(donuts inspired by the cover of) Thick

The book: Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom.

This week I finished Thick: And Other Essays by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thick is a collection of essays that explore what it is to be a black woman in America. Each essay looks at how race intersects with aspects of society including socioeconomic status, profession, and ethnicity.

My first impression of Thick was that the writing style was academic and formal; this wasn’t entirely surprising since Dr. McMillan Cottom is an academic (she is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University). Although the writing is formal at times, Dr. McMillan Cottom also writes poetically and accessibly throughout Thick. She perfectly sprinkles personal anecdotes throughout her essays, allowing the reader to connect abstract ideas to real peoples’ lived experiences.

I also found Thick to be enlightening and profound. Some people told me that Thick didn’t teach them anything they didn’t already know, but that was not my experience. This could be a reflection of my lack of expertise in the field of sociology, or perhaps my ignorance as a white woman in America (or, more likely, a combination of both). But even when Thick tackled concepts that I already understood at some level, I felt like I was learning something new: Dr. McMillan Cottom really dissects and examines the nuances of race in America, allowing me (and probably other readers) to process information and expand upon my perspectives that were previously shallow or one-dimensional.

So much of Thick was eye-opening and memorable, but one of the concepts that stuck with me most was that capitalism and racism serve each other in a positive feedback loop. This is tackled in the chapter “In the Name of Beauty,” where McMillan Cottom explains how “beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order” (the same is true of most “lifestyle” preferences that are promoted by capitalism).

The other idea that stuck strongly with me was one that I already knew (in a shallow way) prior to reading Thick: that white men are more likely to be seen as competent in America, regardless of their level of expertise or their actual competence. Not only are white men viewed as competent, but social order forces women and people of color (especially women of color) into situations where they are likely to fail, resulting in people of power treating them as incompetent. This is explored in much more depth in the chapter “Dying to be Competent.” A major takeaway from this chapter was the importance of listening to people other than white men, especially women and non-binary people of color: because their social status often forces them into positions of less power, it is especially important that we do listen and take them seriously.

Overall, I highly recommend Thick. Dr. McMillan Cottom uses the perfect blend of academic and prosaic writing to illustrate issues of race in America. You can read an excerpt from the chapter “Dying to be Competent” here.

The bake: spice cake donuts with chocolate glaze.

I had a tough time choosing a bake inspired by Thick, mostly because the essays describing systemic racism in America (which I benefit from) did not exactly fuel my appetite for sweets. Eventually, I decided that I would make a shareable treat inspired by the cover of Thick. I ended up settling on donuts glazed with chocolate, and then drizzled with white and pink icing (to resemble the white and pink writing on the dark cover of the book).

The finished donut, next to the book cover that inspired it.

I baked these cake donuts from King Arthur Flour, then iced them in this chocolate glaze (also from KAF). I modified the donut recipe by adding a bit of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves. Once the donuts were glazed and cool, I melted some white chocolate chips and drizzled that mixture over the donuts to get the finished, decorated donut. The pink drizzle is just the melted white chocolate with a drop of pink gel food coloring.

My verdict on the donuts is that they are tasty, but definitely not as “aesthetically pleasing” as I had wanted. I am okay with this, because as Dr. McMillan Cottom points out in “In the Name of Beauty,” beauty is a construct. What matters most to me is that the donuts taste good (which they do), so that my friends and co-workers can enjoy them.

(a raspberry mocha cake that isn’t) Hard to Love

The book: Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper.

I am currently going through a non-fiction phase, and Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper was the first book I read as part of this phase. Hard to Love is a compilation of essays, each of which tackles the topic of love in its various forms. Hopper writes about friendships, sisterhood, and the ways in which these bonds can form.

Hard to Love is a joy to read because Briallen Hopper is an exceptional writer. She is able to articulate her perspectives so well that, by the end of the book, I almost felt as though I knew her. Because Hopper expresses her points of view so eloquently, it is easy to empathize with her. Even when I didn’t necessarily agree with Hopper, I was able to consider new perspectives with so much more compassion. For example, in the chapter “Hoarding,” Hopper defends the practice of hoarding as a means of remembering others by holding on to their physical possessions. I doubt I’ll ever be pro-hoarding, but after reading this essay I no longer feel much negative judgment toward those who do hoard.

In addition to being beautifully written, Hard to Love is refreshing. Our society places so much value on romantic love that other types of love are often-overlooked, despite being equally (if not more) important. In “Lean On,” Hopper argues that it is okay to be dependent on friendships, explaining how she “learned to practice mutual, broadly distributed leaning: to depend on care that was neither compulsory nor conditional” with her friends. In “Young Adult Cancer Story” and “Coasting,” she writes about being part of a close-knit friend-group that formed over a mutual friend’s cancer diagnosis. In “Dear Octopus” and “On Sisters,” she discusses how familial relationships are complex, yet “sustain [themselves] through things that can end or prevent intimate friendships.”

All Hopper’s essays are thoughtful and gorgeously written, but my personal favorites were “Lean On” and “Tending My Oven,” probably because both instantly resonated with me. I loved “Lean On,” because it perfectly expressed my own love for constructing and maintaining meaningful “friendship shells” and “structures of togetherness” with others. “Tending My Oven,” an exploration of why people bake, at times felt like it was written for me (I know that it wasn’t): in this essay, Hopper explains how baking can both “[allow us] to be warm and sweet in a world that so often isn’t, and provide “a space of authenticity and generosity.” These were the chapters that resonated with me the most, but let me reiterate that all of Hopper’s essays are wonderful – even her ideas that don’t resonate with everyone are very thoughtfully written.

By the way, you can read the essay “Lean On” on Longreads!

The bake: (four-layer) raspberry mocha cake

As I mentioned above, Hopper’s essay “Tending My Oven” – an exploration of the practice of baking – strongly resonated with me. In addition to examining the reasons why some people love to bake, Hopper writes about her own favorite things to bake (which include apple bundt cake, chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter cream cheese frosting, and berry shortcake). Of all the baked goods Hopper mentions in “Tending My Oven,” the one that intrigued me most was “Seven-Layer Insomnia Cake with Bitterness Buttercream Frosting.” So I decided to make my own version of it.

To pay tribute to “insomnia,” I made my cake coffee-flavored (as coffee usually exacerbates my own tendency toward insomnia). I followed this recipe from my name is yeh, leaving out the cardamom. To pay tribute to “bitterness,” I modified the recipe’s frosting to be less sweet, and I added about 1 tbsp cocoa powder since dark chocolate, like coffee, is delightfully bitter.

The final cake: two layers of coffee cake separated by mocha buttercream frosting and raspberry jam, and covered in more mocha buttercream frosting.

The recipe that I followed yields two 9″ round cakes, and I ended up being too afraid to slice the cakes into thinner layers. So I merely sandwiched them with a layer of mocha buttercream frosting and a layer of raspberry jam in between. Then I frosted the whole thing with more mocha buttercream. So my cake has either two, four, or five layers depending on what you consider to be a “layer” in the context of cake. I consider both the frosting and jam in between the two cakes to be their own layers.

Regardless of the number of layers, this cake is great. The coffee flavor is strong, and well balanced by the raspberry jam filling. Also, because the cake is made with canola oil, it doesn’t dry out quickly. The best thing about this cake, however, was that I got to share it with coworkers, allowing me to be “warm and sweet” and to express “authenticity and generosity.”

The end of two eras: life after grad school and the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Tomorrow, April 5th, at 9:00 AM EST, I will attempt to defend my Master’s thesis to my graduate advisor and committee members. With 112 pages spanning a comprehensive literature review, two scientific manuscripts, and way too many tables and figures, this thesis represents the entirety of my grad student career. If I successfully defend my thesis – if my committee members agree that the work I completed is sufficient to earn me the title of Master of Science – I will be done with this figurative chapter of my life, and move on to the next. I will move to Massachusetts, find a job, and get married to my fiancĂ© of 1.5 years – most likely in that order. The end of an era – my life as a graduate student – is scheduled for tomorrow, April 5th. Incidentally, the season finale of my favorite television program of all time, the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is also scheduled for tomorrow.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tells the story of Rebecca Bunch (played by the insanely talented Rachel Bloom), a successful and seemingly put-together young lawyer who moves from New York City to West Covina, California in the hopes of reconnecting with a former summer fling. As she starts her young-adult life on the opposite side of the country, Rebecca finds meaningful new friendships and embarks on a quest toward true happiness.

Rebecca falls in love with West Covina in the series’ pilot episode.

From its brilliant original musical numbers to its surprisingly feminist messages, there is a lot to love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Despite the seemingly sexist title of the show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actually deconstructs numerous tropes including sexist stereotypes. In many ways, especially at the beginning of the series, Rebecca does embody characteristics of the stereotypical, obsessive, crazy ex-girlfriend. As more of Rebecca’s backstory is revealed, however, we realize that the situation is a lot more nuanced that: behind Rebecca’s unhealthy and obsessive behavior is an unstable mental health which likely resulted from unresolved childhood traumas. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend candidly and responsibly explores these mental health issues throughout the series, showing that Rebecca is so much more than just a “crazy” overly attached girlfriend.

As the series progresses, other problematic cliches – including the female rivalry between Rebecca and Valencia (the girlfriend of Rebecca’s love interest, played by Gabrielle Ruiz) – are completely flipped on their heads. This isn’t to say that characters who initially seemed unlikable are revealed to be wholly amazing. In fact, most of the characters in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are often unlikeable: even at her best, Rebecca is usually self-centered; Paula (Rebecca’s best friend in West Covina, played by Donna Lynn Champlin), from her scheming nature to her reputation as the “office bitch”, is controlling; and Josh (Rebecca’s first love interest, played by Vincent Rodriguez III) is irritatingly oblivious. These blatant flaws make the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend frustrating, but also relatable and honest, and remind us viewers that people are nuanced. Instead of forcing characters into boxes or reducing them to caricatures, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend demonstrates that people are complex, and often fall into “gray areas” rather than discrete “black or white” categories.

Josh’s obliviousness is perfectly highlighted in this musical number aptly named “I’ve Got My Head In the Clouds.”

In addition to flipping the script on sexist tropes and typical TV-drama cliches, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also de-stigmatizes taboo topics ranging from abortion to antidepressants. As I mentioned earlier, mental health becomes a major focus of the show. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the first television show I know of that so candidly portrays the experience of trying to overcome mental health issues. In season 4, episode 12, for example, after a year of attending individual and group therapy sessions, and so much personal growth, Rebecca backslides into certain unhealthy relationship patterns and reaches one of her all-time lows. She is able to recognize her mistakes and become more grounded, but it takes a lot of work. By exploring Rebecca’s mental health issues and healing process in depth, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sheds light on the often overlooked subject of psychological health, while also portraying those who suffer from mental illness in a realistic and sympathetic manner. Other “taboo” topics that are brought to the forefront of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend include: society’s impossible expectations of female beauty, bisexuality, and periods. (warning: the third video might make some people uncomfortable).

This brings me to my next praise of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: its original music is amazing. Like Rebecca herself, the songs of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are nuanced: I still catch new nuggets of gold every time I re-listen to my Crazy Ex-Girlfriend playlist (yes, I made a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend playlist). A great example of this is the song “Dream Ghost,” which takes place when Rebecca falls asleep on a cross-country plane ride and dreams she is having a poignant conversation with her therapist Dr. Akopian (played by Michael Hyatt). In just two and a half minutes, “Dream Ghost” teases the trope of characters in predicaments having life-changing revelations in their dreams, respectfully parodies Dream Girls, and also becomes a commentary on sexism in the work place! And on top of that it is well-sung and catchy!

The incredible and hilarious “Dream Ghost” scene: part musical number, part parody, part social commentary.

Most of all, though, what I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it’s the first TV show in which I truly identified with a character being portrayed on-screen. While I’ve never uprooted my entire life to chase a love interest, or been in the center of a love triangle, I do see a lot of similarities between myself and Rebecca: we are both Jewish, we are both dorky and weird, we are both professionally successful (although that doesn’t necessarily make us happy), and we both try very hard to be balanced and happy despite struggling with mental health issues.

Seeing my own experiences reflected in the character of Rebecca Bunch has helped me come to terms with my past and present self. Although it’s hinted at from the show’s very beginning, it is eventually made explicitly clear that Rebecca’s obsession with romantic relationships stems from childhood trauma. Like Rebecca, I was relationship-crazy from an early age, almost always in a relationship or seeking one. Several of my past relationships have been unhealthy, and there is one relationship in particular that I cannot think about without feeling intense, spiraling shame…or that is, I couldn’t – past tense – until Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. When I first saw my own previous unhealthy relationship patterns portrayed on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I felt embarrassed for Rebecca, and often found her relationship drama painfully uncomfortable to watch. As I watched Rebecca grow throughout the series, however, I gained empathy and respect for her…and for myself. Realizing how much I used to have in common with season-1-Rebecca made me realize that, like Rebecca, I haven’t exactly been dealt an easy hand in terms of mental health; but also like Rebecca, I am capable of growth and change so long as I keep putting in the effort. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend guided me to the revelation that our pasts are a part of who we are, but they don’t define us.

In addition to guiding me out of unhelpful shame spirals, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has helped me by role-modeling healthy relationship patterns and mature decision-making. No character on the show is portrayed as perfectly reasonable, and we frequently watch characters struggle to do the mature thing. But, generally speaking, the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend do eventually do the mature thing. I mentioned previously that some episodes show Rebecca backsliding into unhealthy behaviors, demonstrating how difficult it can be for those with mental health issues to make healthy decisions. But after the backslides come the…frontslides? After each backslide, Rebecca picks herself up, with admirable determination and the support of her friends. After experiencing agoraphobia in season 4, episode 2, Rebecca acknowledges her feelings of shame, makes peace with them, and is ready to stop isolating herself. After the aforementioned backslide of season 4, episode 12, Rebecca realizes that she’s out of control, and initiates a beautifully candid conversation with her psychiatrist to get herself back on a path toward good mental health. Other characters – Paula, Valencia, and Nathaniel come to mind – don’t backslide per se, but they still struggle with healthy relationships (romantic, platonic, and professional), and we see them grow and mature alongside Rebecca throughout the series.

In Rebecca’s shame spiral of season 4, episode 2, she becomes obsessed with a woman who was murdered, and tries to communicate with the woman’s spirit. It is her empathy for this woman that eventually brings her out of her own shame spiral.

After four spectacular seasons of smashing hack stereotypes, de-stigmatizing mental illness, role modeling healthy behavior, and producing some of the most amazing original music numbers of all time, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comes to an end tomorrow. Throughout the series we’ve watched Rebecca make impulsive decisions, behave selfishly, seek improvement, explore her passions, make meaningful friendships, and just…grow. I have no idea what the series finale has in store for Rebecca, but given the show’s theme of personal growth, I imagine Rebecca will follow whatever path is truly best for her (even if that path doesn’t involve choosing one of the three men pining after her). I would also guess that Rebecca’s ultimate decision will highlight the importance of self-acceptance and self-worth.

Unlike the fictional, four-season run of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, however, my very real three-ish-season run of graduate studies will not necessarily end on a poignant note. As I learned at my undergraduate commencement ceremony, and with some of the biggest accomplishments of my life (getting into graduate school, being recognized for academic achievements, and giving my last ever seminar as a grad student), hyped up life events are often underwhelming. I didn’t experience tremendous joy, relief, or revelation after giving my exit seminar earlier this week, and I don’t expect to experience them after my defense tomorrow, either (if my defense is successful, that is).

But even without any major revelations, and without new episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to guide me through an uncertain future, I can still strive to be the most sincere version of myself. I can take the example set by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and try my best to be aware, empathetic, realistic, and honest with others. I can make healthy and mature decisions, even if it sometimes takes a while to get there. I can continue putting in the work required to be fulfilled and mentally stable. And should I ever forget the lessons exemplified by the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I can always re-watch their inspiring personal growth journeys. And by that I mean that I will absolutely be re-watching this beautiful, heart-stopping, breathtaking, life-changing series.