From the mouths of babes

When I was a teenager, over the course of about a week, three different companies starting building self-storage facilities along the same block. It was as if, unbeknownst to each other, they all bought the same consumer research poll that indicated my neighborhood was full of people with too much stuff willing to pay for storage.

Lately, I’ve been overcome with the feeling that ad agencies have done the exact same thing. Except, instead of building vast mazes of padlocked cubes, they’re all shooting television spots featuring kids. More, specifically, television spots featuring kids acting like adults. I’ve talked before about the sales potential of harnessing adorable, but these kids are anything but. They’re actually kind of, well… jerks.

These two smug little bastards are pushing the Amazon Fire Phone. This is actually the least annoying of their ads, so thank your lucky stars I couldn’t find the one where the child-man is speculatively buying real estate investments as the child-woman glares at you in haughty judgement. Even without watching the entire commercial, their hats make it clear from the start that I will hate them.


While the ad is meant to show off the features of the phone, all it really does for me is demonstrate how we as humans are quickly losing our ability to socially interact with other humans. These two are sitting at a table, together, facing each other, and the only conversation they have is telling each other a list of things they’ll be doing individually on their phones. Also, that is a soft boiled egg. Its consumption is time dependent. Put down your damn phone and eat your damn egg before it congeals.

This kid gets a solid ranking on the adorable scale, but rather than working with that, Subaru decided to turn his dream sequence into a nightmare sequence. He only gets a few frames of looking cool for his friends before he’s making a bleary-eyed carpool run, battling with a meter reader, scraping groceries off the asphalt, and waiting in traffic for the rhythmic swish-swish of his wiper blades to slowly drive him insane.


The intention of the commercial is to tell you that while this kid isn’t quite ready yet for car ownership, the car will be durable enough for him to drive when he is old enough. The problem with their approach is that, by the end of the ad, I’m no longer thinking about the car. I’m thinking about how underwhelming adulthood is. I’m thinking about the cramp I got in my calf yesterday while pressing the brake on and off during rush hour traffic. I’m thinking about curling up in a ball and softly crying myself to sleep. Congratulations, Subaru, you’ve plunged me headfirst into an existential crisis.

Much like Amazon, Comcast wants to you to equate their product with young, successful, entrepreneurs. They want you to see how Xfinity is so awesome that you won’t notice any disruption in service when your kid invites over the entire block to mooch off the internet that you pay for in order to build a very vaguely-worded “tech start-up” in your garage. Judging by all the gear, he likely also swiped your credit card to pay for his operation costs.


Your child will then proceed to back-talk his own grandfather, who looks bewildered in his new role as the unpaid intern in charge of all the tedious coding. My takeaway is that Xfinity will turn your child into an entitled asshole with no respect for authority and no love for family. Basically Xfinity will turn your child into the human version of Comcast. He will know success, but you will know only regret and disappointment.

Why net neutrality is worth fighting for

For a large majority of people, the term “net neutrality” doesn’t really mean much. It’s probably something you’ve heard mentioned a few times over the past year, but you likely dismissed it for sounding too technical or too boring or too… virtual. So, I’m going to ask you to think of it in a different way. Instead of saying net neutrality, I want you to say “corporate censorship.”

Really say it. Say it out loud. Make it real.

Corporate Censorship

Because that’s what the elimination of net neutrality really boils down to. Without it, the small handful of internet providers in the country will be able to legally throttle internet speeds. If you want people to be able to access your website, you’re going to have to pay to play. Just a small business starting out? An all-volunteer academic resource? A personal blog? Welcome to the slow lane.

Without net neutrality there would likely have never been an eBay. No Amazon. No Wikipedia. No Etsy. At their inception, none of these companies would have been able to afford to pay Comcast or Verizon the fees they’re proposing in order for their site to be accessible.


If you’ve never experienced it before, throttled internet is difficult to comprehend. I lived in China for nearly six years, a country whose own government routinely throttles the internet. If it was a sensitive date (e.g. June 4) or a time when officials were in Beijing to convene or sometimes just because an incident resulted in scrutiny from the international press, the government would intentionally slow the web to a crawl. As a companion action to outright blocking sites, this served as a convenient form of censorship via denial of service.

Working as the Web Editor for a magazine, this often made it impossible to do my job. “Sorry guys, we just can’t internet today,” was a phrase spoken more times than I can count. Part of my decision to leave Beijing and move back to America was related to this web sabotage. Now, to find out this could soon be a reality here as well, I’m supremely disappointed. More than disappointed, actually. I’m mad. Furious.

You don’t have to be web-savvy to care about the cause. Because this really is about more than the web, it’s about control. If the FCC eliminates net neutrality, then corporations will not only control the speed of the internet, they’ll control what information you’re given access to. They’ll be able to set the price tag so high that only those with the deepest pockets will have websites that load quickly and smoothly. Without net neutrality, the internet will effectively become a class system.

Get involved. Your freedom of speech may very well depend on it.

Faking it – Low carb pumpkin pudding

The only thing about autumn eating that I love more than pumpkin is pumpkin spice. I find it fascinating that this particular blend of spices really does only work in the presence of pumpkin. You could put cinnamon and cloves together; you could put cinnamon and nutmeg together; you could even put cinnamon and ginger together. But somehow putting cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg and ginger together on anything other than pumpkin just tastes… wrong.

Unfortunately, in my quest to spend the impending winter whittling away my existing fat stores, I needed to find a way to enjoy my favorite seasonal flavor responsibly. If you get a 12oz Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks (the smallest size available) it contains an impressive 38g of sugar. As delicious as it may be, it’s not so delicious that I’m going to risk diabetes for it. Considering I’ve had some good luck recently at faking other foods, I figured I could manage a guilt-free pumpkin dessert.


This recipe, while low carb, is not exactly what I would call clean eating. It still calls for some processed food, but I’m ok with that since it’s just an occasional treat and not a regular meal item. For people who are strictly paleo or generally anti-processed, I’d be curious to hear your input on how to sub out ingredients to make this all-natural.

For this flavor explosion, you will need:

  • 15oz can of pumpkin (or about 1 3/4 cup homemade pumpkin puree)
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 4-serving box of instant sugar-free pudding mix (I prefer either cheesecake or butterscotch flavor)
  • Vanilla extract (to taste)
  • Your favorite pumpkin spice blend (I went with cinnamon, ground ginger, and ground nutmeg)

So, here’s the thing with me and spices – I don’t measure them. Ever. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that I get a good feel for how much is needed and I trust my gut. For this recipe you could use pre-mixed pumpkin pie spice. I decided not to because I wanted to leave out the cloves from a cold dessert. A good rule of thumb for this particular mix is half as much ginger as cinnamon, then half as much nutmeg as ginger. I was a little heavy-handed with both the ginger and the nutmeg in my most recent batch, which gave it a very slightly spicy, savory kick. Still delicious.


Assembling it is fairly straightforward:

  • Carefully mix together the pumpkin, vanilla, spices, and half of the coconut milk into a large bowl. Make sure the bowl is about twice as big as the volume of pumpkin, because you need room for the liquid to slosh around while you mix it in. I learned this lesson the messy way.
  • Slowly stir in the pudding powder until it’s completely incorporated. Then, carefully stir in the rest of the coconut milk.
  • If you have the willpower for portion control, leave the pudding in the large bowl. If you prefer to set yourself some boundaries, portion the pudding into 6 individual servings. Let it chill in the fridge for at least an hour before eating (overnight for best results).

The first time I ate this, I’m pretty sure my eyes rolled into the back of my head. It tastes like pumpkin pie filling, but without the lingering malaise that always seems to follow pie consumption. If you’re looking for a crust substitution, try topping it with some toasted almonds or pecans. This is also a great way to fancy it up for dinner guests, who will have no clue the pudding they’re scarfing down is basically a health food.


The weaving of a tale

There is a spider who lives in the window over my bed. Her web is strung like a safety net, woven horizontally between screen and glass so that she’s able to perch herself in the joint of the window frame. At the point in the morning when I open the blinds, the sun is at just the right angle to reflect the iridescent slopes of her handiwork. Myself a creature of habit, I’ve taken to greeting her as I start the day.

It’s generally just an offhand comment, a quick “Good morning, window spider!” as I fold sheets and fluff pillows. (I have yet to come up with a better name than that, but often simple observation just feels right.) Sometimes I’ll remark on the fact that she continues to grow, despite me never seeing her actually catch anything to eat. This morning I noted that she seemed to have weathered last night’s storm rather expertly, already adding a secondary layer under her net where holes wore through.


I realize that it must sound rather bizarre to hear me explain so casually my chatting up an arachnid. And on that point, I probably should have prefaced the post by telling you that I’ve always been a bit of a talker, even to inanimate objects. Any of my previous roommates could relay an instance where their shouts of “What?” were met with statements like, “Not you, the microwave!” or “I was talking to the sofa!” My internal monologues have a way of becoming external dialogues.

So, in that sense, it really is only fitting that I should transition myself from dreams to wakefulness by talking to a spider. She quite literally watches over me while I sleep, and the poet in me has started thinking that she’s there to filter out the negativity that would latch on to me in the vulnerable night. Or maybe she is really he, my own little Anansi to gift my subconscious with tales of clever triumph. I hold a tiny (very tiny) hope that one morning I’ll wake to see “SOME WRITER” woven over me like a silken miracle.


Of course, the pragmatist in me knows that she is just a spider. But in researching what kind of spider she is (a task that proved to be a war of wills), I learned that she’s just my kind of spider. Tegenaria domestica, the common house spider, is also known as a barn funnel weaver due to the conical retreat built into the end of the web. It’s an immigrant spider – coming over on ships from Europe in the 17th century, they found a new home in the port cities of the Eastern seaboard.

This species is shy, not poisonous, and more perceptive than her orb-weaving cousins. Her web isn’t sticky, so she can’t rely on chance prey, but she’s also not an aggressive hunter. Instead she sits patiently, her front pair of eyes able to detect shapes, and waits for the opportunity to grab food she knows she’s able to dominate without danger. House spiders can see humans, perceive their enormity, and choose to back away rather than confront them.

Still a poet at heart, I keep coming back around to the tale of Arachne, the spider’s mythological namesake. Her story is meant to illustrate the danger of excess pride, though it seems to me to be more about female jealousy than anything else. Of all the versions out there, I prefer Ovid’s, in which Arachne not only out-weaves Athena, she does so with a tapestry that illustrates various scenes of gods taking advantage of mortals. Athena, proving Arachne’s point, throws a tantrum in which she destroys the tapestry, poisons Arachne, and curses her to be a spider for eternity.

My own addition to the tale is the thought that perhaps Arachne, having suffered the unjust wrath of the gods, is determined to look out for us mere mortals. That by cursing her into a spider, Athena inadvertently also blessed her with a certain immortality. Quiet and unassuming, she weaves a protective layer between the angry sky and my gentle heart.

My summer vacation in Detroit

“I’m taking a long weekend in Detroit,” is not a phrase I ever thought I’d say. It’s also not a phrase people expected to hear. But some of my Beijing friends were going to be back in the states for a few weeks, visiting their families in Michigan, and as it turns out, airfare from Baltimore to Detroit is crazy cheap. Go figure.

To be fair, I didn’t spend the entire weekend in Detroit. I flew in on Saturday morning, spent the day in Detroit, then drove about 40 minutes from downtown to stay with Kiki’s family for another two days. But the city did make a distinct impression on me, especially considering I had absolutely no clue what to expect.

For starters, Detroit is eerily quiet. There were barely any cars on the highway driving in from the airport, and still remarkably few once we hit the downtown core. Block after block of buildings stood vacant like a ghost town, feeling not so much empty as they were relinquished. I’ve honestly never seen so few people walking around a major city. It was a beautiful, breezy, sunny weekend day, and yet there was nobody around.


According to Wikipedia, 25% of the city’s population left between 2000 and 2010, and the numbers have fallen even further since then. The most recent census (2013) indicates a population around 681,000, which equals something like 38% of what the population was at the city’s peak. Flipped around the other way, that means there are currently 62% fewer people living in Detroit than there were in 1950. Considering the rate of exodus, the current numbers are probably even lower than that 2013 census.

It certainly isn’t a mystery as to why people are leaving. The recession sucker-punched the auto industry, and it took a hard fall. Subsequent automotive recall scandals have done little to drum up sales for domestic car companies. Where there is widespread unemployment, there is bound to be a population in flux.

A decrease in jobs leads to an increase in desperation, and in turn an uptick in crime. Among the largest cities in America, Detroit has the highest per capita rate of violent crime. What makes it stand out even more is that fact that Windsor, Ontario, just over the river (and the Canadian border), has an exceptionally low violent crime rate. In fact, 4 of the 5 safest communities in Canada are located in the Windsor Metro Area.


All this being said, my overwhelming takeaway from my time in Detroit is this – The people of Detroit are some of the most genuine, welcoming human beings I have ever met.

Driving into Corktown, we parked the car in a guarded community lot and ended up having a boisterous (very colorful) conversation with the lone guard. He let forth a rousing belly laugh when discussing the abandoned commercial property adjacent to the lot, which had recently been fitted with a handful of new windows randomly scattered throughout the building. Pointing to an empty shell of a skyscraper across the field, he directed our eye to a lone, shimmering piece of glass near the top of the structure.

Around the corner, we found the coffee shop we had driven in for, and the line stretched out the door onto the sidewalk. The crowd was eclectic – bearded hipsters in unseasonal sweaters clutching mugs for refills; a group of cyclists in matching neon spandex jumpsuits stopping in for water; a mother with her young child sitting on the floor at her feet, wheeling a toy car in circles; a couple tattooed from head to toe eating quiche at a sunlit table; a handful of young professionals furiously typing away on laptops.

The cafe thumped like a heartbeat, its dedicated clientele the blood pumping life back into a tired city. We ran into an old friend of Kiki’s, clutching her nine-month-old niece bedecked with a thick, gold chain necklace. She led us down the block to show us the charcuterie she would soon be opening, next to an auto body shop and across the street from an overgrown, vacant lot. She beamed as she pointed out the fresh coat of vibrant teal paint on the walls, before leading us to a small, fenced-in patio. Her hope, she said, was to expand into the space between her and the corner, doubling the size by next summer.


We ate lunch at a charming corner bistro nearby, seemingly the only open door on its block, where we had stellar bowls of cheap, homemade pasta. We sat at the bar, chatting with the bartender about his other life as a DJ and explaining the China roots of our friendship. He had apparently been to Baltimore once to DJ a party and ended up getting punched in the face by a stranger in a Fells Point bar. He related the story jovially, with more amusement than anger. When we left, he shook each of our hands and said he hoped to see us again. I believe he genuinely meant it.

The lost art of the letter

There is something inherently magical about a letter. It’s tactile communication – paper touched by the hand of another, tucked into an envelope that traps their air inside and transports it to you. I find it fascinating, and even slightly romantic, that we still lick envelopes to seal them shut. In a sense, peeling a letter open is like a kiss on your hand.

Letters have a cadence that facilitates a reply, built right into the structure. Not only do you tell the person how you’re doing, what you’ve seen, how you feel, but inevitably you also ask the receiver of the letter about his own well-being. And then, contrary to every modern impulse you have, you wait patiently for a reply. The anticipation is part of the joy of the sending.


When I was a kid I collected postcards. Most of them are blank, souvenirs I picked up in gift shops or brought back to me from friends or family. But flipping through my collection today, I found a few that were actually mailed to me. A handful are from Elodie, a French girl we hosted one summer when I was nine or ten. She sent the family a postcard from each destination she traveled to on vacation – a stunning pink sky against the pristine snow of Val Thorens, shop lights reflected in the harbor of Saint-Tropez, fireworks over the Eiffel Tower.


Some of the postcards function like time capsules, capturing little moments that would have otherwise been forgotten. A friend on vacation writing to see if I want to go to the movies when he returns home; a mentor on a business trip describing the museums of Paris; greetings from a Polish girl I met at summer camp.

The one that struck me in particular was a postcard sent to me from New York in 1994, the Twin Towers bathed in copper light. The writer is someone named Christina, though I can’t remember who she is or where I met her. She asks how my novel is coming along. I don’t remember that either, but apparently it sounded really good to her.


In fact, a few of the postcards are from pen pals – perfect strangers who received my name and address through chain letters. These days we’re all so guarded, so private, that the idea of giving out an address sounds like a crazy risk to take. But when you think about it, it’s really not such sacred information. Not only are most of us listed in the phone book, but the phone book is now an online database with address, map, and even age.

As an experiment in personalizing the cold reaches of cyberspace, I’m going to ask you to send me your address. With the request comes a promise of handwritten correspondence. A letter, or a postcard, or a drawing, or maybe even a box, sent to you from me. This invitation is open to friends and strangers alike, in the hope that I can keep the magic of the mail alive. You can get in touch with me using my contact form (and I sincerely hope you do).

Faking it – Coconut flour biscuits

By now, most of you know that I am in the midst of a quest to convince myself that grains are gross because they make me feel gross. This is only half-true, since all carbs are delicious, but regardless of how tasty they are I’ve noticed that eating grains (as well as processed foods) leaves me wishing I hadn’t. In addition to just a general sense of malaise, my muscles ache, my skin gets irritated, and my head is filled with a thick fog.

The problem is, sometimes I just want to eat a damn pretzel. Or a piece of toast. Or a biscuit.

The first two I haven’t figured out yet, but last week I think I came as close as a human can to perfecting a grain-free biscuit. I had made previous attempts with almond flour (which is my go-to flour alternative for sweeter baked goods), but those biscuits came out dense, chewy, and flat. I took to the internet and found that most people seem to use coconut flour for baking breads. This seemed odd to me at first because I would more quickly associate almonds with savory than coconut.


Not one to shy away from culinary experimentation, I picked up a bag of coconut flour and got down to business. Since the internet also insists that different brands produce different results, for this recipe I used Bob’s Red Mill Organic. Not because I have any allegiance to it, but rather because it was the only coconut flour available at the store I went to. I used this recipe as a starting point, and really only changed the flavor-related ingredients while retaining her structure.

The result was a fluffy, just slightly cheesy, perfectly puffed-up biscuit. It was a little drier than I would have hoped, but only slightly, and I think that wouldn’t be an issue at all if I were using these to mop up chili or smothering them with gravy (two applications that I very much intend to test).


If you have a gluten sensitivity, make sure that you’re using a baking powder that’s clearly marked as gluten free. While you probably already know this, I figured it’s still worth mentioning that most brands use corn or potato starch (both totally cool) but some also use wheat starch (full of gluten). If you don’t eat dairy, you should be able to replace the butter with ghee or another oil, but I don’t think there’s much you can do about the cheese. Except maybe let a little cheese back into your life.

Parsley-Parmesan Coconut Flour Biscuits


  • 1/3 cup coconut flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic & herb seasoning (my favorite is McCormick)
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 handful chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan


  • Preheat oven to 400 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper
  • Mix together all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. I prefer to use a glass bowl so that dough is easier to mix.
  • Add in the cheese and chopped parsley, stirring to evenly distribute
  • Stir in melted butter, then eggs
  • Mix well until there are no lumps and a dough forms. This requires a bit more mixing than regular flour would.
  • Drop by the spoonful onto the parchment-lined sheet. Leave a little space for the biscuits to expand.
  • Bake for 15 minutes

The original recipe said this would make ten biscuits, but I only ended up with nine. This is quite likely due to the fact that I made larger biscuits than the recipe intended, though the cooking time remained the same. The biscuits came out of the oven smelling amazing, with golden brown bottoms and pillowy tops. Unlike some of my previous biscuit attempts, they taste just as great as they smell.