February

In Cleveland, there was a saying that said March came “in like a lion and went out like a lamb.” February in Edinburgh started out freezing; the sidewalks were sheets of ice, snow fell down, horizontally, and occasionally up, and we sometimes didn’t go outside for days on end, it seemed. Now, with the daffodils and snowdrops pushing up, the days getting longer, and the birds flitting and flirting, it is as close to tee-shirt weather as it gets in Scotland.

Books. When I spoke to Matt Jones about how to read more books, there was one thing I totally missed: if I want to read more books, I have to pick up books that I can’t put down. Unless a book is completely fascinating, or I have some obligation to read it, then I will clean the toilet – multiple times – rather than read it. If I love a book, I will create hours that did not previously exist in order to read just one more page, one more chapter.

The first two weeks of February were spent reading Uncanny Valley. It reminded me of Taleb’s aphorism, “One of the shortest books I’ve ever read had 745 pages. The longest book I’ve ever read was 205 pages.” In many ways, it was a compliment to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: instead of being about a privileged young white male in San Francisco in the 1990s who is recovering from the death of two parents, it is about a privileged young white female in San Francisco the 2000s who previously suffered the indignity of being forced to borrow money from her parents to afford a cashmere dress. It got a lot of good publicity, and two people recommended it to me specifically, but I found it to be a deathly slog – at least a third could have been lopped off to the benefit of the whole. Actually, here is a summary: there is a lot of money and power in San Francisco, and the city is changing because of it, and the author’s hands were wrung raw because she participated in those changes by moving in, renting an apartment by herself, and working as a well-paid employee at a series of tech firms. Also, she knew some of the rich people, and ate at expensive restaurants. The end.

To get the taste out of my mouth, I picked up Huckleberry Finn. Sweet Jesus, what a magnificent book. I still – a week after finishing it – intellectually know that it is a remarkable book for adults, but emotionally, I still feel that it is a book for children, rather than about a child and, brilliantly, from the perspective of a child, written to adults who can understand what the narrator actually sees, even if the narrator cannot. The journey down the Mississippi, the grinding frontier poverty, the inhumanity, the love – it swept me away with its story of America, and America that maybe existed in great part, just a few generations ago. Barbarism was with us yesterday; it is breathing down our necks today. I don’t know of any book that really brought it home in such a multifaceted, complex way as Huckleberry Finn – maybe A People’s History of the United States? Maybe. And the last scene made me laugh so hard that I had to leave the room because it was disturbing Alice’s reading.

Then: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a recommendation from my sister. Painful. Heart-wrenching. Beautiful. Of course, poetic. It reminded me of an Asian-American Literature course that I took at Pitzer. When my advisor found out that I am half-Chinese, he thought it would be advisable for me to take it without any of the pre-requisites. The course focused on the Asian-American experience as it was depicted in literature, but most of the books and poems we read were notable solely because they were written by Asian-Americans; otherwise, they seemed to possess very little substance, very little of interest, very little literary merit. They reinforced stereotypes (the author’s parents inevitably paid as little as possible for everything, started a small business of some kind, emphasized a good education, etc.). There was always a feeling of being different. They struggled to fit in. They got a book deal, despite not really having much else to say, and not really being able to say it well.

In contrast, Ocean Vuong is an incredible writer; the interweaving of memories, first and third person, the letter to the narrator’s mother, mental illness, racism, family dynamics, the searing memories that make the reader cringe and compel them forward – all of it combines to drive the reader forward, page by page. There are a few parts that are funny enough to induce asthma attacks, but I felt immense amounts of sympathy and pity for the narrator, as well as shame for what America did in Vietnam, and gratitude that things might be getting better for all sorts of minorities. It is a long road. As a father, I hope Daniel can contribute to making things better – to being kind.

And Justin Smith keeps coming out with pieces that make my head explode in wonder.

And creations this month.

First: thanks to Mike Beer, our kitchen suddenly had two kilograms of oranges from Seville. It was another moment of wonder: in America, we know about oranges from Seville, but if someone had asked me to place it on a map, I naturally would have assumed that they meant the oranges came from Seville, California. But Mike gave us two crates, and suddenly I was boiling oranges in a giant cast iron cauldron, and then slicing them, and mixing them with sugar, and sterilizing jars, and seeing if the marmalade actually set, and then pulling the Le Parfait tab to spoon some out onto sourdough, and thinking about how far my life has come. I can imagine that one day, Daniel will be angry that it took him so long to get Mexican food, and he will think that it was stupid for me to ever move away from a place where surf wax is useful rather than silly. Right now, I am amazed that some Spanish trees grew these oranges, and they are sitting, preserved by me, in our kitchen.

Three litres of marmalade.

We still had two 200ml jars from 2017 and 2018 that we hadn’t even gotten half-way through.

Then: Mrs. Thomas, my 10th and 12th-grade English teacher, inspired me to make soap. I did, scenting it with lavender oil, and…amazing. I remembered part-way through that it was not actually my first time making soap; the first time was in perhaps 2010 or 2011, with Melissa Klimko-Major in the basement of the Salty Not Sweet space when it was still on Waterloo, in Cleveland. I met Melissa through Candra Squire, and I met Candra after she god blackout drunk and did a PechaKucha presentation; I laughed so hard that my girlfriend at the time got jealous. Melissa wanted to start offering soap workshops, and asked me to test out the process with a few friends. I asked, a couple of weeks before, if I could make a whiskey soap – I had a few extra bottles of bourbon, and wanted to use one up. She said yes, but that I had to boil off all of the alcohol first. So the night before the workshop, I emptied a bottle of bourbon into a pot and put it on the stove.

I watched it closely, as I knew that if I did not, it might just all boil off. I stirred it until it started boiling, then tried to get a sense of how high it was in the pot so that I could stop it…well, when it was low enough that I thought the alcohol would all be gone. Then my knees collapsed.

I stumbled to the kitchen chair and called my friend Knut.

“Hey man,” I said, “Is it possible to get drunk from boiling alcohol and inhaling it?”

Knut is an incredible person, generally, but one of the best things about him is his complete lack of judgment about anything; his scientific training seems to extend to being able to look at any situation as a curious phenomenon to be studied. He is also a genius.

“So…what are you doing?” he asked.

I explained. He knew about the soap workshop because he was going to come on it, too.

“Oh! Yes, actually you can get drunker quicker that way,” he said. He then told me that at his small, elite science college in Los Angeles, students actually created alcohol vaporizers that allowed users to inhale shots; they were apparently subsequently banned in California because it was so easy to inhale too much alcohol. They were popular at parties.

“Just open a window,” he said.

The bourbon soap…well, I have forgotten it. But the lavender soap turned out lovely. And cheap! I am pretty excited about using it up, and giving it as gifts. Daniel thinks it smells “Niiiiiiiice.”

He is starting to get aggressive about participating when I make things. He always wants to poke his fingers into the sourdough and pinch bits off to stretch,

He likes helping me press down on my Aeropress to make coffee,

And now, he likes turning the pasta crank to roll out pasta.

I can’t wait for his college roommates to come on holiday with us and telling us that Daniel has a reputation for knowing how to cook – bread, pizza, chickens, cakes, muffins, pancakes, crepes, soups.

And it is really Daniel I am writing for now. He is getting big, but we barely notice. He is talking, and repeating things; he knows numbers, and letters, and counts, and does the “Ooo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo” in Havana (remix), and seems to know half the lyrics to Boogaloo Supreme (even if he can only say “Boo Sking” when he wants to listen to it). He anticipates words in books, and knows numbers, and a few days ago, pointed at a door and said, “EIGHTY! SIX!” when it had an 86 in a number plate. I don’t ever remember counting to 86 with him, or pointing it out. And he has a mental map of where things are – LIDL, where he knows how to request croissants by shouting “CWAH! SA!” and the two houses with giant cats that ignore him, and his friends’ houses, and the train station, where we play a game called “Choo Choo Hi” which involves standing at the end of the platform and, as a train approaches or leaves, waving with both hands at it and saying “CHOO! CHOO! HI!” and then “CHOO! CHOO! BYE!” Often the conductors blow their horns and wave back; often passengers wave back. This month, one of the ticket collectors who had seen him decided to put some stickers on a blank ticket and give it to him, so now he always insists on bringing his tickets to the station when we go.

March: I hope to write a book, read a lot more, and prioritise better. And run. Our company is raising money for Hospitality Action; please give early, and often!

And be kind.

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