Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: January, 2021

Library Goals

I had heard that Umberto Eco had a fantastic library and I remembered thinking–when I first read about it–that it was probably just one large room filled with books. And for some reason, I pictured it as blue. It’s quite possible I conflated that with a picture of Eco sitting in a blue room. But then I recently saw a video of Eco walking through his library to find a book. And wow. It’s definitely more impressive than what I originally had in my mind.

One of my great sadnesses was that I had to severely downsize on my physical library the last time I moved. To give you a sense of how much I had to downsize, I probably had enough books to fill 30 average sized moving boxes and I reduced that to two. I hope those books that used to be mine are now with people who will appreciate them.

My physical library is still growing despite that severe trim, but it’s growing in a different and slower way than it was before since I have limited room and I’ve made the decision to only buy hard copies for reference and non-fiction books. My electronic book library, on the other hand, grows even faster because it’s so easy to obtain books that way. It’s definitely larger than what my physical library ever was although trying to search for a book is a whole set of different problems. But on the whole, I really do like having an electronic library, especially on the cloud, because if I have at least my phone with me, I also have a large part of my library with me, too.

But if we’re talking about physical personal libraries, Eco’s library is library goals. If I had a library like that, I’d probably never venture to any other part of the house except out of necessity.

Postcards from the Last Six Months

I spent most of this afternoon sorting through the gigantic pile of postcards that I had accumulated for the past six months. I have a system for sorting–first I sort by size. This makes it easier for me to put protective plastic sleeves on them without switching between different sizes with every other one. Then I sort them again by country and file them accordingly in boxes. Below, I’ve documented some of my progress. (This is also in a Twitter thread.)

The stack:








Czech Republic:





Great Britain:

Hong Kong:




















Another Writing Challenge

February is the Month of Letters, a challenge where you mail something out every day during the month. The only exceptions are Sundays and holidays when the postal service is not open. I vaguely remember trying this out last year but I only averaged a piece of mail per day. I didn’t actually drop something in the mailbox every day, let alone write one piece of mail on each day. My habit leans towards doing everything on the weekend.

However, due to the ongoing pandemic, I’m not sure going to the post office every day is feasible. Instead, I will probably modify the challenge and drop mail off around twice a week. I will, however, make myself write a piece of mail every day which will be a change in my usual habit to leave this to the weekend. To keep myself accountable, I may be documenting  what I send on this blog.

If you would like for me to send you a postcard for the Month of Letters, feel free to fill out this form.

Once Again, I Fail as an Asian American

A recent article in Jezebel had me sighing. The premise of the article was that Asian Americans–particularly those growing up during the 1980s and 1990s–have a deep love of a music genre called New Wave, which included musical groups like Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, and New Order. I’m in that demographic, i.e. Asian American, growing up in that time period, a child of immigrants. I’ve even heard of those musical groups before. But do I even like them? No. I can tolerate it better than country music, but that’s all I can say.

I think where I differ from the other Asian Americans from the article is that I did not grow up in places where there were many other Asian Americans. And even of the one or two others around, there was very little chance of me forming any solidarity with them because they were musical geniuses playing Mozart and Beethoven on the piano and/or violin and it was all about competition with them, not solidarity. All of my teenage years was also spent in a place where it was country music all the time and I didn’t know anyone who liked New Wave.

Of course, that didn’t mean that I only listened to classical or country. I actually almost never listened to country of my own volition–such as my dislike for it.  Instead, some of my favorite music I discovered during this time period was through late night music shows on NPR, particularly Hearts of Space and Echoes. While other trendy Asian Americans liked listening to New Wave because it reflected how they felt in society–left out, alienated, and not quite belonging–I was listening to ambient and folk and electronic and new age stuff because it was weird. I don’t think I was particularly angsty as a teenager even though I was pretty much persona non grata socially, but I did like to seek out the strange and unusual.

Anyways, all of this is just to explain that whatever Asian American experience is exemplified in that article, it only applies to a subset of Asian Americans. It’s true that many Asian Americans do have some commonalities, but because we all grew up in different environments, it would be really difficult to state that specific touchstones apply to every Asian American. I guess my concern is that this article will only solidify in some people’s minds that All Asians Are the Same when in fact, the opposite is true.  And if there is only one way that an Asian American can be, I certainly fail in most of those aspects.

Food Can Be A Cultural Landmine

Not long after I wrote my previous post, I came across this article where the magazine Food & Wine apologized for messing up some traditional cuisine just because they wanted to interject their own aesthetics into the picture. Which made me wonder if my attempts at kolokythopita was an exercise in exerting my “privilege” (which seems very strange to say since I’m not a white dude and almost no one ever listens to me anyway) over an ethnic cuisine. I ultimately decided that my attempts at cooking was not the same thing because: 1) I admit I’m no expert at cooking, 2) I make no claims on authenticity and readily admit to any changes I made with the recipe, and 3) I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else that my adjustments to the recipe made it better, aesthetically or otherwise.

These days, if food tastes good, I’ll eat it. I think it’s because I live in a place where there is an ever present mingling of cuisines  in  pretty much any location that sells food. And I think everyone knows intuitively that it’s a fusion. No one’s seriously claiming to be an expert at an authentic cuisine–instead, everyone’s claiming to be the new hot thing. I think, too, that the blending of cuisines happens because there are the intersections of culture. While food can be a marker of identity, it’s also an easy way for different cultures to start understanding each other. 

Arguing about food’s authenticity is another matter. For example, I’ve had an antipathy for Chinese American restaurants because I didn’t think the food was authentic and it contributed to the stereotype that Asian Americans, and particularly Chinese Americans, liked this type of food and had the lifestyle that these restaurants conveyed. Of course now, I understand that the owners of these restaurants were just trying to earn a living like everyone else. And if they had to Americanize their menu to get the orders in, then that was what they were going to do. These days, I would argue that Chinese American cuisine is its own distinct entity.

But for the experienced chefs and other food experts of a particular culture who have spent a significant part of their lives mastering and understanding their own culture’s authentic cuisine? It would be terrible to override their knowledge just because you thought that your way was better. I don’t think this is any different than some prudish editor bowlderizing a work of literature or some new age guru misrepresenting a non-Western religion just to make a quick buck.

Kolokythopita Adventures

After watching “Trying Dishes You Wish Other People Knew About”, I decided to try making the butternut squash version of the kolokythopita. The main reason why I made that decision was because I had a butternut squash sitting around and if I wasn’t doing anything else with it, I would just stick it into the oven to bake. What I ended up doing was mostly following this recipe for a Greek savory pumpkin pie, except I substituted the pumpkin with the butternut squash. All the other ingredients were identical.

One other major difference that I made was in the preparation of the main ingredient. At first, I tried grating the butternut squash, but after doing one piece, I realized it would take me forever plus a lot of elbow grease. And frankly, I don’t have that much time or energy. I tried pureeing it in a blender next, but since I don’t own any industrial grade kitchen appliances, the blender didn’t work very well. What I ended up doing was just cooking the cubed butternut squash in a pot until it was softened and then mashing it like mashed potatoes.

So how did it go? It actually turned out way better than I thought it would. For a glorified fruit pie (squash is technically fruit), it smells wonderfully savory and it’s delicious. I wouldn’t hesitate to make this again–maybe even for a potluck where there are vegetarians attending (although I may have to substitute the egg with a vegetarian-friendly binder). Next time, I’ll actually try the zucchini version.

Comfort Gaming

These days, people talk a lot about comfort reading–diving back into known stories as a self-soothing activity during hard times. So I’m kind of surprised that people don’t also talk about “comfort gaming” which also seems to be quite popular with everyone still stuck inside. But perhaps there is an equivalent term in gaming that is being used but I’m not aware of. I don’t do games in the traditional video gaming sense. I prefer to play games that are a little more cerebral than mechanical. I’m not particularly interested in shooting games or games that depend on my dexterity with the controls. Puzzles are more my jam.

One series of games that I keep going back to are the Submachine games. This series was originally made by Mateusz Skutnik on the now defunct Flash platform. Objectively, there isn’t anything particularly comforting about these games–they’re variations of the escape room trope, you’re alone with the “submachines”, the storyline is mysterious, and the accompanying soundtracks are unsettling. But somehow I find them comforting even though it’s a weird, hand drawn fictional world. Maybe it’s because the puzzles are now familiar to me, they’re solved and not dangling off into the unknown.

Postcard Set Review #8: Grandma’s Dead by Amanda McCall & Ben Schwartz

I found this book of postcards on the bargain shelf of a bookstore in Washington state for $4. It was a book of postcards with cute baby animals in it and it was cheap so of course I bought it. Unfortunately, a closer reading of the captions revealed that some of these “jokes” were more mean than funny, too adult, and on occasion outright offensive. This was published back in 2008, so you can see that in just ten years, the humor has already become somewhat dated.

As physical postcards, these were annoying. There was a printed dotted line for each postcard showing where they should be detached, but there was no perforation–I had to actually cut them out. The paper these were printed on was too glossy. Regular ball point pens could not write on them–the paper only made indentations where I tried to write because the ink couldn’t stick to it. Ink from gel pens beaded up and smeared. The only type of pen that even remotely worked was a sharpie.

I think this postcard book should just have been retitled as “Postcards from Hell”.

A Brief Thought on Lights

I recently read this post on dimming one’s own light. I would have to say that I know a lot of people like this–that with any sign of criticism or implication that they’re not good enough, they fall apart. There are probably people with more traditional mindsets out there who would say that these people are acting like special snowflakes, they’re too sensitive, they need to toughen up. There’s criticism everywhere and you just need to deal with it. But there are way too many of these so-called sensitive people out there, including those people who keep calling for others to toughen up. Because if these “tough” folks get called on their BS, they crumple like a house of cards and begin throwing tantrums that are even worse than a two-year-old.

In reality, most people’s bailiwick is not toughening up or being resilient. They thrive better with positive reinforcement and kindness. But unfortunately, that’s not how current society works, especially when selfishness is rewarded and you get to score points if you’re able to poke holes in other people’s work instead of suggesting improvements. As for solutions? I have no idea. I’m not a psychologist or therapist. I wouldn’t know the first steps in changing people’s behaviors. All I can do is keep on trying to be the best that I can be and refuse to punch down.

Learning New Tricks

Is it really too late to learn new skills? Well, the short answer is no. Learning is not the provenance of the young. And the old certainly shouldn’t be smug about supposedly knowing everything. There’s more knowledge out there than any one person can learn in their lifetimes and if anyone claims that they know everything, they’re lying, delusional, or both.

As I march towards middle age (and some might even argue that I’m there already), I do wonder if I could ever do anything significant. It’s not that I’m afraid of learning anything new–it’s just that I have this practical view that I’m a fairly ordinary person–I am probably worth less than beans in the whole scheme of things. It’s been drummed into me since a young age that there will always be someone out there who is better at you at any given ability.

I know during this time when everyone’s stuck at home with supposedly more time to spend on learning new things that it’s, well, expected that you learn new things. Or at least try to. Otherwise, you might be labeled as a lazy bum. For me, though, it’s more like trying to do things I’ve been putting off before–like reading books or writing stories or getting sleep. Does this make me more of a lazy bum than someone trying to learn Swahili? I hope not.