Category Archives: diarist

The Old Weird Internet (Never Died)

Can a retro-looking blog platform help us express our feelings?

As I start writing this essay, I’m sitting on the roof of the cabin I built in my twenties, watching the sun go down. Pastels—rose, peach, aqua, baby blue—blend in the sky, only visible through a scrim of threadlike gray clouds that twist and turn, forming shapes that could be letters in a fantastical alphabet, perhaps Martian or High Elvish. A songbird scree-scree-screes. The wind whispers through the trees and up the sleeves of my sweater. A snag stands silhouette against the gray-blue gloaming.

Watching the sunset, in late winter, out in the country—it provokes high, lyrical nature writing. I reach for precise language, the senses all on high alert, recording subtle details with reverent care. But why?


If you’d prefer an audio version, you can listen to this essay on the Lightplay podcast:


In the middle of the 18th century, a group of European writers and painters who would come to be known as the “Romantics” began making art and poetry about scenes of nature and, especially, nature that was lonely (“I wandered lonely as a cloud…”) or violent, or remote. It was a successful movement, and over the next two centuries most everyone else in “the West” gradually learned to enjoy the feelings of awe and even the sublime that encounters with nature can evoke. From this change in taste came such disparate phenomena as the American National Park system, the sport of mountain climbing, the faux wilderness of New York’s Central Park, the landscape photography of Ansel Adams, and, eventually, the writing of nature poets like Robert Haas, Gary Snyder, and Mary Oliver. A small-ish group of 19th-century poets set in motion an aesthetic shift that radically changed the human relationship to nature—so much so that today this way of relating to nature seems, for lack of a better word, natural.

For a writer, what’s more interesting than the history is the phenomenon itself: the production of highly detailed, lyrical sentences in response to natural beauty. A connection deep inside me responds to these scenes by producing this kind of writing. And this linkage is shared widely across our culture. When I taught poetry in public schools, taking over an English or History or Biology class for a week, I loved taking my students outside with their poetry notebooks. They did actually write better and more precise lines when the rock they were describing was right there, by their foot. The plein-aire poem—it’s a real thing!

Compared to how hard writing often is, this feels like a cheat code: take journal outside, write during a dramatic sunset, and, ta-da, soon you’ve written 200 words in a heightened, romantic style. If that’s what you wanted, well, mission accomplished.

It begs the question: are there other situations or tools that we can use to make it easier to write?

A photo of a sunset, the rays forming bars as they pass through a cloud.

Writers like to exploit productive contexts: a favorite coffee shop, a library reading room, a parked car, a wifi-less cabin in the woods, a room of one’s own. Having started this essay a few weeks ago, I’m actually writing this section on an airplane—a famously conducive writing space.

But what I’m after are spaces that elicit a different style or mood or medium of writing. And where I find myself most likely to find these spaces today is online.

A platform like Twitter, with its strict character limit, is optimized to produce sharp little insights and aphoristic, breezy jokes. Meanwhile a homespun platform like an email newsletter encourages you to be a bit pedantic, a bit performatively friendly, a bit conversational (hi there!). And then there are the online venues you don’t primarily associate with writing: Yelp reviews, Discord chats, Reddit threads, YouTube comments, and many more. These, too, bring out different personas: the connoisseur, the enthusiast, the nerd, the checkpointer.

At its best the internet helps us act more freely. We learn to play its platforms like different instruments. On Instagram we take perfect vacations; on Goodreads we have impeccably eccentric taste in novels; on Nextdoor we’re angry about chickens; on LinkedIn we’re respected professionals; in the New York Times comments we’re just asking questions; on our Kickstarter we’re brilliant but approachable inventors.

These platforms are designed to get us playing with our personas. They have us dress up avatars and fill out bios and join groups and upload profile pics. We’re rewarded for proclaiming our allegiances and amplifying our heroes and curating our playlists and giving our photos exactly the right vibe.

Problems crop up when the algorithms take over and try to turn us into passive consumers of a narrowing circle of optimized slop. (See my essay “Music and Power.”) But I still think that the internet offers some great places to write in specific moods.

Many of the best places to explore different writing moods online today exist as part of a new crop of offbeat, often handmade platforms that evoke the old, weird internet of my childhood—a space that seemed more raw, more playful, and less blue-tinted than today’s very corporate Internet. This wave of nostalgic new platforms includes some direct homages like SpaceHey (a near clone of MySpace) and Neocities (a reboot of Geocities in look and concept) as well as more original services like mmm.page (a sticker-heavy drag-and-drop personal website builder) and figjam (a…collaborative pinboard???). These services tend to break some new ground while at the same time gesturing back to the gif-art-heavy, flashing text, over-colorful aesthetic of Nineties internet.

For my money the grandest of this crop of new platforms is the scrap-blogging platform multiverse.plus—a nearly-abandoned service that is gloriously designed, pleasantly user-friendly, and surprisingly effective as a tool to elicit specific kinds of writing.

A screenshot of the landing page of Multiverse, showing the headings and a preview of a sticker-heavy post.

What is multiverse.plus? A first glance reveals a free website that lets you create and publish little blog posts that, depending on what box you check, go out on your personal page and get aggregated into a few different site-wide verticals: “Highlights,” “The world I see,” “Mic check,” and “Don’t look at this.” If you dig a little deeper you might also notice that multiverse.plus is different from many other sites because its posts all have a fixed width. This means the text won’t re-flow depending on the size of a browser window. Instead, everyone sees the same layout of text and image created by the author, as if it was pasted up in a scrapbook. But what makes multiverse most distinctive is its visual design: pastels and neons, over-saturated gradients, layers of colorful drop shadow, chunky dashed borders, and tons of options for funkying up your text. Simply put, multiverse.plus has a vibe.

And that vibe also comes from the community of other people writing on the platform. There’s a casual, confessional tone that the great majority of posts employ. Some excerpts:

  • “I had a bit of anxiety in the early hours of today. I did go back to sleep, but my brain is having issues waking up. Ugh,” writes a user named JR the Pin-Witch.
  • “Growing up, I didn’t think I was particularly close to my mom, or my dad,” writes glitchyowl, one of the site’s founders. “We were a pretty normal family. We’d have dinner at home on most nights. I spent a lot of my after school time at the playground and the basketball court. We had a family computer. My brother and I each had a Nintendo SP, etc.” The writing is accompanied by a photo of the author as maybe a six-year-old, next to her mom, onto whose face a pair of pixelated, chunky sunglasses have been digitally added.
  • “i cleaned my depression room today!,” writes evergreen, who then clarifies, “well, not just today. in reality it took me about a month? i had this terrible habit of starting to clean it and then getting distracted halfway through.” This post is accompanied by before and after shots as well as in-process shots.

Nearly every post is so private that it could begin “dear diary.” The lack of “follow” and “comment” functions means people can’t really interact with each other, which probably contributes to the confessional tone. But at the same time there’s awareness of a small community of fellow multiversers who might end up reading a specific post. Nobody sounds entirely isolated, howling into the void.

For myself, the style of writing that predominates on multiverse.plus isn’t my usual tone. You may have noticed that I have trouble writing short. I’m also often more emotionally guarded. It’s dispositional. I’m a reserved person.

Which is why multiverse.plus feels like another writing cheat code for me. On this website, it’s miraculously easy to let my hair down and track my feelings out loud. When I got back from my honeymoon and felt kind of sad, I made a multiverse post trying to capture my ennui. When my grandpa died, multiverse.plus was the first place I wrote about it. When on a dark December night I found myself just feeling melancholy for no obvious reason, I logged in and wrote about my cat.

Why does multiverse.plus have this effect on me? I think the site’s alchemy comes from a few factors: the throwback aesthetic, the fact of blending words with images, and its satisfying drag-and-drop interface. You spend so much time adjusting and resizing boxes and images so that they look just right, it ends up distracting the internal critic from obsessing over the words.

Also: the site is ridiculously easy to use. It feels more than anything like making a collage. You’re just pushing stuff around, trying to get it to look the way you want it to look. Like making a collage, it’s fun, and the final product is satisfying.

All this comes together to make multiverse.plus a powerful cheat code for writing emotionally intimate little pieces. And then the site’s relative anonymity makes it easy to publish the pieces, too. Because there’s no “follow” button and no “news feed,” the only way you can stay current on someone’s posts is either to randomly encounter them in the verticals or to make a point of visiting their page. (My page is multiverse.plus/jaspernighthawk.) These barriers to interaction and wide distribution are a feature to me. It gives my posts a level of privacy, even if they are public for anyone who seeks them out.

Last October, I turned one of my best friends onto multiverse.plus. When they made their own cool, trippy post I felt honored to be one of just a few people who knew it was out there and who got to read it. The very difficulty of finding their post made it feel special and personal.

How was it that this website existed, yet it had, at best, 50 active users? It was nearly abandoned, and at the same time it was really well-made and cool—and perfect for my purposes. So I found myself wondering, who made it?

The “About” page revealed that multiverse.plus is the project of two users: Kicks Condor and glitchyowl. These were obviously internet handles, so I googled to try to find the underlying people attached to them.

Kicks Condor I started on first. This one seemed easy, because they have a blog, kickscondor.com. But this blog, while brilliantly/bizarrely designed, lacks any clarifying personal information. So I did some googling and found what is apparently the only interview they’ve ever given. And for me at least, this interview raises more questions than it clarifies. “We’re Cody and Jody,” they write, “the brother and sister creative team behind Kicks Condor. We work out of Facebook Labs, prototyping future personalities that can capture the public’s imagination, much in the same way that Disney characters and comic book characters provided archetypes in the past.”

Come again? Can this possibly be true? Does the (actively evil) company now known as Meta really hire siblings with oh-so-similar names to… build off-beat, non-evil platforms? Alas, further sleuthing merely turned up some evasive joking on a Hacker News thread, and a cursed archive of their site from last February that further jokes that their persona has been licensed to Grape Nuts, or shut down by the FBI, or … ??? … ???

So I moved on to the other creator of multiverse.plus: glitchyowl, who isn’t secretive about the fact that her given name is Weiwei Hsu. Her personal website—weiwei.place—has recently come back online and offers some clues. She is evidently a talented, young, tech-savvy person who graduated a few years ago from San Francisco’s California College of the Arts and has since founded the video hangout game sprout.place.

So… Kicks Condor is a persona created by maybe-fictional twins, while glitchyowl is an idealistic young programmer possibly living in Shanghai. Finding this info didn’t really put my curiosity to rest.

In my research about glitchyowl, she made reference to the existence of a Discord server for multiverse.plus. So I made a Discord account and joined the bulletin board “the outer web,” which services multiple of glitchyowl and Kicks Condor’s projects. I clicked on the thread about multiverse (#🌌-milky-way) and promptly found that a user named Benbear had left a comment linking to my very own most recent post. They wrote, “socks are sooo cuuute! it helps get through a tough day~ love the authentic words of her feelings !”

Now I felt my research was really paying off. Not only did I like having my work recognized, but I appreciated being misgendered—it heightened my feeling that the website was freeing me to occupy a new identity.

I wrote back enthusiastically, but the warm feelings quickly left. Benbear smothered me in further praise, comment after comment filling the thread. It’s nice to be complimented, but somehow this didn’t feel clean. They quoted the part of my original Multiverse post where I wrote, “It’s why the best cure to crankiness, for me, is when someone is unconditionally nice to me.” They commented “wow this one is sooooo warm….” After more comments they wrote, “wow,what a brave story” and included a gif of Tony Soprano punching the air. I came away feeling, in a way, love bombed and not entirely welcome.

In some ways, this was the intrusion of the corporate internet into this sweet little website. Discord is a chat platform commonly used by gamers, but it’s also a company with a $3.5 billion valuation. And here it was, stepping in to supply a comments section for a website that very intentionally lacked one. And it changed the way I felt about multiverse.plus. Almost as soon as I began participating on Discord, I began feeling all the bad social media feelings: anxiety to be liked, desire to please, anger at being misunderstood, etc. The freedom to be confessional and vulnerable is, for me, something easily damaged.

I don’t blame it all on Discord. There’s also a feral quality inherent to multiverse.plus, and this episode was of a piece with that. This feral quality comes from the website being so small and feeling so intimate, so private and safe, and at the same time anonymous and weird. This very quality that makes multiverse.plus better than the big, corporate platforms can also make it worse. For instance, it generally seems to be unmoderated, and in recent months the vertical called “The world I see” has featured several posts from a teenager disclosing their eating disorder and spreading eating disorder propaganda. When there’s no moderation and no feedback mechanism, what can a community do to stop something like that? There’s no way to mute it, let alone try to get the person help. If such a thing is a desirable outcome and not a wild overreach, which is a debatable point. The old internet offered troubled people privacy and the solitude of their own decisions, too.

This problem of moderation has vexed would-be platform developers for decades now. It seems especially acute for a project like this, where the creators are not making money from it—and because of that aren’t able to spend a ton of time moderating it. I don’t see what glitchyowl and Kicks Condor could do if multiverse.plus was taken over by bad posts and bad actors. I guess they might just have to shut the whole thing down.

I hope they don’t. On the whole, multiverse.plus feels to me like a force for good—a vestige of the Old, Weird Internet, updated for HTML5 and cloud hosting. It deserves to live, to have its problems addressed, and to find more users.

I think what I like best about multiverse.plus is that it gives me some of the same delight that the internet of my childhood did. It empowers me to write in new ways and experiment with new personas in a very 2003 internet kind of way.

The internet was so weird and fun in those days. There was a browser extension called StumbleUpon that added a button to the corner of your browser, and if you clicked it, it would redirect you to a random website curated off the internet. You could browse the site it sent you to for five seconds or five hours. When you were ready for the next thing, you just clicked the StumbleUpon button again. It provided hours and hours and hours of fun.

An internet like that still exists. Recently my friend sent me a link they found through exploring sites mentioned in multiverse.plus posts. The webpage it leads to looks like an isometric map from an old video game, but hidden within the map are hundreds and hundreds of hyperlinks that, should you click on them, take you pretty randomly to all sorts of strange websites. I lost an hour this evening clicking, exploring, and encountering the new.

It feels good to explore new, strange corners of the world wide web. The internet is, of all technologies we humans have ever created, the one most full of spaces that we use to feel certain ways. This creates all sorts of problems, for sure. But for writers, at least, it also makes the internet a profoundly powerful tool. Sites like multiverse.plus offer a writing space that elicits certain feelings that really do deserve expression. By using sites like these as writing tools, we can stop being used by the platforms.

So what are you waiting for? Go make your multiverse account and write your first post—and don’t forget to click the box for “Mic check.” And once you make your post, please shoot me an email with the link. That’s probably the only way I’ll get to read it. When I click that link and start reading this thing you’ve made in this quiet corner of the internet, I’ll feel really special.

(Thank you to Hunter Gagnon, Abraham Cohen and Lisa Locascio Nighthawk for sharing feedback, edits, and ideas that influenced this essay’s writing.)

Lightplay 017 – Taco Story

What drives us to cook the same foods over and over and over?

When I was a kid, tacos were the consolation prize at the end of hour-and-a-half-long custody exchanges where Mom and Dad each drove to a carefully-determined midpoint and handed me and my brother off for the weekend. These handoffs were always a bit melancholy, especially on winter Fridays when the sun was already well down by the time we made it to dad’s house out in the middle of nowhere. We’d walk down the walkway to his house, a million stars spread over our heads, and feel very distant from our lives and friends back in the big, light-polluted town up the coast.

But once we hauled our backpacks inside, dad would build a fire, turn on the digital projector, put on a John Wayne flick (my brother was obsessed), and head to the kitchen to fix dinner. Soon a haze of burning butter and caramelizing corn tortillas would waft in, crossing the cone of cinematic light and making its way up my nostrils, into my brain. A few minutes of salivation. Then, finally, the tacos themselves. They arrived crispy and hot on the outside, warm with cheese and salsa and green onions on the inside. We’d been apart for two weeks, but as we sat together on the couch eating tacos and watching The Searchers, we felt reconstituted, at least for the night, back into a little family.


If you’d prefer an audio version, you can listen to this essay on the Lightplay podcast:

 


Maybe it’s because today I myself want to be a parent that I tear up a little, remembering those times. The memories, filtered by two decades, are potent, like a tawny port. I feel sympathy for all three of us, each hurting in our own ways. And the distance especially helps me see how my dad put as much as he could into making those forty-eight hours he had with us count.

Of course, like probably any single dad of his generation, he could also be ridiculously bad at keeping the three of us fed. He’ll never live down the time he admonished us, “Don’t think of me as your father. Think of me as the guy who can get you food. Sometimes. If you ask.”

In a way, it was this very incompetence—or, more generously, inconsistency—that helped me develop as a cook in my own right. My dad had this wonderful, generous, teacherly quality where he would invite me to join him, to help out, and together to treat cooking as a fun experiment. Sure, there was an element of Tom Sawyer to this, but maybe all teaching is just tricking someone else into doing it themself. At any rate, it worked. With his guidance, I mastered his style of making tacos.

Then we kept on going. Every other weekend, tacos. More tacos. Summer tacos. Winter tacos. Good tacos. Bad tacos. Tacos. Tacos. Tacos.

Over about a decade we developed and grew our taco technique as collaborators. There were many breakthroughs, like when my sister introduced us to Herdez salsa and Tapatío hot sauce, or my dad’s insight one night that he could melt the cheese right against the pan, caramelizing one side. There were also more gradual refinements, like my own technique of putting pungent aromatics (garlic, onions, jalapeños) directly in that grilling cheese. Together, we decoded how to pan-sear poblano peppers to perfection without choking on capsicum smoke. And then there was the legendary, years-long development of a tofu preparation technique my dad nicknamed “to-fries.”

We ended up with a dish that was complex and satisfying and fun—and all our own. Until my dad went vegan in 2018, we made these with each other every chance we got. And I still make them for myself and my partner a few times a month. They’re not really like any taco I’ve been served in a restaurant, Mexican or otherwise. They’re probably well-described as “Cali-Mex,” though in California we just call Mexican food, well, “Mexican.” Ultimately, they’re the product of one particular family.

Also: they’re devilishly tasty and, once you get the hang of the different steps, pretty quick to make. Try ‘em out. And don’t be afraid to put your own spin on them. I know there’s still more to discover.

Recipe: Henderson-Style Tacos

Makes between three and twenty tacos. Estimate the amounts on everything until you get a feel for what works for you.

Ingredients:

Essential

Soft corn tortillas (king size)
Soft melting/grilling cheese (usually sharp cheddar) Green onions
Spicy, tangy hot sauce (classically Tapatío)
Avocado
Lemon or lime
Butter or cooking oil
Salt

Main Filling (use one or two or all three)

Firm tofu for “tofries”
Black beans (cooked or canned)
Poblano peppers

Optional (depending on mood and season; don’t use all at once)

Tomatoes (especially little ones)
Cilantro
Garlic
Red onion
Salsa (classically Herdez brand in the little cans)
Sour cream
Whole pickled jalapeños in escabeche (preferably La Morena brand)

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1. Turn the heat on under a cast iron.

This, my dad taught me, is the first step of all cooking. Only once the flame is lit do you take the ingredients out of the fridge and begin prepping them.

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2. Get your main filling(s) cooking up:

If using beans, heat them in a pot.

If using poblanos, sear them in the cast iron pan over high heat: coat the hot pan with a bit of high heat oil, place the whole poblanos in the pan, then press them with a weight (I use another cast iron topped by a full water kettle) till they hiss and spit; rotate the peppers every few minutes so that all the sides get charred.

If making “tofries,” cut the firm tofu into extruded squares that are roughly the same dimensions as thick homefries or, say, a long thick Lego brick, then fry in a hot pan coated with high-heat oil (I prefer peanut), carefully flipping so each side becomes golden brown; once the tofries are evenly fried, I like to splash a bit of soy sauce into the hot pan, hastily stirring the tofries around so the sizzling soy sauce kisses each tofry with its salty, umami soyness.

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3. Get your cold ingredients prepped.

As you have a free moment, prepare each cold ingredient so that it’s ready to slip into the prepared tacos at the perfect moment. (This can be done during or even before Step 2 and may continue up to the moment of Step 6; the key is to be in continual, purposeful motion, never idle when there’s a task to be done.)

Slice your green onions into thin-thin medallions, on the bias. If just using a few green onions, start by cutting them into thirds, then consolidate, then slice. (My dad’s trick; it halves the labor.)

Halve or quarter your cherry tomatoes and be sure to follow each tomato’s anatomy, cutting down through where the stem is attached.

Macerate the avocado by making careful slices while the flesh is still in the skin, then squeeze a lemon or lime over it and maybe a pinch of salt. When it’s time to put it in the taco, lift the slices out with a wide spoon.

Crush then mince a clove or two of garlic.

Cut thin slivers of red onion.

Pick cilantro leaves or, if lazy, just whack some off with a knife.

Stick a serving spoon in your sour cream.

Cut pickled jalapeños into thin strips.

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4. Cook the tacos.

Starting with a hot cast iron pan, put a tiny dab of butter or oil in, then arrange three tortillas around the pan so that half of each tortilla is touching the pan’s bottom (the other halves will be sticking up the sides, almost out of the pan). Allow the parts of the tortillas touching the pan to cook and grow golden, then rotate each tortilla 180 degrees and wait for the second half to cook.

Now that one side of each tortilla is cooked, flip the tortillas so the cooked sides face up. (This cooked-first side will form the inside of each taco.)

Now add the cheese along the edge of each tortilla that faces the center of the pan, arranged so that half of the cheese is actually off the tortilla and directly touching the pan. (The cheese from your three tacos will melt together; we’ll fix this in a later step.)

Place your spicy/aromatic ingredients atop the cheese so that as it melts they fall in and cook slightly: green onions, garlic, red onions, pickled jalapeños. Don’t be too precise.

Next add your other warm ingredients, which might include beans, tofries, and pasilla peppers. I usually add my tomatoes at this point too.

NOTE be cautious not to overfill your tacos. Less is more here, and if you’re that hungry just make one more than you were planning to!

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5. Fold your tacos up and finish cooking.

After a minute or two, your cheese will have melted and grilled to your preferred level of golden crispiness where it touched the pan, and it’s time to fold the taco up into something deserving the name. At this point, your cheese will likely have run together. You may have to use a fork and a serrated steak knife to cut the cheese apart. Urse your implements to flip the cheese up onto its taco. (It ends up kind of gluing everything in.) Then, at the same time, close the taco up and flip it over onto the final side that has yet to cook. This side should now be touching the pan.

Cook this final side till golden and crispy, too. Then remove to a plate.

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6. Put the last cold ingredients in the cooked tacos.

You may have to gently crank the tacos open to slip in a slice or two of avocado, a modest dollop of sour cream, and a generous big pinch of cilantro.

Now the tacos must be eaten immediately, from the hand, with a bottle of hot sauce nearby and perhaps also a cold cerveza. Meanwhile, the taco maker will already be deep in the cooking of the next batch, on and on, till everyone has had their fill.

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The way I’ve come to think of these tacos is as big fried dumplings. A neutral dough, wrapping a flavorful filling, fried up and eaten from the hand.

There’s a deeper connection, too. The joy of a dumpling, for me, is the way I can taste the thoughtfulness of the maker, who has put all these ingredients in just the right place and proportion, and has cooked it just so, to guarantee a blissfully perfect bite. That’s especially true of fried dumplings like potstickers or samosas, which require a watchful, tender eye to prevent burning and ensure golden perfection. At their best, that’s what these tacos are, too: condensed care and, yes, love, crunchily giving way to the teeth.

The best dumplings I ever had were in a Christmas light-festooned back alley of Luang Prabang, Lao. (This was around the time I wrote my incomplete “Lost Travelogue.”) I ate in that alley several times that week, in no small part because for about $4 I could gorge on a heaping plate assembled from a long, psychotically laden an all-you-can-eat buffet. The food wasn’t, you know, good, but I was hungry and it did the thing. Even as I ate these massive, mediocre meals, I kept passing by this cart where a Yunnanese man was selling veggie and meat potstickers by the bag: six pieces for the equivalent of $2.50. (From a caloric perspective, a rip-off compared to the buffet.)

I had been sneaking glances at the dumpling cart for the whole week I stayed there, but it was only on my last night I decided to splurge.

The man making them looked to be maybe thirty. He was handsome, with big, smart eyes and strong, pianist’s hands. With his Chinese looks he seemed out of place among all the Lao vendors who staffed the other stalls in the alley.

We talked first in his bad English and then in my bad Chinese. He was a university graduate who had fallen in love with a woman from Luang Prabang and moved there to marry her. But in his new city there were no jobs. So he started his cart. People liked to have a genuine potsticker. And cooking them reminded him of home, which he missed.

I watched him cook. He wielded a pair of long chopsticks, regularly lifting and rotating and testing the dumplings. His focus didn’t waver, even as we talked. He was a true artisan, frying his little dough pouches just so.

When the dumplings were finished—he cooked up batches of thirty at a time—he put my six in a thin little cellophane bag, ladeled some hot pepper oil in, shook it with great precision and restraint, stuck a dainty skewer in the top dumpling, and handed the bag to me.

I started eating from the bag as I walked through the electric city back to my hotel, my mind worrying about packing and emails and what time to leave—the ferry would embark from the outskirts of town at 6:30 the next morning. But then I noticed the dumpling in my mouth, that first bite, and all that chatter in my mind came to a halt. These dumplings demanded my full attention. They were so perfect: the balance of hot and rich and salty and tart flavors, the crispy texture encasing warm soft filling, the wheat of the wrapper, the aroma of star anise and fried dough. Eating them engaged all of the senses, even hearing, through the sound of crisp dough shattering against my teeth. Three dumplings in, I just stopped and squatted on the side of the road and gave myself over to them.

I thought I could taste more than just food—I could taste their cook’s homesickness, his love of his parents, his thwarted ambitions, the way he poured himself into his food cart. It was overwhelming.

When I finished, I walked a few minutes further, and then realized I’d regret not getting another bag. I headed back to the alley.

It was awkward trying to explain why I came back, and I think I embarrassed the vendor, too. It was dark now. He ignored me as he fried up a new batch. My second bag was good, too, and I wolfed it down. But it couldn’t match the ecstasy of the first.

I walked again back in the direction of my hotel. Before going in I smoked a cigarette in the cold night as a rain began to fall. I had to pack my bags. I did need some sort of plan to make it out to the ferry in the morning. But through it all, the taste of those dumplings was with me, that heightened experience. I’m still thinking about it six years later.

When I left the next morning, leaving just enough time to catch the ferry, it was the start of retracing my steps—first back to Thailand, then back to China, then across the ocean back to California. That dumpling cart was about the furthest I ever got from home.

A week or two later, I was back in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I decided to make a special dinner of tacos for the friends I’d made there. I searched the city for tortillas (only found flour ones), beans (dried black beans!), and cheese (surprisingly decent cheddar available…for a price). I went to the fruit market and bought tomatoes and green onions and chili peppers and two different types of avocado, one super tall and skinny, the other simply enormous.

At Li and William and Amelie’s shared house, I took over the kitchen. I made the beans from scratch. I got everything lined up on a cutting board. And then we ate the hell out of some tacos, even as the flour tortillas cracked and came apart in our hands, even as the avocado was strange and leathery, even as there was nothing to use for hot sauce.

I missed home so much, certain moments on that trip, and I tried to be like the dumpling man and pour all that feeling into a bunch of crispy little dumplings for my friends.

My maternal grandfather, Bob Ruffing, died at the beginning of February. He was 93 and led a good long life. It was a natural death, at home. It was also, as death can be, though for whatever reason I didn’t expect it, sad. I missed him. I felt his absence.

Bob was the last of my biological grandparents left on earth, and if there’s something to take solace in it’s the knowledge that I’ll keep thinking about him for the rest of my life—just like I do everyone else I’ve lost.

In a funny way, my love of tacos is one of the things that reminds me of my other bio-grandpa. My dad’s dad’s name was Don Henderson, and he died in 1998. I only really got to know him for a few months, right towards the end. I don’t know if we all ate tacos even once during that visit. My dad and my taco thing really got going a few years later. But last year I was talking with my dad, reflecting on how great our joint taco technique had become, and he said that he wished that his dad had lived long enough to try them.

“Did Grandpa Don like tacos?”

Dad explained that Don was a great appreciator of the taco himself and had indeed been my teacher’s teacher. Grandpa Don’s tacos, he told me, had ground beef in them, and iceberg lettuce, and tomato. They were a white man’s taco of the 1960s. But he was proud of them. He loved tacos. And that love, you could argue, was a beginning place for my dad and my love of tacos. A special, unexpected etymology.

Writing this essay, however, I realized that in fact I did know that tacos were on Grandpa Don’s radar. And that’s because they feature in a scene from the 1969 drive-in classic The Babysitter—the highest-grossing film my grandfather ever directed, and one today usually described, when it’s described, as a standout in the genre of “trashploitation.” And let me tell you, The Babysitter is sleazy as hell. The tagline is, “She Came to Sit With Baby… and Ended Up With Daddy.” There a male-gazy lesbo sauna scene and much inappropriate and overwritten innuendo. It’s also full of deep family lore—too much for any of us to stand watching it. It can be read as a map to old scars.

But that doesn’t concern us here. Instead, just one scene in particular. This is when the sexually frustrated deputy district attorney protagonist establishes the first glimmer of sexual connection with Candy, the hippie babysitter/seductress. He’s decided to drive her home after an evening of babysitting, and at her request they’ve stopped to get… tacos! They sit in the car eating their tacos, and she talks him through his very first experience eating this messy, ethnic-coded cuisine. “So this is what the kids eat,” he says. She tells him to pick his taco up and eat it out of his hand. The camera is outside the car for this, so we’re spared a close-up of the assistant DA messily crunching. But then we do get close, and we see him gaze at Candy longingly, and she says to him, voice sultry, “The light is green. That means you can go.” They drive off.

Grandpa got it! Tacos are sexy. They’re messy. They’re tempting. Certainly they are difficult to eat while driving. Why not put a few in your sexploitation flick?

I’m thankful that Don’s love for tacos was passed down through the generations and reached me, his vegetarian grandson. If I have a kid of my own, I can guarantee that the taco gene will last another generation.

Most of all, though, I’m glad that tacos gave me and my dad a place to bond. We had so many good times bent over his gas range, frying up tofries and trying out something new, discussing what worked and what didn’t and why, and gradually refining our shared technique. Those are sweet memories.

Now when I visit my dad, we work on vegan tacos. I will say, it’s hard without the crispy cheese or the sour cream, the fats that balance and unite the other flavors. We’re clearly due for a breakthrough. Even so, we eat well every time, and we savor each other’s company.

It’s not in search of ultimate mastery that we cook the same foods over and over again. At least not for me. I cook the same foods over and over again because each time I do, I feel a little more whole, a little more connected to yesterday, to yesteryear, to my family and friends and past adventures and, yes, future ones too. When I make tacos, I feel at home.


This essay was originally published on February 26, 2022 as part of Lightplay, a publication available both as a newsletter and as a podcast. Thanks to Hunter Gagnon for editorial help.

Lightplay 016 – Music and Power

+++
From iTunes to Spotify, software shapes our relationship
with music. Is it time to wrest back control?

+++

Let’s start with the positive. By the year 2022 computers have become so powerful, scripting libraries so extensive, cloud servers so cheap, and worldwide distribution so frictionless that there are tens of thousands of folks both with and without computer science degrees who are spending their lives making powerful, useful, and maybe best of all specific software for you and me.

If you haven’t thought to notice the world of boutique software, I bet you use it nonetheless. So many apps on our phones were made by teams as small as a single person. And I, personally, use a lot of this boutique software every day: from the word processor I’m writing this on (iA Writer, on my phone) to my notetaking database (Roam) to my walk tracker (Gaia GPS) to my AI speech transcriber (Otter.ai) to the static website builder I’m teaching myself to use (Hugo). All made by small teams, all indispensable for my specific needs. Most of all, I love how each of these programs is designed for a use that more or less precisely aligns with my own needs.

Alas, some software needs to do lots of things for many different users, and requires big teams to develop, and evolves over decades. This is how we get Word and Photoshop and Facebook. Big apps run by giant companies, often unwieldy, yet found by many users to be indispensable.

The app that, when I tally it up, I’ve probably used the most over the last five years is one of this second sort: Spotify. The world’s biggest music streaming service; the biggest thing to come out of Sweden since ABBA.

When I first purchased a subscription to this service, I found Spotify’s offer—to put every song in the world at my fingertips—to be intoxicating. I could listen to anything! Someone would recommend a song to me, and I’d be streaming it literally moments later! Truly, it was the golden age of music listening.

And yet, over the years I began to sour on Spotify. I found it—not exactly hard to use—but hard not to use the way Spotify wanted me to use it, namely through potted playlists and algorithmic discovery tools. I started to suspect that as much as I was using the software, the software was using me. And as I looked inward, I realized that I had shifted from being a music nerd into, perhaps you’d call it, a music consumer.

As soon as I realized this, I hated it.

A few months ago, I decided to quit Spotify, and I began looking for a different tool that, though it might have its own flaws, would be less infantilizing and more empowering. In the sweep of world events or even of my life this was a small change, but I want to tell you about it. I think it’s a story of how a tool can end up trying to use us for its own purposes—and, just maybe, how we can resist.

The first time I ever saw Spotify in action was in 2009, in a radio booth under a Harvard freshman dorm. I had just joined WHRB, the campus radio station, and part of the process of joining was that I had to propose an orgy. Don’t get too excited; at WHRB, orgy season was the way we handled the end of each semester, when finals messed up everyone’s schedules and meant we needed to fill air time with something else. That something else was “orgies”—4- to 150-hour-long play-throughs of all the music in some singular category. A Brahms orgy set up by the classical music department would try to play every scrap of music the German Romantic ever wrote. A Blue Note orgy set up by the Jazz Spectrum (the department I was joining) would try to play every album we could find released on that famous New Jersey record label. But DJs were also encouraged to propose their own orgies, and new members were required to do so, as part of joining. So I proposed that we play the discographies of every musician who appeared in the Jim Jarmusch film Coffee and Cigarettes: namely, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, the White Stripes, and GZA and RZA of the Wu Tang Clan.

Most first-time orgy pitches were rejected, but mine was accepted and assigned a 12am-6am slot on four consecutive nights. I was surprised, and a little worried, too. Not only did I barely know how to run the sound boards, I had no idea how I would find the CDs we would need, and furthermore I had 23 hours to fill. So much airtime for one nervous sophomore!

Luckily, my two favorite juniors bailed me out. Hyper-competent Isaac—who ran the tech department, had the physical charisma of Sufjan Stevens, and who once I spotted at a street party prancing about on spring-loaded, four-foot stilts—had long ago torrented the entire Tom Waits discography. He offered with real enthusiasm to spend a night playing it straight through. He also had the full White Stripes and Iggy Pop discogs, which he loaded on a flash drive for me.

But what about JZA and RZA? The answer was less forthcoming. No one seemed to have their discography downloaded. I was far too cash-strapped to spend hundreds of dollars buying their music on the iTunes Store. And pirating was off the table, too: Harvard sent out monthly emails letting us know that we would be summarily expelled if we were caught running BitTorrent software on their computer networks.

I was well into the realm of panic when I was rescued by Tova, the director of the Jazz Spectrum, who studied astrophysics and also multiple times a week trekked out to esoteric venues around Boston to listen to music I’d never heard of. (I once tagged with her to an all-acoustic Jonathan Richman set, not having a clue in the world who he was.) Tova showed up at midnight the fourth night of the orgy with her laptop, plugged it into the soundboard, and opened up a program called Spotify. All the Wu Tang albums were right there, listed out. With a click, she began playing one. And for the next six hours we played the rest, exactly in the order we wanted, with no ads interfering, with no interruption, no problems at all. We completed the orgy. We’d been saved, as if by a miracle.

Of course I asked Tova if I could get in on this amazing software. But it was still two years before Spotify would launch in the US. If I recall, she explained to me how she had finagled an invite to the UK subscription, and she was running a VPN to mask her location. Getting Spotify was a bit of a task. And I ultimately didn’t jump through all the hoops. After all, I hardly had $10 a month to spare—and, more importantly, I was pretty happy with my big ol’ iTunes library.

My big ol’ iTunes library. I’d been building it since I was twelve. It grew through little drips, an imported CD here, a pirated album there, but also in big gulps, like the time George let me use some sketchy software to rip hundreds of full albums off his iPod, or when Abraham let me copy over his entire music library before I went off to college. (Naturally I let him copy mine, too.) When my first girlfriend Molly made me a mix CD full of Björk tracks, I promptly imported it, inputting the song titles and artist names by hand, off her handwritten liner notes. I grew my library however I could.

Getting new music was thrilling, back then. When I got something new and unexpected, I could hardly wait to get home and listen. With each new track, there was the possibility that I would fall in love all over again.

Part of what made iTunes great was its library navigation tool called the “column browser.” This let me filter my way through my library first by genre, then by artist, then by album.

Throughout middle school, high school, college, and into young adulthood, this was how I listened to music: I considered what genre I wanted to listen to, then decided on an artist in that genre and picked out an album. I’d select “jazz” as my genre and then scroll through the list of artist names. I might think, Hmm, I haven’t listened to Cannonball Adderley in a while. And I’d put on Somethin’ Else, an album I’d listened to dozens and dozens of times since my mom’s friend Glenn gave me a burned copy when I was 13 and just starting to play alto saxophone in the high school’s jazz band.

I loved listening to full albums. An album was like a portal into the world of a band and their sound and their sensibility. Some Friday nights Abraham would come over, and I’d put on CSNY’s So Far, and we’d lay on the rug in the dark, letting the whole thing was over us like an ablution.

Of course I also made playlists, and my friends sometimes gave me playlists, too. But the dominant way I listened to music was album by album. I really got to know dozens and dozens of my favorite albums, and I really did build something deserving of the name library. My music library was well-cataloged, and I, its librarian, knew my collection well. It was partly through listening to and building out this library that I developed my sense of taste.

Then I dropped it all for Spotify. The Swedish streaming giant’s software had been available in the US since 2011, but it took me till 2016 to try it out. When I did, I hardly looked by.

Spotify was amazing in many ways. Obviously the main way was simply in the endlessness of the music I could access. It was as if I had traded the CD folio in my car for an entire Tower Records. If I wanted to listen to a song, I just typed it into the search bar, and there it was, and I played it. That simple.

It also amazed me how the software helped me find new music that was similar to what I already liked. Spotify served up a customized-to-me playlist every single week with thirty songs its algorithms thought I would like. And, especially at the start, I really did like many of them. I found tons of new music. I would save tracks I particularly liked onto playlists with names like “July 2020” and “SPRING JAZZ.”

Spotify became my daily companion, and as the years went by I found myself listening to more and more playlists. I’d listen to my “Discover Weekly” but also to genre-based algorithmic playlists and playlists made by friends. My friend Axel made a great playlist called “YES COLLUSION” that I loved; I found a great mix of Brazilian capoeira music made by some random user; I listened on repeat to “Played by Jamie xx.”

By the start of the 2020s, my favorite recent music was almost all just tracks, not albums. But that was okay. Often when I went searching for the albums my favorite tracks were off, it turned out they were just singles. The album had never been released in the first place.
 

RIP – The Album – 1948 – 2013

A problem with playlists is that they shear away their songs’ contexts. And without context, it can become hard to even hold onto a band’s name.

This is how it often goes for me: A song tickles my ear, I put it on my current playlist, and it becomes part of the mood of the month. Then I tire of it and start a new playlist. Soon I only hear that song if I go back and play an old playlist. The song fades from memory. And all of this happens without me ever even really noticing the artist’s name or wondering who they are, what else they’ve done.

This problem is exponentially worse when your mechanism for discovering new music is no longer music blogs or record store clerk recommendations or friends’ playlists but instead, playlists generated “for you” by a Fortune 500 company’s algorithm. At first, it’s amazing—how did you never know of these songs that sound so much like the songs you love? But there are diminishing returns. The algorithm runs out of things to recommend that sound similar to what you already like. It starts recommending the same songs over and over. And slowly you realize that it has been pandering to your taste, rather than expanding or challenging it.

That’s bad enough, but this fall I learned something much worse: Spotify has been auctioning off spots on its algorithmic playlists. Spots on its “made for you” playlists are being sold to the highest bidder. (Read more in this great WIRED article.) This dystopian remix of the old payola system where labels paid radio stations to spin their songs goes further than the original, making a promise to me that it will provide recommendations customized to my taste while in reality furnishing my ears for sale to a paying record label.

This all on a service that, I remind you, I pay for.

It’s like that meme:
         In Soviet Russia, TV watch you!

Spotify’s version is both lamer and more dystopian:
         In late capitalism, music software sell you to record label!

I don’t know about you, but this kind of corporate chicanery makes my blood boil. It’s so disrespectful of my time. And it’s such a breach of the deal I thought I was making with the company I pay. It’s bullshit.

So I decided to quit. Which forced me to go looking for another music streaming service. I checked out Tidal and Qobuz. But for now, the service I’m using is actually a modern take on an old friend: iTunes reborn as a streaming service, now known (tragically) as Apple Music.

The best thing about Apple Music is that it is designed in such a way as to encourage you to use the library metaphor. Just like in the old iTunes. Except that here you have unlimited access to basically all music ever made. You browse through this unending catalog in the “Apple Music” section of the app. But unlike with Spotify, in this software when something catches your fancy you click the little “+Add” button, and it then appears among the albums stored in the “Library” section of the app.

You’re not forever wandering the Tower Records, trying to remember what you liked. Instead, you just take what you like and add it to your collection, your personal library.

Additionally, the column browser is back! For me, this is the ultimate tool for navigating a big, personalized library of music. And after all, a serious librarian needs to have a good card catalog.

I’m much happier with the switch than I thought I would be. Ultimately, I feel like it’s put me back in control of my music habits. I’m listening to full albums a lot more. I’m returning to artists I loved long ago. And now when I set out to find new music, it’s easier to keep the artists I find close to hand in the days and months after discovery. I find that I have a much better chance of really getting to know them.

Another small thing: the default setting is that albums end when they end. There’s none of this “Spotify will keep playing similar music forever and ever” garbage. Instead, throughout my day I now find myself in that most blissful of states: deep silence. And if I consciously decide that I want more music, I just take a minute and pick something else out to put on.

Of course nothing is perfect, and this software has its flaws. It’s weirdly sluggish, especially with search. It’s impossible to enlarge album art, and when you try to do so by double-clicking the art, you trigger the mini-player, from which it’s then difficult to switch back to the full-size player. Playlists insist on sorting alphabetically. Non-user-generated playlists can’t be nested in folders. The logo is ugly.

But these are small problems compared to my problems with Spotify. Ultimately, I want software that empowers me. Apple Music does a better job of that than any other streaming software I’ve tried.

This whole process has reminded me of another epoch in my relationship with recorded music. This was a single summer when I was an awkward thirteen-year-old living for the school vacation with my dad. I really wanted to explore music, so I tried to convince him to give me money to buy music off iTunes. I think he gave me twenty bucks. I blew it on a subpar Sublime album and one song by Gorrillaz.

I wasn’t satisfied, so next I tried to convince him to let me download LimeWire, the successor to Napster, on the family computer. If I couldn’t buy music, maybe I could steal it.

He refused. He wanted a DMCA summons no more than Harvard did.

We settled on a middle ground: a sketchy iTunes Music Store clone hosted on a Russian URL and called something like cheaptunes.ru. Its catalog wasn’t as extensive as the original, but it was pretty darned big. And it had one main differentiating factor on its side: every song cost $.10 to download. This, we both more or less knew, was because we were dealing with criminals. But for whatever reason we couldn’t resist it, and I spent the summer buying albums for $1.50 a pop on his credit card. It felt amazing, every time I added a new album and listened to it. It was ownership and at the same time it was supremely affordable. It was like being rich.

I remember downloading the Magnetic Fields’s big album off that Russian website, and the entire Modest Mouse discography, and Sting’s Brand New Day. I listened to those albums over and over and over. As I listened, though, I sometimes felt pangs of remorse. I knew I’d done a bad thing, I’d stiffed these bands I loved. I felt like a jerk.

And here we are, not twenty years later, using streaming services that pay the labels only a small fraction of what I once considered highway robbery. When I stream a song, Spotify pays $.0032 per stream, while Apple Music pays only $.0056. Even on the more generous of the two, I have to play a song twenty times before they get a single dime. It doesn’t seem right.

Writing this all out, the conclusion I’ve come to is that one profoundly flawed system has replaced another. Today, an amazing riches of music is available to everyone, but artists, especially smaller acts, get royally screwed. I think of Tamaryn, at the beginning of the pandemic, taking a job at an Amazon warehouse to pay the bills.

That’s where we’re at as a society. The people walking away with the money are Spotify (worth $40B) and Apple (worth $3T). Meanwhile, most artists work day jobs, creating this whole thing out of love and ambition and passion and sheer willpower. And often they give up. Or are too tired to go on. I can’t help but imagine how much richer our musical culture would be if tens of thousands more people could afford to be musicians full time. It’s not like our society—the richest in the history of our species—couldn’t afford to do it. (And hell, we basically did, a generation ago, at the height of the CD, and that despite the labels taking home the lion’s share of the money.)

I have to believe that something better is possible. A decade from now, I hope we have a new streaming platform. I imagine it would be a platform worthy of the name. Collectively owned and truly customizable, software geeks could build all sorts of apps on top of it, artists could use it to truly connect with their listeners, and niche communities could find ways to flourish and mutate and grow. Rather than a few companies dominating, there would be an anarchy of different players and approaches.

Until then, though, I doing the least I can: I’m canceling my Spotify account. For now, I’m using Apple Music, and I recommend you do the same.

(Thank you to Hunter Gagnon for helping edit this essay. This essay was originally featured in Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive Lightplay in your email inbox, subscribe here.)

Lightplay 015 – Espresso

Dear Reader —

What does it mean to be a self? Where does the self end and the world of not-me begin? Is identity … an illusion?

I imagine a three-panel comic, each frame zooming in on the face of a very confused man: me, Jasper, your loyal if intermittent correspondent, head-scratchily toiling over another installment of Lightplay, my newsletter about home cooking, the writing life, and—apparently—intractable philosophical questions.

Welcome to your late summer Lightplay! Please stay; I promise not to get too worked up over eternal questions of life.

Maybe it’s just been one of those weeks where I feel extra connected to the rest of humanity, the rest of planet earth. And not for joyous reasons, alas. Between the IPCC’s reiteration of the profound fuckedness of our climate emergency and the painful end of a war that began two-thirds of my lifetime ago, it’s been a long week. By Tuesday, my partner and I made a pact not to read the news the rest of the week. But still, the weltschmerz lay heavy on my heart.

So I went for a swim with an old friend who was visiting from out of town. In the Pacific: the biggest ocean in the world, and the most beautifully named. We splashed in the waves, dove under them. A million tiny bubbles. A single seal snoring some distance down the beach. Kids boogie boarding. Out beyond the breakers, a pelican splash-dove. A big wave crested. I jumped in with it, body surfing for a second, then tumbling, salt water shooting up my nose. Breaking the surface. Feeling like a seal myself. Laughing. We sat on the margin where the waves rush up the sand. Listening to the surf’s soft susurrus. Forgetting everything else.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re doing well, staying safe, and, if that’s what you need, taking yourself to the beach, getting in the water. It’s been a hard week.

A picture of a tiny, green espresso cup and saucer, the cup full of black espresso.

I want to rap at you about espresso. Did you know that espresso is really good? Maybe I just think this because drip coffee makes me feel hollow and insane, while this concentrated coffee extract makes me feel sharp and warm and extra awake. I don’t know why that is, but I do know that I love espresso. 

I don’t mean bad espresso of course, that bitter sludge that one is often served at non-coffee-snob cafes. I mean the coffee snob stuff, obvi. 

The amazing thing is that you can make yourself coffee-snob-level espresso at home in under five minutes, with just a few (awesome) tools and a little practice. It’s really satisfying. Let me pitch it to you.

An image of a moka pot

I. Meet the Moka Pot

Beyond how delicious espresso is, getting to use the ingenious and, frankly, steampunk contraption known as a moka pot is a big part of why at-home espresso rules.

This device was invented in 1933 by an Italian named Alfonso Bialetti. It uses the laws of physics to push hot water through coffee grounds at a rate over which you have significant control. The way it works is that you fill the lowest chamber, the “boiler,” partway with water. Then you fill the next component up (a funnel) with coffee grounds, tamped down just so. When you screw all the pieces together and light a flame under the moka pot, the expanding water vapor eventually creates enough pressure in the lower chamber that it steadily forces the water up through the funnel, through the coffee grounds, and up a further tower up to where it spills into the upper chamber, as espresso. Magic!

An illustration showing the different chambers of a moka pot and how they work.

NB: Should you become interested in making your own espresso in a moka pot, I recommend that you get a beautiful stainless steel one, rather than one of the ubiquitous (and, I’ll admit, iconically faceted) aluminum models. Aluminum, unfortunately, is a reactive element that will both corrode over time and will leach into your espresso. Yuck! Happily, there are many stainless models available today. (Thank you Virginia for giving me my treasured moka pot almost a decade ago!)

A diptych showing on the left side beans in a coffee grinder and on the right a freshly compacted moka pot bowl.

II. The Three ‘Spresso Skills

Before I discuss the three things you can control in making espresso, can I just quickly say that I have come around to loving the way that some coffee joints call this sacred elixir “expresso”? I suspect my view is unpopular, but I think this purposeful misspelling is playful and silly and fun.

Okay, the three skills:

Grinding    The size of the grind will determine how much surface area the coffee has, which in turn will dictate how easy or difficult it is for water to move through the coffee. For espresso, you want a really fine grind. But you also want it to be even, and this is really important for the coffee to extract evenly. There are many ways to achieve a good grind—the most obvious is buying a proper burr grinder. I do fine though with my $10 spinning-blade grinder. I shake it up and down as I depress the button, and I also pulse it on and off so the blade hopefully doesn’t heat the grounds too much. I don’t know if this makes a difference, but it works for me. What really makes a difference, I think, is that I’m always feeling the grounds with my fingers, looking at them, and generally trying to pay attention, noticing what works and what doesn’t.

TampingThis is the step where you compress the grounds into a perfectly dense puck in the funnel. The failure states are pretty obvious: no tamping at all and the water will create channels through the grounds by which it can avoid touching the coffee at all; too much tamping and the water will struggle to pass through and will end up over-extracting the grounds and making a bitter sludge. To tamp properly, you really do need a tamper. Luckily it’s a relatively cheap device. Once you have it, you just have to experiment and keep track of what works. I try to softly, evenly pack grounds across the funnel, then I push down firmly but not strongly (if that makes sense) with the tamper, rotating it as I go and trying to keep it level. Again, this is a skill built through making attempts and then reflecting on how it worked out as you slurp the results.

Heat Regulation    Deciding how much heat to apply to the boiler is the last decision you make that will determine the success or failure of your stovetop espresso. If the flame is too high, the water will erupt through the grounds with a great deal of pressure, it’ll probably channelize, and the espresso will be both watery and bitter. Too low and it will take minutes for it to come through the coffee, over which time the coffee will overextract. The good news is, once the espresso starts dribbling out the top, you can always adjust the heat. You want the finished espresso liquid to come steadily but not gushingly out of the tower and into the top chamber. If it’s coming too fast, quickly turn down your heat. Too slow, turn it up a tad. We have a gas range here in LA, and I find that a low flame—low but not quite as low as it will go—works best.

A close-up show of the flame under a moka pot.

III. Other Considerations

Picking Out Your Coffee    In general, I tend to want a darker roast for espresso than for drip coffee. With lighter roasts, this brewing method tends to emphasize the bitterness. An espresso roast on the other hand will be darker, more balanced, and often a bit chocolatey. Lately, like a true arriviste Angeleno, I’ve been loving David Lynch’s A-Plus Organic Espresso.

A triptych showing a bag of David Lynch Signature Coffee, then a still from Mulholland Drive of a man sipping an espresso, and then the third images is from the same film but that man is spitting the espresso out onto a napkin.

Serving Espresso in a Nice Cup    A key pleasure of espresso sipping is the little shrunken cup it comes in. The collapse of scale is delightful—and it’s important, too, to be able to brim-fill your vessel. After drinking espresso from an espresso cup, you will be horribly disappointed to return to drinking your potent but not voluminous decoction from a big ol’ mug. Don’t do it! Instead get yourself a special little sweetheart of an espresso cup.

Adding Milks    Okay, philistine, let’s talk about the other espresso drinks: cappuccino, latte, macchiato, mocha, americano, red eye, affogato, and, uhhh… flat white? I still have no idea what that last one is. But for the others, this espresso is perfect! Add to boiling water, fresh brewed coffee, or over dense vanilla ice cream to make an americano, red eye, or affogato. And for the drinks that use milks, I heartily recommend getting a heating-frothing machine—a magical device in which cold milk becomes perfectly hot and insanely frothy. (This is the one we have.) I used to use a stovetop steamer but this baby is way less scary and less of a hassle. Just add your milk, press the button, and then combine it with the espresso in an appropriate vessel. (For cappuccino, I love a real wide bowl, so I can easily eat the foam!)

An array of six images. The top row shows ice cream being made in a stand mixer, then ice cream scooped into a tiny bowl, and then espresso being poured over the ice cream. The lower row show espresso being poured into a wide cup and saucer, milk being poured in, and finally rich pillowy foam.

And that’s that on that. Do be in touch if you’re setting out on your moka pot journey and have any questions or need for hand-holding. I think you’ll eventually love making coffee this way. For me, the ritual of packing my moka pot and waiting for the espresso to burble out is one of my favorite and most relaxing moments of the day.

A shot peering down into the moka pot as the last espresso comes out into the basin.

That’s it for this installment of Lightplay. Thank you for spending some minutes with me, your far-flung friend who is… just another part of the grand organism that is humanity, the whole of double-helix life on earth, the unity of the galaxy, universe, multiverses, and more. Here’s one part of the whole, wishing all the other parts well. Catch you next week.

Jasper
22 August 2021

Lightplay 14 – Utopian Proposals

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

Hello and welcome back to Lightplay, the big email of your faithful if intermittent correspondent Jasper Luna Nighthawk. (Who was until recently named Jasper Nighthawk Henderson.) I’m delighted to return to your inbox, and I hope that wherever you’re reading these words, you and your family and friends are safe and doing okay. Happy Mother’s Day!

Here in Los Angeles, I’m spurred to write again by the blossoming jacarandas. Every May and June, these Brazilian trees produce luscious, thick-petaled purple blossoms—blossoms that bloom profusely, thousands per tree, a riot of purple. They epitomize the phrase, ‘embarrassment of riches.’ You’d have to be a stone-cold celibate not to blush a little, looking at the lovely sex organ of a street tree in late spring.

However that’s not the reason why the jacaranda across the street made me want to write to you, my sweet dear readers. Instead, it was remembering how when I sent the first installment in this run of big emails, I included in that one a picture of this same tree, in riotous bloom, just about a year ago. In that photo the tree is backdropped by the artificial bumblebee yellow of the panels that clad the building under construction behind it. A year on, that building has just been stuccoed in an off-white plaster. The scene’s composition, as framed by my office window across the street, is no longer quite as striking. But the jacaranda, indifferent, hoists its purple raiment just as before.

Though not quite as enthusiastically as last year.

The workmen have been hard at work, the tree has been hard at work, and so have I. This last year has been by far the busiest in my life as a writer so far. I just write all of the time now, like a maniac.

Which is great! It’s what I wanted!

But it’s also, you know, intense to abruptly succeed in turning your passion into a full-time job. I imagine a musician might feel the same way if they suddenly got work five days a week in a late-night comedy show band. Or a painter might feel this way if they got a multi-year commission to create dozens of municipal murals.

These examples come to mind because while I do now work full-time as a writer, I’m not precisely writing chatty newsletters for a living or—that holy grail—paying the bills by writing novels. My job title is ‘University Storyteller,’ and I work for my MFA alma mater, Antioch University. I now spend my days writing alumni profiles, reporting out news around the school, editing pieces by freelancers and work-studies, and producing and hosting a faculty interview podcast.

It’s interesting, engaging, difficult, and often satisfying work. And I have health insurance! Dental! Paid time off! This is what parents wish for their children.

Like a shift in latitude, it’s revealed a different constellation of problems in my life: how to find time to cook and clean, how to use vacation time to see family but also to recharge and keep from burning out, and how to make sure we hit next month’s metrics. (The dread metrics!) But maybe the hardest thing is figuring out how to sustain my own art, how to keep writing and working on my own projects.

For the last half-year, this big email has lost out in that negotiation. But now we’re back, baby. I’m really happy to be here in your inbox. And I’m excited to move to a model of sending this out quarterly or so. It’s going to be good. This ain’t no Substack. It’s low-fi social media. Welcome to your spring Lightplay. Thank you for joining me here.

There’s an essay that I think you should read. It’s called “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” and was written by David Treuer. The essay’s central idea is exactly what the title says. Here’s Treuer expanding his thesis just a bit:

“For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks. They should be returned to us. Indians should tend—and protect and preserve—these favored gardens again.”

But the essay is more than just that. Its shape is part history lesson, part pandemic travelogue (along a remarkably similar route to the road trip I took last summer), and part proposal for a new way we could do things. I love this. Why don’t more essays include utopian proposals?

What makes this essay so important to me is the way it travels roads of thought I’ve glimpsed before but never pursued in my own writing: Are America’s national parks creepily empty? Does the concept of wilderness have white supremacist roots? And what wounds remain from the violently displacement of so many people from their land?

Treuer is a great writer and thinker. He’s also Indigenous—he’s Ojibwe, from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota—and his senses are sharp to different things than are mine. To read the essay is to take a trip in another person’s car, mind, history—and possible future, too.

So go read it! Can I encourage you any more? Here’s the link one more time.

Okay, now that you’ve read it—or have ignored my entreaties and vowed never to—I can add my own thoughts. Which, I’m always trying to be more honest with myself as a writer, and to be frank I just don’t think I’m a great polemicist. Nobody opens a Lightplay thinking, Can’t wait, I’m gonna get my fix of political thought. You all are here for some other reason. Not sure what it is. But it ain’t for the hot political takes.

I suspect that part of what I am well-suited to is writing from life: thought embedded in experience. That after all is part of what makes Treuer’s essay so great. We love abstraction, but then we spend our days thinking with our bodies, as they move through time and space. The road trip essay, as a genre, is great because it’s embodied.

So rather than philosophize to excess, instead I present here two experiences from my own life, two moments that impressed me deeply at the time—and that have clicked into a new understanding since I read Treuer’s essay. Each occurs in a specific place and time.

I. Snow Mountain Wilderness Area, Lake County, 2014

In the late spring, I went with my partner at the time for a three-night backpacking trip around Snow Mountain, a peak just north of Clear Lake, in the Mendocino National Forest. It’s a beautiful, austere place to take a hike in the woods: broad hillsides covered in hardy wildflowers, dim paths through pines, pocket views of the lake gleaming far down below, and there were even wind-carved drifts of snow at the blustery summit. (In this part of California’s Coastal Ranges, the regular presence of snow is notable enough to give the mountain its name.) We dosed streamwater with tiny iodine pellets and then waited an hour before drinking. Each night, we stuffed our food into our sleeping bags’ stuff sacks, which I raised like piñatas into the understory. But we didn’t see any bears.

To be honest, we barely saw any animal bigger than a songbird. I think we spooked some deer one day. And there might have been ducks in the pond we slept by the first day. But the mountains felt empty.

And I think they felt particularly empty because the year before we had been in northern India, exploring the foothills of the Himalayas, which are many things but never really empty. On the day hike from Dharamsala up to Triund, you come around a bend, parched, only to find someone with a kettle, selling tiny cups of chai masala for a handful of rupees. And then around another bend there’s a small stone house, built into a crease in the steep, rocky slope, where you can get a bowl of noodles. If you make it a few more hours up to the pass, it’s mostly wind-swept rock, but there are also some tents, pitched and ready to be rented.

Yes, this is all capitalism—dirty commerce, spoiling nature. But also: the hills are lively. They are full of life. They don’t hold just ‘wild’ nature, but also humans. There’s something wonderful about it. And in my experience, this thing where beautiful, wild landscapes include humans doing human things isn’t just true in touristy Dharamsala. In remote Tibetan valleys or in the grassy foothills of the Tian Shan mountains in Xinjiang, you regularly cross paths with herders and pilgrims. You often find them at little restaurants or small monasteries, or maybe on the front steps of a general store. The landscape is often profoundly beautiful, but it’s also just home to people who live there and are going about their lives. It’s a different relationship with nature, and often people are interacting with the land in similar ways to how their ancestors did many generations ago.

This is not the case in the Snow Mountain Wilderness Area. And you can tell. The mountains feel lonely, pristine, almost like a ruins. As we walked through them, I was haunted by the idea that for thousands of years this had been a lively place. But not anymore.

On our third day, the obvious place to camp was near Bloody Rock, up in the oak woodlands above Lake Pillsbury, a man-made reservoir. But before the trip, I’d looked up how Bloody Rock got its name. The answer is not pretty: it was the site of an 1860’s massacre of about sixty-five men, women, and children of the Yuki tribe. A small group of armed ranchers had chased them to the rocky outcropping and then killed every last one of them. According to the internet, the bodies were never buried and lay exposed for many years.

Instead of camping there, we walked late into the evening, trying to get far away from the history of this empty place. And the next day, we pushed to get back to the car, not wanting to spend another night sleeping in the empty hills. We blasted the Mountain Goats as we drove away, and we never went camping there again.

Now, having read “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” I am seeing that the emptiness of what the U.S. government calls “Wilderness Areas” isn’t just a consequence of my culture’s genocidal past. It’s also a choice that we as a country keep on making, year after year: the decision to keep these places empty of the people who lived there first. It’s a choice we could make differently.

II. Tahquitz Canyon, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation, 2021

Not all of the beautiful and wild corners of this country are administered by the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service, though. In a handful of precious places, the future that Treuer describes is already here. Take the lush oases and austere desert canyons administered by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. It’s located just a five-minute drive south of Palm Springs, this beautiful corner of California is open to the public year-round—though in the blazing hot summers, only Fri-Sat-Sun. You pay a modest entrance fee, get a map, and then you’re free to explore its extensive trails, visit its gift shop, or do whatever else you want to do.

This winter, my partner, her dad, and I walked far up one of the park’s canyons. We followed a small stream through lush groves of California Fan Palm, the only palm tree native to our state. The old fallen-off fronds, deliberately uncleared, made a thick litter under the palms. Smoking was absolutely prohibited, and still, many older palms had fire scars on their trunks. Further up the canyon, the stream went underground and we were once again in sere desert. Where the way narrowed, we scrambled up smooth-rock channels, the granite eroded by eons of flash floods into Brancusi swoops and swirls. The air was hot and dry and faintly perfumed with creosote. Larry took his shirt off.

Eventually we realized that it was too late in the afternoon to make it all the way around the loop trail, so we turned back and retraced our steps. We took more photographs. Saw a lizard. Shook a pebble from my shoe. By the time we got back to the car, we were filled with the beauty of the desert, knew more about the place’s past, and were hungry for dinner.

So Tahquitz Canyon is just like a National Park or Wilderness Area, right?

Well, not quite. For one, there’s no campground. The park closes promptly at 5pm every day, and signs threaten that cars left overnight will be towed. You are a guest. It’s expected that you treat the place with respect.

Other differences are more subtle. There are dozens and dozens of miles of trails, leading wherever you might want to go, linking and looping and well-marked. This contrasts with Joshua Tree National Park, down the road, which generally has just a single trail for each area. The picnicking area is also uncommonly clean and thoughtfully laid out; there’s a feeling of personal touch and pride of ownership. There are some old-style woven dwellings that kids enjoy exploring, and these are in good repair. A hand-dug little irrigation canal—to demonstrate historic agricultural techniques—is in good repair. Instead of being a pastiche of log cabin and logging camp, the architecture is simple and even a bit modernist. Instead of using a font chosen by bureaucrats in Washington, DC, the trail signs are stylishly local.

These are little things, and I don’t mean to trash the National Park Service, which I think is filled with people who love nature and want to make the parks a nice place to visit. It’s just that in Tahquitz Canyon there’s a pride and personality to the human elements. The place feels loved and lived-in.

Maybe my favorite part is the concessions shack. A big open window in the side of the gift shop building sells water, chips, hot dogs, trail mix. Nothing elaborate; just goodies you might want to stick in your fanny pack and eat out on the trail. There is none of the corporate-lunch-counter ugliness of the National Parks cafeterias, no long line, no complex point-of-sale system. The craziest thing: nothing is overpriced. The concessions feel less like a profit center for a park management company called Xanterra and more like a service tailored to the needs and desires of park guests.

Tahquitz Canyon is a relatively small park, but I’ve only walked maybe 3% of its trails. I can’t wait to return. The place just has a different vibe from government-run outdoor spaces. I only wish there were more parks like it. And maybe there will be soon—if we as a country can gather the bravery and resolve to return the National Parks to the tribes.

Find more shots in my latest gallery: Desert, March 2021

Three Film Recommendations

1. Bacurau, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, 132 minutes. (Available for rent on streaming services.)

If the history of Bloody Rock rightly curdles your blood, you might enjoy exploring those feelings—along with possibilities for Indigenous resistance—through this 2019 thriller from Brazil. The film is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, but I think I was delighted most by its continual inventiveness. It kept surprising me right up to the end. Which is why I don’t want to say too much more, to spoil any of it. Bacurau is both bloody and deeply political, but it left me feeling smarter, more alive, and creatively nourished.

2. “The Story of ‘It Wasn’t Me’ by Shaggy,” dir. Dan Zabludovsky, 26 minutes. (Available for free on Youtube.)

This is the second episode of a series by Vice, posted on Youtube, called ‘The Story of…’ There’s a bit of a formula to this show. Each of its five episodes explores, oral-history style, the circumstance that led to the creation of a hit song: moments of inspiration, conflict with A&R guys, big emotions, twists and turns, stupid crushes, drug problems, and then, every time, world-beating success. Strangely, each of these hits comes from a quite specific couple of years: 1999-2001.

This happens to be when I first started listening to music on my own, and watching each episode I remember each song so clearly: “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, “Last Resort” by Papa Roach, “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton. The songs are so much of their time, and remembering this lost age of two decades ago is deeply transporting. None of it is to be missed, and definitely not the deep dive into “Thong Song” by Sisqo, where he just says some amazing things about the genesis of that piece:

“And for the first time in my life I saw a thong—or what was expressed to me as a thong. I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that it was glorious. I was at a loss for words. I was like, “What? What is… what is this? What is that? What is this?” She was like, “you know, like a G-string; a thong,” and I was like “ow! it’s called a thong?” Pretty much, I don’t even remember what happened for the rest of that night because I could not wait to get back, you know, like around my friends and tell them of this glorious material that I witnessed.

But the episode that moved me the most was the one about “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy. I first heard this song on my eleventh birthday. These other sixth-grade boys I was trying to fit in with had come over for a sleep-over, and one of them gave me the Shaggy album Hotshot, and I put on my new walkman, and I just couldn’t stop listening to this song. It had lyrics so dirty (“banging on the bathroom floor”) and emotionally wound-up (“Yo man / open up, man / my girl just caught me”) and ridiculously bravadocious (“Say it wasn’t you”), and they matched so well with its sick groove and Shaggy’s unique style of Jamaican dancehall sing-rapping. I’d never heard anything like it before. I loved it.

That night, the social dynamics of my birthday party eventually became overwhelming. So without saying anything, I just got in my sleeping bag and put on my headphones and put this song on repeat. I disappeared into it. Its vibe, its world—they let me in like a bath.

It must have been two or three in the morning when I slowly realized several of the other boys were crouched around me, lifting the foam ear-pads off my ears, laughing. They had found out that I had this one song stuck on repeat. It was hilarious. But I wasn’t cut in on the joke. It was, I realized, at my expense. I tried to defend myself. I insisted that I didn’t really like the song. It was just, I explained, it was interesting. I was trying to understand it. But they wouldn’t let it go. My blubbering just made it funnier. I’m sure I blushed as deep a shade of red as there is. Vermillion? Crimson? I don’t remember what happened after that. Did I cry? Did I try to laugh along? How did I ever get back to sleep?

The next morning, I vowed never listened to Shaggy again. I’d change the song if it came on. I convinced myself that I really, truly didn’t like it. And my intention stuck. I never willingly listened to Shaggy again.

It was another year before I figured out that those boys weren’t the friends for me, and in so many ways that decision to break up with them set the course of my life to who I am now. But even as I stopped trying to fit in, I never reclaimed Shaggy. It wasn’t till this week, in 2021, as I was watching this little film, that my scar around this song began to heal. Shaggy, I now see, was never a true avatar of those boys who refused to accept me. He was always something else, though I just didn’t know or was blind to see: he was a force for good, a thoughtful artist with a strange and expressive instrument and a great sense of humor.

The story told in “The Story of ‘Wasn’t Me’ by Shaggy” is amazing, including a mysterious Napster user and a heroic Hawaiian DJ. But I’m most thankful that it helped me see that I was right the first time: it’s a great song. And nerding out to it was never anything to be ashamed of. In its own little, weird way, this short film on Youtube helped heal something inside me.

3. Shirkers, dir. Sandi Tan, 96 minutes. (Streams on Netflix.)

This is a feature-length documentary about a feature-length film by the same name. That film, also directed by and starring Sandi Tan, was never released, for reasons that are still mysterious today. If the original Shirkers had been released, back in 1992, it would have been Singapore’s first ever indie film. But it wasn’t. Tan’s documentary, full of footage from the earlier film, is an investigation of grief, youth, fate, abuse, and resilience. It’s my favorite thing I’ve watched this last year—and an inspiration to projects I’m working on today. I really cannot recommend it enough.

That’s it for this week’s Lightplay. If you made it this far, you must be one of the Lightplay die-hards, so you might be interested to know that I’ve recently published many profiles of interesting people associated with Antioch University. And I also have been part of the team creating the university’s newest project: the Seed Field Podcast. If you want to give it a listen, I recommend starting with this interview I did with Jean Kayira, a brilliant professor of Environmental Studies who spoke with me about Indigenous Knowledge and the climate crisis. 

Thank you for spending time with me. Take good care, and don’t be a stranger!

Jasper
9 May 2021

Land Acknowledgment: I want to acknowledge the land from which I am sending this as the traditional homelands of Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash peoples—including the Gabrieleño, Fernandeño, and Ventureño; members of the Takic and Chumashan language families; and other Indigenous peoples who have made their homes in and around the area we now call Los Angeles. Indigenous people continue to live in this area and celebrate their traditional teachings and lifeways. I further wish to acknowledge that Los Angeles is home to one of the largest Urban Native populations in the country, with an intertribal community numbering over 54,000—many of whom settled here after being forcibly removed from or otherwise pushed out of their own homelands. I want to express my gratitude as a guest and to thank the original and current stewards of this land. (Adapted from the Emerging Arts Leaders Los Angeles land acknowledgment and from that of the Newberry Museum, which was drafted in partnership with the Chicago American Indian Center.)

Lightplay 13 – Chronos, Nomads, Fruit

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

Greetings on another Sunday in the interminable present from which 2020 is apparently fashioned. Will the year ever end? Will the final six weeks somehow outdo in chaos and pestilence the preceding forty-eight?

This morning I received one of the golden tickets of 2020: another negative COVID test result. I hope you, too are staying COVID-safe and -lucky. Now is no time to get lax in our dodging of the virus. If you recall back to August’s Lightplay 09 – the Strangest Summer, guest epidemiologist Erin Graves Quansah warned that “as the pandemic goes on, those who seemed immune to or felt unconcerned with the early waves may well end up bearing the brunt of later and, in many cases, more deadly waves.” Today this seems to be borne out, as ERs and COVID wards fill with younger patients and patients without known comorbidities. So don’t let up! Keep up the good work of protecting yourself and your community by staying safe, wearing a mask, and certainly not dining indoors around people not in your bubble.

But that’s not what I want to focus on, this Lightplay. I’d rather talk about the experience of time, portable dwellings, the sweetness of fruit. The small pieces of life and thought that lend it its savor.

I. Chronos

I’ve spent some of the last year studying images of myself as an older man. In one image I’m perhaps sixty. In the next, I look like I might be eighty-five.

The images sometimes disgust me. Other times they terrify me. Will I really look this way? Is there no escaping this fate? Oh man, I am going to be ugly.

There’s something transgressive, in a society that venerates youth, to considering your face as an old man. It tickles all sorts of shame centers in your brain; you subconsciously reach for the anti-wrinkle gel.

Yet they’ve stayed with me, these images. I keep looking at them. And as I’ve become more and more comfortable looking at them, I’ve come to see that they have a beauty, too.  It wouldn’t be so bad to have a face like that, one full of wrinkles and far from youth. For one, it would mean I had survived that long. I’d have some stories to tell. Some people might still love me, even.

To be clear, I have not been receiving time traveled photographs from the future. These images were created by an algorithm, through an app called FaceApp. The app became popular about a year ago—and quickly provoked a privacy backlash, as the company that makes it is based in Russia. Putin will have your photo!

If you can handle Putin having a photo of your face, though, it sure will turn it into a photo of an older face. And if you feed photos through twice, you can get ’em looking really old.

In one of his lectures, Alan Watts says that everyone should “observe skulls and skeletons and…wonder what it would be like to go to sleep, and never wake up.” He says that contemplation and acceptance of death is like manure: “very highly generative of creating life.”

For me, I’m happy just to consider my old, wrinkly visage. I know I’m no Dorian Gray. Time will have its way with me. But I’m forewarned. I’m warming up to becoming that guy.

II. Nomads

The passage of time, its inexorable march, often gives me angst. Kashgar’s old city is bulldozed, Aleppo is bombed to bits. John Prine dies, Klay Thompson ruptures his achilles’ tendon. College days are over, my twenties have ended. The loss of how things were can be so sad. The golden age is always just past.

I do my best to remind myself of something else that is true: the golden age is also, often, right now. Don’t miss it. These, too, are the times that we will remember.

This is true on a personal level but also on a global one. So much beauty, history, and culture is still right here. I think of the many folkways that are endangered around the world. Somehow, so much still exists, so many people carry on life in the old ways. And today there are growing movements to protect them, to keep languages alive, and to bring back older ways of life.

I want to point your attention toward one very specific example of the way today is a golden age of protecting and documenting ancient ways of life: a Youtube channel that captures and shares the extremely various ways that nomadic peoples make shelter. It’s called Nomad Architecture.

Nomad Architecture’s videos are to all appearances made by one guy, Gordon Clarke, director of the Institute of Nomadic Architecture—also seemingly a one-man shop. He’s traveled around Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe documenting these nomadic building techniques.

The videos are entrancing journeys to distant worlds and ways of life. I find myself mesmerized, watching Khanty women harness vast herds of reindeer, watching Shahsavan men erect a beautiful round half-globe of a tent, and watching a whole Arbore family build a home out of reeds. It renews my love for this world, with such different people in it.

Of course there’s a problematics to a Brit named Gordon Clarke jetting around the world to document various indigenous peoples. With these videos I think he runs the risk of joining the long parade of Western anthropologists who have tried to document a culture and ended up—more or less wittingly—collaborating in the destruction of that very culture. I acknowledge this, and I think that these are problems we need to continue grappling with. At the same time, often past anthropological works are the primary remaining documentation of cultures and can serve as instruction for those hoping to bring back the old ways and languages.

Our world is complex. By my reckoning, at least, these Nomad Architecture videos are a meaningful contribution to our understanding of its complexity. What is best about the videos is their steady focus on the material culture of their nomadic subjects and the camera’s patient, admiring eye. They also delight as films created by an engaged, unembarrassed mind.

III. Fruit

What’s better than going to the asian grocery and buying a big pomelo and a bag of longan? Getting a box of green figs and slicing them all up? Going to a friend’s orchard and filling a box with apples and asian pears?

This morning, I took two perfectly-ripe Bartlett pears out of the fridge and cut them into cold slices. I ate them slowly, slice by slice. They had a custardy texture and sweetness, set off by the gentle tartness of their skins.

They reminded me how perfect a fruit can be.

Treat yourself to a perfectly ripe fruit. Settle in and watch Siberian nomads erect a tipi in the biting cold. And while you’re at it, age a photograph of yourself and marvel at the years yet to come, the adventures you have yet to etch on your very visage. No matter what you do, I hope that you stay safe and happy. See you next week!

Jasper
22 November 2020

Lightplay 12 – the Lost Travelogue

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

I hope this letter finds you well in health and spirit. Here in Los Angeles, the morning is cool and the air clear. Late fall!

Today, I’m thinking about travel. Partly, this is because I’ve been receiving short, photo-laden daily emails from a man currently walking the 500km Tōkaidō pilgrimage route in Japan. (More info here.) Maybe it’s also due to a seasonal fear-of-holidays, an atavistic terror at the big feelings I and others will surely have. And, oh yeah, the travel-blocking global pandemic might have something to do with it too.

Which is why I found myself delighted when I found deep in my drafts an old travelogue, partially drafted but never sent. I wrote it between January 25th and February 9th, 2016, when I was briefly living in Lao and walking the banks of the Mekong every day. It was supposed to be the ninth installment of the previous incarnation of this newsletter, Jasper’s Travelogue. The piece had the working title “The Farthest Shore.”

It’s clearly incomplete, hardly travelogue but not yet an essay. Nonetheless, I think it captures something of the way travel spurs thought. Reading it, you might remember how travel feels, how travel can be a way of thinking with your body. I hope you enjoy it.

The Farthest Shore

Tonight it’s raining in Luang Prabang, a cold rain. Foreigners huddle in an upscale coffee shop a block from the main intersection, speaking French and Korean, English and Chinese. We’re all travellers; this much we share. Travel is private, though, as personal and secret as a diary or a bank account. Only the traveller himself can know why he is where he is — so far from home, damp, thoroughly alone. And even he has doubts.

I am sure of this: I will go no further. This is the terminus of my trip. From here I begin the slow march home, a retracing of my footsteps till I end up where I started. Back to the border with Thailand, then to Chiang Mai, to Bangkok, back to Xining, to Hong Kong, and finally back to San Francisco, back home. Though as Heraclitus pointed out you can never step in the same river twice: it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same you. It’s not the same home.

I’m in a reflective mood. The rainshower has passed, and the last few drops on the tin roof outside my shuttered window sound like an engine block cooling. Today I went to Western Union and collected enough money to get me back to China, hopefully. While the clerk processed my transfer we talked. He told me that the boys here all want to find a Korean girlfriend, but he likes the Lao girls. His girlfriend teaches English to locals and Lao to foreigners. The locals pay about $20 a month; the foreigners pay over $200. He thought this was funny, and I did too. A pack of cigarettes costs forty cents here.

So some foreigners come to Lao and study the Lao language. I also meet nursing students from Australia who operate a mobile clinic for the hill tribes. Also meet a girl from Santa Monica who is travelling each month to a new country and volunteering there. She’s got it all set up in advance. Meet a German-speaking Italian couple from Sudtirol who only spend one or two days in each place and have in the last two months crisscrossed South America. Meet two Swedish girls who visited many Lord of the Rings sites in New Zealand. Man with dreadlocks on slow boat to Luang Prabang says, “… and you can hike from one beach to next — I’m telling you, man, it’s like heaven.” Other man replies, “Yeah, but does it have wifi?” Meet a Finnish former child film star who drives taxis and still acts but is taking a month off. Meet an older couple who are reprising the magic year they spent traveling in 1986, only now they have guides and hotel bookings and return tickets in one month. Meet a Canadian ex-colonel who owns rental properties in Quebec and explains to me his philosophy of travel: sleep cheap, eat cheap, and pay for experiences. Meet a Danish couple who bought a bike in Vietnam, put a few thousand kilometers on it, and are now trying to sell it for $250.

Why are we all travelling? It’s a question even less answerable than, Why am I travelling?

In the States you can visit a photographer to have your picture made before a blue screen. Then using simple computer software the photographer can add in backgrounds with similar lighting. Look, it’s us at the Great Wall! The Great Pyramids! The Taj Mahal! Aushwitz! Pluto! The Drive-Thru Redwood!

It’s one of the stock fears that modern travelers have to watch out for: the feeling that you’re not really there, not actually experiencing the place, at all.

A friend once related to me this anecdote: She was to spend the summer abroad, living with a roommate. Sometime in May she received her roommate’s name and contact info. Naturally, my friend looked up her roommate-to-be on Facebook. There she found countless photo albums of trips to art museums. It went like this: first the roommate-to-be would be smiling next to the painting, then the roommate-to-be would be would be actually touching the painting. Over and over again, these strange duplicates — one beside a painting, the next one groping it. And I guess that is one way of having a real experience with art. Are these homestays and language classes and volunteer opportunities with the hill tribes also ways of trying to touch, of proving to yourself that you really were there?

When I was eighteen I visited Paris for two whole days. My first afternoon I stumbled into the Orangerie, an art museum next to the Louvre. When Claude Monet began to lose his eyesight, he retired to his garden and took up his final subject: water lilies. Out of hundreds of works the greatest were eight vast canvases. The French government wanted these paintings to display to the public, and Monet agreed to donate them, so long as they built two enormous ovular rooms to display them in. I paced through these rooms, this temple to the impressioniest Impressionist, hungry and tired. The artwork didn’t move me — it seemed centrally to prove that the artist did indeed have cataracts. The objects of greater interest were the tourists themselves, who spent much of their time posing for photos with the murals. Why take a photo with a picture anyways? Why take pictures at all when you can buy a catalog in the gift shop?

I spent an hour in the Orangerie, taking pictures of tourists taking pictures. None of them are very brilliant photos. Much later the fancy camera that I was then lugging around with me would be stolen from a coffee shop in a cafe in the Mission district of San Francisco. The coffee shop was called Mission Creek. Now I travel with only an iphone camera, but I still sometimes take pictures of people taking pictures, images duplicated on viewfinders duplicated on my screen and now duplicated again for you. Do these halls of mirrors only estrange us from reality, or do they conceal other and more subtle realities?

My violin teacher Via was once an art history student at Vassar College. During her studies she once tried to join a graduate level seminar with a famous art historian. She had to visit his office hours to plead her case — usually the course wasn’t open to undergrads. She expected that he would ask her about her grades, which courses she’d already taken, et cetera. Instead he asked her to name a painting that she knew well. She named one, hesitant, and he said that he also knew it. Then he asked her what type of tree it was growing on the banks of the river. She wasn’t totally sure, but she thought she remembered it being a dogwood. Or maybe she remembered it being a pear. Whatever it was, she was right, and she got to take the class.

You can spend your whole life looking at a single great painting and always see something new. Or you can take an Art Appreciation course, as I once did, and memorize a few facts each about “Starry Night” and “Guernica” and “Spiral Jetty.” It actually was a valuable course in many ways, not least because I learned the names of a lot of artists I’d never before even known existed. You need a point of entry in order to begin real study.

I think of the Lonely Planet books as largely resembling a survey course. They summarize a handful of places, suggest where to stay, name a few popular activities. They’re a starting place, and are more than useful when you first arrive. But it’s also good to stay a while, wander down alleyways, inspect butterflies, share cigarettes with doormen, learn the names of trees.

[The travelogue abruptly cuts off, overweighted by its own head-scratching. All that remains as notes for the words that would have followed is a single quotation.]

“But while we are looking for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, that is, the new, which can only be found by plunging deep into the Unknown, we have to go on exploring sex, books, and travel, although we know that they lead us to the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place where the antidote can be found.”

from Roberto Bolaño, “Illness + Literature = Illness”

May we all get to travel in the not-too-distant future. And while we wait, may we each stay safe and protect each other. Till next week, I wish you only the best.

Jasper
15 November 2020

Lightplay 11 – Rainbow

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

I hope that this Sunday you’ve had space to exhale, relax, and take stock. I know I have.

The election is over. Thank you, each of you who helped rebuke this band of would-be authoritarians, be it by voting, volunteering, giving money, protesting, having hard conversations, and never going along with the worst of it. We did it.

I am going to keep this letter short. There will be plenty of time to explore what it all means. I want to tell you about something I saw yesterday afternoon.

My partner and I were driving east to visit our friends who just moved here. I wanted to finally open the bottle of champagne—Roederer Brut—that I bought before election night 2016 and have been carrying with me ever since.

The streets over were crowded with ecstatic people: carrying signs on streetcorners, standing through the sun roofs of cars, riding bicycles with one fist held in the air. A great honking was underway. And screaming. It sounded like a great victory had just been won. As indeed it had.

We came out from behind a tall building to see spread across the sky a great arch of light.

The rainbow was so bright.

Light like this, it fills you.

For ten minutes—twenty minutes—it spanned the sky.

Finally, where Santa Monica spills onto Sunset, the rainbow began to peter out. A new group of celebrants had taken over the road. We cut off and took back streets.

Soon night fell. We opened the champagne, watched the speeches, ordered pizza, stayed up late talking through our masks.

And once we got home and went to bed, the sleep was deep and sweet.

I wish that for you, too, dear reader. Till next week, stay safe.

Jasper
8 November 2020

Lightplay 09 – The Strangest Summer

Featuring guest epidemiologist Erin Graves Quansah
and guest poet Hunter Gagnon

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Hello, dear reader. I hope and pray that this letter finds you in good health and spirits.

It’s late August, and things are touch and go. The post office is run by saboteurs. The hills are aflame, and the convicts aren’t available to cut firebreaks for $1/hour because the jails are too rife with COVID-19. The policemen who killed Breonna Taylor are still at large. 

And yet life goes on. The strange peace of shelter-in-place is over, replaced by a new normal that is just as busy but with so many fewer opportunities for communion and release. I find the days slightly uncanny.

Sometimes, my answer is to look away from what’s happening, to focus on the task at hand. Writing my essay. Teaching my students. Baking bread. For much of this spring, that’s what this newsletter focused on, too. 

But the wider world is always just beyond the kitchen window.

This installment of Lightplay features two voices that can help us make sense of that world—especially COVID, which continues to spread across our nation and planet, as much as we may wish it wouldn’t.
.

  • The first is Erin Graves Quansah’s guest column, “An Epidemiologist’s Advice as Our Plague Years Drags On.” It’s a great and sobering reminder that we don’t know what comes next.
  • The second is a guest poem from Hunter Gagnon titled “Quarantine Poem 166 the virus lands.”

I’m so excited to be publishing these two pieces and sharing them with you.

Before we get to Erin’s column, I want to relate how it came into being.

One evening in early February, I spent almost two hours in a Walgreens in the suburbs west of Chicago, waiting for photos to print. It was dark and cold outside; inside, the fluorescent lights burned with the neurotic intensity of our young millennium. And behind the counter, a printer slowly disgorged sheets of glossy paper. Ever so slowly.

What could have been an ordeal was redeemed by the presence of my friends Ben and Erin. To kill time, we talked and perused the beer aisle. We spent half an hour inspecting the novelty toy section: oversize hard rubber bouncy balls, super-stretchy sacs of fluid with flashing purple LEDs at the center, a basket full of distressingly labile fake bananas. We tried to make each other laugh.

Shared boredom seems harder to come by now than before. I think it’s mainly because of my entertainment phone, though it’s probably also due just to getting older and getting to choose how I spend my time. I don’t prioritize long, boring hang-outs in the Walgreens.

But maybe I should. One of the best things about spending that much unstructured time with friends is that you end up talking about all sorts of things. Which is how, on February 9, 2020, I ended up asking my epidemiologist friend about a distant epidemic.

“Erin,” I said. “What do you think about this virus that has China locked down? Do you think it will make it over to the U.S.?”

“It’s already here,” she said. “There have been multiple cases, and it’s unlikely they’re catching all of them.”

“But now that flights are shut down, we can probably keep it out, right?”

“I don’t think there’s any way to stop it now. It’s probably already spreading in the U.S. We just don’t know where.” She shook her head and laughed. “It’s not good.”

I sucked my teeth and agreed that it sounded bad. What else was there to say in response to such a bad forecast? I didn’t know what to do with this information.

We moved on to talking about other things. And when we went our separate ways again—Erin back to Toronto, me to L.A.—I just kept living my life like normal. It was more than a month later, when the whole state of California locked down, that I remembered Erin’s prediction. She had been as right as right can be.

All of which is to say that last week, when I heard Erin again warning about what she thought was likely to happen, my ears perked up. Who could the second and third waves hit hardest? Why do we have to keep our guard up? It seemed important enough that I asked her to write up her thoughts so that she could share them with you, the readers of this newsletter. And I’m so happy that she accepted the challenge. Please enjoy this great guest column. I hope that it’s useful to you.

An Epidemiologist’s Advice as Our Plague Years Drags On
by Erin Graves Quansah

I’m an epidemiologist, specializing in maternal and child health, with some expertise in big data and administrative data analytics, all topped off with a few years of public health work. What got me into this work was a microbiology undergrad degree and a morbid fascination with the weirdest and least known bacteria and viruses in this world. For Christmas one year during high school, I asked for and received a 500 page book by Laurie Garrett called The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance.

From that background I’ve been watching this pandemic unfold—and these are my thoughts. I started paying attention when the first strange cases of a pneumonia-like illness were rumored in the Wuhan region of China, followed the controversy over the reported number of cases, and then felt dread (/panic) as it started to spread across the world. It’s been crazy to witness all of the opportunities where it looked like we were about to get this under control, only to see it slip through our fingers and onto the next stage.  That said, it’s hard to know if that’s really the case or if we’re just dealing with a pathogen that’s perfectly suited to evade our world-wide public health infrastructure. 

So what’s my advice?

The most important thing to learn from this once-in-a-generation (hopefully) infectious disease pandemic is a healthy respect for the differences and intersections between population-wide and individual health. With infectious disease—more than with most other risks—the health of the individual depends so much on the actions and health of the population. The choices we as individuals make can have such a huge impact on the health (and potentially life) of every person we interact with. This is why it’s so important to parse out what each of us, as individuals, can do to keep ourselves as safe and healthy as possible: it’s the main thing that will keep the people around us safe and healthy, too.

There are a few things that we can each do to keep ourselves as safe as possible while maintaining our lives and our health. As we open up and get back to our lives, it’s important that we not let our guard down. We need to keep in mind the basics of social distancing, wearing a mask and managing our risk of exposure as we go about our lives. You may want to spend time having drinks or a meal inside at a restaurant, but it’s not a great idea. If you do, you should probably then avoid being in close contact with your older parents, grandparents, and other immunocompromised friends and family until you’re sure you don’t have COVID. (By getting a negative result on a test or letting fourteen days pass with no symptoms). We should all keep in mind what ‘risky’ behavior we may have engaged in during the last two weeks and try to inform others we may be around so that they can gauge their own comfort with the perceived level of risk.

Unfortunately, the mental health toll, economic damage, and damage from untreated chronic conditions resulting from this pandemic are likely to be more devastating even than the toll of COVID itself. This is part of why governments are relaxing their stay-at-home orders. For example, in the province of Ontario, where I currently live, we’re in ‘Stage 3’ of opening up, which means that almost everything you would normally do is now allowed, although in most cases a mask is required to be worn indoors. But this isn’t because it’s ‘safe’ to do these things. In my view it’s because we now have in place the hospital capacity, the ventilators and the public health staff to track and trace cases, such that we think we can contain infections and limit the impact of the sick on the health care system. And this is in Canada, where daily new cases are under 500 per day. The risk is exponentially greater in the U.S., where daily new cases are around 50,000. In both countries, you still run the risk of contracting COVID by going out and doing the normal parts of daily life that we were warned against when we first entered lockdown. This is why we need to keep our guard up.

In evaluating risk, I’ve found the following infographic from the Texas Medical Association helpful.

There’s one more thing that it’s important to remember. Viruses mutate, and pandemics have historically always come in waves. Depending on where in the world you are, we’re somewhere between the first and second waves of COVID.  In our most recent historic example—and there’s some evidence this is happening with this virus as well—later waves of a pandemic tend to be dominated by virus strains that have accumulated mutations to more effectively target younger, healthier, and more able-bodied people. This means that as the pandemic goes on, those who seemed immune to or felt unconcerned with the early waves may well end up bearing the brunt of later and, in many cases, more deadly waves.

None of this is certain, but without any existing information about how this virus will play out, we have to work with the best imperfect and partially matched historic information we have at our disposal. 

In the words of British Columbia’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry: Be kind, be calm and be safe.

It’s hard now to remember how back in March we were all bargaining. Oh, I thought, this might last another three weeks. Later, This will be over in a few months. Back then, the novel coronavirus’s invisibility almost invited wishful thinking like this. Oh, summer child. 

Now it seems obvious that fantasies about how this will all end soon are in fact exactly the thing that prevents us as a society from tackling the thing head on. But less noted is that these fantasies also keep many of us from making, in the meantime, good temporary workarounds. Only once we acknowledge our new reality does it become possible to fashion distanced and/or digital versions of some of our favorite activities.

I had a great experience of this the first weekend of August, when I attended the first-ever digital Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. I had played a small part in planning it—I designed the program, and my partner, Lisa Locascio, is the conference’s Executive Director—but I had no idea that the online conference would be such a success.

There was a lot that made it great, from some standout afternoon talks to the uniformly excellent evening readings. My favorite part was the morning workshop. I was in the speculative fiction workshop, which was led by Kij Johnson. She’s one of my favorite writers (if you haven’t yet read her story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees, you’re in for a treat). But it’s never a sure thing that a great writer will be a great teacher. In Johnson’s case, she was. I took pages and pages of notes on her theories of how fiction works, how science fiction works, how scenes work. I wrote long letters to my workshopmates and listened closely when they critiqued my story. And it hardly seemed impeded at all by the fact that we were meeting over Zoom.

One of the delights of this workshop was that one of my classmates was the great and strange writer Hunter Gagnon. Hunter is a student of philosophy and ancient literature who draws on those sources to make peculiar fictions and haunting poems. He’s also himself a great teacher, which I know because the last few years we have taught poetry as part of the same program at Dana Gray Elementary School.

When I was putting together this special edition of the newsletter, I remembered that Hunter has been writing and widely publishing a series of poems about this strangest of summers. (Find more at his website, huntergagnon.com.) I wrote and asked if he had a brilliant but unpublished poem that I could run here. He sent the following one along.

Quarantine poem #166 the virus lands
by Hunter Gagnon

13,284,292 confirmed 577,843 deaths
7,373,782 recovered
3,428,553 US, July, the vision
             of these virus lands, cities like broken shells
flattened in a bright wave
the no mercy of God and his flashing blue light, his
                              mist, his vision of names
          tossed around
             Fort Bragg, Somersworth, the Portlands, the mythical
state
recoils
        at voice, no don’t misunderstand me my friend in the
        fire red chair not the voice as a category an abstract
        collapse
        of content, but
                     Life voice, in the virus lands, mumbling out
                     in the teachers better kill themselves lands
                     in the get over your anger maybe then you’ll get
                     what they have no reason to give
                     lands
These mosquito dog lands and risen rivers after turquoise morning thunder lands
These desert town lands of gas pumps and lightning rods
We live here
             with our reviled
             unhappy mumbling
             reviled
             by vision
             by beauty
             by God’s blue light
             itself
                       gravel wash voices, our
                       goose weed crumb voices
                                                            stain
this bullet-crowned ghost of swallowing, this talk for us of who we are
this talk they build and give to us
                                       in screen blue light, elevated
                 for chairs, cushioned
                                             and lawn
    in July, in
                  America, fourteenth, 2020 11pm

That’s about it for this special, late-summer edition of Lightplay. It’s time for me to give my attention to the raven standing on the branch next to me.

But before we part ways I think I should acknowledge that I’ve finally named my newsletter. It’s called Lightplay. One word. There’s no deep secret meaning behind it. Things need names, that’s all. Nonetheless, I hope it evokes for you something of the way light can play against a cardinal’s feathers, or through a rainshower, or off the moon.

Till next time, I wish you good health, good spirits, safety from the fires, and a free moment to spend outside, looking at the other birds. Stay safe.

Jasper
23 August 2020

Land Acknowledgment: I want to acknowledge the land from which I am sending this as the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Nations, and the Illinois Confederacy: the Peoria and Kaskaskia Nations. Many other nations including the Myaamia, Wea, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Thakiwaki, Meskwaki, Kiikaapoi, and Mascouten peoples also call this region home. Indigenous people continue to live in this area and celebrate their traditional teachings and lifeways. I want to express my gratitude as a guest and to thank the original and current stewards of this land. (Adapted from the Newberry Museum land acknowledgment, which was drafted in partnership with the Chicago American Indian Center.)

Week 8: Bread

What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for eighteen weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Hello, Gentle Readers, and may your Sunday be peaceful. This is the eighth letter in this food-themed season of Nighthawk’s Notes. (Is that the name of this newsletter/email diary? Still not sure.) Thank you for reading it.

When I started this season, I said that there would be either 12 or 18 issues. Finally this week I figured out the answer: there will be 18 issues! But they won’t all be in a row. After today’s newsletter, I’ll be taking a break for the next three months—I have a lot of stuff needing doing, all of which has been made more complicated by the pandemic. You might hear from me once or twice over the summer. Then on October 11th I’ll resume sending the newsletter weekly, and we’ll finish off the season around Thanksgiving. I can hardly wait to write about the food we eat when it’s not 100° outside.

Before we get to the heart of this email, a quick thanks to everyone who read and circulated Elias’s column. He and I were both gratified by the feedback, and it seems to have moved the needle a little bit in the renaming movement. Stay tuned for more guest columns in this space—including one about biscuits!

For now, though: bread. Beautiful bread. Crusty bread. Creamy bread. Sourdough bread.

I started baking bread in college, when I lived in a co-op with 31 other students. Our living situation was cooperative because we pooled our ‘board’ money and shared our labor to take care of cooking for each other and cleaning our two big houses. It was a good deal in some ways: we saved about $600 a semester, in comparison to what the other students living in college housing paid. But we made up for it in labor, each spending somewhere around 4-8 hours a week doing chores.

The chores were something you signed up for on a big online spreadsheet. Each had a different point value. Cleaning a small bathroom was worth 5pts, while tidying up the kitchen in the middle of the day was 4pts and cleaning our three regrigerators was 7pts. The two cooks every night each got 7pts for cooking dinner, while the person who did the dishes got 4pts and the one who washed the pots and pans got 9pts for the trouble. Chore point values were assigned roughly on the basis of demand: because many people wanted to cook dinner, it was worth fewer points than clean-up even though it often took hours longer. Everybody had to do 33pts of chores every fortnight. It was a socialist system that operated on principles of supply and demand.

One of the most in-demand chores was baking bread (7pts). There were some talented bakers at the co-op, including Abram, who had been the head baker at Deep Springs College when he studied there, and Ashley, who would go on to be a professional pastry chef. She was the one who showed me a good cookbook to start with (The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart) and how to do the ‘window pane test,’ where you test gluten development by stretching the dough thin and looking to see if it lets light through, like the webbing between our fingers does.

I was a senior when I baked my first loaves. When they came out of the oven, I was so proud. They were ugly, sure, but they were mine. They were worth so much more than seven points.

Today, it seems like half of all Americans have had the empowering experience of pulling loaves fresh from the oven—and the other half is sick of hearing about it! The pandemic has led to a much-publicized sourdough bread baking craze, including shortages of flour, dry active yeast, bannetons, popular bread cookbooks, and even instant-read thermometers. Americans love nothing more than to buy all the gadgets for a task.
    
The funny thing about learning a new skill is that it’s not enough to have the requisite materials. You also need to know where to start—and where to find guidance if everything doesn’t work out. A teacher or mentor is someone who does this work. But so too are books—cookbooks especially—and blogs, and forums, and even email newsletters.

I can’t teach you how to make delicious sourdough bread in this single email, but I can guide you to the resources I have found—and created—that make it possible for me to pull delicious, life-sustaining loaves out of my oven with consistency. Maybe you have a bunch of bread baking gear and have baked a half-dozen loaves so far, but you don’t know how to take things to the next level. Maybe you feel like the sourdough train left you behind, but you don’t know how to catch up. Perhaps you’re just curious what all the fuss is about. This email is for you.

When I graduated college in 2012, I knew that I wanted to get better at baking. But it wasn’t until I signed my first lease—on a tiny one-bedroom in soon-to-formerly-have-been-known-as Fort Bragg—that I got the materials and started baking bread again.

At Gallery Books, I found the first ingredient: a cookbook called Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. I didn’t know at the time that it was an international bestseller that was revolutionizing home bread baking. Instead, I felt like I was the only person encountering Robertson’s long narrative about his apprenticeship in France, his search for a specific sort of loaf he knew from old paintings, how he built his wood-fired oven out in windswept Bolinas, and his eventual to glory in the form of a popular storefront in San Francisco’s Mission District. A story of rags to riches—but with bread!

Years later, I was reading Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough when I found what could only be a gentle parody of Robertson (renamed Everett Broom) and his cookbook. Here’s an excerpt:

The book’s introduction ran for twenty-two pages. It was a baker’s bildungsroman, chronicling Broom’s youth in Sacramento, his visits to his grandfather’s bakery, his flameout as a professional skateboarder, his addiction to a home-cooked drug known as spaz rocks, and finally his retreat to a bread-baking shack on the beach and his reformation there. There were photos, all monochrome: a young man with a thick black beard below a face so clean and cherubic it made the beard appear glued on. In a photo spread across two pages, he leaned against a homemade brick oven, for which the adjective rustic was a favor; it looked like a pile of rubble. Scattered in the foreground were various signifiers of bohemian tranquility: a guitar, a surfboard, a book with VOLTAIRE on the spine.

This is the vibe of Tartine Bread! It’s a weird cookbook, part heroic autobiography, part Pinterest mood board. But at its heart, it is a detailed guide to making ridiculously delicious bread. I studied this book.

At the urging of Robertson, I invested in a few other tools:

  • A digital scale to measure flour and water by weight
  • A dough scraper to scrape out kitchen bowls
  • A bench knife to help turn the loaves during shaping
  • Some razor blades to score the loaves before baking
  • A Dutch oven in which to bake the loaves

These, all told, cost me less than $100. And then I was off to the races: capturing a wild sourdough starter, mixing up leaven and then dough, letting it rise in the fridge, baking in the early morning. Some loaves came out fantastic; others were abject failures. Slowly I learned how to make bread.

You can do all of this without even buying Tartine Bread! There’s a fairly good ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version of Robertson’s method that you can find at this link. It won’t teach you everything, but it’s a fine place to start.

The main learning curves for making bread this way are getting over kneading (you develop the gluten instead by giving the bread ‘turns’), getting used to shaping and handling a wet dough, and figuring out the schedule. But the results are excellent, and the hands-on work only takes about 30-60 minutes total, once you know what you’re doing.

When I started baking this bread I found myself totally stymied by timing. When do you start? When do you bake? How long should each step take?

In my confusion, I did what anybody who enjoyed high school chemistry would do: I made a log in which I could keep track of all the variables.

It turns out it’s pretty useful to keep this kind of record. It gives me data to help sort out out what went wrong or right in any one bake. It lets me replicate more successful loaves. And I’ve even taken to stapling a polaroid of the finished loaves, as an aide de memoire. Also: the filled-out log looks pretty cool, right?

I’m posting the blank log as a PDF on my website, in case it might useful for you, too.

The current baking schedule I’m following—as a man stuck at home all day, every day—has me mixing up my leaven at about 10am, mixing the dough at about 3pm, shaping my loaves in the evening, letting them rise overnight in the fridge, and then baking when I get up in the morning. There’s a certain Christmas morning feeling to getting up, pre-heating the oven, and then waiting to see what sort of oven spring your loaves give you.

Here is a bread log following this schedule that I filled out for my mom—and that may be useful for you, too:

The other big piece of advice I have is to seek out many different voices, different suggestions, different techniques. I’ve found useful videos on bread Youtube (a silly, bearded place) and useful discussion threads on bread forums. Perhaps my favorite place to go for inspiration and fresh ideas is a blog called Girl Meets Rye. The author, Francis-Olive Hampton, started the blog as Tartine Bread Experiment, devoted to exploring the cookbook Tartine Bread. But her curiosity and culinary genius came to exceed the bounds of homage. I can read her posts all day long.

Here in Los Angeles, the hour grows late. The downstairs neighbors are smoking their Sunday spliff, the sweet herb wafting up and through my open window. I want to take a walk before the light fails. And then to make dinner, watch a movie. The small patterns of life that, together, are life itself.

It’s been a pleasure sharing these last eight Sundays with you. Thank you for joining me here, for sending me emails of support or gentle correction, for cooking some of these recipes along with me, and for joining me in the struggle to make our world a more just one. None of this has ended. Even though this newsletter is taking a break, we’re all still here, still hard at it. Let’s keep cookin’.

I’ll see you in a month or two. Till then, stay well and enjoy the sun!

Jasper
June 28, 2020