the muffining part 6 : second cousin of muffin

This is the sixth or seventh time I’ve made Molly Yeh’s lactation muffins. Maybe it’s a placebo, maybe it’s more the pile of oats I eat in the morning than it is the muffins, but say what you want, if I don’t have them on hand then the baby is hungry. So obviously this called for more muffins.

I was out of baking powder, though. And it was snowing. And people were spinning out about every five minutes in front of my house. So I kind of didn’t want to hit the roads. Which occasioned this discovery:

I’m sure serious cooking people all knew this. It’s the sort of thing I imagine learning from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat one day (one day!) I, however, am not serious cooking people. Or baking people. Moreover, chemistry was the first subject (of so so many) at which I was well and truly terrible. So I didn’t know this at all, and it’s fascinating.

Bottom line is I substituted baking soda and white vinegar according to this ratio (1/4 tsp baking soda + 1/2 tsp vinegar for every tsp baking powder) and got fluffier, crispier-on-top muffins than I ever have before. And I may make a habit of it.

Bonus round: Molly Yeh’s cinnamon buns with tahini frosting with sesame seed and cranberry salad toppers sprinkled on top:

… which were amazing, even if as per usual with my more involved baked goods, they weren’t pretty.

And yes, the Molly Yeh recipes keep coming, because I am trying to broadcast that I want her damn cookbook for Christmas. I feel like this message is pretty clear by now.

Sadly though, combining these two items into the same post means I’ll never get to write a post called Buns of the Gods. Which had been my plan. *single tear*

on earth we’re briefly gorgeous

gorgeous

I bought this book for its title, which pulled me as sure as my leash pulls my dog. The same as I did with All the Light We Cannot See. For its title, and because I was losing the lyricism in Nanowrimo that I wanted to maintain, and it’s easier to edit existing lyricism into polish than it is to conjure it from nothing, after the fact, for me. Goodreads said was lyrical. We write what we read, to a certain extent, so I bought it, hoping to osmose some lyricism.

Damn.

It’s one of those books that hits me like a semi-truck, like Wild. I do not know that I was ready for this level of feeling. I bought the large-print version by accident, so it looks longer than it is. It is not long. But still I have to put it down every so often, because it will wash over you like that several-mile-high wave in Interstellar. The one that drowned one astronaut, and almost drowned the rest.

I mean, shit.

You know how converts to a religion are typically more zealous than those who grew up in it? It may be that those who come to a language as a second tongue use it more beautifully than those who grew up into it from the beginning. Because…I don’t know. You work harder to make it yours? You’re more aware of it as a tool to hone, to get what you need said, said? Or because you’re aware of how fragile it is, how it can be shattered and lost, like your mother tongue, and how you need to shelter this new one and make it yours, make it last, make it stay.

it’s that time of year again

On track so far but it’s day 5 so let’s not get too excited. My seventh year that the site acknowledges, though I lacked data on the early years so they don’t count, alas. Honestly I associate this hoodie more with getting the flu than with writing — turns out pure black is useful when you’re oozing everywhere — but here’s hoping this year will change that!

solitude

Solitude is better as a block of time than as an entire existence.

That’s from The Atlantic‘s interview with Jami Attenberg, whose books I haven’t read — but now I want to. I was thinking about solitude yesterday (under a sleeping baby, as usual), at first wondering how I could explain my time in Japan to my son without whining but also without painting a false, exoticised picture of ex-patriotism. Then, thinking back to my actual day-to-day life there, realizing how horrifically lonely I was. And how that wouldn’t necessarily be a failure to confess to him; it would just be the truth and a cautionary tale.

I spoke so little to other people that I grew hoarse on days I did speak. I clung to the English-speakers I met on the Internet (social media had not yet taken off in a big way) as to life preservers, crumpling when they exhibited the slightest whiff of distaste for my opinions, for my beliefs, for me. I lived and died based on whether I had any emails in my inbox in the morning. And I walked everywhere.

I thought it would be an inspiring, an organizing experience, like it is for Attenberg. And maybe it was, at first. But it didn’t stay that way. It was too much — solitude as, indeed, an entire existence. I was drowning in it. There are images I recall that I can certainly harken back to, I suppose, for inspiration. The glitter of sun on the sea from the tops of the cliffs at Atami. The vertical sheets of rain and the tiny slice of dryness afforded by an overhang over a payphone in the middle of the night in Ogikubo, the last train rattling past. How small Tokyo looked from the ring of mountains surrounding it, up among massive trees and a decaying VW bus that the forest had been taking back for decades — someone’s imported hippie dream abandoned on a logging road.

I have these images, but I don’t know that they were worth what I paid for them. I would never wish that kind of loneliness on my son. Especially since suicide is more prevalent now. That sounds gratuitously dark, I guess, but if I hadn’t been so angry — or so dogged about transforming despair into anger — I don’t know that I would have come back in one piece. I was deeply, miserably lonely, and despite years of vainly thinking myself a fashionable loner, I realized I desperately needed other people more than I knew.

What Attenberg says she does in her latest book — delving into the heads of one lonely character after another — I don’t let myself do anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere near that headspace again. I used to start, but then I’d get stuck there for the length of the piece, and it felt awful. Now I try to stick to lots of characters having interactions — connection — meaning. Because while I know solitude has meaning for many, for me it comes at too high a price.

Maybe it wouldn’t be that way for my kid, but if he asks one day, I don’t think I’ll conceal the experience from him.

swann’s way done at last

swann

It was painfully draining.

Not because of flowery language or paragraph-length sentences, but because the relationships depicted therein are exhaustingly toxic, and they repeat themselves, depressingly, over the generations. Swann’s self-loathing jealousy over the call-girl Odette finds itself mirrored pitifully in the grade-school crush of our narrator upon Swann’s daughter. After the hundreds of pages of deeply unhealthy obsession that characterizes the Swann In Love section, to see the same pattern beginning to play out in our previously fragile-but-charming child narrator is just shitty.  Instructive, but shitty. Even if it is familiar — even if that’s what grade school crushes can feel like (I assume from observation only; I was stridently puritanical at the time and ruthlessly shunned the two boys who claimed to like me). It feels rotten to see its parasitic nature laid out so clearly.

I had always wondered why Remembrances of Things Past, though hailed on every edition’s book jacket as the novel of the century (or one of them), never seemed to have acquired the One Day I’ll Read This veneer that other books have, in popular culture. For instance, in advertisements and jokes, both Ulysses and War and Peace are commonly used as shorthand for great literary endeavors that one intends to undertake but never does. Or at least never finishes. I remember a mattress ad, in particular, that begins with a close-up shot of a copy of Ulysses, which as we zoom out is clearly seen to have been abandoned by the besides of a snoring individual whose mattress was just too comfortable to let him finish the book. And War and Peace, while I can’t recall the phrasing exactly, is often written into jokes along the lines of “it’s not rocket science,” i.e. it’s not War and Peace, so whatever the addressee is attempting to read or process should be easier for them to read and process, i.e. they should be done by now.

But in my experience, Remembrances of Things Past, despite its literary clout, is never lumped into conversations with those others, and that strikes me as odd. Why not? Is it that Americans in particular don’t pursue the book, and prefer to turn to their own for the dissemination of the book’s chief sentiment, namely that:

“The places that we have known belong not only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitives, alas! as the years.”

So, you know. You can’t go home again.

But obviously Joyce and Tolstoy aren’t Americans any more than Proust is, and you don’t see culture turning away from them to make their references to Big Books I Mean To Read But Never Will. Does it have to do with books assigned in school? Are people assigned Ulysses and War and Peace? I wasn’t — we only read Dubliners (whose title story both myself and a friend remembered at the same time the other day, in the same place, and we explained it to our partners, standing there in the sun, and managed to totally shatter a good mood with that somber-ass story, eerily reflective of the plot of the story itself, now that I think of it) and we never touched any Russian texts beyond Crime and Punishment.

I fixate on this because clearly, per Thomas Wolfe, the sentiments conveyed in this book are by no means foreign to anyone. “You can’t go home again,” or more broadly “you can’t go back, because what you’re trying to go back to never existed in the pure form in which your mind has convinced you it did” is pretty universally relatable. After a certain age, chastises the ghost of the only professor I ever heard mention Proust — he who advised us not to touch Remembrances until we were forty, elsewise we wouldn’t appreciate it. Grief makes you old, man. Also, maybe, joy, and the realization of its ephemeral nature, but still. I get it.

The relatability factor doesn’t change the fact that the whole endless “Swann In Love” section is a slog. It’s as bad as Mad Men — shitty people doing shitty things, the seven-season show. It goes on and on and things don’t get better. Swann is a womanizer, then he falls for this girl who wants to use him (in her defense, it’s how she gets by and she doesn’t exactly hide this fact? though she’s still petty and cruel so she’s no angel by a long shot), and she does, but then he becomes infatuated with her beyond all reason, alternately crying over the idea of her not loving him anymore and fantasizing, briefly, about killing her so he could be free of his obsession for her….then crying about his fantasy, etc. etc. See what I meant above? This shit is unhealthy. It’s gross to read about. If the very brief final section “Place-Names: The Name” at the end is there deliberately to mirror, for our previously-introduced child narrator, the disastrousness of the “Swann In Love” section prior, it seems a long, lonnnng way to go just to make the point that infatuation is damnably the same at any age.

There are obviously beautiful passages. Both descriptive:

Brief, fading ivy, climbing, fugitive flora, the most colourless, the most depressing, to many minds, of all that creep on walls or decorate windows; to me the dearest of them all, from the day when it appeared upon our balcony, like the very shadow of the presence of Gilberte, who was perhaps already in the Champs-Elysées, and as soon as I arrived there would greet me with: “Let’s begin at once. You are on my side.” Frail, swept away by a breath, but at the same time in harmony, not with the season, with the hour; a promise of that immediate pleasure which the day will deny or fulfill, and thereby of the one paramount immediate pleasure, the pleasure of loving and of being loved; more soft, more warm upon tie stone than even moss is; alive, a ray of sunshine sufficing for its birth, and for the birth of joy, even in the heart of winter.

And thoughtful:

“And while my love, incessantly waiting for the morrow to bring a confession of Gilberte’s love for me, destroyed, unravelled every evening, the ill-done work of the day, in some shadowed part of my being was an unknown weaver who would not leave where they lay the severed threads, but collected and rearranged them, without any thought of pleasing me, or of toiling for my advantage, in the different order which she gave to all her handiwork. Without any special interest in my love, not beginning by deciding that I was loved, she placed, side by side, those of Gilberte’s actions that had seemed to me inexplicable and her faults which I had excused. Then, one with another, they took on a meaning.

…It showed me finally, the new arrangement planned by my unseen weaver, that, if we find ourselves hoping that the actions of a person who has hitherto caused us anxiety may prove not to have been sincere, they shed in their wake a light which our hopes are powerless to extinguish, a light to which, rather than to our hopes, we must put the question, what will be that person’s actions on the morrow.”

But man is it a long way to go to get there.

I’ll read the rest of Remembrances, but first I’m going back to the Witcher books, because my next two came in the mail and because the written Geralt really is different than the cocksure jackass from the games. And anyway I need a break from Swann and his ilk. Given that, chronologically, our narrator is set next to enter puberty, I expect a great deal more of his resemblance to Swann — at least insofar as his deletrious affections go — to be front and center. And that is exhausting just to think about. Swann’s own interior monologues were already so similar to some of the crazier anti-women rants floating about the internet these days that to see the same stuff come out of a teenager hits a little too close to home.

Of note, I am aware that one could and perhaps should bring Foucault and Lacan into Swann’s Way. But the glory of not being twenty years old anymore is that I don’t have to spend 90 minutes showboating my bookcase in order to prove anything to myself…or to anyone else. Besides, the baby is in a growth spurt and I am exhausted. Good night.

random music mondays : the joke

I always come to songs everyone else has already appreciated late, through a back door, trotting after a remix or a cover version in search of its source.

Such is the case with Brandi Carlile’s The Joke, an instrumental version of which I heard in, of all places, an Amex commercial. The strings dragged me up off the couch where I was trying to doze, frantically trying to catch what the commercial was advertising (it’s not always clear, and I still mourn the piano melody I caught the tail end of in an obscure commercial set in a British candy shop twenty years ago, which melody I will never find again) so I could look up the song.

I know Brandi Carlile but I didn’t know this song…even though it apparently won two Grammys. I’ve been avoiding her, to be honest. I first heard her when I was in Japan and I Skyped my mom every day, chatting and exchanging memes and screen sharing the entirety of sites like Cake Wrecks and I Fixed It and Cyanide and Happiness and laughing about them. We also exchanged music, and Brandi Carlile was someone one we listened to together, I think because I heard the song The Story in a Starbucks. (Before you judge me, that’s where my conversation partner wanted to meet. I wasn’t being That American on purpose.)

I should be grateful for that time because I probably talked more to my mom during that more-than-a-year than most 22-year-olds do for their whole twenties. Then she got Alzheimer’s and then cancer and then she died. And I should be grateful that I have that whole stockpile of shared memories I might not otherwise have had.

But it’s hard to be grateful when the last messages I have saved from her on my phone — transferred to phone after phone, over years — were of her hoping to talk to me, like we used to when I was abroad, and missing me now that I was back, and busy, and had friends again. I don’t want to lose those messages because they’re her voice, but listening to them is brutal. We never talked daily like that again. We never cruised the internet together like that again. Brandi Carlile is wrapped up in that weight, so I’ve avoided her.

But the strings on this song! Those strings were, apparently, one of the last musical endeavors by the late Paul Buckmaster. And they draw me like moths to a flame.

I am not a very admirable music person, above and beyond my not knowing how to read it or make it. I generally prefer recordings to live shows — I want it to sound exactly the way it does in my headphones, with no riffing or other live inventions along the way — and I’m an absolute sucker for extensive production over the more intimate, inevitably-more-praised “raw” recordings. But surely this, like Florence and the Machine’s album Ceremonials, is an example of high production values done right. No, you can’t walk into a cozy coffee shop and hear “The Joke” as it is recorded here but…it’s possible to read that as part of the point. The people she’s trying to bring up in these lyrics shouldn’t be relegated only to the realm of the cozy, the intimate, the pleasantly rainy-day soundtracks of the world. She’s trying to uplift them, and that shouldn’t happen quietly. Soaring should be loud, and this is. The twist upward on the chorus at “I have been to the movies / I’ve seen how this ends” wrings me out like, well, all my favorite songs do. Solas’s theme, the final song in Gladiator, hell, even Music of the Night (cut me some slack; I was eleven and it was the first performance I ever saw, tagging along with a friend’s family whose father couldn’t attend last-minute, and I was blown away, the deeply toxic nature of the Phantom’s attraction totally lost on me for, uh, years). I assume it’s like finally allowing the last note in a progression through a pentatonic scale — the sound going in a direction your brain wants it to go, whether biologically or through cultural expectation. (I honestly don’t know the science of it.) But it’s beautiful, either way, and I’m glad I arrived at this Brandi Carlile song, even if through the most unlikely of sources.

And going back to that NPR article, her describing how she had to be walked into allowing this extravagance of emotion, instead of buttoning it up, tamping it down…damn if that isn’t exactly how I feel about the most emotionally impactful writing, and informs how furious I get when people shit on such things claiming emotional manipulation. Feeling something isn’t contrivance, folks. It’s what you’re supposed to do. And when you do it you ought to let it out.

the blessed apple 2019

The! Best! Version! Of this pie I’ve ever made!

This is The Blessed Apple pie we speak of, from the mini-cookbook inside the World of Thedas Volume Two companion book for Dragon Age. I make this pie every year. Last year’s was something of a bust because I chose crappy non-baking apples. Which may also have been somewhat past their prime. But this year’s pie is FANTASTIC.

What’s different this time:

Apples: Zestar! apples. (Amusingly they include the exclamation mark in the trademark…) A new apple guy appeared at the farmer’s market and I asked if any of his many breeds were good for baking. This is what he handed me. I was doubtful because while cutting them up I took a few bites and they seemed good straight? And I thought baking apples were supposed to taste gross straight, like Granny Smiths. But these Zestars are wonnnnnderful in a pie.

Coconut oil: a 1:1 substitution, because I had no butter (my husband used the last of it to make the also excellent scotch pies from the Outlander cookbook). This does mean your pie will be wet on the bottom but goddamn is it worth it. So. Good.

No, I didn’t peel them, same as all the other years, because I don’t have a peeler/corer and I’m not going to slice up my knuckles trying to take a vegetable peeler to that smooth appley surface. Anyway I figure peeling isn’t really necessary? And with the peels on it looks more like real apples and less like that gross congealed apple goop you get in mass-produced apple pastries. Gag.

Another potential difference is that I may have added around an extra 1/4 teaspoon of salt by accident, trying to shake from a big salt cylinder into a tiny measuring spoon. Big chunky salt. It is damn good. I also, ah…really, really love salt though. So your mileage may vary.

Now I am going to go have another piece, because I’m an adult and can eat pie for dinner.