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. 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 everything she is deprived, 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 uncertainty without developing a chronic drinking problem. 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, but more of a salve.

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. 

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...