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.

God of the gate (仁王)

In Asian legend and custom, there's always these fearsome gods who protect the gates of one's home or temple. Usually, these are lions or some kind of muscular male fighting God.

But I've always thought that if push came to shove, the more reliable "God of protection" would be a really mean, angry young woman who would show no mercy to anybody and wouldn't stop until the security threat was stomped into oblivion by high-heel boots.

Monday, December 8, 2014



今年は激しい不安と変化の一年だった。普段は古着一筋の私なんですが、「この値段なら合理的」と言う理由ではなく、「心から欲しい!」と 感じた高めの新品の物を奮発して買うことが5回くらいあった年です。今まで、バッグやドレスに100ドル(1万)使うなんてとんでもない話ですが、それが今年何回かありました。











Rat Chronicles: Fashion, shopping and magical crotch-drop pants

Shopping for clothes is different for everyone, but I bought what I thought was a magnificent, high-quality pair of pants, if a bit uncomfortable. Little did I know these were magical pants that made the wearer look at least a foot shorter and completely stupid.

Luckily, I was allowed to exchange it (normally, I wouldn't have - the store's policy is no return or exchange on heavily discounted items) but I learned while trying on other "exchange" items that shop ladies can be shockingly good liars, as if they were training to work for Goldman Sachs or something. I tried on a number of skirts that were obviously oversized or looked plain ridiculous, and each time, she'd gush that it looked "so great" and "so you". 

I get that salespeople need to make a living and that commissions are not conducive to honesty, but, I really respect women/men who will be truthful rather than flattering. A year ago at a second-hand store, I was smitten by a blazer that cost way over my usual budget ($130) but was haute-couture and at a killer discount. I smiled and said I'll get it, but the shop lady -- an older woman -- frowned, shook her head, and said "that really doesn't suit you at all." I was a bit taken aback and little insulted, as she immediately handed me another blazer ($15) that was flimsy and had the tag ripped off.

But the second blazer not only fit like second skin, but has been in use now very frequently, at least once a week. It looks nice with everything. From a sales point of view, it would have been way smarter to let a customer buy the expensive (if wholly unsuitable) item, but it was unforgettable to have someone just say straight out that something looked bad, and that something else suited me more even if it didn't match one's aspirations at first glance.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Grimes aka Claire Boucher and Brooke Candy

Aside from Japan's electropop trio Perfume's mindblowing Display ad (below), I think my favourite video of this past few years (and maybe of all time) has to be Grimes' Genesis. She's a fantastic, intelligent, strong-minded female artist and it's amazing she has a Vancouver connection.

And kudos to Brooke Candy, the cool lady in the video: 

Friday, November 28, 2014

The scarfaced guide and first world problems

Whenever I find myself close to bitching about life, I find myself remembering the guide I had in while traveling in Jordan. He only spoke Arabic, but through an ad-hoc interpreter, I learned the details about the city, about some historic buildings which I mostly forgot. It was difficult to focus on the city's history, because of his extraordinary face.

His young face was marked by deep, thick scars that ran so deep that from an angle, you could see where his skin was dented by the enormous cut. It was as if someone had taken not just a knife, but a wood-cutting chisel to his face and carved out a huge strip of flesh. That carved-out cut went all the way around his face, and even went around his neck. Whoever attacked him clearly did so with intention to kill.

As he talked, lifting his hands up for emphasis and pointing at buildings, I found myself staring at his fingers--there, too, chunks of his fingers had been cut out, and when he put his fingers close together, the scars all lined up. You could see that, too, was done with one long swipe of a weapon.

Pardon the bad drawing. Rough and long, long day

To be totally honest, I didn't care too much about the guided tour. What snapped my attention into focus is when my interpretor started asking him personal questions.

My interpretor was a second-generation Lebanese Palestinian (he looked very Caucasian: light hair and eyes), and probably some kind of invisible radar (or more likely, accent?) told him that the guide was Palestinian too.

They immediately began smiling talking animatedly like old friends, and my translator told me the guide actually lived in a refugee camp with family outside the city. I sucked in my breath. Here this young man was, giving two foreigners a tour of a city where he didn't even live, to where he would have had to bus in over one hour a day every morning and night.

They were both Palestinian but that was where their similarities ended. The interpretor (volunteer, unpaid, just being nice to me) was on vacation from Europe, where he was born and raised -- he was a PhD student, in a safe and stable country. The guide, meanwhile, had to drop out of school to start work at 15, and did various odd jobs before becoming a guide for a very slow tourist stop (we were the only visitors around).

I would make a horrible Humans of New York photographer (of course I took no photos of him). Any normal person would have asked where he got his scars, but I have a visceral and un-turn-offable respect for privacy and hated to make him feel as if I were judging him based on his scars alone. Possibly, someone abused and attacked him, and possibly, he was a terrible guy and involved in gang fights. Maybe he gravely injured the guy who gave him those scars, too. But even though appearances are deceptive, first impressions and faces do say a lot, and his face (which girls may qualify as cute but not very handsome) just didn't seem like that of any gangster or violent thug.

The general impression he gave me, which could be wrong, was that of someone clean, a touch lacking self-confidence, and just trying to do the best job he could with what he had.

As he began speaking of the situation of Palestinians, I fully expected the guide to start explaining how the Israelis had treated them wrongly, and how much violence he personally suffered.

But through my interpretor's lightly lilting English, all I heard -- as the guide pointed his finger to the distance and tapped his chest with his hand and spoke -- was:

"There is no clean water for the children in the camp where I live."
"It is very cramped, with many people living inside."
"It's unsafe for kids, with open sewage".

He didn't talk at all about himself, or who was to blame for the situation, or what must be done. It was plainly about what it was like there. There may have been things the interpretor left untranslated, but there was no sense of anger or despair from him, just concern.

In the elevator back, he and I 'spoke' a bit -- partly in my crappy, piss-poor vocabulary Arabic. We asked each other our age - he was one year younger than I was. He had siblings. He started working here as a teenager, and was now a guide. Again,  out of cowardice or respect, I could not dare to ask him what he wanted to be in the future. Who am I to dare ask that? How can someone who had family support to go to university and who had all the clean water desired, have the insensitivity to ask what his dreams were? As middle class people in North America, we grow up thinking we'll be Steve Jobs or Margaret Atwood or a local celeb.

Or was that true arrogance and discrimination on my end for assuming he would not have big ambitions like any other young man?

A lot of things were left unsaid. This person always comes to mind whenever I think there are problems.

Friday, November 21, 2014

「そろそろ結婚の話しとかない?」 and other unwanted advice

I have a friend whose wedding I attended some years ago. I feel very happy that she's happy but every time she emails me these days, there are these unwanted words of advice:

"I've just had a second baby! You know, you should really have children soon. There is only a limited amount of time that women can have babies, and I can tell you you, you really don't know what know happiness is until you've held your very own baby in your arms."

And, today:
"Look at my kids! They are so rambunctious and cute. Hey, isn't there talk of marriage for you yet??"

I think I responded to her last email with a heap of compliments to her kids and a note that there are many different forms of happiness in the world (not all of them involving "your own baby", jeez), and I'm pretty happy being career-oriented. She never responded to that message and stayed out of touch for a whole 2 years.

And yet, here we are again. 「そろそろ結婚の話しとかない??」

Implicit throughout her whole (otherwise polite) message a hidden sense of "I must save her from the dreaded fate of becoming ineligible to bear kids!"

What to say? Does she ever stop to consider that being unmarried (or technically in a common-law marriage) is not the worst thing that can happen to women? I've never once dreamed of donning a white dress or walking down some aisle in a church. How does she perceive divorcees?

I just don't know how to respond, aside from "good for you" and "things are actually great on my end, even though it may not look that way based on your idea of success". 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Crazy eccentric cool - Vancouver thrift store

I bought an old sweater from an eerie thrift store today. Inside it's all the smell of incense, the sounds of music from decades past. The store owner was a beautiful, odd-looking thin woman with long, wavy white hair that flowed past her shoulders in open defiance of convention that older women must chop their brittle grey strands after a certain age.

She was constantly humming, calling her clothes her precious 'darlings' and 'treasures', musing about the awesome items she'd picked up. My sweater, she said, was a rare find -- 100 % wool (who knows what it was really made of, there was no label), washed and worn, high-quality -- you can't find that for such a low price ($12) anywhere else in town, she said. Despite my leaving the store once to stop myself from spending, I caved within a record 15 minutes while walking toward the SkyTrain and ended up returning to purchase that 'treasure' for a 20% discount. Because she seemed to love old clothes so much, I fell in love with that old, "obviously thift-store" sweater as well.

They say eccentric people are happier than average and she looked to me like somebody totally at peace with who she was in this world. With the gift of eccentricity, the individual no longer cares how others may judge them, and are totally in line with their inner compass of how they wish to exist. I hope I can reach that state of bliss one day, sans the strong smell of incense in my second-hand clothes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Short-haired diva

Every now and then, there are people who don't really stand out until they chop off their hair. This is just  fast sketch but someone who looked more feminine and attractive after getting what was effectively a boy's hairstyle. Never mind the squiggly lines, it's hard to draw on a touchpad.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bright eyes

A quick sketch of a friend and former colleague. I still vividly remember when she came to work at the tv station. She was half-Japanese, tall, had bright, intelligent eyes, a friendly manner and was lightning quick at catching on to the new work environment. Even in front of the camera, she was totally composed and always looked like she enjoyed what she was doing. She's now a news anchor at the public broadcaster in Japan, and watching the show for the first time in a while, it was great to catch up.