in recent years


christmas in july

[true story: i took this and posted it to flickr and then a while later it was postedwithout credit to tumblr and it now has more that 12,000 notes. it’s not even a good picture.]
122308 -- l.a. dwp light festival


fireworks waiting [01072012 #adiml] post-fireworks glow [01072012 #adiml]


nodak: one year later


On the eve of the momentous day that marks exactly one year since we arrived in North Dakota, let me explain you a thing, friends.

North Dakota is very small.

DSC_3887 DSC_3865

Physically, this isn’t true. It’s 19th in the country with almost 71,000 square miles. That’s, on a technical level, like, pretty big. I mean, it’s not Alaska or anything, but it’s big. But population wise? It’s a whole other story.

Okay, so this involved a lot of convoluted math and ratios that I’m not TOTALLY sure I didn’t absolutely screw up, but I did it a couple times and I feel pretty solid about the whole deal?* Regardless of its actual accuracy, I think it’s an accurate representation of how genuinely tiny this place is. And it doesn’t even really capture it because even though there are 16,000 people here there aren’t more people nearby. There are almost 50,000 people in my hometown, but the adjacent suburbs have even larger populations — like 50,000 and 100,000 and 149,000 — and then eventually just turn into Los Angeles. Here, we have to drive two hours to reach a city with a greater population than ours and that’s a whopping 40,000 residents. Minot is the fourth largest city in North Dakota.

trinity #northdakota bowl big ass swedish horse

Most of the space between what passes as a city here looks a lot like this:

DSC_1644 DSC_3425

Hell, even the area just beyond our neighborhood¤ starts to look like that.

Anyway, what this means is that North Dakota is devoid of things to do. I recognize, accept, and openly admit that I am spoiled to here and back for activities. I grew up in LA; I spent 2009-2012 going to Disneyland at least twice a month; I grew up a half a mile from the largest movie theater in Los Angeles County. I did not want for things to do. We drive those two hours to Minot to go to the movies here and if we’re not seeing something opening week, we’re seeing it in a dumpy closet theater from hell.

There’s nowhere to eat here. Nowhere particularly good at least and there is very, very little variety. There’re steak places and “bar and grill” places, a good fast-ish non-chain burger place, and one decent Chinese place (What up, Rice and Spice!) but even after a year of being here, most of the food options feel like a punishment. And it’s all crazy expensive. Everything is here. The cost of living is bananas and the grocery stores’ idea of fresh chicken is defrosted chicken. It blows. A lot.


But even without Disneyland and without Thai food (It’s been more than a year since I had Thai food. Or good Mexican. Or decent pizza.) and with little to do here but dick around on the internet and look at clouds. day to day life seems not so bad.

storm wall #northdakota hedderich's #northdakota
unbelievably pretty day #northdakota sorry i love clouds #northdakota

People make do with very little all over the world all the time. And I don’t say that in a “Oh perspective will fix things” kind of way but in a “Humans are amazing” way. And they do more than just make do, they live full, happy lives. And maybe I’m not happy here and can’t wait to get back to California, but I’m okay and for now, okay is, well, it’s okay.


*: The first two times I did it, I did not account for the translation to a square, so I at least feel okay about this even though I had to do it four more times after I did start accounting for the square. Sorry if it’s wrong. Sorry I’m not sorrier. Sorry I am terrible at math. Sorry it’s what kept me from going into astronomy. Sorry you have to tolerate my second choice.#

#: Writing.

†: This is in theory actually closer to 25,000 currently because of the oil boom, but there are no current, accurate figures on the internet as far as I can tell.

¤: When we tell people where we live — a new development on top of what is considered a “hill” here which is actually, like, a twenty foot rise in elevation just outside of the city limits — they often go, “Oh, you live in The Hills” as though it’s Hills, Beverly or some shit. 9021NODAK.

‡: Williston does, very technically, have a theater. Unfortunately it has not been updated in some time and thus has no moveable armrests. I am not going to jam my fat ass into a seat and be miserable for two hours of the only experience I treat as reverently as faithful people treat church. I’d rather drive two hours. Plus there’s a Target there.

you’re the nearest to my heart

Dear Crystal,

Today is five years since we started dating. Five years. That’s crazy, right? Genuinely unbelievable? Five years since we realized we wanted to hold hands and kiss and stuff and said, “Hey, let’s try this relationship thing” and then you kissed me real aggressively and got a bloody nose all over my chest. Good, memorable, wonderful times.

You’re the best person I know and not just because you not only tolerate, but love and enable me. You are smart and funny and kind and generous and I have never had someone love and support me the way that you do. You believe that I can do anything, even when I am sure than I cannot do anything at all.

You feel so much. It’s one of the best thing about you. You just feel. You feel love and hate and joy and sadness and you feel them all with a depth I cannot begin to imagine being capable of. It’s honestly magical to watch you experience the world because you see things that other people not just don’t, but can’t. You are moved by the world, frightened and delighted by it, and I am so grateful that I get to see that. Through you I see and learn things that I never could on my own.

You are infinitely kind and patient. Mostly. You care immensely about so much. You believe that people can be better and you push them toward it, even when it hurts. The world is lucky to have you.

There is an inherently narcissistic weight to being in a good relationship, but I have never been one to shy away from narcissism. You make me better. You make me smarter and more creative. You give me ideas and tell me to make them stories. You inspire words in me just by being who you are and moving through your life.

You have not taken every moment of our relationship in stride — you are too anxiety-ridden for that — but you have taken every moment anyway. You have rolled with terrifying and miserable changes and you have done so with hope and good humor. You have stood by me at my very, very worst and you have picked me up and cleaned my wounds when I was sure I would never stand again. I am so, so lucky to have you. The luckiest.

You know I don’t like promises and that I always cross my fingers even when I make them, but I’ll make you a few anyway. I promise to pull your eyelashes when they look loose. I promise to yell at you when you let water bottles accumulate on your side of the bed. I promise to think you are weird and wonderful every single day that I am lucky enough to have you in my life. I promise to probably walk out of Target again when you fight with me.

I promise to love you every single day until I can’t anymore.

Thanks for five incredibly lucky years and for the year and a half before that where everyone thought we were already dating anyway.

– Ash

relish by lucy knisley

I was really, really excited to read Lucy Knisley’s Relish. I’ve been a fan of her web presence for a pretty long time. I think her art is really sweet and I think she makes funny, touching observations and, though I have rarely experienced the things she writes about, they’re no less relatable or interesting.

Unfortunately, Relish didn’t feel like her autobiographical webcomic Stop Paying Attention. Perhaps it is a problem exclusive to her books — I haven’t yet read French Milk — but the whole of Relish felt pretentious and pompous and snooty. (I know those are basically synonyms but it deserves all three — “pretentious” for her superiority complex, “pompous” for the near-explicit sense of “anyone who doesn’t eat like me is unworthy” and “snooty” for her constant need to point out that cheap, quick food is “bad” even when she is talking about how much she likes it.

I know this is autobiography and I know that autobiographies are a very tight lens through which to see and express the world and I know that it can sometimes make for a very limited scope, but I would have loved to see adult Lucy perhaps realizing that the way she grew up and her relationship with food is a highly, highly privileged one.

Food is a political issue and it will remain a political issue until all people have access to high quality food that they can afford and I believe it to be a genuine failure on Knisley’s part to never in the entire scope of the book address that. She takes the time to let her readers know that she liked McDonald’s even though it’s “considered cheap and unhealthy” and in the same page devotes a panel to fat people picketing McDonald’s for making them fat, but never addresses any of the systematic issues that bar access to good, nutritious, fresh food for great swaths of human beings across the globe.

As a fat person, this is what Lucy Knisley thinks of me. Wonderful.
Politicization of food aside, I wanted to like Relish, I really really did. The art is fun and I particularly like Knisley’s rendering of place — there’s an overhead rendering from the section about her childhood trip to Mexico that I find particularly charming and I love almost every illustration of shop fronts — and I think her illustrated recipes are legit wonderful. I enjoyed the tale of the lemonade chicken and how much she appreciates sharing a meal with another person, but I spent an enormous amount of my time reading rolling my eyes and groaning. There is some gentle, but still icky othering of food she experiences while traveling that I did not enjoy, but more than that I just couldn’t stomach the pomposity of it all.

Food is wonderful and I mean that really and truly. I love to cook and I love to shop for fresh vegetables and choose the perfect piece of meat to barbecue. I love gourmet meals prepared by master chefs and a perfectly constructed Big Mac. I love to share meals with people I love and I love falling in love with people over shared meals. I feel like, at our cores, Lucy Knisley and I are probably not that different about food.

But it seems very likely that Lucy Knisley has never been one of the 2.3 million households in the United States that live in a food desert. She has likely never paid $9 a pound for defrosted “fresh” chicken. She has probably never skipped a meal so that someone else in her household could eat. And though I do not expect her — nor anyone — to apologize for the privilege of being able to eat not only regularly, but incredibly well, I do expect her to acknowledge it. How can you spend so many pages talking about the unbelievable richness and joy of your food experience and not acknowledge how lucky you are to have had it?

So, though Relish was not for me, I decided to trust Knisley’s skills and tastebuds anyway and make carbonara for my family following her recipe. Mostly.

I am not a person who follows recipes well which has often led to genuinely grotesque meals and has taught me to avoid baking at pretty much all costs — I’m an experimenter! I like to add and subtract and never measure anything! Those are not skills for baking or recipes! — so I made sure to keep a copy of Knisley’s recipe right at hand and also to read it about a dozen times and also make my girlfriend gather all of the ingredients because she is much more meticulous than I am in the kitchen.

carbonara prep
We live on a strict-ish budget so the only thing I bought special was thick cut bacon (The wilds of North Dakota are not prime pancetta territory, tragically.) which means that we went without the wine (I have learned from experience that the Moscato we drink is way too sweet to cook with.), used lots of parmesan because we didn’t have any romano on hand, and used dried parsley because we are notoriously bad at not letting leftover herbs go to waste. Also, once the garlic was soft and golden and delicious, I smashed it up and added it to the egg mixture because… well, why wouldn’t you? It’s garlic.

Though I am atrociously bad at recipes, I am a better than average cook so once everything was ready and organized and sorted into little bowls like the pros do on the TV, it went super easy. Even though I was worried the illustrative nature of it might mess with me, Knisley’s recipe was not at all hard to follow.

pasta dump
We decided to heat up our peas on the side and then dump them over the top of the pasta servings partly because it looked super pretty and partly because my mom doesn’t like the frozen peas we buy because they have a sort of stiff inner texture — they’re very meaty, basically — and then we sat down and everyone proceeded to stuff themselves to the point of wishing we were dead or maybe napping for a super extended period of time.

finished carbonara
I cannot emphasize how good this was, for real. With four people eating one of our usual pasta meals, we leave behind enough for a couple of lunch servings. This time, with only three people eating, there was nothing left in that big silver bowl when we were done.

So maybe, as a reading experience, Relish wasn’t for me and perhaps I have some serious qualms about un-broached social issues in it, but as a cookbook I have at least one great recipe — my girlfriend and I have already talked about making this again but adding onions and mushrooms and swapping peas for asparagus — and high, high hopes for the few others Knisley illustrated.

I might think twice before I buy more of Knisley’s autobiographical work, but I’ll certainly be first in line if she finds herself compelled toward an entire illustrated cookbook.

places i’ve been: epping, north dakota

Epping, North Dakota is a really, really small town 20 miles north east of where we are here in Williston. It was founded in 1905 along the Great Northern Railway.

epping cemetery
When I say “small town,” I really, really mean small. Like, unbelievably small. Small like it has a total area of 0.38 square miles. Small like it had a population of exactly 100 in the 2010 census. Small like for the entire twenty minutes we were driving around the whopping three blocks that make up the city, we saw one other human being.

buffalo trails
The Buffalo Trails Museum was closed just like every other business we saw. They’d just had their annual Buffalo Trail Day event which includes a pancake dance and church services and an ice cream social. We figure they must have been recovering.

o. ellingson
There isn’t much here except a grain elevator and oil storage. This is where most of the oil pumped in and around Williston goes to meet the train and head for processing because despite the massive amount of oil coming out of the Bakken formation, it’s all got to be shipped to refineries elsewhere.

epping grain elevator
sons of norway

People in North Dakota are very serious about their Scandinavian heritage. I didn’t know the US was so into their viking-ass history until I got here. Seriously. Wait ’til you see the pictures of Minot.

epping hardware & pool hall
wildlife sculptures
Epping is weird as hell. The weekend we were there it looked abandoned. It didn’t just look like, you know, people were inside or out of town, it looked like the remains of a city after war.

Western North Dakota is really just like that though, a series of wheat and oil fields dotted with places like Epping, places like Zahl, places like Van Hook. It’s hard to believe there’s somewhere in the United States today with so few humans in it.

North Dakota is the third least populous state in the US and the fourth least in population density. There are more populated areas, even areas that are growing so rapidly that there aren’t enough homes — I know, I live in one — but there are less than ten people for every square mile of North Dakota territory. And trust me, when you live here — even in a place that seems crammed with people — you know it.