Thursday, March 31, 2005

pictures that makes me all jealous

I came across pictures by Sara Heinrich on Flickr, and immediately fell in love with them. The sharp yet affectionate photos of landscapes, people, and other creatures have a power and beauty to let one see the world in a slightly different way. It is as if seeing things with a clearer pair of eyes. It is a sheer delight. They are so good that they make me jealous, but she is one of those rare people who can demonstrate that there's a lot more to photography, and to this world. Wow.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

imagination on being gay and on being heroin-addicted

I'm just back from a trip to the West coast. It was an 850-mile long, breathtakingly beautiful drive along the coast from Portland down to San Francisco, studded with lots of pleasant surprises--excellent crab cakes in a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere (sorry, folks), big chunks of happy flesh sunbathing on rocks off the coast (seals and sea lions, that is), and cities with trees in full bloom. Continuous hairpin curves and steep downhill were also impressive ( to tell the truth, scary enough to make me grip the handle on the door even when I wasn't driving), but the two most vivid impressions were about people.

In San Francisco, we took an aimless stroll in the Castro neighborhood, among many others. It is a gay/lesbian/transgender neighborhood with so many cute little shops and fancy-looking restaurants, many of which proudly display the rainbow flags and banners. Same sex couples were everywhere--happily holding hands as they walk along the charming streets. Their free and natural expressions of affection was very heartwarming, just like those of heterosexual couples. But with so many homosexual couples around, being there with my heterosexual boyfriend almost seemed wrong. Not that I felt totally alienated, nor that they cast mean/hostile glances at us, which could be their everyday experience in the heterosexual world, but I felt a slight unease about the fact that I'm "different." Flipside of which is, of course, the sense of alienation that same sex couples might feel in the predominantly heterosexual neighborhood, which is about 99% of the neighborhoods. I had never been in an area as openly homosexual as Castro was before. Until I was there, I didn't realize how it would feel to be homosexual in this sometimes hostile world of heterosexuals. That was a fresh experience.

Another one was a horrifying one. When we were on one of those old-fashioned trollies, equipped with jolly drivers, a woman got on. I couldn't help noticing her strange proportion--a big face with a double chin, a quite chunky torso, and anolexically thin, almost twiggy limbs that stuck out of the heabily bosomed torso. As she took a seat several empty rows in front of us, I noticed the deep lines on her skin around her upper arms as well, obviously indicating that she had lost a huge amount of weight in a blink. I wondered if she had had the scary liposucction (I believe that is what it is called--the plastic surgery in which your fat is literaly vacuumed out through small incisions). Whatever she paid for the surgery, that isn't doing her any good. She looks just scary, not at all beautiful, I thought. She was one of tose cases of strange proportion resulting in the grotesque. I shook my imaginary head. My boyfriend told me, after we got off the bus, that she must have been a heroine addict and that heroine has that weird effect on human body. Either way, she scared me in the same pitiful way the gorems in Lord of the Rings did, something that is very much human with only a few very wrong features...

Monday, March 28, 2005

I'm a "published poet"! Or soon I'll be.

With a push on my back from my creative writing teacher, I entered this poem, along with three photographs to a poetry and graphics competition held by the English department of my college. When I came back home from the West coast last night, there was a letter on the dining table which said that the poem in question was selected a winner! What a surprise!

The poem at first had a first stanza, which described the crisp coolness against my soles, of the wooden corridor, polished to jet-black by generations of young monks over centuries. The tactile feel of the corridor in the cool shade of the temple was the starting point of the poem, which drifted to a completely different direction. The idea of vivid tactile feel came to me as a form of an existing Japanese haiku, which captures a moment of startle and deep mourning of a widower who accidentally stepped on his late wife's calm, which felt sharply cold on his bare foot.

Once I set my mind on the scene of the temple with a stark contrast between the brazing summer outside and the refreshing coolness inside, the rest almost naturally flowed out of my keyboard-tapping fingertips. As is always case with my imaginative writing, however, I couldn't determine what the theme was. All I had was the heap of images. I needed a conclusion of some sort, to give the poem a sense of closure. First I tried to end the poem by suggesting the my own mortality as parallel to that of the cicadas and the monks, but it made the poem seem stereotypically oriental and overtly religious, which I am not. After a few tickerings, I abandoned the idea altogether.

What I found in the poem instead was my own longing of what is essentially Japanese--loud cicadas, scorching summer sun, lingering fume of incense, etc. The images themselves were what the poem needed to convey, not what they might or might not imply. I decided to follow that line, and the last stanza materialized.

The poem went under constructive scrutiny of a peer group in my creative writing class. It was a stimulating and fascinating experience to listen to what they had read in my poetry. A girl pointed out an alliteration effect which I hadn't been aware of. A boy said the lack of punctuation and the fluid flow of the poem got associated within him with the Buddhist idea of infinite reincarnation, which, again, was completely unintentional yet defendable. To see my own creation be blown different lives into it by readers was a reaffirmation of the idea that a literary text is not merely the sequence of words but a dynamic process of destruction and reconstruction of what was written in the minds of the readers.

All that said, the poem will be included in the annual publication of the college "Ariel" a few months later. Then I can say I am a published poet, with a brush of red on my cheeks...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Closed for Vacation

Next five days I'll be driving down the highway 101 along the coast of Oregon and California. I'm all excited! Woohoo!

Monday, March 21, 2005

how to relate a summer shirt to a sea anemone

I can't believe I've deserted this blog for more than ten days! Obviously I need more decipline...

Anyway, I was at the Shedd Aquarium yesterday, the first day of my spring break. The entrance fee was eyeball-popping-out expensive (a silly Japanese expression), but after having seen all the exhibitions, I have to say that it is reasonablly expensive. Especially the big reef exhibit downstairs is just amazing. Fluorescent fish of different sizes and designs gracisously swam in several large tanks filled with tentacled creatures. Fun sculptures of corals and sea anemones adorned the entire wall, giving us the feel of actuallly being in a reef. Touch-panel computers were everywhere to inform you of the names and habits of the oceanic creatures. (Not that the fish solo cannot impress you.) We were lucky enough to be in front of the largest reef tank when two divers started to feed the fish. As they moved around, sqeezing out the powdery food (planctons?) from special bottles, golden fish of different sizes followed them like a thousand dart, with amazing swiftness, leaving only blurry impression of their motion and existence.

feast of the ocean

Small tanks upstairs were also fun. There was a sea anemone that looked exactly like tiny serpents dancing in a red-and-white gingham check sack. (In Japanese, we so appropriately call sea anemones "draw-string sack of the beach.")

dancing snakes

A pack of crafty grandmas passed us as we stared at this sea anemone. Dressed in hand-knit sweaters and macrame bags, they were apparently having a heated discussion about whether this gingham check would make a nice summer shirt or not. It was the most endearing moment of the day...

Friday, March 11, 2005

audible illusion

Wailings of Snowman.

That is what I heard when my boyfriend said "Williams of Sonoma." Hah.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

first & second signs of spring (woohoo!)

The temperature is bearly crowling up to one or two degrees above freezing. It has been snowing all day. The streets, branches of naked trees, fire hydrants, everything is covered with fluffy whiteness. Yet, spring is nearing.

first sign of spring (in snow)

I found these crocus in the courtyard of the apartment where my boyfriend lives, as I walked to the front door last evening. I thought of taking pictures, but for one thing, I was overloaded with grocery bags, and for another, it was getting too dark for a macro photography. Instead, I decided to take some shots next morning. What I woke up to find this morning was a blastery snowy day, as if the General Winter had come back to ransack us. To my delight, though, the hardy crocus were intact.

second sign of spring (in snow)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

do French women really not get fat?

A few days ago on Chicago Tribune, there was a column on the latest diet fad "French Women Don't Get Fat," with extremely unreadable phonetic spellings imitating what seemed to be English with French accent. (I'd be happy to place a link to the article if the Tribune Company weren't that anal about subscription and archiving. From a week after an article's first publication, the article gets stored in their archive, where one has to pay to get in.) Anyway, the writer should have learned in school that phonetic spelling isn't a good way to engage her readers in what she writes, and that it requires skill to employ phonetic spelling effectively without turning readers off. Even after I read the article to the end, I didn't get what she meant at all. And I'm sure it was not because I'm bad at English.

As for the diet book, I can tell what its recomendations are, even though I haven't read it: eat a small amount of high-quality food. While I was in France this winter, with the exception of Strasbourg, all the restaurants served a pinky amount of food in American standard, but they were satisfying. One simply doesn't want more. The reason is simple: they were extremely tasty. The complexity and richness of taste compensate the amount. The ingredients (epecially produce and seafood) were nowhere near the rotting (oops, sorry) heap found in most American supermarkets, their treatment inventive and exquisite. Same is true with French pastries and cakes. Their chocolate cakes are so rich and full in taste that you actually CAN'T eat the amount you might eat of its pathetic American cousin. There, healthy diet isn't a stoic self-torture as it is in the U.S. It's a natural part of delightful life. No need to console oneself, saying "I'll be slim and gorgeous some day, so this meager amount of balnd food is not for nothing!" All that sounds impossible here, doesn't it?

When it comes to the validity of the bold statement that no French woman gets fat, it contains some seeds for doubt. When we entered the German-influenced part of France, namely Alsace, the percentage of large people skyrocketed. They aren't thin as stylish Parisians in tasteful clothings strolling Cartie Latin (in our imagination). They look... well, like Americans. We wondered at the sudden change of the people's body shape, whose mystery was instantly solved when we went into a restaurant for lunch. The food mainly consisted of a huge chunk of meat, either boiled or broiled, with a similarly huge heap of potatoes. Sounds familiar? Yeah, that's the way we eat here! No frivolous frills, just the plain blessings of the mother nature! Haha, you could put it that way, if you want. The causal relationship between the types of food French people in different regions consume and their body shapes was so clear that it was almost scary. There are lessons to be learned, folks, (including me). *As a little side note, I am obliged to add that Alsacian knackle ham, pot au fue, sausages and saurkraut, and crude ham were all very tasty, if not as exquisite as the food in the other parts of France. And they're such a perfect companion for a mug of beer! Uh-oh, now we understand why that's not the right kind of food...

Monday, March 07, 2005

first day of spring adorned with stunning mannequins

On Sunday, the temperature seemed to go up to the 70s. Tempted by the sunny sky and joyous warm weather, we decided to take a crazy six-hour hike to downtown via Clark St. Without out heavy winter coat, to make things even better.

Close to where my boyfriend lives, there is a small, rundown bridal store which comes to life every night under the purple fluorescent lights. Despite its nocturnal self-assertion, it seamlessly blends in with other stores around it by day, so it becomes unnoticeable during the day. Thus, I had never paid much attention to the bridal store, until Sunday. (Another contributing factor is our American way of life--too much reliance on motorized vehicles, robbing ourselves of slow-paced enjoyment of details, mainly reserved for pedestrians.)

a morning after

What I found in the storefront was an assortment of hand-painted, crumbling mannequins, (sort of) dressed up in bridal attires. In broad daylight, they were plain scary. It mannequins are supposed to help grow the business, they are an antithesis of mannequins. Cracked paint on their skin, hollow expressions on their hand-painted faces with a slight touch of sorrow, broken hands with missing fingers, some barely held together with pieces of scotch tape--there was something among these devastated featues of them that struck me as, dare I say, beautiful.

There were several adult female ones dressed in white bride's gown and one girl dressed in ring bearer's dress, which were pretty scary, but this one in red dress was somehow gripping. Her untidy hair made her look as if she just had a devastating experience, which confirms the impression from her facial expression.

kiss of the death

Whoever created/redid her (most likely the untrained hands of the store owner), the creator definitely achieved an inadvertent effect. The air of sheer devastation on her face was so gripping that several dozens of other pictures I took on Sunday just faded in her light, though the flourless chocolate cake we had about halfway to downtown in Lincoln Park neighborhood was still another pinacle of the day. :P

Saturday, March 05, 2005

two different kinds of detachment--Toshiyuki Horie's affection and Haruki Murakami's indifference

I recently visited the page for “In and around Yukinuma,” a collection of short stories that I pondered upon before, by a wonderful Japanese prose writer Toshiyuki Horie. It surprised me, and inspired me to some extent as well, to find more than one reviewers there who associate the mood of Horie’s writing to that of Haruki Murakami’s. I hadn’t thought of Murakami’s prose when I read Horie’s writing, but there is some sort of similarity in the way the two prose styles feel, especially in this particular short story collection. Yet, another part of me vehemently disagrees. The two writers’ (or more accurately, their narrators’) approaches to the subject of their writing are fundamentally different, and the difference is reflected on their prose styles. Here I try to verbalize the similarity and difference that I vaguely feel.

As some of the Amazon reviewers point out, there is definitely a similar feel to Horie’s prose and that of Murakami’s. Put bluntly, it is the sense of detachment. My mother always says that reading Murakami’s works is like walking an inch above the ground. In my words, there is always the feel of watching what goes on in Murakami’s works from behind a thin, but unbreachable membrane, even in their most emotionally charged scenes. It is a double-edged sward; this sense of detachment that Murakami’s prose elicit insulates readers in a safe and comfortable distance from the potentially destructive power of the story, which in turn means alienating readers from the narrative reality.

There is a similar sense of detachment to “In and around Yukinuma” as well. I as a reader felt as if I’d been floating in the narrative space, freely entering and exiting the minds of the characters. In that sense, readers are “detached” from the events and characters in the stories. However, there is another underlying current in Horie’s narrative, which seems to be absent in Murakami’s: affection. Whereas Murakami’s detached feel seems to originate in the deliberate alienation of readers from what goes on in the fictional world, achieved through the narrator’s dry, nonchalant attitude toward what they narrate, Horie’s detached feel derives from his use of fluid narrator who sometimes takes shape and sometimes dissolves into consciousness of a character. In Horie’s prose, the sense of detachment is not the narrator’s “cool” indifference to the fate of characters, but it is the free and fluid way in which the narrator moves around in the minds of characters. Here is an excerpt (my tentative translation and original Japanese version) from the beginning of “Stance Dot,” the first short story in the collection.

Not a single customer came in since the opening at 11 am. It wasn’t especially surprising, for Thursdays are always slow. [He] gave up when the clock turned past 9 in the night, and turned off all the wall lighting. The sound of the cooling motor, unnoticeable at all when games are going on, of a vending machine of bottled coke, the rareness of which even the maintenance mechanics marvel at, sounded unusually loud. The ears, which usually worsen at night, still seemed fine. It doesn’t make sense, really, that heat is necessary to cool beer and juice. The more we cool them, the more it generates heat, heating up the room. The air conditioner turned on to cool down the heated room, then, blows heated air outside. Heat only changes location, never disappears. Continuing on the job, my life could end up generating unnecessary heat in order to cool something else—the thought used to trouble him in his thirties to the extent that his stomach hurt, but he could not clearly remember himself in the agony any more.


As some of you can see in the original Japanese text, the narrator does not take shape until the very last sentence, partly thanks to the Japanese grammar that allows the absence of the grammatical subject. (The bracketed “he” in the third sentence is not explicitly there in the Japanese version, blurring the fact that the narrator is a separate entity from the narrated—the “he.”) Up until the last sentence, therefore, it appears that the narrator is switching back and force between internal thoughts (all the mumbling about heat/ ears are still ok), observation of external facts (no customer came in/ louder-than-usual noise), and descriptions of his own action (turning off the lights).

However, in the last sentence, where the grammatical subject is clearly presented with a third-person pronoun, it becomes obvious that the narrator and the narrated are separate, and that the narrator has been fluidly speaking from both inside and outside of the narrated “he.” What appeared to be the thoughts of the narrator himself turn out to be the thoughts of the narrated “he,” expressed through the narrator seamlessly dissolved into the self of the narrated. (External observations are tricky—they could be the observations by the narrated “he” expressed in the same way as his thoughts, or they could be the observations by the narrator, but this isn’t a big difference here.) The entering and exiting of the narrator into the characters, unencumbered by the physicality, create the illusion of shifting perspective, even though the narrator remains the same. The floating sense of detachment in Horie’s prose lies in this illusory shift of perspective.

In fact, one of the distinctive characteristics of Horie’s prose, especially in comparison with that of Murakami’s, is the quiet yet consistent undercurrent of intimate affection. The narrator’s tone is gentle, warm, and very much attached to the characters, unlike the dry, indifferent narration of Murakami’s works. Though the narrator is not physically attached to any of the characters, entering in and exiting freely from their minds, there is a sense that the narrator does care about the characters—even the tiniest detail about them, adding to the intimacy of the close-tied human relationship in the rural small town of Yukinuma.

(This insight, if I dare to call it in such a pompous way, came to me through a wonderful work of Tomiko Yoda on the modern perception of Heian literature, in which she questions the widespread assumption that “Kagero Niki,” a diary-style narrative of the 10th century, is written in first-person. It is a fascinating read, but I will discuss it later—I have rambled for long enough.)

Friday, March 04, 2005

my english poem debut (yikes, do you dare to read?)


Outside, on trunks of ancient cedars
Cicadas generate heat
Incessant throbs, saps converted
Stir the August air

In thinning fume of incense
Burnt for prayer at dawn, hours ago
Buddha listens
For the last drop of elixir
Travel through the tiny veins of an insect
On the Sixty-third cedar from the temple

To mourn the first death of the afternoon
A beat of my heart
Then resume the cicadas
Buddha smiles, unfathomable
After centuries of summers and winters

Radiator rattle in stairwell
Awakens me
To the subzero night of Chicago
A life away