"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How I miss home

Happy first day of spring! I counted up today, and I'm almost 8 months into my 13-month year of living abroad. I spent today packing for a couple of weeks at home and, of course, thinking about all the things I'm looking forward to over the break. And that got me thinking about what I actually miss when I miss home. This year, when I've felt homesick, it's actually usually been a good feeling, because it reminds me of all the things and people I love back home. I'm hoping that when I get back there next year, I'll be able to appreciate those things even more than I did before I left. Of course, things always look rosy from afar, though, so I'm afraid that as soon as I get home, I'll come up with all sorts of stuff that was better over in England! So, I'm making a list here of a few things that I really want to appreciate fully when I get them back in my life.

1. Community.

Family of course is the thing I miss most. I'm very close to my family, and last year (my senior year of college), I was very close to my friends, too (when you live with people for four years, you share a lot!). But this year, I've found myself doing a lot of things alone. I eat my meals alone most of the time, do my work alone, walk to and from school alone, go grocery shopping alone, travel on trains alone. This of course makes it really sweet when I happen to have someone around to do stuff with - when one of my housemates is in the kitchen cooking dinner at the same time as me, or when I run into one of my new friends on campus and sit down to do some studying at the same table. But it's rare, and I not only miss the company I've had from my friends over the past four years and my family for my whole life. I also miss those specific people. Thank god for skype.

It's funny, because I've always thought of myself as an introvert, and I do need plenty of time alone to focus on my work or daydream or just be quiet. Too much time with too many people drains my energy and I have to recharge. But I've discovered this year that too much time without people also drains my energy. I guess the middle path is best.

2. Food.

Not just dishes at my favorite restaurants or special family recipes. No, I miss the food of all the Bay Area, because I'm beginning to realize it's pretty unique. I've complained on here before about much trouble I have finding good veggies around here, and I cannot wait to get back to my local farmer's market. I also just find that people here are less into fresh and healthy eating than me.

Back home last year, a lot of my friends were going vegetarian and even vegan. I'm still an omnivore and probably always will be, but I eat meat maybe once or twice a week, tops, because I love cooking with vegetables. Here, though, people eat so much meat, so many frozen vegetables, so many cans of beans, so much cheap take-out Chinese food. It's not that I abstain from any of those completely (except the beans, gross), but it's weird to be around people who don't know any other kind of food. I was told the other day that I was 'adventurous' for ordering dishes with eggplant and spinach at a restaurant. What?

What I feel is more than just food snobbism. It's profound gratitude that I was raised on truly fresh, local, and delicious food that's good for me and good for the planet. I feel lucky to be able to taste so many amazing things that farmer's have coaxed out of the ground, rather than eating stuff that comes out of some commercial processing plant. Finally, I'm so happy that when I'm at home, I get to buy most of my food from the people who grow it or people who are just passionate about food, to talk with them about it and maybe get a recipe tip or something, instead of grabbing my food off a supermarket shelf.

3. Weather.

Well, obviously. I've talked about this plenty on this blog. But how lucky am I to come from a place without sub-zero temperatures? Not to mention the beautiful ocean that makes the climate so temperate around San Francisco. I will be taking every opportunity to get outside and enjoy that sun when I'm back home.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Pancake weather

I've been experimenting a lot more with my cooking and baking this year and been wanting to share the results on this blog. And what better to start off with than breakfast? And did I mention it's raining? So obviously we need pancakes.

So here are some apple-cinnamon pancakes I made to start off the day yesterday and today. I got the idea to put shredded apple in the batter off the internet, but I used my own recipe for the batter. Well, when I say recipe, I mean the casual, estimated-proportions, busy-before-school recipe that I've come up with this year. It starts with one egg and a cup of milk (or milk mixed with yoghurt, which gives a fluffier pancake, I think), and then I add a little bit of baking soda and baking powder, salt, and as much flour (or oats, or cornmeal) as I need to get it to batter-like consistency. It never turns out quite as good as following some of my favorite recipes for pancakes, but sometimes I don't have the right ingredients or am too lazy to do proper proportions. Or, like in this case, I want to try something new.

I must warn you, these are pretty gooey, no matter how long I let them cook, but I'm OK with gooey. The apples (which I shredded with a cheese grater) give them great texture. I added a bunch of shakes of cinnamon but would recommend even more, because I couldn't really taste it too well. I added nutmeg, too, but not sure I could taste it as such.

Finally, these photos are from day 2, so as you can see, the batter keeps well overnight in the fridge. Yummy and ready in no time. I do enjoy putting together the batter in the morning, though. So often, I think, we rush through our mornings, trying to get somewhere or harness our energy to work before it wanes later in the day. But sometimes it's nice to put that energy into something restorative, like standing in the quiet kitchen stirring oatmeal and doing a little gentle yoga while it bubbles away. I find that if I do something like that first thing in the morning, I end up feeling more productive and accomplished than if I had plunged straight into work.

So, give these pancakes a try, and let me know how it turns out. Or do you have a favorite variant on the basic batter recipe?

Monday, March 11, 2013


This weekend, the weather has been bizarre. Woke up to bright sun - an hour later, it was blizzarding outside my window - the clouds cleared and it sunny again - I glanced back at the window and saw snow - currently we're back to blue sky. I guess the only constant is that it's cold.

Even the temperature, though, has been swinging back and forth over the last week. After endless snowy, cold, grey weather, the sun came out, and I walked to school without a coat on for the first time in months. Everyone rushed outside to eat their lunch, and sitting inside at our computers felt ridiculous when it was so nice outside (p.s. the high was only 54 degrees, but it felt like 70 to me).

Alas, it was not to last. Now it's snowing again. In March.

That taste of spring, though, reminded me that the semester is almost over. Once again, after winter hibernation, I'm moving into a period of transitions. I'm not particularly good at transitions - I'm a creature of habits and comforts - but I also feel a great attraction to them. I love to look forward to things, whether it's a new book, an upcoming trip, or just breakfast tomorrow morning. The thing is, of course, things usually don't turn out exactly how you imagine them, and whether the reality is better or worse than anticipated, it always takes a bit of adjustment. You go to sleep, already savoring the taste of pancakes, only to wake up and find your milk has gone sour. Maybe you dissolve in a heap of tears, or maybe you end up eating some scrambled eggs that taste just as good. Or maybe someone surprises you with some fresh croissants they just brought back from the bakery, and you decide to postpone pancakes until tomorrow. There's just always that moment of recalibration that's sometimes joyful and sometimes hard.

There's a lot of patience involved in transitions. I've been listening to music on Spotify recently, which is great because I was really missing Pandora. On the radio function, you never know what song is coming next, and in the moment that the last song ends, I always start conjecturing about the next one, and it's usually not what I expect (except that this morning, I was hoping they would play something by A Fine Frenzy, and they miraculously did). Sometimes it'll be one of my favorite bands, and sometimes I'll reach immediately to click the thumbs down button. But sometimes I just don't know if I like the song yet or not, so I just sit there and listen and wait to see how I feel about it. And since the best thing about this radio function is discovering new favorite bands, that minute or two of patience and listening can really pay off.

So here I go transitioning from my last semester of classes into my first summer of truly independent writing work. Yes, I'm writing to a deadline, but the restrictions on the what, how, and why of my dissertation are pretty minimal. For someone who wants to write books, this will be good training in making my way through a big writing project without much outside structure.

I'm not saying that writing a dissertation is like listening to music or eating pancakes, but the fact is that I'll be doing a lot of those latter two things while attempting to do the former, and I like the way the micro mirrors the macro sometimes (often). I will also be living for about 5 more months in a country where the weather changes all the time. Then I'll move back across an ocean and a continent and start looking for a job. So my life will be full of transitions. I guess I better just keep listening and get ready to recalibrate.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: Number9Dream

And once again my love for David Mitchell is renewed. Kind of like with Virginia Woolf, I forget how great he is, and then I pick up another of his books and it overwhelms me all over again. Initially (having read Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green), I admired him for his versatility and how well he handled such diverse stories, settings, characters, genres. Now (having added The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Number9Dream), I'm starting to get really interested in the recurrences in his writing rather than the divergences. Anyway, there's plenty to like in each individual book, too, and this one is no exception. Number9Dream is Mitchell's second of five novels, and I'll be reading his first, Ghostwritten, next, but for now, I'm going to try to explain my reaction to this crazy, crazy, charming book.

At its core, this is a very simple quest story about how 20-year-old Eiji Miyake goes to Tokyo to find his father. He's been brought up on a rural island, estranged from his mother and without ever knowing his father, so he sets out to discover this mysterious man. The only problem is, he doesn't even know his father's name, and Tokyo is a big place.

Actually, as Eiji pursues various schemes to find his father, it doesn't seem like such a big place after all. Almost everyone he meets seems to be connected in some way or another, and false trails lead him in an intricate but tightly woven network of people and organizations. One great thing about this book is how it portrays the city and the daily realities of city living - the extraordinary chance encounters, the deep sense of alienation, the changing rhythms, the peculiar mix of anonymity and total lack of privacy. By taking Eiji back to the same places throughout the book, Mitchell helps you really visualize Tokyo (even if, like me, you've never even been to Japan), and you really feel you're accompanying Eiji in discovering the place's secrets.

Some of these secrets are very nasty and quite incredible. But the entire book lingers on the edge between the mundane and the absurd - sort of like in a dream. The book opens with Eiji indulging in daydreams about reuniting with his father and ends with a thoroughly dreamy sequence where all of his experiences blend and transform themselves whenever he closes his eyes. Each of the eight long chapters, in fact, has a theme and a particular structure, and Mitchell is brilliant at weaving different sorts of narration, different times, different versions of reality together.

But - and this is what I love about Mitchell's novels - stringing all the dreamy, literary tricks together is a real, strong, human story. At one point in the book, when Eiji following up one of the many trails that seem to lead toward his father, I noticed that my heart was literally pounding, I was so caught up in his quest. Eiji tells his story in first-person, with a lot of honesty and charm, so that I completely identified with him from the first chapter to the last. He's like the best kind of hero in young adult novels (although I wouldn't categorize this as one, because it gets incredibly and disturbingly violent in a few places), who struggles with very human, ordinary problems like an inaccessible crush and the annoyances of a boring job between bouts of tracking down mysterious persons and escaping death. A bit like a non-spider-powered Peter Parker, Eiji alternates between normal life and crazy adventures and does it with both the flair we wish we had and the real emotional and physical vulnerability that we all do have.

This book makes you feel and think in equal measure, and, best of all, the two feel totally integrated. The literary experiments don't feel tacked on to the story at all. Mitchell is, as usual, completely in control of everything he does, knowing just how much your nerves can stretch, just how much you need to hear of a certain conversation, or just how much you need to jog your memory of a plot point from five chapters ago. It's a bit of a crazy ride, but he's got it under just the right amount of control. I had so much fun reading this book, and it's a definite five star recommendation.

Friday, March 1, 2013



This month, one of my favorite things to chill out after a long day of schoolwork was the BBC miniseries Dancing on the Edge. If you're in the UK, you can probably still catch it on iPlayer, and I definitely recommend it! It's about a black jazz band that rises to fame in 1920s London and the various people - patrons, journalists, etc. - who help and hinder them along the way. So it has 1) great music, 2) a good ensemble cast, and 3) an interesting perspective on society at the time. As a bonus, there is also a murder mystery and several romantic plots, of course. All the relationships and characters feel very realistic and multi-layered, and the whole thing was very smart and satisfying.


The most exciting fashion moment for me this past month was the Oscars, which I didn't even get to watch because of the time difference. But I checked out the dresses the day after and saw a lot of beautiful fabric floating around the red carpet. I really liked Jennifer Lawrence's dress, and especially her backwards pearl necklace - really interesting - and was happy to see such a down-to-earth star who picks such interesting movies win for a film I really liked. I also loved Nicole Kidman's dress, very snazzy. Anyway, I'm looking forward to next year, when I can watch the whole ceremony and indulge in proper gown envy.


When it's cold and dreary outside, I obviously tend to stay inside as much as possible, but there's only so much time you can spend reading, watching movies, and eating comfort food. I found one great option for something more active than reading but not requiring going outside is games. Pool, scrabble, cards, and crossword puzzles are all such good ways of getting together with friends to do more than eat and drink and chat. Plus they exercise your brain in ways that counterbalance the monotony of intellectual work nicely.

Miscellaneous Stuff:

Staying healthy! February seemed kinda lousy at times this year, with a combination of grey weather and intense schoolwork. The absolute best thing to combat the end-of-winter blues for me is making my body happy - doing some gentle yoga as a study break, going for a walk in the park as soon as I caught a glimpse of blue sky, and eating right. With the latter in mind, I signed up for a fresh veggie box to be delivered every week, and I'm hoping it'll be filled with lots of yummy seasonal goodies that expand my diet from the minimal fruits and vegetables that I can find at the local shops (I had to go to 4 different stores yesterday just to find a bag of spinach!!!).