and cheese along side my veggie burrito leftovers, and topped them both with that lime sour cream.

I took my weird, oddly comforting meal to the living room and ate it while I watched the Manila episode of Parts Unknown. I had never seen it before.

At the beginning of the episode in a voiceover, Anthony says, “Filipinos are, for reasons I have yet to figure out, probably the most giving of all people on the planet.”

I began crying into my weird sour cream and mac-and-cheese dinner, and I didn’t stop for the entire episode.

***
Next: the pudding. I threw sugar, cornstarch, salt, whole milk and heavy cream into a saucepan, whisked them all together, and then whisked an egg in. Then I turned the stove to medium-high and whisked the mixture constantly.

Banana Rum_3.jpg

While doing all this, I listened to Anthony Bourdain’s 2011 interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. He must have recently done the Ted Nugent episode, because he talked a little bit about it. About how, in all his travels, you can always find something in common with someone, no matter how different your worldviews are. Those common things are usually food and drink. He talked about how he had argued with Nugent and gotten him to agree that Michelle Obama’s lunch meal program was a good thing.

Three years ago, in a pre-45 world, I would have written this whole thing off. I would have said (and did say) that it wasn’t enough. Ted Nugent is a pretty disgusting human being, and he’s said some unconscionable things.

As it stands, it’s still not enough. But I also wonder, with the world we live in today, would Anthony have done anything differently in the same situation? Would he still have agreed to do the segment? Would he have leaned harder into difficult conversations? Would he have felt an obligation to try to straighten out Nugent, white dude to white dude? Would he have felt there was something at stake?

***
After the pudding thickened and began to bubble, I did a final frantic 45 seconds of vigorous whisking and then took it off the heat. I mixed in another healthy glug of rum, some butter, and vanilla extract.  I set it aside to cool a bit, next to my cooling-to-room-temp caramelized bananas. (My room temp was probably 83 degrees, so *shrugs*. Was that the temperature the cookbook authors had in mind? Probably not, but that’s how shit goes in my house.)

***
The day Anthony died, a friend sent me a New Yorker piece written by Helen Rosner. It’s a beautiful piece, and one of the best ones written in memory of him.

In it, she outlines exactly why I gave up on Anthony all those years ago:

“I asked him, point blank, if he considered himself a feminist. His answer was long and circuitous, what I’d come to think of as classic Bourdain: more of a story than a statement, eminently quotable, never quite landing on the reveal. He talked about his sympathy for the plight of women and gay men, his formative years as a student at Vassar, his forceful resentment of the “bro food” movement with which he remained entwined, and his unwavering support for reproductive rights. “I don’t know if that makes me a feminist,” he said. “It makes me a New Yorker. Doesn’t it?”
— Helen Rosner

Honestly, Tony. What’s so hard about admitting to being a feminist? For all his “bad boy” stuff, he could sure avoid actually answering a question.

***
After chilling my mixing bowl and whisk attachment in the freezer for about 10 minutes, I took them out, loaded them into my stand mixer and poured in a whole bunch of heavy cream. I whisked that creamy stuff at a medium speed until it just started to thicken, at which point I threw in another healthy glug of rum, some powdered sugar, and some vanilla extract. I turned the stand mixer up to a medium-high speed and meant to whip the cream until it formed stiff peaks. I’m pretty sure I overmixed it a hair, but it still tasted amazing.

And then: construction.

Banana Rum_5.jpg

***
The day Anthony died, I read so many Twitter and Instagram tributes, and so many from Black folks and people of color and women. They talked about how he didn’t exoticize or appropriate their culture. How he turned the cameras on even the “ugly” things, like politics, race, culture. About how he never presumed to know more than the people who cooked for him. How he never said ‘no’ to any dish. How, when he visited our home countries, we felt seen and validated.

And so often, more than I was expecting, he was described as “kind.”

***
So I took my brightly colored 8x8 baking dish and poured in a generous layer of boozy pudding, then lay some graham crackers on top.

Then came a layer of caramelized bananas. Then a layer of pudding. Then graham crackers. Then bananas again.

Banana Rum_7.JPG

I should have stopped there because the dish was full to the top. But I went against my instincts. I poured more pudding on top. It began to spill out the sides a bit, but I carried on. I plopped my slightly-overmixed boozy whipped cream on top, and that’s when things started to get real messy. As the laws of displacement began to the place (that’s the official scientific name for it, right?), pudding started to dribble over the walls of the dish and all over my kitchen table.

Before putting saran wrap over the top, I set the baking dish precariously inside a slightly larger one, so that the pudding that oozed out would pool somewhere that wasn’t all over the top shelf of my refrigerator.

Banana Rum_9.jpg

***

On the morning that Tony died, I took out my copy of A Cook’s Tour. It’s an old edition, and it’s dog-eared and well-worn. I flipped to the passage where he wrote about coming to the devastating realization of the impact of the Vietnam War on the country that he was clearly falling in love with. He wrote about the loathing he felt for the U.S. and its mindless destruction, and the loathing he felt at himself for his complicity in the U.S.’s actions and his privilege as an American tourist in Vietnam. I remembered how I felt when I read that passage. How he had put words to all the anger and helplessness and rage I felt when I had traveled to Thailand. When I read A Cook’s Tour, I finally felt like I wasn’t alone. That I wasn’t asking too much by wanting to see everything and acknowledge everything when I traveled or read about travel or watched someone travel somewhere. It wasn’t too much to ask to see the whole damn picture. It was okay to have complicated feelings and still see the world, engage with it.

Tony wasn’t perfect. He has said several things over the years that I still cringe thinking about. But he was human, in the best possible way. Which means that in these past three or so years while I was busy giving up on him, he was evolving as a person. While I wasn’t paying attention, he became a person I could stand behind again, look up to.  

***
After 24 hours, the banana-rum icebox cake was ready. And good lord, is it boozy and incredibly delicious. I eat a piece and feel a warmth in my chest, like I’ve just done a shot of bourbon in a Wild West saloon. Sweet, but not too sweet. So much booze. It’s the perfect treat for these hot days.

Banana Rum_10.jpg

***
I love the end of Helen Rosner’s article. She wrote:

“The last time I saw Bourdain was a few months ago, at a party in New York, for one of the books released by his imprint at the publishing house Ecco—of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight. At the bar, where I’d just picked up my drink, he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when you asked me if I was a feminist, and I was afraid to say yes?” he said, in that growling, companionable voice. “Write this down: I’m a fuckin’ feminist.”
— Helen Rosner

***
The things that I have made in honor of Tony in the past week, whether inadvertently or purposefully, have been incredibly strange. The Annie’s boxed mac and cheese with lime sour cream. This banana-rum icebox cake. He’s not particularly known for being a desert kind of guy. I’d like to think that he’d appreciate all the booze in it. I know I do.

Banana Rum_11.jpg

***
In a way, Anthony ended up modeling my ideal of human behavior. He was imperfect, flawed in so many ways. But he was self-reflective. He looked inward without flinching and with nuance. He held himself accountable. He spoke out about things that matter. He was endlessly curious, asking questions and really listening to the answers.  He traveled just to travel, but he also traveled for the people. To let them tell their stories. To show his viewers that they shouldn’t be afraid of the world, to pay attention to people and their food. To always say ‘yes’ to whatever is put in front of you.

***
I should end there. I'll leave you with this interview that Anthony did with Fast Company. I'm 90% sure that the answers he gives them are not what they're looking for. Their questions want quick, superficial, easy responses that they can turn into sound-bytes. His answers are long, reflective, and incredibly deep. That is, I think, the essence of Anthony. To never give an easy answer, to always take in the bigger picture. To examine not only that we're here, but to look back with nuance at how we got here.

Rest well, Tony. Thank you for everything.


This Week's Recipe:

My Top 5 In-No-Particular-Order Wedding Rom-Coms

This Friday Bites has nothing to do with food, but everything to do with what is currently occupying all my energy these days: weddings. By the time you read this, I will be in Vegas, bachelorette partying in a pool that is also a shark tank (?!) with my very best friends in the whole universe. I'll be a little over 24 hours away from marrying the love of my life, after being together for 9+ years. (WHAT?!) It's an exciting time, and it's also one that's full of details, timelines, obsessing over things like wedding veils, travel steamers, and my "dream" nails.

In the middle of all of the wedding planning I’ve been doing over the past couple weeks, one of my besties texted me to ask what my favorite wedding rom-coms were. I haven’t consciously been keeping a mental list of my favorite wedding rom-coms, but with ZERO hesitation, I listed off my top 5.

And so, the inspiration for this non-traditional edition of Friday Bites: my favorite wedding rom-coms, in no particular order.

***
27 Dresses

I realize that by putting 27 Dresses as the first in this no-particular-order list, I may lose a lot of you, and I don’t care. I love this movie. Katherine Heigl plays a woman who has been a bridesmaid an obscene amount of times (27 times, to be exact) and unironically loves weddings. James Marsden plays a cranky, cynical journalist who is stuck writing up fancy wedding announcements for a national newspaper. Can you even imagine the shenanigans these two get into?

Sure, this one is full of un-feminist tropes: the woman who spends her life caring for others and always putting herself last, and she isn’t bitter about it (mostly). The curmudgeonly dude who doesn’t believe in marriage, blah blah blah. Intellectually, I know it’s all wrong and silly and stupid. But goddammit, when Judy Greer’s character slaps Katherine Heigl in the face after Katherine whispers after her dreamboat boss (played by Ed Burns), “I love you, too,” it makes me laugh every time. And the “Bennie and the Jets” scene? Forget it. Have fun with your eye-rolling, I’m going to be over here singing about electric boobs with Katherine and James.

***
The Wedding Date

This one…this one is pretty terrible, I’ll admit it. Debra Messing plays a woman who hires a male escort as her date to her sister’s wedding and help her brave a minefield of ex-boyfriend sightings and fucked up family dynamics. Dermot Mulroney plays the male escort, who’s full of charm (obviously), wisdom, and romantic one-liners.

I don’t know what it is about this movie that technically makes it fall flat or why I continue to love it so much in spite of that. I just want Debra Messing’s character to blossom and be her best self. I want her to admit her love of Air Supply and belt out “All Out Of Love.” I want to believe in the chemistry between Debra and Dermot. I want to believe the dreamy one-liners. This one misses the mark in a lot of ways, but I kind of don’t care. I love Debra and I love Dermot, and this movie has enough funny moments to keep it as one of my fave rom-coms.

***
My Best Friend’s Wedding

If you haven’t already watched this movie by now, I can’t help you.

Just kidding. But honestly, this one is so good.

Julia Roberts plays a food critic (a-HA! There IS food in this edition of Friday Bites after all!) whose best friend, Dermot Mulroney, is a handsome sports writer. A million years ago, they made a pact to marry each other if they hadn’t found love by a certain age. On Julia Roberts’ pact birthday, Dermot tells her that he’s found the love of his life and they’re getting married. Julia realizes she loves Dermot, and the rest of the movie is dedicated to Julia plotting to destroy her best friend’s relationship. This movie has everything: Karaoke! Plotting and scheming! Devastating good looks! A gay best friend! Julia Roberts’ laugh! A bread truck car chase scene! Slow dancing! Etc.

This was one of the first rom-coms I loved and watched over and over again, and I’m not sorry about it. It’s also one of the few rom-coms whose characters (and audience!) don’t always get the ending they want, but the one they need. I’ve always loved that about this one. And also, this was the world’s introduction to Dermot Mulroney, and I don’t think the world was ever the same. Am I right? I’m totally right.

***
Wedding Crashers

This might be surprising, but it’s hard for me to pass up a Vince Vaughn movie. Swingers? Love it. Four Christmases? I might hesitate, but I’ll watch it. (I actually don’t remember this movie all that much, if I’m being honest.) The Break-Up? One of my favorite movies EVER. Wedding Crashers? I will say YES to this movie every time.

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play two D.C. lawyers who spend their free time crashing weddings and sleeping with women. One weekend, they crash the holy grail of weddings (a politician’s family!) someone falls in love, Will Ferrell makes an appearance, Vince Vaughn is Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson is charming, Bradley Cooper plays a convincing DUDE, Rachel Adams plays sweet and uncertain really well, some questionable things are said and done, etc.

It’s a rom-com with enough silliness and raunchiness for the dudes (I say ‘dudes’ as a non-gender-specific aesthetic. I hope you know what I mean) among us, and enough sweetness and romance for the sensitive hearts. I have a little bit of both in me, and Wedding Crashers strikes the balance. It definitely has its problems, but whenever I just need to have a good, ridiculous laugh, Wedding Crashers is it.

***
Bend It Like Beckham

So, technically, Bend it Like Beckham is not a wedding movie. But it has a wedding IN it, and that’s good enough for me.

Parminder Nagra plays an Indian girl in Britain who idolizes David Beckham and dreams about playing football (or “soccer” for all the ‘mericans reading this) professionally. The dream begins to come true when she meets Kiera Knightly, who invites her to try out for a girls’ team coached by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. She makes the team, but has to walk a tightrope between her obligations to family, their expectations for her future, and her own goals and dreams.

I fucking. love. this. movie. I loved this movie when it first came out because it starred Indian women, and even though my own culture and theirs are vastly different, it still felt like I saw myself on the screen. A fellow brown girl trying to live up to her family’s expectations but wanting to pursue a path that might disappoint them. Growing up in a culture where family bonds and obligations are strong and inescapable. And crushing on a white guy who kind of doesn’t get it, but kind of does, and is cute, so why not?

Honestly, the story of my life.

***
Bridesmaids

Last but certainly not least.

Kristen Wiig, a failed baker (a-HA! More food!), plays best friend and maid of honor to Maya Rudolph, who just got engaged. The whole movie is the most hilarious shenanigans: Kristen Wiig’s character is honestly all of us, as she tries to do all the things a maid of honor does, but keeps getting outshined by Rose Byrne’s character, a snooty rich woman who is clearly competing for the title of best friend and maid of honor.

This movie is everything: it’s about best friends, it’s about making new friends. It’s about dancing to your favorite ‘90s jams with your bestie whenever and wherever. It’s a cautionary tale about eating rare meat and then getting horrific diarrhea in a fancy bridal shop after. It’s about how well Jon Hamm plays a douchebag. It’s about finding your footing and direction when you’re feeling uncertain about your place in the world. It’s about knowing the exact ratios of ingredients to make exactly ONE cupcake. It’s about finding your voice and being confident in it. It’s about breaking old patterns and receiving the love that the world brings to you.

***

WELL! I’m getting married tomorrow, and then I’m going off the grid for a bit, so no Friday Bites next week. I’ll be back the week after, and I will talk about all the food I ate (what if I dedicated a whole post to my wedding cake?! or the second reception we're having in my hometown?! or our reception meal?!), and I'll talk all about what's coming next.

The Plague, Birthday Donuts, and Labors of Love

So, here’s what happened: I woke up on my second to last day in Nevada with my throat on fire. It was as if some kind of tiny rat had crawled into my sinuses and used the inside of my face as its clawing bag. Everything inside my face felt swollen.

For the last two days of my visit, I was on the maximum dosage of DayQuil and NyQuil, just so I could make it through the day without collapsing into a heap somewhere and screaming for someone to just rip my sinuses out. And when I traveled back to Indiana, I was heavily dosed on DayQuil and kept my fingers crossed that my sinuses were clear enough to keep my eardrums from exploding.

When I finally got home, all I did for the rest of the week was sleep, eat, and watch television. That’s how you know I’m actually sick: my body forces me to do nothing but sit around and watch my favorite romantic comedies, guilt-free. I guess you could call my love of romantic comedies a guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel guilty about them.

I dragged myself out of bed for a wedding dress fitting that first Saturday after I’d come home, and I barely made it through. I felt entirely like shit, a cough had added itself to my symptoms, and I couldn’t even muster up excitement for my dress.  Afterward, I came home, changed into sweats, and fell asleep on the couch for 4 hours.

***
Finally, I went to urgent care after another few days of feeling like shit, and after M and my mom bugged me repeatedly to go get checked out. The doctor put me on an exciting 14-day rotation of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and codeine cough syrup.

I finished up my cycle of antibiotics two weeks ago, and I finally, FINALLY feel 100% like myself again.

***
So, being ridiculously sick for almost 3 weeks has meant no Friday Bites (though, believe me, I tried to write them). It’s meant no writing at all. I’ve been cooking, but haven’t had the wits about me to document my dishes properly.

It also means that instead of spending my post-plague time preparing action-packed Friday Bites posts, I’ve been wedding planning instead. Since emerging from my plague-cocoon, I’ve been doing almost nothing but wedding planning and cooking.

More on weddings in my next post.

For now, I’m celebrating chocolate. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.

And birthdays. And good friends. And chocolate.

***
I am not saying anything new by saying that baking is a labor of love. I bake for the people in my life that I love the most — my family, M, my friends. I used to be shy about sharing my baking with friends because I was afraid that whatever I made wasn’t good enough. I don’t know at what point that changed.

When I bake, I am thinking of the person for whom I am laboring, whether they are near or far. My fondness for each person goes into the whisking, the kneading, the mixing, the scooping, the shaping, the cooling, the sprinkling, the glazing. It probably also goes without saying that I don’t bake for just anybody.

One of my very closest friends’ birthdays is 3 days after mine. She’s a fellow Aries, and she is one of the best people I know. For her birthday this year, I made Joy the Baker’s double chocolate cake donuts.

***
When I discovered I could bake donuts instead of deep fry them (I am wary of the deep fry), it was game OVER. I have Joy the Baker to thank for that. For a period of time, I made all kinds of donuts, including browned butter and pistachio ones (also a Joy the Baker recipe).

The recipe I return to the most, and the one that gets the most requests, is one for the double  chocolate donuts.

***
Donuts are so magical. If you’re making cake donuts, they’re really easy to make.

I whisked together all my dry ingredients: flour, dark chocolate cocoa powder (Joy’s recipe calls for unsweetened cocoa powder, but I love the depth of flavor that dark chocolate cocoa brings), baking soda, salt and brown sugar.

ChocoDonuts_step 1.jpg

In a separate bowl, I whisk together buttermilk, an egg, melted butter and vanilla extract. I love the smells that come out of this particular bowl at all stages — the tanginess of the buttermilk, the smoothness of that butter, and the punch of sweetness from the vanilla. YUM.

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After the buttermilk, egg, butter, and vanilla are whisked to smooth, you pour them into the dry ingredients and fold the wet ones in with a spatula. Fold everything together until combined into a glossy, dark, and glorious cake batter. My batter was a little bit dry, so I added a splash more buttermilk to soften it up.

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Then, using a spoon, I spooned the batter into a well-greased donut pan. This is probably the trickiest part for me, and the reason why I didn’t get a photo of it — because my hands, somehow, got covered in batter. After wrestling the batter into the pan, I popped it into the oven for about 11 minutes.

After taking the donuts out and waiting for them to cool, I made the glaze by mixing together powdered sugar, more dark chocolate cocoa powder, salt, coconut milk and vanilla extract.

This is not a picture of the glaze, but it IS a picture of the donuts waiting to BE glazed.

This is not a picture of the glaze, but it IS a picture of the donuts waiting to BE glazed.

***
Honestly, the glazing and the sprinkles are the funnest part of donut making (aside from licking the bowl). The glaze makes the donuts look so dressed up and classy. On its own, with just the glaze, the donuts look amazing. The sprinkles though…they make these donuts a party. Every time I use them, I get so excited. I also feel like I’m being transported back to the ‘90s for some reason. If someone were to film me every time I made these donuts, they could probably put together a montage of me saying, “YAAAAYYY!” every time I throw sprinkles on the donuts.

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***
My favorite part of baking is the act of giving the finished product to a loved one, whether it’s M or a friend, or my mother, or whoever. I boxed these donuts up for my friend in a cute little cupcake box, wrote her a card, and put it in an envelope that matched the donuts’ sprinkle party perfectly.

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***
I made 10 donuts — 6 for my friend, and 4 left-overs for M and me. By the end of the evening, those 4 donuts were settled very comfortably in M’s and my bellies. I love sweet treats, but I don’t like sickly sweet ones — the dark chocolate cocoa powder made these babies just the right amount of sweet.

***
By the time I post this, there will be only 5 days left until our wedding. (!!!!!!) Stay tuned for a super fun wedding-themed Friday Bites this Friday. It won't necessarily be food-related, but it will have LOTS to do with weddings.


On Potlucks, Being Brown, and Belonging in the Desert

About an hour after getting off the plane in Reno, my mother started handing me food to “try” on the 2.5-hour drive back to my hometown Winnemucca. Since I got off the plane, I’ve been eating Gilmore Girls-quantities of food in the sometimes-indecorous style of Nigella Lawson. For those of you who are not fluent in either of these languages I’m speaking: I’m eating a lot of food and I’m stuffing it into my face without giving any fucks about looking demure.

***
I haven’t made anything this week. But I have eaten incredible amounts of good food. My mother’s birthday was last Saturday, and her friends threw her an impromptu potluck lunch.

***
I often describe Winnemucca’s location as being “the literal middle of nowhere,” not out of derision, but because it’s a little bit true. I guess you could describe any town in Nevada, excluding Reno and Las Vegas, as being in the middle of nowhere.

(Fun fact: Nevada has more ghost towns than actual towns. That might explain why I love spooky stuff so much.)

When I was growing up here, as I’ve written about before, I hated it. There weren’t any coffee shops until I was a junior or so in high school. There weren’t any bookstores or music shops or anything. There were only casinos, restaurants in casinos, Walmart, the public library, the volunteer-operated thrift store Poke-N-Peek, and one or two small clothing stores.  

What this town did have, though, was an unexpected and healthy (for the town’s size) Filipino population. My memories of Winnemucca are full of Filipino parties and potlucks. I met my childhood best friend, Chris, on Halloween night at a Filipino party when we were around 6 years old, and we’ve been BFFs ever since. (Our BFF status was cemented that very night in a very strange and inexplicable way, but that story is for another time when I can explain our weird behavior. Which will probably be never.)

Nevada seems like a great empty expanse in the western U.S. (and in a lot of ways, it is), but I grew up surrounded by people who (kind of) looked like me, and helped me know who I was and where I came from. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky this was. To be familiar with the cadence and sounds of Tagalog and Ilocano, to know the smell of every good food and every stinky one, to know that every person has their own adobo or pancit recipes with their own trick or twist. To have a best friend who wouldn’t blink at the “weird” food you ate and wasn’t intimidated by large groups of Filipino women talking away in Tagalog.

Look at these skinny brown kids. Taken during a Filipino party in the early days.

Look at these skinny brown kids. Taken during a Filipino party in the early days.

***
What was on the menu for my mom’s potluck lunch this year: ceviche, a spicy Thai yellow curry, pancit, papaya salad (drooooool), fried chicken, mini quiches, squash pancakes with a vinegary garlicky sauce (more drool, especially with that sauce!), rice cooked with coconut oil and coconut milk (but not quite full-fledged coconut rice), cassava cake, meatballs, guacamole, baked beans with cocktail sausages (I’m dedicating an entire post to that dish, I promise you), marinated chicken breast strips, and fruit.

I haven’t even gotten to the cake yet. (More drool.)

And this potluck was smaller than last year’s. Can you even imagine? (No, no, you can’t.)

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***
A year ago, my mother had been on her cancer treatment for about 5 months or so. At that point, the cancer was responding so well to treatment that her tumors were shrinking down to almost nothing. It was the best possible news we could receive, and we were all relieved. Things were slowly going back to normal, but I didn’t want to get too comfortable because I knew that things could go pear-shaped at any moment. Cancer can be a real shitshow in that way. So I flew home to spend a few days with my mom for her birthday. That’s when I learned that her friend was organizing a big birthday party for her.

***
My mother is notoriously late to everything. She was two hours late to her own birthday party that year. And why? She was busy cooking like 5 extra dishes because she was worried there wouldn’t be enough food. (I had also been roped into cooking two dishes, somehow. I honestly don’t remember what they were — a spicy chorizo and shiitake mushroom soup and maybe browned butter chocolate chip cookies?)

This is one of two photos I took at the party that year. This is that chorizo and shiitake mushroom soup, presented in a styrofoam bowl.

This is one of two photos I took at the party that year. This is that chorizo and shiitake mushroom soup, presented in a styrofoam bowl.

By the time we arrived at the party, people had started to lose hope that my mother would ever show up. There was already a ton of food brought by the guests, and my mother and I just added more to the spread. It was excess of the best kind.

Looking back, I didn’t really take any pictures. I was just happy and thankful for my mom’s health, and that so many people had come to celebrate her. The party was big and loud and joyful. People from every aspect of my mom’s life were there. Church friends, volunteer friends, Avon friends, Filipino friends, Thai friends — the gang was all there.

***
The complexion of the Filipino party in Winnemucca, Nevada, has changed since I left here nearly 14 years ago. (!!!) It doesn’t feel accurate for me to call them Filipino parties anymore. Though there has always been a large Latinx community and there is still a steady Filipino community, there are more kinds of brown people: Cambodian and Thai are the newest communities (to me) to grow roots of some kind in this area.

Often, when I come home, it feels like I can finally relax and take a big breath of fresh air. For me, that feeling has always been more about the landscape than anything else. In this town, I’ve always walked the tightrope between feeling at home and feeling like an outsider. These days, I still feel at home, but also know that people who are current residents have a hard time believing that I grew up here.

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Now though, when I come here, I know that I will be around more brown people than I’ve ever been around in Indiana. I will feel more able to take up space as a woman of color here in rural Nevada than I do in Indiana. Even when I live in a college town that boasts an international appeal.

***
I haven’t even mentioned the birthday cake yet. It was perfect. The cake itself was spongy and light -- and the frosting! I’ve been telling everyone I know about it. It was a strawberry whipped frosting — so light, and fluffy, with just the right amount of sweetness. Most frostings I’ve tasted are heavy, both in texture and sweetness, but this one was divine. I honestly cannot stop thinking about it.  

Where was it made? A local grocery store.

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***
I don’t want to make rural Nevada seem like some kind of magical oasis. Don’t come to Winnemucca expecting to eat all this great food and attend great parties.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are visitor to this town, you will not see the things that I see. You will not see all the people that I do, and you will not be able to eat the food that I get to eat when I am here. If you visit Winnemucca unaccompanied by a local, you will not remember anything about it except maybe the McDonalds, or the fact that the Burger King overlooks the cemetery, or that we have a giant (and I mean, truly giant) “Welcome to Winnemucca” marquee perched on the border of said cemetery if you come into town taking the West Winnemucca Boulevard exit off I-80.

The point of all this, I guess, is that no matter how small the town, how white it seems, how incredibly desolate it appears to be — we’re out here. We’re feeding and caring for each other. We’re creating and thriving our own communities when the larger world makes us feel like we’re walking a constant line between belonging and forever being seen as an outsider.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else. But this is what I’ve experienced and felt and remembered.

Sometimes, I worry that I’m remembering all this with a heavy filter. I worry that I’m forgetting all the bad shit. Not everything was or is amazing. I know that. I still get stares everywhere I go here. If you happen to accidentally interrupt a bingo game, you will get some intense glares. I can't find dried figs anywhere in town, which is maybe the most egregious insult of them all.

But memories are memories. Feelings are feelings. Delicious food is delicious food. The heart knows when things are good.

***
Also: happy birthday, Mom!

Bread, Bread, Bread.

Friday Bites is coming to you a few days late. I guess technically it’s a “Monday Bites,” at this point, but here we are. I spent my writing days last week running wedding errands and traveling across the country to visit my parents. Since I booked a 12:30pm flight, I thought that I would have the gumption and energy to write either on the 4-hour plane ride to Vegas, or during my 4-hour layover there.

Unfortunately, all I had the energy to do was sleep, eat, read a romance novel, and ignore the uber-Christian wedding party that surrounded me on the plane. (They talked over me, handed each other jelly beans and inspirational literature in front of my face, and, at one point, a bridesmaid crawled over me (without permission or even acknowledging that she was being rude AF) so she could sit next to the bride for 5 minutes while the groom used the restroom (he, on the other hand, was very polite). What did they talk about for that 5 minutes? SCRIPTURE. Whyyyyyy.)

***

In the days leading up to my trip, I decided it was time to make something completely new to me: bread. While searching for Great British Bake Off cookbooks at the library, I stumbled across Paul Hollywood’s new cookbook, A Baker’s Life. Depending on your tastes, Paul Hollywood is either an attractive man or a creepy one. For some of us, he’s a little of column A and a little of column B.

Regardless of how you feel about Paul’s blue eyes or the cryptic looks he gives GBBO contestants, this is a beautiful cookbook. He writes about growing up the son of a baker, and includes lots of pictures from his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. The book divides the recipes into sections, beginning with childhood favorites or uncomplicated bakes and then progresses into more and more involved recipes. Paul does a lot of explaining between chapters, which is always my jam. He says novice bread makers should start with soda breads and then go from there.

So, I started with his Caramelized Onion Soda Bread. Easy enough.

***

Have you ever caramelized onions before? Like, really caramelized them? It takes a hundred years.

Okay, maybe not that long. Maybe it takes an hour or so. I’ve always heard that actually caramelizing onions takes a long time, but when you’re actually caramelizing, you start to realize that maybe you should have started doing this much earlier in the day. Maybe you should have started this at a time when you’re not super hungry and maybe you shouldn’t have thought that you could also make a soup that needs at least 90 minutes to simmer tonight.

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Did you know that, when caramelizing onions, you throw in brown sugar at some point in the process? I didn’t. It’s magic. At Paul’s suggestion, I also threw in leaves from “two bushy sprigs of thyme.” Which, who knows what that means. I’m not Barefoot Contessa enough to just pluck two fresh sprigs of thyme out of my garden. Not yet, anyway.

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Cooking those onions slow and low, though, pays off. When the onions start to get soft and juicy and golden is when you start smiling and stop being upset with yourself for your errors in time management judgement. This shit is going to taste GREAT, you whisper to yourself.

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After the onions are done and cooling on a plate, you start your dough. It’s simple: two kinds of flours (plain white and whole wheat), baking soda, and buttermilk. Paul advises that you mix everything with your hands. He doesn’t tell you whether you should actually knead the dough or not? And he also doesn’t tell you if it’s possible to “overwerk” soda bread? I can’t remember the details of that particular episode of GBBO.

What I do remember is that you have to make the cuts in your dough fairly deep. Why? I can’t remember that part. I just remember that Mat the firefighter in season 3 didn’t make the cuts in his soda bread deep enough and he got schooled on it by Paul during the judging. I wasn’t about to make that same mistake.

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Paul says the soda bread should be ready in about 35 minutes. You should be able to tap the bottom of the loaf, and it should sound hollow. I made my cuts too deep maybe, and the loaf began to break in half when I tried to pick it up. When it did, I could see that it wasn’t baked through yet. Also, the bread was really hot, and I don’t have what Nigella Lawson calls “asbestos hands” yet.

I finally took the bread out after 50 minutes or so. I did what Mary and Paul do on GBBO, which is cut a slice out of the middle of the loaf and press a finger into it to feel the texture and see if it springs back.

So I did it, too. It didn’t spring back. The outline of my finger stayed molded into the bread.

I’m not quite sure what went wrong — did I put too much oil in with the caramelized onions? Was there just too much moisture from the onions in the bread? Did I not mix the onions into the dough well enough? Was my conversion of Paul’s Celsius oven temps to my shitty American Fahrenheit oven off? Did I overwork the dough?

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I don’t have any answers. I don’t know what happened to my soda bread. I do know, however, that despite it all, that bread was delish AF, and I ate at least two and a half slices while I was cooking soup and then ate another slice with my soup.

The caramelized onions have a deep, complex, savory sweetness that is unlike anything I’ve eaten before. Honestly, caramelize onions the right way whenever you get the chance — it’s worth it. You don’t have to put them in bread. You can put them on a burger, or eat them on their own if that’s your thing, or whatever. They’re incredibly delicious, and I’m converted.

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Though I’m home with my parents right now, stuffing myself with all kinds of good food (guess what this Friday’s bite is going to be ALL about), I miss that caramelized onion soda bread a little bit.

Okay, a lot.


This Week's Recipe:

On Comfort: Chicken Soup, Chocolate Cake, and Ani

This week has been full of paradox: sunshine and non-stop rain, feeling stuck while also feeling propelled forward, feeling exhausted and also feeling energized, weather warm enough to not need a jacket and needing a jacket, enjoying my favorite feminist musician and being annoyed by the douchy white guy behind me. Instead of getting frustrated, I’ve been trying to accept the contradictions. Embrace all the things that are opposite but true at the same time.

I did double duty and frontloaded my week by making two things in one night. Who am I?!

***
The craving for something brothy and healthy struck again. M requested a chicken soup of some kind, so I pulled out an oldie but goodie: Immunity Soup from the January 2017 issue of Cooking Light. (I was actually looking for a spring vegetable chicken soup, but had to settle for this one this time around.) Indeed, another soup that purports to boost your immunity. It certainly can't hurt.

When the weather is 70 degrees one day, and cold enough to snow the next day, it feels like my body is constantly trying to find its bearings. Am I warm? Am I cold? Do I need to wear 4 layers and wool socks today or can I show off this cat print short-sleeve shirt I just got? Am I feverish or is it allergies? Am I achy from sickness or am I sore from yoga? It’s impossible to tell these days.

***
This soup starts out with your favorite soup base layers: a tablespoon or two of oil heated in a Dutch oven (or heavy-bottomed pot), then diced onion, sliced carrots and celery tossed in. I used olive oil, but you might use whatever you’ve got — vegetable oil, canola oil, whatever. The sizzle of the veggies as they hit that oil is so satisfying, along with that continual sizzle as they cook gently, getting soft and releasing their juices (*insert a sly Nigella look here*) into the pot.

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As I chopped and diced and minced the veggies, I decided to turn on some of my favorite Ani DiFranco tunes. Ani has been a part of my life since I was 16 or 17. I don’t actually know how many times I’ve seen her live. Her music has been formative for me in so many ways — politically, emotionally, artistically, interpersonally, worldview-ally. Her music was friend to me through hard times, and was, at times, one of the few things to get me through whatever darkness I was in.

***
Next comes the pound of sliced mushrooms (I got pre-sliced ones this time around, though I usually don’t mind buying a pound or so of them in bulk and washing/drying/slicing them myself) and 10 entire cloves of garlic, minced. I may have thrown in an extra 2 or 3 cloves because however much garlic a recipe calls for, it usually isn’t enough for me.

Toss these into the pot, and let the mushrooms release their moisture. Savor that sharp smell of the garlic and let it fill your kitchen. I mean, you don’t really have a choice.

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I sang along to every single Ani song that came into my kitchen that afternoon, though I haven’t listened to many of them for years. I haven’t forgotten the airiness of Both Hands or the clipped turns of Swan Dive and those lines about pulling out your tampon and splashing around in shark-infested waters. The ambitious moodiness of Gravel (“I stood out on the porch, thinking ‘Fight, fight, fight at all costs’/ Instead, I let you in, just like I’ve always done/ and I sat you down/ and offered you a beer” and “Maybe you can keep me from being happy/but you’re not going to stop me from having fun”). The raw anger and anguish of Dilate.

***
Next come the chickpeas, the broth, the thyme, and the bay leaves. Stir, and bring it all to a boil. Once it begins to boil, throw in two pounds of uncooked chicken breast, along with some salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 35 minutes.

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The very first time I saw Ani perform live, I burst into tears as soon as she stepped onto stage. The song she started that show with was “Shy.” I started crying and didn’t stop until 20 or 30 minutes later. The sobbing was uncontrollable; I didn’t know it was coming and when it came, it hit me like freight train.

That trend would continue every time I saw Ani, and it seemed that she always opened with a song that was particularly meaningful for me in the moment.

***
As I started making the frosting for Nigella’s Dark and Sumptuous Chocolate Cake, I could feel the sobs building in my chest as I sang along to Fire Door. I still knew every word and belted them out along with her as I combined water, espresso powder, cocoa, brown sugar, and butter in a saucepan, heated, and stirred.

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These songs felt like a homecoming. They felt like being able to finally breathe big and full in a completely safe space.

***
And then something happened. It occurred to me, as I was mixing the dry ingredients for the cake and checking on the soup, that I was a different person listening to these songs. The songs that got me through my adolescence and early and mid-twenties were still gorgeous and clever and everything that I remembered them to be — but I understood each song differently. I was hearing each song through ears of wisdom? Experience? Through a body and mind and heart that had finally found dry land after weathering storm after storm in a shitty, disintegrating lifeboat? I related to each song completely differently. It’s like… looking back and realizing that when I was in my teens and twenties, I thought I knew what Ani was talking about. And now, in my early 30s, I see that I actually didn’t know shit back then, but I do now.

I guess that’s just part of being a human. Growing up. Maturing.

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***
The Ani concert was the centerpiece of my week. Everything revolved around it. I braced myself for the tears and the swells of emotion.

I was excited, for sure. But this time around, the sobs stayed put wherever they were hiding out. Ani opened with Names and Dates and Times, a song that I actually don't know all the words to (*gasp*). She played Napoleon and Shameless and Anticipate and To The Teeth and Hypnotized and My I.Q. and Not a Pretty Girl. She played a lot of newer stuff that I didn’t know.

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The crowd was also different from any other Ani show I’ve been to. The Ani shows I’ve been to have been attended by mostly women and women-identified people. Dudes in the audience have been few and far between. In between songs, people shout things at her, like, “We love you, Ani!” The audience usually sings along so loudly that she has to stop at least once and tell everyone to stop so she can hear herself play.

At this show, some things were the same. Audience members kept yelling “We love you, Ani!” People recited My I.Q. along with her so loudly that she had to stop in the middle and say, “Oh, honey, you have to let me do this one.”

But a lot of things were different. Someone yelled, “I love you, Annie!” (Ani responded, “It’s Ah-ni, but thank you, I feel the love anyway.”) Men were everywhere. A drunk-off-his-ass douchebag know-it-all guy sat behind us and talked loudly over Gracie and Rachel, the opening act, and then continued his tone-deaf, useless commentary during Ani’s performance. When Ani sang, “I’m gonna take all my friends/ and I'm gonna move to Canada/ and we’re gonna die of old age,” he shouted, “Yeah! Let’s go!” (I stopped myself from turning around and saying, “You’re not invited, bro.”) Some people got up to leave immediately after Ani finished the main set, not realizing there’s a thing called an encore because you should and will never get enough of being in the same room with her.  

***
After the show, I stopped by the merch table to buy a t-shirt. When I made my way through the crowd, made eye contact with the merch table person and bought my shirt, I had apparently “cut” in front of a group of (white) women. After we left, M told me about all the passive aggressive shade they had thrown in my direction while I was buying my shirt.

One woman had said, “WELL. You know what happens when you ASSUME…”

Yes. I do know what happens. I get to buy my Ani t-shirt before you.

(Also: like, please. There are no lines at merch tables. You see your opening, you get in there and buy your shirt before they sell out of your size. It’s not hard. How many times in my 32 years have I waited politely for everyone to go before me, and when I finally get to the front, the t-shirt I want is sold out of my size. Sorry, not sorry. Get yours. I'm gettin' mine. Like Ani says in 32 Flavors, "I'm not between you and your ambition." What a metaphor/analogy this shit is in so many ways.)

***
After the soup simmers, covered, for about 30-35 minutes, you place the chicken on a cutting board, shred it, and dump it back into the pot. You take a bunch of kale, rip it into smaller pieces and stir it into the soup. You let it all simmer for another 5 minutes or so. It’s done when that kale is wilted just a little bit.

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***
Now, this cake. Nigella’s instructions tell you to make the frosting first because it needs time to cool. She says that the time it takes to make the cake, bake it, and let it cool, is the perfect amount of time to let the frosting cool. I’ll be honest — I had my doubts. When I couldn’t wait any longer to finish the cake, I took a look at the frosting and shook my head. “Nigella, I don’t know about this. This frosting seems a little stiff.” But I gave it a stir and poured it over the cake.

It was perfect.

On Nigella’s instruction, I joyously decorated with chopped pistachios. No edible rose petals or edible flowers even, but just the pistachios were perfect.

(Baking notes: Nigella's recipe is vegan -- she uses coconut butter and coconut oil. I, however, love regular butter too much to go vegan, so I used regular unsalted butter and canola oil for this recipe, and it turned out just as dreamy.)

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***
This week seems to have been all about comfort — the food and music of it. Chicken soup, chocolate cake, Ani. They all came as I remembered them, but with twists. Chicken soup with mushrooms, chickpeas, and chili pepper flakes. Chocolate cake with espresso and salty, savory pistachios on top. Ani with the same good songs (as well as new ones), a wiser me, and a weirder crowd.  

It’s good to go home. To bring your older, wiser self there. To love the same things, and to love how they’ve changed. To love the same things, and love them differently.

Ani sings in Good, Bad, Ugly, "Strangers are exciting/ Their mystery never ends/ But there's nothing like looking at your own history/ in the faces of your friends." It feels a little bit like that, but...different.

***
I'll end this week's Friday Bites with some vintage Ani. Happy eating, happy cooking, happy being, y'all. 


This week's recipes:

Banana Cream Pie, Miso Salmon, "Mole" Tacos, and Instinct

FINALLY. It is here. (At least, it was here.) That blasted Banana Cream Pie.

After I posted last week, I realized that I was actually ready to make the damn thing. My bananas had been doing the last of their browning in the freezer, so when I woke up on Saturday morning, I took them out to thaw.  

***

If you know me at all, then you know that I follow recipes TO. THE. LETTER. In order to be able to cook any recipe with any amount of confidence, I need exact measurements, exact ingredients, exact equipment. None of this a pinch of this, a splash of that nonsense. If the recipe calls for baby bella mushrooms, but the store only has creminis? Forget it — the whole thing is ruined. If the recipe says I need to use a chinoise, but I only have a regular ol’ mesh strainer? You best believe I’m ordering that unwieldy chinoise off of Amazon.

This is why I love the Milk Bar cookbook. Christina Tosi writes with so much of the detail that I crave — not only is she very specific about the ingredients and equipment and temperatures, she also is very specific about why each of these details matter. I love that I get to learn exactly why all of these things matter to Tosi, so I can figure out whether it matters to me. Sometimes it’s a matter of chemistry; sometimes it’s a matter of preference.

***

So I started off with making a chocolate crumb on Friday night. I mixed dark chocolate cocoa powder (which, I’ll note, was NOT the fancy Valrhona cocoa powder that Tosi insists on) with some salt, a little bit of sugar, some flour, and some melted butter. Once it all came together to make little clumps of dark chocolate-y goodness, I spread it out on a parchment-lined baking sheet and popped that bad boy in the oven for about 20 minutes. Once it cooled down after coming out of the oven, I put those little flavor nuggets in a Tupperware container and hid them (because they were in danger of getting snacked on until they disappeared into M’s and my bellies).

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The next morning, I used the chocolate crumb to make the pie crust. I threw the crumb into the food processor to grind everything down to a sandy mixture, and then mixed the sand with some melted butter. Once the mixture held its shape, I transferred it to my pie dish and smooshed it around until it resembled something like a pie crust. (This is only my third pie crust ever -- these kinds of pie crusts have lots to teach me about patience, presence, and a gentle touch.)

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And then came the banana cream part. Those god damn bananas were so slimy, and smelled sweet with a hint of rot. It sounds alarming, but I put all my trust in Tosi and threw those bananas in my blender along with heavy cream, milk and some other stuff.

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I won’t describe the rest of the process because it would be tedious and probably boring for you. The highlights, though: heating the cream mixture slowly on the stove and whisking the hell out of it and also feeling like I was on the Great British Bake Off. Blooming gelatin for the first time ever. The heavenly smell of the banana and the cream and the butter, all combining to create something magical. Using food coloring for the first time in literally decades.

The final product was divine and well worth the wait. The banana cream was packed with banana flavor (from only two bananas!) and sweetness with a hint of butteriness. Paired with that salty dark chocolate crumb crust to cut the sweetness a bit, it was a perfect-tasting pie.

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The pie was demolished in two days.

***

I love Nigella Lawson and her show, Nigella Bites. (And, as I write this, I’m realizing that I’ve been inadvertently inspired to name this project after her. Honestly, I didn’t mean to do it, but it’s a lovely homage, I think.)

Nigella is deserving of her own ode entirely, but I’ll briefly say that I had no idea who she was until about a month ago. I had an episode of Iron Chef America on in the background, and became captivated by one of the judges, who turned out to be Nigella. I asked M if he’d ever heard of her, and he looked at me like I’d just asked him if he'd ever heard about a delicious treat called chocolate. So we watched the entire second season of Nigella Bites (it’s all we could find on YouTube or any streaming service), and I proceeded to fall in love.

Now, if you don’t know about Nigella, here’s what you need to know: she’s not a classically trained chef. She started out as a journalist and somehow fell into having a cooking show. She delights in the process of cooking, as well as the end result. For her, taking the time to run a finger over the “crocodile skin” of a bowl of capers as she pours them into a bowl or marvel at the brilliant red “jewels” of pomegranate seeds as she drops them over a platter of shredded pork is as important as the finished meal itself. She emphasizes that the process of cooking should bring you as much joy as eating it does. In Nigella Bites, she does not give the viewer exact measurements and she does not measure exactly, except when she bakes. She adds spices to her dishes without measuring, and tells you, “Don’t be apologetic with the spices.” I actually don't know what that means, but I like how it sounds.

If you know me, you might think that Nigella’s style might drive me nuts. And in an earlier version of my cooking self, she might have. Now though? I love her.

***

All this is to say that I fucked up no meals this week, and one of the meals that I did not fuck up was Nigella’s Miso Salmon recipe from the Simply Nigella cookbook. While I was making preparations, I muttered something like, “Nigella says I need xyz for this, buuutttt…I’m going to do this instead.” M looked at me and said, “Whoa. What’s going on here? Look at you, going off script!”

What can I say? Nigella gives me confidence.

Since we bought double the salmon, I doubled the marinade with no problem. And then — and then — I improvised the sides. I cooked up some quinoa with leftover vegetable broth and some smashed cloves of garlic. I sautéed some on-the-edge kale and seasoned it with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.

The salmon was perfect — the miso, fish sauce, soy sauce, and garlic all combined to make a dish that was savory, with a depth of flavor and salt that only umami can give. It was so delicious, and so easy to make. It also felt healthy. You know those meals that just feel satisfying and clean? This was one of those.

Alas, I took no pictures because I was too busy eating. I’m terrible at writing about food, aren’t I?

***

My other success of the week was Slow Cooker Chicken Mole Tacos from the January 2018 issue of Cooking Light.

I’m 100% aware that the stuff I made is not mole. BUT! It’s still super tasty and was so easy to make. I simply salted a little over 2 pounds of chicken thighs and put them in the slow cooker.

Then, in my food processor, I put a can of whole tomatoes, a diced onion, smashed cloves of garlic, some chopped semi-sweet chocolate, raisins, toasted sliced almonds, chicken stock, cumin, cinnamon, adobo sauce, and chipotle chiles.

Nowhere in the recipe did it say, “Oh, by the way, this is a lot of stuff and you might need to process this shit in two batches.” I also ignored the maximum liquid fill line on my processor because who pays attention to that stuff anyway. I turned the processor on, and the mixture leaked out of the lid and all over my counter and the base of the processor. So, I'm here to tell you that you should pay attention to those markings. Unless you really enjoy cleaning red sauce out of every nook and cranny in your prep space, which I do not.

And then I poured everything into the slow cooker, put the lid on, plugged it in, and turned it on low. 8 hours later — tacos. They were delicious. The sauce is not mole, but it really wants to be, which is to say it is more like a hearty smoky salsa sauce with mole-esque undertones.

The result? Tasty-ass tacos. The recipe makes a lot of extra sauce, and I’m excited to use it in something else. (More cooking improv?! Who am I?!)

***

While making food this week, I thought about instinct. Trusting my gut and my knowledge.

The banana cream pie wasn’t perfect. The filling didn’t hold its shape, even after a good chilling in the refrigerator. As soon as we cut a piece of pie, the filling oozed all over the plate. It oozed deliciously, of course, but oozed just the same.

The recipe had told me to heat and whisk the cream until it became a really thick glue, almost like cement. I whisked until my arm got tired and then kept going, and the mixture wasn’t thick like glue, but I thought it was good enough. I thought about continuing to heat and whisk, but I didn’t want to overdo it. I had a conversation with myself in the kitchen: “Should I keep going? No, I’ll stop here. Well, wait. Yes, maybe I should keep going. Hmm… no, I’m going to trust myself. This is good enough.”

Instinct isn’t coming out of the womb knowing how to do everything right the first time. So much of what we call “instinct” is just trusting your gut, your knowledge, your resiliency and ability to learn. It’s trusting your gut and what you know, and knowing that if you fail, you’ll figure out how to get it right the next time. Or the time after that, or the time after that. We get “instinct” from learning from others, from following directions, but also, paradoxically, from taking risks. The only way we can develop a gut instinct and build our knowledge is to learn the basics, make mistakes, adjust, and try things over and over again.

While I was heating and whisking that banana cream, my gut feeling wasn’t correct and neither was my knowledge. But that’s okay. I’m already planning the next banana cream pie, and, fingers crossed, it’s not going to fall out all over the place.

More Disasters, Stubborn Bananas, and a Meditation on Creating as a Response to Violence

Wow, y’all. I have not fucked up this much food this many times in recent memory.

I started this week off with a Nigella Lawson recipe from her cookbook, Simply Nigella: Thai Noodles with Cinnamon and Shrimp.

It sounds amazing, right? I was so excited to make this and then eat it. My mouth watered just imagining the umami flavors of the soy and oyster sauces fusing with the sweetness of the cinnamon and cloves to create a flavor bomb of awesomeness.

What I made was the exact opposite of that. I had double the noodles and double the shrimp, so I thought I would just double the sauce, which has large quantities of light and dark soy sauces (??? I don’t know the difference ???), oyster sauce, a concoction of dark soy sauce and brown sugar, pepper, chicken broth concentrate, and water.

I thought I had everything under control. I marveled at the darkness of the sauce and the smell of the garlic and ginger and the cinnamon sticks and the star anise as it simmered and bubbled in the pot. It truly smelled incredible. Then, I dumped in my shrimp. I stirred them around and realized I had made a huge mistake. The shrimp were so coated in the sauce that I wouldn’t be able to tell when the shrimp turned pink because the sauce was so dark.

I shrugged and thought, oh well. Shrimp don’t take too long to cook, and when I put the noodles in, they will soak up the sauce, the shrimp will turn back to a normal color, and everything will balance out.

I dumped the noodles into the pot, and they also turned dark. The more I tossed the ingredients together, the more everything simply turned full dark, no stars.

And not only was every ingredient of the dish just the same shade of dark, they were amazingly, incredibly salty. I tasted one shrimp and thought it wasn’t too bad. When I ate an entire bowl, though, I had to chug water every couple of bites because I was afraid of shriveling up like those aliens in The Faculty

Even through the saltiness though, I could taste the sweetness of the spices. I could taste what the dish was like under all its darkness.

***
These goddamn bananas are driving me nuts. They are still ripening.

So still no banana cream pie this week. My baking fingers are itching to make something.

***
I’ll be honest. For the past week and a half or so, my body has been preparing to shed its uterine lining. (Yes, I’m going to talk about periods. Deal with it.) This means that my energy has been super low, my ovaries have randomly felt like they were trying to rip their way out of my body, and I’ve been hungering for moderately salty foods  (i.e. NOT the monstrosity I made of Nigella's recipe) and deeply chocolate foods. Sometimes, even at the same time. (Gasp.)  

On Wednesday, I could feel the cramps coming. It’s like watching a train come down the tracks really slowly. I can hear its whistle, I know it’s on its way, and I know I have only a brief amount of time before it flattens me on the tracks.

So I hurried and made this Spicy Beef Noodle Soup from the latest issue of Cooking Light. Cooking Light reports that the soup is immune-system boosting. It’s brothy, it’s spicy, it cleans out your sinuses. It’s got a million cloves of garlic in it (okay, fine, it actually has only 15+ garlic cloves), it’s got little nuggets of beef, crisp baby bok choy, and earthy mushrooms. It’s delicious.

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Two hours after I finished the soup, my cramps hit. I spent the rest of the night on the couch with my trusty heating pad and a comfortably full belly.

***
Usually, when I mess up a dish, I want to forget it ever happened. I want to bury the recipe and my mistakes in a cemetery along with all my other botched things (food and otherwise). I usually make notes on the recipe for myself, for when I've forgotten the disaster at hand and want to try again. But that amnesia and ensuing motivation usually comes long after. Weeks. Months. Maybe even years.

I was so disappointed in my Thai noodles miscalculations. I was disappointed that I didn't get to enjoy what I could tell was a tasty dish underneath all that salt, and I was disappointed in myself for not trusting my intuition (which had been yelling and waving its arms at me frantically as I ignored it and continued to pour unthinkable amounts of salty ingredients into the pot).

This time, however, I wanted to get right back on the horse. I wanted to try again. I want to try again.

***
I’ve been waiting around for these bananas to ripen because I really want that banana cream pie. But it occurred to me that I don’t have to wait around to bake, just because the bananas aren’t ready. I can bake something else while I wait.  I don’t have to deprive myself of baking for however many weeks, just because these bananas are taking forever to rot.

So simple a revelation, and so duh, but, man.

And so, I’m ending on another culinary cliffhanger this week. I’m going to make a Nigella chocolate cake. I have no idea where I’m going to find edible rose petals for this thing, but I trust that I will find a suitable substitute somewhere. 

Who knows. Maybe next week’s Friday Bites will chronicle the making of a dark and sumptuous chocolate cake and the world’s tastiest banana cream pie. Here’s hoping.

***
I’ve realized that cooking is nice and all, but baking is what makes me feel like everything is going to be okay in the world. The precision and order of baking is comforting in times of chaos and violence, which is the world we live in. It's not a coincidence that my need to create something tangible and nourishing reared its head after I read the news about the18th school shooting of year. When I feel powerless and devastated, the instinct to do something comes.

There are so many things to do. Call your representatives. Protest. Petition. Lobby for change. Write op-ed pieces. Tweet angrily.

I often struggle with what feels like the most effective thing to do in the moment. What if the thing that feels best and right is to create something? To bake a fucking cake? Does it do anything to create something - a dish, a cake, a pie, a pastry, a poem, a blog post, an essay - and put it out there? What if you create it and put it out into the world with love and revolution in your heart and mind? Is that something?

Soup Disasters & Banana Cream Pie

Friday Bites is my new weekly blogging experiment, where I write and reflect on the food I’ve made during the week. It will be published every…you guessed it…Friday. Let’s see what happens.  
***

Do you ever get that feeling that you’re…full? Not full of joy or gratitude or feelings or whatever. I mean like, you’ve been eating lots of meat and cheese and carbs and you feel like you are just…full. Like kind of bloated, but fuller? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

When I get to feeling full in the way I just attempted to describe, I crave soup. Brothy soup. This week, I wanted to make some soups that were brothy but hearty enough to keep me satisfied.

So I went for Chrissy Teigen’s vegetable tortilla soup from her cookbook Cravings. It looked bright, healthy-ish, and tasty. I skimmed over the part of Chrissy’s recipe blurb that said the soup had “the perfect kick” and went about my business.

Without question, I chopped up an entire jalapeño and threw it into the soup pot (seeds, membrane, and all). A memory flashed through my mind of the time when, barehanded, I chopped up a fresh jalapeño from a friend’s garden, and the ensuing flames of pain that came when I got the jalapeño juice (alright, fine, the capsaicin) all over my hands and just inside the rim of one nostril. My fingers and nose burned for days. I wish I were exaggerating.

But I dismissed the thought because I would never make that mistake again. And anyway, store-bought jalapeños are fairly mild, in my experience.

As I measured two entire tablespoons of chili powder into the soup, the thought crossed my mind that this might be too much for me. I double- and triple-checked the recipe, and thought, “Okay. Two whole tablespoons? Really? Alright, Chrissy. I trust you.”

The soup simmered, and I fried up some tortilla strips with excitement and anticipation. My kitchen smelled amazing, and I was so hungry. When I finally got a chance to taste the soup, my mouth had exactly two seconds to enjoy the flavor before the spicy heat hit me. I felt like the chili powder had gotten into my sinuses, and my nose started running. I started sweating after two bites, and a few minutes later my eyes started watering. I felt like I was on an episode of Hot Ones, trying to make it through one of the hottest hot wings. I kept eating the crumbled cotija cheese because it felt so cool in my mouth. I started laying pieces of cold tortilla on my tongue. M poured me a glass of coconut milk (because the only actual milk in our house is saved for baking). My skin felt hot. I was turning inside out.

Now, what really bums me out? The “perfect kick” for Chrissy Teigen is 30 minutes of sweaty, teary torture for me and additional digestion problems that come by later at an unexpected time.

Thankfully, M can hang with the spice level of this soup, so it’s all his.

And because I’m sad about the soup, I didn’t take any pictures of it. Oops.  

***

I don’t know what it is about barley soups, but I can’t resist them. Beef barley, vegetable barley,  vegetable and beef barley, mushroom and barley. When I was a kid, I loved the Progresso beef barley canned soup and hogged them all for myself when my parents bought them from the store.

So this week, I made a mushroom barley soup using a combination of ingredients and process from The Kitchn and Real Simple recipes. (Look at me! I'm out here, just winging it!) There were no jalapeños in this recipe, no tablespoons of spice. Just some good old-fashioned onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and barley.

There’s not much to say about it, other than it was tasty, beautiful, and exactly what I needed on a Wednesday.

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***

The real piéce de résistance of the week hasn’t been made yet, and it probably will have to wait until the weekend. What is it? It’s banana cream pie, recipe courtesy of Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar cookbook.

Why banana cream pie? Well, there are a few reasons.

  1. Banana cream pie is delicious. Why would I not want to make it?
  2. I’ve been watching the first season of The Mind of a Chef, and saw the episode where Christina Tosi makes a tasty-looking banana cream pie with ripened-to-black bananas. I was intrigued and, also, extremely on board.
  3. Last weekend, M told the story of the best banana cream pie he’s ever had. It was so good that since then, he’s measured all banana cream pies against That One Pie. I’m up for the challenge of making a banana cream pie that will blow that one out of the water.

But when we went grocery shopping, all the bananas — and I mean ALL of the bananas — were green. And not just yellow with a hint of green. They. Were. All. GREEN.

So I’m waiting. The bananas are in a paper bag, ripening extremely slowly. It’s the first time I can think of where the making of the delicious treat is not on my timeline — it’s up to the bananas.

So maybe I’ll get to make banana cream pie this weekend. Maybe I won’t. It’s really just up to the bananas. 

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One Year Later

I can’t believe that 365 days have gone by since 45 was impossibly and believably elected to office.

I remember my initial optimism on election night. And then the disbelief. And then the slow onset of reality. The moment where I knelt on my living room floor and cried because I had hoped for the best and expected the worst. And the worst had happened.

I look back at the things I wrote then, a constant grappling for some sense of stability, control. Some sense of being able to predict the future. If I could only imagine what was on the horizon — even if it was the worst possible scenario — I would be able to make it. But I couldn’t even do that. I had no idea what was ahead. All I saw was darkness. On good days, I could see apocalypse. Ruin. Something like Mad Max but real.

***

A year later, I can’t believe it’s only been a year. It’s been a year and 45 is, somehow, still 45. We haven’t destroyed ourselves yet, but it feels like it’s getting closer every day. I can’t believe what I have to force myself not to be numb to. I can’t believe there could be a mass shooting where 58 people were killed and over 500 injured, and that it wouldn’t even be mentioned in the news the next week. I can’t believe that there could be so many high profile reports of sexual assault in one week that I would feel a sense of ambient dread and need to stay off social media for two days. I can’t believe we live in a world where powerful people are justifying pedophilia and statutory rape.

I say I can’t believe it, but I can. I always have. These things have always been underneath the surface of our society and culture. It’s just that now, it’s been revealed. The bandage covering the festering wound has been ripped off.

***

A year ago, the way I tried to right my rocking boat was to think about self-care. All I could think about was how to fix my despair or at least live with it. How could I care for myself in a world that didn’t feel safe for me to exist in?

***

I haven’t done a great job of caring for myself in the past year. I fell far behind on my 52 essays challenge. I wanted to get my shit together and revive my 33 Days of Horror challenge. I wanted to have an entire manuscript ready to send out by the end of the year. I wanted to be well-adjusted. I wanted to be a balanced human, in spite of everything. I wanted to have found some kind of hard-earned hope through the shit winds of this era.

Instead, I haven’t even broken into the double-digits of #52Essays. I haven’t revived my horror challenge yet (though I wrote a mini-review of Crimson Peak that I’ll post soon). I don’t have a manuscript ready to send out.

Instead, what I have is a year’s worth of deep and necessary self work. I’ve learned that self- care is not just about survival. It’s not just about filling my cup back up just enough to get myself through the day. It’s not just bubble baths and binge-watching Gilmore Girls and sleeping in (though those things are part of it). Self-care is keeping my cup consistently at least half-full. It’s setting boundaries and knowing my limits. It’s saying “no,” whether it’s saying “no” to another commitment or saying “no” to being treated with disrespect. It’s staying grounded in my body. It’s paying attention to my emotions and making friends with them, rather than ignoring them, denying them, burying them deep.

I’ve figured out at least that much. I haven’t figured out how to do it exactly, but I do know that much.

***

What I also have is a wedding on the horizon. It feels right, that that is the thing I’ve followed through on this year. When I wrote my first essay of #52Essays, I came to the conclusion that I was ready to do this thing. I was ready to finally, actually get married.

And here I am. Here we are. Planning a wedding. Putting down deposits. Trying on dresses. Ordering cakes. And it’s truly exciting.

***

For the most part, the fruits of my year have been intangible. I don’t have much to show for it. But that’s kind of the point.

I wanted my year to end with manuscripts and completed projects. I wanted to prove that I could be productive and functional, even while it felt like the world was coming apart at the seams. What I’ve ended the year with is the realization that productivity and functionality should not come at the expense of my self-worth, my physical health, my mental health.

So I’ve ended up with something else entirely. Something unexpected. Something I didn't know I needed. And it’s cleared the way for those manuscripts and those projects. It’s clearing the way for something I haven’t even imagined yet.

***

And there it is, finally. Hope.

What I did on my summer vacation (2017 ed.)

I've been away from this blog since April. When I look back on it, it seems unfathomable that so much time has gone by, and it also feels like a hundred years have gone by.

I always forget about the rhythms of my writing. I don't know how I forget it, but I do. Maybe it's the 20 years of having a summer vacation that has embedded itself into my psyche. The cycles of hunkering down, working hard, studying, and producing from September to May. Then, when the weather starts to warm up and the days start to feel lazier, I give myself permission to take it easy. In years past, it was a subconscious decision.

This year, it's been a little bit of both. This year is different from all the other years. Every day there is a new tweet to rail against, a new infuriating policy to protest, a new disaster to mourn. This presidency has affected my psyche in ways I'm hesitant to admit, but it's undeniable. I'm living with a cynicism I've never lived with before.

Aside from all the large scale stressors, we're finally (!!!) planning our wedding. Each wedding dress I look at is now distinct from one another (please see 2017: The Year of No Intention), and I have actual opinions on them. I was hoping I'd have an actual strong opinion on our wedding colors, but I still don't. I have days where I'm so excited for our wedding that I wish it were happening tomorrow, and I have days where I avoid looking at the countdown timer on my WeddingWire app because the number of days til our wedding is too few. I've begrudgingly and apprehensively bought two wedding planning books and a wedding planning binder (and also wondered who the hell I am these days). 

This summer, my brother graduated from college after being an extremely hardworking Van Wilder for many years. M and I were there for his graduation. After, we took a family trip to Lake Tahoe, where M learned that when we say Tahoe's water is very cold, we are not kidding.

What else?

I went to Phoenix where it was 110+ degrees. I lay out on a 5th floor hotel rooftop deck at night, and felt homesick for the dry, hot, desert wind. We took M's dad on a surprise birthday trip to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals. The Cardinals lost both games we went to, but the weather was beautiful and the Bud Light Lime hit the spot (I know). I went to San Francisco for the Las Dos Brujas writing workshop, and wrote poems that I'm still working on and love dearly. I saw dolphins while hiking the Marin Headlands with poet friends. I got to show M the Golden Gate Bridge for his first time, and also introduced him to the (also very cold) Pacific Ocean.

This summer, writing has not been a priority. I've written here and there, and made some breakthroughs at Las Dos Brujas, but for the most part, it seems that my subconscious decided it was time for a break. It was time to take a step back and recognize that I have a very large plate, it is very full, and if I am not very careful and very intentional, I will burn all the way out.

I'm asking myself questions about balance and boundaries, about what caring for the self truly means. I'm asking myself questions about how to nourish myself and my writing when so much else in life and in this world seems to take and take and take.

So I'm back now. I don't have a lot of answers, but here we are. Figuring things out. As always.

A Study of Sadness Through '80s Pop

It’s probably safe to say that I was born with at least two things in my blood: exhaustion and melancholy. 

I’ve always been a good sleeper. I’ve always been able to fall asleep fairly quickly, whether it’s nap time or bed time. Once I’m asleep, I can sleep through tornado sirens, typhoons, neighbor noises, M’s snoring, you name it. If allowed, I will always be able to sleep for at least 10 hours. In a perfect world, I would be able to wake up on my own around 11am, no matter how early I went to bed the night before. If you ask me how I’m doing, my answer will probably always be some version of “I’m tired/exhausted,” whether I’m obvious about it or not.  

These things have been true for as long as I can remember. 

I’m not here to write about perpetual exhaustion though. Not today. 

Today, I’m writing about melancholy. 

***

Merriam-Webster (yes, I’m doing it. I’m looking up words in the damn dictionary for this.) defines melancholy as simply, “a depression of spirits” and “a pensive mood.” 

That seems like an understatement, but an accurate one, for this thing I’ve lived with my whole life. 

***

When I was thinking about writing this essay, I mulled over the word that would most accurately express this feeling. 

I thought about depression. When I was in grad school, I remember watching a commercial for some kind of anti-depressant, where they listed off some symptoms of depression. I was only half-listening, but when I heard, “Have you lost interest in the things that used to excite you?” something clicked. I thought, hey, that’s me. I can’t remember the other things in the commercial that I identified with, but the mirror that 30 seconds held up to me was important. It was important for me to be able to name this wild, sad thing that was living in my body. It was important for me to be able to recognize why I felt so out of control, that juggling the pressures of grad school and being thrown into an academic teaching life and just life in general were taking a toll on me. 

Looking back on it, I should have seen a therapist in grad school. But I didn’t. Instead, I thought, Okay. So maybe I’m a little bit depressed. Now I know. And I adjusted. And I got to a better place. Was that the best way to deal with what I was going through? Probably not, but that's what I did. 

More recently, I read Chrissy Teigen’s essay in Glamour about having postpartum depression. It’s a fantastic read. It’s well-written, funny, and so, so real. I clearly do not have postpartum depression, and postpartum depression deserves its own platform and its own conversation. But I found myself resonating with so much of what she was describing that I thought, oh shit. It’s happening again. I’m depressed. Why didn’t I see it before? Of course I’m depressed. Why wouldn’t I be?

I still have a lot to figure out when it comes to my depression. Do I have a functional depression? Do I have Depression Lite (TM)? Does everyone have some degree of depression? Wouldn’t it be weird if I didn’t have some degree of depression with all the shit happening in the world and in my life? 

But depression is not the feeling that I’ve lived with my whole life that I’m trying to write about. 

***

Then I thought about ennui

When I first heard the concept of ennui in my British Literature After 1800 class in undergrad, I was elated. I finally had a name for that feeling I’d had for 19 years that was a lethal combo of restlessness and boredom. 

For those who aren’t familiar, ennui is a French term that means “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction.” Our English word “annoy” comes from ennui. It’s a word associated with the general attitude in the aftermath of the French revolution. It’s associated with youth and a sense of world weariness and jadedness. It can also be associated with a boredom and weariness that comes from living a life of privilege and “ease.” (Think Ryan Philippe’s character in Cruel Intentions — he’s the pinnacle of ennui. See also: any character in a Jean-Luc Godard film. See also: Monica Vitti’s character in L’Avventura.)

Of course I would feel ennui as a teenager. How could I not? I lived in a small town where there was nothing to do on a Friday night except go hang out at Wal-Mart or spend an hour in Blockbuster trying to figure out what movie to watch. Of course I would feel restless and bored and a relentless itch to do something or be anywhere else. 

However, that feeling has evolved in me. I still get restless, and I still get that relentless itch to do something or be anywhere else. But I would no longer call it ennui. 

Though I love ennui, and I love art that’s imbued with it, it is not the feeling I’ve lived with my whole life. 

***

And then I considered nostalgia. The longing for a past time, for the “good old days" (as if good old days ever existed, especially for anyone who is not white, not cisgender, not heterosexual, etc.).  

My preferred aesthetic, fashion-wise and music-wise and film-wise, is the ‘80s. I was only alive for half that decade, but god, do I love it. When I was a DJ for my college radio station, I would turn up my favorite ‘80s jams, sit in that tiny room, and wish so hard that music still sounded like that. 

It seems like we’re experiencing some kind of cultural nostalgia. We’re remaking movies that should never be remade, but not because they’re bad movies. Movies like The Karate Kid are so good because they tell good stories, but they’re also good because they are of their time. Karate Kid couldn’t be made in any other era. Just like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Just like The Crow. Just like Footloose. You can’t remake these movies successfully. 

Except Footloose. That remake was fun.  

Just kidding. That remake was pretty terrible. 

Nostalgia, though, is wistful. It’s yearning for a time that we remember fondly, that we think of without remembering the dark edges and the pain. (Not to mention the racism, the sexism, the xenophobia, the invisibility of queer and trans folks.) 

It’s wishing to go back to a time that never existed. 

***

And then, because I have a George Michael Pandora station, and it is basically the only thing I listen to these days, this song popped up: 

Weird ponytails and mullets aside, this song was my #1 favorite song of all time. (This was back when I had only experienced about 20 years of life, and could still maintain Top 5 lists with earnest and accuracy.)  

That song could remain at that #1 spot, if I still kept Top 5 lists. 

***

Hearing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that day awakened the melancholy. A depression of spirits. A pensive mood. It felt like coming home after a long day and curling up in bed with all my fluffiest pillows and blankets. 

Feeling that was a relief. Or a release. Or both. 

It’s strange to think that melancholy is this to me — something resembling home. That a feeling could be so comforting. 

***

When I was in undergrad, I was obscenely busy, but I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning, listening to bands like The Smiths and writing and sometimes crying. What did I write? Who knows. (It was before I had fully accepted that I was a writer, so I probably wrote long journal entries and love letters that never got sent to boys who weren't worth the attention.) 

What I do know was that when I listened to the music, it felt like there was finally a home for all the sadness that lived in me. When I first heard “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths, it felt like climbing into the coziest bed I could ever imagine, in a room that understood me without even needing to ask what was wrong.  

***

When I got to grad school, I gradually turned off my melancholy. I couldn’t afford to keep it around because I needed to get things done. I needed to be an adult — I had to teach, grade papers, write papers, write poems, write lesson plans, etc. There was no time to curl up in the cozy bed in the room that melancholy laid out for me.

And even though I was in a creative writing program, there was no room for feelings. (Ironically.) There was no room for me and all my stuff in this new life, and so, to survive, I eventually stopped listening to the songs that felt like home. 

***

I should say that my comfort only comes when it’s coupled with the music. Melancholy on its own is unsatisfying. It’s wholly unhomey. Melancholy experienced through music and film and art is the comfort. 

When art triggers something lonely in you. Triggers the loneliness in you. Connects to your lonely self.  

That is comfort. 

***

Maybe the relief also comes from feeling something other than panic, rage, stress, exhaustion. To feel anything else other than those things feels like a luxury these days. 

***

In “High Fidelity,” Nick Hornby writes, “Which came first — the music or the misery?” Are we miserable because we listen to sad music? Or does the sad music come because we are miserable? When I first read “High Fidelity,” I envisioned the answer was a mobius strip of sadness and music, one inextricable from the other. 

But now, when I think about melancholy and its containers, I think I actually have an answer. The sad, good music doesn’t come unless there is melancholy — or misery, as Nick Hornby says. 

I can’t just sit around and be pensive. It has to come out somehow. It has to express itself, whether it’s through the things that I actually write, or the things that I listen to. 

Music is kind of like fashion. We put on a particular outfit and we do our make-up in a particular way because it’s a way to express ourselves. Similarly, if we listen to music because we love it, we listen to the music that says all the things that we wish we could say, or didn’t know that we needed to say until now. 

That’s why mix tapes and mix CDs are such labors of love — each song is carefully chosen, the order is thought out. Every time someone gets a mix tape, they’re getting a little piece of the giver. The mix tape says all the things we’re too shy to say. They tell a story we didn’t know we wanted to tell until we started putting all the pieces together. 

***

(I once had a relationship where we expressed all our feelings and serious thoughts about “us” through song lyrics only. It was like we never spoke to each other — we only spoke to the music. It was wildly unhealthy and I don’t recommend it. If you must communicate your feelings in song lyrics, I advise that you do so with moderation. Try to use your own words in addition to the music. Use the music as a supplement, not the main vehicle. You'll be much better off.)

***

When I first started this essay a couple weeks ago, it felt so necessary. I wrote and re-wrote everything up until this point with urgency and laser focus. I accumulated a list of my favorite ‘80s songs that awakened the melancholy within. It felt so important that I parse out the things I felt, to name them and distinguish them from the other.

And then I left it for an entire week. I didn’t look at it. It was more than the regular letting-a-piece-breathe break. I straight up avoided it. When I thought of how urgently I wrote this, I felt a little embarrassed. I worried that, when I re-opened the document, all of this would just amount to nothing. I worried that everything I wrote would be another Cones of Dunshire situation. I thought, god, is this even anything worth reading? 

I don’t know if it’s anything worth reading, but I do know this now: it is worth writing.

Maybe it’s all a spectrum. The depression, the nostalgia, the ennui, the melancholy. All different shades of sadness. 

(In my Googling, I found this article, which opens up a whole new vocabulary and can of worms, so I’m not even going to talk about it. But if you’re still reading at this point, and you're interested, you should click on the link.)

Maybe what I was really born with is exhaustion and Sadness. (Yes, with a capital letter.) Some days it’s ennui. Some days it’s nostalgia. Some days it’s melancholy. Some days it’s depression. 

I don’t have any answers. 

What I do have, though, is music.

A love letter to mountains and coming home

As I write this, I’m sitting in the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, looking out over the tarmac and into the surrounding mountains. I love this view; I love these mountains. When I come home, I can’t seem to get enough of them. 

***

Yesterday, my Instagram story was comprised primarily of Boomerang videos of the trip my mom and I made to Reno. My brother saw it and said, “Seriously? Just a bunch of Boomerangs of the mountains? Are you kidding?”

It seems silly to my brother, someone who was born and raised out here, and then continued to live here. If you live out here — if you live on the west coast, in general — mountains are a given. If you’ve been surrounded by mountains your whole life, of course an Instagram story of a bunch of mountain Boomerangs are going to seem like a snooze. 

🌄🌄🌄🌄

A post shared by medusaironbox (@medusaironbox) on

***

I grew up in rural Nevada. I was born in a small town called Lovelock (population: about 2000), and when I was 5, we moved to the larger town of Winnemucca (population: about 8000). Though our zip code was Winnemucca’s, we actually lived 30 minutes outside of the town itself, putting us squarely in the middle of nowhere. 

When I lived there, I hated everything about it. I hated the landscape because it was always dry and only 5 shades of tan; I wanted lushness and green and trees and shade. I hated Winnemucca itself because it was small and full of conservative foolishness and cowboy poetry; I wanted art I didn’t understand and coffee shops and acoustic guitar shows. Winnemucca is big enough that you won’t know everyone’s name, but small enough that everyone looks familiar. I wanted to get lost in a crowd. I wanted no one to know who I was. 

***

When I graduated from high school, I moved to eastern Washington for college. The landscape felt similar, but with more trees and more people. It was just right for a girl from the country. 

I came back to Winnemucca for winter breaks and spring breaks and summer breaks, and felt the same disdain I always felt for it. As I got older and moved farther away, my visits became shorter and less frequent. And still, every time I came back, I felt that claustrophobia that I had always felt growing up, and the distinct urge to leave it all behind. 

***

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer last fall, I began coming back to Nevada once or twice a month, for a week or two (sometimes three) at a time. I usually stay with my brothers who live in Reno; they live in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of coffee shops and bookstores and restaurants, and they have reliable internet, which I need so I can work remotely. 

My most recent visit was for my mom’s birthday. Instead of staying in Reno, I decided to take a few days off to come back to Winnemucca.

***

Usually, when I come back to Winnemucca, I find it hard to do anything but anticipate leaving. Everything feels like a countdown. I think about all the things I need/want to do to help my parents out around the house, and how many days and how many hours I have to do them. I think about how there is nothing to do in town itself, and I think about my high school best friends who return home as infrequently as I do and rarely at the same time.

***

This time though, things were different. I was different. I am different. 

***

I’ve lived in Indiana for almost 9 years now. (Jesus, it’s been that long?) 

In the spring and summer, it is lush, green, and humid. There are trees everywhere. There is shade everywhere (kind of). It is flat, flat, flat. In the area of Indiana that I am in, there are “mountains,” but they are really just hills.  It is the opposite of Nevada. 

***

The Indiana landscape makes me claustrophobic. It’s flat, but there are so many trees that I can never get a good look at the sky. Looking up at the sky in Indiana feels like I’m looking through a porthole. 

(I was going to insert a picture of some Indiana landscape here, but I found that the last time I took a picture of Indiana was 7 months ago. Half of the photo is the water of Lake Monroe, a third of it is trees, and then there's a bit of sky. That was a different time -- it was summer, it was pre-election, it was pre-finding out my mom had cancer. It feels weird to insert it here now.)

Until I moved to Indiana, I never knew how much I needed to see the horizon. I never realized that mountains shaped me. That they gave me a chance to get to literal higher ground when I felt like I was metaphorically drowning. That mountains can hold you and also make you feel small. That feeling of smallness, of insignificance, is comfort to me. 

***

Winnemucca is located in a region called the Great Basin. It is surrounded on all sides by mountains. The city limits spill into the foothills of Winnemucca Mountain. 

In high school, we would go to the top during the day, explore the abandoned military buildings and climb into the old water towers. From up there, we could see the patchwork of farm land to the east, or the dull spread of the city itself, or follow I-80 as it stretched west toward Reno, or the expanse of sand dunes that lay behind the mountain itself, like a gigantic wrinkled sheet.

Or we would go to the top at night, and look out over the lights of the city. Winnemucca looked beautiful in the dark, sparkling and manageable. It seemed so much smaller from up there. So much easier to escape than it felt. All the feelings and events that loomed large in those days shrunk when I went to the top of that mountain. 

A bad photo of a photo. My best friend at the top of Winnemucca Mountain. 

A bad photo of a photo. My best friend at the top of Winnemucca Mountain. 

***

When I returned to Winnemucca this time around, I didn’t feel claustrophobic. I felt like I could finally breathe again and think clearly again. 

I took long walks around my parents’ property and thought, How could I ever feel claustrophobic here?

Because when you grow up in one place, it is inherently claustrophobic. Because it has contained you all this time, and you are growing, and, eventually, you want out of the thing that’s held you close for eighteen years. 

Some people get to leave. Some don’t. Some don’t want to leave. It’s all a journey. 

***

When I come back now, I breathe in that desert air, take in that blue sky, drink in that mountain horizon. 

I would be lying if I say I didn’t think about what it would be like to move back. What would it be like to live in Winnemucca as the person I am now? Would it be bearable? 

I don’t know. I honestly don’t. 

On avoiding writing, trusting my gut, & repetition

I was going to start this essay by saying that I have been avoiding the page, but that’s not true. I’ve been drafting poems and writing morning pages every day for the past two weeks.

I’ve just been avoiding essay 5. 

Why? I’m not sure. 

Sometimes, I think it’s because I’m not sure what to write about. 

But that’s not true. There’s plenty I want to write about — the WWE, country songs, Ink Master, having clutter, Ana Lily Armirpour films, Michael Ian Black, to keep or get rid of old photos, Friday Night Lights and all my nicknames for Tim Riggins, an ode to Coach Eric Taylor. And so on. I have no shortage of material for essays. 

And yet. Here I am. Writing about writing again. Writing about my feelings about not writing again. Writing about the things that I think keep me from writing again. 

And maybe that’s why I’ve been avoiding essay 5. Because though I have so many things percolating that I want to write about, the one that keeps rising to the surface is this one — avoidance. 

***

Every time I sit down to write this essay, I think about Jude Law’s character in I Heart Huckabee’s. He’s a schmoozy advertising executive who tells the same story over and over again about fooling Shania Twain into eating a tuna sandwich she didn’t want to eat. I think about the scene where the existential detectives have recorded every single instance in which Jude Law’s character has told the Shania Twain story, and they play every instance back to him in succession.

At first, Jude Law thinks his story is great; why wouldn’t he tell it every chance he gets? And then, after the 4th or 5th version of the story has been played back to him, he starts to sober. After the 6th or 7th version, he starts to literally vomit in his mouth. 

I love that scene so much. It’s hilarious and it’s sobering and it’s real. What’s realer than realizing that you tell the same story or say the same thing over and over again?

Every time I sat down to write essay 5, I felt like Jude Law’s character, hearing myself say the same thing over and over again. 

So I’d write a sentence, minimize the window, and go eat a cookie instead.

***

Some days, I think maybe I’m avoiding essay 5 because I’m afraid of writing something intimate, personal. Something I haven’t ever written about before.

But that’s also not true. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability and bravery any time we write and choose to put it out in the world — whether it’s publishing something on a blog or bringing a piece to workshop or showing a fresh poem to your partner or sending anything to a journal to be rejected or accepted or writing a personal statement. Whether I’m writing about Buffy or YA horror lit or my general exhaustion or being overwhelmed by the prospect of weddings or writing about writing — it’s all intimate and personal. Because I write things that I don’t usually say out loud. For me, that is writing for the jugular. 

***

Some days, I think I’ve been avoiding essay 5, simply because I’m burned out. I’m exhausted. This world we live in is exhausting and life on its own is exhausting. 

I’ve also withdrawn from my activity on social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. When I think about composing a post or a tweet, I get overwhelmed. Even thinking about re-posting or retweeting overwhelms me. 

It just feels like there’s too much some days (every day). Too much to say and too much to absorb. How do you choose what to post? How do you choose what to retweet? It seems like a simple thing, but for me, lately, it’s been a conundrum. So I just don’t.

I close the apps, minimize the windows, and go eat a cookie instead. 

***

I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe I’ve been avoiding essay 5 because I’m trying to find balance. And I’m not doing great. But I’m trying. 

I’m trying to find a balance between a public and private writing life. Between writing for this blog and the #52essays2017 project, and writing in a private space. Both are important. I love this blog and I love the #52essays2017 project and I love my horror project. 

But writing in a private space — as I have been — is essential, too. I’m seeing that now. Practicing writing in private — knowing that I will be the only person for quite awhile who sees this thing that I’m writing — feels good. It feels quiet and important. In a world where I’m bombarded every day by terrifying news and so many voices, it feels necessary to have a space where it’s just me. Just me and my voice and my writing. In that moment and the countless future moments that I will spend with my poems, my writing is no one else’s yet. It is mine until I decide that it’s ready to be someone else’s.  

***

I have to honor and trust my impulse. Writing about writing — about the process, about all the outside things that intersect with the act of writing itself, about where inspiration comes from — demystifies it. Sometimes, I look at prolific writers and think, How the hell are they doing this? 

I don’t know how they do it, but I know how I do it. I’m a slow writer these days, and a percolator. I marinate on thoughts and ideas for essays for awhile before I sit down to actually write them. When I finally get to writing, the words come quickly, but I take some time to revise. 

(And poems? Jesus. Forget about it. I used to be a fairly prolific poem writer, and now I’m the slowest poem writer in all the land.) 

When I write about writing, I’m demystifying the process for myself. I’m writing to bust the myths I’ve internalized over the years in undergrad and in an MFA program about writing and what being a writer looks like. I'm writing to define what being a "real" writer means to me, and me alone. I'm writing to get rid of all those other voices that tell me not only what is acceptable to write, but how to write it. I'm writing to find the rituals I need to make for myself as a writer, as opposed to the ones that are prescribed to me if I want to call myself a “real” writer. 

Part of it is acknowledging that the world and life and exhaustion and emotions affect my ability to write sometimes. Sometimes I just have to take a break. Yes, writing is one of the only places where I feel truly whole, but it can also be exhausting if I don’t balance my private and public writing lives. 

***

Avoiding essay 5 has been a lesson in trusting my impulse and my voice. If an idea keeps rising to the top, no matter how many times I think I’ve explored it, I need to take its hand and follow it into the woods.

A Kind of Ode to Surviving

I am tired. 

***

I woke up with Bikini Kill in my head this morning.

I woke up this morning feeling like I'd only gotten three hours of sleep. The feeling that you've completed a REM cycle, but not enough of them. And I realized that since January 20th, I haven't really gotten a good night's sleep. 

***

I woke up this morning wanting comfort, something familiar. Something shrill, gritty, something that could express my anxiety and anger and exhaustion and 'tude because I'm too fucking tired today. 

I've been trying to be kind to myself this week. I'm behind on so many things. I'm behind on #52essays2017, and I'm embarrassingly behind on my 33 Days of Horror project. I get so ambitious. For some, writing an essay or a post a week is completely feasible. They do it and they don't have trouble doing it. They do it on time. 

That is clearly not me. But I'm trying though. And I'm trying to be kind to myself. Keep in perspective all the plates I have spinning, and tell myself that it's okay for me to write in my Passion Planner that my focus for this week is "Rest and Recovery." That my personal to-do list for this week is "Write Essay #4" and "Mail package." That's it. (My professional to-do list is much longer. Maybe that's the trade-off.)

***

I marched in two protests in the space of 8 days. I seriously contemplated stocking up on poster board because there is no end in sight.

I've started a bunch of books but haven’t finished any of them because I can't figure out what I'm in the mood for. 

I'm not in the mood for any particular tv show, but I've found comfort in watching WWE with M because it feels cathartic to watch some people beat the hell out of each other with no investment in the outcome. Because I know it's not real. The stress put on the bodies in the ring is real, but the drama isn't. For some reason, that comforts me. 

Before going to a No Ban, No Wall protest, I made New Jersey Crumb Buns. The recipe is in the latest issue of Cook's Country, and when I decided to give it a try, I didn't realize that I would be making protest signs while I waited for the dough to rise.

Crumb buns and protest signs. #resistancebaker #NoBanNoWall

A photo posted by medusaironbox (@medusaironbox) on

***

I'm no good at cooking up a snappy, hard-hitting protest sign. I think too much about it. I want it to perfectly express my sentiments. I'm too much a poet when it comes to the protest sign, I think. M's is perfect -- his is the pink one. It's simple and unequivocally true.

Mine is the green one. Aside from the fucked up "C" in "country," it is inaccurate. This country was actually built by the violent colonization and genocide of the people who already lived here. It was built by people who were kidnapped, put on a boat, brought here, and forced into slavery.  

I thought of that when I was halfway through outlining my letters with a Sharpie. 

***

My mother immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. My father worked long hours, so in those first few years, it was my mom and me, all day, every day. My mom and me and her friends -- all Filipina immigrants. Though I grew up in rural Nevada, I spent more time with immigrants than I did with white folks.

I never learned Tagalog or Ilocano. I would sit with my mom and her friends and just listen. I never needed to know what was being said, but I took everything in -- every gesture, intonation, eye roll, wrist flick, hair flip, laugh. 

I look back on my childhood and see so much that's familiar and comfortable, so much that I'm nostalgic for. And so much that is untranslated. Unknowable. 

***

A friend saw my Instagram post of my protest signs and crumb buns, and she gently and kindly called me in on my inaccuracy. And I’m thankful for it. 

When I made my protest sign, I didn’t intend to erase our history of genocide, colonization, and slavery. When I made my protest sign, I was thinking of my mother and all of her friends and the people I grew up with. 

***

In the grand scheme of things, the sign I made is not the biggest deal. But I hate to think that I was careless with my words. That with one sentence, I could erase the complexity of history. And that that sentence would be something that I held up at a protest, a place that I believe, at its best, should honor and reflect intersectionality and complexity. 

No one will remember my sign, and anyone who did notice it has most likely and hopefully moved on. And I’m still here, trying not to beat myself up, trying not to be embarrassed. 

This is what I mean some days when I say I’m trying to be kind to myself.

***

I started this essay two weeks ago. Since I started it, I’ve been traveling and working and not diving too deep into social media, trying to keep my head above water. I’ve been surviving, trying to keep myself at a baseline of care. Keeping myself fed, doing yoga when I can, seeing friends because I know I need to, keeping my energy reserves at just full enough to get by. 

I don’t know where to end this. I just know that I’m tired (it’s only been three and a half fucking weeks of this administration), and I’m emotionally curling up next to all the things that give me comfort. 

And I’m trying to get back on my feet. I’ll get there.

For now, though, I'm going to let this essay be what it is: messy, raw, trying to find itself, not quite getting there. And I'm going to let it go so I can move on to the next thing. 

Hump Day Finds: Lady Lamb

I know there are more important things happening in the world, and I should be working on essay 4 of #52essays2017, but I need a break. (Don't we all? Jesus.) 

So I'm here today to spread the good word of Lady Lamb.  

I know zero about her other than the fact that she's been getting me through some of these darker days. Usually, when times get tough, I head straight for the Ace of Base, the George Michael, the '80s and '90s jams that drown out anything but the feeling of a warm, fuzzy nostalgia for a time that probably never existed. 

These days, though, Lady Lamb is where I'm choosing to rest my head. 

I love that this song starts off by taking your hand and then running off into a dark forest without letting go. There are moments that let you catch your breath, but it ends the same way it began -- by running into the darkness.

What I love about "Spat Out Spit" is that it sneaks up on you. Not until she gets to the silence (rest? I don't know any music vocabulary) in the middle of the song and starts singing "Was I born wild? Have I been asleep this whole damn time?" do you realize that you've got a lump in your throat, and you, too, are feeling a little feral. 

The first thing I noticed about Lady Lamb was that her voice sounds a little Feist-y. (Like Feist. YOU know.) But it becomes clear very quickly that Lady Lamb is not the gentle, whimsical Feist

***
There's a Twitter account that just tweets Lady Lamb lyrics. M came across it when the account retweeted one of M's tweets about Lady Lamb. We couldn't figure out if it was a bot or a real person who's just obsessed with her lyrics (and her?), but there's definitely a tweet slipped in there about a Sunday plan to get drunk in a car with their ex-girlfriend, see Lady Lamb, cry hysterically for 2 hours, and go to bed feeling lighter. 

Honestly, no judgment. If Twitter had been around when I was in high school or college, that is probably something I would have tweeted, almost verbatim. Except I would have been alone for all of it -- no ex, no friends, no Lady Lamb. Just me, crying hysterically for 2 hours and then going to bed. (Seriously, no pity. I'm fine.)

This song is gorgeous, but I honestly just want to talk about this jacket she's wearing. I would throw down some serious cash for that jacket and add to my collection of varsity jackets that M doesn't think I need. (Please.)

I'm going to leave you with Lady Lamb's entire KEXP performance. It's well worth the 30 minutes, so just sit your ass down, focus, and listen. This will help you get through your day today, I promise. 

(Also, Lady Lamb is touring the country and playing in people's actual living rooms.)

(Oh my god, she also wrote a manifesto to go along with her latest album, Tender Warriors Club. A woman after my own heart.)

(And this t-shirt! Maybe I need to start my own Twitter account so I can just gush about Lady Lamb in real time, whenever and wherever.)

Reflections on the Women's March, unity, & discomfort

Around 3:00pm on inauguration day, M and I decided to join the sister Women’s March up in Indianapolis. It was a decision I made with some reluctance because of all the shit surrounding its inception and organizing, but I finally decided to go.

Why? I’m not actually sure. On inauguration day, I felt unexpectedly raw. I had actually been doing pretty well, emotionally speaking, up until that point. I had hope. I had motivation to move forward. I had a sense of letting go, and an acceptance that, sure, the Cheeto would be our President, but we’d be okay somehow.

I’d also been avoiding all of the Obamas’ goodbye speeches, and all in-depth news about the incoming administration. Headlines were good enough for me. 

On the morning of January 20th, I watched the footage of Obama’s last moments in the Oval Office, and I lost it. I didn’t expect to lose it, but there I was.

***
A lot of people in my life salivate over Obama and romanticize his presidency. I am not one of them, and neither is M (and when it even sounds like I’m heading in that direction, he is there to check my ass). On his watch, more undocumented people were deported than any other president. His authorization of drone strikes have killed hundreds of innocent people in the Middle East.

Obama did some truly great things, but he’s also behind some of the most problematic and dehumanizing events in our history.

***
So there I was, crying tears that I didn’t expect to come.

My reaction was so extreme, not because Obama was leaving — I mean, he’d be leaving no matter who won the election. That’s how it works. Two terms, max.

Instead, I was mourning the beginning of the Trump era.

***
That day, everything felt so quiet. When I went downtown, the energy was subdued, even though there were inauguration protest activities being held. That same feeling of wanting to hide that I felt in the days following the election crept up on me. Everywhere I looked, there were crowds of white folks, and I felt unsettled and unsafe.

M and I had been planning to go to the local inauguration rally and march, which were being held that evening. But I couldn’t do it that day. I couldn’t march or rally in a crowd where I would be one of a handful of brown people.

But we wanted to march somewhere, so we decided to go to Indianapolis. I thought, surely there were would be more people at that march who looked like me. 

***
The turn out in Indy was huge. The local news sources report that around 5,000 people showed up; the organizers say it was 10,000. I don’t know which number is true, but there were a lot of people there.

The signs were clever, and woman-centered and genitalia-specific. I saw maybe one “Black Lives Matter” sign. I saw one “Water is sacred” sign.

At one point, the crowd was called upon to look around, to look at our neighbors, and “see how diverse we are.” I looked around, and I was surrounded by white folks.

***
Sure, we could say Indiana is very white, and that would be true.

What’s also true, though, is that Black folks and people of color do exist in Indiana. To say that a place (like Indiana, or Portland or Seattle, and so on) is very white erases the existence of the Black folks and POC who live in those spaces. Just because they are not visible in white spaces doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It means that white folks are not paying attention. It means that white folks are creating spaces where Black folks and POC are not and do not feel welcome. It means that white folks are creating spaces that are not accessible to Black folks and POC. The same is true of undocumented folks, immigrants, queer folks, Native folks, Muslims, disabled, and trans folks.

What’s also true is that the Women’s March, in general, was largely attended by white women.

***
Now. This isn’t to say that Black folks and POC and undocumented and Native and immigrant and trans and Muslim and disabled and queer folks were not marching. What I am saying is that while the march brought lots of white women joy and hope and uplifted spirits, many of the experiences of marginalized and underrepresented folks were very different.

Many people I know marched wherever they were, white and underrepresented alike. Many people I know opted out of marching. Everyone's reasons are valid for doing what they did.

***

Who Didn't Go To The Women's March Matters More Than Those Who Did

***
I’ve been struggling. With the grandiosity and historic moment of the Women’s March — how incredible it was to see 2.5 to 5 million people out and marching against this new administration. When we came home from the Indy march, I stayed glued to social media because I was amazed by the sheer size of the crowds. I also love snappy protest signs, and there was no shortage of them. In my Facebook and Twitter feeds, people were sharing photos of the local march they were attending. There were some who I never expected to be attending a march and posting, in detail, all the reasons they were marching.

My Filipina mother and my trans parent marched in Reno. It was the first time either of them had ever participated in anything like it. My trans parent said she thought she was the only one who felt this way; the march helped her feel not so alone and the energy she felt as she marched filled her with joy. My mother said the march was “kinda fun” and talked about the little girls she saw giving out daisies.

When I see the march through their eyes, I think, yes. I’m glad for the Women’s March.

***
And I also think of all the marginalized and underrepresented people who were not represented at the more visible marches. Those who marched and were ridiculed and/or disrespected by white women. Those who feel strongly, for a host of reasons, that this march was not for them.

***

***

A couple nights ago, we went to see Roxane Gay read. She was everything I thought she would be, which is to say, she was a badass human who I would genuinely love to sit down and have coffee with.

Someone asked what her thoughts were about the Women’s March, and she said, “I think it’s great.” She acknowledged that some people had behaved like assholes, but that was to be expected when you get 2.5 to 5 million people together. She acknowledged that there were a lot of things to be desired, but on the whole, the fact that so many people came together to voice dissent was powerful.

***

Woman in Viral Photo from Women's March to White Female Allies: 'Listen to a Black Woman'

***

I guess the conclusions I’m coming to are that both things can be true at the same time: that the Women’s March, despite all its shortcomings and issues of representation, was an incredible moment. Everyone marched for different reasons and in different ways, but we were all there together to show the new administration that their asses are on notice.

At the same time, we also have to listen to the voices and experiences of the marginalized and underrepresented folks. Both the folks who marched and the folks who didn’t. Because I guarantee that their experiences and voices will express something that will clash with a white woman’s experience of the march, and it will be uncomfortable. It might temper some joy. It might bring some white folks back to reality.

And that’s okay. I don’t want to hear that voicing dissent or anger is “divisive.” I don’t want to hear calls for “unity” that sacrifice and silence the voices of underrepresented and marginalized folks. Either your feminism is intersectional or it is not feminism. We have to truly and actively listen to each other — in particular, white women who want to continue in this movement must listen to and reckon with those voices who express experiences and ideas that poke holes in the little joy bubbles they’ve been living in.  

Because, white folks, that’s a huge part of working for justice, and it’s just as important now as it was before the human Cheeto took office. Fighting for justice sometimes means hearing hard things and sitting in discomfort. Reckoning with the role you play in systems of oppression and white supremacy. Constantly checking in with yourself and asking, “How have I participated in replicating a system of oppression today? How can I change that?” Speaking up and speaking loudly when you see a fellow white person do or say something fucked up.Educating yourself and not relying on marginalized folks to teach you what you don’t know. Recognizing your privilege. Not shying away from difficult and awkward conversations. 

As Roxane Gay said during her reading, “Why does having an uncomfortable conversation mean that we’re not getting along?”

***

Activist Raquel Willis talks about her reaction to the huge turnout to the Women's March and where to go from here

***

So why did I go to the sister march in Indy?

I’m still not sure. It wasn’t necessarily to feel hope. I already have hope. Because I know and work alongside people who have been organizing and fighting for justice long before the Cheeto administration was a sparkle in anyone’s eye. Since the election, the work hasn’t changed, but our timelines and resources have. For some of us, our tactics have to change as well.

The best answer I can come up with now is that I wanted to witness. I wanted to witness those who were there, and especially witness those who weren’t.

***

Shirley Power

***

Marches and rallies are not the only action we should take. The Women’s March was an incredible energizer and momentum-builder, especially for those who felt terrified, paralyzed, and alone. But the work doesn’t stop there.

The real work for justice often isn’t as sexy as a 2.5 to 5 million woman march. It involves following local and state legislation, calling your legislators. It means being informed and staying up-to-date on what the fuck is going on. It means finding out who’s already doing the work you want to get involved in, and it means getting out there in your community and getting your hands dirty. It means showing up for the underrepresented communities in your town, city, state. It means speaking up when you see something fucked up happen, whether it’s in the office, in the classroom, or on someone’s Facebook wall. 

And don’t be afraid of discomfort. Lean into it. I promise, it will make you a better human.

***

What's Next After All the Marches? Organize.

***

On DNCE and the freight train that is January 20th.

This is my second essay of the #52essays2017 challenge, and I’m very late in posting it. I’m late in posting it because I couldn't put my finger on the pulse of what it was I was trying to say last week (now, this week). What is in my heart and mind for this second essay of 2017 that needs to be said. 

I started writing about DNCE because I’m so fascinated by them, for some reason. Then I started writing separately about George Michael, and then I put the two together, and tried to find a way to braid together my thoughts on Joe Jonas and George Michael and sexuality and sensuality and objectification and sex positivity and some snarkiness about the DNCE bass player who has a mohawk. 

And then it started to feel like a Cones of Dunshire situation.

Yes, that was me, on Saturday evening, looking over what I had written and thinking, "This is nothing, isn't it?" 

So my essay about George Michael is going to stay separate (as it should have always been), but I’m going to follow the DNCE thread and see where it takes me. 

***

Maybe what I mean when I say I’m fascinated by DNCE is that I can’t stop listening to them. It was a slow conversion. Over the holidays, while shopping with my mom, I heard “Toothbrush” in nearly every store we went into (literally). 

Now, when I first heard of DNCE over the summer, I saw their album cover and thought, That guy looks like Joe Jonas. Is that Joe Jonas?  I looked up DNCE and didn’t see any mention of Joe Jonas or the Jonas Brothers at all. (Granted, I didn’t look that hard.)  So, I shrugged and thought, I guess that’s just a guy who really looks like Joe Jonas. I felt like the world was maybe a bit off its axis, though, because that guy really looked like a Jonas brother, but maybe I was wrong. 

When I first saw the “Toothbrush” video, I was like

What went through my mind: 

Yes, that’s definitely a Jonas brother, and it’s definitely the one that wore a purity ring. 

Joe Jonas is making out with a woman with a normal-ass body?! EXCUSE me?! 

WHO is this badass woman guitarist?! 

WHO does this mohawk guy think he IS?! 

Does Joe Jonas not know how to do this, the unchoreographed dancing and being a cool lead singer thing? Why is he so awkward? What is happening right now? 

I thought maybe it was a fluke. All of it. Joe Jonas making out with a normal-sized woman, Joe Jonas not knowing how to be cool. This weird group of people making a song that legitimately moved me to get down in the middle of a Forever 21.

So then, I watched “Cake By The Ocean.” (You should skip to 0:37 because who needs a lengthy intro to a staged cake fight right now?)

(M finds the image of eating cake by the ocean unsettling. I find it delightful. Decadent. Syrupy-sweet. Could I handle that much sugar and sunshine in one go? I don’t know, but I’d be willing to try.)

So, in this video, there are lots of women in bathing suits, and some of them are normal-sized. There are lots of shots of butts, but the women are all wearing functional bathing suits and they're using their bodies in ways that are athletic and realistic. 

Okay, I thought. So maybe that’s not a mistake. Alright, I see you, DNCE. 

And then there’s Joe Jonas. Wearing all white. And still being awkward as hell. (Him saying, "Fucking delicious" -- please. Awkward af.)

So then I thought maybe I was being a jerk. Maybe my expectations for pop band lead singer swagger are too high.

Then I watched “Body Moves.” 

***

There are other things happening in the world. The Republicans are already voting to gut the ACA with no replacement, no plan, no foresight. The President-elect’s cabinet picks are showing how truly inexperienced, ridiculous, and self-serving they are. Total abortion ban legislation has been introduced at state and federal levels. Once the President-elect takes office, he can fill that empty Supreme Court Justice seat with anyone he wants. And he's also apparently going to start building that wall bordering Mexico. How it will be paid for is anyone’s guess and we all know who will be building it. 

The list of things that are looming on the horizon doesn’t end there. It goes on and on and on and…

Every time I think about it, my chest starts to get tight. At every headline that pops up on my phone, I can’t do anything but laugh. Out of desperation, helplessness. It’s a nervous laughter. It’s the kind of laughter that happens when I see something fucked up and I don't want to let the anger take over. My Twitter feed is overwhelming, but also a comfort, at times. 

Right now, it feels easier to be weirded out by how Joe Jonas doesn’t seem to know how to be a lead singer. 

***

Here’s the thing about Joe Jonas. I don’t mind his outfits, and I don’t mind his look. It’s that his look over promises, and his act under delivers. For god’s sake, he’s wearing a goddamn Freddie Mercury outfit in “Body Moves.” Or, I should say, the outfit is wearing him. Joe Jonas does not currently have the swagger to pull it off or pay homage or reinvent. It seems like he doesn’t know how to be in his body. How to use it, how to inhabit it fully. 

He doesn’t know how to be sexy? 

***

The truth is that, aesthetically, DNCE has a template. They know how to perform like rock stars, but without the grit. They perform like boy band stars who want so badly to be bad boys. They lure you in with that sweet boy band voice and those high notes, the lead singer who looks really attractive when he's motionless, funk-ish (?) guitar action, the fun vocal details (like that wolf-y "Ah-woo!" in "Toothbrush"), the ever-catchy hook. 

The “Body Moves” video is full of sex. I get what they’re going for — a fun, sexy, orgiastic video that’s full of youth and nostalgia (for the early '00s, but it's nostalgia, just the same). It’s also full of bodies that are being objectified, mostly women’s bodies, all thin. No normal bodies here. The only Black body that is prominently featured is that of a Black woman, and we only see her ass as she twerks. Also featured in those shots is the bassist, the white guy with the mohawk, with his face next to her ass, with a look of goofy astonishment. 

***

So it turns out that DNCE is just like all the others. The music is so much fun and it’s so catchy. 

And their videos reach toward something refreshing, but still leave so much to be desired. Just like so many others. 

***

We’re about to enter a world where we have a President with no scruples. No experience. No empathy. No idea what it takes to be the leader of a supposed democratic country, not a corporation. The crew that he’s bringing with him are equally unqualified, unscrupulous, and lack any sort of empathy whatsoever. 

This is not to say that Obama was perfect. He is certainly far from it. There are things to celebrate, and there are things to condemn. There is a complexity to Obama’s presidency that I am comfortable sitting in, that is less overwhelming to think about. It feels manageable to me, to contemplate the last 8 years, and to reckon with the things that deserve celebration and the things that deserve closer examinations and calls for justice. 

With the upcoming administration, I am quickly buried under the avalanche of everything that is to come. With all the things that are possible. I am stunned at the lack of nuance in the rhetoric of our President-elect and all those who are banding together in support of him. 

***

I’m not going to stop listening to DNCE. Yes, they’re saccharine, they’re slick, they’re plastic. They’re formulaic, they are filling in the blanks on a template. (That mohawk guy could be a dealbreaker for me, but I just won’t look at him, even though he tries so hard to be different from the rest of his bandmates.) 

But goddamn, is this shit catchy.

***

We have to find joy in whatever we can these days. Sometimes, it feels like joy is an act of resistance. Turning our back on the impending future for just a moment, and finding the light and love within to be able to dance, to smile, to laugh, in the face of so much that vows to crush us. 

So I will continue to crank that business up and sing along as I put on that eyeliner, slick on that lipstick, and get ready to smash the patriarchy every day.

2017 : The Year of No Intention

On New Year’s Eve, two years and six days ago, M asked me to take a walk in subzero temperatures. The sun was shining, and that feels rare in an Indiana winter, so I said, Sure, why not? We went downtown and stopped at a coffee shop we never go to (and haven’t gone to together since) and bought warm beverages. From there, we wandered onto campus and found ourselves at the Rose Well House, a gazebo where M and I had lunch together for the first time. 

M started talking about the history of the gazebo, the legend about it, how it came to be, and what it was made out of. It was all very interesting, but I wondered why he knew all of this and why he was telling me now. 

I knew it was going to happen about 10 seconds before it actually happened. It feels like it happened in slow motion, but I’m sure it was only a few seconds. 

Standing in that gazebo, with both the sun and the moon visible in the sky at the same time, M asked me to marry him. 

I was surprised. In shock. Freezing. 

And I reacted the way most people do in those videos of proposals: I gasped, covered my mouth, and cried, even though it was far too cold for me to cry as many happy tears as I wanted to. 

And I said, yes. Of course. 

A few minutes later, the campus clock began chiming the hour.  

It couldn’t have been a more perfect moment for the two of us. 

***

Even before this moment, New Year’s Eve has always been my favorite holiday. I’m good at celebrating a new year. I’m good at dancing all night, I’m good at counting down, I’m good at drinking champagne. I’m good at cooling my face on the bathroom floor on New Year’s Day. 

More recently, I’ve been good at eating well and hydrating so I can wake up sans hangover on New Year’s Day.

I’ve been good at knowing what I want to work on for the coming 12 months. I’m good at setting intentions, and I’m good at working hard at them and being kind to myself when I fail (usually). 

This year, though, I haven't been able to come up with one or two words to set my intentions for the coming year. I’ve tried to sit down and write out what I want for myself and out of myself, and my body resists it. I feel like I’d rather crawl out of my own skin than write down what I want in 2017. 

***

I love New Year’s rituals. My mom does, too. She’s collected so many over the years, both from Filipino culture and others. On New Year’s Eve, when the clock strikes midnight, she opens the front and back doors to let out the old energy, and lights candles at both open doors. She fills her pockets with silver dollars and walks around the house, throwing silver dollars around the perimeter. On January 1st, she doesn’t leave the house (unless it’s to go to church), she wears as much polka dots as possible, keeps those silver dollars in her pockets, and makes black-eyed pea stew. Her new tradition is to eat 1 round fruit a day for the first 13 days of the year. 

***

When M and I started telling people we were engaged, the responses varied so widely. Everyone wanted to know when the wedding was. Our joke was, “Oh, we don’t know. One, one-and-a-half, two, two-and-a-half years from now?” To each other, we said, "Isn't it enough that we finally made this commitment to each other? Why do we have to rush this?"

When people started asking questions about dates, the ceremony, dresses, bridal parties, I started to realize how uncomfortable I felt with the whole thing. I wasn’t uncomfortable with my commitment to M — far from it. In those early days of our engagement, it felt like we were in this cozy, private bubble that no one and nothing could enter. The world was what we made it, and we were making it our home. 

What was making me feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable was all the tradition around weddings and gender roles and marriage. When I looked at wedding dresses on Pinterest, I started clenching my jaw and felt a rage cry bubble up in my chest. All the dresses looked the same, they cost so much money, and I just hated them. All of them. When it came to the ceremony, there were so many options, and so many of them were patriarchal nonsense or cheesy or creepy or not reflective of who M and I are. 

I could go on and on about everything that overwhelmed me when I started to think about planning a wedding. I don’t know about M, but for me, it felt like there are so many expectations on every aspect — the wedding itself and how we should do it, and where we should do it, who we should invite, picking the right color scheme. And then even more expectations and projections on who we’re going to be as a married couple — the old “You’ll see when you have kids” routine, the “You think you don’t want kids now, but you’ll change your mind” routine, the old “Is the old lady being a ball and chain?” routine. And on and on and on. 

***

When I sit down to map out my intentions for 2017, I am overwhelmed by uncertainty. It feels like I’ve just been washed up on the shore after being sucked under by a wave and tumbled around violently. It feels like I finally have the ground under me, and I finally know which way is up, but I don’t know where I am and I don’t know what to do from here. 

And god dammit, shouldn’t it feel that way? It should fucking feel that way. 2016 was a real shit show of a year, but the past three years for me have been full of life-razing moments. In the past three years, one of my parents came out as a trans woman, M and I got engaged, I fell into a new career path, I had the privilege of being accepted and able to attend the VONA/Voices writing workshop in Miami and the Pink Door Women’s Writing Retreat, and my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. 

And that’s not even mentioning all the other things happening in the world to marginalized folks that always weigh heavy in my mind and heart. Police brutality against Black folks with no repercussions, mass shootings, stripping away reproductive rights and access, the Dakota Access Pipeline, the weight of daily microagressions, and and and. As I'm writing this, I'm thinking of all the things I'm not mentioning here. It's too much to write out all in one place. 

The results of this election were the thing that finally broke me. 

***

Since the election. I’ve been trying to figure out how to look into the future and still be able to get out of bed in the morning. 

There is so much uncertainty that lies ahead. I don’t know what the world will look like. I don’t know what will actually happen. I know what I’m afraid will happen, but I have (some) hope that it won’t turn out that way. For once, I truly have no idea what lies ahead. Sincerely. 

And it’s terrifying. Because it’s hard not to know what you’ll run into in the dark. 

***

M and I still haven’t gotten married. But we’re close. We’re getting there. I think we’re finally ready to do this thing, and do it our way. 

***

In times of uncertainty — in times of possibility — we turn to ritual to maximize the potential and luck of what will come next. All those new year’s rituals might not have any influence on the future. But who's to say that they won't? 

Coming up with intentions for the new year has been my ritual. And this year, 2017, I’m not going to do it. I can’t. My body won't let me. I have to leave everything I know behind. All the old tricks that worked in the past just ain’t gonna cut it anymore. It’s time to clear away all the old shit, all the old equations. 

This is a time to be radical. To uproot everything that I know. This is a time for revolution. In society, yes, but also in the self. 

It’s time to do something new. To make something new. To be new. 

***

So I won’t set intentions for the year. What I will do? I’m going to marry my guy. I’m going to keep writing. I'm going to write 52 essays in 2017 (this is the first). I’m going to be active. I’m going to care for myself. I'm going to follow my heart, my intuition, and my gut. And I’m going to see who I become and where it all goes.