Author: Rose Kuo

loves music, loves to dance. www.rosekuo.org

dancing the blues

The songs have been bluesy and slow so far, dumdeedumdeedumdeedum; that laggy sultry rhythm that hangs in the air and drips from our bodies. In the winter, a basement somewhere can feel like the center of the earth.

“What is blues dancing like,” my friends sometimes ask when it gets mentioned.

“I don’t know how to describe it, you just have to do it,” I respond.

The band is about to play the last live song.

T. jumps off the stage after playing the harmonica for the previous set and finds me at the back of the room. I’m trying to cool off, is it even winter time? In that room, no one can tell. Time stops, weather ceases to exist. After he takes my hand, just our luck: the band plays the first few notes of the fastest song they’ve played all night.

“Do you dance balboa,” he shouts over the rapid brmbrmbrm-ing of the drums. I yell back my signature answer, “Um, I have before… I think?” with a sidelong glance that means, “No, I have no idea how to dance balboa,” but he’s already started hopping around with his arms around me. Immediately I feel overheated; at once anxious yet also electrified about how quickly I need to follow his feet.

We are whirling now in feverish half-circles. Among the things you learn later in life: one day, you will finally have danced in so many different people’s arms that you will no longer feel panic at not knowing the steps. Just a lot of sweat from the movement. I don’t even know what beat we’re stepping on but the turns are fast and I can’t think about anything except speed and breathing fast enough to keep up. The room is orange, afire with heat and beat. I’m committing the often-warned-against sin of looking at the ground while flying.

He is cheerful at my frenzy and relents over the music, “Okay, okay, we can dance the whole notes,” and suddenly his embrace stills and the air flattens out like the Mississippi river photographed from afar. I’m riding the whole notes, I’m swimming in my uncertainty and delight ― the steps like taffy now.

It’s humid against the stage. I feel myself wanting to dance fast again, I’m always wanting more of the thing I just had, the thing I didn’t think I could take more of. Like sweetness, like direct sunlight, like the break-your-heart kind of love. But he is already pulling me back into the basic blues step, dumdeedumdeedum and I’m swaying again, for once not keeping track of time. In blues dancing, they always dip you at the end. If they don’t know when the song is ending, they keep dipping you until the last note sounds.

“Aren’t you afraid of falling,” my friends say.

“Aren’t you afraid of never having the chance to fall,” I respond.

Ten minutes later I’m going home, I’m walking west on 14th street, the cold hitting my skin and reminding me what life feels like. I don’t even put my coat on, am I even from Texas anymore? I blow my breath into the air, watching it twist and rise in the wind, balboa-ing into the sky.

2018 in books

Random and unrelated note: I’ve had I Will Follow You Into The Dark stuck in my head for a few days now, so that’s what I’m listening to while composing this post.

One of my favorite internet finds of this year was Maciej Ceglowski’s blog, Idle Words. “brevity is for the weak,” his byline declares.

I wish I had thought of that byline, because beauty (and the devil) are both in the details, aren’t they? I made a note to include more dialogue in future blog posts, but for now you get books.

Two years ago, I looked at the list of books I finished reading and decided to set an intention to read more books by female authors. So in 2017 and 2018, I kept track.

Reading is a form of bravery. It offers new worlds and ways to think about hope. Perhaps it even offers us magic when we need to believe in something beyond, or myth when we question the why. I consider the power of poetry as prayer, or the meditativeness of mantra.

Somewhere in those first few months, I stretched under the skies in a tent in Joshua Tree National Park while clutching Ali Smith’s Autumn, a friend’s body warming my side. Joan Didion casually appeared on the kitchen table in Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, and I finished Blue Nights. Bookstore hopping in warmer weather led me to Sheila Heti, and I became obsessed with her journey in questioning motherhood. At a Chinese teahouse, C. and I read our Kindles and ate green dumplings, and it was a very good date. By my bedside, Ada Limón (whom I discovered last year) stood guard, the pages creased and L’s boasting ringing in my mind: that he “knew I’d love her because my life is like Sex and the City,” but none of that is really true, because Ada Limón is so much more than Sex and the City. I think he meant “wherein strong woman’s voice writes mostly about what ends up being love” which would be mostly true. I was treated for a health issue for much of the year, so when I’d wake up in the middle of the night coughing I would read a few pages of Rebecca Solnit. I organized my books in my mind and on my shelves because life is chaotic. I let the words light up the caverns and hobbit houses I traveled to. Nothing like paddling around a Norwegian lake while B. marvels at my book, “Wow, that thing is so beat up.” It’s the things we love the most that end up taking the biggest battering.

imagine a Rose in Joshua Tree. the desert teaches me about the battering of wind.

“Can you recommend any funny, happy books?” J. texted me one day in the middle of the year.

I looked over my lists. In disbelief at not finding anything, I pored over them again.

“No. Well, one that I read in 2016, but nothing recently.”

Is sadness more interesting to me than funniness? Apparently, I fill up my quota of sadness in books and therefore not-so-mysteriously find funniness in men very attractive.

What I knew would happen today (because I am, in my ripe third decade, predictable) is that I would flip back to the beginning of the new notebook I started: wondering what I had written on the first page.

Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

– excerpted from Jack Gilbert’s poem, The Abnormal Is Not Courage

***

A note for those who follow my reading list on my website: I decided long ago when the face of the internet started changing into what would become “influencer zombieland” that I would not advertise on my personal blog. (My dad was like, “Could you be more diplomatic and say that you liked all of the beef noodle soup restaurants in Houston equally?” No, Dad, I’m trying to tell the unaltered truth when the internet now holds so little of it.) So, for my book list, I changed all the links; they were Amazon links when I posted them originally on my reading list, and Amazon is, well, Amazon. But then they bought Goodreads, so I realize it’s not that much better. Is it a losing battle against Bezos’s empire? Yeah, maybe, but I hoped you’d to be able to find and reference the books in some way.

Another note: There have been people who criticize certain blog entires for being “too long,” and thanks in part to Maciej’s snarky byline, I stare the exhaustingly-brief-and-meaningless-clickbait-y-with-no-personality internet straight in the face and say: read a book, or a longer blog post with personality. Seriously. Brevity is for the weak.

I’m sort of kidding.

Below is my 2018 in the books that I finished, in rough chronological order. The asterisks denote ones I absolutely loved and would highly recommend. I only count poetry books that I read cover to cover, but mostly I read them piecemeal so they always make up a tiny percentage of what I read.

Rose’s 2018 in books

Our tech team at TED started a book club this year, and after noticing that most people would fall into a male-author-only nomination pattern, I suggested that we try to intentionally nominate more female authors. The result was the selection of the final book on my list: a book by a writer (Rivers Solomon) that goes by the pronoun they/them, which I hadn’t accounted for in my tracking over the past three years. I acknowledge that there are so many other ways of counting diversity outside of what I have counted.

For fun, I’ll add my 2017 book stats at the end so that you can see how it compared.

(the numbering/order is more chronological, the asterisks are the ones I loved)

  1. The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
  2. The Book of Forgiving, Desmond Tutu
  3. When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön (reread)*
  4. Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, Thich Nhat Hanh
  5. On The Shortness Of Life, Seneca
  6. Blue Nights, Joan Didion*
  7. The Blue Zones of Happiness, Dan Buettner
  8. Dusk and Other Stories, James Salter
  9. Commonwealth, Ann Patchett*
  10. Run, Ann Patchett
  11. Selected Crônicas, Clarice Lispector
  12. This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins*
  13. Chemistry, Weike Wang*
  14. Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang
  15. Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
  16. A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles*
  17. The Fifth Season (Book #1 of Broken Earth), N. K. Jemisin
  18. See What Can be Done, Lorrie Moore
  19. You Are Here, Thich Nhat Hanh*
  20. Autumn, Ali Smith*
  21. Winter, Ali Smith
  22. The Book of Joy, Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
  23. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie*
  24. The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit*
  25. South and West, Joan Didion
  26. Handwriting, Michael Ondaatje
  27. Dept of Speculation, Jenny Offill*
  28. Last Things, Jenny Offill
  29. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (reread)
  30. Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut
  31. Motherhood, Sheila Heti*
  32. The Book of Essie, Meghan MacLean Weir
  33. The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
  34. A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
  35. Measure What Matters, John Doerr
  36. The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke
  37. An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon
a balanced book morning

Below are my 2017 “finished book” stats, for comparison. I track my books continuously throughout the years here.

Just for funsies, my 2017 in books for comparison

Happy reading, with love.

Say we never get to see it: bright
future, stuck like a bum star, never
coming close, never dazzling.
Say we never meet her. Never him.
Say we spend our last moments staring
at each other, hands knotted together,
clutching the dog, watching the sky burn.
Say, It doesn’t matter. Say, That would be
enough. Say you’d still want this: us alive,
right here, feeling lucky.

– excerpted from Ada Limón’s poem, The Conditional

Taiwanese beef noodle soup showdown in Houston

On a winter day in Houston, we decided on a whim to do a Taiwanese beef noodle soup (牛肉麵) showdown at some of the popular restaurants in Chinatown. My friends are hungry to hear the results, and it’s more complex than just one clear winner (like most good things in life). So I’ll describe the various restaurants’ 牛肉麵 in more detail.

Tainan Bistro

Tainan Bistro is an always-bustling casual eatery. You can order snacks at the counter, or have a sit-down meal. We ordered the two different types of beef noodle soup.

  • The “House Special” beef noodle soup has a more savory/salty taste to the broth, and the beef is sliced thinly.
  • The regular beef noodle soup is sweeter and includes the traditional pickled veggies in the broth. The beef is cut in large chunks as is usually found in traditional beef noodle soup.

We could tell that the noodles themselves were definitely cooked from a package rather than handmade; so while they were cooked decently, they just didn’t taste as good as handmade noodles. The broth is not bad, but overall not the most compelling one we tasted.

***

I Ping

9888 Bellaire Blvd #138, Houston, TX 77036

I Ping Bakery changed owners recently and currently, in addition to a selection of Taiwanese baked goods, they offer a limited menu of entrees. They have a traditional beef noodle soup and a Szechuan style (spicy) beef noodle soup. We tried the Taiwanese 红烧牛肉面. Out of the restaurants we tried this was the only place that offered handmade noodles, and they make a whopping obvious difference. The noodles were the perfect texture, and I could have kept adding noodles in (I had to pace myself for the long haul). Unfortunately, the broth was thin and less complex, or else I think this bowl would have become my favorite. We enjoyed the bok choy. I think this would be a good option for someone who wants to eat less salt. Alas, I didn’t find the broth interesting enough to put this at #1.

***

San Dong Noodle House

9938 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036

San Dong is the OG. This was my childhood favorite restaurant for 红烧牛肉面, and honestly I confirmed that it is still my favorite overall. In the early years, they had a huge noodle-pulling machine in the back of the kitchen and I loved watching them make their own noodles. The restaurant has since expanded from their hole-in-the-wall location, but the soup still packs an intense flavor-filled punch. I think this broth achieves the ideal umami, though the cooked spinach made it a touch more bitter than the normal bok choy that everyone else uses. There were plenty of pickled mustard greens, and the beef was super tender. I wish we would have remembered to ask for the thick noodles.

***

Star Snow Ice and Teriyaki (Star Snow)

9889 Bellaire Blvd Houston, TX 77036

During my high school years, Star Snow Ice was the PLACE TO BE. All of my friends were getting their shaved ice and boba milk tea from here. We’ve always been curious about their beef noodle soup because I hear varying amounts of praise. This bowl is the one I felt most “meh” about, despite nice touches like a sprig of cilantro on top. The noodles were so-so, and the broth was a little too sour. This one probably fell to last place, honestly.

***

Verdict

So, how did we eat so many bowls of beef noodle soup? We split every bowl 5 ways! Overall, I would suggest going to San Dong for beef noodle soup, and ask for the thick noodles. If you’re craving handmade noodles and you’re less concerned with having the traditionally intense and complex broth, then go to I Ping Bakery.

Take this all with a grain of salt (heh). We were just looking for a fun family adventure during the holidays, and there were many things on the menus that we didn’t have time (nor tummy space) to try.

Happy slurp slurp slurp!