this is don jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes, directs, and stars in this off-kilter comedy about a porn junkie–a porn junkie who isn't a creepy, fat, old man without a social life. Don Jon, played by Gordon-Levitt is attractive, clean, and suave. He loves his family and goes to church. He spends his days in the gym perfecting his body and nights at clubs scoping out girls with his buds, but no area of his life is as alluring and, in his mind, as necessary as porn. 

Gordon-Levitt very explicitly comments on something that we know to be true but often shy away from addressing: that our reckless consumption media and technology can distort our ideas of romantic relationships. It's both convenient and comfortable for us not to address the effect that porn or chick flicks have. For one, they're viscerally pleasurable; they provide entertainment and relief. More importantly, we know that that if we do address the effects they have on us, we might have to give them up, or worse, we might have to change the frameworks we use to navigate relationships. Because the reality is that both porn and chick flicks enforce a self-centered view of relationships. If we're willing to look beyond that view, well, we might struggle a little bit, because other-centered relationships in which we give to someone else as the expense of ourselves aren't easy. They aren't meant to be.

My best friend and I watched Don Jon in tandem in different cities. She didn't like it. I loved it. She bemoaned Julianne Moore's character, Esther, a grief-stricken widow who copes with her grief in a large empty house by smoking copious amounts of weed. Unlike the other characters in the movie, she is not enshrouded in a larger-than-life persona. She's the clear misfit in the movie, uncomfortably real and awkward, and she's the dark horse that, depending on how you look at it, robs the movie of the seamless, typical rom-com resolution. Esther cries in public, talks to strangers, and sits next to people even when there are other empty seats in the auditorium (I hate that!). But also unlike the other characters in the movie, her understanding of love and relationships is predicated on experience and framed by tragedy, grief, and fragmentation, which is messy but also very real, normal, and dare I say healthy! Onscreen, she is unsettling and disarming because she is so open and vulnerable; unabashed one second and a nervous wreck the next, moving through emotional vacillations that are once senseless and familiar, which makes them all the more painful to watch. 

Esther is the counterpoint to Barbara Sugarman, as played by Scarlett Johansson, who is striking, sultry, and sexy, a perfect ten (a "dime," as Don Jon and his friends call it). Though the plot fixates on the emotional and sexual dimensions of porn addiction, Gordon-Levitt also makes much-needed commentary about how other seemingly innocuous media, like chick flicks, can distort ideals of romance–by glazing over the complexities of relationships or deploying unrealistic narratives that confine gender roles to archetypes or instilling in our hearts and minds that we're to feel a certain way in the throes of romance. The dysfunction in Barbara and Jon's relationship, which is the main development of the first half of the movie is affected as much by Jon's dependence on porn as it is Barbara's ideas of manhood and how a man should serve her in a relationship, as understood through chick flicks.

When Barbara finds out that Jon is addicted to porn, she explodes in anger, yelling and crying and calling him "disgusting." Her reaction is to turn away, as is his, at least initially, when Esther confronts him about his porn habit. We're used to pushing these things under the rug–and I don't mean things like the politics of sex or the glamorized sex that the media sells. I'm talking about the darker side of the human psyche, the unfiltered, raw emotions that send us scrambling for some escape so that we don't have to face ourselves. It's not easy to talk about our addictions or our tragedies or the compulsions that are spurred on by losses and exacerbated by our need to repair those losses. How do we even begin to speak of the desires that give us both grief and pleasure, both shame and relief? Maybe it will never be easy to talk about these things, I don't know. But I think at least giving ourselves a chance, risking comfort and vulnerability for the sake of true intimacy and openness, might be worth it.


this is the desert playa


*The flatness of the desert plays a trick on the mind's eyes, and now I know that's how the concept of "mirage" came to be. If you look far enough across the plains of the desert, you'll see what looks like water in the distance. A body of water, it seems, will be found if you just keep walking towards it. But it must be the sun, or the sand, or both, because what it really is, for miles and miles and miles out, is just desert. Hot, untouched desert.



*At dusk everyday, as the sun begins to set, losing its strength, and people retreat back to their camps to prepare for the night, I leave our camp and ride out to the playa on my bike. Here, on the sparse field of nothing, on the cracked white canvas that will be trodden and touched and mowed down for a week, I am exhilarated by space and expanse and the mountains that surround me on all sides. I imagine I am in a large crater. This city we've built, the things that we carry out to the desert: both the tools that we'll need to survive and the stresses that make it difficult to survive, will soon be swept away by the dust and the wind. Here in the desert, there is freedom if you'll take it. I feel this freedom most palpably during these bike rides at dusk, when I'm by myself, pedaling as slowly as I want or as quickly as I can, just taking in it all, taking pleasure in the movement of gliding across the desert, without cars, without roads, without a sense of urgency. Only the sun tells time here in the desert, and minutes and seconds do not exist. Only moments.



this is an onion meditation


To practice patience, I caramelize onions.

Caramelized onions are a delicacy well worth the wait. Not like standing outside a supposedly "amazing" brunch spot on a Saturday afternoon for two hours, only to be served soggy hash browns and half-assed rubbery eggs. Not like sitting on the SF muni for three times as long as you thought you would be and getting punched in the face and yelled at by some crazies before getting to your final destination. You see, learning patience is a work in progress.

(Don't get me wrong I do still have a soft spot for the SF muni, but I hate waiting in line for brunch.)

Luckily, those ambrosial, browned, and perfectly unctuous onions always taste as good as I remember.

The raw material you begin with, a round onion with crackly and peeling skin, keeps expectations low. An onion is a homely-looking thing, always a little dirty and rough. Very common. Used for soups and peasant stews. Sauteeing an onion is the beginning of a good stir-fry, but it's not an act that requires much thought or expertise. It's practically perfunctory.

On the other hand, caramelizing onions is a luxury, of both time and of the senses, a meditative act in the kitchen. By meditative, I mean it brings you into the consciousness of the onion, the slow gradations of its appearance and aroma as it makes contact with slow, relentless heat. Those slivers, little sunbathers basking in a shallow pan of oil. 

From the beginning, the onion awakens your senses. Begin slicing the onion, and do not turn your eyes away. Wear goggles, hold a lemon in your mouth, or confront the onion head-on, welcoming the sharp and turning odor that it diffuses into the air.

Scoop up the onion slices and drop into a heated pan of oil. Turn the heat down low.

At first contact, the onion jumps and sizzles. The hot oil pricks, a tingling surprise. The onion soaks up the oil, causing its flesh to loosen up. Soon its translucence will render softness. Then it begins to sweat, releasing water, the second round of onion tears. Its aroma is now the product of tears, rather than its cause. That familiar scent, the faint sweetness of onion sweat, cues you to turn on the kitchen fan.

You will be tempted to leave the onions momentarily and attend to some less important matters, distractions. Do as you must, but beware of the onion's fragility when it is left on the stovetop unattended.

You'll return to find dark edges on your onion slices, the fire's fray, perhaps darker than what is ideal, but continue on, gently nudging the onion slivers around the pan with your spatula, pushing them from one side to another. Let your spatula tread delicately, avoiding abrupt scraping. Shriveled slivers, previously unnoticed, stick to the side of the pan.

Let the day pass by, knowing you are invested in making your kitchen a hallowed place. Turn off the kitchen lights for a moment. It is okay to let the onions caramelize silently in dark. At least see what it feels like.

You'll know when your onion slivers have browned sufficiently. They will stick together, adhered by a brown syrupy glaze. This glaze is your reward. Savor it. You began with so much and you've reduced it, from light to dark, from raw and untamed, to soft and wilty and sweet. But don't be fooled by the mere handful of caramelized onions you now have. Caramelized onions are like caviar, to be doled out in small portions, to be known and proclaimed as special. In your mouth, the taste will confirm this as true.

You've been here awhile, and now it's time to move on. Open a window, drink some water. Let the caramelized onions cool, and enjoy the steady peace that the act of caramelizing onions has washed over your entire being. It may not last for long.


this is bread breadth breath

*On this Sunday afternoon, I am standing in my kitchen, which is collecting heat like a greenhouse on this unusually hot day in San Francisco. September is the beginning of an Indian summer. There are piles of books on the kitchen table, a dusty bin full of ski goggles and headlamps and other outdoor contraptions that now seem more nostalgic than utilitarian, and trails of breadcrumbs everywhere, the memento minutiae of yesterday's kitchen craftwork.

*Like most things in life, the work of cooking ends up having little permanence, but food is glaringly ephemeral because we confront its disintegration and disappearance everyday, biding time as food rots in our refrigerator or as it is passes through our mouths in mere seconds. We fight its transience by preserving, canning, and freezing. I fight its transience by photographing. And hoarding. And collecting. And writing it all down. I struggle to accept ephemera. I'm an archivist.

*I sweep away the breadcrumbs, even though I'm tempted to eat them.

*The stove is unusually crowded today. There's the cast iron skillet that's been sitting around for a week, in cleaning limbo (mostly clean, but not completely due to my compulsion to google "cast iron cleaning" every time I use and clean the skillet, just in case I'm doing something wrong) and the kettle that I never seem to take off the stove. Half of the stove is occupied by my laziness. On the other half: a pot of boiling salted water and a pan on low heat, filled with glistening slices of onion. The oven is heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I crack open the window so that I can breathe better.

*"Breathe" is on my to-do list.

*The year has passed by breathlessly. A friend once told me, quite literally, you only inhale; you never seem to exhale. He was commenting on the way I breathe, or the way I don't. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to discover, for the umpteenth time, that how I approach my need for air and food is just about how I approach everything. Inhale everything I possibly can; forget to exhale because there's no time.

*"Remember to exhale," I tell myself.

*Breathing doesn't work like that. It doesn't run on reminders.