Molting birds

My name is Sara and this is a newsletter about my goings-on, which generally include being a neighborhood busybody, subjecting myself to pointless challenges, and reading eclectically. You probably signed up because you know me already, but if you are confused and upset about receiving this email, there is a link to unsubscribe at the very bottom.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Every evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” - John Berger.

The mockingbirds in my neighborhood are molting. I’ve always thought that mockingbirds have a defiant stance, as if they are daring the entire world to try them. Now that they are molting, they look more ridiculous than defiant. Their bodies are fuzzy like those of juvenile birds. Some parts are fluffed up while others are pared down showing just how small their bodies are. Yet the mockingbirds still have that stance, staring you down while small feathers drop off their backs. 

The Carolina wren who methodically crawls up my cedar tree is also molting, now more scraggly fluff than bird. So are the blue jays. While I work at my kitchen table, I can watch these molting birds pecking around all day on the back deck.

I have lived in this house for over a year and have stared out at that back deck hundreds of times. A year ago, I didn’t see birds. As far as I knew, there were no wrens in the jasmine. I did not know that there were hundreds of small creatures around me, shedding feathers and looking silly. A year ago, the birds were invisible. 

At least, they were invisible to me. They may have been there last year, in the same numbers, performing the same tasks, and with no other evidence I have to assume that they were. I just didn’t see them. I didn’t hear them. I didn’t even hear the wren despite its outrageous volume-to-size ratio. I saw some doves, hanging out on the power lines in dozens. I saw squirrels, which are noticeable creatures, being the only wild mammal that runs about during the day. Maybe I also noticed sparrows, or, as I thought of them, “those small birds”. Otherwise, I was blind to most of the life around me.

I don’t remember my impetus, but one day I decided that I wanted to learn more about birds. I started paying attention. At first, I still only saw doves and squirrels and sparrows. I would try to look at them closely enough to see the differences between them. Was that squirrel male or female? Does that dove have any identifying marks? I took a few notes, but I wasn’t an ornithologist. I was just someone who was looking more.  Now, months later, when I look out my backyard I see a different landscape. There’s a hummingbird that stops by to drink from the yucca every day. There are two woodpeckers that perch on the tree across the street. I saw a crow eat another bird a few days ago. And now there’s molting and scruffy-looking birds everywhere. 

Learning about things makes them more real to you. I am not discovering some new philosophical truth here. I realize this has all been covered before by more erudite and eloquent observers. Heck, I knew this back when I was still blind to birds. Despite knowing intellectually how perception works, I am still astounded by how profound the change was once I started looking around me..

I started noticing birds at the same time that I started seeing parts of Austin that I was blind to. Last year, Austin revoked the sit-and-lie ordinance that criminalized homelessness. Sitting down, on a low ledge along a street, for instance, was illegal, but most businesses wouldn’t let the homeless inside to sit in an acceptable spot either. With no place that they were legally allowed to exist, the homeless remained on the lookout for police, either on the move around the city or hiding in sometimes dangerous places. Repealing the sit-and-lie ordinance has led to camps in empty public spaces, such as the unused concrete areas under freeways. Austinites are now writing screeds on Nextdoor and in the Statesmen about how “the homeless problem is out of hand” countered by “the homeless population hasn’t changed, but now you can see them.” Now we see them. We could always find out the number of unhoused residents in our city, if we wanted to, but now that number is visible. The people themselves are visible.

When coronavirus shut down my physical workplace and I no longer had to commute, I had more free time and I started to devote that time to participating in community groups, such as Austin DSA. Many members of Austin DSA provide aid to the homeless and the organization kept a referendum on sit-and-lie off the November ballot. After connecting with the activists in DSA, I no longer just see the unhoused; I also see the folks working alongside our unhoused neighbors to improve this city. When the homeless were invisible, so were the punk kids and Church moms and other activists who were delivering food and medical supplies to the encampments. Now I can see them too. I could see other possibilities for how to be a neighbor in this city. 

The practice of noticing has been a perceptual cascade. I barely ever leave my house, but when I look out the window I see a different city than I saw a year ago. I know the birds that are visiting me and their favorite foods. I know where on the city council website and find a detailed budget. I know neighbors to turn to if I need legal help or mutual aid. As with all things that I turn my attention to, I’ve even found a way to turn noticing into a form of anxiety. What if I keep learning more and more and the layers of the city just keep peeling back until the city becomes a necromantic tome and suddenly I’ve seen too much!

Ok, let’s back away from the gothic fantasies. Let me take a deep breath and look around, at the bushes and street before me. I’m excited to discover what it is I see next. 

Lone Star Zine Fest

March 1st at Blue Genie in Austin

I and the rest of the Bwood crew will be at the Lone Star Zine Fest this Sunday. It’s free to attend, so stop by and grab a few of our mini-zines for a quarter or two.

Lone Star Zine Fest 2020 coming to you March 1st!!
🎨: @m0thra1
#zines #lszinefest #zinefests #austin #comics #atx #art
February 1, 2020

I’m also going to have copies of Itchy Legs for sale. You can read the entire thing in a previous newsletter though if you’d like.

I think most of my friends think this zine obsession came out of nowhere, and that’s fair. Bwood is known for getting intensely devoted to something random and then giving it up. For the last two weeks, for instance, we’ve been learning Greek and have been competing on Duolingo to see who can get the weekly high score. My love for zines isn’t a new crush like Greek, though. I made and traded zines back in high school when I was a little baby riot grrl sending mixtapes to other gals I met through Diaryland. In college when I was little a baby anarchist, my zines were full of Sharpie and wheat paste instructions. As an adult, my most recent previous zine experience was fueled by spite against someone who annoyed me. My life trajectory, shown in this light, is a bit depressing, no?

Despite having once been a baby anarchist, over the years my mind has been completely warped by our culture’s Protestant capitalist morality and by the millennial sense of constant precarity. Or maybe it’s a seed that was always in me as someone who grew up poor, and it is now flourishing because I ironically have the means to nurture it. Either way I have the poisonous mindset that as soon as I begin to indulge in something for pleasure, I need to turn it into a side hustle. “If I lose my job today, how can I support myself with this new skill?” It doesn’t matter if that skill is crocheting Pokemon or identifying trees, as I learn more about it my mind has a subroutine separately calculating the financial possibilities.

This is complicated by the fact that I work in tech, an industry that purposefully tries to erase the boundary between hobby and work. For the past three years, I have volunteered running a tech conference. I love the people involved in the conference, and I believe in its mission, but I was spending ten hours a week doing unpaid work that was on some level just that—work. I was teaching tech skills so that more people could get jobs in the industry. Being able to get a high paying job is life changing, so there is real value in what I was doing. Framing it as a interest, however, means that even my “interests” are not for pleasure. Everything I did meant money for someone.

I looked around for some hobby that truly could not be monetized. I thought about things like making purposefully shitty paintings. (Frankly, that’s still not off the table.) Then I remembered my old friend, zines. Someone, somewhere might have made money off of zines. If so, those zines were probably beautiful risographed works comparable to professional art zines, or maybe an unusually popular fanzine. By definition, though, the fact that zines are poorly monetized is what separates them from “magazines.” Zines could not pervert my mind with promises of productivity. No market means that no one will try to sell me products to get better at this. No one will try to sell ads in this space, no one will pull the aesthetics of this space into commercials. A culture without celebrity. There is no master except amusement.

There is no goal to strive for… well, except to print 10 copies of something before Sunday. For zine fest.

I’d better get on that.

Me: "I hate attention!" Also me: "Let me tell you about all my insecurities."

Plus a lot of Nancy comics

Last week, when I wrote about hot pots, more people read my newsletter than I expected. I had a grand total of 55 views. I also learned that in the last year I made 6 cents from my posts about language learning on Medium, meaning someone actually read them and also that I “earned money from writing.” This is nerve-racking for me. I write because I enjoy the process and learn from it, and I occasionally put it out in the world because I think I have something valuable worth sharing. In the case of the Medium posts, I know there are a lot of people out there who are looking for language learning strategies, and I have done research on language acquisition, so I have something to offer them. With these newsletters, I want to give my friends a glimpse into the type of things I am thinking about and doing when I’m not at the party or on the group text. I want to have a way to share my silly comics that I draw, because I know it will make them smile. I make it public-ish because there might be other friends out there that I don’t know about yet. Also, being public is what we millennials do. 

And that’s the scary part. Today, being public is both expected and dangerous. Thankfully DipDipDip Tatsuya doesn’t have any gun toting alt-right fans out there trying to defend their object of affection from criticism, but what if one day I slip in something seemingly innocuous about video games or Star Wars? Or locally, I have opinions on politics and real estate in Austin. Will I endanger myself with these opinions? 

Part of me desires attention, and feels like I am not a whole person without the fifteen minutes of celebrity promised every American. The idea that attention confers value is pervasive. In the recent Little Women, Jo and Amy argue about if publishing something makes the subject important, or if the work gets published because its subject is already important. There’s no consideration of how things can be invisible and important at the same time. In their case, it’s because they are using art as a pathway to economic viability. Alcott’s family had to beg for food. She had to find a way to turn her private art, friend-fanfiction that she wanted to share only with her loved ones, into capital A Art in order to survive. Today we live during another time of financial precarity and have been told over and over again that personal branding and side hustles are the way to stay afloat. I want no one thinking about me or having any opinions about me at all, ever, but today invisibility seems like death.  

Then there’s the contrarian part of me, the “wild aloof rebel” that pushes against the mainstream. The recognition that what changes society (or you) is what challenges it. That part of me says that the most radical thing you can do is be analog, local, unbranded, and small. Intellectually, I agree with this. Emotionally, advocating for avoiding attention sounds like suggesting we all join some thanatist cult and wait on the roof for aliens to pick us up.

I’m reading a book about the value of invisibility right now, Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear ( I might have more fully fleshed out thoughts about this in the future instead of my whining that a whole FIFTY-FIVE people read something that I purposefully put out into the world. In the meantime, as is usually the case, the best summary of my feelings come from a stranger’s tweet:

I’m adding a new segment called “Cat of the Week.” Here’s the first:

Cat of the Week

One of my friends on Twitter said that they just found out that their favorite “painting” was actually a woodblock print. Looking at it, I am surprised as well, surprised and impressed. 

The print is called “Puss Napping,” and I love the uncertainty that it captures. What will happen when the cat opens his eyes? Will he, clearly a gumbie cat, be too lazy to care about the mice? Will he attack the mice? Will they attack him? Maybe they are old friends and he’ll welcome them in for a snug.

A Tale of Two Hot Pots

Or how Austin's best meal is in your own kitchen

The image above is from the anime Princess Jellyfish. It’s about an all-women boarding house in Tokyo (and obsession and gender and fashion and more). In this particular scene from the end of episode 2, they are enjoying sukiyaki, a Japanese-style hot pot where a shared pot is used to cook bitefuls of meat and vegetables. Many Princess Jellyfish episodes use sukiyaki or similar communal meals like shabu shabu to provide emotional closure. The boarders may have argued earlier, or had a stressful conflict, but by the end they have come together in the intimate act of sharing food. The show often treats the entire process—from grocery shopping to washing dishes—as all part of the total hot pot experience that connects the characters. When you see them heading to the market, you know that the narrative tension will eventually be resolved and the characters will be safe.

It’s January 2020 in Austin, TX and both the local alt-weekly, The Austin Chronicle, and Austin Eater named a hot pot restaurant the best restaurant in Austin for 2019. DipDipDip Tatsu-ya opened in June and is the creation of the same clever restauranteurs who brought us the noteable Ramen Tatsu-ya, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, etc. etc. Their empire is constantly expanding. As a lover of Japanese food, I’m a fan. Enough of a fan that I signed myself up for notifications from RESY since I couldn’t get a table outright, then lived through two weeks of getting an email every few hours telling me to check the website, only to see once again that no tables were available. I knew it would be worth it, and it was, but—well, I’ll get to that.

I am using photos from the DipDipDip Instagram here because the restaurant subtly discourages phone use inside, and I respect that. If you are not going to give yourself to the experience that they are trying to build for you, don’t go. What they are selling is primarily that very curated experience.

In this week's issue, Austin's best new restaurant DipDipDip Tatsu-ya reinvents Shabu Shabu. Read more about the Crestview eatery at the link in our bio.
December 12, 2019
Did you know each guest is set up with a personal cast iron pot? Share the experience without sharing your hot pot.⁣

#dipdipdip #tatsuya #hautepot #shabushabu #japanesecuisine #atxfoodie #atxfood #austin #foodiefiles #hotpot #japanesefood #visitaustin #exploreaustin #austininmymouth #foodstagram #asianfood #veggies
October 9, 2019

The restaurant is dark with appropriate task lighting at each of its booths, small tables with tall dividers between them to give you the impression of the private dining areas that are much more common in Japan than the US. It’s still an illusion—you can hear the couple at the next booth over discussing The Bachelor—but it’s just enough to focus you on your individual meal. The layout of the table creates deliberate focal points as well. Every small bowl or utensil has a designated spot, and there’s not room for much else so your phone and other items get tucked away in a cubby under your chair. Unlike traditional shabu shabu, you have your own pot. Every other morsel you get is also just for you, with the exception of a complimentary box of veggies that is tucked in between your pot and your date’s. You can still share items, letting your partner tweeze delicate sheets of meat from your tray, but everything is served in a single-serving size. If you want, you and your companion can customize your meals so that you are eating two entirely different meals.

Servers swoop in and out just when needed to replenish a drink or turn down your burner or explain a dish. The meat, they say, is thin enough to cook in just a few seconds of stirring in the pot, using a technique, to quote the servers, “we call ‘swish swish.’” What they don’t tell you is that it’s the standard method of cooking in shabu shabu. “Shabu” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of meat being twirled in broth, and a thin strip of wagyu should cook in the time it takes for you to say “shabu shabu shabu.” DipDipDip is merely translating this experience for Americans, but the sheer quality of their translation makes it seem like a revelation.

This delicious private-public experience runs around $100 a person. And it’s a far cry from what we see in Princess Jellyfish. I could see an engagement occuring at DipDipDip—picture a server pushing the seafood cart to your table and there’s a big diamond shining on a wooden tray between the scallops and the oysters. What I can’t imagine is a birthday dinner or a “let’s make up from a fight” catharsis meal. The max table size is 4 and you have to plan months in advance. A table for four doesn’t cut it in my friend groups, where we won’t even go see a movie with less than three people.

But maybe we are the exception. Maybe DipDipDip is being celebrated precisely because it so successfully reinterprets a hot pot for our atomized society. You can enjoy the elements of a hot pot now without the mythological horror of double-dipping. I see the appeal, but I think we should be pushing in the other direction, learning to be better neighbors, prioritizing sharing, finding inexpensive ways to create community. That’s the spirit of hot pot as shown in Princess Jellyfish. When my friends and I have a hot pot, no one person is cooking; we are sharing the labor. We are having the intimate experience of eating out of the same bowl. We are combining our interests to create a positive outcome for all of us.

And, on a practical level, hot pot is a simple, “I’m too lazy to actually cook” dish that can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. I’ll guide you through it.

Take a short bike ride down Justin Lane from DipDipDip to 99 Ranch. You can get an electric hot pot there for $50, a one-time expense. The basic broth at DipDipDip is a standard kombu dashi, so grab an inexhaustible amount of the seaweed for $1. When the time comes, you’ll let a piece simmer for 30 minutes before removing it and beginning your meal. 99 Ranch has a wall of tofu to choose from and a wall of noodles and freezer case of fish balls and two freezer aisles of dumplings. Grab whatever appeals to you. A gallon-sized bag of bok choy is around $1, but go nuts and get whatever vegetables are in season and try a mushroom you’ve never tried before. I recommend thinly sliced sweet potato at least once. Then the meat. Trays and trays of wagyu and pork belly, all pre-sliced into strips as delicate as the layers of a croissant. With all of the other stuff that you have, you will need less than a tray per person. Lastly you’ll need dips, an acidic one to flavor vegetables and a creamy one to compliment meat. You can buy the two most common dips, ponzu sauce and sesame sauce (goma dare), premade or make them yourself with simple Internet recipes. If you choose to make them, other than steaming rice, that will be the extent of the cooking that you do. Preparing a shabu shabu is just a matter of putting all of the ingredients on the table and letting community happen.

What mind is behind the glasses

Assorted bullshit from my week

My last week has been devoted to sending out holiday cards. I have never sent more than one or two in my life, partially because of cynicism and partially because moving between apartments every few years changes your relationship to physical mail. Now I am settled down at one address indefinitely, so I can comfortably give my address to friends and family and not worry that it’ll be out of date by the time they use it. 

Sending holiday cards was more difficult than I expected. Surely, I thought, I could find boxes of cute cards by local artists at one of the gift shops or bookstores near me. That was a silly assumption. I did find a lot of single cards, individually wrapped for $5 or more. When I managed to find a box of 5 for $20, I felt like I was getting a good deal, but could not justify paying $100 to cover my entire list. Not a single card I found was purely non-denominational, if you consider that Santa hats and colorful stringed lights are associated with the Christian Christmas celebration. Why aren’t there more generic snowscapes available? Target at least had Hanukkah cards. With every card I sent, I had to make a mental judgement of the friend’s upbringing and current level of religiosity to make sure that no one was offended by the paltry Austin greeting card options. Searching out bulk, attractive cards was so stressful that I actually had a nightmare about rushing from shop to shop before each closed. I assumed that making homemade cards for everyone would be too much time and effort, but it can’t be any more difficult than this turned out to be.

Next year, look for a amateurish homemade watercolor card in your mail.

I am finally getting new glasses after squinting through scratched lenses for months. I’ve been putting it off because choosing glasses is a big deal. Glasses, or the choice to use contacts, will dramatically alter my face and how the entire world perceives me. (In 2019, everyone knows you’re not a dog on the Internet.) For years, I’ve been wearing the most generic, small black glasses that I could find. I wanted to be normcore, unstyled, as if bland glasses would be equivalent to wearing no glasses. For the first time, I’m going the opposite direction and choosing clear, pink, enormous frames. I have a prickling sensation, as if I’m going to be a different person, but I won’t know who that person is until others see me and judge me.

Speaking of who am I really—I had my mind blown reading this New Yorker article about modern theories of consciousness. If I even have a mind to blow. The theories are all wild, but that’s the nature of the field. O’Gieblyn recognizes this, noting that “the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, in 2013, coined the term ‘crazyism’ to describe the postulate that any theory of consciousness, even if correct, will inevitably strike us as completely insane.” Eat a few mushrooms and read it.

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