Monday, June 29, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Waiting

By Eugene Tong

I've been doing a lot of waiting lately.

Waiting for my test scores. Waiting for my body to heal after a few years of neglect at the expense of career. Waiting for someone to buy the home I left behind since moving back to the Bay Area from Southern California. Waiting for school admission, then waiting some more to get off the waitlist when said admission panel had to wait to decide whether to offer me a spot in the incoming class.

Waiting is inaction. It requires patience; discipline to and faith in the favorable outcome you've been waiting for, whatever it may be, will due soon. Recall Penelope from the Odyssey, who waited decades for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan War, all the while warding off advances from 108 "odious suitors" (according to the wiki).

But it's much more difficult to pull off in practice, especially living in a society that often emphasizes action over thoughtful, careful contemplation; brawn over brains and the triumph of win-at-all-cost. Yet even I have the pang of restlessness; of disatisfaction with what is, but too unnerved to act if action would ruin the chances of achieving what I seek.

And so I'm waiting, much as I've always had, for good or naught. Acting by not acting, hoping for the best, expecting the worst, haunted by the infinite possiblilities of what may have been and taking solace in the familiar.

It reminds me of Carl, the old protagonist of Pixar's "Up" and the film's heartbreaking first act. But that's a story for next week (after I see the rest of the movie -- the cinema had a blackout during my screening...).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why Bottle Shock (2008) is a pretty bad movie

Bottle Shock tells the story of two upstart California wines that trumped their more established French counterparts at a supposedly historic blind tasting in Paris in 1976.

The California set are represented by Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a San Franciso lawyer turned vinter and his hippy son Bo and their employee Gustavo (his father was a field hand and Gustavo has soil and grapes inscribed deep in his DNA and brain circuitry. I hope they donate his mutant brain to science). They are joined by Sam – an intern who everybody assumed would be a man but she proves to be a bonafide blondie starlet type, wearing what she thinks a 70s person would wear. She also features in the films’s most clich√©d scenes.

There are two other key characters: A British wine dealer, Steven Spurrier, who wants to find a way in to the snobby world of French wine expertise and his friend, Maurice, an expat from Milwaukee. Spurrier is the founder of Academie du Vin – an outfit that purports to educate the palate of philistines. He perhaps delivers one of only two convincing lines in the whole film—I’ll get to that later.

Maurice convinces Spurrier that he must try the wines from California and let the Frenchies test them as a way of garnering some publicity for his academie. So Spurrier sets off to California and we next see him with a flat tire on the way to Napa Valley. Quite predictably, Jim Barrett happens to be driving by and they have a brief discussion about wine where Spurrier succeeds in annoying Barrett.

At least their animosity leads to this very convincing exchange later on in the film:

“Jim Barrett: Why don't I like you?

Steven Spurrier: Because you think I'm an arsehole. And I'm not, really. I'm just British and, well... you're not.”

But other than this clever piece of dialogue and many long shots of sun-kissed Napa valley grapes on vine, this film feels like a roughly drawn caricature of a really good story. It has an inherent flakiness from the get-go that flattens even the deep philosophies that it seeks to propagate about wine.

Remember that scene in Sideways where a softly glowing Virginia Marsden tells Paul Giamatti why she loves wine? Well, Bottle Shock tries something similar in the scene where Barrett discovers that Gustavo is secretly making his own wine and fires him. It’s supposed to be moving but it just made me roll my eyes.

“Gustavo Brambila: You people, you think you can just buy your way into this. You cannot do it that way.

Jim Barrett: Alright...

Gustavo Brambila: You have to have it in your blood, you have to grow up with the soil underneath your nails, the smell of the grapes in the air that you breathe. The cultivation of the vine was an art form. The refinement of the vine is a religion that requires pain and desire and sacrifice.”

The refinement of the vine is a religion? No amount of labored handwringing by even poor Freddy Rodriguez, who is actually a very talented actor, could rescue this bit of screenwriting.

I’ve decided to stop my review here and tell you that reading AO Scott’s review of the film in the New York Times was more fun than watching the film itself. I particularly liked his conclusion which borrows from wine-snob terminology. I wish I had thought of reviewing this film in similar terms but I didn’t, so I might as well quote Monsieur Scott.

“The filmmakers struggle to shoehorn a fascinating story about wine into some kind of screen genre or another. But Bottle Shock is unable to figure out what kind of movie it wants to be, and flops around between madcap comedy and rousing drama. To borrow a wine-snob term of art, it lacks structure. Or, to push the idiom a little further, it’s a little too sweet, with some pleasantly nutty notes and a baloney finish.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dispatches from the Couch

By Eugene Tong

A feng shui master recently divined what's troubling HSBC, which has seen its stock price tumble by at least 1/3 on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange from a year ago. And it's not overexposure to sub-prime mortgage-backed securities!

Apparently the REAL culprit is the West Kowloon -- a residential and office high-rise office development constructed on reclaimed land jutting out into Victoria Harbor. That project, along with the demolition of the old Hong Kong Star Ferry Terminal two years ago has jacked-up the wealth feng shui around the bank's headquarters. And the bad luck is supposed to last at least two years.

As for Singapore, if you think the economy is bad now, it could've been worse if it weren't for the Merlion! That beacon to millions of tourists looking for the best staged scenic photo in town took one for the home team when it was struck by lightning all those months ago. But it's still standing proud and spewing water into the mouth of the river, despite the slight singe. A good omen in these tough times.

Way to go, Ministry of Tourism!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wednesdays with We Gang

My good friend Roger Chiaw and I were out one February evening in Little India drinking beer in the dive next to the Prince of Wales, where you get cloudy naans studded with more minced garlic than is civilised.

Ben Harrison of Etcetera joined us and over glasses of strong, cold beer I told them about the Hindustani music I had learned as a child. I was sad I didn’t sing or play an instrument any more when so many of my formative years were immersed in music—in learning, studying or practicing it.

My parents were music-mad and we grew up listening to Bhimsen Joshi and Kishori Amonkar on one of those grand wooden radiograms that looked like a long, ornate sideboard. It was a ritual we all assembled for watching my father as he pushed open the wooden doors to reveal velvet-lined insides.

And then when I was about 10 or 11, I heard pop music for the first time. Abba and Boney M. I remember thinking it was like hearing ice-cream.

Anyway, back to the present. Ben suggested I get in touch with his friend Adrian, who was looking for singers –possibly for back-up vocals. After a couple of text messages and so forth, I finally went to meet Adrian and his gang on a Wednesday evening at their weekly rehearsal space — Bob’s Studio near Lavender MRT.

This studio is in someone’s apartment. It’s a room that is painted blood red and decorated with old mannequins that function as lights and a couple of framed posters of Portishead, Jamiroquai, The Velvet Underground..that sort of thing. There are people going about their lives as you walk in. A cat is also usually circling about looking for a leg to rub its head on.

We Gang and I. It was instant connection at first song. And I haven’t missed a Wednesday since. How can I explain the joy of rolling up at Bob’s studio on Wednesdays, tired from work but bright-eyed about being in a band?

Adrian, Bradley, Grace, Gerry and Goo are warm, funny and about the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met, apart from the fact that they are so hugely talented. I know, I know. I’m gushing but meeting them and being part of their band is the most wonderful thing that’s happened to me lately. They don’t take themselves too seriously, which makes for interesting rehearsals. “Not like that, lah” Adrian will say or simply collapse in laughter when it is like that or we keep getting something wrong.

We meet for a meal earlier if we can, and some of us talk about work, some offer conspiracy theories while Grace usually says something obscene. I ask for a bottle of water and the coffee shop man always tells me with a serious expression that it costs 3,700 singapore dollars. I laugh every time.

If I pull a long face, as is my wont, there are questions, “You kena stress? Your boss kena scold you?” (kena is Singlish for 'something has happened.' I like it. If I got an injection, for instance, I’d say, wah lau, I kena jab”)

The picture you see here is the one Grace took of me during the last week’s rehearsals. I’m barefoot in the studio and I’m happy.

(Sincere thanks to Roger and Ben for making this happen)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

For obscenity, against pornography

This is a great rambling interview with Henry Miller -- part of The Paris Review series of interviews with writers.

“I believe in saying the truth, coming out with it cold, shocking if necessary, not disguising it. In other words, obscenity is a cleansing process, whereas pornography only adds to the murk.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reportercat finds real friend in Afrorat

So who are your real friends and how came they to be your friends?
The Wall Street Journal has a wonderful article on the role of friendship and intimacy in keeping us healthy.
Despite all my wandering gypsy years, I feel very lucky to have friendships that have transcended time/space constraints. I’m still in touch with a girl I was best friends with when I was about seven or eight years old. She and I have led very different lives but the mad silly rush of a friendship built on cycling around Bangalore, trading Amar Chitra Katha comics, Tintin and Asterix, has never really faded.
So now, even though we only talk every few months, there is never any dressing up of our lives. We are entirely transparent to each other in a way that you can only be to someone who has known you since you were a child.
Two of my closest friends (these friendships were sealed in a Bombay hostel and later in California) have moved, married and become mothers and we go years without seeing each other but phone calls and emails fill the gaps. These changes have done little to detract from the things we share.
And I’m blessed with my men friends too. One is a former colleague and we started off as ‘first-day-first-show friends,’ meaning we were both eager to see the latest Bollywood release. Over the last decade, this friendship has turned into a rambling old conversation that endures through my journeys west and far-east, despite significant differences in ideologies and beliefs.
And along the way, I have made some new and very dear friends. But some of these friendships have also been hurtful and downright painful. They’ve forced me to acknowledge that a true friend is hard to come by. I now have a few rules when it comes to identifying a truly close friend (as opposed to facebook folk and acquaintances)
As rules go, they’re simple and fairly obvious. But I might as well state them for the record: A true friend will pick up the phone if I call, will listen, will return call if he/she misses it, will initiate call/email/or some form of contact periodically. I can talk, cry and be vulnerable without fear of one-upmanship or competition with this person. I can actually depend on this person for an honest exchange of thoughts and ideas.
I’m so grateful that there are many such people in my life. I want to celebrate them with two poems I like very much. One is by Shakespeare and the other is a wonderful couplet by Mirza Ghalib.

Sonnet 30
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Ghalib is a little darker, but that is his strength. He says:

yih kahaan kii dostii hai kih bane hain dost naasih
koii chaarah-saaz hotaa koii Gam-guzaar hotaa

This roughly translates as: “What kind of friendship is this where friends turn advisors?
I only wish for someone to walk with me, to help, perhaps, to sympathise”
(Photo details: Many thanks to Reportercat and his beloved friend Afrorat for posing so nicely)

Monday, June 15, 2009

"It's Still Sunday Where I Am," Eugene says

Dispatches From The Couch
By Eugene Tong

Sorry for the delay -- I blame the time difference between S'pore and Cali. It's still Sunday, and I just watched the Lakers win another NBA title, this time against the Orlando Magic. The Lakers won on the road, which means those looking to overturn and torch police cars on Figueroa tonight will be disappointed.
I've been on break since leaving my newsroom job last August. In fact, I've hardly strung together a sentence for at least 21 months. As I write this, I'm waiting for my new TV obsession -- Kendra! Hef's girlfriend from The Girls Next Door is now on her own and planning her wedding! The 24-year-old is quite a character and has little inhibition before the cameras, which makes the show deliciously trashy. Her straight-man fiance Hank Baskett provides the yang to her yin.
Yes, I've filled most my unemployment down time with TV, especially junk TV, and I don't feel an ounce a guilt about it. Another recent favorite -- Deadliest Warrior -- a pseudo documentary that has been described as a bar argument taken a little too far. Like who would win in a fight between a Ninja and a Spartan warrior? How about the IRA vs. Taliban? The answers may surprise you!
And in between bad TV that's soooo entertaining -- there's the Internet! A recent tip from my cousin Andrew: AsianPoses! Mystified by why we flash the V sign with our fingers while posing for photos in before exotic landmarks? Now you shall have your answer!
So here's the first post. Not exactly poetry, yet. But in a few weeks, who knows?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Area woman wonders where her weekend went

Oh look, it's Monday again. Eugene's guest post will be here soon. It is meant to inaugurate the opening up of this space to guest bloggers. New week, new voices. Oh and about last week-- well, it rushed past me in customary, tubular speed. I'm not going to attempt to describe it in detail. But here are salient features of time just elapsed:

Highlight of the week: Met former boss lady from the daily newspaper that I worked at. She left over a year ago for the US. This meant a most wonderful reunion with her and other friends from the days when I was a real reportergirl. Anyway, over drinks and dinner, the couple at the table behind us were notable for the frequency at which they leaned across the table to lock eyes and mouths in passionate kisses. The cynical journalists among us prompted bets -"It's the first month of togetherness." And one of us was so audacious as to go up to them and proceed to flatter them about how very sweet they were and then get the required information. They took it in good spirit (bless them) and yes, the cynical journalists won. It was the first month. In fact, the man, who at one point was licking chocolate off the lady's fingers, added another dimension to the proceedings when he told my friend. "Her husband doesn't know she's here."

World Science Festival: Monday is here but I wish I was at the World Science Festival in New York. I would have liked to hear Edward O. Wilson to talk about sociobiology and hear about the evolutionary explanations of morality. There is much controversy about this whole issue and I would like to understand it all better.

My fledgling music career: About three months ago, or maybe four, I started singing with a local band who are absolutely wonderful. Name and myspace details will be forthcoming soon. Last Wednesday, we pretty much sealed up a song I've written-that we've been playing around with for a while. We're going to record some of these new songs this week and I'm very excited about that!

The Life of Your Mind: This is a link to a very good essay in n+1 which actually inspired last Monday's column. I failed to credit it so this is a way of making reparations. Some of the blogging conventions are irritating though, no? A link-heavy blog post is quite idiotic in some ways. I feel as if I'm saying, "Oh I think its a really good idea for you to start reading a whole different article right in the middle of what I'm saying."

I'm hyperlinked and hypertexted and hypertired so I had best shut up for now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

There is so much good poetry in the world...

...and there is so much I've yet to read and still I attempt to write. Really, I have to shake my head at my own optimism.
I've posted the work of Kim Addonizio here before. I've shared this one with a few friends, but thought I'd just post it here too.
I like how raw it is...I particularly adore these lines: "You know/where she's headed, you know she'll wake up/with an ache she can't locate and no money/and a terrible thirst"

You Don't Know What Love Is

You don't know what love is

but you know how to raise it in me

like a dead girl winched up from a river. How to

wash off the sludge, the stench of our past.

How to start clean. This love even sits up

and blinks; amazed, she takes a few shaky steps.

Any day now she'll try to eat solid food. She'll want

to get into a fast car, one low to the ground, and drive

to some cinderblock shithole in the desert

where she can drink and get sick and then

dance in nothing but her underwear. You know

where she's headed, you know she'll wake up

with an ache she can't locate and no money

and a terrible thirst. So to hell

with your warm hands sliding inside my shirt

and your tongue down my throat

like an oxygen tube. Cover me

in black plastic. Let the mourners through.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Politics of Prizes

Robert Lee Hotz has written an excellent column in The Wall Street Journal about the new wave of science prizes that drive innovation while also achieving a kind of stealth advertising.
Mr Hotz says that prizes may soon rival traditional research grants that spurred innovation. This is interesting but what really got my attention was a passing reference to James F. English, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has written a book called 'The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and Circulation of Cultural Value.' I was able to find parts of the book on Google books so you can look for it there. I had a quick look (will have to buy the book) and took down these notes which I'll share here.
"The rise of prizes over the last century, especially their feverish proliferation over recent decades is widely seen as one of the more glaring symptoms of a consumer society run rampant, a society that can conceive of artistic achievement only in terms of stardom and success and that is fast replacing a rich and varied cultural world with a shallow and homogeneous McCulture based on the model of network TV."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Welcome to my new weekly column

Dear reader,

This is a new weekly column to light up my own Monday.
It's called ‘Monday Is Here But I’m Elsewhere.’ Please note that I welcome guest writers and contributors. If you are a regular reader, you may support my suspect edifice by volunteering to write one of these columns.
You may also propose alternative titles for this Monday column such as the 'Monday's Putrid Monologue' or 'Monday is Not Really Manic, It's Like Any Other Day, So Please Just Shut Up About It'. Feel free.
This project is free of grand purpose. It’s fun for me and I hope I don’t bore you to tears.
If you'd like to contribute, please get in touch.

Monday Is Here But I’m Elsewhere

I’m back in 1996, when I sent and received my first e-mail. I remember being nervous in the cybercaf√© where this monumental event occurred and somewhat awestruck by the sheer speed of communication. Just a week into the world of email, the little red postbox in Sadashivanagar began to look quaint and old-world to me.

And now a decade later, I routinely say yes to facebook friends with not much thought, I put up breezy status updates (sincere but not too self-revelatory). I instant-share inane thoughts on twitter and I record longer observations here on this blog.

But what has really changed is my increasing susceptibility to communication. By sheer dint of its availability, I now have the ability to reach out and be reached by an ever-widening circle of people. Here’s a list of all the ways in which you can reach me, read me, follow me and affect me.

1) My Blog
2) My Twitter Account
3) Facebook
4) Gmail
5) Work mail
6) Mobile Phone (And because I have an iphone, I can access all the above on my phone and listen to music at the same time)

Surely, this level of message sending and getting is altering my neuronal circuitry in permanent ways. I already feel the effects of having so many pulls on my attention. I’m less able to focus completely on a given task. I’m highly susceptible to distraction. I used be fairly disciplined but now, I feel like one of those rats in a Skinner experiment, constantly pushing the lever for an instant fix of some salty, deep-fried thing (new content, new music, new news).

Another problem with all this connectedness is that one seems to teeter on the edge of more and more self-revelation. It feels to me like I’m always on the brink of saying/writing something in public (or to people I don’t know all that well) that is better off kept private. (Even if it’s some inane thing like having dirt under my fingernails, I’m now broadcasting it to more than a 100 people including work colleagues and clients)

There are even new words for this sort of thing. ‘Oversharing’ and ‘semiotic promiscuity’ are just two of the terms I’ve recently encountered and immediately liked, for they confirm vague experiences I didn’t necessarily have a name for.

I love all the advantages of this brave new internet world and the easy access to a ready audience of friends and acquaintances. But there is also now, in me, a slow but sure rebellion. As the e-brevity of communication sharpens, I find myself equally drawn to long form e-mails that quite faithfully mimic traditional letter-writing. I adore the ornateness of salutations and sign-offs, of emotions recollected, rather than instantly transmitted over chat. There is a formality of expression in e-letters that seems almost as quaint now as that little red postbox.

In fact, in what is a sure reaction to the extreme functional and casual nature of most online exchange, I find myself writing long e-mails. It’s not that I’m rosy eyed about the past—or believe that things were vastly better then. I’m quite aware that nostalgia is a sentimental trickster. Maybe I’m just a little scared of these trendy new changes, a tad suspicious of all this connectedness. And maybe, I’m looking for some rules and conventions and a return to mental discipline where there seems to be none.

What do you think? How have all these technologies affected you? I’d love to hear about it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mad man on wire

I've come sadly to the end of Sunday but I'm still thinking about the documentary I watched on Friday. Man on Wire is a film about Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker/artist/clean out of his mind Frenchman and his equally deranged friends who helped him plan and execute illegal acts of amazing and completely surreal acrobatics.
I mean, just look at this photograph. The man sneaked up there with his friends on several occasions and studied how to tie a cable between the twin towers and walked across it eight times. At various times during this insane walk, he lay down on the rope. I have never seen anything like it. The fact that any person could conjure up such a dream, let alone achieve it, is completely mind boggling.
In telling Petit's story, the film manages to be wonderful and funny, sad yet inspiring and leaves you shaking your head in disbelief long after you've seen it. Awestruck, insane, unbelievable--these are the words that come to mind.
Oh the devil take me, I'm not doing the film much justice with my words, but really, just go watch it.
(Photo credit:©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images)