Making Xiànbǐng

Recently Isabelle decided on a whim to make 餡餅 (xiànbǐng) for one of our confinement lunches. First, we made a dough out of just flour and water. Then we formed the dough into a log, sliced it into discs, and rolled each disc out into a circle, trying to keep the center thicker than the edges.

We spooned some filling–tofu, zucchini, and shallots–into each wrapper.

Then we pinched the edges of the wrapper together to form a bao.

Tada!

Here are a whole bunch. They reminded me of Georgian khinkali.

The bao are smushed, making them 餅 (bǐng), and fried on the stove.

Ready to eat!

Drypoint

These are strange, scary times, and I have little to say that others aren’t already saying with more thoughtfulness, eloquence, and authority. So I’m not going to wade into those waters. Suffice it to say that I am well, I feel lucky, and I’m currently confined with Isabelle and Olivier.

Back in the early days of the confinement, Isabelle let me make a print from her most recent drypoint plate. Drypoint is the latest printmaking technique she’s picked up (see our earlier adventures in linocut, screenprinting, and Gocco). In drypoint, you carve a design into a plate (Isabelle uses plastic ones), and the ink fills in the grooves. Thus what you carve is what is printed (vs. what you leave uncarved, as in relief printing). Apparently drypoint is etching, but without the acid.

Isabelle carved the plate; I just made a print. This design is called “Springtime frailty” (“Fragilité printanière”). I first smeared black ink onto the plate, filling in all the grooves. Then I used a bit of paper towel to rub away the excess ink.

Next I placed the plate ink-down on the paper.

I cranked the plate through Isabelle’s Cuttlebug, which we were using as an improvised press.

The completed print!

Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor@Grinnell

Earlier this month I attended the Writers@Grinnell afternoon roundtable with novelists Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor. Greenwell’s latest novel is Cleanness, and Taylor’s debut novel is Real Life. I first saw Greenwell last fall in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado at her reading at Praire Lights in Iowa City.

I took notes at the event, but I don’t have them with me now, so this will be from memory, and not entirely chronological. The roundtable began with Greenwell and Taylor asking each other a couple of questions. Greenwell asked Taylor how he’d decided on the compressed time frame of his novel (a long weekend), as well as the structure and the shifting tense (present vs. past) and POV (first person vs. third person). The tense and POV came naturally, almost subconsciously, and once Taylor realized what he was writing in he didn’t want to go back and change it. This line of questioning also led to musing on one’s weaknesses as a writer and writing–indeed, creating art–from one’s infirmities (I think).

Both authors’ novels seem to mirror their own lives in a lot of ways, but I was drawn to Taylor’s because its protagonist is trying to survive grad school (I think he has it a lot worse than I did). Taylor himself wrote the novel in grad school, I believe, and in the Q & A a student asked him about his interest in both science (he studied biochemistry) and writing and literature. Taylor saw lots of commonalities between these two fields or pursuits. For instance, both as a scientist and as a novelist you can spend years of your life working on something and not know whether it’ll come to anything (how reassuring).

Greenwell and Taylor both talked about not being able to watch TV shows because they’re uninterested in serial stories that just continue and never end. It’s boring when every episode ends in a cliffhanger intended to lure you back for more. Greenwell said that a story can only have a shape if it has an ending, and I suppose the serial nature of TV, and the perpetual hope of another season, makes that impossible. (I wouldn’t really know; I don’t watch TV either, though not for that reason.) He said he liked works of literature that laid out the whole plot at the beginning, so you knew the shape of the story. My interpretation was that he was much more interested in execution than plot or even storytelling (in a conventional sense).

Another student asked Greenwell how he could write so bravely and unflinchingly; this student sometimes wrote things and then was filled with the sense that they should never write about such things again. In his response, Greenwell talked about shame as an intrinsic aspect of growing up gay, or queer, in the U.S. I think he meant one should do something with that shame rather than deny it? I believe both authors concluded that writers shouldn’t let anyone else hold them back from writing what they want to express.

The most heartwarming aspect of the roundtable were their comments about their friendship, to which they returned again and again. Basically, they seem to have the ideal literary friendship. Greenwell alluded to Taylor making living in Iowa City bearable for him. It sounds as though they meet up in coffee shops almost daily. Taylor also talked about the importance of having that one friend who will instantly get your Jane Austen reference, who will know just what obscure character you mean and share your feelings about them. In fact, they ended the whole roundtable by saying, “Friendship!” in unison, with a kind of ironically sentimental intonation. But at the same time you knew at some level they really meant it.

Writers@Grinnell

After I blogged about a number of the fall Writers@Grinnell events, Dean Bakopoulos of the English Department invited me to do my own Writers@Grinnell event. It took place last month in the Mears Cottage Living Room. I was quite surprised–pleasantly so!–by the turnout. There were so many people that some of them had to sit on the floor behind the sofa where I was seated. There were a lot of students, most of whom I didn’t know (I did have one former student and one current student in attendance). There were some of my fellow speculative fiction reading group members. And there were some English Department faculty.

Hosting me was Paula V. Smith, also of the English Department. She gave me a lovely introduction and then revealed (to the audience and to me) that she had a surprise gift for me. It was a copy of Small CraftWarnings Vol. 1 No. 2, which she and her best friend had co-edited in 1981. Jonathan Franzen was also on staff at the time. Small Craft Warnings is one of Swarthmore College’s literary magazines; when I was there, I served on the editorial board for three years. The issue Paula gave me was one of the first under the magazine’s new name. I was delighted to receive it. The issue consists of poetry and photography, and a number of the poems are translations, from Chinese, Spanish, and French.

I spoke briefly about how Sparkers and Wildings came to be (the long journey for Sparkers and the much quicker crafting of Wildings), and then I took questions. They were all interesting! A couple had to do with my approach to writing specifically for middle grade readers: whether I thought about my audience or how I’d had to revise my books to make them suited to young readers (the political machinations can only be so twisty!). Someone asked about how to balance exposition and action when you have a lot of worldbuilding to do. Somehow the subject of what I’m writing next came up, so I gave away a couple of details about the project I hope will be my next book. My current student asked me about the languages in my fantasy worlds, and I explained that there were no full-fledged conlangs behind the languages in Sparkers and Wildings. But the language in my next book actually has a sketched-out grammar and a deeper vocabulary beyond what little makes it onto the page. Paula asked me about the names in Sparkers and Wildings, a topic I’ve thought about and get asked about relatively often.

Afterwards, I signed a few books, breaking out Isabelle’s stamp again, and chatted with a few students. One of them asked me about story ideas and length. That is, how do you generate enough stuff for a whole novel but not so much that it becomes too much? I wasn’t sure how to answer at first because I always write too long and then embark on epic word-cutting sessions. I’m not very good at writing short stories that are actually short. But upon reflection, I think it’s best, at least when drafting, to let a story grow to the length it wants to be, even if it’s awkward. Novellas exist! Then you can always revise, fleshing out bare bones or carving away excess until you have the story you intended.

Honolulu

Earlier this month I took a brief trip to Hawai’i, specifically to Honolulu, on the island of O’ahu. Almost exactly three years earlier, I’d visited Maui, which was the first time I’d been to Hawai’i. I enjoyed getting to go back, to a different part this time.

The weather was warm and sunny throughout my stay. I did a lot of clumsy stalking of birds, including zebra doves, spotted doves, cattle egrets, red-crested cardinals, common mynas, feral chickens and some adorable chicks, and a black-crowned night heron in the Ala Wai Canal (remember the one I saw in Central Park?). I got to wade a little on various crowded Waikiki beaches. I had hoped to walk a long ways along the ocean, the way you can walk from Santa Monica to Venice in LA, but there were a lot of barriers which made this impossible, so I alternated between beach and not-beach as I walked east.

I also got to taste a lot of good food, including a beet “poke,” ‘ulu (breadfruit, nicely starchy in the preparation I had), pohole (a type of fern, crunchy and tasty), and pa’i’ai (a type of pounded taro, a stage before poi). I ate an order of chocolate haupia pancakes, which were not bad and satisfied my taste for chocolate and coconut. Isabelle had introduced me to haupia (a coconut gelatin dessert), having learned of it herself from someone who’d been a grad student in Hawai’i. My last evening, I also had a sort of Hawaiian plate lunch, which I’d been hoping to try before I left.

Here are some photos:

Waikiki

Pretty fish!

Diamond Head, from Queen Kapi’olani Regional Park

The Ala Wai Canal

Dinner at Sam’s Kitchen: garlic shrimp, rice, salad, and potato salad (I was actually glad to get this because while macaroni salad intrigued me, I suspected I’d like it less!)

My First Iowa Caucus

Iowa is, of course, famous for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, the subject of intense attention on the part of candidates and the media in presidential election years when multiple contenders are vying for a party’s nomination. Last year, when I accepted my current job at Grinnell, I realized I’d be an Iowan for the 2020 caucuses. And more generally, I’d be living in Iowa for the remainder of the presidential race.

Many candidates made campaign stops in Grinnell (and many downtown storefronts were converted to campaign offices), but I didn’t actually see any of them. Either I found out about their visit only when it was already happening (Pete Buttigieg), or I didn’t try to get into their CNN town hall on campus (Joe Biden, Tom Steyer), or I just didn’t try to go (Elizabeth Warren). Bernie Sanders came to our local coffee shop, Saints Rest, with Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal the Saturday before caucus night; I found out a few hours earlier on Facebook and later heard there’d only been room for 60 people inside. I kind of regret not seeing any candidate give their stump speech to an Iowa crowd, but ah, well.

I was looking forward to the caucus because I figured it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I could participate in a political event that the eyes of the nation were glued to! (For the record, I don’t think it makes sense that Iowa plays this outsized role in the presidential nomination process, but that’s another discussion.) At 6:30, I walked the few blocks to my caucus site. Now, it had already crossed my mind that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to caucusing (as opposed to voting in a primary). I don’t really like talking to people I don’t know, especially about my political views. Consider this: I had contemplated going into the caucus uncommitted. When I arrived, a young campaign worker in a Pete t-shirt asked me who I was supporting that night, and I demurred, partly out of that lingering indecision and partly because I was not there to caucus for Pete. He immediately asked me what I was looking for in a candidate, and I started looking for the quickest way out of this interaction. I mean, the whole point of caucusing is to talk to your neighbors about why you’re supporting who, but I am clearly not meant for this type of gathering. But I at least wanted to witness it and be in the same room as people having those conversations. (Also, as far as I could tell, nobody was uncommitted in the first alignment at our caucus, so if I had been, I’m sure I would’ve been swarmed by representatives from every other candidate’s huddle, and that would’ve been an introvert’s nightmare.)

There were quite a few other new faculty in my precinct, most, if not all, of us caucusing for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. It was gratifying that everyone respected one another’s choice. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about one’s vote being public; I mean, now we all know who supports who. I’m a pretty big believer in voter privacy. But respect for political differences is supposed to be a hallmark of the Iowa caucuses, I’m told, and I felt it was observed at my caucus. There were also some new faculty in the observer section; they must not be registered to vote locally. We were not in the same precinct as the college students, and I believe our caucus was smaller than at least a couple of the other Grinnell caucuses. I was definitely reminded I now live in a small town (like most Iowans): one of the check-in volunteers was a former president of the college who attends the same church I do and whose name is on the local public library, and I also saw my landlord. The other day, I stopped by the grocery store, and one of the clerks at my register looked incredibly familiar. I knew I’d seen her somewhere recently, but I couldn’t figure out where, until it hit me: she’d been the precinct captain for our candidate’s group at the caucus.

After the election of the chair and secretary, we all lined up to receive a preference card (and be counted). The chair announced that there were 132 of us caucusing, and so the number of supporters a candidate had to reach in the first alignment to be viable was 20. Looking around the room, only Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg looked to have that much support. Indeed, after the first alignment, they were the only candidates to have passed the threshold (Sanders: 48, Warren: 33, Buttigieg: 25). Next, each precinct captain made a one-minute timed speech in support of their candidate. They spoke for Sanders, Gabbard (literally one guy), Yang, Warren, Klobuchar, Biden, and Buttigieg. Then everyone whose candidate was no longer viable had to find a new group. People in viable groups were not allowed to change allegiances. I thought it looked like most people flocked to Warren.

After the second alignment and a little math, our caucus was ultimately to send to the county party convention 5 delegates for Sanders, 4 for Warren, and 3 for Buttigieg. The chair was pleased to report that exactly 132 preference cards had been collected. Precinct captains recruited actual delegates and alternates, and then after a little business it was over. The whole thing had taken a little over an hour. We new Iowans left the caucus feeling pretty happy about our role in participatory democracy.

Later that night, national news outlets began wringing their hands: where were the results from Iowa? I was puzzled and a bit worried. Our caucus had gone so smoothly, so what was going on? I wasn’t too troubled, though, and I went to bed assuming I’d learn who the winner had been in the morning. Well. We all know how that went. At least the part about there being a winner.

But here’s where it got interesting for me. Despite being an Iowan on paper, I don’t actually think of myself as an Iowan. But I did caucus in Iowa last week, and I do live here. And suddenly it was really weird to me to be seeing all these opinion pieces in The New York Times about Iowa, mostly written, I believe, by columnists who haven’t actually been here, at least not for this caucus season. I had a bit of a What do they know? reaction, which should probably make me think harder when I read those same columnists on other parts of the country they may not have been to (I read The New York Times a lot). The caucuses were being portrayed in the media as a train wreck, with talk of the “debacle” and the “fiasco”; #IowaCaucusDisaster was trending on Twitter when I got up the next morning. And it was just so dissonant with my own caucus experience of orderliness, efficiency, and clear results. I’ve heard other Grinnell folks emphasize that the caucus process itself did work, and a lot of volunteers worked very hard to make sure it did.

My initial take was that the caucuses had gone just fine and it was the reporting that was the problem: an app that crashed and swamped phone lines. (Trying to implement the app without adequate training and testing was clearly a mistake.) But I didn’t think the rest of the country was making this distinction; from the headlines in the papers, they were probably concluding that the whole thing had been a horror show. And I knew from direct experience that this just wasn’t true. Moreover, there was a paper trail, so we’d know the real results in the end. I did think the reporting issues and the fact that there was no winner to report to a nation on tenterhooks was very unfortunate. I think it will undermine people’s trust in our electoral systems and make people more skeptical of and cynical about our democratic processes. And the last thing we need is for people to be discouraged from voting because they don’t think their vote will be counted properly. I was chagrined that the optics were so bad for Iowa when my caucus experience had been entirely positive, and I knew the Democrats’ nomination process was off to a very rocky start.

Later, I read a more worrisome report (yes, in The New York Times) about caucus numbers that didn’t add up or were internally inconsistent. If this report is true, that is bad. (The New York Times has since reported even more.) Caucus officers did have to report more sets of numbers this year, and I can imagine how this might’ve led to confusion. As far as I know, the caucuses are basically run by volunteers, many of whom probably have years of experience and are very competent. I would hope that there’s careful training and built-in safeguards to ensure that caucus results are reported accurately. I hope that the final Iowa results will express what happened on caucus night because with all the other flaws in our electoral system, at the very least we need well-run local elections.

Dangerous Instruments

Last Friday I went to the opening reception of the Stewart Gallery exhibit “Dangerous Instruments.” The Stewart Gallery, run by the Grinnell Area Arts Council, is inside the old Stewart library, now the Grinnell Arts Center, next door to the post office. The Arts Council runs all sorts of interesting activities that would probably be worth checking out. There’s even a pipe band. As in Scottish bagpipes. Am I missing my chance to realize my childhood ambition of learning to play the bagpipes? (Am I also missing my chance to learn to play viola da gamba through the Collegium Musicum?)

I digress.

“Dangerous Instruments” featured the creations of Eric McIntyre, hornist, composer, professor of music, and conductor of the Grinnell College orchestra. He built his musical instruments-cum-works of art from excavated pianos, horn bells, saw blades, axe heads, used munitions, bedpans, pitchforks, a tractor fuel pump, a mailbox, gun barrels, and more. Many of them were beautiful (with a certain rustic-ness) and elegant, and some of them literally had teeth.

A Dangerous Piano

The reception was crowded, and I think there was good representation from the ranks of the college orchestra. Gallery visitors were invited to play many of the instruments (gently), using little metal implements, beaters of various types, or giant washers. I tapped tentatively at a few things myself.

The Schlüsselspiel, one of the more melodious instruments

Around 7:00pm, the artist gave a little talk introducing all of his instruments and explaining how he’d made them. He goes to auctions to buy things like the equipment from an old sawmill. He performed on some of the instruments or demonstrated the kinds of sounds they could make. He seemed really interested in different types of resonances and showing how you could pluck or strum the tines of a pitchfork. He’d made a bow out of an old lightning rod and some bicycle part and used it to bow his “mailbox bass.” Honestly, I was not always particularly taken with the sounds these instruments made; they weren’t very musical to me (though I guess music is in the ear of the beholder). But other instruments had more delightful surprises: suspended wrenches and axe heads make surprisingly sweet bell-like sounds.

He also performed on some of the instruments, playing a Saint-Saëns romance on a horn with a bedpan for a bell and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on a double-belled horn built with the double barrels from an old rifle. He’d composed a piece for horn and these three motorized saw blade-and-bullet casings instruments, each of which made a perpetual tinkling sound.