A pride of lions. A school of fish. A flamboyance of flamingos — yep.
I had a bee in my bonnet today (not a hive of them, mind you) about collective nouns. I love them. They’re poetic, they’re nonsensical, they’re fun to think about.
A shrewdness of apes. A parliament of owls or — alternatively, if you’re feeling more sinister than magisterial — a looming of them. A prickle (!) of hedgehogs (say hiya to my son, Hedgewig).
I can’t tell you why I’ve been thinking about collective nouns. I’ve been drowning in words lately, for all numbers of reasons, and so it was only a matter of time before I dove into collective nouns. According to this oldish article via Medium, there’s not really an answer as to where they come from, collective nouns just… are. Which is frustratingly vague! Apparently, there’s a paradox between actual popular usage and assumed common usage — aka, a text claims the thing is a thing, so it is — between how these things come to be. Linguists don’t quite know how to ascertain the origin, or if the thing — say, a murder of crows or a destruction of wild cats — will continue to be that thing down the line. It’s all poetry and chaos.
If you’re into other collective nouns, this Guardian piece features a bit of history behind some fun ones.
Growing up, calamansi was my favorite little fruit. My mom used in so many Pinoy dishes — in our house, there was always a bit of calamansi steeped in some soy sauce, or sprinkled over garlic rice. The fruit was so sweet, the pith so tart and slightly bitter. When we didn’t buy it from the Filipino grocery store, my mom would just pluck some kumquat from our backyard tree — deceptively similar but different. It didn’t matter; I loved how either would explode with electricity upon biting into them. The kumquat tree didn’t fruit year-round, but eventually it would and I’d happily grab the little fork-caged fruit picker and collect some of the thumb-sized, oblong fruits. We even had tangerines, and a lemon tree, which only ever produced one sad lemon in the entire decade we lived in that house.
Scent is a time machine. Every time I smell a kumquat or a calamansi, a part of me returns to that bitter little house on Pepperwood, where I played with my brothers outside and talked to clouds, running under the citrus trees and squishing fallen suns beneath my feet. During grayer times — El Nino weather, getting grounded, puberty — I was confined to the dull little rooms, separated from my beloved tree, the outdoors, the sky. There, I wrote plaintive little stories about being a lonely little boy who liked other boys, or others about a lonely little boy who wanted to be loved by his dad on the other side of the wall. Zest and pith — they are inextricably linked in my mind.
But mostly, I remember the zest. I especially loved squeezing the little hearts of fruits between one finger at a time, my sharp, feral fingernails capturing a bit of sunshine under the claws. Later, I would sniff my hands to relieve myself of sadness. When it was citrus season — the only discernible season in Orange County — our kitchen housed sunshine, but that only meant the shadows elsewhere were cast in sharper relief.
I haven’t lived in California for 15 years, and I still think about those citrust trees, especially when New York’s grey, dishwater days of winter creep in. Luckily, I now have a slowly growing sweet little thing of a calamansi tree inching skyward in my bedroom; I’ve named her Clementine. The morning light is hers, and I can’t wait to taste it.
Raise your hand if you’re tired. That seems to be the current collective, universal state of things. Tiredness knows no creed, no political party, no religion. Tiredness is in the water, it runs to our marrow. And it shows no signs of abating.
As the world turns increasingly dark — from here in the U.S. to abroad (see Turkey, Hong Kong, Bolivia etc. etc. et al) — it’s hard to find relief from the news cycle. The impeachment hearings are must-see TV and social media is constantly alight; who even knows where we stand on Brexit? Hilarious memes and astrology posts bidding us to look into ourselves and the stars are barely a balm, but there’s so much tiredness to overcome.
And then there’s the domestic front! The dishes pile up, a mountain of laundry is never quite tackled, and my research/writing/pitching to-do lists get longer. I know it’s something of a cliche, but “adulting” is so much.
The reality is, there are some days I can’t bring myself out of bed, but please allow me a humble brag moment: When it comes to waking up, that particular morning act was made even harder when Ian splurged on great sheets, transforming our bed into a true refuge. And! The best gift we gave to ourselves this year was a robot vacuum — at least we never have to worry about our floors. I know, I know, capitalism. But! Good sheets, automated vacuuming, these things have been a boon for my mental clarity.
Also, the things below. Take care of yourselves out there.
I devoured Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions in a day. I was dumbstruck by the magical thinking, the childlike wonder of each microscopic poem.
“Why is it so hard, the sweetness of the heart of the cherry? Is it because it must die or because it must carry on?”
I’ve been listening to Wild Words, by Nicole Gulotta, author of Eat This Poem, which has helped me a bit in terms of figuring out my writing headspace.
Ever since the finale episode of this season’s Great British Baking Show, I’ve been wanting to bake a chocolate cake. Well, I finally got around to it, baking Nigella Lawson’s chocolate raspberry pudding cake, from her cookbook How to Eat, which I found years ago on a stoop and never cooked out of. Not my first Nigella recipe, but frankly, it took me too long to flip through this book. Ian, on the other hand, has been cooking from another Brit’s tome, Nigel Slater’s Eat, which is a dream for any casual cook. We’ve had the book for a couple of years, too, and have rediscovered its simple charms. Also in our rotation, Cook’s Illustrated The Complete Cooking for Two —we’ve saved so much on food waste, alone.
Lately, I’ve spent many weekend mornings wandering passed towering steel tracks and shuttered auto shops on the way to Highland Park.
Situated on the border of Queens and Brooklyn, Google Maps reveals its a large island of green surrounded by cemeteries of all kinds. Jewish, Christian, non-denominational. It’s not quite an escape from the city — the sounds of the Jackie Robinson expressway and nearby church bells commingle with those of the birds, insects, and wind in the trees — but walking the leaf-strewn paths allows me to ponder and process the current state of things. Wiki tells me that Highland Park is one of the tallest points in Brooklyn (makes sense, given the name), but more importantly, it’s a verdant escape from its humming urban surroundings. For me, it’s the perfect place to practice the art and science of forest bathing.
What is forest bathing?
I first heard about “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, from a podcast Hurry Slowly a couple of years ago. The idea is that by disconnecting from modern life — our phones, social media, the urban grind — for a set time in the week can vastly improve one’s mental and physical health. A recent article in Outsidemagazine reiterated many of the benefits of the increasingly studied field of forest medicine, while the tome, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li, a Japanese doctor who helped jump-start the research years ago, confirms a lot of these facts. Basically, being in nature sets off positive biological responses in our bodies, namely a greater sense of calm and peace, which translates to lower blood pressure and heart rate; boosts in our immunity responses; even reduction of stress hormones. TL;DR: Trees are magical and good for us.
How do you forest bathe?
And you don’t necessarily need a full, proper forest to benefit from forest bathing. A quiet park, a beach, a river, will all do — the entire point is to disconnect in nature, even for a little while. Even better? All the studies show you only need two hours spread out over a week to feel the benefits of a forest bathing session.
When we lived in Chicago, I was a big booster for the nature trail that ran near our neighborhood, along the North Branch of the Chicago River. About 3 miles in length, the trail ran north through a few parks and neighborhoods, home to ducklings and goslings in the spring time, Northwestern University rowers in the summer, and the odd heron here or there come fall. It was always my escape on Sundays, when I would walk the trail’s length while Ian was at work — it was a date I gave myself, weekly, permission to get out and breathe and think without the distraction and dread of a to-do list.
These days, I’ve traded the River for a park trail around the former Ridgewood reservoir. Parking myself on a concrete slab overlooking the water, with nothing before me but earth and sky — no headphones, podcasts, or other people’s voices — allows me an opportunity to really breathe. To take stock, to be kind to myself. To wonder.
I haven’t really had a chance to think about being laid off, at least, emotionally. I’m privileged enough to be booked and busy — with travel, with work, with coffee and cocktail meetings — but a full calendar has prevented me from reflecting about who I am without a job and who I want to be going forward.
Setting aside time every week to walk the 30 or so minutes to that concrete slab, where I journal, meditate, and write, is a gift to myself when I am buried under emails and tweets and deadlines. I’m still learning lessons from this city — can a homie ever just, like, chill for a sec? — but whenever I finally embrace my fullest, most anxious self, the city suddenly exhales, as if on my behalf. It decides to let up—like it sent out a some universal bat signal telling everyone to leave me the fuck alone. A quiet miracle, these moments, as the city gives me all the space I need to find my breath again. And then I exhale, too, and wait for the next day.
There’s a particular genre of food writing that I just love, that always gets me right in the feels: Odes to grocery stores. But not just regular, American-style supermarkets, with glaring lights, wide aisles and wild shoppers. Definitely not places Whole Foods, or Fairway, or Wegman’s, or even the Jewel-Oscos or Associateds of the world. I’m talking about international stores, once dubbed “ethnic,” a word which has since (thankfully) fallen out of favor.
Whether they’re a one-off mom-and-pop shop in a suburban strip mall, or they’re part of a larger chain — H-Mart, Seafood City, Patel Brothers — the presence of an international-focused supermarket in a community tells me so much about a place. Who lives there, what kind of food nourishes that community, the families and lives of a region, even how time and place have shaped that city or town’s economies.
On Saturdays, my family went to 99 Ranch Market in City of Industry, or Greenhills in Diamond Bar — both about 45 and 30 minutes, respectively, from our home in Orange County. 99 Ranch is this giant box of a building, with mini-shops just outside the main store; you’d find jewelry, knick-knacks, mani-pedis. At the back, once you pass by these smaller shoe-box type places, you’d enter the grocery, laid out with narrow-but-high shelves of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino goods. It’s where my mom felt most comfortable — when I read my friend Khushbu Shah’s essay about her mom’s love for Patel Brothers, I instantly recognized my own mother’s reaction to being in a store that served her needs. From the fish mongers knowing exactly how she wanted her cuts prepared, to the giant bags of my mom’s favorite kind of white rice, 99 Ranch let her return however momentarily to her Filipino roots.
That’s the power of stores serving immigrant communities: Their customers feel seen, heard, accepted. While the outside world feels strange and alienating, especially during these heightened political times, these grocery stores are a bastion for their shoppers, a place to get a taste of home.
I was recently in Columbus, Ohio, and I was exposed to this idea almost immediately after my flight. I was there on a press trip, and my contact picked me up at the airport to whisk me to two stops before I could check in to my hotel.
The first, a Middle Eastern market called Salam, was one such grocery store, humble but specific. Since I was only breezing through the city, with no time to cook for myself, we skipped the dry goods and groceries themselves, making a bee-line for the back, where a bakery and butcher were housed. The butcher was at work breaking down a lamb, while the bakers came out to help us mull over the 10 or so stuffed savory pastries in the case. According to them, the pastries are almost always sold-out upon baking — they made brisk business with the stewed lamb, for instance — and for good reason. They were Palestinian pastries, goods I’m not totally familiar with — spicy and tender beef kebab redolent of cumin and peppers, gooey eggplant with spiced ground beef, tart labneh with sharp green olives — but nonetheless reminded me of very similar flavors from throughout the region. The pita itself was tender and yeasty, crusty and cloudlike — definitely one of my favorite versions of the stuff in recent memory.
After our bakery stop, we swung over to Saraga International, a grocery chain started by two Korean brothers. Again, I didn’t shop the aisles, but the produce made my heart sing: So many varieties of mangoes, fresh passion fruit, rambutan in stacks and stacks. While I could shop fruit for hours, our destination was Momo Ghar, a tiny little Tibetan/Nepalese dumpling shop owned by Phuntso Lama, a former New Yorker who wanted to create a taste of home. That’s what I enjoyed here, little parcels that spoke of place and story, especially the jhol momo, chicken-stuffed dumplings swimming in a tomatoey broth that tastes of brightness and heat. I spoke with Phuntso a little bit, and she also served me and my contact some chicken-and-ginger momo, a new variety she was adding to the menu for winter. They were pungent, aromatic and so high-toned thanks to the ginger; I’ll be thinking about them next time I’m trying to fight off a cold.
Useful but sterile, American supermarkets would never have offered me this kind of look at changing demographics or how people live; stopping into these immigrant-run shops really pulled a bit of the curtain back about who is coming to Columbus, about who moves there. I’m not claiming expertise on the diasporas that contribute to the city’s identity, but the pastries and momos allowed me to connect to the people of Columbus in an easily identifiable way, providing a moment’s insight on this major Midwestern city. Beyond “just food,” immigrant stores, in all their varieties, always show me a story about how a community and its people, far from home but by no means alone, live and thrive.