Here, without much comment, is a picture of my old neighborhood. New Orleans, I miss and love you:
I’m a bad sleeper. This morning I woke up at about 4 a.m., after going to bed at 1. As I like to say, I “got a bug in my head,” which means that some anxiety or another entered my brain and I couldn’t shake it. So naturally it was only a matter of time this morning before I found myself laying on the couch reading the Wikipedia entry about domestic cats.
It’s a great read. The photo captioned “A cat that has caught a mouse” is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Here’s a sentence that really struck me: “Ethologically, the human keeper of a cat may function as a sort of surrogate for the cat’s mother, and adult housecats live their lives in a kind of extended kittenhood.” Extended kittenhood! Is there a more adorable phrase in the English language? Absolutely not.
Think about this for a moment. Kittens are the best. They’re small and adorable and playful and happy and squeaky and wonderful. Evolutionarily speaking, the domestic cat is barely removed from its ancestor, the African wildcat. So we’ve taken this wild creature, and in the process of domesticating it we’ve not just made it comfortable in our homes, we’ve also forced a sort of juvenile dependency on it. Under this understanding of cat ownership, my male cat, Puss, ruthless killer of mice and chaser of shoe strings, thinks of me as his mom. And since I’ll never leave him (never!), he’ll never quite grow up.
Cats are the Peter Pans of pets.
Of course, the flip side of this is that stunted development is scary. Are cats the Peter Pans of pets, or are they the Seth Rogens? The overgrown man-children of the pet world, capable of behaving like grown-ups and fending for themselves, but choosing instead to sit by an empty bowl on my kitchen floor and scream until I feed them?
(Notably, that Wikipedia article also suggests that cats’ high pitched meows are designed to mimic human babies. Which is hilarious and wrong because, you know, my cat has never met a human baby. But maybe that’s an evolutionary thing? Seems doubtful.)
Obviously I’m reading too much into this, and doing it on too little sleep. The relationship between cats and cat owners is a symbiotic one, even more so than between dogs and dog owners as cats are closer to their wild ancestors and less dependent on humans. Of course each cat develops differently than it would if we had never domesticated Felix cattus, but “extended kittenhood” is a little bit of a stretch.
Also, here’s a picture of a cat that has caught a mouse:
Toward a Personal Politics of Equity and Historicity
This website, as I currently use it, has a long and peculiar history. When I was 18 or so, I started a website called The Pamphleteer, which mostly sat unused for a couple of years. I had a Livejournal account (technically still active!) that I did actually use. Then I had the food-and-culture blog Eat Together with my now-wife, the URL for which has since been taken over by foreign pornographers and is effectively dead. Then I had this website, or at least its URL, on Tumblr for several years, occasionally using it to blog thoughtfully, mostly using it to interact with the small but active Tumblr-based community of New Orleans Saints fans. In the years since moving to California, I’ve wanted to re-launch a new food-and-culture blog, once going so far as to settle on a name and begin mocking up logos*.
I also went so far as to begin drafting up a mission statement for that website, a statement that articulated the values that I wished to communicate through the site’s exploration of the food and culture of Northern California in particular, the United States more generally, and the broad spectrum of other cultures most broadly. I wanted the site to reflect and subtly communicate my personal values and so, by necessity, that mission statement also expressed a number of values that (I hope) guide my personal, social, and political activities.
These values had a common theme, a theme that I hoped would be evident on my food-and-culture blog and that I am confident is apparent on this one. That theme is equity. In the food world specifically, a concern for equity must (I believe, though others may thoughtfully disagree) begin with a recognition of the power differentials that define our restaurants and foodways. I’ve discussed the presence of sexism in the food world before — sexism that is, by definition, rooted in the power differential between men and women. Other power differentials to consider in the food world (ones that were to be explicitly stated in my blog’s mission statement) include the differentials between patron and server, between the front of house and the kitchen, and between white Anglo-Americans and racial/cultural/linguistic minorities. Others exist, too, including the often-obscure relationship between farmers and the general public, or between farmers and distributors, or between farmers and pretty much anybody who isn’t a farmer.
In the end**, I didn’t have time or money to commit to the website about which I was fantasizing — at least not to get it to the polished level I wanted — so I’ve funneled my creative energies into this site, taking it off of Tumblr and devoting real work to it. This is my outlet for communicating my values, inasmuch as I want those values to pervade my discussions of the world around me. Sometimes, though, those values need to be communicated less subtly, more directly.
“What about you and Alex?” our friend Tiffany asked Franny just a day or two before we left New York City for good.
“I don’t know,” Franny responded. “I mean, I love him, but I don’t think he’s ever going to propose.”
At least, I’m sure she said something to that effect. That’s how that conversation was related to me by my groomsman John — Tiff’s boyfriend — on the day Franny and I got married nearly two years after moving from New York to California. John and I were around for that conversation, but we both missed it. We were probably talking about something more important, like the New Orleans Saints or the Indiana Pacers or whether or not we should order the three-liter boot of beer again.
The exact words are probably slightly different, because that’s just how memories work. But the idea is the same: yeah, she loved me, but was there a future? She wasn’t so sure.
This was intentional. I was playing a dangerous game. It was the Long Con. Unsurprisingly, it very nearly backfired on me.
Just a day or two after she apparently had that conversation, I proposed. It was, in a very traditional sort of way, a surprise to her*. This, too, was intentional.
The only way I knew I could ensure that it would be a surprise would be to make her think it was never going to happen. Franny’s desires, needs, and hopes were clear. We would have very open and honest conversations about marriage and proposing and how she wanted it to happen. I knew she didn’t want to wait forever to get married, but that she also wanted a longer engagement**. I believed she wanted it with me.
When we had these conversations, or similar conversations about having children, I would be honest as well. But then I would always add — because I’m sort of an asshole this way — that I wanted to wait five to eight years. Or four to six. It always changed, but it was always a long time. Always in the future. Never imminent. Never real.
Those claims weren’t far-fetched, and sometimes I really meant them. After all, I’m divorced, after a very short and ill-advised marriage in my early 20s. (Something so short and so far in my past that approximately half of my friends today don’t even know about it.) I’m more than a little unstable, too, having moved at least once a year since I graduated high school. In the last 11 years I’ve lived in 12 different apartments in five different cities and four different states. People like me are hard to pin down.
But deep down inside, I believed we were together for the long haul. I wanted to get married, and I wanted to propose. I talked about this with John several times over the course of that spring.
Meanwhile, we were having our roughest year personally and professionally. I was unhappy and underpaid at the fancy New York media job that we left New Orleans for. Franny was unhappy at her fancy New York corporate job — until she was laid off and, absent other options, returned to her job as hostess at an East Village restaurant. (Admittedly, an amazing restaurant — now closed — that was at the time among New York’s coolest restaurants.) I, more than Franny, was sinking. I had very quickly gone from a person she considered to have unlimited upside, boundless potential, the brightest future, to somebody who basically just walked around grumbling the F-word under my breath constantly. In New Orleans we knew all the scoops before they were public, and we were invited to all the cool industry events. We — not just me, but we — were cool. Now, I had a cool, fancy New York media job, but I was a wreck.
Not only was I no longer full of potential and exciting prospects, but also, I was kind of an asshole. I’ve always had that streak in me, where a little bit of discomfort can make me lash out at good people. (This was also an issue early in our relationship, when I would get entirely too drunk and say nasty things about people we were with. Not because I didn’t like her friends, but because I felt uncomfortable with the fact that I didn’t have my own***, and that her scene was different from what I was used to.) But now, in New York, I was turning into a bad partner.
Of course, nobody ever sees this in themselves. When you’re deeply unhappy, you also lose all self-awareness. Your actions — and their effects on the people around you — seem normal to you, while everything happening around you is the worst, and everyone is such a jerk, and this city smells like trash and everything’s terrible.
So this is the context in which I was playing my dangerous game. Is it any wonder that at the same time I was thinking about proposing, she was honestly and frankly assessing whether or not she should continue to allow me to hitch my wagon to her star?
In the end we stayed together, we made plans to move together****, and when I proposed she said yes. That last sentence suggests something very important: that things were not nearly as bad as the preceding 850 words made them seem. But that’s a better story, I think.
The real point, then, is simple. Last weekend I married the best person, and I’m deeply grateful that she’s continued to roll her dice on this bizarre unit we call “us.”
*There are important things to say about these tropes, and the way the proposal-engagement-wedding-marriage processes explicitly and implicitly negate women’s agency. In the proposal process, the man is the capacious agent, the woman is a passive recipient of his plans. It’s problematic for sure, and while my wife and I like how we did things, one must recognize how deeply it’s rooted in patriarchy and (let’s be real) sexism.
**In the end, we were engaged for just under two years. I proposed at the beginning of August 2013, in Baltimore, as we stayed there with my parents for a few days before moving west. We were married last week, in mid-June 2015. As we got to the end, we both agreed that maybe a shorter engagement would have been nice. It’s a funny, slightly awkward middle ground. It is, by definition, a transitory phase. And we sat in that transitory phase for quite a while.
*** Not having my own friends in New Orleans, and not really being allowed to, was a big reason my first marriage was so short-lived.
**** Our second cross-country move together, in as many years.
I get married in 16 days. In itself that’s exciting, but it also means that in 13-14 days much of my friends and family will be making the big trek across the country to California, the Golden State. I realized today (thanks to some stellar Instagram action) that this will be the first time to the West Coast for my favorite full-blooded sister*. It will be the same for my mother. I’ve known this about my mother since we first started planning the wedding — she’s afraid to fly, so I’m fairly certain she has only been west of the Mississippi once or twice, maybe just as far as the West Bank of New Orleans. But somehow the news about my sister was a surprise.
Upon making this realization, my first thought was: oh, I need to make sure she touches the Pacific Ocean.
When you think about it, that’s an odd first thought. She’s coming to California for the first time ever — there are so many natural and man-made wonders in this part of the country. The scenery is so stunning, the history and culture of the Bay Area is so rich, but the only thing I really need her to do while here is touch the ocean? Touching the Pacific was one of my big “bucket list” activities upon moving to California. It was a big deal when I finally did, some nine months after moving here**.
Water plays an important role in my life. My soul just reacts positively to water. Growing up near it, in a region whose identity and culture contain endless nods to the sea, perhaps this is just a function of being a Marylander. Maybe it’s more a result of my parents’ lifestyles, particularly my sailing, seafaring, occasionally-swashbucklin’ father. Whatever the reason, I’ve always felt a special connection to the water, in whatever form I find it: River, sea, ocean, or otherwise. When I’m stumped on a project or a piece of writing, I take a shower and I get clarity. It’s just deep within my veins.
But back to oceans. Coming from the East Coast, I do and always will think of the Atlantic as the Original Ocean. It’s the first American ocean, the one that people crossed to create our country. It’s the one we drove an hour or two to play in. It’s the one upon whose tributaries we lived. Every gutter in my mother’s neighborhood says “CHESAPEAKE BAY DRAINAGE DO NOT DUMP.” Everything runs to the Chesapeake, and the Chesapeake is a big, blue and beautiful arm of the Atlantic. But it wasn’t the Atlantic, it was just the ocean. The Ocean.
If the Atlantic is the original American ocean, the Pacific is the new ocean. For better or worse (often for worse), much of American history was defined by the push west. The Pacific Ocean was the endgame. Manifest Destiny told us Anglo-Americans that we had the right to everything from sea to shining sea, from east to west, and so westward we marched. Who cares what people were there already, if the French or the Spanish or the new Mexican Republic or, heaven forbid, indigenous people had preexisting claims on those lands. We marched west, and even still this is considered good and normal. There is, after all, very little nuance in the old Oregon Trail games.
There’s also the migrations from the Gold Rush, the Dust Bowl, and the San Francisco-centric counter culture. American history, it sometimes seems, has two overarching trends: wars with Europe and movement towards the Pacific Ocean.
Even today, going west is what one does. As an East Coaster (and former Gulf Coaster) living on the West Coast, there is something regressive-seeming about going back East (unless you’re going to try to make it in New York.) It’s a rhetorical trick — there isn’t anything regressive about it. It’s over 100 years since the last of the contiguous 48 states were added. The continental US, as it is today, has been set for a long while. This is your country. Move about as you please.
Still: it’s a Great American Thing to go west. It’s a $500 flight to go east.
(Related: my favorite West Coast thing is the way people here — including those who have never lived a day outside of California — refer to the East Coast as “back East.” Back there: that’s where we began***.)
Water is the lifeblood of a society. It explains why we live where we do. It feeds our economy, from transportation to agriculture to industry to tourism. It creates defining cultural symbols. It feeds and nourishes us, literally and figuratively. As a nation borne out of Anglo-European colonies, the Atlantic nurtured and raised us. But we grew up with — and toward — the Pacific. It made us who we are.
So if your sister is about to be on the Pacific coast for the first time, of course she has to put her feet in it.
*I have three sisters. Technically one is a half, one is a step, and one is a full, but they’re all just great.
**I may have had my feet in the Pacific once before, one a brief trip to San Diego in 2008. I can’t recall.
***I recognize that this discussion of the Pacific coast as defined by migration from east to west ignores all movements from Asia to the United States across the Pacific, or to the Western US from Mexico and south. I am intentionally regurgitating the understanding of the West Coast as understood by a middle class white kid growing up “back East.”
I once said something that seemed insightful, and whomever I said it to reacted in such a way that I started to really think maybe it was insightful, and it has stuck with me ever since. I’m certain it came in the context of a conversation about gentrification, because as a frequent gentrifier that’s a conversation I often have*. At any rate it definitely came in the context of a conversation about cultural preservation, because this is what I said:
To preserve is to kill. Once you start talking about “preservation” as such, that thing that you wish to preserve — as an organic product of the culture in question — is already gone.
My reasoning for that (intentionally controversial) statement is rooted in food, as most of my most important thoughts are. Think about preservation as a cooking method. When you eat a cucumber, it is pretty much the same vegetable it was when it was a living, growing thing on the vine. You pull it off the vine, you slice it up, you have a cucumber. But as an organic thing, that cucumber exists only on the vine, and for a short period after being removed. So what do you do if you love that cucumber and want to have it with you for months to come? You preserve it, by pickling.
But then it’s not a cucumber. It’s a pickle, reminiscent of the cucumber it was on the vine, but no longer the same thing.
The same thought experiment works for berries, preserved as, well, preserves. Or red meat, which when you cook it properly is bloody like the red-blooded mammal it came from, but which when preserved becomes jerky. You’re able to keep the food product with you, protect it from the ravages of spoilage and waste. You’re being respectful to the resources that were used to feed and water the plant or animal. But you’re changing its nature, definitively.
When you’re talking about historic preservation, of historic homes or battlegrounds or whatever, this is assumed, and it’s not a negative thing. It’s actually good. That home is no longer the residence of whichever rich and/or famous person once lived there, so it’s lost the vibrant, organic presence it had when it was in use, but still we want to preserve that for future generations to observe. Or the battleground, upon which battle is no longer taking place, is preserved for future generations to see and learn from. This is not a bad thing.
This applies to other cultural relics too, like, say, music or clothing from a bygone era. Because relics are, by definition, remainders of yesteryear**. Preserving them is less like pickling a cucumber or making blackberry preserves, and more like petrified wood. But petrified wood you made. (I don’t know, my simile is getting a little muddled. Like berries in a blackberry mojito. Oh lord, similes upon similes. Somebody save me.)
But when you start talking about preserving neighborhoods, protecting them from change, that’s when preservation, to me, becomes nonsense. Once you start talking about preservation, you’ve already lost. Because cultures are dynamic, organic things, constantly changing and evolving and progressing and regressing. Neighborhoods, as the buzzing physical embodiments of culture, necessarily change and evolve and progress and regress, too. Preservation implies you’re stopping that change, retaining what exists now and removing it from its context for good.
I’m venturing into Privilege Town here, I know. It’s easy for me to sit here and listen to music made by white guys appropriating other cultures and ramble about how we shouldn’t try to preserve neighborhoods or other cultural institutions. But I don’t mean to say that, instead, let’s just gentrify and displace and destroy, without any care for the people whose cultures we’re destroying. That’s like digging up the cucumber vine and leaving all the vegetables to rot, and is sort of like what often happens now anyway. Right before some well-intentioned but tone-deaf white twentysomethings say, hey, before you finish that let’s grab a couple of those veggies and preserve ’em.
My point is that we should be more proactive. We need to start caring about people and neighborhoods and cultures and everything else, before we get to the point of talking about “preservation.” Let them change and evolve and improve, but let it happen naturally. Once you start talking about preservation, you’ve already lost it.
*As a committed urbanite I’m not super-psyched about living in the lily white suburbs at the moment, but I guess one benefit is that this is the first time in the last 10 years I haven’t stressed about my role in broader patterns of social inequality and displacement. (Which is one of the purposes of the suburbs, probably: to not notice the broader patterns of social inequality.)
** Sincere apologies for using both “a bygone era” and “yesteryear” in a single paragraph. Every editor and employer I’ve ever had would slap me over the head for that.
Lately I’ve been trying to live a little more healthily. I like to have a drink or two or three or four, and I like to eat pizza in excess, and burritos upon burritos upon burritos, and basically just whatever else I can get my hands on. I’m a pretty fit dude, but lately it’s seemed like I could be a little kinder to myself. My body, mind and soul could all benefit.
But sometimes, that’s no fun. Especially when the lady is out of town — as she does sometimes, staying at her parents’ house because they’re closer to her work. Basically I just eat pizza and gummy bears and drink beer when she’s gone.
Today, out of curiosity I tallied all the calories I take in on a normal day. Today, a very typical day, I ate a very normal amount of food. I’ve recently started training for my next race, but I’m still in the early stages where I’m going on short, relatively slow runs. But still, today’s four miler, at a 7:20 pace, is close to 600 calories burned.
Tallying this today started with idle curiosity, but it led to a very active, happy thought: I’m going to eat a bag of gummy bears, and they’re going to be great.