Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Street corner Venus

There's a fragment of a song, 地上の星  with a fragment of a lyric that roughly translates to "Venus on a street corner". The whole song (the "stars on earth") is about Gods and mythical figures (like Pegasus) in everyday settings like blue-collar factories, office buildings. It was for a program about everyday heroes, many of them unsung, who have done incredible work in some field without the Steve Jobs-esque status and recognition.

The implication is that some great beauty, a Venus, could just be a regular lady in blue jeans in a blue-collar neighbourhood, like Joyce-Collingwood for example.

I realize this is very rough but it was done largely without a pencil sketch, so bear with me.


I think it's one of humanity's worst flaws that we have narrow definitions of beauty. The definition changes all the time (thin people, hourglass figures, gamines, vamps, etc.) but the one thing in common is that it's maddeningly narrow. 

Growing up as a child, it was ingrained in me somehow at a very young age that anyone who was brown, black or yellow-skinned was by default unattractive, devoid of desirability. On a rare occasion that someone told me I had pretty hair or a nice face or whatever, my immediate reaction was that they were just trolling me, like telling me the earth was flat.

I quickly changed my views after graduating high school. But even today a lot of people imagine -- by default -- someone with European features when picturing a beautiful person.

One of the things I'm trying to do is to create a fictional character -- an impossibly gorgeous woman world-renowned for her beauty -- who is not European-looking in the slightest. This has proven sort of difficult to do, as I almost have to invent a whole new future world to imagine the media truly embracing a big-boned, full-nosed, brown-skinned lady as the perfect beauty.

Anyway, enough rambling. A quick sketch of a certain Venus.


What keeps me up at night

OK, so super presumptuous title here. It was in the early evening (say 8pm) that I saw this shady black van with tinted windows outside an Asian grocery store. Leaning against the store's wall was the guy I presumed to be the driver, a rather slim, slightly worn-out looking man with tanned skin, sporting a leather jacket and pale blue jeans.

What drew my eye were the green and blue tattoos up his neck. I know there's a tattoo craze, but for Asians of a certain generation (NOT Gen Y), tattoos aren't something you get for purely aesthetic reasons. It basically means you're in a gang.

There's a reason why people with any kind of tattoos are totally banned from most Japanese hot springs, because it signals you're a criminal, and bathing with criminals makes peeps uncomfortable (there's a whole thing from the Edo period about how if you're caught stealing, they tattoo a line across your forehead, and the lines keep adding up with more offences until it spells out "dog" 犬 or some other unflattering word, but whatever, that's an aside).


He was smoking absent-mindedly, and I didn't give it much thought until two kids came running over and swung on a metal bar beside him.

Again, I have no idea what the real situation is -- maybe he's just a straight up guy who happens to love getting neck tattoos -- but I imagined these two little girls were his daughters. And I imagined he was in a gang, trying to provide for his family. I wondered where he came from, how he got to Canada, whether this was how he was envisioning life in this country, whether he wished anything would change. I thought about the girls who might be his daughters, how he must feel about them, whether their future worries him. If it were me, that would keep me up at night.

I wondered whether he had a wife, or if he was a single dad, and what the situation must be like. I think that all human beings, whatever their walk of life, whether they are good parents or crappy ones, at some fundamental level wish they could be part of a functional, loving family. I don't know the context, but I hoped this guy and his kin were going to be okay. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Coming back

I'd not been drawing for some time now. There was a shakeup in my life that blind-sided me and left me paralyzed for two months or so. Almost everything outside of work has been consumed by this, how to remedy, how to deal, so picking up the pencil to draw, the very thought of it, was exhausting because it did not fix the problem at hand.

But I went to an art show recently, and though the artist was dead, there was something joyous about his paintings of B.C.'s nature that moved me. I'm intending to put up a drawing, very soon, today. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Thoughts on how to change one's life

The drawing below is totally random. I just saw someone with the most amazing head of red/orange/blonde hair and had to draw her. The outfit is made-up.




Last night, I went out to the park and contemplated how things changed since I was a child.

I looked at the moon, white, shining, radiant and -- pardon my use of this word -- alive in the night sky. I've always worshipped the moon as a manifestation of God, long before I even knew about religion. The sun was obvious, but the moon hit me one evening as a revelation.

Pale and solitary in a sea of black-blue, the moon had a singularity about her, and for a good part of my life, when it was a clear sky and the moon (preferably a full moon) was out, I'd stare at it for half an hour in solitude, having private conversations, praying, thinking about how beautiful the world was that it could have something so gorgeous as a full moon.

There's this idea of the moon as an ominous sign, that all is not what it seems. Which I think is BS. The moon has always, to me, been a symbol of peacefulness and serenity and contemplation.

Anyways, it was a night of contemplation.


So I walked sat in on a wooden bench in a dark, narrow side path strewn with trees. Just sat there under the moonlight, staring at the bushes, contemplating how these would soon be covered in brilliant yellow flowers, even though it didn't seem that way today. I sat until my heart became completely still.

Meditating in the dark, outside, wondering how to change. It reminded me of life in Japan, the temples I'd come across after everyone had gone home. Except Vancouver is such an incredible city. There are places in the city that allow a person to be totally alone, physically as well as in mind. In Tokyo this was almost never possible except in the cold starkness of one's own flat.


I thought about my current predicament, how I've always been too agreeable and apologetic and accommodating of others. It's not solely my problem, either - it's the way girls are brought up. And I'm not even among the truly nice ones in this world.

It never occurred to me why some people take advantage of this. Many women, and men too, treat others kindly and respectfully, I think, because it's how they would want to be treated.

But at some age, probably as early as grade one, I discovered that certain people are malevolent and will approach victims with the intent to do harm, regardless of what that person has ever done. What's more, that ill ill is incurable, and trying to respond with kindness is like pouring oil on fire. It's the primary driver of my introversion: better to avoid than to get caught up in that.

In our bones we know it's a harsh world out there: why contribute further to it?

And there are always those who will mistake niceness for a sign that one wants to be treated as a doormat. It begins slowly, imperceptibly at first. Soon, they no longer ask politely for things, but are taking without consent. By the time it becomes obvious, things are too late.

So what is the correct answer to avoiding this? To be mean and hard-hearted? To be neutral and unapproachable, with no hint of either kindness or cruelty? There must be a balance, I thought.

Then the obvious occurred to me. I will eventually die. This life won't be forever. And same with everyone else. The important thing was to live with no regrets.

The answer that came out was to continue being the way I am, but at the first sign of someone taking advantage, to sharply correct them that kindness is not an invitation for disrespect. And in the event I can't explain that, to simply say "No".

That is a result I can live with. Breathing in the night air, I walked up from the bench and went back home.





Monday, March 2, 2015

Luxury shoes, bags and consolation shopping

I used to judge luxury item shoppers as greedy, materialistic people who didn't care if their planet was trashed, who didn't realize that having more stuff didn't generate happiness, who had no hobbies than to hit the mall. 

I see now that the picture is more complex than that. 

Women and fashion (or shall I say people and fashion) have always had an intricate link. Masakatsu Ochiai, the author of "La moda e un problem politico", wrote that our three basic needs are 衣食住, meaning clothes, food, shelter. Why does clothing come before food? He argues, rather convincingly, that it's because human beings are social creatures, and that clothes are a form of communication to others. You could live in a cardboard box under a bridge and still go out to a convenience store if dressed suitably, but if you're naked/clad in only a blanket, you can't face the world, thus rendering shelter and food largely meaningless. 

So you often hear the phrase "dress for success". Business suits, nice leather shoes, a professional looking bag, etc., is all not necessary on the basic needs level and may be deemed luxuries, but they're essential to our lives in the context of living in a capitalist society. 

But lately I see women in their late twenties or thirties shopping and the look on their face (and probably to a degree, mine) says something other than aspirational, "prepare for a brighter future" mindset. Instead, the shopping seems to be more of a consolation for all the things that they will either never have or never be guaranteed. 

Imagine, for example, a woman like the one below. She's 31 years old. Having scrimped and saved, worked as a barista and eaten instant noodles for much of her early twenties, she imagined she'd be a comfortable middle-class professional with a condo and kids by now. 

NO SUCH LUCK!! She's still in the low-income range, and has no health benefits or annual bonuses. No CPP, no EI. 

Living in Vancouver, she spends way over 30% of her income on rent. She goes out one Friday evening to the mall and finds the perfect pair of shoes. They are $280 (I'm making this up, but imagine a nice pair of shoes are in that range), well above the price point she's comfortable with (under $100). She thinks about putting them back. 



But then, something stops her.

It's not the "hope" that these shoes will make her more confident or more attractive to a potential date.

She thinks about whether a $280 purchase is really that much of a luxury, given everything she does not have.

She will not travel overseas this year. She has no car and will not buy one in the near future. She will never be able to buy a house or property. She does not have a husband, let alone kids. It is impossible, unaffordable, financial seppuku to have a baby. Speaking of which, she won't be having a wedding this year, which saves her around $20,000-$30,000 (if the wedding magazines are accurate).

With all that money that she's not spending, given all the "must-haves" that are all but out of reach, is $280 really that big of an expenditure? She mulls the situation she's in and wonders if she can bear five more years of this without developing a serious drinking problem. $280, is less than three hours of therapy. Given everything she's dealing with, the shoes seem like a consolation prize to her: they tell her, there there, don't feel so bad. The struggle is endless, but least your feet look good.

All those cumulative "have-nots" results in a "yes" to the shoes. It's the same thing, I imagine, for other people with other items. The jewelry, the handbags, the scarves, are not in preparation for a big step up in status, and no longer aspirational items for a bright future, but more of a kind of painkiller to get through the day.

I might be reading too much into things. But for this generation, it's probably not far off.


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.