The Ombudsnerd

Since Arthur Chu’s historic win streak on Jeopardy! early last year, he’s shrewdly turned his still-minty viral celebrity into a regular gig as a cultural critic and, as some have put it, “the ombudsman of the nerd community.” At Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown, we talked about milking his fifteen minutes, the crisis of nerd culture, and becoming an unlikely Asian-American male icon over a plate of chicken feet. (For me, since he politely declined.)

Is online celebrity strange?

It is, because stuff that’s happening on Twitter, you feel like it’s the whole world and you step off for a few minutes and it doesn’t matter to the majority of people. Even to the extent that it does, there’s a huge decoupling of what makes you important online. A lot of times, I just throw up my hands and say, “I don’t even know what my follower count means anymore.” You just have to keep that in perspective. It affects the real world but it’s something separate from the real world.

What did you do after Jeopardy!?

Call up publicists and PR firms, and said straight up, “Hey, do you work with viral celebrities?” Then I’d ask, “If you were me, how would you hang on to the fame, how would you monetize it?” I got good answers—they weren’t bad answers—but it was stuff I couldn’t imagine myself doing. It was stuff like, “Well you should take the whole idea of game theory and you should become an advice kind of guy, you should do lifehacker stuff, stuff like how-tos on how to invest, get a mortgage.” I said, “That stuff doesn’t interest me.” I didn’t want to keep talking about that for the rest of my life.

The Suburbs

About a month ago, my little family and I sold the tiny townhouse we’d lived in for just five years and ditched Brooklyn. We packed up and moved about one hour north of New York City, into the heart of the suburbs, in the middle of winter. We always move in the winter.

It would be easy to say that the decision to unceremoniously desert New York City was all our daughter’s fault, but it’s important to admit that the thought has crossed and uncrossed our minds several times, washing over us in tiny waves, over the course of the entire decade my husband and I have been together. The reasons were always the most obvious ones: space, crazy real estate prices, bad air quality, space, traffic. There were always reasons to look around and think, Maybe somewhere else will be different, or better. There are always reasons to look around and think maybe somewhere would be better.

Then Zelda was born, and my Brooklyn neighborhood—a radius of approximately twenty blocks—became our entire universe. From her birth in February through the following autumn, I made it to Manhattan fewer than a dozen times. New York City with a baby is equal parts unparallelled conveniences and unrelenting, brutal misery. You can walk out the door and see people and friends in a moment. You can get to a store in even the worst weather without having to travel too far and you never need a car. But the downsides are also unavoidable: there are so many people. When you’re one person walking down the street it’s manageable. When you’re two, one of whom is in a stroller and needs serious luggage just to leave the house, it can quickly become exhausting. Going anywhere with a baby is a trial, a commotion. In New York City it can be devastating.

The $5,750-a-Month Financial District Loft With Heated Bathroom Floors

67 Liberty Street, #6 $5,750/month1,246 square feet1 Bed, 1.5 bath (3.5 rooms)

If you weren’t aware, the Financial District, which is where the money is made by people who make money, is one of the hottest places to live in New York City. People are moving there, to live, it’s true. Especially people who already work there—and good for them, because it’s cold out. Seventeen residential buildings were under construction in the neighborhood in August 2013; a year later, the New York Times reported that “more than a dozen apartment buildings are on the way.”

One such building that people live in is 67 Liberty Street, formerly a five-story office building to which fourteen luxurious floors were added “through creative application of zoning regulations.” The non-union project, about equidistant from the 9/11 Memorial to the west and the South Street Seaport to the east, was completed in 2013. While the second floor is available for commercial use, the rest of the building is residential—lofts to which you are taken directly by a private elevator.

The couple who moved into #6—purchased for $1.146 million in 2013—added recessed lighting and exposed the brick on one wall of the living room, which faces west and looks into an office building across the street. “There were just two sconces on either wall,” Sarah, who lives in the apartment with her husband and was home sick, told me. “It looked like a Vietnamese nail salon.”

Eat the Garlic

Almost everything I cook begins the same way: Take out a head of garlic, separate the cloves, and begin peeling, trimming, and chopping. From there, ninety-five percent of the time, its job is to help accentuate the flavors of something else: vegetables, seafood, tofu, beans, pasta. Garlic is a key ingredient in the flavor bases for most world cuisines, and yet few people treat it as anything more than a spice, or an aromatic. That should change. Every recipe this week will destroy your breath and create a difficult predicament for your loved ones, who will be simultaneously impressed by your cooking and very turned off by your aromatics.

There are two main types of garlic: hard-neck and soft-neck. Hard-neck can typically only be found at farmers markets; like its name suggests, it has a long, hard stem, and is very expensive. It has fewer, but larger, cloves, and also has a slightly more intense, complex flavor. Soft-neck garlic is more common, more inexpensive, and more mild in flavor. Honestly, I tend to buy hard-neck garlic once in the springtime and think “huh tastes like garlic” and then go back to not spending like four dollars for a single head of garlic. (Oh, and there’s black garlic, which is a fermented garlic. It’s tasty but not a raw ingredient so we will ignore it today. Garlic scapes are the young necks of the hard-neck garlic variety, but they won’t be available for another few months so we’ll set them aside for another day.)

(Quick) Pickle the Vegetable

Pickling is utterly twee, from start to finish. This is a technique that, in some forms, actually requires a mason jar. It conjures images of grandmothers preserving the year’s harvest for the hard winter ahead, and what could be more authentic and shitty than that? Pickling is tailor-made for Pinterest, is what I’m saying. But you should not let that count against it. Pickles are delicious. And, in the form I prefer, pickling is an extremely easy and quick technique to bring a ton of intense flavor to a variety of plant items.

Pickling is a pretty vague term; it can refer to any of several preservation techniques involving salt, vinegar, or both. Some involve heat, some do not. The main branches of the pickle tree (this metaphor works because pickles do not grow on trees) are the salt branch and the vinegar branch. The salt branch is probably the oldest and still feels the most primal: A vegetable or fruit is placed in a salt and water solution, usually at room temperature, which causes various anaerobic bacteria to begin to eat the plant. They die and let loose with gaseous byproducts, which changes the flavor and sometimes the texture of the plant. A classic, ultra-traditional New York City deli pickle is an example of this; the most ornery of deli pickle recipes rely on no vinegar whatsoever. This method requires a long period of time and can also be sort of gross; the byproducts are often referred to as “scum,” because that is a good way to refer to a mass of white fungus-y stuff.

A vinegar brine is easier and quicker. Vinegar is not as excellent of a preservative as salt, which means a vinegar pickle won’t last as long, but if you’re just looking for that pickle-y flavor, which I am, vinegar takes the place of the natural byproducts of bacteria that a salt pickle takes so long to force out. But because we don’t really care about a vinegar pickle remaining shelf-stable for months, we don’t mess with the rigamarole of sterilizing jars and boiling them to seal them. A vinegar pickle is more like an XXX-TREME marinade (with some mild preservative properties) than the ancient mystical bacterial forces that turn cucumbers into deli pickles or cabbage (or whatever) into kimchi. But that doesn’t make it a lesser pickle; it’s merely easier.

The Basement

The last home a carpenter finishes is his own, though he never really finishes it. My father built the basement first. We lived in it for ten years before he had enough money to build a house above it, in time for the birth of my brother. The house has remained partially sided, painted, and insulated for twenty-five years. Cedar siding periodically gives way to knotted plywood; scaffolding obscures the north face; and a deck wraps around three-quarters of the first floor and then free falls into nothing. Like its inhabitants, the house has been in a constant state of construction.

We lived on seventeen acres of undeveloped forest in central New Hampshire, with no neighbors to speak of, save the lights of a distant farm. The advertisement for the land described it as a high woodland tract and emphasized its possession of “good views of distant mountains” as well as “hundreds of cords of hardwood.” In the previous century, this acreage had been worked by farmers, as had much of the land in the surrounding town, until World War II took the farmers away and left the land to be reclaimed by the forest. So for two years, before building the basement, we chased the ghost of an old logging path, cutting stands of birch, elm, oak, and maple, carving a road through the forest that would eventually connect our property with Route 4, built in 1925, when the area was booming. We managed to clear one acre out of the seventeen, and the forest leaned up against the edges of the opening like a watchful elder. The only other people I remember seeing on the property besides my family are the people my father worked with: plumbers, electricians, framers and finish workers, plain spoken but physically articulate. Anyone else appeared in the form of letters and telephone calls, and when people stopped having enough money to make long distance calls, or the energy and time to write, they disappeared.

The Time I Tried to Be a Literary Agent

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer and TakePart Food Editor Willy Blackmore tells us more about what it’s like to sort of, but not really, work as a literary agent.

omg I tried to be a literary agent once and people maybe still query me? http://t.co/e7ZODWeHtW

— Willy Blackmore (@willyblackmore) February 12, 2015

Willy! So what happened here?

I was googling myself the other night, as one does (in my defense, I was searching for some old stories), and I came across this listing for Willy Blackmore, book agent, on a website called QueryTracker. It’s a sort of forum that writers use to keep tabs on agents, the queries they’ve sent out, etc., etc. Considering that I have a backlog of a couple hundred unread agenting emails sitting in a strange corner of my Gmail, it’s unsurprising that I have thoroughly shitty reviews on QueryTracker. Writers have determined that I do not find phone, email, or snail mail queries acceptable. Queries, apparently, are unacceptable.

My page on QueryTracker says that emails have repeatedly bounced, and the website of the agency that I so briefly worked for has now been taken over by pay-day loan spam bots. (“Opt for Wisely When Contemplating A Pay Day Loan.”) I haven’t been an agent for nearly six years—and arguably never really was one in the first place.

I moved from Iowa to California in 2008, and the indie publishing house Jennifer Banash—my then-girlfriend and now fiancé—and I ran out of our apartment in Iowa City moved along with us. It was a shitty time to move to a major city without any job prospects, to say the very least, and while there was plenty of work to do on the books Impetus Press was slated to launch the next spring, finding actual paying work was nearly impossible. I worked at an art gallery for a month or so before Lehman Brothers failed, after which the position just kind of disappeared. And while I found a few different food-service jobs after some hunting, they were part-time and low-paying and didn’t satisfy my artistic needs. So I started writing a series of resumes that (somewhat) exaggerated the work experience I had that could apply to fields other than art or publishing. Social media marketing “ninja” or young adult novel ghostwriter. Literary agent.

The Woods

One Year With Zelda

One year ago today, my first child was born at 1:45 PM. We had heard that she was going to arrive the day before, when, at my last checkup, my doctor said, “you’re having a baby tomorrow!” I went home and lay down on the bed—a direct order—while Josh packed a paltry amount of clothing and things that we thought we might need at the hospital. When we left in the morning, we had no idea what life would be like when we returned. Our friend (hero) Michael came to stay with Penny, our Chihuahua—possibly the most tragic character in this whole opera—then we walked out into the deep snow and locked the door behind us.

We returned about forty-eight hours later with a baby. A stranger. A cool new roommate. Nearly seven pounds of person, clearly but not strictly human. She was weird and scary and seemed to be hanging on by a thread. Her name was Zelda.