Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hong Kong: Noodles and Mountains and Staircases

Apologies for the typos in the last post.

I basically had twenty-four hours in Hong Kong. It’s OK – I came here when I was in China before. That did not, however, deter me from exploring. Or from napping off the jet lag – which I did. I’m writing this from Hong Kong’s airport, where I’m waiting to board a flight to Singapore, where I will be spending more time.

I decided to make it a “day of nom.” Hong Kong has great street food and lots of cheap little shops. For a grand total of about HK$85 (US$11 or so), I stuffed my face over the course of several hours. Hong Kong people really like pork and pork products, so kashrut, even my half-assed “no pork, no shellfish, no blood, no dairy-flesh communion” version, was a bit of a challenge. Even then, I ended up VERY full.

Hong Kong is also a study in contradictions: there’s a huge and very visible wealth divide, and it’s crammed into valleys between the sea and mountains. Last time I was here, I went hiking in a mountain literally two kilometers from downtown.

Anyway, on to the pictures! 

This is a cooked food stall conglomeration inside one of the major markets.  Lots of cheap, filling food here. 

Noodles are an amazing thing. These are stir-fried with beef and scallions. The place I got these from is recommended by no less than the Guardian in England (and it was still ridiculously cheap). I also found out after consumption that they use lard in the frying. Oh well, G-d will forgive me.

Hong Kong has tons of public staircases. This makes me really happy.

A cheap bakery, showing off their (delicious) buns. I got a red bean bun. This bakery is on a block with a lot of Filipino foreign workers, so they have English translations, although the customers inside were all Cantonese speakers.

I told you this place was hilly.

A road by a school about 500 meters from where I’m staying. Estimated incline (yay trig): about 11-15 degrees. It rises roughly 20-25 meters in the first 100. 

A cemetery that takes up most of a hill on the way to the airport. Grave space is at an extreme premium in Hong Kong; most people get cremated. A cemetery plot is very expensive: the inequality in Hong Kong literally extends from cradle to grave.
That's it! I'm in Singapore now, which is shaping up to be quite epic.

Friday, July 29, 2011

ASIAWOOT, Flying, Sunset Porn, Hong Kong, and a litany of thank-yous

I’M IN ASIA. WOOT! I’ve arrived safely.
The following part of this post was written while connecting in Los Angeles (up to the end of the sunset porn)

I’ve been fortunate enough to fly a lot before. And yet the feeling of taking off (that particular feeling that you are suddenly liberated of a great weight), the pressure changes in the ear, the realization that, wow, the world is several kilometers below you never ceases to amaze me. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be the nutty aviation nerd I am. The flight I just got off (I’m in  was particularly hard-hitting. Why? We flew into the sunset…and because of the westward directions and time zone changes, it was a three-hour sunset.

This is for someone who really likes the idea of flying into the sunset. You know who you are.

There are 23 more photos and two more videos where those came from.

Other than that, the flights were relatively quiet. I had nice seatmates, and I wasn’t too uncomfortable-small spaces are always a bit challenging for me given my height. I managed to get a few hours of sleep on the LA-Hong Kong flights. The approach to Hong Kong is incredible: Hong Kong is a port city, on a delta, that is highly mountainous. It almost feels like you’re descending into a cross between Middle Earth, the SimCity 4 regions, a city, and a watercolor.  We had a nice view of the sunrise over Japan, but I didn’t have my camera on hand for that.

I’ve been to Hong Kong before: when I did this study thing (referenced in the living post) in China, I passed through Hong Kong and stayed with acquaintances. It’s a city of living contradictions: a vibrant, cramped metropolis of seven million with 70% of land protected (there is incredible hiking just south of the Central Business District); a rich city with the rich world’s largest rich-poor divide (on a brief walk I just took, I spotted a posh foreign car dealership across the street from a ramshackle apartment block); a city at once colonial and utterly Chinese. It’s an endlessly fascinating place, and probably responsible for my total obsession with the Cantonese language.

I’m only here for a day, during which I’ll rest a bit, get some necessary items, and take some walks. And eat. And speak Cantonese (achieved already). I’ll post more pictures up tomorrow; I’ll write that post on what will be my fourth flight in a week.

For reference, most of my time in Asia will be in the area of Mainland China closest to Hong Kong, but I have not been there period. It’s a radically different place due to a) the developments of the last 150 years and b) settlement patterns that occurred four hundred years ago. However, there are many links, so look forward later, perhaps, to a post comparing Mainland Guangdong and Hong Kong. (Hong Kong is part of China, but has separate customs, currency, rights law and governance save foreign affairs and defence.

Finally, this will be nowhere close to ex: (it gets really, really sappy here)

I thank  Nicki, Daniel, Runnan and Tyler for hosting me when I was settling stuff in Chicago, and Aaron Lichter for storing some of my things. Also props to Jackie for lunch, and a shout out to Jay Stanton and Michael Wang (yay random run-ins).

I thank G-d for the fortune to be able to have this experience at all. I’ve recited the Sheheheyanu (the Jewish prayer of thanks for a momentous happening) so many times now that I’ve lost count.

 I also want to thank my parents, for even letting me go thousands of miles away from home for work experience, for encouraging me in all sorts of endeavors, and for  just being extremely helpful in the preparations. Also to my sister.

I thank my boss this year for giving me this post and for all of his and his staff’s assistance, and my boss last year for giving me the pay (important, yes), experience and most of all, encouragement that made it possible.

And, most of all, perhaps, thank you to my friends for encouraging and supporting me and dealing with my excitement, and for even reading this. It means so much to me. Y’all are awesome.

A note: China is flat on the other end of the world from Chile, where friends of mine are on a research internship. If I stuck a magical, earth-piercing laser ray at a slight angle into the ground, they might get it in Santiago. It's kinda (no, really) cool that I can still talk to them. A hundred and fifty years ago, journeys like this meant we would probably never see each other again. I am so damn grateful that I will see them in two months. And I can’t wait to compare the stories from what are, quite literally, opposite ends of the earth. Espero que, de la voluntad del Rey, vos viajes pasen en paz en el otro lado del planeto de lo mío.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Across the Pacific I shall go!

    So I’m leaving on Thursday for a two-month jaunt in Asia, most of which will be spent at an internship in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China. This blog during that time will be a travelogue – it’ll include pictures and reports from all sorts of things I do while I’m in China.

    Reading this will probably be the best way to get ahold of what I’m doing; follow the blog! I’ll be emailing a lot of you while I’m abroad too, and many of you have requested postcards/aerograms; I’m sending postcards/aerograms to the US, Chile, Canada, South Africa, Israel and Australia!

    Proxies mean I can access Facebook and Gmail, but the time difference is highly inconvenient for me to 
talk to most of you over chat.

    I am so totally psyched for the trip, and to go to Asia again. Here’s my schedule over the next three months:

July 27-28: Chicago
July 28-30: In transit to Hong Kong (huge time difference from crossing the date line)
July 30-31: Hong Kong (in transit)
July 31-August 5: Singapore
August 5-September 23: Shenzhen and area (including Guangzhou and a 600-year-old fortress for sure)
I get back to Chicago on September 23

If you guys want more details (my flights, addresses, etc.) give me a shout. I will have a Chinese phone 
number and postal address soon; I should have the postal address by next week.

I can't wait! I'll miss you guys.

Monday, July 25, 2011

On reciting Kaddish

   A short post this time.

   I’ve gone to recite the Kaddish yatom (kaddish)– the Jewish mourner's prayer – at synagogue several times this month for people that I did not know. A friend’s mother, a friend’s grandmother, and most recently, for a classmate from the University  who tragically died on Sunday morning. May they rest in peace.

   The mourner’s kaddish is an adaptation of a central Jewish prayer, the Kaddish. It is written in Aramaic with Hebrew jargon , and is a liturgical poem praising and glorifying G-d’s name and power. It is adaptable – several versions exist, and some liberal Jews like me replace “Yisrael”-the Jews-with “yoshvei tevel” –those who are upon the earth – at points. But the basic prayer glorifies G-d and the order He represents as a Life Force. It is required that ten Jews (and for the Orthodox, ten adult Jewish men) be present to recite it.

    So why do we recite this prayer to mark the passing of those in our community? Several explanations exist, all of which find legitimacy in the community: legends, stories, long explanations. But there is one explanation I like.

   In reciting a prayer for peace and praising G-d as a powerful force, a force of balance and hope and strength, we seek to not only pray for the soul that has left us, but heal as a community. We seek to make the death into something from which life can come, to honor what the deceased has given us, and to bring ourselves closer to the humanity that unites us all. In reciting it with a quorum, it becomes a community’s efforts to bring order to the world after death disrupts it. Because death rarely affects one person alone.
It sounds kitschy, but that’s how I like to think of it.

   Traditionally one recites it for one’s own relatives alone, but I have stepped beyond to recite it for anyone that someone I know or I have a connection to. I recite it on the anniversary of the suicide of a friend; I recited it for my classmate tonight; I recite it for my mother’s parents every October and March on the anniversaries of their deaths.

   And I know I can never bring them back, and the pain will not necessarily go away forever. But to bring a semblance of order, a semblance of peace, is to honor the one who passed and to give strength to those who remain. And thus I shall recite, year in and year out: “Exalted and sanctified is G-d’s great name, in the world which He created, and may He establish His Kingdom…”

   (Yes, it sounds like the Lord’s Prayer in many regards. Some theologians think it has a common origin. The Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic sounds quite close to the Kaddish at a few points.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On linearity

This will sound kind of dumb and arrogant and obvious to many of you, but I’m OK with that. I sound dumb and arrogant and obvious to myself sometimes; why should I not sound that way to you?

            I’ve dealt with a lot of linear assumptions. This tendency is particularly manifested when people give compliments, or talk about other people. “He’s so smart, how can he not succeed?” “He’s so dumb, how is he ever going to do well?” “Those two are such a cute couple, I betcha they’re going to get married.”

            At first, I just assumed it was the polite thing to do here. I am American, but I don’t always think in these terms. The smart kid might run into trouble later on. The dumb kid might have a special talent. And Parker’s Law is as strong as ever: I am innately suspicious of the long-term prospects of overtly lovey-dovey couples, particularly after having lived that.

            Damn right, I’m a Debbie Downer. Or, for the dumb kid, an optimist.

            And then I started doing cross-cultural psychology research at work. The results? European, Christian Americans are much more likely to think situations will stay concrete in the long term, more likely than Chinese, Indians, Spaniards, Mexican-Americans, Jews (not just middle-ground ones like me, but particularly Orthodox), Arabs…and generally most other people outside of North America, Australia-New Zealand, and Western Europe. So it wasn’t just me.

            So I started thinking about the place where linearity and success meet.

            A lot of people assume smart people are going to be successful, and a lot of people assume that their current or past success assures their future success. I’m inclined to disagree with this concept.

            From a religious standpoint, I see it as such: G-d, as a Life Force and Balance Force, does not grant us the ability to become totally perfect. Perfection is an intangible thing; one can strive for it, but one knows that one can never reach that realm, inhabited by G-d alone. Success is not ever perfect.

            And then, there’s the practical measure. Success is not a place or a point in time, it is a state. A state that requires maintenance and construction. And that comes from hard work. One has to keep working, keep working, and not just until you get there, but after you get there. Example: my dad is successful in his profession, and extremely successful in terms of the profession he’s in. He also worked extremely hard for decades to get where he’s at, and he’s still working hard.

            Did it come at a price? Yes. He’s away from home a lot, and it’s had psychological effects on all of the family; I’m sure some of the anxiety that I’ve dealt with on and off through my life has had to do with the fact that one-fourth of my family is gone over a third of the time at points. But is he successful? Yes. He’s faced setbacks, and it’s not perfect, but he’s hit success. My family is fortunate enough to live comfortably, and my dad loves his job with a passion. He’s loved it ever since he started it. Does he accept that it wasn’t perfect, and hardly linear? Yes. Does he have to maintain it, with great effort? He chooses to do so. I do not blame him, although I still deal with residual issues. Does he ever assume it is permanent? No, even though it has all semblance of being so.

            I think this hard work thing ties us back to the religion thing as well. I must constantly work hard to be a better person, to tie myself in closer to G-d, to be more moral. But I know, at Yom Kippur, I will always say “I have sinned, forgive my transgressions.” My New Year’s  resolution this year was to act with more chesed (grace and loving-kindness): I have tried, but I must yet try harder.

            And then we come to the classroom. A lot of people come to UChicago resting on their laurels. I know I came resting on a few of our own. First year knocks most of those away, and many people feel ruined, or damaged, or hurt by this whoosh. Some of it, I am sure, is personal. (Some of it is also a matter of personal protection. I knew that I still had lengths to go in Chinese, but I cherished an idea of a proficiency that I didn’t quite yet have.) But some of it is societal too, perhaps. Does society assume that success automatically leads to success, without an interlude of failure?

            I guess it also comes to whether one sees success as a purely rational thing. I am of the opinion that it is not a purely rational thing: it is not guaranteed, and to think of it in a limited, rational context would be foolhardy at best and ignorant at worst. A lot of it is luck. A single twist of fate and my dad would’ve not succeeded at all. A single twist of fate, and I would have been born in Israel, doing my army service now. A single twist of fate, and I wouldn’t have been at UChicago, taking awesome classes and meeting amazing people and living in the wonderful city that is Chicago.

 I guess this expands to linearity in general:  in assuming the purely rational, one cannot live in a real world where the rational simply doesn’t always happen. A fault of linearity is that it makes the shock that much worse, but it also makes one unable to spot often pressing matters.

Hell, I’m not even guaranteed success now. Do I want to succeed? Yes. Do I want to succeed wildly? I think so. Do I know the contours of my success? No. Do I know that I will have to work and work and work to get there? Yes. Do I have the will? G-d willing.

And will I get there if I work hard and know the contours of the success I want?

I don’t know. I can’t wait to find out. And I can’t wait to find out for you, either.

Footnote: I know someone who speaks more languages than several universities let you indicate on their application. He was told in kindergarten he would never get there. You know who you are, and I salute you for it. 

Monday, July 18, 2011


   My grandmother, blessed be her soul, was a phenomenal cook.

   My mother's mother, she died when I was seven. Even now, twelve years later, the thing that people remember most about her, after her erudite Lithuanian Yiddish wit, was her cooking. I remember a phenomenal chicken soup when I was five. The smell of cooking onions can make my mother ridiculously happy. Even my uncle's wife, a fantastic cook in her own right, conceded that yes, her mother-in-law was a fantastic, fantastic cook.

   Luckily for us, she left a collection of her favorite recipes to make. One of which is for her phenomenal potato kugel. For those of you who aren’t familiar, kugel is a type of pudding/casserole thing common in Jewish cuisine.

   I made the kugel for a picnic with some friends of mine from my Jewish prayer/friends circle at UChicago. We met in Central Park, ate food, and enjoyed each other’s company. It was glorious!

The Egal clan I was with. Left to right, from the bottom: Sharon, Hannah, Chana, Douglas and Aaron. My kugel is also there, before seconds happened.

   Making kugel also is a particularly complex experience for me…firstly, it reminds me of my grandma, and it reminds me of home and family. But secondly, cooking Jewish food makes me feel like a link in the chain of tradition – I feel the spirit of my ancestors inside me, generation after generation of “ess, ess, mein kind” (eat, eat my child) and the smell of frying onions bringing rebellious, anxious young men home for Shabbat dinner…it sounds kitschy, but sometimes I have moments like that, where I think “I feel so…Jewish.” There’s also the beautiful simplicity of the recipe. Seven ingredients, and very powerful ingredients at that.

   Anyway, attached below is the recipe. I adjusted it a bit. Enjoy!


   Potato Kugel
   based on the recipe of Anna “Annushka” Smit Freiman

   10 small-to-medium potatoes
   6-7 tbsp. butter, melted + extra butter for frying onions
   2 onions, diced
   2 tsp. salt
   1 heaping tsp. baking powder
   5 eggs
   1 cup of flour

1.       Fry the diced onions in some butter until they just start to turn brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
2.       Peel and grate the potatoes. I grate by hand. Don’t be a wuss.
3.       Preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Grease a baking pan.
4.       Put the potatoes in a bowl and mix in everything but the flour.
5.       Now mix in the flour. You should get a thick mix/batter consistency.  
6.       Pour into the baking pan and distribute around so that it’s roughly even. Bake for  35-45 minutes or until the top is brown and crisp and the kugel is firm. You may need to rotate the pan in the oven.

   The recipe is pretty flexible – you can add some garlic, grated carrots, or even – though my grandma would disapprove – a bit of sugar. However, I much prefer old-school Lithuanian kugel.

   Finally, for some humor – not one person brought knives or forks. Kugel is definitely great hand food, but we improvised a knife using a celery stick:
Cutting the kugel with a celery stick.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Zither Music is Awesome. So is “Milkshake.” (Mine Doesn’t Bring All the Boys to the Yard L).

 Warning: this post does seem rather pretentious, given that I’m railing against pretension. Please forgive me.

           OK, I admit, some of my musical tastes are rather highbrow. I have an absurd fondness for Chinese ‘80s music, Irish Gaelic folk music, traditional Spanish music, and hymns from all over the world. I go crazy for Borodin and Bartok. I can sing sean-nós and Syriac paeans. I’ve gone to Russian folk concerts with friends in Chicago (hey Arthur and Gwen!).
            I also think Lady Gaga is epically amazing and awesome, Ke$ha is a wonderful thing, and Taylor Swift is growing on me. The Dixie Chicks and my YouTube searches are intimately linked (I can sing Travelling Soldier in a heartbeat). Beyoncé is underrated. Hillel (who truly understands my love for trashy music) and I watched ALL the Eurovision entries in a few days in March (SERBIA!!!).
            Note: Rebecca Black sucks. Sorry. I’m also not into rap that much. Not sure why.
             I do not care how contradictory this may seem. I like my unusual tastes. I also like the fact that I could totally have a debate on Blah Blah Blah v. Tik Tok with a bunch of 13-year-old girls.

            So this tendency leads me to ask: why do a lot of people at UChicago look down on this kind of music?

              Sure, I get it. You’re at a top research university, you’re special, you can tell apart pseudo-heteronormativity and the conscious display of socio-sexual conformity (and if you’re really smart, you can tell me why those two aren’t really that different, and if you do, I’ll make you brownies).

           But why does that mean that you can’t like the same thing a sixteen-year-old girl in the ghetto or a twelve-year-old farmer’s daughter likes?

           I’m not going to address everything;  I’m just going to state my thoughts on two aspects of this division.

1.      The charge of destructive pop culture. OK, admittedly, bubblegum pop-culture and Coca-Cola haven’t been the best for old-school vernacular culture. But I have two problems with this charge:
a)      Pop culture can often give old forms of art new life. For example: several pop artists across the world have included folk motifs in their work; a Maori haka (war dance) is performed by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team and basically national religion, before every game; a Canadian artist takes traditional Native American themes and art and incorporates them into manga-style graphic novels. Pop culture is not so destructive.
b)      The destruction of older forms began not with pop culture, but with its rejection by the elite in favor of more socially acceptable forms, which is exactly what a lot of Maroons do. The decline of Irish and Turkish folk music started in the twentieth century with the wholesale rejection of both forms by the elite, who preferred supposedly avant-garde stuff from London or France. Their grandkids today disdain “pop norms” and listen to some bullshit imitation of what was destroyed. The quashing of folk stuff – that comes from the elite. Folk forms would have been much stronger had the big people not decided that it was too trashy or too provincial for them.
Also, it’s usually ordinary people who drive revivals. Both Irish and Turkish folk were partially revived not by well-meaning liberal elites who never heard Madonna, but by a giant national interest spurred by the sudden popularity of folk-informed music with modern twists. Think Enya.

2.      The charge of inherent racism and classism and biases and such. Yes, I get that country music is very white, and R&B music is quite African-American, and that white jocks sometimes try too hard to be “gangster” under the influence of rap. But what about you? Indie rock has got to be the whitest genre ever. If anything, it’s whiter than country or R&B combined. It all seems to be rich white kids who failed at life and now pluck guitars. OK, that’s unfair. But it’s white people playing to white people using references tailored to white people of a certain social class, and usually in a faux-poor-actually-posh context.
                             I can see why pop music might seem rather…monotonous, but I see a huge diversity within it: from Taylor Swift’s country anthems to Beyonce’s R&B, multi-influenced songs. Enrique Iglesias gets people of all colors and backgrounds swinging their bottoms to the beat.
Admittedly, I can see some improvement with indie rock, but it seems pretty white. Not as white as metal, but still white. I think it also seems to avoid admitting a lot of influences – including that of country. My sister listens to a lot of indie rock and it’s striking how much of it reminds me of Johnny Cash.

Then again, no one in Wicker Park would be caught dead listening to Johnny Cash.

Look, I get that what I’m saying might upset you. Feel free to disagree with me. Feel free to continue disdaining pop culture, and allow yourself to be isolated from American vernacular culture. Feel free to say things like “JK’s got some really cool musical tastes like Gaelic stuff, but then he blasts Ke$ha and I want to punch him in the face.” Stick with that proud tradition of kicking “low” culture! I’ll stick with my Irish folk songs, my Coptic hymns, and my GaGa.

And you’re welcome to respect my near-addiction to Gaelic music, and to piss on my liking for trashy bubblegum pop. Just don’t be surprised when, while visiting the museum, after a deep historical analysis, I start singing this, quietly, before a nude painting in the Baroque wing of the Art Institute:

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,
And they're like
It's better than yours,
Damn right it's better than yours….”-Kelis, whose song is still fresh and awesome eight years later

Friday, July 8, 2011

What does it mean to “live somewhere”?

                Someone recently asked me “where have you lived?” That is a difficult question to answer.

                How does one define “living somewhere”? There’s a certain point on which everyone seems to agree: signing apartment leases, spending the majority of the year there, having bank accounts and regular supermarket runs and transport cards and such.

                By that initial definition, I’ve lived in three places: New York City, Westchester County, and Chicago. While some very strict definers might take issue with my inclusion of Chicago, here’s my argument:
1.        I spend at least 60% of the year there.
2.        I make supermarket runs, pharmacy runs, day-excursions, etc. out of Chicago like any normal resident, and I’ve done that for ten months. My flights are round-trips from Chicago.
3.        My checking account, credit card, organizational memberships, and so forth are aligned to my Chicago address.
4.        I filed my federal taxes from Chicago.
5.        My official registration with at least two governmental organizations for my address is my dorm: the IRS for the US, and the South African government’s registry of citizens abroad (I have dual citizenship).
Most importantly:
6.        I’ve started thinking of Chicago as my current definition of “home.”
I live in Chicago.

NYC and Westchester are pretty non-controversial. I lived in New York for seven years and the suburbs for over ten years. That’s not up for argument.

But then there’s this definition used by many entities:
A person with a home, house, place of abode, place of habitation, dwelling or place where one actually lived for a consecutive period of thirty (30) days or more prior to the date of application. (This particular definition is for Idaho medical assistance.)

I have spent a consecutive period of 30 days in a place of abode in two more places: Berkeley, CA and Shanghai, China.  (I’ve also done a homestay program in Beijing, but that was 27 days.)

I’ve come to consider these places as “living, but.” It was temporary – a few weeks – but I did normal living things there: I made market runs in Shanghai with my host family and I had a Chinese cell phone; I got a temporary gym membership with my Berkeley address and became known for my order (small decaf and toasted blueberry muffin) at a local coffeeshop. I was registered as a “resident” with the Shanghai Police. But it was still quite temporary. But I guess I’ve lived in Shanghai and Berkeley.

My mother has the oddest definition. “It’s when I become blasé about the local dairy packaging.” I remember when we moved to the suburbs, my mother was really excited about the new branding on the milk. (She’s lived in Johannesburg, five or six cities in Israel, New Jersey, New York City, and Westchester by all conventional definitions, and if you use this packaging thing, add Amsterdam). But it works for her! It doesn’t work for me. I am blasé about food packaging in general.

This is my definition:   
I have a continuous, full, rich psychological definition of a patch of land at least seven acres in size, in which I know basically every nook and cranny, in which I can navigate blind, in which I feel extremely comfortable. In New York, it’s a patch of the Upper West Side that has since gentrified enormously (the Palestinian grocers got replaced by a pricy fusion place, the sketchy diner is now a Yuppie Thai place). In the town my family is in, it’s my block, the blocks surrounding and my walk to the high school (almost half a square mile). In Chicago, it’s the southeastern corner of Hyde Park and campus. In Berkeley, it’s a patch between Durant on the north and Dwight on the south, College on the east and Telegraph on the west. In Shanghai, it’s a small neighborhood just south of Hongqiao Airport. The definition includes the culture to an extent (but it takes decades to learn a culture), but also includes the creation of a psychological normalcy in that place: it’s not a hotel and its transience, it’s a bedroom and a kettle and the light through the window at 6:30am.

I’ve lived-lived in New York, Scarsdale, and Chicago. I’ve “lived, but” in Berkeley and Shanghai. I’ve marked those five cities on my Google Plus account.

Other friends of mine have “lived, but” in places too. My friend Hillel is “living, but” in Santiago, Chile (and has lived on both sides of the equator!).  A friend of mine has “lived, but” several times in four countries; another friend, Lizzy, “lived, but” in Pune, India (and lists that as her Skype hometown!)

In the end, I told this person: “New York, Westchester, Chicago by most definitions; the Bay Area and Shanghai by some.” They stared at me like a blank deer. Alas.

Living places is a spectrum of experience. A house for six weeks can be a home forever, an apartment of twenty years can be a morbid exile. Someone I know called her Moroccan host family’s house “my home in Morocco;” a Cuban exile I once met said “I live in Havana, but I’m temporarily stuck in Miami.” It’s how you work it.

So, I ask: how do you define living somewhere?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


My family in New York lives on top of a huge hill. According to the geological map of the area, we're about 300 feet above sea level.

While this point is much lower than Chicago, Chicago is six hundred miles from the nearest ocean. We're...four.

However, here's the key: the main road of the town, about 400 feet away, is a full 55 feet lower than we are. There's a fifty-foot steep drop (not quite a cliff) in some neighbors' yards. Fences protect the kids from what essentially is the neighborhood cliff.

In order to provide foot access to the main road without having to take a roundabout route, the town installed a staircase between my street and the main road. It's almost completely unutilized: most people here drive. I used it the entire time I lived out here to get to school, turning north at the bottom for elementary school, south for middle school and high school. The steps have a scholastic feel, I think, but that's probably because I have taken upwards of seven hundred trips on those stairs with my school bag.

It's not particularly well cared for, as a result. The town wanted to get rid of it a few years ago - difficult to maintain, dangerous, and intrusive to the neighbors, it was called. Eventually they decided to keep it - it provides foot access to two houses on the drop's edge, which is useful for the postwoman, delivery men etc.
It was repaved, and then forgotten. Even the neighbors never use it. My sister is one of maybe four people who use it regularly now. Dogwalkers use it sometimes to get to a park, and the small children next door have a Saturday night babysitter who I've seen using it.

It has an abandoned quality, even with the new stones and railings. You duck your head to avoid branches. At the steep bit, you step carefully to avoid a catastrophic fall. There's a lot of dirt, and bugs.

It used to be a lot more like a secret pathway, before they cleaned it up. The stones before (which were, in my opinion, nicer) had a beautiful gray color, and were almost falling out of the mortar. Actually, one did while my foot was on it.

Yet some surprising things still remain. At the top, there's a random patch of daylilies, seed-escapees from a nearby garden. From May until August, they form an orange welcome flare at the top of the staircase.

At the top. The house on the left is accessed by foot through here, although everyone seems to use their driveway.

Further down, there's a little place that I've nicknamed "Squirrel Crossing." A lot of the neighborhood squirrels commute between the yards on the drop-edge on a certain landing of the staircase.

"Squirrel Crossing," devoid of squirrels, in the foreground. I once found my cat at the time sunning herself on this ledge.

And at the bottom, before hitting the main road, some plants have already taken root between the bricks, Nature's little homage to the moss that covered the old mortar. The staircase flattens out here, and the last bit abuts the driveway of a neighbor who has objected to the public staircase for years:

They kept the old paving on the left-hand side (the border).
The staircase has existed longer than he has. The town records indicate that the staircase was built well before World War II.

Sometimes, I climb the staircase without thinking. But sometimes, I feel like I'm in an unknown passage. In the midst of sundry American suburbia, a piece of something else. A place where I, the faithful foot-traveller, am the king of journeyers. A place, surrounded by rubber rounds, yet only for rubber soles. A place, mundane to me for a decade, yet special still.

A place that my feet crave now, under a desk in the midst of a city.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Shortbread, Smidgens of Amelie, Pigeons!

I've had a quiet weekend so far, but two awesome things of note:

1. We had a UChicago joint meetup for the class of 2014 (my year) and the incoming students of the class of 2015. It was mostly '14 people, and only seven of us, but it was really fun. We walked around, chilled in parks, and ate Ukrainian, Indian and baked foods. A good day. There were also some interesting sights, like this man at Washington Square Park playing songs including the songs from Amelie on a grand piano:

                                          A piano in one of NYC's most trafficked parks

 But, more prescient for me to tell you:

2. I made them shortbread.

Shortbread is an awesome type of cookie. It's buttery and tender and delicious and wonderfully tasty (if horrifically unhealthy). It's also an incredibly flexible cookie recipe.

For this meetup, I made lemon shortbread, the recipe to which I've attached below the photo.

                                          Fresh out of the oven and cooling on parchment paper.
                                         (They're not stuck together, they shifted post-removal)
Lemon Shortbread
Makes about 36 cookies. Sorry about the schizo metric mixing

1 cup butter, softened (this is about two sticks)
1 cup sugar
zest and juice of 2 lemons
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon rosemary (brings out the flavor of the lemon)
a good glug of vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus a bit extra for dough kneading and cutting

Preheat the oven to 325F/165C. Line a pan or two with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until you get a consistent, blended mixture. This is more easily achieved with a mixer of some sort, but you can do it with manual devices, or even by hand. Once they're creamed, add the lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, rosemary, and vanilla extract to the butter mixture and mix in thoroughly. Add the flour in and mix until you have a consistently textured, fluffy-looking dough, which will probably be in little balls.

Flour a cutting board and a rolling pin, and wet your hands a little. Empty the bowl onto the board and push the dough together into one ball. Knead a few times to get it incorporated. Flatten the dough with a rolling pin to about a 1-1.25cm thickness. You may need to reflour the rolling pin so that the dough does not stick.

Cut the shortbread into squares or shapes of your desired size, but I recommend squares of about 2-4cm on one side. Place them on the parchment paper, giving each of them a bit of room - 1.5-3cm around - to breathe.

Place into the oven, and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the edges begin to brown. Take out and cool. Apparently, they keep in an airtight container for a few days, but they were all consumed within 24 hours so I wouldn't know.

Based on Mark Bittman's recipe in How To Cook Everything and Nicole at Pinch My Salt:
The meetup people really enjoyed these cookies, but I made a few too many. We gave some of them - along with Jane's incredible "tiger stripe" muffins (carrot top, brownie bottom) - to passerby, as well as feeding at least one of the cookies and several muffins to some pigeons in Union Square park. Here's a picture of the feeding frenzy:

Jane feeding the pigeon swarm that will soon increase to a much larger size.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Some jock thought it was funny.

A white kid, six foot, strapping, muscled. A Yankees cap cockily jaunted against reddish-brown hair.

A homeless man stares at the ground where his cup, with money to buy himself some food, anything was.

It's in the middle of the street now; coins are scattered across 54th.A morning's worth of vaguely sympathetic commuters, now run over by truck after truck after truck.

The jock and his buddies laugh after the kick. They walk off. Maybe to drool at unattainable European girls in short shorts on Fifth.

I'm shaking with anger.

I can't pick up the coins. But the cup has rolled to the side of the road. I pick it up, and give it to the man. I drop in a dollar. It's the least I can do.

The jocks are too far to yell at. Not many people saw it.

If it is any comfort, the eleventh line of a Jewish prayer, Yigdal:

גומל לאיש חסד כמפעלו, יתן לרשע רע כרשעתו
Gomel l-ish ħesed ke-mif'alo, yiten l-rasha' ra' ke-rish'ato
He rewards the kind man in proportion to his deed, He punishes the evil in tandem with their wickedness

I can't even laugh about accidentally knocking into a missionary now. To destroy the hope and goodwill of anyone, even for a moment, is beyond redemption.