Write On: Embracing Geekhood

(via Judith Browne)

I’m finding new ways to be creative as summer wears on, new ways to keep the wheels turning. Calligraphy and hand lettering are the latest entries on my list, although they’re not quite new–I remember the teeth-chattering, geeky thrill I felt one day in sixth grade, when I walked to my desk and saw a thin black calligraphy pen and blank pad of smooth art paper waiting for me. Mrs. Silva announced that we’d be spending the next few weeks learning to create the angled medieval letters I’d seen in books or on diplomas, and I could not believe my luck. It felt like a very fancy and important skill to have. I was delighted when we had extra calligraphy homework on top of our regular homework, which a) was an enthusiasm my classmates did not share, and b) was and still is extremely on-brand.

Even before that, maybe as early as preschool, I was enthralled by the sight of handwritten words. I remember watching closely when my mom made a grocery list or wrote herself a note, or when I saw my parents’ signatures, mystified by this casual magic. When it was finally my turn to learn, I was obsessed, copying the letter-shapes in my workbook with total devotion until finally I could write my name. Once I had printing down, I immediately became fixated on learning cursive, and eventually, crafting a unique signature of my own (I was heartbroken when I realized there are few opportunities for an 8-year-old girl to sign on the dotted line). I loved creating posters, signs, and science fair displays, which not only gave me a chance to showcase my block printing, but flex my layout skills as well. Any kind of task requiring diligence and precision brings out my inner A student, but when you add elements of art, beauty, and design to the pot, I’m in stone cold heaven.

This most recent foray into the world of word-drawing began just a few days ago, and I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, except it is part of a larger trend of resurging childhood interests. I signed up to audit an online paleontology course last month, which is a sophisticated grownup way of saying I think dinosaurs are really cool again. I’m amassing a pretty impressive pile of graphic novels, which is a sophisticated grownup way of saying I’ve really been enjoying picture books. And I’m pretty sure all the big, themed meals I’ve been cooking (New Mexican night! A journey to Northern Thailand! A classic American barbecue feast!) all harken back to the multicourse Victorian dinner I made for my family as a kid (with a generous amount of help from my mom), following recipes from my American Girl cookbook.

At first I figured I was regressing back to childhood because it’s comforting, my version of the security blanket we’re all looking for right now. But I think it’s also closely related to the reason I refuse to wear pants with a firm waistband or zip closure any more, unless expressly necessary: in the absence of peer pressure, when dire circumstances have made artificiality of any kind feel like an utter waste of time, all I’m left with is the stuff I genuinely like. Underneath all the socially mandated trappings of adulthood, it turns out I’m still that geeky 12-year-old homework enthusiast.

As a kid, I secretly admired the people who owned their geekdom or nerdiness rather than trying to fit in, but I was not one of those people. I lived in fear of being disliked, being made fun of. I desperately wanted to be cool, or at least cooler (which is, obviously, an inherently uncool thing to want), always feeling like I needed to be someone else, like I had to keep making adjustments to stay ahead of the curse of my authentic self. I’d proudly and happily do my calligraphy assignment, and then quietly feel ashamed for liking it; I’d raise my hand in class and be teased for knowing the right answer, spending the rest of the day in embarrassment, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut.

Scraps and shadows of that strategy have managed to follow me even well into adulthood, as I suspect they do for all grownups who were once terrified kids. But lately, for the first time since I sadly recognized that being a teacher’s pet and budding Victorian cuisine (and manners!) buff was not going to win me tons of friends my own age, I feel free to let my geek flag fly at full mast. Let the other kids say what they will. Art geek, writing geek, dinosaur geek, book geek, bird geek, food geek…line up your geek boxes, and I will proudly check them, with a clean, calligraphic flourish. I thought wearing elastic waistbands all the time was liberating, but this is next level.

Tonight, I am proud to announce to the world, I’m going to sit down at my desk, put on a Dungeons and Dragons podcast, and practice my pen strokes: first on graph paper, with a pencil, then with brush pen on smooth printer paper, moving the point silently upwards for thin lines, and pressing the brush firmly downwards with a noisy squeak for thick lines, holding it at just the right angle, over and over until my muscles remember how to draw on their own, and the art made of letters I imagine in my head appears on the paper in front of me. My own personal paradise, a reprieve from the outside world. The wheels are indeed turning, summer is slipping away, and my past is catching up with me just when I need it most.

Excuse Me, What?

“Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I’ve been drafting a blog post over the last week or so, trying to say something about something, trying to get a handle on the bigness and weirdness of life at this moment. At first, I felt inspired by all the time I’ve been spending in the kitchen, so I wrote about how food and culture intersect, how food is a great way to dive into a culture that’s different from yours. Then I changed track completely, and started writing about the comfort of water, oceans and lakes and rivers, and how we’re currently learning about the healing power of nature in deep new ways. Still, none of it felt like an honest reflection of what I’m thinking about right now, because what I’m really thinking about right now is: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON??

There are times when we can see the threads of life moving elegantly back and forth, making a pattern we can understand. Then, there are times like this month, when the threads are all tied in a giant, gnarly knot with old gum and bits of pet hair in it.

Like this, but way, WAY worse. (Photo via Manuel Sardo)
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All Together Now

Lately when I wake up, I can hear birds outside my window. And not just one or two birds, but a whole song-shower that rings through the entire neighborhood. I still hear the usual leaf blowers too (can you really say you live in the suburbs if you don’t wake up to a leaf blower?), but the rattle and roar of cars is mostly missing.

An America Robin perches on a brach
Oh, were you not up yet? (Robert Thiemann/Unsplash)

When my family first moved to this area about 20 years ago, it was remarkably quiet–a little too quiet, as far as College Era me was concerned. I was put off by the eerie void of human sounds, with only the wind, leaves, and birds announcing themselves. But now, the empty rolling hills that used to surround us have been developed, covered with waves of houses, divided by roadways that are predictably packed. At some point during the last year, I stood in our backyard and just listened to the traffic, feeling small, and helpless, and sad. As I listened, it hit me that the quiet I had once found creepy was well and truly gone forever—unless there’s some kind of giant catastrophe or something, I thought.


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Julia Child Is The Hero We All Need

Over these last several weeks, my priorities have gotten pretty simple. I really only have two: stay [mostly] sane, and eat enough food each day to keep me alive until the next day arrives. Easy, right? You’d think so, but it turns out I need help with both. Thankfully, television has swooped in with the answer. My hero, my head coach, my culinary therapist-in-chief, is the one and only Julia Child. I started watching her classic show The French Chef a couple of weeks ago, and I’m convinced she’s the beacon of awesomeness we all need right now. Why? I’ll tell you why.

  1. Julia Child is the least full of shit person I have ever seen on television—a true blessing during a time when our collective bullshit meter is just about TAPPED OUT. She tells it fully, unrepentantly as it is, on matters culinary and otherwise. And she’s not shy about her opinions, either. In an episode titled “Bringing In The New Year” (S2E4), she shows us a small rolling pin she bought at her favorite hardware store*, and then, proclaiming “This is a toy!”, she slams it into the garbage can—with force, guys. She goes on to explain that she wanted viewers at home to understand that small rolling pins are (and I’m slightly paraphrasing here, but I think she’d approve) totally worthless and should never be used by anyone, ever, for any purpose, let alone baking. This is my kind of woman. The fact that she has no discernable agenda other than stating facts and hyping your own ability to cook tasty French food makes her seem trustworthy and reliable, two qualities that are a major plus during a crisis.

*Side note, a hardware store that also sells cookware? It’s the most quaint thing I’ve heard all day. Julia mentions buying all sorts of things at hers, from the notorious trash pin to roasting pans, cutting boards, kitchen twine, and handy tools of every kind. Do you have one where you live? I don’t, and I’m incredibly jealous of you if you do.

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Bread = Life

Extremely exciting coronavirus update: I BOUGHT YEAST! Can you believe it? Me, an unassuming, regular person who spends her days doing normal, regular-person things—I am in possession of one of the most valuable substances on Earth. As I write this, yeast is worth its weight in diamonds, gold, and solar panels combined. Yeast is the cool but homely high school girl in the movies who no one pays attention to, until one day she takes off her glasses and puts on a tank top, or in this case, a deadly virus strikes, and suddenly everyone is all, I MUST HAVE HER. And obviously yeast is flattered, but she’s also like, hello? I’ve been here leavening your baked goods for a solid 5,000 years. Maybe this is a lesson in appreciating what’s been in front of you all along? And she’s absolutely right. We’ve been fools, yeast. You are an enduring beauty, deserving of our mindful appreciation. Also, will you go to the (virtual) prom with us?

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Greetings From Quarantine

Well! When I set out to start a new blog, “global pandemic” was not the atmosphere I was hoping for on launch day, but I certainly can’t complain about a lack of material for writing. Also, although it’s definitely no fun being stuck in quarantine, or lockdown, or self-isolation, or whatever the particular brand of required immobility is called where you live, there is something weirdly uplifting in knowing that at this moment, most of us on earth are muddling through together, all sharing some version of a similar experience. I’m not going to get too excited about it, obviously, but it is a kind of solace. Unity in tragedy, and all that.

Anyway, how are things where you are? Today is a bright, sunny spring day here in the Bay Area, probably the kind of day I should be celebrating. Instead I’m wishing it was dark and rainy, the kind of day where you don’t feel bad for wanting to do nothing but sit in bed and watch the same episodes of Britain’s Best Home Cook with Mary Berry that you’ve already watched at least eight times (it’s no Bakeoff, but it’s pretty good when you give it a chance), and maybe stare at the cover of a book that you may or may not actually pick up and read in a little while. Let’s be honest, spring is a little bit of a nightmare, isn’t it? I mean yes, it’s wonderful to see life zipping back into action after the cold constriction of winter, and the burst of flowers and new leaves is great, amazing, incredible, but it is a lot of pressure. “Spring forward” is way too cute a phrase for a shift that feels like having the covers yanked off me in the middle of a deep sleep, by someone yelling that there’s a huge breakfast waiting for me downstairs–and could I please get my butt to the table now, this instant? Now, I love a big breakfast, almost more than anything, but give me a minute to adjust and wake up before I have to put my napkin on my lap. Let me rub my eyes for a few more minutes, Nature, dammit! And don’t even get me started on allergies.

Right now, though… right now it’s a little different. The comfort of all this sunshine and birdsong and fluffy white cloud-ness is real, and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Sure, I’m still wishing it would rain (to be fair, in California this is a constant, unending wish), but there’s a big part of me living in a continual state of weepy gratitude for anything pleasant, refreshing, alive. Maybe I randomly started crying yesterday when I saw new leaves on the ornamental pear tree next to my neighbor’s driveway, I don’t know. As far as nightmares go, the irritating delights of spring are a pretty easy choice over the stupefying reality of coronavirus. Oh, I can potentially die just from going outside and standing too close to another human person? Yeah, that puts things in perspective.

It sounds like a cliché, but I am humbled by the helplessness I feel in the face of forces so much bigger and more complex than me, both negative and positive. There is much we can do as humans to mitigate the toll of this virus, yes, but the fact is we will continue to be visited by pain and suffering for quite a while longer, despite our best efforts. But at the same time, the big wheel of the year keeps turning, and nature is in renewal and abundance mode despite our current state of human tragedy—life goes on, life enthusiastically surges forward with shockingly little effort, even after the deepest, most frigid pause. Those damn flowers just keep showing up, the ducks won’t stop quacking, and wide-eyed cottontails insist on chasing each other around like they think Walt Disney himself is taking notes.

There’s so much to unpack, so much to absorb and digest, most of it happening much too quickly to be understood in this moment. So, today I’m going to go ahead and watch vast quantities of Mary Berry, not because it’s a gray and rainy day like I wish it was, but because the world is upside down and locked behind a heavy door. And at the same time, I’ll give thanks for the comfortingly familiar and plainly beautiful springtime annoyances that I am fortunate enough to endure, and hope that wherever you are, whoever you are, you too have a curving branch of floaty pink blossoms or an absurdly cute little bird to roll your eyes at. And if you happen to shed a grateful, confused, overwhelmed tear while doing so, I am right there with you.