28 July 2012

Flowers for Algernon

I just finished reading Flowers for Algernon, a book written back in the 1960s by Daniel Keyes. It is not for people who don't like an emotional (as well as intelligent) story. In it, we meet Charlie Gordon, a man in his 30s who works as a janitor at a factory. He has an IQ of 68, and struggles with reading and writing. In that struggle, however, he strives to better himself by attending reading and writing classes for adults. He is chosen as the subject of an experimental procedure designed to tripe the IQ of the person through brain surgery. The story doesn't get into the specifics of the operation, because it's not important, and because it's written as Charlie's diary.

Essentially, the operation is a success, and you see Charlie's diary getting more introspective, and the grammar, punctuation, and diction improving exponentially. You see him realise that all those people who were joking around and laughing with him at the factory were actually laughing at him. When he comes to that realisation, it hurts, and he talks about his feelings, now that he can look back on his former life.

At one point in the story, you realise that as rapid as his progress was, his decline on the other side happens as well. It almost feels like the author suggested that the accelerated learning happened at the expense of "using up" your brain's lifetime, which means that because you progress much faster, your eventual demise comes rushing at you equally quickly.

In a heartbreaking turn of events, you see Charlie losing things that he has grown to love. He loses languages he understood fluently. He no longer understands scientific papers he's written himself. His own progress reports become indecipherable to him. What's even more heartbreaking is that he thrashes around (mentally), desperately trying to hold on to those memories, those experiences, those joys he had.

It was all the more sad, because I myself do enjoy my intellectual pursuits. I love to read. In books, I find escape, I learn things, I dream, I become. Above and beyond that, however, I love learning new things. Whether it be about food, or science, literature, or minor trivia, I take pleasure in absorbing new knowledge. I can so identify with Charlie, as he struggles to grasp things that seem just out of his reach. Even though he finds it difficult, he keeps trying, because he has this inner drive to push himself to become better.

More than that, I enjoy writing. I love being able to get my thoughts down into words, and get them out of my head. It means that I don't have to sit around with those thoughts. They can be committed to paper (frequently) or the Internet (less frequently, but still enjoyable), and I no longer need to hold on to them. When I write for myself (in my personal diaries), or for myself and others (like on my blog), or for my husband (in the goofy little love notes I leave hidden in his bag, or his wallet, or other random places he will get surprised with), it's like I'm reaching out to a part of myself that would otherwise languish without the attention. It's almost like writing is healing.

Without those pursuits, I feel like my mind would be a dismal place.

What are some of the things that you hold dear?

27 July 2012


I had a teacher in 10th grade, who taught English. She was one of my favourite teachers of all times. She not only loved reading, but also writing, and obscure words. She loved going to England every year, and would show us pictures of her travels. She frequently asked us to read, and  to encourage it, she would offer extra credit to anyone who chose a book from her personal bookshelf (kept behind her desk), and come back and discuss it with her. The beauty of the deal is that she didn't make more work for herself by having you write a report on it. Instead, it was more like an informal discussion that you'd have with your friend about a book that she enjoyed, and that you enjoyed.

I remember being in her class, and having the infinite pleasure of meeting another book addict. I took her up on her offer. When my 2 books per semester ran out I asked if she didn't mind if I just kept reading, just for the hell of it. She had an extensive collection of Sidney Sheldon, Jeffery Archer, Ken Follet, and a bunch of other contemporary writers. They weren't High Literature, because she knew she was dealing with high school kids. Instead, they were just fun reads.

During this time, when I was enrolled in honours and AP classes, after school activities (AKA, drama club, track, and weekly prayer meetings with my parents), I still managed to read through one novel every day. The best part was her delight in giving me a book, having me read it, and discussing it with her the very next day. It's like instant gratification, because often when I reccommend a book to a friend, it takes them however long to read it, and we don't discuss it until weeks or months later. So to have another book addict to chat with was amazing.

She kept giving me thicker and more complex books. Jeffery Archer's As the Crow Flies, and Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth were two such examples. I knocked out As the Crow Flies in a day and a half, and Pillars of the Earth in three.

There was this lady, intelligent, talented, and lots of fun to hang out with, teaching a class of honours English to students who frequently didn't appreciate reading. year after year. I remember asking her one day how she could keep up. "Aside from finding other book addicts like you, I find that every year, I learn more from my students."

I was floored. Here was this woman, who was so intelligent and varied in her interests (and books), who said that she was learning from her high school students! Ever since then, I have made it my personal mission to see to it that I strive to learn from everyone I meet, even when it's me who's the teacher in that situation. One of my cooking students, Ari, mentioned that she hates to wrestle with a butternut squash, because she's not got the arm strength for it. So, she just throws the whole thing into the oven like that, and roasts it until it's tender. This is something she  taught me after I'd spent day after day in the restaurant kitchen, wrestling enormous piles of butternut squash, and cursing every minute of it (they really are stubborn). Here's someone who was asking me to teach her to cook, teaching me a new technique to use in my own life!

Never discount the lessons that you learn from others. Even those who are younger, or less experienced, or less talented. All of them have something to teach you.

Thank you, Mrs. Deshong. You are a wonderful teacher, and I hope that wherever you are today, you're enjoying a good book.

24 July 2012

How to land that job.

1) Don't use a generic "Objective" statement. We're all well aware that you're trying to get this job to use your skills that you've learned. Instead, tailor the objective statement on your resume to suit the job you're seeking. For example, if you're looking for a job in a store, as a cashier, you might say something like, "To ensure that every customer who walks past my cash register feels important, and cared for." In other words, tailor each resume to the job you're looking for, based specifically on each company you send it to. If you're sending a generic resume to everyone, you haven't spent any time on it, aside from the initial writing of said resume.

If you're not going to spend any time on writing the resume, why should I spend any time reading it?

2) Proofread any written communications with your future employer. Yes, even if you send it from your phone. Glaring grammar or spelling errors make you look careless.

3) Show up on time. I cannot stress this enough. Nothing short of the second coming of Jesus should delay you on your interview date. Leave your home two hours earlier than you think you'll need to get there. Why? Traffic delays happen. Spills happen. Rips and tears to your clothes happen. Subways get held up for train traffic, or lost power, or idiots holding open the door. You show up to the area that your job is going to be at very early, and you now have a bit of time to chill out, and relax. If you're late, someone else who wants the job badly enough to show up on time will win out over you. Even if your excuse sounds valid, the employer will still be thinking, "Well, how many other excuses will they come up with if I hire that person?"

4) Even if you get another job before your interview date, send a communication to that person who arranged it. It's a bad idea to burn bridges. No job is ever 100% certain. If you leave a good impression on the person in charge of hiring and firing, you have a chance of getting that job later on, should the one you got right now not pan out.

5) Know about the company you're applying to. I'm not saying that you need to go spend money there, but it helps to do some homework on the place you want to work at.


I have an innate terror about feeling hungry. Call it childhood trauma (NOT from my mother, for the record; she made sure that the house was perpetually stocked with good things to eat) or what have you, but that feeling of knowing that there is nothing for me to eat gives me severe anxiety. I make sure to eat well before leaving my home.
Anyone who's watched me eat knows that I generally eat very frequently. I could have just eaten a very short time ago, but we pass another bit of food I want later, and I've got to stop and refuel. It's like that initial anxiety you get when you first have your new mobile phone. You're not comfortable with its battery life yet, so you charge it too frequently for that first month. You hate knowing that you'll be without charge at a critical moment. In reality, it's probably not that huge a deal. If the thing is running low, you can really just turn it off and turn it back on when you need it. But until you learn that, you're still in dread of the battery running out.
I guess that because I'm a vegan, my lack of food anxiety tends to be pronounced. I have been places where the only option is a cup of black coffee with some sugar. And no, there isn't bread that I can trust. You see, it's been such a while since I've had dairy, that even a small amount in my food (even when I don't know it's there) sends my digestive system into a violent protest. Eggs can sneak by without my notice. Honey doesn't actually do anything. But dairy, when I accidentally ingest it, has me wrapped around the porcelain overlord, sweating profusely, and blasting from every orifice. Not a pleasant feeling.
So it's especially a nerve-wracking experience to leave my little vegan bubble. You see, I work at a vegan restaurant, am married to a committed vegan, and keep a vegan house. The friends that I socialise with on a regular basis are at the very least vegetarian. Those who aren't generally tend to be respectful omnivores, and are happy to wait until leaving my presence before settling down to animal flesh and the rest. Pretty much every restaurant in my city (including the steak houses, I found out on one particularly annoying night) can and is often happy to serve me something not only filling, but delicious. If I call ahead, I even sometimes get a fairly excited chef, who'd like to try out something experimental to see if I like it. At the local Chinese food delivery place, they have a selection of veggie meats to go with all their dishes. And they know what I mean when I ask for vegan.
When I leave my bubble, however, it's not so easy. These are often places with no mass transit, and I don't drive, and everything is spaced out really far apart. On those occasions, I'll end up at a convenience store or pharmacy, and grab some cashews, or crackers. But frankly, after a few hours, crackers and cashews don't really feel satisfying, dense in calories though they be.
All of this has done nothing at all to relieve my anxiety around hunger. I hate feeling hungry. It's one of those things that I've had to experience so rarely that to actively get myself into a situation where such is the case infuriates me.
But if I stop to think about it, I realise that I'm really being silly. Being hungry is not the worst thing in the world, especially considering that I live in a country where food is readily available to me when I want it. So what if I do have to skip a meal once in a while? More will be waiting later. And maybe letting myself get hungry once in a great while will make the meal at the other end of the experience taste all the more delicious.
It's something I'm working on, and I know I can get through it if I try.
I'm still going to carry a bottle of water though. 

13 July 2012


When I started working at the restaurant, I began noticing that in nearly every item on the menu, there were little symbols, like "gf", or "ns", or "sf". Bossman and I talked about it, and I mentioned how amazing I thought that the convention of marking clearly on the menu what is and isn't safe for the big allergens was. It's the same reason that we get the restaurant Kosher. Same reason that we try to aim for making specials that are safe for as many people as possible: it's just good hospitality.

My mother has been cooking for years. She's been cooking for so long that she does little things without even realising that she does it. For example, when it's a new person coming to her house, she quickly assesses who they are, where they're from, what kinds of things they may enjoy, and their level of spice tolerance. She'll still make one or two things suited to the rest of the family. However, for the guest, she'll make sure that the food is accessible to as many people as possible. She won't use the weird, bitter, or strangely textured vegetables. She'll avoid anything too spicy, or too difficult to wrangle. She'll stick with things that have excellent flavour, but don't have loads of hot peppers or black pepper.

Then, once the person has come over a few times, she'll adjust as necessary. However, for large groups of people, such as when she makes food for the temple potlucks, or for large gatherings of friends, she'll still stick to those basic rules: no major allergens (dairy, gluten, soy), no challenging flavours (very bitter, or very hot and spicy), and lots of flavour.

So when I came to Chow, it was like coming home. When I have guests coming over, I do the same thing. I'll ensure that I make something that everyone can enjoy. If a friend of mine is gluten intolerant, I don't make just one thing for that person. I'll try to make the whole meal gluten free. Why? Because to see that look of happiness when they can eat (almost) everything on the very well-filled table is gratifying. You feel good, knowing that you've made that person feel special. Meanwhile, the people who aren't gluten intolerant can still enjoy gluten free food! Everyone wins!

When you do have a friend with a* diet issue, please just challenge yourself to do everything in your power to cater to that person, and have the whole meal follow that plan. At the end of the day, what does it hurt to just try it out for a bit, and see where it leads you?

*Notice the "a" diet issue. I'm not asking you to turn into a hospital, where folks who are deathly allergic to soy, gluten, nuts, grains, raw vegetables, coconut, spices, oil, and herbs ALL AT THE SAME TIME feel like they need to have you jumping through hoops. There comes a point where someone just starts making stuff up, or where you're just not able to accommodate them. If your body hates you that much, I can't really help you. I'm willing to learn, of course. So if you are one of these folks, let me know what you eat, and I'll see what I can do.

10 July 2012


2 parts toor daal
1 part barley
1 part brown rice
1 part mung beans
1 part masoor daal
3 dried mulato chiles
3 dried ancho chiles
3 dried pasilla chiles
2 dried chile de arbol
1 TB fenugreek seed
1/3 part urad daal

Soak overnight. Using the soaking liquid, grind to an absolute paste along with 1 part grated ginger, a generous sprinkle of salt, and 1 part curry leaves loosely measured. Fry off in your favorite pancake skillet and eat with great gusto.

Happy Birthday, Amma

Amma (mother, in Tamil) and I have had a long-standing tradition that on my birthday, we celebrate both the person who's been alive another year (the birthday boy), and the person who got him there in the first place (the mother). It's a good tradition, and one that the ravages of distance and time have not managed to kill off. Now that my mother is on the other side of the country (and for anyone who's familiar with the sheer size of the USA, will know that it might as well be the other side of the planet), we continue the tradition over the phone, which is just as nice, because there are fewer distractions.

That being said, I'm preemptively making this post, because I know Amma reads this thing, so that in case the unthinkable happens, and I manage to astoundingly bungle what really is my favourite part of my birthday celebration (due to being too tired after work, or not charging the phone, or something else equally annoying and dumb), I will have at the very least made it clear that the first thing I thought about when I woke up this morning at 5:30 (after the initial thoughts of "ACK! BATHROOM!") was indeed my mother. However, because she's like three hours behind, I'm not about to wake up the entire house to call her at that ungodly hour. Especially not when my nephew is likely sleeping, and getting woken up by the phone is Not To Be Considered.

It's strange. I've had an inexplicable dread of hitting this particular milestone for a while now. I'm 30. Ugh. Even writing it makes me uneasy. But here it is, and I might as well admit to the old age that I've been cultivating since the age of 5. One of my aunts mentioned (in an amused tone, for the record), ages ago, that I was in equal turns an unabashed young child, and a 75 year old man at the same time. So. Here I am. 30 years old.

I've met (and married and stayed together with) the sort of man who I used to think only existed in sappy romance novels. I've written and had published my first book. I'm working at a place where I enjoy the fruits of my labour, and the challenges excite rather than drag down. I've got some pretty close friends who enjoy spending time with me. I've got a comfortable little home in a city I love dearly. I've managed to get rid of most of my major vices, and have reeled in any that I haven't given up completely (I'm not trying out for sainthood).

There are definitely things that I still want to do, that I still look forward to being able to do. But I've got plenty of time for those. It's not like I'm 30 or something.

Oh wait.

If I'm being perfectly honest with myself, the outpouring of love and good wishes from family (my sister called and left a voicemail at 12:30 AM last night, while I slept, and thereby managed to be the first to wish me, which she promptly followed with an email; her husband emailed shortly after that) really is life-affirming. I love that I inspire good feelings towards me, and that people want me to be happy. I've also gotten some lovely emails from fans who've been around since day one, from the before time when I was just a voice on a podcast, or a few words on the screen.

Thanks to Amma for my birthday, as always. Thanks to all my friends and family and fans who have sent over their lovely words of support and love. Thanks to my angel husband who still somehow enjoys my company. It's a good time to be 30.