May and June

“Books like these address a fundamental existential puzzle: although everyone knows what it means to be a dog or a honeybee, no one really knows what it means to be a human being. A honeybee flies out, collects pollen, and brings it back to the hive. Next day, it does everything all over again. The honeybee doesn’t ask itself, Is this all there is? But people do ask themselves that question. We think, This is my one shot at existence. Could I be doing it better? And there have always been other people eager to tell us (sometimes for a fee) how we could. Why shouldn’t we listen to them? We could pick up a helpful tweak. Whatever else we might want to say about the books in McHugh’s canon, millions of people have clearly found them empowering.” – Louis Menand

I slowed down a bit in May and June in terms of numbers of books, but not in terms of pages read.

The Sun Also Rises – my annual start-of-summer read. Every time I pick it up, I read something new – and, if I am calculating it correctly, this is the 17th year in a row I have read it at least once. This year, it was finding out that the count purchased hampers of champagne; I have known what a hamper is for a long time, but this is the first time I realised that Hemingway was writing about the same type of hampers as we get at Fortnum & Mason. Perhaps it was because hampers were in my mind – the students next door moved out, and before they did, they brought us a big hamper from Fortnum full of treats to thank us for being so kind to them. It was wonderful to realise that just a few simple acts of kindness could be so appreciated by so many people. I think we were the only ones in the building to reach out to them, and for them – as students – to spend so much to show their appreciation felt really special. Regardless, this was once again one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and I look forward to picking it up again next year.

Shuggie Bain – oh, how I tried to read this. I am including this on the list even though I only got about 150 pages into it, as it took so damn long to get through those 150 pages. It has all the unpredictability of Webster’s Dictionary, the nuanced dialogue of a Mexican soap opera, and the character depth of Dan Brown. It seemed like the writer tried to include just enough Glaswegian to make it exotic; for a better example of this, just read Christ in Concrete by Pietro di Donato. I have had reservations about some of the choices made by the Booker committee, but this made me decide that their collective judgment is as damning a condemnation of a writer as can be made. That’s not true – I loved Lincoln in the Bardo, but…sigh. With the fury of a thousand suns.

JFK, Frederick Logevall. I picked this up on recommendation from one of my friends, who spent his career as a housemaster at a boarding school here in the UK, and, now retired, spends his days reading history books (and writing his own). This took the entire month of May, and it was absolutely, 100% well worth it. He is able to put the reader back in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, growing up in Hyannisport, attending Harvard, driving around Northern California, and feeling the bouncing of the waves under PT-109. I felt like I could almost taste the cheese burgers from cheap dinners and bowling alleys on the campaign trail, and see the subdued lighting bouncing off of the wooden bookshelves in the Hyannisport study as JFK spoke with his father about his political future. It is the best biography of JFK I have ever read, and I can’t wait to get my hands on volume two.

From Scratch. Michael Ruhlman changed my life with his book Ratio, and I will always be grateful to Knut for recommending it to me. I’ve learnt quite a lot from Twenty, as well as his books on eggs, braising, and articles he has written online. I got From Scratch because I loved the premise: a few basic recipes that can turn into a thousand. I think it’s a good cookbook, but he mentions his wife so often that it began to seem as if he was trying to make his ex-wife jealous of his current marriage. None of his other books did he mention his relationships as prominently as this one, and in some ways it seem to get in the way of the lessons he was trying to impart. There is some solid information in this, but for anyone trying to get techniques, his other books are far superior.

The Professor and the Madman. Alice and I watched this as a movie, and I was intrigued enough to pick up the book. It was pretty good. That’s about all I can say about it.

The Great Gatsby. Again, an annual read, one that I try to pick up about a week before summer solstice. This time, it felt rushed, and I wonder if I was trying to get through it too fast. It was still beautiful, but I don’t think I spent enough time on it to really do it justice.

The Splendid and the Vile. While reading this, I realized that I have somehow read several books by Larsen, and have been captivated by them all. This one, though, shows a monumental leap in his writing – the research and scholarship that went into researching the Lusitania, or the Chicago World’s Fair, were nowhere near as impressive as what he did here, for Churchill’s first year; to distill it all down into a cohesive narrative that brings the reader into the streets and forces them to taste the dust and smell the cordite and hear the shrieking bombs and then to hear the thunderous slam of doors in Goering’s hunting lodge, to hear the raking of gravel at Chequers or see teenagers going from one club to another during the Battle of Britain and finding that their preferred dance hall had been bombed to oblivion, then just going to another one down the street…it gave me so much more respect for what that generation of Brits went through, and I had to remind myself several times that the Germans today are not Nazis and so do not deserve our enmity. It is a wonderful read.

I also spent about two weeks trying to get through The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, as I want to understand the potential pathway to Scottish independence better. I felt like the premise was good, but I couldn’t really get into the writing style. It reminded me once again that in order to read a lot, it really helps to have things that you love to read. There are far too many excellent books in the world to spend time trying to hack through something you do not truly love.

And creation.

For May, I made Sausage. The one really great thing about From Scratch is that it inspired me to pull out my meatgrinder, get some pork shoulder, and put the two together. I pulled out Charcuterie, also by Michael Ruhlman, and used one of the recipes there as well; while it takes a bit of time, knowing how to make sausage, and making my own, made me feel a lot better about eating it, and less comfortable buying pre-made sausages at the grocery store. It reminded me how wonderful it is to know what one is putting in one’s own body.

One night, a few days after making the sausage, I finished work and started roasting some vegetables for dinner. Then, as I had pork that needed to be used and didn’t have time to make sausage that night, I seared the outside and then started braising it in our Instant Pot. Then, I used Ruhlman’s recipe for barbecue sauce, which was the first time I ever made it – and I ticked off my creation goal for June. Remembering the roast vegetables, I made aioli, then kneaded some bread dough, and, at the same time, started heating sugar to make a bourbon caramel sauce. We had dinner, and, at the end, I saw a bottle of Chianti that I had not finished. While talking to Alice, I tried a bit, and found it to be too oxidised to consume, so I put the rest of the bottle in a 3/4 litre glass jar, then opened the beer vinegar that is always aging our kitchen and pulled out some mother to put in the wine to start turning the alcohol into acetic acid. Alice looked at the mother as I pulled it out of the jar, all slimy and gloopy, and said, “wow, that looks interesting!” I looked at the mass hanging off of the spoon and thought about how many strange learning moments had fallen into place over the previous hour for me to get to this point – to be able to make so much without thinking about it.

I want Daniel to be living with friends at his university and randomly cook something – a quiche, bread, fresh pasta, pizza – and blow them away with the skills he picks up from me.

Conversations over the last two months have been interesting as well. My friend P. moved back to Edinburgh, and got a piano; one day, at lunch, I brought a couple of hamburgers from Crombie’s over to his apartment and we ate them. Then, he opened the piano and started playing. It was as if time stopped, and it reminded me of a visit that Alice and I made to my friend Tom in Sonoma. He owns Mercury Winery, and when we went, the winemaker gave us a tasting. I have consumed a lot of wine, but something about being at that counter, surrounded by bottles, made me taste it for the first time, in a completely new way. It was like that with P. – I had heard many of the songs he played, but not in that way, not with that level of feeling and perfection. It was all the more special because it was not recorded – those notes will never be heard again by anyone.

I suspect something is lost in recording. When Alice and I were on our big trip around the world, my friend Teddy tried to get me to make a video blog, or at least start posting videos of the things we were doing. I almost had an allergic reaction to the idea. Writing seems different – this is more a distillation of experience, after consideration, rather than a cheap second-hand experience through seeing a video.

Cask-strength whisky > watered-down beer.

I have recently had a number of conversations with people about possible independence for Scotland – my brother-in-law asked about it, I talk to Alice about it, I meet people for a coffee and it comes up, my high school political science teacher sent me a Facebook message about it. We voted a couple months ago, and independence parties came out on top. In a purely self interested way, I am in favour of it – for someone who wants to be a witness to history, how cool would it be to be living in the capital of the country as it is reborn? What kind of opportunities with that open up for civic engagement, participation, and the ability to create something new?

A recent conversation that I had, with my friend Chris, is really challenging me on this. The line of our conversation led to us asking:

  1. What would a successful independence look like?
  2. On what metrics would it be measured?
  3. Are those metrics things that we cannot do now, as part of the UK?
  4. If we CAN affect those metrics, how are we doing as a country? Do our current results show that independence would be better?
  5. What are we willing to do to improve things?

Because I DO think that if we were “to work as if we are indeed living in the early days of a better nation” then we would be better; the thing is, we should be doing that anyway. Improving Scotland, and our communities, should not be dependent on us being independent – it is in our own best interests to be doing that whether we are part of the UK or the EU or if we are broken up into fiefdoms. It is really in EVERYBODY’S interest around the world to work to make their communities and countries as excellent as possible.

The problem is that, like Brexit, I don’t think we have a good sense of what successful independence is; there are no metrics. Self-determination is nice, but much of what we could do – improving the education system, public safety, and our environment come foremost to my mind; infrastructure improvements; the economy – can be done within our current system, and we get a lot of benefits (not least of which being defence) from a union.

And…well, the success record of the SNP while it is in power indicates that on the smaller questions, they cannot be trusted to improve things; given full power, why would it be different? They have the full ability to implement education policy, and schools are going downhill, fast. Individual health is worse under their watch; the opioid epidemic is apparently worse here than in America. Anecdotally, the police are overwhelmed and understaffed; I once called emergency services to report a man smashing chairs and tables in a restaurant, and received a call from the police four hours later to ask me if I knew if he was still attacking the staff, because if so, they would send a couple of officers out to investigate.

But now it comes back to: what are we willing to do?

As individuals working as if we are in the early days of a better nation, it is up to us to make things better. I am going to start doing more in my community – I may even just get a broom and sweep up in front of our building, or pick up trash for ten minutes a day, to show that this is not a place for litter. (I have noticed that people in this city feel free to toss things in the street without caring about the environment, which to me indicates how they feel.) Maybe if people see other people taking care of the community, they will, too? Maybe I will do a few cash mobs, or volunteer with refugees. Regardless, it is not up to the government to do something to improve my community – it is up to me.

And Daniel.

He is getting so much more interesting. Every day, he is changing, saying more, expressing preferences. He knows the connection and difference between fresh tomatoes, passata, and tomato puree, and knows what he wants to eat with pasta, or on pizza, or on rice. He knows his way around the city now – he can direct himself to Ayla’s house, or Lidl, or the gym, or the train station, or the hidden playground.

And people still look at him and stare, and smile, even if he doesn’t acknowledge them. Drunks call out to him when we pass; couples see him, and then move closer to each other, and walk away holding hands. I don’t know if other parents get this, if it is common for all toddlers, but something like this happens every time I take him out for more than a five minute walk. He knows what songs he likes, and, like me, will listen to them on repeat ad infinitum – currently it is We Are Scientists, and last week it was Johnny Cash.

We took a trip to Surrey a few weeks ago, and then Alice and Daniel went on to see her family while I flew back to Edinburgh to work. I had this fear – irrational, unfounded, and persistent – that the plane I was on would crash. This happens when I fly sometimes, but it never stops me from flying, and it didn’t this time. At the same time, I realised that my greatest fear wasn’t death, it was not getting to see Daniel grow up, and the thought that he might grow up thinking, for some reason, that I didn’t love him. So I wrote him a blog post, and scheduled it for the next day, in case I did die.

I didn’t die, so the post was cancelled. But wow, I love him.

I continue to try to listen to him, and see him for who he is, not what I think he is. And he keeps getting bigger, growing in every sense. It is such a joy. He is such a joy. You are such a joy.

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