Monday, March 27, 2006

somatophilia/somatophobia: what self-pornorates on Flickr tells me

As one of the million amateur photographers in need of occasional pettings on our artsy-fartsy ego, I use Flickr. Last Thursday, I posted a few black and white photographs of my legs and left hand, which I decided to call "self-pornorate."

thursday's legs #2
Thursday's legs #2

left hand
left hand

Nothing too dangerous--one might even call them "art nude" photographs, although I'm not sure if I want to call them that.

But they're getting soooooooooo much more views than my other photographs of landscapes, architecture, plants and so on. Two of the four self-pornorates were clicked on more than 400 times over the weekend, whereas most of my photos get less than 30 clicks over many months.

What does that tell us about human nature? I'm not saying that we are driven only by our "basest" instincts, which is a Victorian way to say our sexual desire (although it is tempting to say so). Rather, the disproportionately large interest shown in these body shots in the Flickr community seems to point to our strange curiosity and affinity toward our bodies. I, for one, sometimes find myself clicking on small icons of photographs that seem to zero-in on bodies or body parts. It could be the absoolutely beautiful curves defined by the back of a young (and super-fit) woman in a perfectly lit studio. Or it could be the rough texture of a creased hand of an old farmer in an African savanna under the scorching sun.

Human bodies, when photographed right, seem to be far more powerful and beautiful than a shot of the most beautiful and elaborate flower. It is often said that our modern culture teaches us the strange somatophobia (fear of bodies and bodily functions) and it is so true, but behind that drape of somatophobia, there seems to be the curious and tender child of somatophilia (love of bodies) pushing us to test our boundaries, if in the semi-secrecy of the internet.

I'm sure many of the clicks my self-pornorates get are out of sheer lust, but the rest of them testify to our universal love of, and interest in, human bodies.

keywords: photography, nude, self-portrait, sexuality, somatophobia, somatophilia, body, desire, Flickr

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

pink notebook, 1984

On my fifth birthday, my mother bought me a garish pink notebook with an illustration of a house with perspective problems, inhabited by a family of grinning purple dogs. She wrote on the back of its front cover in her large, round handwriting: "A gift to Yu for your 5th birthday. Keep a diary every day. Mom." I don't know what she expected a five-year-old to keep diary about. But I was to write something in it, every day. Anything.

The pink notebook was one of the manifestations of her ambition to raise her only daughter to be a lover of reading, just like her (as you have suspected). To learn to read, one must learn to write, she must have figured.

My mother was a woman of dicipline. She made sure I wrote something on the notebook every day. She would make me sit at the dining table and draw her chair next to me. Sipping from her mug of Nestle instant coffee, she watched me squeeze an event or two and put them on the lined pages in my crooked handwriting of a beginning speller. In a few days, I came to resent the notebook. There wasn't much to write about in my infant life of hiding in a playroom of the kindergarten when the 2 o'clock snack of the day was mango (for I hated mangoes) and riding my tricycle on the white linoleum floor of my parents' bedroom, avoiding the imaginary monsters that roamed the dark and sinister caves that was the space under my parents' twin beds.

"There must be something you want to write about," my mother would say.

"There's really nothing!" I whined, wanting to hit the table with the 2B pencil in my hand but not daring to do so in front of her.

"You have to keep doing what you've started," she would resort to her favorite line. I wanted to tell her that it wasn't me who started the diary but her, that I never wanted to keep a diary. But again, I didn't dare to say it. I felt the tears generate in the back of my eyes. It felt so unfair. My nose became stuffy with the tear I held back. Eyeing my mother, I swallowed what almost came out of my mouse: "but I don't know what to write." Her face was telling me that there's no "but." She had a very low tolerance for whining, especially when it was about wanting to quit what I'd taken up.

I grasped the pencil firmly and put its lead tip on the cheap paper. I went over my day and tried to think of something to write. Nothing. I got up in the morning, went to the kindergarten, had a normal day and came home. Nothing special. I think harder. Nothing. The pencil starts to feel slippery in my sweating palm. I must have been making that grumbling noise unconsciously, for now my mother snapped: "stop oinking!"

I flipped through the earlier pages of the notebook.

"Tuesday, Jan. 23. I went to the kindergarten today and played with Ayako-chan and Sugimoto-kun." I'd done the same thing today, but I'd wrote about that already.

"Wednesday, Jan. 31. It's a month and two days till grandma visits us."

"Thursday, Feb. 1. It's a month and a day till grandma visits us."

It would be a bit risky to do the same count-down three days in a row. I needed something else. I went further back in the notebook for a hint.

"Tuesday, Jan. 16. Mom and dad had a quarrel. It was because dad went to golf and came back late." I could remember how furious I was on that day. My mother wouldn't let me go play with Naoko-chan because she didn't have time to pick me up later. So I wanted to take revenge in my diary. Writing about the petty quarrel between my parents seemed to be the best way to do so. But when my mother looked at the entry, she didn't say anything. I remembered my disappointment at the non-reactio of my mother.

Still I didn't have anything to write about. A five-year-old doesn't have a passion for detailed description, nor has she acquired the intellectual manipulation to squeeze some deep-sounding thoughts out of the mundane. For her to write a diary entry, there has to be something extraordinary happening in her life. And my life was a finest specimen of an ordinary life. Or so it appeared to my five-year-old self.

Finally I picked up the pencil that I had dropped on the table and started writing. I'd found a thing to fill in the note space designated for today's entry.

"Friday, Feb. 2. It has been a Friday today."

I don't remember what my mother said. The yellowing paper of the old pink notebook does not reveal what happened after that. The entry for February 2nd, 1984 ends right there, curt and brief, just like the other entries of my "diary" infested with drastically deformed or completely inverted characters and skewed pencil strokes almost tearing the cheap paper, revealing the grudge the sun-tanned girl held toward her demanding birthday gift.

keywords: Thailand, Bangkok, childhood, diary, journal, mother, daughter, parent, reading, writing, education, 1984, discipline, literacy

Thursday, March 09, 2006

disrupted CTA services...

It was the slowest CTA train I've ever taken. It took me an hour and a few minutes to get from Jackson to Morse. Even worse, the train stopped a few hundred yards from the Morse station. I don't know why--I could see the track ahead, and there was no "crew working on track ahead" as their daily "we're sorry, we're being delayed" announcements always suggest. I was on the famous "blessed train" (whose conductor has a rather jolly disposition and announces that he's grateful that the customers are on his blessed train, slipping in some varying lectures on the virtues of being grateful and so on), but I wasn't blessed enough to know what was going on. When the train had been stopped for seven minutes, in sight of the station, a woman got up her seat, shaking her head and mumbling something in her mouth. It was clear that she was far more irritated than the rest of us, who were, in our own lights, pretty pissed ourselves. She pried open the heavy door to the next car.

"Well, that'd make a tremendous difference," I thought, and went back to my reading of The Devil's Highway. The dead Mexican "illegal entrants" were enjoying the coolness of the morgue drawers after days of baking in the 100-plus degrees heat in the Southwestern desert. They were waiting for their first-time-ever flight--in their government-paid cheap coffins--to their homes in Veracruz.

The young man who sat next to me stood up, folding his conservative newspaper. I looked up. He walked up to the front of the car, where some people were saring out the windows, shaking their heads and muttering something in low voices. Then I saw the pissy woman walking across the track. She must have gotten off the train from the narrow connection bridge between the cars--in her frustration at the stopped train. She furiously walked to the other end of the tracks and quickly disappeared down the bank. By now, everybody on board was following her eccentric action, half amazed and half entertained.

The train remained at the same spot four more minutes before it slowly slid into the station just two blocks ahead. A police car cruised past us on an alleyway along the track. When I finally stepped out of the snail train, a loud and cracked voice was apologizing the delay due to a "disruption to the service." Sure, the woman getting off the train mid-journey was a surprise, but that didn't explain why the train had to stop for seven long minutes before her irritation reached that point. Sometimes I'm sick of this perpetually disrupted public transit system...

keywords: Chicago, public transportation, CTA, red line, train, reading, Luis Alberto Urrea, Luis Urrea, The Devil's Highway, immigration

Spring snow and croccusses

Pure white feathers fell from the sky, one by one, like extra-large snow flakes that covered the ground a few days ago. It oculdn't have been snow, the air was too warm, too spring-like for snow. The feathers landed on the yet leafless bush in someone's front yard, and I noticed many more trapped among the intricacy of the shrubbery. I looked up puzzled. The feathers poured from a point in a tall tree, where two branches grew in their separate ways. Something moved behind one of the branches. I walked a few steps to get a better view. It was a small hawk, white throat and belly with dark brown spots, feeding on a pigeon. As it picked the fluffy mass at its talons, more and more white feathers, no, they were now softer downs, came flowing down to the shrubbery, to the ground. Tiny sparrows chirped in the tree a few feet from the grim feast. The hawk buried its compact head in the invisible flesh of the pigeon, probably still warm and tender. It seemed miraculous that none of the many, many feathers and downs did not bear the bloody mark of the violent death.


I saw the spring on that day. Three yellow croccusses had pushed their heads through the previously fridged soil, appearing right next to the apartment door. Daffodils had grown to a few inches tall, their cream-green flower buds still tucked in their leaf-wrapped stems. The air was moist and mild, making me roll down the window of my car on the way home. The yellow of the willows seemed to have intensified in the last few days.