chocolate coconut crumb cake (vegan + gluten-free)

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It’s strange to fall out of love when you least expect it. When the object of your affection has lost its sheen, and you find yourself playing the part of a child again, sorting through your toys and falling madly in love with a shiny new doll to only abandon it when something new comes along. But you remember in those few halcyon moments how that doll consumed you, how you couldn’t imagine loving anything else with such ferocity, and you become surprised by just how quickly that love wanes, becomes dull around the edges, and one day you regard that doll with nostalgia. I once loved you, you might have said, and then you placed the doll on the shelf with the others, not even noticing the way its clothing fades. How the dust settles over its hair and face. Admittedly, you’ve become neglectful, careless, and one day the doll falls (you might have been running around, as you were prone to do) and its face shatters. For a moment your heart swells and breaks, but as quickly as that nostalgia comes it fades and what you remember is the bits of its face in the garbage bin.

Someone asked me about my love of food and how I write about it. I said that I loved how we have a propensity to be our truest selves when we settle down to a meal. I love the intimacy of eating, of sharing a primal need with someone else, and the kinds of stories that get told as a result of that connection. And while I love what the food is, I linger more on what the food can do, if that makes any sense. Food binds, creates, connects, and some of my most beloved memories have occurred while sharing a meal. I remembered sharing an early dinner with my friend Amber while we were in Bangkok. Evening fell, and we sat in the pool in the space between when parents and their children splashed their way around and when women in gossamer dresses and men in their cotton pants would order cocktails, light their smokes. Amber and I had two watermelon drinks and a meal off the pool menu, but I remembered feeling sick because we had laughed so hard. That we told each other private things about ourselves–the kind of stories you share when confined in a space for long periods of time. We left that trip better friends than when we arrived, and I can’t help but think that food was at the center of all that magic. As it continues to be.

So, this shiny doll of which I spoke–what of it? I never imagined that I wouldn’t love baking. That the alchemy of simple ingredients would cease to please me, but over the past few months this is precisely what’s happened. Perhaps it’s because I still haven’t truly accepted baking without gluten and dairy. Because while limitations have liberated me in terms of cooking, I feel shackled when I turn to baking. And while some recipes have surprised me by their taste and flavor profiles, I can’t help but think this:

Gluten- and dairy-free baking simply isn’t as good. I’m sorry, it just isn’t.

I’ve made extraordinary cookies and loaves with coconut oil (an oil I do love and used even before I was diagnosed with my food sensitivities); I’ve performed magic tricks with almond and coconut milk, but still. Not the same. Never the same. So I’ve been baking a little less, as you might have noticed. Cooking has been that new glinting object, and I only hope that when I can eat gluten and dairy again, I can return to the kitchen with a newfound affection, even more so because I’m forced to regulate how much gluten and dairy I eat for the rest of my life. So the pastry I make better be worth it because another one won’t come around for a couple of weeks. No more of the random cookie or the pumpkin loaf on the regular. The stakes are higher now, I suppose.

It’s true what they say that you crave what you consume. If you eat garbage, you crave garbage–it’s as simple as that. With very minor exceptions (read: accidents), my diet has been free of gluten and dairy since July, and I don’t crave pasta, bread, cheese or cookies the way I use to. I may pass a bakery and get a waft of fresh bread that will momentarily put my heart on pause, but as quickly as that need comes it dissipates. So it’s natural that when I broke down this week and savored a piece of crumb cake (the real stuff) the size of my thumb (literally) and dealt with the relentless four-hour itchfest as a result (true life), invariably I craved coffee cake.

So I made it and tried to dress it up in finery, and it was good, yes, but not the same. I felt mechanical in the kitchen, and when it was time to have my small piece of cake I had it and moved on. Perhaps it was because I didn’t savor it in the context of time spent with someone, but baking left me cold. And I’m not sure if this is something temporary or the definition of forever. I just know, right now, if given the choice, I’d rather be cooking.

INGREDIENTS: Adapted from Fork & Beans
For the cake
1 1/4 cup unsweetened almond (or coconut) milk
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 cups gluten-free flour (I recommend Cup4Cup so you don’t have to worry about xanthan gum)
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/4 cup coconut palm sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp coconut oil, melted and slightly cooled

For the crumb topping
3 tbsp + 2 tsp gluten-free flour
1/3 cup coconut palm sugar
1 tbsp cane sugar
pinch of salt
2 tbsp. melted coconut oil
1/2 cup vegan chocolate chips
1/2 cup toasted coconut flakes

DIRECTIONS
Preheat oven to 350F. Mix the almond (or coconut) milk and vinegar and set aside to curdle. This should take seven minutes.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugars, baking powder and salt. Whisk the oil into the milk and vinegar mixture. Using a fork, add the combined wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing well. Warning: the mixture will be a bit thick and not as fluid as normal batter, it’s okay. Breathe it out. You’re just not in the fanciful world of gluten anywhere where every cake made sense. You’re in the world of vegan, a world of which I’m still trying to navigate.

Pour the mixture into a well-greased 8inch cake pan (I use coconut oil), and, using a spatula (or fork), smooth it out until the batter covers the pan and is even. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix the flour, sugars and salt. Add in the melted oil and mix until you form clumps. Add the mixture (you won’t think there’s enough, and it’s okay, really), chocolate chips and toasted coconut flakes to the cake.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until knife is clean when inserted in the middle. Rest on a rack until it is cooled completely, approximately 1 hour. Use a knife around the edges and turn the cake out onto a dish. Serve at room temperature.

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for the love of snacks

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Leaving a country where I feasted on sticky mangoes, seasoned tofu, charred chicken, and rice soaked in coconut milk was challenging in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Although parts of my recent holiday revealed stresses of which I hadn’t anticipated, it was still easy to make mindful choices when it came to food. Fresh fruit and vegetables were abundant, gluten and dairy were virtually non-existent, and when given the opportunity, choosing to indulge in coconut ice cream rather than a slice of sheetcake, seemed like the obvious thing to do. Every meal felt like a celebration (especially since our remote hotel was intent on not feeding us), and I didn’t have the triggers that would normally have me pining for crumb cake or slippery noodles drenched in pesto sauce.

And then I came home to a chill that settled into your skin and remained there. The days were mostly filled with rain and dark, and I vacillated between a hectic work schedule and checking in with my father on his upcoming surgery–all the while attempting to recover from jetlag. I’d envisioned that this Thai holiday would give me clarity, deliver me the kind of solitude that would allow me to make some important decisions about my life, what’s next, and the like, but my holiday wasn’t as peaceful as I would have it, and part of my recovery in New York was, ironically, recovering from my vacation. What I’d left still remained and the two weeks exhausted me. I had no desire to cook. I cancelled appointments. All I wanted to do was recede, sleep. As a result of this abbreviated hibernation, I became less present when it came to what I consumed and I found myself cleaving to potatoes and rice like it was the apocalypse. I started drinking soy coffees again, and yesterday, before a meeting, I had a bite of homemade crumb cake and proceeded to endure the inevitable itch for the rest of the afternoon. My beloved vibrant fruits and legumes had been replaced by root vegetables and I looked my plate and then looked at my photographs, and all I wanted to do was return to Thailand and start over.

It was only until this morning when I felt some semblance of normal. When I returned to macro bowls filled with cabbage, brown rice, kale, nori, beans, roasted carrots and squash. When I wandered the aisles of Whole Foods after a morning spent with a dear friend, and finding delight in having discovered herbed roasted cashews. When I finally tried kelp. When I finally ate something new (something once abhorred) to the point where I started to crave seaweed in salads. This is HUGE because I associate seaweed with FISH and I hate fish–not as much as the wretched MUSHROOM, but damn near close. Today I felt the need to replenish my snacks instead of eating sliced sausage and roasted chickpeas, and need I remind you that I had to issue a chickpea fatwa some time ago because I’d become addicted to the legume.

Snacks keep me sane, and I try to eat whole foods as much as I possible can. Snacks are my bridge between meals and I try to mix up my options so I’m never bored. I always carry apples and nuts in my bag (because you never know when you’ll be stuck underground for 45 minutes on your way home from work and hunger invariably strikes). I also stockpile on sugar-free dried fruit (read the labels. If something had multisyllabic ingredients, RUN), EVOlution or Go Raw bars, cut vegetables and hummus, and leftovers from meals (small portion of butternut squash soup with toasted pumpkin seeds). I’ve even purchased mini eco-friendly glass containers where I’ll store leftover, portioned eats for the following day.

In the midst of madness, I’m making my focal point, my place of calm, mindful eating–a source of strength and calm that will hopefully take me through the frenzy that are the holidays.

butternut squash + coconut soup with crumbled sweet sausage

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I live in a world where Charlie Manson gets married. I live in a world where a woman tries to “break the internet” by choosing to remove her clothes. Our clamour smothers the world’s collective sorrow, drowns out the massive achievements so many other women make. I live in a world where ISIS buys and sells girls as if it’s another day at the market. I live in a country where some people don’t own a passport, and have no wish to see beyond what they know. I live in a world where people prefer to live in a perpetual darkness but they resist the very thing they seek when it’s presented to them. I live in a world where people tell me I’m lucky when I’ve spent most of my childhood mothering my mother and my adult life working for every single thing I own. Luck? Huh. I live in a country where people tell me I should write a book and I laugh and say dark isn’t for sale, kids. What’s fresh in the market today? YouTube stars, people who can’t string a sentence together but they’ve got that blog, their audience and pockets flush with Reward Style affiliate money. Because everyone’s in the business of dealing. Who wants art when you can profit off your personal brand? This is the world.

And I choose to eat soup.

INGREDIENTS: Serves 4
2 lbs of butternut squash, chopped into cubes
Olive oil, salt and pepper
2 tbsp. coconut oil
3 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cups of vegetable stock
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 lb sweet sausage, casings removed

DIRECTIONS
Pre-heat the oven to 375F. Add the squash, olive oil (just enough to coat the squash), salt and pepper to a baking sheet. Roast for 45 minutes, turning the squash around midway through so all sides are browned and even. Remove the sheet and set aside to cool slightly.

In a large pot on medium heat, add the coconut oil, shallots, garlic and a pinch of salt. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the onions are slightly translucent. Add the squash and toss to coat. Add the vegetable stock and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add the coconut milk.

Using an immersion blender or Vitamix, blitz the soup until smooth. Allow to simmer on the stove on low while you cook the sausage.

Drizzle a little olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Allow to cook for 4-5 minutes and then stir the sausage in the pan until all sides are browned.

Add sausage to the soup + CHOW DOWN!

coconut pancakes + falling out of love with new york

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This is the New York I know: wrenching johnny pumps in the summer because who could afford air conditioning? (white people) We felt cool and slicked as our denim shorts and dollar-store t-shirts clung to our skin. We feasted on hot dogs and icy in Sunset Park, and swam from one side of the 16-foot pool to the other. In the pool, the boys were in the business of acquisition with their cat-calls of shorty, sexy, and dame lengue. What am I, a lizard? My tongue isn’t something I’d willingly give. New York was about flashing old bus passes when you cut class and forgot to pick up the new ones, and getting kicked off the bus because this month’s color was blue and you were still rolling with yellow. We hopped and crawled under the turnstiles because who was stupid enough to buy tokens for the subway? (white people) Come nightfall, we’d inch home and settle on the stoop while mothers braided hair, boys sipped on Colt45 out of brown paper bags and everyone was in the business of dealing. Everyone was working their after-school, after-second-job hustle. Back then, everyone had a plan. Back then, you were prosperous if you owned a color TV with a remote control. Because who could afford cable? (white people) Back then, you made friends with their girls whose mothers made the best rice. You hoped you’d be invited for dinner. You hoped you’d have to bring one of the chairs from the living room and plant it on the linoleum floor. Back then, everyone made room. Everyone ate with their elbows on the table.

The city? WHAT???!!! When you lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan was a whole other country. Uncharted territory, you’d need a compass and map to navigate it. We rode the elevated trains into the city and gawked at the people uptown (white people) and found our home downtown. Back then, you didn’t venture below Avenue A unless you rolled right (translation: didn’t roll white), and we trolled Broadway and hit Unique, Antique Boutique and pawed the spray-painted and sequined denim jackets we couldn’t afford. Boys dressed like girls, yellow cabs, hot pretzel carts and shopping bags–what an unreal city! I had not thought death had undone so many, wrote Eliot. The city glinted–someone in the neighborhood once told us that the sidewalks were paved with glass so we winced and closed our eyes so we wouldn’t be blinded by the glare. The city was clean even with the peepshows and pimps in Times Square, before Dinkins, before Giuliani, before the postage stamp of land in the 40s would transform into Disneyland for the peanut-crunching lot. The city was cleaner from where we’d come. Everyone knew whether you were from Brooklyn, the Bronx or Queens (I can’t tell you how we knew, we just did. I do remember someone asking me if I was Puerto Rican from Brooklyn because I wore red lipstick, but right now it’s been too long to remember how we knew), and we’d observe the hierarchy as our tribes wove the streets amidst the “city kids” — a mixture of LES Puerto Ricans and the rich kids who wanted to pass, who scored for tricks, and tried to roll with the poor kids for fun.

Quite frankly, the city was exhausting, and we were glad to come home although we’d never admit it.

When someone moved, we talked about it for months because no one was supposed to leave. Your whole world was reduced to a mile surrounding the block in which you lived. You had your church for those who wanted so desperately to believe; you had your Carvel, Gino’s Pizza and the Italian bakeries on 13th Avenue and in Bensonhurst; you had the boardwalk in Coney Island and the hot sun in Brighton Beach (although, if given the choice, we’d always choose Coney Island and Nathan’s Famous–a treat!); you had your C-Town supermarkets, your bodegas. You had your cemeteries, funeral parlors, parks, and drug dealers–and know that I’ve included all of these places, in this order, deliberately. Because back then what more did you need? (white people’s flights of fancy)

What I loved about growing up in New York was the smallness of it. Contrary to what the tourists and the people who’ve lived here for ten years (Who made up that rule that if you lived here for ten years you were automatically a New Yorker? Someone who didn’t grow up in New York, obviously) would have it, your whole world was in your neighborhood, and unless work or school took you somewhere else, the notion of leaving was unimaginable. I lived in Brooklyn for the first twelve years of my life and I never once set foot in Williamsburg. You had your tribe, and although I moved a great deal and attended a fancy college, everyone I knew until the age of 19 mostly hailed from New York.

Back then, no one thought of New York as a cupcake, an oft-quoted episode of Sex and the City, home to SoulCycle and drunks who brunch. Back then, no one personified New York (Oh, New York. You’re killing me!–Are you fucking kidding me with this syrupy stuff from romance novels?)–New York was the place in which we lived. We described it based on the people we knew and the places we loved, but not as a real person to whom we would speak or invite to shoulder our sorrow and grief. We were snobby, true, but not about those things. Mostly we complained about the subways, and the anger we felt when we discovered the places we loved shuttered, replaced by new places. Glinting places. Expensive places.

What I’ve grown to hate about New York is the largeness of it. What I’ve grown to hate about New York is memory. Things have moved around like pieces on a chessboard, and I’ll find myself in neighborhoods feeling lost. This used to be here. That used to be there. I suppose everyone who has come before me feels that too, although these mounting losses feel palpable. Everyone’s moved away and meeting someone who has grown up in New York is now a novelty when it used to be the norm. The rampant materialism, which I’m sure existed when I was small but wasn’t as exposed to it, is subsuming. Everything’s loud, everyone’s busy and the subway ride back to Brooklyn feels less comforting than it used to.

Maybe this is what happens when you grow older. You start complaining about everything. I acknowledge that.

Or maybe I’m just tired of living here. But this is home. This is all I’ve ever known. I went to college and graduate school here. I know most neighborhoods. I can make my way. I don’t have to drive. And although this place feels less familiar, it’s more familiar than any other place, I suppose. But do I stay because of the familiar? Do I leave because of the unheimlich? I find myself wondering why I work so hard each quarter to save up enough money to flee the country. I wonder about lots of things.

My return from Thailand this week was difficult. Returning from the glaring sun to the unwelcomed dark was almost too much to bear. I’ve only just recovered from jetlag, but I miss the the space in Thailand (ironic when there’s 12 million people in Bangkok compared to New York’s 8), the warmth, the quiet I was able to cultivate. And while you say, can’t you cultivate that same sort of quiet here, much like these pancakes you’ve recreated from your Thai holiday, I’ll say that I’ve tried and tried and the constant trying is what exhausts me.

I don’t know what this all means, which is to say that I don’t know if I’ll move away anytime soon or if I’ll be able to find my quiet and light in a place that feels like strange, unfamiliar, with the passing of each day. I miss my tribe. I miss how my home used to make me feel.

For now, I’ll have my coconut pancakes and warm home and keep writing my way out, to what’s next.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Foodie Fiasco
1/4 cup + 1 tbsp coconut flour
1 1/2 tbsp coconut sugar
1 tbsp coconut manna (purified coconut)
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
3 large eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup almond milk
1/4 cup coconut milk (I use Thai Kitchen’s Coconut Milk)–make sure you stir the milk (as the ingredients will separate in the can) before you add to the batter)
pinch of salt

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DIRECTIONS
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, sugar, manna, baking powder/salt until completely combined. Coconut palm sugar tends to be gritty and the manna has a thick consistency, so you want to completely pulverize them. Add the beaten eggs, vanilla extract, almond and coconut milks and beat for a good minute on medium. To activate the coconut flour, you need to beat the mixture for longer than you think (don’t worry, you’re not rolling with gluten, so you won’t get hardened discs for pancakes). The mixture should be incredibly thick.

In a large greased pan (I melted some coconut oil), add a 1/4 cup mixture (to make large-ish silver dollar pancakes), making sure you have an inch between the cakes. Cook on one side for a minute or until the top starts to bubble a bit and the edges crisp and flip (gently!) to cook on the other side.

Serve with maple syrup, fruit and nuts!

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great friends, great life, but should I be busier?

my friends are kind of awesome.
my friends are kind of awesome.

Sometimes I think about my life and wonder if I’m doing it all wrong. I read articles about how people are so busy!, how their email is a specter that haunts their waking hours. Many wonder if they have can keep up and sustain this hamster wheel of a life. But still they lament over the frantic state that is their calendar (I’m so booked!), and they move through their days much like a somnambulant. Keep moving, keep going, live life in hour increments. Sometimes they check their pulse, look for signs of life, but mostly they’re programmed to say yes; they read articles about how they should network, how their circle should be as wide and deep as an ocean, and I wonder if they ever get lost in all of it, the lack of quiet they’ve been taught to cultivate.

Even though I once played the role of an extrovert in an introvert’s body, even though I used to wince whenever I opened my email at a job that took me four years to hate, sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me for not being so busy (Should I be? Am I not popular, wonders the thirty-eight-year-old), for not being one of the legions who pray for this mythical world where inbox zero exists. I know this world and even when you’re in it you wonder if you should be on the other side.

Years ago I practiced extrovertism as if it were a religion. I published a prestigious literary magazine, I had an enviable job, and my days were filled with get-togethers, where people introduced me to other people who were “good to know.” People who are good to know apparently have the ability to get you to that next place, even if you don’t know what that place is or have its address. But it was important to have those drinks, and all the meals were a blur–so much so that I wanted to bring a pre-recorded tape to dinner and press play for the first twenty minutes until the appetizers arrived. Dinners became LinkedIn excavations with cocktails, where both parties sniffed one another out in an effort to determine the usefulness of the connection. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would make a joke about walking down Sutphin Boulevard in Queens because everyone would scan every inch of you, dissect you with their eyes, in hopes that you had something they wanted, something they could steal. These meals were no different. Always I’d come home drained, yet I’d wake to paste another smile on my face, email more people, and hope that someone, anyone, would invariably get me to that next place. Is that next place on a map? I often wonder.

Back then, drinking was a terrific anaesthetic. It made living a full/empty life easier to bear. I was there, but not really, and you know how it is.

I remember being upset once, about what I can’t quite recall, and I scanned the hundreds of numbers in my phone–all the people whom I was told were good to know–but I couldn’t call any of them. In my darkest hours, I was the owner of a pregnant inbox, was known as a mayor, a connector, but I had no one whom I could call for a good cry. I had everyone but I had no one, and this realization hurt more than you know. I had designed a life focused on the accumulation of the right people, yet I neglected to examine what I had defined as right. Because in the end most of my “friends” couldn’t be bothered to shoulder my hurt–they had their own lives, their own hurt, and more than likely their own friends with whom they could share said hurt. I remember thinking that I had so much pain and I didn’t know where to put it. Where do you put it? In a box? In a container? What size? What happens when the pain spills over? Another box, another container, more tears, more scanning through hundreds of numbers you can’t imagine calling? What then?

It might have been that time, all those years ago, when I took off my mask (I’m not perfect! I have a drinking problem! I hurt too!) and winnowed down my life. I took a scalpel, excised the barnacles and got lean. I sought out the kind of people with whom I could share an uncomfortable silence. I stopped seeing people who made me feel as if I’d undergone surgery for a temporal lobotomy. I removed those who wheedled, were catty and cruel (nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, Felicia). No one would make me feel small. You are what you accept, I’d come to realize, and if I wanted a life that was honest and true, I’d have to make that objective my harvest.

I was reminded of this recently when my dear friend Amber shared this post with me while we were on holiday talking about friendship:

Remember, it’s your job to look for something cool in everyone you meet; it’s not their job to show you. This is life, not a fucking sales convention. Learning to appreciate people you meet is a skill you cultivate. So get on it. This doesn’t mean you have to fall in love with everyone who breathes in your direction. It just means you need to take responsibility for your ability to connect with the people you are meeting.

My world is small, deliberately so. For over a decade, I’ve made it my practice to cultivate a kula (“community” in Sanskrit) of people who nourish and challenge me. These are the people with whom I can be my most unkempt self. These are people who check in on me when I write about being blue. These are people who will sit on my living room floor and talk about everything or nothing. These are the people I’ve come to define as good to know because they’re good for me, my soul. And in that work and devotion, I started to have less time for the superfluous. I no longer tolerated people who reduced me to a link to someone else, who wanted mentoring without giving anything in return, who didn’t value my friendship as something they wished to nurture and cultivate. I was just another obligation, someone good to know, a coffee date ticked off their laundry list, and I began to bow out of anything that exhausted me. If I left a coffee or meal depleted rather than energized I never made plans with that particular person again. If I can’t pass a meal with you, I don’t want to know you. If we don’t walk away mutually inspired, I want no part of the deal. My threshold for bullshit emails is low.

So here I am. I have this rich life, these great group of friends that I’d worked so diligently to cultivate and why do I bemoan an inbox the size of a sonnet? Why do I feel that I should network even if I don’t want to? Part of it is a selfish, base need to be liked–I guess we all have this flaw even when we realize that being universally liked is an impossible, if not strange, pursuit–but part of me feels like an other–a space I’ve occupied for most of my life, someone who skirts the edges of things–but for some reason the quality of my life feels at odds with the velocity of quantity that subsumes me. And while I know it’s okay to not do anything, sometimes I wonder, should I be doing something? Should I schedule that lunch? Should I be out there more? Should I be busy? Should I have more email? Would having more make projects easier to acquire and a book everyone wants to buy? Logically, I know the answer to all of this is no, of course not, but then there’s this quietly beating heart, this small, sometimes insecure, voice, that wonders if what I have is enough?

Why is it that we insist on picking at a wound just as it’s about to heal?

to be back there again.
to be back there again.

one night in bangkok + the business of leaving

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I’m rotten at goodbyes. Years ago an old friend from the party days and I sat on a cold Miami beach, watching the sun settle into the waves that had turned black. I told her about a storm that promised to advance and she shook her head and said that the clouds were temporary, the darkness would inevitably pass. We took this trip–a weekend in a cheap motel and dinner in a fancier one–because the following week she would pack all her belongings and travel cross-country to California. While she loved New York, she ached for home–the cresting waves and fresh fish you could tear apart with your fingers. She missed being in a car, driving it, and while I tried to convince her that she was mad for leaving–who would volunteer to spend an hour in a car to inch forward half a mile?–she wouldn’t hear any of it. What I didn’t tell her was that I liked being in a car with her. You sleep while I drive. What I didn’t tell her was the thing I’d miss most about her was the drive between West Hollywood and Newport Beach. How the darkness fell and I allowed myself to settle, to sleep. But how could I explain that? How could I tell her that I allowed myself to be vulnerable with her? Always I’d hear my mother’s voice whispering in my hair, never be vulnerable, never cry, never hold a love so deep it threatens to complete.

I don’t think she knows it, how I loved her beyond the mansion parties and bathroom stall parties. Still. To this day. But that’s the thing about goodbyes–they never are what you want them to be.

In Bangkok, another friend and I sit poolside in a posh hotel and I tell her stories. We drink watermelon drinks and watch the lights paint the sky, and I tell her about the kind of woman I used to be. We laugh like children and I try to remain in that moment for as long as I possibly can. But there are always buts, interruptions, the things that lie ahead-the storm on the horizon–that threaten the space you now occupy. I keep telling myself to come back, to sit in this moment because it’s one of the good ones. It’s one I’ll remember–an image of two friends laughing, happy.

Truth be told, this trip wasn’t what I intended. The point was to rest, get focused, and come home prepared for another storm: the projects for which I’d have to pitch, the business of book publishing, the what’s next, what do I do, and all that, and I didn’t quite get there. Along the way I encountered a stress I hadn’t quite anticipated, another friend who decided to lay down her mask and reveal the darkness underneath, and everything within me seized. There were downpours. There were Skype calls and alterations to a journey en media res, and my other friend and I found ourselves back in Bangkok. We spent the night feasting and slipping back into our respective silences; we are women who crave solitude. During the day we visited coconut sugar and orchid gardens and floating markets outside of Bangkok, and burned our mouths eating coconut pancakes served from river boats and juicy mangos cut with the sharpest of knives. This was our final day and we would toast our return to New York and close our eyes to the storm that had departed as swiftly as it had advanced.

Now I sit in a hotel lobby caught in the-betweens. Anxious. Tense. I’m not quite where I was at the start of this journey, but I’m not really where I want to be. I fly back to so much uncertainty. Will I secure another project? Will my father get his surgery? Will I sell my novel? Will I figure out what it is that I’m meant to do? Will I? Will I?

I guess the only thing I know is this: I’m finally happy. And perhaps I should hold on to that? Hold it close to my chest like a suit of armor that could battle any storm that threatens to ruin.

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when you’re not eating rationed food at my hotel, food in phuket is GLORIOUS

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As I’ve mentioned previously, the chefs in my hotel are intent on reminding me of the eight pounds I need to lose. For lunch, I was greeted with two ounces of grilled chicken and six French fries in a thimble (you better believe I counted them). While I waited for the rest of my food to arrive–I might as well have been waiting for Godot–my friends and I grew flabbergasted over the fact that every meal, while delicious, is meant for residents of the Barbie Dream House.

Have I mentioned that I require copious amounts of protein and a rainbow of vegetables at every meal?

When you’re not eating at my hotel, food in Phuket is GLORIOUS. Since we’re close to sea fish is plentiful and my friends feasted on crab, shrimp and lobster while I inhaled grilled chicken, sticky rice and mango, noodles that texture of silk and my weight in watermelon. Fruit smoothies are the staple in Thailand, and in Phuket Town you’ll find no shortage of shops and carts that will serve up a blender mixture of fresh fruit, ice and simple syrup alongside grilled meats and fish. Here you’ll find fresh fruit and vegetables free of GMOs and egg yolks that are so rich and yellow they’re practically phosphorescent. And when you’re not feasting on rounds of fluffed rice and juicy crab, you’re clearly buying BAGS OF DRIED COCONUT, JACKFRUIT AND MANGO, because you are. And if you’ve never heard of jackfruit, please revisit my slew of S.E. Asia posts in 2012 which attest to its greatness.

Thailand is a gluten- and dairy-free paradise. Menus are filled with noodles made of rice flour, rice, vegetables and fresh fish and lean protein. The only danger is the soy sauce, however, soy isn’t a mainstay in most Thai dishes. With the exception of my hotel breakfast, which offers toast, muffins, croissants and all the things a woman can’t consume, Phuket is rife with insanely affordable, delicious eats.

I’m going to try to hit the markets and a few more restaurants before I leave so I can share my must-chow list.

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for someone who doesn’t love beauty products, I stockpiled like it was 1999

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My first experience using makeup was a disaster of epic proportions. During lunchtime in junior high school, a friend unveiled a magical kit of color and decided to play Picasso on my face. Using an applicator that resembled a q-tip, yet felt like sandpaper, she applied layers of green, purple and aqua blue and when I looked in the mirror I resembled someone who had been through a tussle, correction, full-on Brooklyn beatdown, in the street. And the color palette had won. I had a boyfriend at the time who regarded me with a look that was a combination of confusion, terror and amusement. He told me that I wasn’t someone who needed makeup–I was beautiful without it. I think about that now, a few decades later, realizing how rare it is to hear someone tell you that you are complete with less.

I don’t wear makeup because I don’t see the point in it. I mean, I do, I do, but it’s a lot of fuss, I don’t understand the alchemy of pigment, texture, and shade, and the idea of standing in the bathroom staring at my face for hours on end gives me vertigo. I’ve also never been the sort who covets the “latest products” or adheres to the gleam of advanced skincare technology, rather I buy what looks and feels good. And more importantly, what works for my wallet. Because I’d rather spend all of my money on food and travel than plot my acquisition of a newfangled eye cream.

I like to keep my world simple and small.

When I was in India, the days were a photocopy of one another with regard to the heat. The days were a weight we all had to bear, and the idea of me wearing anything other than cotton and sunscreen were unimaginable. I’d brought a small vial of perfume on the trip, and it was in India that I realized I HATED perfume. It was, like the sun, a burden, another layer adding to rather than revealing what was (I’m sure my beauty friends will respectfully disagree), and when I came home I gave away all the expensive scents I’d collected over the years. Yet, while perfume made me squirm, I fell in LOVE with oils, a single scent rubbed into my skin. In India, I procured vials of oils that had been derived from generations of men who pressed flowers. Wild orchids, jasmine, lavender, rose–the scents were fresh instead of cloying, and they weren’t the kind of perfume that sent the legions into coughing fits when they entered a room.

When I packed for my trip to Thailand, I managed to fit ten days worth of clothes and products in a single carry-on. The days here are sometimes unforgiving with temperatures climbing into the 90s, and did I mention that it’s WINTER? I’ve given up on the fact that I won’t look like a Chia Pet as soon as I leave my hotel room, and the only makeup I can bear is red lipstick. However, when you travel with passionate beauty editors, who have the same zeal for stepping into an herbalist than I do when I cruise the food markets, one can get temporarily sucked into the void of sheet masks, placenta-enriched creams and essences.

However, let me reassure you, I didn’t go BANANAS. You’re never going to see me stockpiling makeup and products that will take a month to comprehend, much less apply, however, I did go in for jasmine body scrubs, orchid, jasmine and mangosteen (not available in the U.S.) body oils, and yes, I did snag some of the Etude House sheet masks simply because it reminded me of Hannibal Lecter (thanks, Amber!) and it seemed easier than actually digging my hands through a miniature jar. Also, cheap.

Can I tell you that as soon as I used a dollop of said bizarre placenta cream, I bought the whole thing. My face resembled a newborn, and as Edith Piaf so sagely crooned, I’VE NO REGRETS.

Because this woman still loves her food, I hoarded dried coconut, mango and jackfruit after my purchases, which, in total, amounted to $30!! I MEAN.

And yes, I’ll be returning to normal scheduled programming shortly.

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when your hotel is a bucket and dish pail of fail, you go to koh phi phi

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Let’s discuss my hotel in Phuket for a moment, shall we? As I type, there are three different groups of people staging photo shoots at the pool. I’m not talking about the random selfie by the infinity pool overlooking the cliffs, oh no, I’m talking about prop placement, hair arrangement, varying facial expressions and body contortions. Basically, it’s as if Angelina + Brad rolled up with legions of paparazzi.

Believe me when I say that I’m bearing witness to the Cirque de Soleil of selfies. People who relentlessly document every moment of their holiday, giving the appearance that they’re being present while their most profound relationship is the one they have with their camera lens.

But let’s set that aside and discuss how nothing works, how everyone scowls at us when we deign to ask for an apple (WHERE THE FUCK IS MY APPLE?), salad, insert food here, and how we spent a pile of money for a hotel that’s delivering us a pile of nothing. Now that my first-world rant has come to a close, I’ll share how we fled the wackness for Koh Phi Phi (translation: my new place of residence)

When it comes to Koh Phi Phi, a group of islands surrounded by the Andaman Sea, the beauty is in the elements: the azure surf, moss-covered rocks and cool white sand. We fed bananas to wild monkeys on Monkey Island, sipped coconut water out of coconuts, feasted on grilled corn on the beach and crept under caves in a boat and swam in the ocean. Amidst all of the noise of New York–the relentless pitching for project work, the minor flood in my apartment, the novel that everyone says is utterly remarkable, beautiful and astounding yet is too dark, too experimental–it’s sometimes hard to believe I’m here and I’m happy. It’s hard to believe I held a monkey in my arms as he buried his hand in my hair (my hair is a forest).

I close my eyes and try to hold on to this moment for as long as I possibly can. I try to settle in it, remain it, until I have to board a plane for home and deal with everything.

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finding the magic in life

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The circle of life: to learn, to teach, to pass on, our guide tells us. He takes my hand and draws a circle with his forefinger and says, In Thailand we believe in magic. We learned of a man who saw darkness and death; he witnessed the suffering in the world and sought to go beyond it in to find enlightenment. Realizing that material delights were fleeting and temporary, Buddha found himself beneath a tree of knowledge and remained there, in study, until he could make sense of the world around him. Once he’d found this truth, he made it his life’s work to share it with others because he knew there would come a time when he would leave his body for another place, nirvana, the paradise of which all faiths speak. Our guide takes us around Bangkok to visit the Buddha in his various representations, seated in deep meditation, standing, reclining.

We could talk about the 24-carat priceless monument to a faith rooted in knowledge. We could talk about the grandeur of a small emerald figure seated upon a jeweled throne, or the music the chimes make when you run your fingers across a row of dull metal, or the architecture that borrows from India, China and Cambodia, but in light of where my head’s been, I’ve given a lot of thought to life, how we live it and what we do with it before we pass on.

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Time is my spectre. Ticking clocks, the movement of days into weeks and years frightens me. There was a time when I’d wake from a deep sleep to pace my apartment because there would come a day when I wouldn’t pace. When my feet wouldn’t feel the ground beneath, rather my body would become part of the earth from which I’d come, and I still can’t wrap my head around it. When it comes to death I have no peace or calm about it, and I know when that time comes I will want to hold on as long as I could rather than fall gracefully into the dark. For me, there is no beauty in that last breath shuddering out–there is only the uncertainty which follows. People have their faith, they cling to it and I get it, but I can’t imagine a binary afterlife where I ascend to a home of gleaming white or fall into a column of fire. I just don’t buy it.

Perhaps this is why I’m so fixated on what I do in this life. And while I admire the story of Buddha and his relentless pursuit of truth, I don’t believe enlightenment comes through a succession of time. We’re constantly learning and then the hope is that we teach and then relearn and then do it all over again. For me, the magic has always been a photo once blurred coming into focus. The magic is crawling your way out of the dark and knowing that there will always be dark, but there will always, always be light. And this truth is comforting amidst a temporary life that ends (at least for me) with the gravest discomfort. Of a sky or ground burial, a body burned, or a body carried down a body of water.

Joan Didion says, we tell stories to live, and I believe this in my heart but I also believe we secretly tell stories so that we can leave our mark. We tell stories to be remembered. Don’t you forget about me, and like that. I think about this and I think about how I don’t want to have children and I wonder if my passing will hurt, if people will remember me in some capacity. And this selfishness (let’s call a spade a spade, okay?) coupled with a compulsion to find truth, to know everything one could possible know in a life, is sometimes the thing that gets me out of bed.

I once knew a person who said she had an aversion to anything dark. She won’t watch sad or disturbing movies, she reads stories that always deliver that neat, idyllic end, and she presses her eyes shut to the world around her. Sure, she might read The Skimm to get the Cliff’s Notes version of the world delivered in a tone of wit, stories of which are digestible and tweetable, but she refuses to know, to see. At first I thought this was an anomaly until I started to discover that many people live this way. They rationalize the need for reality television (as an example) to escape the world. They need some levity in their day. But then they shut their eyes to the world, and if they don’t know the darkness of it, and they surrounded themselves only in false light, what is it that they’re escaping? Are they fleeing the hazy awareness that the world is sometimes bad and people do evil things?

Why is it that people run from the dark? It’s been my experience that despair, loss, heartbreak, rage–this is all temporary. There is much to be learned from settling into the dark, breathing through it to get to the other side. That side is true light because you’ve once felt the absence of it. Someone asked me the other day how I felt about not drinking for the rest of my life. Admittedly, that’s still a scary thought, one with which I occasionally wrestle. And I said that I try not to think in those terms–the vagueness of an indeterminable amount of years I’ll be here, rather I think I just won’t drink today. But more importantly, what I’ve gained from not drinking is so much greater than the fact that I’ve lost the ability to do it.

It’s about the maths, I say. Because it was only the fact that I spent so many years under anesthesia and some years without that I know the difference of a life lived within the two. And I know that I can’t go back. Why would I? Yet I only truly understood that by having traveled through a dark country and building a temporary house there.

I think all of this is part of knowledge, this circle of life as Buddhists would have it. And this is the kind of thing I like to share with others, but the struggle is many don’t want to hear it. They want the tra la la pretty shiny life. They want the periphery, the ah, yes, I’ve heard of ISIS, but I’m fuzzy on the details.

Sometimes I feel punished for what I write and my need to share it. I do. And this has consumed much of my vacation, regardless of all the fun I’m having and all the beauty I see.

I woke this morning and said, out loud, what the fuck is so wrong about the dark?

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what we talk about when we talk about food in southeast asia

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It feels good to be here, halfway around the world. It’s winter in Bangkok, and during the day our shirts cling to our backs and all we want to do is crawl into the cool dark and settle there. In the morning we took a private car and toured a steamy city. We covered our shoulders in temples, took off our shoes and quietly prayed. Marveling at a buddha worth forty million dollars and built in 24-carat gold, we stood on a balcony overlooking the city and thought about how far we had to travel to shake home off our feet. Twelve hours separates us from them and it was comforting to know that we celebrated our best moments, traded stories and laughed so hard it hurt when everyone was asleep.

Normally, I travel alone because I like it that way; I prefer the company of solitude that comes with being itinerant. I like being a nameless stranger, one of the many in a car, in a train, swimming deep underwater. Yet this trip, one I’ve taken with two dear friends, has been wonderful. In the early evening I drank fresh watermelon juices with my friend Amber and talked about an old friend from an old life, and I hadn’t thought of this friend in a while, and it felt good to talk about the person I used to be, to be on good terms with her, even if the space between that woman then and this woman now is an incalculable figure.

I watch a movie in my hotel room and Thom Yorke’s “Analyse” comes on, You traveled far/What have you found/That there’s no time/There’s no time/To analyse/To think things through/To make sense. I want to be here longer because when I come home there’s so much to deal with. So many bandaids in need of ripping off. But I try not to think about that. I try not to let my mind go where it wants to go. I try to hold on to this time for as long as I can.

I’m traveling with two friend who light up when it comes to beauty and I go mad for food, and it’s good to know that the two loves have been harmonious. They waited as I raced to a corner to grab a plastic bag of juicy mango dusted with cane sugar and pink salt and watched as I poured water all over my hands outside of the temple because the sweet clung to my fingers. They marveled as my Korean lunch took up nearly our entire table. We’ve had spicy curries, fluffy seafood pancakes, slippery glass noodles and buttery beef. My friend Amber eats all of my kimchi because I can’t tolerate the sourness of it. I watch a man crush pomegranate seeds into a bottle and I drink the juice as it is, tart, a little sweet, completely what I needed in the hot sun.

Tomorrow we leave for a long holiday in Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and who knows where, and I can’t wait to tear into papayas, pineapples and have all of the greenery.

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mediocrity is the new black

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When I was small, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote and rewrote a single word fifteen times. I wrote the word, crossed it out and wrote it again. I was eight, and the assignment was to write a haiku about our family, someone we loved. I had one of those black notebooks where the cover was stiff and the pages inside were lined, thick. I had the word voice, because when I was small my mother’s voice was the loudest sound. It was the only sound. But it wasn’t enough to simply say that it was loud, no, there was something else. Something nefarious, ominous. It took me some time but I ended up writing a haiku–three lines, 5/7/5–that likened my mother’s voice to thunder. That was the word I’d been looking for. Thunder.

I was 8.

My grade school published an annual, which amounted to stapled sheets of colored paper filled with our poems, stories and meager hand-drawings. The cover was pale yellow and the interior blue, and the teachers had published all of my poems. When my mother thumbed through it I remember her saying the word thunder out loud and smiling. I’m not sure if she was proud of the word I’d chosen or if she was happy to have been written about. She was pleased with the attention, and that, for much of my life she would be my singular subject. I suspect, in one way or another, she’ll always find her way into my work.

In the movie Wall Street, financier Gordon Gekko tells a young Bud Fox, The most valuable commodity I know of is information. While Gekko was referring to insider information, the innards of a company not published in an annual report but rather strung up in the insides of gleaming offices, that quote, among others, remained with me. I always believed the most valuable asset one could have was knowledge. The journey was in its acquisition, so I spent much of my childhood and life in constant study. I read voraciously, I listened assiduously, and I saw worlds unfamiliar to me–India, the assault of color and shape–all in an effort to see, to know. I translate that world, or at the very least, make sense of it, through prose. I work it out on paper, on screen, and in the end what I’ve learned changes shape and form and becomes something new altogether. This is high art to me, and I hadn’t known of any other world where knowledge, information, was then used and transformed into art. The beauty of it was individuality. The way a child hears the timbre of her mother’s voice and how she may think of wind chimes (you can practically feel the softness, the lyrical quality of it, right?), while another writes, emphatically, thunder (the dark, the sharp, the edge of night like knives cutting into things).

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of pretty stories about angry people. The stories were long, filled with what word technicians would call exposition: a pile of pretty sentences that don’t amount to much. All of my life I hunted and gathered for words, but the problem now was I had too many of them. And I remember sitting in Nathan Englander’s office (he was my teacher for a time), and he printed out two copies of a short story I’d written and one page was filled, FILLED, with red (a bloodletting!) and the other was a clean copy where he’d written some notes on the margins. It took everything in me to not burst into the tears when I saw the butchery, but he taught me about the value of economy. That the most powerful way to show people the world was through the simplest of words. But those words had to work. They had to be a nesting doll, a possessor and deliverer of multiple meanings, and after, I spent years performing surgery on my work. I asked myself, how can I understand and then, how can I show? So that you can see. So that you can learn. So that you can create. And so that others can create. This mutation, it’s a site to see. And so on.

But now something’s changed. The most value commodity I know of is attention. I think about the movie Boogie Nights, where a young Mark Wahlberg loosely portrays the 70s porn king, John Holmes (Johnny Wad, if you must). In one scene, Wahlberg bounces up and down on the bed in his childhood room in his parent’s house. He’d just made love to a woman and he says, Everyone has one thing, you think? I mean, everyone’s given one special thing, right? That’s right. Everyone’s blessed with one special thing. I want you to know I plan on being a star. A big, bright shining star. That’s what I want.

It’s 2014 and everyone wants to be a big, bright shining star.

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I think about this in the car when I’m with two friends and we’re driving from the airport in Bangkok to the hotel from which I’m writing this now. I think about this when I’m in this car and I see a sign that reads, Service staff are not polite. My friend next to me points at the sign, we read it aloud and laugh, and then I pause because there’s something that threads between our hunger for attention, see me, see me, and the very cold honest nature of the words printed and displayed when one is welcomed into a new city. It’s there, I just can’t see it yet.

Later on that day we visit a mall where each floor is designed to represent a famous city: Rome, San Francisco, Paris, etc. We eat Thai food in a restaurant and nearly everyone is photographing something. Two girls fastidiously arrange their hair, their face, for a series of photos, selfies, they take in front of their food which has gone cold. There’s me taking a picture of the food on my plate. There’s a couple buried in the bowels of their phone. Everyone is participating in the world through a filter, a lens, and I set down my camera and realize how this bothers me. There’s art in that for sure, but if there is this omnipresent interruption, are we then not able to see? Not able to get this information, create this art? I’m not sure.

I go to bed early and wake at 4:30am to read this interview:

Into this culture of resistance that New York has always personified has come this incredible middle class thinking. Which is all about consensus. It isn’t diversity. The individual is not empowered anymore in our culture. The overriding value is to fit in—not make waves. You can’t network if you’re too individual, and there is an incredible taste for mediocrity in the world.

We all feel superior to bad work. Makes us feel good. But the truth is, that doesn’t give you anything. When you see really good work, when you experience excellence, it makes you question yourself in very harsh ways. But you’re uplifted by the excellence of good work. But we’re living in a time where mediocrity is the new black.

I close my laptop and try to sleep but I can’t. The interview puts me to thinking about a conversation I’d just had where I talked about being frightened of the whitewashing, the homogeneity of the work online and the composition of a superstar blogger. The Photocopy Culture. Certainly, there is individuality, democratized art, and those who break ranks. I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Essays and it makes me question my work. It makes me want to take a scalpel in order to get deeper, to see if there’s something else I could say. Excellence pushes me, challenges me, makes me work harder to learn, see, create and share, but the thing is I’m seeing a lot less excellence and a lot more mediocrity.

I realize this is a lot to unpack, and I don’t even know if I can do it justice in a single blog post, but there’s something that’s slowly burrowing under my skin and pricking it. A murmur, something just about to break the surface (the ticking is the bomb), and I found myself enraged when I see that the desire to be liked, favorited, shared, noticed, trafficked, coveted–those base emotions now override the desire for knowledge. Look at me versus let me look inside. Get under the hood, fiddle around, as it were. And that quest to be noticed, to have your voice rise above the din (as referenced by the hundreds of articles that give you tips on getting noticed!) somehow, for me, removes the beauty that once proliferated the online space. A time when people weren’t preened to dishabille perfection, didn’t arrange their totems of worship to then filter and photograph them, waiting for the inevitable “likes.” Perhaps this is why I challenge and question my own work and how I represent it on this space. Perhaps I started to feel this rage a year ago when I wrote a review of the Kinfolk cookbook, which was more of a lashing out on this kind of imperfect perfection culture and its inherent deceptiveness and danger to those who seek to emulate it. I wrote,

There is no real visceral connection between image and type. Rather, the cookbook tells us the story of people who project the lives you wish you could live, and the recipes are merely an antecedent to that lovely fiction.

Point blank, the book was a pile of fuck. Mediocrity at its finest. Sure, the artwork was beautiful, the images bucolic and austere, but there was something wrong with the book. Aside from fact that the writing was an assault to the English language and the recipes went untested, I was sickened to the core about the physicality of the book and its perceived meaning. This book was meant to suggest excellence in its marriage between design, type and image, but it was instead the Trojan horse of art. It was pretty but devoid of actual meaning. Simply put, it was mediocrity dressed up in Sunday-best finery.

That’s what I’m seeing these days and I think that’s what drove my rage when I was having lunch with friends yesterday. A lot of what I’ve been seeing online is really pretty but it’s soulless, lifeless–it’s a replica of a bland original. It makes you desire to covet and acquire rather than hunger to learn and create. And The Photocopy Culture, the peanut-crunching lot, are being rewarded handsomely for their terrific fiction. And so more people see this and say, I want that shiny thing too, and on it goes.

It used to be that the most valuable commodity was information, now it’s adulation, attention. Please, please let me get what I want, Morrissey pleads.

An artist friend tells me that this, what’s been happening, all of it, doesn’t relate to my art. She says, you do you. She says, you keep creating great work amidst the ruin. She says, you ignore and slog through. She says, it’s not about you. She says, keep sifting through the rubble. And I do just that for a time. I get my equipment. I excavate. I ferret out work that challenges and inspires me. I try to ignore the growing fervor (fever, really?). I try to say that the blogger who can barely string a sentence together has a two-book contract is not about me. I try to keep creating, but I wonder this: will I drown from the clamor above me? From the voices, the thunder, of those who want to be seen versus those who love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness, as D.H. Lawrence would have it.

Do I just love and produce when I see so many destroy! destroy!?

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