Monday, February 16, 2015

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Perfect, the enemy of done

Not long ago, I was recounting a story to my partner, and because it was based on a graphic novel, my account was a stuttering, frame-by-frame retelling of every little detail I could remember from the novel. Losing patience, he told me my storytelling style was bad, and I felt like my bones had been crushed and I had to lie down because I couldn't even sit straight anymore.

"I have no talent," I whined, dragging my feet across the carpet.
"You do," he said quickly, realizing perhaps that I was going to mope for the rest of the night. "I think you're just not using it. You go on and on saying 'he said this' 'and then he said this'. It's like you're reading out a Hemingway novel. Set the scene. Visualize it. Draw the characters out, make them interesting. Cut out the details that people don't care about. You have to engage your listeners. It's like painting a picture."
"I have no talent in painting either."

They say honesty is more important than false praise in order to grow, and that writers especially need to have exceptionally thick skin and know when to drown their babies. Personality-wise, I sometimes wonder if I'm cut out for writing at all. My observation skills are tragically weak (I have, for instance, a completely broken gay-dar, whereas my partner can often tell the sexuality of someone from watching them walk from a distance), I've no ear for dialogue and my general course of life consists of getting on and off SkyTrains, haunting the same cafes every day, and slouching at my desk for hours on end, fingers tap-dancing on my laptop.

But the day after my solo pity festival, I came across a certain graphic novel that has turned into something of a huge success in Japan. The drawings are risible: they are 10 times worse than anything I expected. The fans openly laugh at the art style. Frankly, I gulp when I think of the moxie the artist must have had to even pursue comics as a pastime, let alone a profession.

Yet his storytelling skills are undeniable. From the very first episode, the story and characters draws a reader in. Even the horrendous art becomes part of the appeal, as readers soak in the sharp, snappy and deadpan funny dialogue, the incredible comic timing, the cliffhanger episode endings.

If this guy had quit pursuing his story because of a lack of artistic talent, millions of readers would have never discovered his series. He threw it all online, and now it has fans all over the world. It got a proper artist to redraw the whole thing (with better drawing), and the work, however imperfect, made it out there.

I'm not pretending to have anything in common with this author, but it struck me that there are plenty of extraordinarily gifted writers, artists and what have you in this world. There are plenty who put themselves out in the world and never make it, but even more than that, there's a bigger number of incredibly talented people who are too afraid to even make that step.

Reading the comments of readers who simultaneously split their sides laughing at the artist's horrible art, yet genuinely appreciate the story, I realized my crappy skills may need improvement (hence my partner's comments), but that shouldn't be any reason to mope and groan about not being good enough. If artists waited until they were truly good to start putting their ideas to paper and showing them to people, so many works would never exist. It's time I start emulating that a little bit. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Loneliness in a restaurant

OK, so as this makes very clear, I have zero depth perception and stink at drawing squares. But anyway, the thing is I was in a Japanese restaurant yesterday and remember seeing an old man sitting alone and quietly eating and drinking while all these really loud, vibrant conversations were happening around him. I remember the first time I ate out alone too, and remember what a disorienting experience it was. When I've got stuff to do, like write or if I'm just damn tired and want to treat myself, that's fine, but his eyes were for a good 40 minutes staring into space. I wondered if he was having a conversation in his mind with the people he once knew.

On an unrelated note, my partner thinks Lost in Translation is an awesome movie. This is a movie I strongly dislike and regret ever having watched. We had a good conversation that opened my mind to other perspectives while not changing my original viewpoint. He says it's fantastic because it's fundamentally a story about alienation, and about the transient relations we have. I of course looked at it from the viewpoint of an American filming how weird Japan, and perhaps Asia in general, was. My takeaway of the Scarlett/Bill experience was was: "Wow! This country is weird! I totally don't get it! Bye!"  I thought it was intellectually lazy -- there are already plenty of works along the lines of "Wow! Japan is exotic! So alien!" and this added nothing to enrich anybody's point of view. Seriously, that stuff is old.

It's not that I wanted the film to glamourize the place or the people -- that would have been embarrassing to watch. But to show something relatable, not just exoticize everyone and everything as freaks.

But he said it wasn't even about that, that they could have shot the movie in Mexico. The point was two people who can't connect with the place around them, and how in that context they find each other and find companionship and love. Maybe so. I just am stuck in the view that movies should be about humanizing and finding common ground, and appreciate when I see Iranian movies or Chinese movies that make viewers feel empathy and understanding for cultures -- not condensation and a sense of smug superiority.

I still feel the filmmaker purposely refused to let readers see any humanity in the place she was in (aside from the humanity of the two leads), which was rather insulting. Glad there were no damn sequels.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Taking Buddhism too far -- throwing the baby (desire, ambition) out with the bathwater (attachment)

I'm not a serious practitioner of Buddhism, but I take its general teaching seriously. One of the things I seem to have taken to a high level is letting go of attachments. Even if I really, truly want something, I find I can switch it off and stop caring about that thing in the blink of an eye. I've been able to beat materialism, body image issues, ambition because of this.

The trouble with that is that that detachment can invade, like an infection, into all other areas of the mind. A person who does't have any attachment has no dreams, few hopes, and little other than duty to keep going. Even aspirations are displaced by obligation.

It's fine and well to let go of attachment, but I appear to have thrown out all the affiliated things with it, and am furiously trying to get some of it back. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Simply being in the same space and time

There's a quote I'll never forget from some poet or writer in Japan whose name I forgot long ago. Probably, I've never read any of his work, but what he said has stayed with me for over 10 years.

He was talking about his wife, who he was always hard on, probably being the typical judgmental hardass men of a certain era can be.

Something happened while the pair were in Europe, like they missed their flight or lost their luggage or something. He was panicking and freaking out.

"Komattana, (困ったな)" he said, meaning something like "ah, we're in a bind."

His wife then nodded and sighed, in agreement,


And that was the moment he realized the power of her presence. She didn't get the luggage back, or think of Plan B. She literally didn't do a single thing to resolve their problem at hand. All she did was stand beside him, and say "komarimashitane," or, yes, we are in a bind. A more modern wife might have snapped, ぼやっとしてないで何とかしてみ!

And just having that voice, that presence of a wife who was with him and going through the troubles with him, made all the difference in the world. His anxiety melted away and turned to bliss. He felt so fortunate to be where he was, stranded in some foreign airport, at the side of this woman who'd stuck by him thick and thin for decades of his life, from youth to middle and old age.

I feel this way about everyone I love. They needn't give me jewelry or money. They don't have to do anything but be themselves, and share the same time and space with me.

 Any time I start thinking I deserve to have more, I remember how rich I am to have someone to laugh with me, to get mad at me, to stand in the cold rain with me and lug around grocery bags with me. Someone to mock my cooking, to let me taste theirs, someone to face and talk to while having a meal at a restaurant. Every single time I feel I ought to have more in life (more what? The awful truth is that I feel profoundly disconnected from all the things people are supposed to desire, like owning property, a car, a wealthy husband, fame, power, beauty, babies, ice cream, etc.), I remember how utterly, unrealistically fulfilled I already am, and that there is almost no room in this small vintage heart to cram in any more blessings.

"Mainlanders" at Xu's Wonton House Inc.

So I was at Burnaby's Crystal Mall - a mecca of cheap and tasty eats (though foodie blogs routinely trash the place as a Russian Roulette of mediocre food), and got XLB at Xu's Wonton House -- a beautiful little place where tough-looking middle-age ladies hand-make wontons and xiao-long-bao right in front of clients. It's cheap and, in my taste, delicious.

Most of the customers are pretty working class, to middle class. But then there was this group of about 4-5 young Asians who were so stylish and glamorous (?) they seemed to be really out of place lining up at this wonton place. The lady, in particular, wore sunglasses indoors, had trendy black lipstick and wavy blonde-dyed hair, a Birkin bag (rumoured to cost around $10,000, if real), and the rest of the crew were decked out in street-style Prada, Gucci, and mysterious crotch-drop pants that tall Asian youth seem to favour these days.

I heard someone's voice behind me say: "Tsk, Mainlanders!"

I suppose that meant they were mainland Chinese, which was to say no one who'd been here for a set amount of time would dress like that to Xu's Wonton House.

It reminded me of two things: one, when I used to "uggh" at Japanese students in Canada who would flaunt their Fendi scarves or LV or whatever other brand was hot during the 80s/90s. Part of it might have been jealousy, I admit.

Later on I would read about the horrendous war, poverty and Herculean effort to rise into an

economic power, culminating into the bubble era (the term "bubbly" is now a term in Japanese to mock people who spend lavishly like it were the 80s). Even though I disapproved the brand-name frenzy at the time, I realize now that perhaps they (maybe) had something to prove to the world about how times had changed and they were now wealthy and prosperous.

"Bitch, I'm fabulous!" Pretty sure that's not what she was saying, but anyway.

The other, how a lot of my Singaporean acquaintances gnashed their teeth when complaining about rich Chinese in their neighbourhoods. Generally they think it's distasteful to flaunt one's wealth on public display (not that Singaporeans are any strangers to this, but whatever).

Unpopular as this nouveau-riche arrivisme can be, I know there's sense that there's a real accomplishment when one has worked hard (or, in some people's cases, their parents worked hard) and escaped the era of Maoism to enter an age of material luxury. If you look at old posters of Chinese aesthetics in the early 70s and 80s, it is pretty surreal how far and how fast things have come there. Probably no one back then would have believed how many of their children would be riding Ferraris on foreign highways (and rocking Hermès at Crystal Mall to order $5.50 pork dumplings).

The crotch drop pants, the $300 ripped denim, Birkin bag and metallic heels, would have been unimaginable back then. It may be sheer materialism, or they may be dressing that way to make some kind of grand historic statement about how much society has changed and how geopolitical power has shifted. OK, maybe none of this is on anyone's mind while hanging out at an Asian food court.

Obviously I'm still working on this, but a start...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Taking initiative

If I've learned anything in my 30+years, it's that things don't happen unless you're willing to take the first step.

I feel like my early 20s were a time of absolute humbling. It beat out of me the naive optimism I had during my teens. I believed in people. I felt everyone was special. Everything gave me absolute faith, a belief in human goodness, idealism, and hope.

Somehow, my personality was fundamentally altered by some events in my twenties that I began bracing for the worst outcome at all times. I'm only partially recovered from that pessimism today. After believing that love and luck would come at the right moment, I became convinced at some point that nice things couldn't happen simply come out of the blue - it had to be forced if I wanted it to happen at all. Good luck wouldn't happen spontaneously -- it sounds awful to say, but in my mind, Lady Luck was a stingy, mean entity who only gave the best things to those already wealthy, cutthroat and successful. She had to be stalked, mugged, and forced to give up a coin or two of opportunity in order for anything good to come to regular people. It's hard to explain, but as a mentality, it means always being first in line, it means buying tickets the moment something goes on sale, it means orchestrating love instead of letting the magic happen. Nothing could be ever left to chance, because chance would always screw you over.

That assumption was unfortunate. The worst part was that it wasn't just myself, that I was applying the same pessimism to other people as well. For good, kind people who were single, I was setting them up with futile dates because of a conviction they could never meet anybody organically because the world was simply didn't work that way.

I was constantly angry over people's lack of initiative, without examining how bad I was at taking positive steps for the future instead of merely working defensively to prevent disaster. I've gone to the bank constantly to check in on finances, RRSPs, insurance, yet the number of times I went to art shows or novel readings? Only as many as I could count on one hand.  It got to the point that I was exhausting myself by trying to weatherproof the lives of those I cared about most.

But thankfully, lately, I've been finding a balance between hoping and doing, between forcing things and having faith that it will all work out. Because amazingly, for all my kicking and stewing and machinations and attempts to make things a certain way, time really does resolve everything, and miracle-like events actually do happen when the moment is right. Every time I fall into a pessimistic rut, something eerie happens that makes me realize that everything is going to tie itself in a way that's illuminating, satisfying and wholly believable. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mixed feelings about style, fashion, art

I like documentaries about fashion. Especially fashion that goes outside North American convention.

Hijab fashion fascinates me because for once, the emphasis is not on the body. There are 'rules' to follow (or not), such as which hijab style matches the face better (Shayla, Turkish, Al-Amira, etc.), debates about heels and belts, but overall the emphasis is on the fabrics and style, and not about minimizing the waist or accentuating breast size. That's a joy, in this age of rampant anorexia and obesity.

I really loved the one about Diane Vreeland, liked the book I bought about Coco Chanel (many unflattering facts in there, not just fan worship), and really enjoyed a British documentary called Fabulous Fashionistas, about women over 70 who are fearlessly stylish.

So part of me really wants to watch Advanced Style. It looks amazing. But after watching the interview with Iris Apfel, a few questions came into mind.

1. Race: Iris, as well as all the women in the preview, are white. In a city as diverse as New York, are there seriously no Black, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian or other women of colour who could be considered style icons? It made me wonder if this is just who the filmmakers knew, or if women of colour were asked but refused to be featured, etc. It happens. Some people just don't want to be filmed.

2. Class: What I loved about Fabulous Fashionistas was that it featured the reality of women living on pensions, who nevertheless refused to resign themselves to dreary, cheap, ill-fitting and unstylish clothes. The "style" was less about brand names and more about an ethos, of instilling beauty into one's daily dress and refusing to give in to ugliness and indifference.

But if everyone interviewed is as wealthy as the designer featured here, they can very well afford Gucci and Versace and Chanel, skirts and shoes that cost more than monthly rent for most people. To me, that's not really style at all - it's just purchasing power. Maybe there are a lot of average women interviewed here. It sounds like there are some regular people. Hard to tell from the trailer.

3. Consumerism and aspiration: Style and glamour are great. You look at the Iris Apfel interview, and her home is very glamorous. Her clothes and goods are glamorous. Regular, non-wealthy people like me would want to be her, under normal circumstances. And yet, we cannot afford it, so the aspirational people turn to buying cheap clothes, cheap things, that "imitate" or delude us into thinking we've obtained the style and aesthetic of someone like her. That creates the dangerous demand -- the demand of billions of people -- to purchase affordable, i.e. cheaply made goods in nightmarish sweatshops in India, Bangladesh, China -- to feed a dangerous illusion that we, too, can be as glamorous as Apfel or any other wealthy, stylish person.

This aspirational drive is not only bad for the producers, who are forced to make things cheaper and cheaper -- there are lots of stories about Japanese clothes-makers, who spent decades on their craft, going out of business because of cheaper competition from developing countries, one woman in particular I remember as an experienced seamstress who was now scraping by, making lunches for the slave-wage foreign workers in Japan who she once taught to sew -- but also for the consumers' end. High-school girls going into casual, after-school prostitution gigs after school to raise money for Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, because their middle-class parents wouldn't buy them such objects. Never mind the op-eds from pundits saying such big brands are intended for older women who have earned their wealth, and not for schoolgirls: when the aspiration is there, it must be sated one way or another. There's a line between real fashion and just crass status symbols/conformity, but I think the lines blur very often and people can't readily tell the difference.

I know that fashion is art, and to strip away everything from life that is not 'useful' or 'practical' reduces human beings to robots and drones. A desire for the artistic and stylish is what make us human. There is no way to remove that from our system. And yet, so much evil has been caused by unnecessary consumption, driven by aspiration. To answer to the needs of the upwardly mobile class who have little money but want to appear a certain way, much social and environmental damage has been inflicted to the planet, to the point that humans may not live another 100 years if they don't curb their consumption.

So is aspiring to be stylish destructive? Is it a leisure best restricted to the ultra-rich who own second homes for their pets in Palm Springs? I can't tell anymore.

So on the fence about Advanced Fashion. It might be for a certain type of viewer who reads Vogue. But I would highly recommend Fabulous Fashionistas .

Monday, December 15, 2014

The unconscious savior

This is a story from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, whose book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, is one of the most soul-nourishing books I've ever read, recommended by a wise friend.

There was a female doctor that Dr. Remen knew, who helped women suffering from violence and abuse. It turned out that this female doctor -- pleasant, likable, five feet tall and delicate like a porcelain cup -- was herself once abused by a violent husband.

The problem was that this husband of hers was a pillar of his community. And even though he degraded and beat her in private, when in public he treated her like a lady. Other women envied her because of how well he (seemed to) treat her, even though they never saw the bruises on her skin from all the times he punched and slapped her.

Through his intense criticism of her every minor flaw, he made her believe that she brought the blows onto herself -- that she deserved to be beaten. It's a slow form of brainwashing that I've seen happen many times to people in bad relationships. Anyway, she would have remained in that abusive marriage for years and would be in it still were it not for one small but fateful encounter at a street corner, while waiting for the light to change.

The woman saw a gorgeous Art Deco building across the street at a crosswalk, and remarked to her husband, "Look, honey, what a beautiful building!" The husband, thinking they were all alone, lashed out at her in the hateful, condescending tone he reserved for their private conversations:

"What are you talking about, you idiot? There's nothing special about that building! It looks like every other building out there."

With this, the woman shrank back and fell silent, just as she always did when he criticized ad berated her when the two were all alone.

Except, they weren't all alone. A woman -- a lone stranger -- had heard them.

In a brash, Brooklyn-accented voice, the stranger remarked:


The couple whirled around, surprised.

Looking the husband in the eye, the stranger then boldly told him:

"She's absolutely right! It is a beautiful building. And you, sir, are a horse's ass!"

Then the light changed. The stranger marched across the street, leaving the couple dumbfounded.

It was only a split second, but those words were like magic that snapped the wife out of a prolonged coma or nightmare. She realized from the stranger's words that her husband was indeed wrong, that he had no right to be treating her like this, and that whatever mistakes she'd made, she had truly done nothing that deserved the kind of beatings and insults she'd endured for years. She resolved at that moment, even though she knew it would take time, to leave him. And not only was her life saved, but she saved many other women's lives from that moment on as well.

The story is to illustrate that many of us have a far greater impact on this world than we realize, and often a few words can save a person's life, even if the person who uttered them is completely unaware of it at the time.

I can remember a very clear moment in my life when a fellow student's words saved my life. It was during a difficult time in school. I'd just transferred to a new city. Due to a number of very bad experiences, my state of mind was at an all-time low. Always reserved, I was during that year extremely withdrawn.

On my first or second week there, something completely unexpected happened. We were asked to pair up for badminton, and as usual I expected to be the last person to be paired. But a very tall, lanky girl with long red hair, heavy-lidded blue eyes, buck teeth and a large nose -- her name was Lisa -- asked me if I'd practice with her.

Shocked, I nodded. And we started batting the shuttle back and forth.

In the time that followed, she then started talking to me -- I forget what she said specifically, but she just asked some questions about where I was from and other normal things, like what kind of music or TV shows or actors I liked.

It was so ordinary, and she probably had no idea at the time, but for me, it was like a magnitude 9.0 earthquake had rippled through my mind and knocked down every negative idea I'd built up over the last two years. My knees were shaking. My shoulders were shaking. My voice was shaking uncontrollably as I answered her, hoping she wouldn't notice. An indescribable feeling of joy filled up my heart and felt like it was spilling over.

When she spoke to me, it was probably the most mundane and forgettable part of her day, but for me it was a major turning point in life.  It was the tone of her voice that shocked me the most -- there was friendliness and respect. Even though I'm not religious, her voice may as well have been an angel's. Her friendly demeanour filled me with a sense of hope after what felt like 700 days of consecutive despair that came before.

She probably had no idea about the effect she had. The encounter with her is something I'll probably never forget.

We sort of became friends after that -- we hung out once or twice, but didn't see each other much afterward. But it was enough. Just like the first time riding a bike or successfully doing a handstand, it showed me that a friendly conversation with strangers my age was possible. And that possibility alone was, in retrospect, life-saving.