Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

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Portable Stationery

Recently I came across this thread: What’s in your pencil case? Obviously, if you’re a postcard enthusiast who likes to travel, you want to make sure that you have all your essential writing utensils with you. The minimalist, of course, will just say that one pen is enough, but if you’re the sort of person who likes to make the back of a postcard visually interesting, you’ll need more than that.

Before the pandemic, I had a packed pencil case similar to the ones in that thread, but during the pandemic when I was trying to organize stuff at home, I decided to take everything out of the pencil case I had been using. However, whenever traveling becomes feasible again, I’ll repack a pencil case with what I consider essential postcard and journaling items:

  • A 0.7 mm black gel pen (with at least one backup),
  • A 0.5 mm black gel pen 
  • A fine or extra fine black ballpoint pen
  • A fine black sharpie
  • An extra fine black sharpie
  • Four 0.4 mm Stabilo pens of various colors, or equivalent
  • A mechanical pencil
  • A pair of scissors
  • A ruler
  • A couple rolls of washi tape (encompassing several themes)
  • A roll of clear tape
  • A variety of stickers
  • Around 10-20 postcards with various themes
  • A set of page flags
  • Some envelopes
  • Some postage stamps (if traveling within the US)

The trick is to try to pack as much of this stuff as one can in the smallest amount of space. I think I still have a ways to go to perfect that particular art.

Accents

I recently watched this on Youtube: Why Americans Including Asian Americans Have Issues with Foreign Accents. I agree that there are Americans who have some strange antipathy against people who don’t have standard accents, but this is also true in many parts of the world where certain accents have implications of ethnic groups, class, and socio-economic backgrounds. This just seems particularly prevalent in the US because, well, people are so vocal about it and it’s the most readily apparent because the US has many immigrants.

Perhaps other people have never noticed accents until they’ve ventured outside of their insular enclaves, but I’ve always been acutely aware of accents. It’s probably because I’m a child of immigrants–English is not my parents’ first language and even as a child, I’ve seen them discriminated against because they didn’t sound like a native speaker. (There have been times when I was a kid that I had to answer the phone because whatever crazy adult on the other end couldn’t handle my parents’ accents.) Technically English was not my first language either, but I learned it early enough that I mostly have “no accent” (or perhaps more accurately, the standard accent). If people do detect an accent in my speech, they would label it as Canadian.

I don’t really understand people who work themselves up into a frenzy because not everyone has a standard accent. Accents are an indication of someone’s background but it doesn’t indicate the true character of a person. I suspect some people use it as an excuse to divide the population into us and them because they are too lazy and too small-minded to try to get to know a new person. Unfortunately such people are still very pervasive in society and that’s why there are many who struggle to get rid of their own accents in order to get a job that would have been a no-brainer otherwise.

A Tentative Idea for Camp NaNo

With the April session of Camp NaNoWriMo just around the corner, this is basically the prime time for planning out some ideas for a new writing project. Unlike the November version, the April and July challenges are more relaxed and half the time, I don’t finish the challenge (I’m old school and keep my goals at 50,000 words–so even if I reach 25,000 and “fail”, I may have still written more than others who win with smaller goals.) I primarily use this time to test out ideas.

My thought was to play around with a written form that is usually not thought of as a straightforward storytelling device. Specifically, I want to tell interconnected short stories through entries in a fictional museum catalog. The museum and the artifacts within will be fictional. Through a curator’s voice, I want to hint that there’s something odd going on aside from the boring work of researchers and archivists through the stories and myths behind the objects on display.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been doing some pre-writing, trying to figure out what kind of narrative voice to take. I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I’m veering towards “apparently neutral yet deeply unsettling”. I have also been trying to get a firm visual in my head of the museum–I haven’t decided yet on whether to set it in some kind of historical palace or a modern building, but I definitely want to convey a sense of vastness, sort of like Borges’ The Library of Babel

And as for the artifacts populating the museum? I think they will come from all sorts of fictional times and eras and places and cultures. But mostly they will be MacGuffins, only serving as entryways into something else altogether.

Month of Letters: Day 1

I thought what I’d do is to document some of the mail I’m sending out during February for the Month of Letters challenge. Below is one birthday card and one postcard I sent off today. There were also two other birthday cards and another postcard not shown, but you get the idea.

The birthday card is going to a kid in Belarus. The postcard is to an astronomy enthusiast in Germany.

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.

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.