5.01.2015

this is messed up

source

A couple of weekends, I discovered the strangest thing at the City Lights Bookstore. It's one of the most popular and renowned bookstores in the city, known originally as a congregational home for San Francisco Beatniks and still widely acclaimed for its selection of leftist, underground, and sub-cultural literature. A purveyor known for its radical and revolutionary spirit, for its advocacy of intellectual freedom, City Lights is supposed to be (or I supposed it was) forward-thinking and socially progressive. To my shock, I discovered otherwise...

That Saturday afternoon, Rob was looking for a couple of books recommended to him by his friend Graham. One of those books was The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I've heard is very good. Rob and I had parted ways when we entered the bookstore, but I found him in a side room looking for this book.

"Is this the fiction section?" I asked him.

"Nope it's the foreign section," he replied.

"But Kazuo Ishiguro is British," I said. "It's not a translated novel."

Kazuo Ishiguro, though born in Nagasaki, Japan, moved to England when he was five. He went through schooling completely in the British school system, and I would argue that his books are distinctly British. The Remains of the Day is narrated by the butler of an English countryside estate.

"I don't know," Rob said. "The guy who works here told me it's in this section."

This categorization piqued my interest. I scanned the bookshelf, my eye searching for "Ishiguro." On the bottom shelf, I found the book.

"Here it is," I said. But before I gave it to Rob, I flipped open the book to the copyright page. I wanted to check that it wasn't translated.

"See, he totally wrote it in English," I said. There were other books on the shelf, like Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies and Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered. I checked that both were written in English. They were.

"What is this section, then?" I asked. "This isn't the translated section," I said, though I did notice a few Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels.

A man who worked at the bookstore passed through the room. Rob asked him what section we were in and he barked back, quite angrily, "This is the third-world room."

The third-world room?! What?! What is City Lights trying to say about these books, that they don't belong to the other works of fiction? I understand the utility of a "translated" section, but a translated section would include the works of Marcel Proust and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, both of whom you would never find in the third-world section. These men are white, after all. As an Asian-American, who was born and raised in Mountain View, California, I suppose if I ever wrote a book, I would be siphoned into this third-world section as well, though my voice and my background and my education, I would argue, is American, the way any daughter-of-an-Immigrant is American, the way any tenth-generation-descendant-of-the-pilgrims is American. These authors are writing in the English language, not a foreign tongue, and yet, it's their skin color that separates them as authors? Uncertain what the purpose of this separation is; it accentuates difference, relegates a group of people to another category of literature. Here is white man's literature and here is non-white man's literature. The two are not the same. We are over here and you are over there. That a man's skin determines his place in literature, that a non-white man is immediately third-world, the world beyond the white-man-centric first-world, seems at best, a reinforcement of supremacist and segregational ideals. City Lights, let's move past this soon.

4.18.2015

this is quitting coffee

Ever since I quit drinking coffee, I've had to reconfigure my daily routine. Before, I could count on getting fresh air first thing in the morning during my 1.5 minute walk to a nearby coffee shop, where, due to the congeniality of a friend who works there, I received free coffee at least three days out of the week, a 20-oz thermos filled with coffee, glugged down slowly over the course of the morning. I sincerely believed I needed that beverage to stimulate and awaken, a pathology that manifested itself physically when, in the first two days after I quit coffee, my head throbbed even while lying in my bed and the smell of coffee lurked in waiting around every city corner. In forsaking coffee, I lost one of my favorite morning occurrences, which is the small talk that happens between barista and customer. That particular type of small talk might bother some people, but because it happens within a bounded and predictable space, without any expectations of depth or chemistry, it is actually rather enjoyable to me. There's no sense that we need to talk about a meaningful subject. Shooting the shit about weather is perfectly acceptable. Having the same conversation five days in a row is okay too. It's the kind of easy small talk in which you don't need to judge the quality of the conversation, or scrutinize the affability of another human being. It's perfunctory enough that it feels like a morning calisthenic, whetting your social appetite for the day. Of course, there are baristas I prefer to banter with. Who doesn't like a warm and smiling barista? In this city you'll rarely err on the side of being fawning or excessively enthusiastic, as a barista. You just don't see that kind of behavior. But the barista whose eyes are daggers, whose mouth is pursed, whose judgment and disdain seeps out from her nostrils, is certainly not a pleasant person to encounter in the morning, and that I do not miss. But still, the coffee shop in the city is a crucial hub because it's a reliable place to be around people. Even the mere noise and the faint chatter and the grinding hum of the coffee beans will ameliorate acute pangs of aloneness, at least for a little while.

4.09.2015

this is overeagerness

"Overeager" is a derogatory term, "over" implying excessive and "eager" denoting strong and unfeigned interest. When someone is "overeager," is that a factor of timing, verbosity, posture, or language? Is self-protection so engrained in human psychology that our scorn of "overeagerness" is our way of warding off the intensity of desire? Say you meet someone whom you are interested in getting to know better, and you decide to solicit the person for drinks. Your perceived "eagerness" is determined by a few things: how much time has passed between seeing the person and soliciting them (e.g. texting five minutes after you first met could be interpreted as "overeager"), how much effort you put into "connecting" with said person (e.g. following them on every social network they are on), the language used in communication (e.g. "Hey! I think we really hit it off when we met, and I want to take you out for dinner. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night work for me, and we could do drinks after dinner too, and maybe a movie? Let me know what you think. I'm really excited about this!"—is probably perceived as overeager—the tone and verbosity of this text reflect this), one's availability (see aforementioned example), and the level to which one's desire is reciprocated (some men will always be perceived as assertive rather than overeager; perhaps this is the male version of je ne sais quoi).

When did aloofness become a virtue? Why does mystery entice us so? There's a deep thrill in being the one-who-desires, perhaps moreso than being the desired. The horizon line is still far away; there's something to swim toward—somewhere beyond your reach. Our society is as mannered as the Whartonian world, in which social cues were clearly patterned and understood but not necessarily spoken of. Our behavior is still governed by ideas: not of respectability now, necessarily, but of what is deemed "cool." But one more thing: the attention we pay to the way we interact extends beyond face-to-fact contact: now our selves inhabit technological spheres and social networks and Google-searched images on global platforms, and we must heed social norms there too. We must calculate our airs and our advances. We are not overeager, perhaps, but we are overgroomed. Perhaps overeagerness is actually a moment of vulnerability, of completely diminished pretension, of social cues being dropped for one second; a desire not manicured or tamed but freely aired. For that level of earnestness, I surrender all disdain—I welcome your overeagerness.

update: uncannily found this whip-smart essay on this (at least tangential) topic, and a rebuttal to it (also worth reading)

4.07.2015

this is how to win friends and influence people

When strategizing how to "hang out" with someone, might you employ a salesperson pitch instead of skulking around?

Instead of "hanging out," why don't you say "exciting opportunity"?
Instead of proposing to "hang out" amorphously, subliminally, abstractly, passively, why don't you provide six specific "exciting opportunities"?

Prosperous friendships shall ensue. You will win friends and influence people.

See below for a real-life example, which occurred at 6:03 PM on Monday, April 6.


*phone rings*

me: Hello?

M: Hello. I have some exciting opportunities for us.

me: What?

M: First, I propose a walk this afternoon.

me: No, I --

M: Second, I propose a meeting at Atlas Cafe where I eat a beet-loaf sandwich.

me: No, I--

M: Third, I propose yoga at 7:30. Fourth, I propose coffee tomorrow at 5.

me: Are you done yet?

M: The fifth exciting opportunity is our scheduled hang-out and yoga session at 6 tomorrow.

me: What's the sixth?

M: I only have five.

me: I decline the first four exciting opportunities, but I will accept the fifth.

M: Great.

me: Looking forward to our exciting opportunity. 

M: Very exciting opportunities.

me: I propose we refer to all of the time we spend together as "exciting opportunities," instead of "hanging out," which has some kind of weird connotations.

M: Exciting Opportunities is much more fitting.

me: Agreed. Goodbye.

M: Goodbye.

4.06.2015

"Champagne" by Laura Kasischke

A cold wind, later, but no rain.
A bus breathing heavily at the station.
Beggars at the gate, and the moon
like one bright horn of a white
cow up there in space. But

really, must I think about all this
a second time in this short life?
This crescent moon, like a bit
of ancient punctuation. This

pause in the transience of all things.

Up there, Ishtar in the ship
of life he’s sailing.  Has

he ripped open again his sack of grain?
Spilled it all over the place?
Bubbles rising to the surface, breaking.

Beside our sharpened blades, they’ve
set down our glasses of champagne.
A joke is made.  But, really, must

I hear this joke again?

Must I watch the spluttering
light of this specific flame? Must I
consider forever the permanent
transience of all things:

The bus, breathing at the station.
The beggars at the gate.
The girl I was.
Both pregnant and chaste.
The cold wind, that crescent moon.
No rain. What difference

can it possibly make, that
pain, now that not a single
anguished cry of it remains?

Really, must I grieve it all again
a second time, and why tonight
of all the nights, and just
as I’m about to raise, with the
blissful others, my

glass to the silvery, liquid
chandelier above us?