Monday, February 6, 2017

treatise on textures

I.

Cornbread is the opposite of oysters. Cornbread is gritty, all those little grains of meal like footholds for your tongue. Tongue-holds. You feel the individual grains dissolving at different rates, and it's as if you could taste the twinkling night sky.

Oysters are nothing like this, of course. Oysters are a fog of sex and seaweed; they make me forget who I am. Cornbread's grit gives you something to hold onto, oysters are slippery and hard to fathom.

Most viscosity is disgusting: think of the quivering translucence of under-fried egg white or the loathsome semen of someone you don't love.

Now think of the semen of someone you do love: no less disgusting, but you love it in all its disgustingness. Love doesn't overcome disgust; it includes it. This is how it is with oysters.

II.

I used to live around the corner from a fancy chocolate shop run by an old French man: a Frenchman. Chocolate was his passion and he read your confectionary palate like it was your palm. The first time I visited, he laid out five squares of chocolate on the marble countertop and watched as I tasted each one. I don't remember the first four, but the final square I will never forget: it had the texture of sand.

Tell me your favorite, he said when I finished. I pointed to the sandy one. Ah, he said knowingly. That means you are impatient. Most chocolate contains an emulsifying agent, which slows its disintegration to convey an impression of melting. The chocolate you chose contains no emulsifier—it dissolves quickly on the tongue. You sacrifice butteriness for instant gratification.

That's not what I like about it, I protested. Without emulsion, each individual particle of chocolate is perceived separately. It cackles! It's more interesting.

No, he said. That's simply another way of describing speed.

III.

I enjoy voices. They're what I remember best about old boyfriends. Niko's voice tasted squished. Not squishy, but pressed, as if it was being run through a panini press and you could hear the cheese gasp and the bread brown. Galen's voice was so lovely, with its rounded words like intricate hollow objects, or piping with water trickling through. And Tyler had a pop-goes-the-weasel voice, with all sorts of crackling surprises that made me blush and demur and look on in awe.

Mike's voice is like an airplane. It's cold metal but there's an engine behind it.

IV.

I was at a sushi restaurant in LA a couple of months ago, and a plate appeared with a beautiful iridescent shell. It looked like I should put it on my ear. I turned it over and lifted up the little disc that covered the opening, and a jet black length of snail came spiraling out. I didn't eat it.

I have a history with snails. I worked on a farm for a year after college, and we were always finding snails on the lettuce. We flung them into the dirt, until someone got the idea of collecting them for dinner. All the snails we found that day were placed into a sealed container with some cornmeal to purge them of funk and improve their flavor. There they remained, day after day after day. None of us could muster the courage to cook them.

One night, we were having a late night cavort, sitting in our little outdoor kitchen drinking whiskey and looking at the moon. “I have to go to bed,” I said—I was always the first one down. Tyler sensed a rigidity in me that I could tell he was desperate to break.

“You don't have to do anything, Lindsay,” he said with eyes aglow. “You can stay up all night and go for a run on the beach at dawn. You can even eat a snail.”

The plastic container was on the shelf just beside him. He reached for it and plucked out a specimen. He held it an inch from his face, and after a brief hesitation, slurped the snail from its shell. Then he took a shot of whiskey and ate another.

I couldn't eat the snail—not that night, and not any night. The texture of snails, I know without eating them, is like the inside of your body. You don't often encounter the inside of your body, but think about your eye, now think about peeling back your skin and everything underneath is all eye, one big continuous eye with rivulets and folds. I can't.

Monday, January 30, 2017

My Oatmeal

I will share with you my special method for eating oatmeal. I cook it the night before with a little bit of miso paste. Miso contains enzymes which break down the starch in the oats, and if allowed to sit at room temperature overnight, a bowl of oats inoculated with miso will turn sweeter and milkier than any you've ever had.

It has to be the right kind of miso, the young kind, it won't be any good at all if you use aged and salty miso. Young miso is sweet and light, like butterscotch almost, which I don't like. I don't like sweets, but I do like it when things that aren't meant to be sweet are sweet. Like bacon, salad dressing, scrambled eggs next to pancakes when you purposely let some of the syrup touch the curds. Or just scramble them with sliced dates as they do in the Middle East. Other cultures seem to understand better about commingling their sweets and their savouries.

The oats: steel cut, always. I let them bubble away on the stove for half an hour or so, then turn off the heat and let them cool just a bit before I add the miso. The oats always congeal as they cool, but when I stir in the miso they loosen back up again as the enzymes begin to act immediately. The effect is quite magical, and I often call Mike in to witness it. When the miso is sufficiently mixed, I cover the pot, lick the spoon, and leave them be.

In the morning I re-heat the oats and prepare the following accoutrements:

  1. A ripe banana, cold from the fridge. I leave half on the counter for Mike to add to his cereal when he wakes up. The other half I cut into slices and fan them out in a small rectangular tupperware (this container allows me to easily capture each banana slice by trapping it between my spoon and the vertical wall).
  2. Black sesame, ground over the sliced bananas from a spice mill.
  3. Salt after the sesame—salt is very good on a ripe, sweet banana.
  4. Walnuts—toasted, of course. Walnuts are better than almonds or really any other nuts, and nothing goes better with bananas than walnuts, except maybe salt. And these, these aren't just any walnuts. I make them in a very particular way, which anyone who tastes them says are the best walnut they've ever had. I break up my magic walnuts one by one and arrange them atop the banana slices according to size—larger walnut pieces on thicker banana slices and so on. When all the bananas have their walnut I remove one final walnut from the jar and set it ceremoniously atop Mike's banana half. If he happens to wake before I've left home, he'll try to goad from me another walnut. I usually acquiesce, but it pains me.
By now the oatmeal is hot. I take the long handled spoon I have been borrowing from a Korean restaurant for about seven years and peel off a wisp of butter. Then I hold the spoon over the bowl and pour just enough maple syrup to come to the lip of the spoon. Next, I pour the steaming oats into the bowl and stir so the butter and syrup dissolve. That is the preparation.

This is the eating: I set before me the bowl of oats and the tupperware with the bananas. I spoon up one walnut-topped banana slice and dip it into the hot oats briefly—I want a temperature contrast, not a mushy banana. Scoop, dip, bite, scoop, dip, bite, all the way through until I've eaten the last banana slice, at which point plenty of oats still remain to eat all by their splendid porridgy selves.

Thank goodness for a meal that is eaten alone so it may evolve over the years into precisely the thing you crave. I love a late Saturday morning scramble with buttered toast and a glass of grapefruit, but I also need time to enact my strangest impulses, and if this can be done in a domestic and routine setting, all the better. For then there is always space for it. It is never furtive. It is there, beckoning me from bed at 6:30am. It is there, when I go to sleep on a Tuesday with nothing in particular to look forward to the next day, it is there: my warm miso oats, milky miso oats with the cold bananas all fanned out in the Tupperware in two neat layers—three layers, perhaps, if the banana is large. It varies barely, but my allegiance to it is strong, my ritual, my breakfast, mine.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bread is Hard

I made this!
Friends have been asking me what I’ve been doing lately. Sometimes I answer straightforwardly: I’m freelancing a little. Thinking about what I want to do next. But that’s a boring answer. So other times I just say that I’m baking a lot of bread. 

And it’s true, I’m suddenly quite taken with bread. I’ve cooked for a long time, but baking never interested me until now. The effort-to-results ratio didn’t seem worth it, especially in a city where excellent bread was so easily procured. But in November I went to fermentation fantasy camp in Tennessee. On the last day, when everyone was breaking down their tents and arranging rides to the airport, Sandor set up a little fermentation starter buffet on the kitchen island. He put out kefir grains, koji, yogurts, tibicos, tempeh spores, and sourdough starter. What the hell, I thought, and spooned some of the sourdough into a ziplock bag, then tucked it into a mitten for the long journey home. 

The first loaf I made—and each one Ive made since—was Tartine's country bread. The recipe in Tartine's cookbook is 38 pages long, but I use an abridged, though still quite complicated version (see for yourself). Before you can even begin the recipe, you have to feed the starter, which consists of discarding the entire starter save for one tablespoon, then adding equal parts flour and water to that. It takes several feedings, spaced 12 or so hours apart, before the starter becomes bubbly enough to bake with. Once that happens, you feed it again, wait a while, gently fold it, shape it, whisper incantations to it, flip it over, put it in a towel-lined basket, and finally bake it. Before each successive step, you have to check that the dough has reached certain milestones: that it’s increased in volume a certain amount, or it doesn’t bounce back when you poke it, or a spoonful of it floats in a bowl of water. The process is absurd, but the resulting bread is transcendent.

Even though this is one of the longest recipes Ive ever encountered, it doesnt nearly cover everything I need to know. All cooking is about observation; you have to notice things like the slant of your stove, if your cabbage seems a little on the dry side, if the butcher sliced your meat too thin. But baking bread is especially so, and maddeningly so. In the beginning, I had a 50% success rate. The bread needs to rise in a warm environment, and I struggled to find a spot warm enough but not too warm. Twice I ruined the dough by overheating it. As soon as I checked it I could tell what had happened by how ragged and sticky the dough had become. I was too far into the recipe to quit, so I pressed on, resigned to deliver a stillborn-loaf. (I finally learned to put it on top of the radiator with two folded towels underneath.)

Five loaves in, I see bread differently than I used to. I mean that literally: struggling and suffering and cursing through the process of baking has made the final loaf appear visually different to me. The texture of the crumb, the color of the crust, those elegant scores over the surface: before I started baking, all of those things were just "bread" to me. Now I see each of them as distinct. 

I drew a lot when I was younger, and my art teacher Marya taught me exercises to help me see better. Sometimes, when we were drawing a live model, Marya would forbid me from looking at my page. Stop worrying about whether her breast looks like a breast, she’d say. Don’t draw a breast, draw that weird thing that is Merav’s breast. 

Marya showed me how to see by making everything unfamiliar. But with bread, I’m learning that the opposite is also true. When I first started baking sourdough, everything was so new it was almost blinding. But as I fumbled my way through the 13 steps of the recipe, I built intimacy with the process, especially the parts that I fucked up. The more routine bread becomes, the better I can read it. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It's Hard Being a Short Woman in Tech

In The New Statesman, Laurie Penny argues that tech is inhospitable to women because it’s run by resentful nerds, “some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least.” She’s responding to a piece of writing by Scott Aaronson reflecting on how his painful nerdolescence makes it hard to identify with being called privileged. Penny’s piece is an attempt to set Aaronson straight. Nerds’ childhood trauma, she argues, is nothing compared to the “structural oppression” experienced by women and ethnic minorities:
Scott, imagine what it's like to have all the problems you had and then putting up with structural misogyny on top of that. Or how about a triple whammy: you have to go through your entire school years again but this time you're a lonely nerd who also faces sexism and racism.
She says that Aaronson’s writing is “painfully honest, but also flawed” because his childhood suffering blinds him to others' suffering and oppression:

“…I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright.

The structural oppression faced by women and the individual hardship faced by nerds are different beasts, no doubt, but I’m not sure it’s possible to compare them in the way that Penny does. For one thing, structural oppression is a lot easier to measure, since by definition it impacts clearly defined demographic groups. But when it comes to teenage nerdishness and the loneliness and bullying that go along with it, we don’t have as clear a sense of the impact. There’s no way of knowing who was a teenaged nerd and who wasn’t without asking each person individually, and even if you do, most men probably don't want to reveal that they spent their virile youth as Starcraft-playing virgins.

Since we don’t know who the nerds are, it's hard to say how their nerdiness impacted them. And it certainly doesn't make sense to demand, as Penny does, that Aaronson identify as privileged, when we can’t accurately assess how much nerds like him have struggled. Maybe nerd-boys' feelings of sexual rejection, combined with living in a culture that measures manliness in terms of sexual prowess, translates to lifelong feelings of loneliness and a higher risk of depression and suicide, and maybe these feelings of inadequacy have professional as well as emotional repercussions. For all we know, male nerds could be worse off than female nerds in this regard.

Penny seems to believe that the male-skewed gender ratio in Silicon Valley is proof enough of the superior life outcomes of nerds. But that’s not fair, because successful Silicon Valley nerds are a tiny minority of all the male nerds in the world. What about nerds who don’t have a good work ethic, or simply aren’t that smart? Penny talks about how, when she tried to escape from her teenaged loneliness into the heady abstraction of science, she was met with gender discrimination. But that’s not necessarily worse than a male nerd who can’t escape into science at all, because he doesn’t have the intellect for it. 

I'm not suggesting that social scientists start asking men if they used to be nerds so we can more precisely compare the relative struggles of different demographic groups. Different groups struggle in different ways, and there’s something unseemly about arguing over who has it worse.  There are so many ways to slice privilege; it’s not a linear scale, with white males +1, gay men and women -1, black gay men and women at, I don't know, -2. Struggling is everyone’s birthright. Penny reminds Scott that he doesnt know what it’s like to put up with “structural misogyny,” but neither does Penny know what it’s like to put up with being a nerdy, bullied teenage boy (which is not the same thing as being a nerdy teenage girl, like she was). 

Ethnicity and gender don’t tell the full story when it comes to life struggles. You could be a white guy with mental health issues, a black lesbian with a trust fund and low self-esteem. You could be me: I’m 4’10", and everywhere I go, people mistake me for a child. When I’m out with a group of colleagues, all of them younger than me, some of whom I manage, I’m the only one who gets carded. Waiting in line at the butcher counter, the butcher ignores me because he doesn’t see me over the counter. Once, when I walked into the conference room to present my work, the client asked if I was the boss’s daughter. 

I assume that this bias against me has also affected me in ways I’m not aware of. This pisses me off. I’m outside the normal range for height and there’s nothing I can do about it. (Even trying to look professional is hard, since grown-up clothes don’t always come in my size!) But it’s okay, because everyone is outside the normal range for something. Right now, being a women in tech means you’re "outside the normal range" for gender in your field. That means that sometimes people assume that you work in marketing or HR, and while this is infuriating, it’s no more sexist than assuming I’m a kid is height-ist. Of course people aren’t accustomed to meeting female engineers; there simply aren’t that many of them. 

All of this is to say, maybe the whole women in tech conversation sometimes mixes up cause and effect. It’s not that gender discrimination keeps women out of tech, it’s that too few women in tech leads to gender discrimination. In other words, it’s not an ideological problem, it’s a practical one. The way to solve it is not by asking men to do more soul searching about their male privilege; it’s by working to get more women in tech through practical means like mentoring programs, exposing more kids to computer science, etc. As more women enter tech, people will get used to seeing female engineers, start-ups won’t feel like fraternities, and sexism will fade to the background on its own. 

If only my condition offered the same such hope! My only solace is that eventually I’ll reach an age when getting handed kids menus is more flattering than infuriating. Either that, or I’ll have to move to Asia. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Because this needs to be said, too

Earlier this week, a graphic designer named Justine posted an account of her boss's sexual assault on her at a CodeMash conference. As a woman in tech, its disheartening to hear how she was treated by her superior, and even more disheartening to read anonymous Internet commenters suggesting that she got what she deserved. But if there's a lesson in all this, something more empowering than "men shouldn't assault women," I think it's that no matter how many successful, confident women I see in this field, there are still some out there who don’t know how to stick up for themselves.
On the first night of the conference, everyone was at a bar drinking and having a good time. At one point, a drunken Justine lies down on the bar to do a body shot, and is surprised when her boss, Joe, is the one who takes it off of her. Joe, also drunk, starts rubbing her back and kissing her forehead, which she notes is not uncommon behavior among her coworkers.

But then things start to get more uncomfortable. Joe puts his hands down the back of her pants and starts kissing her. Next he puts his hands down the front of her pants and starts fingering her. She tells him to stop, reminding him that he has a wife and kids at home. When he doesn’t, she feels like “a deer in headlights staring into the eyes of the two male bartenders hoping someone would help me.” Eventually, a coworker (who has also written an account of the incident) notices that something doesn’t seem right and asks her if she wants to go out for a smoke. When they get outside, she breaks down in tears.

In the months after the assault, Justine falls into a downward spiral of anxiety, anorexia, alcoholism, and depression. Joe is terminated after an HR investigation, but he’s allowed to publicize that he left voluntarily. Several months later, with her life in shambles and feeling like her “reputation at the company had been stained,” Justine is offered the same deal.

By Justine’s telling, this is a story about how women in tech can’t win. We’re under tons of pressure to keep up with the dudes, but when we try to act like they do, they put us in our place with cutting remarks, mansplaining, or, when things get really bad, sexual assault. Justine felt this pressure to keep up acutely on the night of the assault:
At some point it was suggested that I do a body shot. I’ve never done one in my life but at the insistence of many people, attendees and bartenders I decided to lay on the bar. I just wanted to prove myself as one of the gang. Someone who was up for anything. I cannot explain to men how hard it is being a woman trying to play it cool in an industry of men. I want everyone to think I’m cool and relaxed so I try and just play by their rules. Regardless I got on the bar and lifted my shirt as far as I was comfortable.
Is this really what it means to be a woman in tech—lying down on a bar and hiking up your shirt in hope that people will like you? I hope not. This is a story about men behaving badly (or rather, one man behaving badly—Justine mentions several other male colleagues who were very supportive), but it should also be a story about a woman learning to behave better. Throughout the ordeal, Justine shows herself to be a woman who easily succumbs to peer pressure, who doesn’t know how to stick up for herself, and is not very resilient:
In recent months this year I’ve been arrested, charged with a DUI, involved in second intervention classes, lost contact with most of my friends, broken up with my long term and very supportive boyfriend, lost interest in speaking with my parents out of embarrassment, gone into credit debt, become a borderline alcoholic and continued my eating disorder for self punishment.
I’m doubtful that this can all be chalked up to fallout from the assault. It seems more likely that the anxiety, binge drinking, and other issues she struggled with after the incident also played a role in getting her in trouble in the first place. That she was drinking heavily on the night of the assault doesn’t make it her fault, but it also doesn’t absolve her of responsibility to be more careful the next time

Instead, she ups her drinking. Even while still at the conference, she says, “everyone did a really good job of making sure I was drunk enough to not have to deal with what was going on.” It’s worth noting that her sentence structure shifts the responsibility for her drinking onto other people. She didn't decide that she wanted to drink and then pour herself one, nor did she decide that she didn't want to drink and ignore the people who offered her one. She let other people decide for her. 

Justine narrates her story as a series of events that happen to her; she floats along like a leaf on the wind, tossed about by self-doubt and male encouragement. Even after the assault, she doesn't feel indignant so much as afraid that she did something wrong and might get fired, that her t-shirts are too suggestive or her lipstick too red. It's an attitude that made her feel trapped in a situation that she might otherwise have been able to extricate herself from, hence her climbing onto the bar when “it was suggested” that she do a body shot, and silently beseeching onlookers for help when her boss started kissing her.  

None of this is to indict Justine, who suffered something horrible. She was doing the best she could at the time. But if women may sometimes feel intimidated and defeated, we should encourage each other to push past those feelings and stick up for ourselves. After all, men sometimes feel horny and emboldened, but that doesn't mean we expect them to put those feelings ahead of their consideration for other people. 

This attitude does more than help protect women from assault—it allows us hold our own in a male-dominated industry every day. We shouldn't have to drink as much as the guys, eat as much as the guys, tell the same jokes as the guys, or otherwise try to follow them around like awed kid sisters. We don't have the power to fix everything, but we do have the power to fix that.

Friday, October 11, 2013

40 Days of Denial


I don’t know about you, but I can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that one day we are all going to stop existing. When I think about being dead, I picture myself slightly conscious and utterly bored for all eternity. Even writing about it now, I can feel the spindly fingers of existential dread wrapping themselves around my throat. When this happens, I usually just stop thinking about it, preferring to live with the illusion that I am somehow exempt from the laws of the universe.

Gravity, the new Alfonso CuarĂ³n movie, dwells in this territory. In a terrifying early scene (they give it away in the previews), Dr. Ryan Stone is installing a piece of equipment when she becomes untethered from her station and is sent hurling through space. As she spins out of control, the camera zooms out and we see her tiny figure against the vast blackness. Moments ago, she was brown eyed and demure as she batted off George Clooney’s flirtations. Now she’s a meaningless fleck of dust, no match for the cosmos.






As far as plot goes, Gravity is predictable and straightforward: throughout the rest of Ryan’s adventure in space, we can feel the pull toward a happy ending. But at the same time, the possibility of a happy ending is destroyed barely ten minutes in. Seeing Ryan almost subsumed into the emptiness is an uncomfortable reminder of her insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things. Even if she’s standing on firm ground, she’ll never forget the fact that she’s hurling uncontrollably toward death. And so are we. 

I once read an interview with Woody Allen where he said, “One must have one’s delusions to live. If one looks at life too directly, it becomes unbearable to live.” Gravity serves us reality and denial on the same spoon. It’s a Hollywood sci-fi flick with enough action to distract from the constant background terror of knowing that we, like Ryan, are one day going to die. Like so much entertainment, it’s a diversion from the knowledge that we will lose everything that is dear to us. But even as Gravity offers an escape, it also delivers, in the form of Ryan’s vulnerable body spinning through space, a reminder of precisely that loss. The gravity of Gravity is this pull between palliative and pinprick, opiate and omen.

Just before seeing Gravity, I had been talking about 40 Days of Dating. I found the project kind of confounding, but I couldn’t articulate why. Strangely enough, Gravity provided the answer. Death is The Big Undeniable that we can’t help but deny, but there are plenty of other, smaller tragedies that we meet with mild self-delusion. Dating is one of them.

40 Days of Dating is a project created by Tim and Jessica, two young Brooklynites who’d been friends for years but never dated. They wanted to confront the issues that had prevented their romantic success; she tended to get attached, while he was a self-proclaimed commitment-phobe. So they decide to play at being a couple for forty days. The rules of their experiment included seeing each other every day, keeping separate blogs of their thoughts, and meeting weekly with a therapist. When the forty days were up, they decided whether they want to become a ‘real’ couple (spoiler: they don’t).

The experiment purportedly tests whether it’s possible to grow intimacy in a petri dish. But it doesn’t answer that question so much as it raises another: what’s the difference between fake dating and real dating? Not much, it turns out.

Over the course of the forty days, Tim and Jessica start to look a lot like a couple. They have sex. They bicker. They write cute love notes. But in the end, the pressure gets to both of them. He’s enjoying the moment enough that he’d rather not think about the future. She’s enjoying the moment enough that she can’t stop thinking about it. He senses her anxiety, and resents it. She senses his resentment, and becomes even more anxious.

You don’t need to be part of a dating experiment to experience this kind of vicious cycle—real dating has enough of it already. So why did they bother with the experiment at all? Why not just date? Perhaps they wanted to be different than they were before, different from everyone else who’s failing at dating. You can’t blame them for wanting to escape, but of course, they failed.

There’s no experiment that could rescue them from who they were, just like there’s no Hollywood movie that could rescue us from our mortality for more than the two hours it makes us forget about it. We may feel safe in the theater, sipping a soda and holding hands with our sweethearts, but we’re as doomed as Ryan was spinning through space. Movies might feel like an escape from life, but they’re just more life, happening right before our eyes. 40 Days might have felt like an escape from dating, but it was just more dating. We can’t escape, because there is nowhere to escape to; this is all there is.

That sounds pretty bleak, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. After all, Ryan stares these limits in the face and decides she still wants to survive. And who knows—maybe if Tim and Jessica had stared dating in the face they would have survived too (but then they wouldn't have Internet fame and a movie contract).