Strong and Sweet

It was a day. It was one of those days that make you want to curl up on the sidewalk, even when you only a few steps from your home. One of those days where the sky feels intentionally cloudy and time moves especially slow. On one of those days when the whole universe is giving you the middle finger, there is only one remedy that I would suggest: Ariana Grande’s Sweetener.

Like its title, the album instantly serves to make any situation a little more palatable. Each song dissolves softly, flowing so easily into each other, flowing so easily into your heart. Each song swirls around you in a glorious cloud of harmonious beats. It is so easy to become absorbed in the album. It is as if Ariana has condensed a little bit of her own happiness into every note. Yet, instead of feeling envious, you welcome the joyous wonder in her voice. After a year of overwhelming cynicism, it is refreshing to have a piece of art that is so distinct from the rest of the climate. The album is hopeful, reveling in the present and anticipatory of a better future.

Even a song that lingers on a failed relationship like better off, acknowledges the mistake as necessity instead of a regret. “I’m better off without him. I’m better off being a wild one”, she sings softly as if to herself. She isn’t accusatory or harsh like many other contemporary break-up songs. No, this is a woman who has come out of a relationship having learned something. There is no anger and the song is more powerful for it. When I listen to the album, I am impressed by the maturity that suffuses it. Yet, unlike her previous album, Dangerous Woman, she doesn’t have to resort to leather or sexual innuendos to express this newfound womanhood. Becoming an adult is not just sex, it is the comfort with oneself, comfort with who they’ve become. While her last attempt had a touch of desperation, this time no one doubts her seriousness. Somehow, Ariana has achieved the ultimate contradiction. She has spun happiness into power, she has transformed sugar into medicine for the soul.

The ultimate testament to Ariana’s new-found tenacity is in her last song, get well soon. It concerns the anxiety and depersonalization she felt after the terrorist attack following her 2017 concert in Manchester. Over and over, she pleads with herself, “Girl, what’s wrong with you? Come back down”. Over and over, it breaks my heart, even as I am drawn to the song again and again. But Ariana is not alone, and she reassures that we aren’t either. She draws her strength from her community, never letting tragedy destroy who she is.

So, even though it has been four months since its official release, even though she has already released another smash hit (which she predicted!), listen to Sweetener. Listen to Ariana, as she stretches for a higher note than you thought was possible. Listen to Ariana and be inspired to do the impossible.

Winter Indulgences

I think I may have a little bit of a problem. It is located somewhere between my canine and my incisor. I’m talking about my sweet tooth and I believe it may be destroying my life. As any University of Michigan student can attest, the end of the fall semester is a desperate time. Every walk takes a little longer and is a lot damper. Our winter coats weigh us down and make us sweat, even as they protect us from the bitter wind. So, is it any surprise when we are drawn to sweet food like ants to a picnic during these never-ending winter months? We are reaching out for a comfort that a simple calorie count cannot measure. I am not just consuming a piece of chocolate cake. I am floating on a sinful cloud of light frosting on a crumbly, airy structure. And there are more slices waiting for me, cooling under the delicate lights of the dining hall. It makes it so easy to say yes, again and again. It is so easy to allow myself just one more tempting bite. Before, you know it, you have consumed several cookies, many more glasses of hot chocolate, and a stray brownie that simply demanded to be eaten. After all, every bulging waistline can be hidden under another chunky sweater.

Indulging my worst desires is a pleasure in itself. The semester is an exercise in restraint. Can I go out with my friends tonight? No, there is an economics worksheet to be finished. Can I finally read even a page of that book taunting me from my bookshelves? No, I must start on an English paper before my procrastination results in all-night typing session. Every time, I hold myself back, force myself to take a more long-term view. But while a failed midterm can sink a GPA, a brownie is a relatively small failure of self-control.

The night is withering away. The minutes keep ticking towards midnight. The days keep ticking towards the end of the semester. I focus, instead, on something more solid, a small bar of dark chocolate. The only critical decision I have is whether to take small careful bites or feel the whole thing crunch in my mouth. The moment arrives, and I melt with the chocolate until there is nothing left.

To Grandmother’s House We Go

I remember baby blue stairs. It was a color that was simultaneously garish and soft. Garish because it clashed horribly with the moderate browns and conservative whites of my grandmother’s quiet neighborhood. Soft because it reminded me of the ascending sky on a summer’s day. I remember accompanying my parents to the store, their hands enveloping mine, hypnotized by paint swatches. I got lost in the swimming colors and possibilities while my mom and dad made their choice. I got lost in the swirling paint as they repeatedly dipped their paintbrushes. Stroke and stroke and stroke and dip. What was once natural became artificial as the wood was covered by coat after coat of blue. I remember stretching out under the shade as my parents labored under the hot sun to paint, not an artistic masterpiece, but to protect a set of stairs. Over the years, the various forces of nature would chip away at their hard work. The blue was marred and scraped and gashed, at the mercy of the driving rain or an equally temperamental set of children, my sister and me. Then, one day, I no longer lived in my grandmother’s house. The car pulled away from the pavement where my grandma stood waving and the stairs glowed under the moon’s light. The family who lived there next, impermanent renters, painted the stairs a dark maroon red, a supposedly stylish color that reminded me of blood. But I still remember the baby blue. Blue like a never-ending childhood.

My bed was not mine. Shared between my sister and I, she got the convenience of the bottom bunk while I got the light of the only window in the room. I woke up with the streaming sun across my blankets.  I woke up before everyone else except my grandmother. I saw her from my perch, quietly eating her bread and drinking her milk at the kitchen sink. Her hair was fine, white, and thin. Like feathers, they seemed to float in the light. Like a beacon, it drew my eye to her. She stood in the small enclave with her back toward me. I was never sure if she heard the rustle of the comforter as I shifted back and forth. We existed in the morning semi-silence together and alone. We never spoke, too afraid to wake the others. I hope she wasn’t lonely. I never was. I watched her careful movements and was lulled back, back into sleep.

The garage was a steady walk from the house. There, the ghosts of past endeavors lay on abandoned shelves. My dad’s fishing pole and plastic tackle box now rested far from the beach shores. My mother’s high school textbooks gathered dust in the shadow of a red gasoline container. She explained to me, as we cleared the boxes, that she had hoped to use those books again. She had photocopied every page. But my sister and I were in college now and she was a computer engineer, readying for retirement. So, the books joined the growing pile of recycling. I am not even sure what happened to the fishing pole. The garage was the last place to be emptied in what used to be my grandmother’s house. The bunk bed had already been disassembled. The sink had been cleaned and scrubbed. Only the stairs remained, as we backed out of the driveway, one last time.

Letting it Go

We are regulated beings. We fold, crimp, and scrunch our lives until they match our specification. This is especially true in college as students plan out every step of their next decade. Excel sheets are laid out. Schedule builders are used obsessively. And in our minds, the process never stops. Rewinding to search for missed opportunities. Fast-forwarding to a future that may never happen. And when I do misstep, it feels like something has been shattered inside of me. Then, there is a new plan, an altered goal. There is certainly no room for uncertainty and no time for doubt. I am always looking for a new box to fit myself into. I am always searching for a structure.

We came to college for independence. I think a pamphlet told me that once. We came to get away from overbearing parents and their never-ending concerns about our futures. Most of all, we were promised control. A chance at the driver’s seat. In high school, I thought I would be a good driver. But when you are steering, all the roads begin to look blurry. You start to worry about the dark ditches and sudden swerves. And your grip on the wheel becomes tighter and tighter until it feels as if your heart is racing as fast as the car. No, you’re not in control. You are not free. It feels easier to keep pretending, to spin the wheel even when it feels as if we are having no effect.

It gets frustrating, sometimes. Sometimes, I let go of all the schedules and rules. I stop squinting at every aspect of my life and close my eyes instead. I remember the first time I skipped class. To be honest, it did not take long, probably a month into my first semester. I watched as my alarm clock ticked closer and closer to 8:30 and imagined the impossibly long walk to Angell Hall. The day stretched before me with all its blocks of occupied time. Perhaps, just this once, I could pass the block on my own terms. True freedom. Classes are, after all, a professors’ domain. We sit in seats and are pelted with information with only the occasional chance to insert a question. Most of the time, it feels as if we only exist to press an iClicker. We dutifully enter on time, exit on time, renter the next week. We do what we must, so that eventually, eventually we can do what we want to. But that day, I pursued my wants first.

It was a squirming, sly pleasure to defy all the rules that I set for myself. It was a pleasure that I wanted to indulge like a child suddenly exposed to chocolate. If my control meant nothing, if I was to be ignored in lecture, then why shouldn’t I lie in bed for the indeterminate future? But I was ultimately still a regulated being and this time, it was my stomach growling that I move. I was once again reminded of all the invisible forces that act upon my life. All the forces that snatch my power away, make me feel small. Sometimes, I do battle against these forces with Excel sheets. Sometimes, I refuse the fight altogether.

Wish Fulfillment

“What would you wish for?” It is a question that I have asked of others and of myself countless times. Sometimes, it is all finished within a laugh. We blurt out fantastical inventions with barely a thought spent. Sometimes, we treat the question as if a fast-talking genie was awaiting our orders. It is a game that is endlessly fascinating because the answers tend to change every time we ask the question. It is also an endlessly useless game because the things that we wish for are seemingly unattainable. After all, if we believed that we could achieve this wish through hard work, we would have chosen something different. The game doesn’t just reveal what we desire; it reveals what we believe is impossible. So, we wish for piles of cash to rain down upon us or for carefree voyages around the world.

Aladdin, for the most well-known example, wishes to become a prince so he may gain Princess Jasmin’s hand. But even as a child, I knew that Aladdin simply had to present himself as he was to gain the acceptance he desired so desperately. Aladdin knows what he wants. He simply doesn’t know how to gain it. Perhaps he should have wished instead to have infinite knowledge. Yet, the movie posits this, too, as the wrong approach. Infinite cosmic power, after all, comes with an itty-bitty living space. The movie ends with Aladdin relinquishing this power to face the future on his own. I think this speaks to our desire to be challenged even as we want things to be easy. We want to triumph, but only after we feel like we deserve it.

It seems so often, though, that no one gets what they deserve. I look at the world around me and see injustices everywhere. I look at the world around me and want to wish it away. But when I close my eyes to imagine this as a better place, I realize that I would be a cruel and unjust god. For my wishes are arbitrary, subjective, and worst of all, vague. I recognize, like Aladdin, that I am not omniscient, and thus, my wishes will likely cause many unintended consequences. But perhaps, this is the inherent value of wishes. I can pretend at omnipotence, if only for a moment. A wish is not simply an expression of desire. A wish is something deeper, a dream of infinite possibilities that we can use flippantly.

Yet for all my endless speculations and formulations, I have not answered the most important question of all. “What would YOU wish for, Corrina?”. I could wish for world peace. But peace can be achieved easily under a dictatorship. I could wish for personal happiness. But one happiness can come at the cost of many others. Perhaps I will wish for something simpler: a beautiful, turbulent life and some good people to enjoy it with.

We Are What We Cook

I was always fascinated by the flickering flame that lit up the stove top. The blue lights gave off a seductive heat that I was warned against. The results were magical too. My grandma conjured up steaming concoctions of Chinese broccoli and sausage, sweet pork ribs, and sticky pork knuckles, glistening with a fine sheen of oil and love. But all my efforts, even under her tutelage, were met with disappointment. “Too much shrimp paste”, my grandma says, after the briefest taste of my limp green beans. “Not enough soy sauce”, she says of my steamed eggs. She teaches me how to wield the cleaver, but its overly large handle keeps slipping from my hand. She shows me how to shake and shiver the wok, but my garlic keeps burning anyway. I end our endeavors at the age of twelve in a petulant fit, disappointed.

It was years later, before I approached the kitchen again. This time, I was hesitant, much readier to leap away from the flame than to embrace it. I changed tactics. Instead of homegrown techniques, I turned to the endlessly tacky. Instead of the intimacy of family, I chose the distance of a stranger. Thus, began my journey into the depths of food television, starting with the most generic channel of all, the Food Network. As I watch Bobby Flay chop onions for his Chicken-Posole Soup or Giada De Laurentiis grate parmesan with a pearly smile, I wonder why I and thousands of others have fallen for their effortful charm. I am not sure that I am really looking to be an excellent chef. For I don’t need to know how to perfectly poach a chicken breast nor do I care how to pulverize a mixture of pine nuts, parsley, and peppercorns into a pesto. It even feels traitorous in some ways, to pursue this life of domesticity, instead of the modern, working woman that I was taught to be. Why do cooking shows, then, continue to entrance me?

But cooking shows were not born in the modern era. The first cooking show was an invention of the late 1940s by a balding British man named Philip Harben. According to current standards, he is not telegenic, but there is a jolly workman look to his crumpled tie and rolled up shirt sleeves. Harben taught people how to cook, not for entertainment, but out of necessity. With Britain still on rations, his cooking show showed how to cook with a nearly bare cupboard. Not so today, when television shows promote only fresh, organic, picked-minutes-ago produce. Perhaps Harben’s show does not seem to be the direct answer to my question. But one can easily see the key characteristics of the modern cooking show already germinating underneath the surface. By 1947, a year after his show first started, the BBC began referring to him as a ‘television chef’. It is more than a simple name change. It is the birth of an entirely new profession, a new genre of television. It turns what was once relegated to an individual kitchen to something broadcasted into a million homes at once.

It is a community that I thrive in. I eagerly look up recipes on the official Food Network website. I buy cookbooks and collect all the recommended gadgets. I have become a dedicated fan, not of cooking itself, but of cooking as an imagined lifestyle. It turns out I didn’t need cooking as a reality; only as a fantasy.