Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: September, 2016

Postcard #19 – Well, It’s Obvious Where This One Is From

For those of you geographically challenged or too lazy to look it up on Google Maps, Cambridge, Ontario is approximately a one hour drive southwest of Toronto. I’ve never been to Cambridge, but I have been to Mississauga which is a city between Cambridge and Toronto. Why the heck was I in Mississauga? Well, I have relatives living there.

I spent part of my formative years in Ontario (although if you’ve read enough of my writing, you’ll notice right away that I don’t use Canadian spelling–American schools don’t tolerate any of that). I had a happy time living there, but I must admit, if the opportunity arose so that I could move back there, I would hesitate. I think it’s due to a mix of the weather (I am not fond of going out during the winter) and that East Coast vibe that makes me acutely aware that I just don’t fit in. If it was on the west coast of Canada though–no hesitation.



Postcard #18 – In the Envelope

I received this postcard in an envelope so I’ve also included a scan of that, primarily for the stamps. I won’t say anything else about envelopes as those of you who have been following me for a while probably already know quite well my opinion on them. (And if not, search the archives of this blog.)

One of the things I’ve started noticing is that whenever anyone starts describing themselves, one of the first things they say is their age. This is particularly prevalent with young people. I suppose it does sort of matter to me if someone is under 18–because I tend to cut them some slack if they screw up because they’re kids. Older people, though, don’t have any excuse.





Postcard #17 – Unfortunately It Was Targeted By Pyromaniacs

According to the sender of this postcard, this town hall in the Netherlands no longer exists because someone burned it down. The culprit wasn’t found.

Despite the internet, the media, and general surveillance intruding in our lives, it’s kind of amazing that there are still mysteries and strange occurrences happening in the world. Of course, the initial reaction is, “Wow, that’s terrible.” But then, if you’re the creative and curious sort, you start wondering, “Who? Why? How?” These sorts of things end up being that spark that jump starts a story if you’re a writer.



Postcard #16 – Silly Einstein

Somewhat related to this postcard of Einstein: I’ve been watching this documentary series called Brain Games recently. On one of the episodes, an optical illusion was given in which a picture looked like Einstein up close but far away it looked like Marilyn Monroe. In other words, how you perceive a picture is all “relative”.

Arguably, Einstein is the most well known scientist or is at least one of the first to come to mind for non-scientists. And because of that, I sort of feel that he’s overplayed. Yes, he did a lot for physics, but there are so many other people in the sciences–or even in physics if you just want to limit yourself to that field. In my Postcrossing profile, I simply request people to surprise me with what they send. Einstein isn’t that surprising. But if you were to send me one of Barbara McClintock…



Postcard #15 – Chameleon

The chameleon on this postcard is rather charming, but I think the highlight of this one is actually the stamp which depicts one of the well known works by Alfons Mucha/Alphonse Mucha. Art Nouveau is one of my favorite art movements and art styles. It has this organic, fantastic, and decadent quality that doesn’t make any excuses except it’s just there to be beautiful. I’m actually kind of sad this sort of aesthetic is no longer in fashion. It would be pretty awesome if, say, cramped city apartments were designed this way, bringing “nature” back to the cold concrete. Unfortunately these days this style might only be found on some fantasy art.



Postcard #14 – Another One From Texas…Or Is It?

A NaNoWriMo participant from Houston sent me this postcard. I found it really interesting that Davy Crockett is prominently pictured here. Yes, Crockett died at the Alamo which figures enormously (and possibly ominously?) in the Texan psyche. But when someone mentions Davy Crockett, the first place I associate with him is Tennessee, not Texas. That’s because I spent part of my childhood in Tennessee and when I had to study the required state history in school, that’s where I learned about him.

The thing about legendary historical figures–and particularly ones who people view as heroic–is that everyone wants to claim them. I’m sure if Crockett ever spent significant time in, say Iowa, his portraiture would be on every Iowan tourist trinket ever conceived. In some ways, it transforms that person into a symbol–or to the more cynical among us, a commercial brand. Exactly who that person is or was, their thoughts, philosophies, and complexities, are reduced to so many images and random quotations among the commemorative mugs and t-shirts and, yes, even postcards.

This is the first postcard I’ve featured on this blog that has a real person on it. But it won’t be the last. And frankly, I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, the sender picked it out because this historical figure meant something to them. But I, as the receiver, become acutely aware that the postcard is nowhere near the entire picture.



Postcard #13 – From Dracula’s Castle, Sorta

Yes, there are NaNoWriMo participants in Romania! You know, that’s one of the amazing things about NaNoWriMo–people do it all over the world, even in the most unlikely places. I’ve never been to Romania–although I do want to visit one day–but I find its rich tradition of folklore fascinating.

Many cultures around the world have vampires or vampire-like creatures as part of their folklore, but the most famous must be Dracula and Transylvania. The first time I attempted Bram Stoker’s book, I couldn’t finish it because it was too creepy. (It did not help that the copy I was reading had some unsettling illustrations.) I can see why people like the trope–it represents sex and death and the forbidden. Personally, I feel that contemporary fiction has been saturated by too many vampires (and werewolves) and a lot of authors use them because it’s an easy shortcut. The only vampire-related piece of media I would recommend without reservation would be the film Shadow of the Vampire which some critics think is scary, but I thought it was funny.



Postcard #12 – Cows from Germany

This is one thing that I had learned after joining Postcrossing. There are a lot of people on there who love postcards with cows. I do not understand the fascination with cows. Cats and dogs, yes. Hamsters and even hedgehogs? Yes. All animals in general? Okay. But cows? One or two people, I understand, but it’s really confusing when every other swap partner you get puts “cows” under their list of interests.

I worked with cows for a little bit as a graduate student. I can say that I’m probably one of the shrinking number of Americans who can actually milk a cow. (I’m an extremely unlikely person to even have this skill, but not as unlikely as, say, someone who might be in the top 1%.) Cows are smelly and dirty (and yes, I’ve also seen them at county fairs–but they’re washed and groomed deliberately for judging) and recalcitrant, if they’re feeling nice. I don’t hate cows, but I wouldn’t put them on the top of my list of cuddly fluff balls either.



Binge Watching

As I’m writing this, I’m binge watching Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Currently on season 5. Originally, I had watched the season 1 episodes when they first came out, but after that, things got busy and I was too distracted to watch any television shows. But now with a little bit of lull, I’m trying to catch up on what I’ve missed the past couple of years.

Television shows, in general, aren’t my thing. For one, I don’t have a TV. And more importantly, I’m uninterested in the majority of shows that crop up. (And even if the premise does interest me, I manage to read enough about them to know that they have parts that are too violent, too gory, too disturbing, and too gratuitous for my sensibilities. I’m okay reading about it, because words put a distance between me and the action, but watching it is another thing. I’d have nightmares for weeks.) However, I make an exception for Anthony Bourdain.

I don’t remember how I first came across Bourdain’s previous show, No Reservations. I was probably looking online for food and cooking shows because that’s one of the few genre of shows–I feel–are hard to completely screw up because, you know, food. I came in around season 2 or 3 and stuck around ever since. Bourdain is a bit of a miss for some people because he isn’t as earnest or goody-goody as some other television hosts, but I don’t like him solely because he’s considered a “bad boy” either. There are other bad boy hosts I’m not into because their whole schtick is about being angry and mean. Bourdain, on the other hand, is a bit more cynical and self-deprecating and not afraid of being made the butt of jokes. And aside from that, he seems to genuinely enjoy exploring other cultures and is up for trying anything.

Part of the appeal, I think, is that fact that Bourdain doesn’t hide that he’s a real person who has irritations and quirks and sometimes makes major screwups. Don’t get me wrong, I like other travel shows like Globe Trekker or Rick Steves just fine, but I think they’re targeting a demographic with a different personality. I mean, I can picture Rick Steves doing an interview with Lawrence Welk, but not Iggy Pop. And if Rick Steves decides to go off the beaten path, he’d take a Vespa through wine country. Bourdain, on the other hand, would be totally fine tramping through sketchy places to find some street food. Bourdain has no qualms about digging into the dirty politics, uneasy history, or problematic cultural undertones. Steves and other guides, on the other hand, barely touch on any of this. They either gloss over it or emphasize the Disneyfied, tourist-friendly versions.

Another part of the appeal is that he’s quite aware of the crew that’s also behind the camera and they’re also seen participating in the adventure as well. Other travel hosts studiously pretend that the crew isn’t there. I mean, when you’re traveling doing a television show, acting as if you’re traveling by yourself makes it look fake. For me, the suspension of belief isn’t quite there. Authenticity isn’t just about eating ethnic cuisine at the country of origin prepared by native people. It’s also being true to the conditions of your travel. This is a huge reason why I used his show as an inspiration for one of my NaNoWriMo novels–where I basically took his premise, turned it up to eleven, and made it science fiction, space opera style.

My criticism of Bourdain’s shows mainly rests with the episodes where he’s visiting a famous chef’s restaurant and going all fanboy over his (yes, it’s mostly a male chef with visions of grandeur) avant-garde culinary creations. It’s not really because these restaurants are elite or it’s expensive or that it’s touted as natural and organic and sustainable. It’s because it gives off the impression that this whole sitting in a fancy restaurant eating nicely decorated moss is a stunt. Not the sort of stunt where you jump out of a plane and anything could go wrong, but a staged stunt calculated to elicit a certain reaction with no risk involved. Maybe Bourdain is truly earnest about this new food and not sucking up to these culinary superstars, but I find it the very opposite of what is embodied by the titles No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

Anyways, I do like his shows quite a bit. They’re funny, edgy, and just a little bit outrageous. And at the end of an episode, I usually feel—yes, I do want to try that food or visit that place or talk to those people. Which is a lot better than sleeping through geography class, I can tell you that.

Postcard #11 – Squirrel!

This postcard sent by a NaNoWriMo participant in South Carolina is from a postcard book version of The Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford. I know because the local Staples was selling this postcard book and I remember flipping through it and seeing this exact card. I did not buy it, though. Basford was one of the first illustrators to hit it big in the coloring book industry. And once it took off, it seemed like everyone got into coloring for “therapy”.

I am not into coloring. I tried, once or twice, but I did not feel noticeably relaxed after having done it. Listening to people randomly whack Tibetian singing bowls is more relaxing. Maybe it’s because I already do too many tasks during the day which I consider mindless and repetitive (like pipetting). I feel like it’s a fad. Oh, I’m sure there will still be people coloring in five years, but I think most people will have moved on to something else.