I want to believe

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Yesterday was logically impossible. It was magic. It was a miracle.

I’m talking, of course, about the Seahawks’ ridiculously improbable victory in the NFC Championships against the Packers. Down 16-0 at halftime, Seattle made an insane comeback in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points in the last 2:09 of the game, and winning in overtime.

Now, I know barely anything about football, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to analyze the game or dissect anyone’s performance. Suffice it to say, for the first three quarters, Seattle sucked (okay, I will also say that, according to the people who actually know what they’re talking about, our defense – AKA the Legion of Boom – did a good job of keeping us in the game). But they refused to give up, and made a stunning comeback.

With just a few minutes left on the clock, Seahawks fans everywhere were dejected and somber. At four minutes, I almost said aloud, “it’s over.” But something told me not to. A stubborn voice in my head insisted, “it’s not over til it’s over!”

And it wasn’t.

As anyone who’s read this blog before has probably figured out, cynicism comes easily to me. Faith and positivity and warm-fuzzies are nice and all, but they don’t seem particularly reflective of reality. And yet… As skeptical and detached as I can be, I want to believe in serendipity, in the power of faith in yourself and your (literal or metaphorical) teammates, in seemingly impossible victories, in miracles. Yesterday, the Seahawks made me believe.

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Resignation

All my life, I’ve known that I would end up accomplished and successful. I was raised with the idea (common among children born in the 80’s) that I was brilliant, special, could do anything, be whatever I wanted. I had many aspirations: I wanted to be a scientist, an artist, a doctor, a writer.

I did well academically, from elementary school through college, where I graduated magna cum laude with the highest GPA in my major (not saying much, since there were only six of us. But still – I got a fancy medal!). Surely great things were in store for me!

In my last year of high school, inspired by a trip to Kenya and the story of Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor, with a focus on inter-cultural medicine and medical anthropology. I went to Lewis and Clark college my freshman year; it was a good fit academically, and I enjoyed my classes. But I was desperately lonely, on account of my alienation from my peers (having already lived on my own and traveled extensively, I felt older than my silly, immature classmates; coupled with my natural loner tendencies and the fact that I took the Greyhound to Seattle every weekend to visit my loser boyfriend, it was a perfect recipe for complete social isolation). So I transferred to Seattle University (decidedly less academically rigorous) to be close to the aforementioned loser boyfriend.

I didn’t fare much better, socially speaking, in Seattle. I exchanged the ne’er-do-well boyfriend for one who was really nice to me, albeit a terrible match, and spent all my free time with him for the better part of a year. I did some cool things: studied kung fu, conducted original ethnographic research, lived in a lovely house with a garden where I grew food, cooked a lot, and experience a surreal and mind-bending early-twenties love triangle.

I excelled in school, majoring in anthropology and participating in the departmental honors program. Even though I still wanted to be a doctor, I declined to take any pre-med classes, opting instead to study English metaphysical poetry of the 16th century and all the anthropology electives I could get my hands on. I figured I’d just squeeze in organic chemistry and microbiology “later,” after I graduated.

I graduated. And promptly decided that I didn’t want to go to medical school; how could I possibly face another two years of science classes, plus four years of med school and three years of residency?

I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do instead, simply that it would involve acclaim and riches. How could it not? I was, after all, special.

As it turned out, I was unemployed for six months before landing a job as a waitress at a sushi restaurant. Since then, I’ve bounced around between different foodservice jobs, some in the front of the house, some in the kitchen. I’m still working part-time, still barely scraping by, still desperate for anything resembling a living wage and an intellectual challenge.

Don’t get me wrong: I have had amazing experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and lived a full, rich life since I graduated college. Living alone in rural Southwest Colorado, working on a farm, being on the fire department (among other things) were incredible opportunities that have changed me for the better.

The breadth of my experience, though, cannot negate the simple truth: that I have failed to achieve any kind of measurable success. I can barely pay my rent. I haven’t published anything of note. I have no major artistic accomplishments to my name. Yes, yes: I’m young, there’s still time. Yes, money is not the only marker of success. But the life I’m living is a far cry from what I always expected for myself: I should be Dr. Klein by now.

For a long time, this tormented me. Living amidst the artistic and cultural vibrancy of a big city filled with young people making their mark, doing things of note, being cool artists or rich yuppies, made me feel like a total loser. I still feel like a total loser, but lately, it’s stopped bothering me so much.

I’m slowly coming to the realization that maybe I’m not so special. That maybe I don’t have to do anything spectacular just because I’m intelligent. That maybe just getting by, slogging through life until my number’s up, is all I have to do. This thought is strangely comforting, and relieves a lot of pressure. For as much as I know that I have some germ of artistic talent, some measure of intellectual giftedness, I’m severely lacking in drive. Maybe because school was pretty effortless for me. Maybe because I grew up thinking that the world would be handed to me. Maybe because I’m just plain lazy. Whatever the reason, I like to spend time sitting around. Taking walks. Feeling the sun on my skin. Eating. Lying on the floor next to my dog. None of these activities lend themselves to fame and fortune, but the anxiety and guilt that accompanies that knowledge is receding.

The knowledge that I don’t, in fact, have to “do” anything, to “make” something of myself, is very freeing. It’s bittersweet and seems kind of pathetic, but I’m beginning to resign myself to a life mediocrity.

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These days, all I want to do is take naps and baths and sit around reading.

I don’t want to go outside.

I don’t want to go to work.

I don’t want to write.

Although these activities are essential, seasonal inertia (in addition to other weird things happening in my body – more on that later) has engulfed me, and I feel exhausted and uninspired much of the time.

I have a dog who must be walked, so I go outside, reluctantly. The sky is moist and grey and mocks whatever nascent optimism dares to rise within me.

I like living in a safe, cozy apartment and having food to eat, so I go to work. The job that once filled me with rapturous excitement has begun to feel repetitive and routine.

I desperately long to feel effective in the world, to reconcile my creative stirrings with my actual output. And, who am I kidding: I’d love to “make it” as a writer. Trouble is, there’s nothing forcing me to write. Nothing as compelling as an exercise-hungry dog or the need to keep my job.

I know there’s really no such thing as “writer’s block”: just a lack of discipline. And while this seems like a really poor premise for a blog post, I have to write about something. Anything. Just to do it. Just to write.

Drawing At the Bar

To the surprise (and occasional dismay) of my friends and family, I like watching football. While most people would agree that this is a perfectly legitimate and normal pastime, many of those in my circle are indifferent to (or even frown upon) organized sports, football in particular.

I’m a casual fan: my grasp of the game is basic at best, and if the Seahawks aren’t playing, I couldn’t care less. But spending a few hours surrounded by people who are all excited about the same thing, drinking beer, and watching insane feats of athleticism is pretty fun. The beginning of my enjoyment of football coincided with the end of my self-identification as a misanthropic loner. I’m still an introvert who cherishes my solitude, but my identity no longer includes shunning things that have mass appeal.

All that said, it still feels really weird to spend hours watching a televised event. So when I watch football, drawing during commercial breaks (of which there are many) helps me to feel that I’m not wasting my life.

Discreetly drawing people who are constantly moving is hard. I do my portraits as quickly as possible –  so they are very, very rough! The following were all done at bars during Seahawks games.

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Szechuan Tofu

When I was in college, I lived with several housemates right off of Aurora Avenue North, a strip of highway notorious for seedy motels, drugs, and prostitution. Around the corner was a video store called The Voyeur, a pizza joint staffed entirely by Russian guys, a dingy pet store that sold puppy mill puppies, and a Chinese restaurant called the Szechuan Bean Flower.

The restaurant was nondescript. Housed in a strip mall, with the confrontational fluorescent lighting, torn leatherette booths, and smudged linoleum typical of the genre, there was nothing in its appearance that hinted at greatness. I’d never been particularly inclined to eat there. I’ve always been an avid home cook, and with access to the incomparable HT Market (for a glorious time, my neighborhood grocery store) and a top-notch kitchen (the area’s undesirability meant that we got to live in a really nice house with a gas stove) there was little reason to take a chance on a dodgy looking strip-mall restaurant.

At some point, I ended up there anyway. My roommates had developed a mania for hot pot and I quickly caught on. Submerging tender napa cabbage, toothsome rice noodles, and cold slabs of tofu (I skipped the pork and the “beef honeycomb”) into a seething oily broth, then dipping the morsels in a spicy peanut sauce, represented an acme of enjoyment for us broke, food-driven college kids who weren’t yet old enough to drink in bars.

The hot pot was really, really good. But the true revelation came when I finally ordered from the regular menu.

I can’t remember if I was a vegetarian at the time. It’s possible. But even during the meatiest periods of my culinary life, I’ve been a tofu lover. It’s always what I order at Asian restaurants. Plus, I love spice. So I gravitated to the Szechuan tofu. Once I tasted the first bite – crispy fried tofu, alive with the beguiling heat of Szechuan peppercorns, strewn with verdant stalks of cilantro – I was addicted.

This Szechuan tofu was the perfect dish. Texturally, visually, aromatically. It had never before occurred to me to use cilantro as a vegetable; I was an uninspired simpleton. I craved this tofu weekly (or more) and ate it as frequently as I could. Until, one day, I visited the Szechuan Bean Flower with some family who were visiting from Germany. They were true appreciators of food, and vegetarians who adored spicy tofu dishes. I couldn’t wait to turn them on to my life-changing discovery. It’s hard to overstate the confusion and disappointment I felt when my “Szechuan tofu” arrived at the table. Instead of an assertively fragrant red and green pile of fiery tofu and tender cilantro, it was just another tofu dish: spongy yellow cubes languished in an insipid gravy, flanked by carrots and celery and bell peppers. I was crushed.

It turned out that the restaurant had changed owners; although the kept the menu intact, the recipes had changed.

Over the years, I’ve attempted on a few occasions to fill the Szechuan tofu-shaped void in my heart/stomach by making my own. The first couple times, I ended up with a pleasing, spicy tofu dish with lots of cilantro. Idiotically, I failed to include Szechuan peppercorns in these renditions. More recently, I bought extra-firm tofu, which I pressed overnight, and proceeded to fry into leathery dry chunks: the tofu was too dry, and too small. The flavor was good enough, though, so that the friend I’d made it for surprised me a few weeks later by requesting that I make it again. This time, I wasn’t going to mess it up.

We made a trip to the venerable HT Market, where we bought tofu from the excellent Thanh Son, plus a whole lot of cilantro and an assortment of weird gelatinous and sweet and salty and artificially colored and entirely unnecessary snack foods (my pantry was already stocked with Szechuan peppercorns from World Spice Merchants).

This time, I didn’t press the tofu; it was late, and we were ravenous. As it turned out, this was a good choice (Thanh Son’s tofu is firm and meaty, and, being really fresh, not packed in water). I also cut it into decidedly bigger chunks. I fried the tofu in a couple of inches of canola oil; it came out crisp and golden, while retaining its internal heft and moisture. Next, I stir-fried it in a big aluminum stock-pot (I don’t have a wok anymore – it probably got lost in one of my many moves) with plenty of Szechuan peppercorns (lovingly hand-ground in my trusty suribachi), a few japones chilies, a splash of soy sauce, and some Sriracha. Then I tossed in two bunches of coarsely chopped cilantro. My friend stir-fried choy sum with ginger to add green-leafy virtue to the meal.

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The result? Really, really good. I’m intensely self-critical when it comes to food (okay, to everything). But I thought my rendition of Szechuan tofu was pretty great. The tofu could have been crispier; maybe I should have dredged it in corn starch or something?

Admittedly, it’s been years since I’ve experienced the real thing. I don’t know if my version was actually that close. But a google search told me there’s a Szechuan Bean Flower in Issaquah – quite likely the very same one?! – and a pilgrimage is in the works.

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Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen

A little after 8 on a Wednesday morning. My teeth hurt from a night spent clenching them. My body hasn’t yet registered that it’s well-rested. This black tea with cream and sugar tastes oddly of nori.

In a back-issue of the New Yorker, in the “Talk of the Town” section, in a short piece about the wigs of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, a fragment that disrupts my cozy morning and brings a painful spasm of inspiration: “Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen.” It’s the descriptive moniker of one of the wigs in the show, and its evocative power stops me dead.

Why?

I read with envious hunger, glimpsing in everything from editorials in the Economist to the fiction of Alice Munro the ways in which I have failed to live up to the promise of my youth. I have not made my mark in a particular academic discipline or artistic field. I have not published anything of note. Each day I feel this incredible tension, between the pleasurable absorption in everyday tasks that also feels like laziness, and my longing for the kind of recognizable achievement that takes work and discipline.

Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen exists outside of this tension. Her being stirs up an inchoate yearning, parallel to, and in some cases at odds with, the other longing.

Midwest: real America, bland and cheerful, expansive fields and unspeakable winters.

Midnight: solitude, the eerie confluence of waking and dreaming.

Checkout: sickly fluorescent light, tabloid covers’ aggressive banality.

Queen: haughty pride, beauty both a product of her milieu and a rejection of it.

Of course, the heart of “Hedwig” is this particular strain of pathos: the desire to rise above ordinariness and obscurity to become someone else, anyone else. The transcendence represented by Hedwig’s shape-shifting obviates the mundane and makes the Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen a symbol of the authentic self’s triumph over daily struggle.

An Equivocation

I have a complicated relationship with authority. Growing up with the unforgiving boot of the British school system on my neck, I learned to respect and fear those in power. Coming to the U.S., aged ten, the sudden absence of dictatorial cruelty from adults was confusing. I became uncontrollable, convinced that the freedoms of adulthood were my due, contemptuous towards anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. Still, for many years, even the gentlest reprimand from someone in a position of authority would reduce me to tears.

A shameful admission: at times I’ve thought about working for the federal government. I’ve contemplated joining the Foreign Service, the FBI. I’ve even flirted with notions of joining the military. Why?

It was my desire, as I put it then, not just to work for the Man, but to be the Man. To embody a system of moral rigidity that allows no room for ambiguity, instead upholding supposedly timeless ideals of honor, order, tradition, control. This insidious conservative bent within me is probably also the source of my deep love for country music and Western culture (as well as my ever-so-clichéd boner for military men). But my academic discipline (cultural anthropology), and my politics (liberal), are firmly relativistic. Reality indeed has a liberal bias, because reality is complex and fraught with ambiguity. My attraction to the certainty represented by intuitions of authority is a suffering soul’s desire to return to the blissful ignorance of infancy.

Even as I marched on Sunday night, chanting “no justice, no peace, no racist police!” I felt a little sheepish about speaking against the orderly ranks of men and women who surrounded us. I was impressed by the smooth decisiveness of their movements, their unity and discipline, which stood in stark contrast to the disorganization of our group. I love a uniform. I love the pageantry of restraint and control. But the outward show – the uniforms, the solemn oaths, the fictions of honor and uprightness and discipline, are simply that: fictions, stories, constructions designed to fend off the chaos that is the ultimate condition of our world, to corral the nuance and subtlety that complicate simplistic narratives of right and wrong.

When I went to work yesterday, I mentioned to a coworker (male, black, politically active) that I’d been to a protest, that there were some “punk-ass white kids” in attendance who just wanted to yell at the cops. (What was I thinking? I guess I was trying to shore up my “knowing, hip white person” cred, to reinforce my own legitimacy through ironic self-awareness. Embarrassing!) In a measured, diplomatic tone, he reminded me of the assault of a “little fifteen-year-old white girl” in police custody several years ago, and told me “it’s all coming home to roost.”

I realized, then, that my distinction between my own mature, well-reasoned desire to “fight systemic racism” and the “punk-ass white kids” who just wanted to rage against authority wasn’t as clear as I’d thought. For one thing, I, too was once a punk-ass suburban white kid. My thinly-veiled scorn for the “cute” sixteen-year-old blond girl’s “attention-grabby” actions probably represented, more than anything, a deep ambivalence about my own identity as a white person with many layers of privilege, and uncertainty about my own role in movements for social justice. I saw in her echoes of myself.

Can a cry of rage against systemic injustice be separated from anger towards those whose job it is to perpetuate an unjust system? There are good cops. Cops who really did get into the profession to “protect and serve.” At the same time, American policing is corrupt to the very bone. Our entire criminal “justice” system is rotten, veined with racism and capitalist greed. Are individual cops guilty by association for joining a force that often does more harm than good?

I’ve been a beneficiary of white privilege for my entire life. I’ve never had to fear the police; our system exists to preserve the privilege of those who look like me. I can’t in good conscience advocate respect for this system, which encompasses the increasing militarization of the police, a War on Drugs and for-profit prison system that gobbles up black lives, leaving in its wake broken families, decimated communities, and the despair of entrenched inequality.

The fact that some of the protesters undoubtedly had motives that were a jumble of genuine social concern and teenage angst and rebellious impulses and a desire for attention doesn’t obviate the validity of their concerns: There is something inherently sick in the impetus to exert homogenizing control over thinking, feeling, irreducibly complex individuals. There is something inherently anti-humanistic, corrupt, and twisted – inherently wrong – in our systems of authority.