In the kitchen where I never thought I'd belong.

I told my dear friend Chris during a particularly dim period in my life a few years ago that he would know I was okay again when I resumed cooking. By that point in our unexpected friendship, I’d started having him over for dinner at least once a week but the practice had fallen by the wayside as I found myself having to concentrate on putting my broken heart back together. The last thing I wanted to do was cook. Chris and I went back to meeting at various Melbourne restaurants after work instead. Ours is a friendship formed over bowls of ramen and plates of dumplings and nasi lemak. 

I don’t live in Melbourne anymore (for now). These days Chris is a presence in my text messages -- there when I wake up, and then there again halfway through my work day when he wakes up. And I’m cooking again. I have been for a while -- my San Francisco life lends itself very well to prolonged periods in the kitchen, more so than my life in Melbourne ever did for reasons both physical and emotional (nothing much interests you when you’re depressed). I don’t make anything particularly fancy: spaghetti alio oglio with more garlic than is strictly required, lots of chili flakes, and turkey bacon; seasoned pasta shells generously coated in Boursin garlic and herb cream cheese; a baked potato with sour cream and cheddar cheese, seasoned with chicken salt because I’m Australian, dammit; roasted brussels sprouts; Annie’s organic mac and cheese out of a box. Left to my own devices, I regress into the picky eater I was as a child -- I am not above eating the same dish for days in a row. 

I’ve also been cooking Malaysian food lately. My cousin came back into my life about two years ago not long after I moved to San Francisco -- my best friend Ika is a mutual friend of ours and I think she took it upon herself to make sure that the two of us cousins were kept apprised of each other’s lives: she texted me when Dee delivered her son via emergency C-section, and so it follows that she would tell Dee that her wayward cousin had upped and moved several oceans further away. We’re not communicating with any regularity but the texts arrive frequently enough that I have come to rely on them and the accompanying (requested) photos of Dee’s little boy, who is now three and already half his mother’s height (while Emran’s looks suggest his father wasn’t in the room when he was conceived -- that child is the spitting image of his mother -- his height puts to rest any concerns about his paternity). We’ve repaired the foundation of our relationship -- blood ties and a genuine friendship -- enough that I could tell her that I’d been meaning to ask if she’d send me my favorite snacks from Malaysia, plus some of the fixings required to make rendang, fried rice, and Hainanese chicken rice. I miss the dishes of my childhood. 

Her response: “Why didn’t you ask me sooner?!” 

A care package arrived a few short weeks later along with a phone call from my uncle. It was the first time in over five years that I’d heard the voice of someone I share DNA with and it was a surprisingly lovely exchange. Same old uncle -- he checked in on how I was doing; nagged me about eating junk food for breakfast; asked what I’d gotten up to on a Sunday afternoon. It has been a very long time since anyone checked in on me like that and I was about as awkward and delighted as one would expect after a prolonged absence of anything remotely resembling parental concern. And the care package! Brahims and Adabi pastes for making rendang and fried rice; a jar of whatever that stuff is that one uses to make chicken rice with; two large packets of keropok keping -- a throwback to my childhood as a grandchild of Terengganu. I have spent the last few weeks creating a facsimile of my childhood kitchen, making note of future adjustments to be made to each dish as I read and followed the instructions on the packet and remembered old lessons learned at the feet of mothers both mine and others’: less water added to the rendang paste to make a thicker stew; more attention paid to the dry version of beef rendang in future lest I burn the meat and gravy again (oops); alterations to my schedule so I can have leftover rice and keropok already fried up and ready to go for the next weeknight’s dinner of fried rice. I even made kerisik (toasted coconut flakes) to go into the rendang the other day and on a last minute whim saved some of the coconut milk to make nasi lemak (coconut rice) to go with it. This version of my self who is gleefully trying her hand at the dishes of her childhood would be unrecognizable to the younger woman I once was, the one who couldn’t be lured into the kitchen under any circumstances. 

Which is all to say: I’ve been cooking heaps lately; ergo, I am happy. I’ve felt this way since Melbourne last July -- I spent three weeks there visiting, and it was enough time to finally understand just how loved I am. This, apparently, is what everyone who has had the benefit of a happy childhood full of love and stability feels like. 

It’s pretty fucking amazing. 

I am full of joy these days, so much so that I don’t have the words to describe it and have fallen into silence. I read the words of others -- reading voraciously at that -- but can’t find my own. Because that’s what happiness does to me. I lose my words; I lose the need to find my words. It’s strange. I miss the words. This is my attempt to find them again.

But more importantly -- Chris, I’m happy.

This Reading Life: Helen Ellis and Amber Sparks.

It's probably safe to call now: the short story is my favorite form of fiction. I don't pretend to have the best attention span in the world; neither do I imagine that my ability to focus on one thing and stay the course through to the end is above par -- the short story collection allows me to dip in and out of largely self-contained fictional worlds over a given period of time without necessarily having to go back and re-visit the last few pages to remember where I left off. Considering my book polygamist tendencies: this is crucial. 

Here are some thoughts on two of my favorite short story collections published this year. 

American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. 

I read this one over the course of a single trip (two train rides) back to San Francisco from San Jose. I have fond memories of that Sunday afternoon -- my friend Lanny was hosting a launch party for her photography studio in San Jose and had introduced me to her friend Rayna, a fellow Melbournian. Predictably, Rayna and I got along like a house on fire, delighting in the fact of not having to explain ourselves and our slang thanks to a shared Melbourne background and lexicon. It was wonderful. 

If there is a theme for 2016, it will be this: The One Where I Met All These Incredible Women I Admire and Want To Be Best Friends With. 

Anyway, American Housewife: the blurb on the back of the book is very apt indeed -- "This book is feminism with teeth and a Southern drawl. Red lipstick and a baseball bat." Ellis' characters are older women -- strong, sassy, and steel in their hearts. The stores (and feminism) depicted here are just slightly deranged, yet utterly delightful in its crazy (see: 'Hello! Welcome to Book Club'). In this, there is more than just a whiff of the South, where Ellis is from -- her roots permeate each story from the tongue in cheek 'Southern Lady Code' to the darkly humorous 'Pageant Protection', which is about a kind of witness protection program for child beauty queens. 

There is also a story about a man who has a particular talent for fitting women with bras -- the gift runs in the family. There's also another story about a woman who runs her household with the aid of dead doormen.  

You see what I mean? Just read this book already. 

The Unfinished World, by Amber Sparks 

The title story in this collection is a fever dream or a nightmare -- I still can't tell which. The same can actually be said about all the stories in this collection. The individual narratives are fantastical, spanning centuries and continents, yet at the heart of each story is some heartfelt emotion that just hurts in its sincerity and rawness: longing; loss; love; fear. 

I had to read this one in slow, measured sips. To do otherwise would be emotionally overwhelming. 


Sing it, sister.

I discovered the Hamilton musical about 5 months ago, yet even today I can still find something new about it to captivate me. This time around I am stuck on the track 'That Would Be Enough' -- Hamilton has been sent home from the war and has just discovered that Eliza is pregnant; Eliza is pleading with him to stay by her side and stop seeking glory. The dynamics between the two in this particular song do not sit well with me at all, but I can recognize that sometimes I am Eliza, content with a quiet life of domesticity, and sometimes I am Hamilton, hungry for the world and not content to remain quiet in my little corner of it, and that my discomfort with how the relationship is playing out in this track has everything to do with my not knowing just how much of myself to give up in a relationship and how to find some sort of middle ground between my identity and ambitions vs. the other person's identity and ambitions. 

I keep fixating on these lines: 

Hamilton: "Will you relish being a poor man's wife, unable to provide for your life?" 
Eliza: "I relish being your wife"

And this line in particular: 

Eliza: "But I'm not afraid, I know who I married." 

That optimism and willingness to compromise, man. What's that like? 

Yesterday I walked into my apartment after yoga class and immediately began to play this song, singing out loud along to Eliza's parts. The windows are wide open but I don't particularly care about being overheard -- I know I have a good singing voice. This is one of the perks of being and living alone -- there is no one around to tell me to stop singing, no one around to be disturbed by the volume and enthusiasm of my musical inclinations. I need to do a better job of remembering that singing makes me happy and sing more on a daily basis. 

Then it occurred to me that one day soon I'm going to meet someone -- a handsome, bearded someone, preferably -- and decide that it's a good idea to shack up with him, and then I'll end up mourning the loss of my unfettered ability to sing out loud whenever I want. 

This is such an optimistic thought that I pause for a second in my warbling to consider it. Well, not the part about not being able to sing whenever I want anymore -- the certainty that I'll meet someone. I'm not used to being so optimistic about that


Approximately five years on, that Chloé perfume now smells like the memory of kissing my now estranged mother goodbye each morning before she would go to work. 

Some perfumes need a trigger warning. 

I used to drag myself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to kiss my mother goodbye before she would go to work. I hated -- HATED -- it if I didn't get a chance to say goodbye. Even if we were in a fight, even if I were mad at her, I would haul my ass out of bed and stumble to the front door to kiss her goodbye, driven by some (likely) irrational fear of her not making it home. 

Losing her was my greatest fear as a child. I used to say to anyone who would listen that you would have had to mop me up off the floor should anything ever happen to her, should she be taken from me. So it's astounding to me now to think that in the end, I was the one who left her. It has been almost six years since I had any regular contact with her; it has been almost five years since that disastrous last confrontation. I have spent the most crucial years of my 20s without my mother. I have moved countries in that time and I am not 100% sure she even knows where I am now. I used to think some divine retribution lay in wait for me for this act of filial disobedience; now I just marvel at how strong and brave I was -- am -- to have done that. Where I am from, daughters do not cut their mothers out of their lives, no matter how painful it is to remain by the mother's side. 

This Reading Life: Disaster Preparedness, by Heather Havrilesky.

My 11 year streak of not crying over a book came to a screeching (sobbing?) halt last Sunday thanks to Heather Havrilesky's memoir -- really an autobiographical essay collection -- Disaster Preparedness. Specifically, it was her musings on her relationship with her mother in the immediate aftermath of her parents' separation and divorce -- a period that featured her mother moving out temporarily "to think" -- that did me in: 

She is not everything, your mother. She's just a person. But while my mom and I could talk about anything, intellectualizing the wrinkles in any experience, picking up the highs and lows, I was never sure about how much I mattered to her. I was fundamentally uncertain. Instead of worrying about it, I decided that it would only be wise to care a lot less.
-- D-I-V-O-R-C-E

Take away the part about being able to talk to her mother about anything and replace "care a lot less" with "hide vital parts of myself" and you basically have my relationship with my own estranged mother. But that's a story for another day (and I've been thinking a lot about re-visiting and re-framing some of these stories, to be honest). 

I first discovered Heather Havrilesky through the New York bestie, Elaine, when she introduced me to the Ask Polly advice columns on NY Mag's website The Cut. The columns filled the gap left in my psyche by the discontinuation of the Dear Sugar column formerly written anonymously by Cheryl Strayed. Much like Wild provided the context / back story for Cheryl Strayed's 'Sugar' persona in Dear Sugar, so does Disaster Preparedness provide clues into the voice and hard-won wisdom of Polly. Polly / Heather spent years playing it cool and keeping all her cards very close to her chest and, as evidenced in her advice column, is no longer here for that nonsense. Disaster Preparedness explains why she was like that in the first place, and what it took to break herself of that habit. 

That fall, I met a funny, smart professor. He was thoughtful and weird and talkative and sweet. Even though I was tempted to gloss over my flaws a little, I told him the truth. I warned him that I was impatient and demanding and emotionally overwrought and sentimental and earnest and exasperating, and I could be a serious pain in the ass. 
"So, in other words, you're a woman," he said. 
And I thought, That's exactly what my future husband would say! 
-- One Ring To Rule Them All

Which isn't to say that Disaster Preparedness is a perfect book. The structure feels a little awkward to me; the progression through time (and from essay to essay) is a little jerky. The essays ramble and meander a touch -- but oh, they're pretty darn glorious regardless. Heather's writing is honest and unflinching in its embrace of life's many messes. Her stories tell us not to be afraid to care about people and things, not to fear less than tidy resolutions or situations that go against type -- all things we need regular reminders of. 

Something about non-attachment, I guess?

I have a ridiculous capacity for extrapolating all sorts of meanings and lessons from seemingly mundane acts (this tendency skirts danger when it comes to reading way too much into others' actions). Anyway, this particular talent of mine tends to manifest itself these days in my ability to derive a kind of (healthy?) approach to life from the act of physically preparing myself to face the outside world. We all know (or should know) that women are held to ridiculous beauty standards and I am not gorgeous* enough to flout said standards. And so: I invest a lot of time, money, and energy into taking care of my skin; I wear makeup; I blow dry and flat iron my hair. 

Which takes us to what I wanted to tell you about in the first place. I've been trialling a hairstyling tip I'd come across on Pinterest (of course I'd come across it on Pinterest) -- apparently, this is the key to maintaining volume while straightening your hair: "When running the iron down the length of your hair, do not clamp it down like a panini press. (That’s what, obviously, flattens it out.) Instead, leave it slightly open to benefit from the direct heat but also maintain as much volume as possible." (Full article here)

I've been trying this over the last week or so -- not clamping down hard on my hair while straightening it with a flat iron -- and I gotta say: it works. I've been having some very pleasing hair days lately. And it occurred to me that not clamping down hard on things is probably also good advice for life itself: what if I tried to hold on to things lightly instead of clinging and stubbornly trying to force an outcome? What if I let go (with a willing heart) when things come to an end? (Everything comes to an end) 

I've been trying this on for size over the last week or so -- and it works. It feels good. 


* An aside: Almost five years ago now, on the balcony of a hotel room in Penang, at some point in the very long conversation that we were having after about four years of not having been in the same room as each other, my childhood best friend Farah looked straight at me and said, "But I don't think you're ugly at all, Rae. I think you're gorgeous." 

I've been trying every day to believe that sentiment ever since. And to be perfectly honest, no man's opinion on my appearance will ever hold as much weight as her opinion that night. Which makes sense: she's known me since I was seven years old. She is family. 

I do like it when I'm right.

Helen Oyeyemi was very gracious tonight when I nervously asked her the world's most random question about a certain character from her (excellent) new short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. We first meet Noor Sharif in the story titled ""sorry" doesn't sweeten her tea", except he's just a minor character here (a condition he unfortunately remains in for the rest of the collection) -- the real focus of this story is his younger daughter Aisha whose devoted teenage fan's rage forms the crux of the latter half of the tale. But it's Aisha's older sister's name that had me sitting up and cocking my head with interest when I first see it on the page. Aisha's older sister is named "Dayang", a truly very Malay name if I ever did hear one. 

A few short paragraphs later we discover that the girls' father's name is Noor Sharif. 

Suspicions began brewing then. 

Dayang gets her own story toward the end of the collection -- it's called "a brief history of the homely wench society". It's quite possibly one of my top 3 favorites from the collection; it's so delightfully amusing and heartfelt. In Dayang's story, we learn that Noor had "flown thousands of miles specifically to enroll" in Cambridge University where Dayang is now a student, that he "still fasted at Ramadan even though he didn't go to mosque anymore."

All these clues, so tantalizing, so telling to me. 

Anyway, it turns out I was absolutely right -- Helen Oyeyemi confirmed tonight that Noor is Malaysian. I knew it (I shouldn't have needed to ask her) -- Noor is my grandfather's name, after all. 

Still body of water.

Last night I came home from a particularly sweaty barre class and drew myself a bath using the bath salts I'd purchased from a local apothecary the previous Sunday afternoon (hello, I live in San Francisco, clearly). I lay back in faintly scented hot water as the new Kendrick Lamar record played softly in the background, my thoughts running in all directions. Mostly I was thinking of what to say on the record about this new (less than environmentally friendly) ritual of soaking in a hot bath in the hopes that the simple act of sitting in a still body of water will yield ... what exactly?  

I'm not exactly being original here -- I stole the idea of baths as ritual from Claire Bidwell Smith. There is a chapter in her memoir Rules of Inheritance that perfectly describes the thing that I struggle with all the fucking time -- I am nobody's most important person. But that chapter also describes how Claire got past that crippling thought: night after night she would sit quietly in a hot bath with only herself and her thoughts for company and, eventually, found some measure of peace in facing up to her grief instead of papering over it with men and alcohol. 

I like to think I've taken my grief firmly in hand -- it's anger and bitterness that I need to contend with these days (in the last year or so I had come to realize that I am so incredibly angry about what went down between me and my family; it enrages me that I now have to contend with a kind of PTSD whenever I set foot in my hometown). What I'm looking for right now, in sitting quietly in a bath with only my thoughts for company, is some sense of what I'm supposed to be doing next. I've talked previously about being entirely too caught up in work over the last few months. I have all this free time on my hands now. I don't remember what I used to do with it. And apparently I think that some combination of just going ahead and doing things (I'm still reading everything I can get my hands on; I'm still writing about it; I'm still making every effort to spend time with friends and meet new people; I'm about to make travel plans) and sitting still will give me answers. 

Something that did occur to me last night while I was sitting in that bath: maybe I'm nobody's most important person, sure, but I'm certainly important to many people. It's taken me an embarrassingly long time to figure that one out. They usually tell you not to put too much stock in what people think of you but in my case, considering my default position of thinking that I am a terrible garbage monster of a human being, maybe it's high time I put a little more weight on how others see me -- usually in a much kinder light than I tend to view myself. 



They are thinking of installing a gate at the entrance of my apartment building in response to recent vandalization attempts on the mailboxes, which means that public access to the stoop will be blocked and, for residents, the mundane view of 23rd St from that same stoop will be obstructed. On the one hand, I'm glad. There is a man who regularly parks himself on that stoop, sitting next to where the mailboxes are. He doesn't live in my building and something about him makes me very uncomfortable; every instinct has me hurrying the fuck into the building whenever I come home to find him sitting on the stoop staring blankly out on to the street. I always make sure to shut the door securely behind me (I'm not above slamming it shut in my hurry to get inside). 

I always -- ALWAYS -- listen to my instincts when it comes to strange men, and my instincts are telling me to be careful around this guy: I don't think he's in full possession of his faculties. 

But on the other hand, I keep thinking of that chilly night in December when I somewhat abruptly left my friends at a bar in Russian Hill and hurried home to sit on that stoop with a man who only had 20 minutes to spare. We kissed that night, the culmination of years of dancing around each other with no hope of anything ever happening. Just words on a screen. A voice on the other end of the line. What terrified me about that night was how right kissing him felt to me. Chemistry. I used to think that I would combust if I ever touched him. 

If they put that gate in place, I'll never get to sit on that stoop with him again (or with anyone else, really).