Happy new year, again

If you celebrate Chinese New Year, you feel like you’ve got at least a couple of chances to get things started right. You try to go to the gym twice every week starting from 1 January, and sometime on the 9th you’d fail and hate yourself, and then Chinese New Year comes around, and you find yourself with another date, pregnant with the meaning of a fresh start, to do things right this time. I love it. And then if your birthday falls shortly after that, even better. You get three chances. Well, technically you get a fresh start any minute you decide, but people like…symbolism. Meaning. It’s hard to live an arbitrary life.

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Not enough people get Chinese (other than the 1.1 billion Chinese speakers; let me rephrase) – the segment of the Internet that I frequent is predominantly written in English and steeped in the American/British culture, but there are so many gems in the internets of other languages and cultures. Take, for example, the ma shang (马上)meme:

ma shang you qian

 

Ma shang you qian (马上有钱)literally means, money on top of a horse. Ma shang (马上), by itself, means “immediately” (probably something to do with how horses used to be our fastest mode of transport). So what it’s really saying is “to have money immediately”.

This has led to many people putting many things on top of many cute cartoon horses.

A pair of elephants, meaning a boyfriend/girlfriend

A pair of elephants, meaning a boyfriend/girlfriend

I’m getting Mr Ang to buy me a stuffed toy horse so I can put things on it. In the meantime, a happy Chinese New Year to my friends. I hate seeing all your pictures of food and happy families, but the truth is that I wish I was there (even though when I was there I had wished I wasn’t).

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Whole Foods and the evolution/migration of the hipster

I live close to a Whole Foods store. It’s one of the first places Mr Ang brought me when I got to Chicago. “You can drink while you’re grocery shopping,” he said, picking out a craft beer from one of the many chalkboards around – the always-reliable signal of authenticity and handmade goodness. For the vinophiles, there is also a wine bar, and yes I’ve walked around the store like a pretentious douchebag with a glass of Zinfandel in my left hand while pushing a giant cart with my right. (It also makes you more likely to buy things you never expected to – oh, look, breaded chickenless nuggets. Whole Foods (and other organic foods purveyors) like to sell things that are not there i.e. sugarless, fat free, free from preservatives.) If you’re hungry, there’s a food market at the end of the store where you can pick up some sushi, or Chinese noodles; Chicago-style pizza, or a fresh salad. It’s as much a place to pick out your vegetables as it is to eat them.

In Whole Foods, you can do some serious flirting with someone you would otherwise have dismissed as a homeless guy. The carefully calibrated degree of facial hair care, designed to look like a lack thereof, coupled with some serious winter clothing makes it really hard to tell who is achingly, fashionably, nonchalant and who simply wandered in to get off the bitterly cold streets. But it is not just hipsters that frequent and staff the store – yuppies, health conscious mothers, socially conscious female consumers, wine and cheese connoisseurs, lovers of organic food (you may argue that these are variants/sub-genres of bourgeois hipsterism) – all find themselves welcome. This is a new kind of luxury brand that traffics in authenticity instead of exclusivity, although you may also argue that organic spinach, at $4.99 a pound, is just another form of exclusion: for hipsters that’ve made it; the brohemia instead of the bohemia.

Alas, we are moving away from this neighborhood, with its Whole Foods and Starbucks, Crate and Barrel and American Apparel. Mr Ang read an article on Old Town in the 60s, when it became an enclave for the then-hippies, and that’s where we’ll be heading. We have a habit of moving to the hottest scene, 40 years after the fact. (Suffice to say, we’re not fixie owners.)

Nevertheless, I’ve always been fascinated by hipsterdom, and stumbled upon the migration history of the hipster in Chicago:

from the South Loop to Hyde Park to River North to Old Town to Wicker Park to Logan Square to...

from the 1. South Loop to 2. Hyde Park to 3. River North to 4. Old Town to 5. Wicker Park to 6. Logan Square to…

According to outraged comments, this article missed out on a number of places and events in Lakeview and Lincoln Park, not to mention failing to define the evolution of the term and the people it is supposed to describe. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for someone to write a history of the hipster…

The winter of discontent

Photo by Paula McCartney / via New Yorker

You can’t tell how cold it is from the Instagram. In it the sky is clear and the snow is white and the ice on the window are delicate filigrees and the steam from the steel pipe in the neighbor’s roof makes young clouds that run away. The branches are bare and still. The coldness you see doesn’t reach into your bones and make them ache.

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This is the second time this year I’m spending the week alone. Have you ever tried living alone? You may have. More specifically, have you ever tried living alone with nothing to do? I mean, in the sense that you are without a job and therefore beyond the reach of arbitrary deadlines; in the sense that you can clean the apartment, or not; cook, or not; watch television, or not; read and write, or not; head out into the cold, or not. There are no obligations to anything or anyone other than yourself.

Two things I’ve learned from this lack of accountability. 1. I find myself in social situations explaining and justifying to others, but mostly to myself, why I’m not doing anything. By anything, I mean having a job. We are what we do, professionally, and right now I don’t have a business card or title to hide behind. (But this is America! You invent yourself! This brings me to the second thing I learned.)

2. When there’s no one pressuring you, you are left with your own impulse, or the attempt to find one. It’s great to have this time when you know what you want to do. I suppose the time taken to find out what it is exactly you want to do will also be time well spent, though it does not always feel that way: 30 minutes on Facebook; an hour on WordPress; two hours on Instapaper; an hour of lunch plus an episode of The West Wing; three hours reading; two hours dicking around; two hours dinner; and then TV; and in between, the sitting and standing and walking and shitting and mail collecting and dish washing and twittering and facebooking and googling and thoughts in your head asking what the hell are you doing?

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The Millions has pulled together some fine reading about winter/snow. I’ll end off with The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Shaping words, shaping history

This is a day late, but Monday was Martin Luther King day – a day I spent looking for a new apartment. That’s what the day is to many – to Jack Donaghy’s mother 30 Rock, it is the day in January when the post office is closed. In September 1963, a month after Dr. King’s famous speech, Singapore would merge with Malaysia and go through two years of ideological differences and racial strife before attaining independence. It was a movement of a different kind, a birth of a different sort, but there too, lain a similar dream.

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The shape of speech: MLK’s “I Have a Dream”, via Brainpickings

What to say of the power of (his) words? It has always felt, to me, a nonviolent form of violence. Joan Didion gets it right when she calls writing (and its counterparts, reading and listening) “a hostile act” – “it’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture.” It is a hostility that is quite seductive, wrapped up in repetition, in metaphors, in a melody that still echoes.

Bad dreams

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness — it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.’

“Sometimes, a curious streak of fancy invades an obscure corner of the very hardest head, so that no amount of rationalization, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood.” – HP Lovecraft

If you’re a scaredy cat and alone for the week like me, you really should avoid reading things like that.

(Thanks to Longreads for the story, and its link to Aeon magazine, exploring the creation of horror stories and urban legends for the digital age – essentially a discussion on the crowdsourcing of our worst fears, and a lesson in writing and storytelling.)

Jaguar! Omaha! Nascar! Purple! Hut!

I just had a very American Sunday – bacon and eggs and toast for breakfast, followed by an episode of Peep Show (ok that’s British, but still, funny funny losers), and then it was time for the NFL playoffs. First up, 49ers versus the Panthers, and it was a good game, but the highlight for me came even before the game started:

This gave me goosebumps (especially starting at around 0:42 to the end). It’s something about the trumpet – its faint military connotation that brings thoughts of honor, pride; the fireworks timed to it, and in the end, really, the almost plaintive cries that make a national anthem as it should be – soaring, inspiring, and in this case, sublime. Thank you, Jesse McGuire. (also, perhaps a point of interest: this video was captured using Google Glass.)

Got the Panthers riled up, that’s for sure, with lots of smack talking, back thumping, chest bumping, and occasional head butting in the game. It was more like watching a gladiator arena than football, and players looked ready to kill. Unfortunately they couldn’t translate that into a win in the end (shutting down the Panthers with a yard to go, twice), but Sportscenter has informed me that the Seattle Seahawks vs San Francisco 49ers game is quite the matchup. (To quote: “They don’t like us. We don’t like them.”)

As is the other championship game, with the Broncos winning tonight to go up against the Patriots next Sunday. But putting that aside for a second; I’d like to say that tonight was really the first time I got acquainted with Peyton Manning as a quarterback.

What to say about Peyton Manning? I’m used to the offense getting together for huddles, but Manning will have none of that. This means we get some forty seconds of him on TV marshaling his players into a formation and shouting a lot of gibberish before they got to get the next play going. Mr Ang has informed me that by skipping huddles, you get a chance to speed up play and tire out the defense, but that was not what I had observed, though perhaps this is due to editing: huddles give the TV station a chance to cut to replays, making the next snap seem to happen faster, but without it we are given a lot of time to see Manning flapping his arms, stomping his legs, running up and down the line and screaming “Omaha! Omaha! Omaha!”

Of course, Manning isn’t the only quarterback to speak in code. Most quarterbacks shout a stream of words that make no sense to us, but serve to tell their players something as simple as when to snap the ball, or as complex as changing the play to something else entirely.

The secret language of the quarterback is vital to defense and offense alike. A pass-rusher could gain a massive advantage if he knows when the ball will be snapped, since he can start moving toward the quarterback a split-second faster than usual without jumping offsides. The quarterback, of course, has a much simpler goal: making sure he gets rid of the ball before the oncoming 300-pound behemoth pounds him into the turf. In that scenario, even a half a second is crucial.

It has also become a way for quarterbacks to take advantage of overeager defenders; Manning drew five neutral zone infractions from the Chargers today (this is when a defender improperly enters the ball-length space between the offensive and defensive lines) – the most by any team in any game this season. And those penalty yards count. So here’s to Omaha:

Manning loves Omaha

Speaking of gibberish, sports announcers are full of at least three hours of drivel; you too can be a sportscaster if you can recite the following:

The keys to the game are to get pressure on the quarterback, force turnovers, play physical football, set the tone, take shots, win the turnover battle, avoid mental mistakes and undisciplined penalties, score touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone, and stay within themselves.

So, basically, everything.

Both teams need to get positive yardage, and make sure they matriculate the ball down the field.

Yes. Don’t run backwards.

And here’s some stuff-that-champions-are-made-of nonsense:

Both teams have to want to win more than the other team, and have to have the desire to give 110 percent and prepare to win. Because that’s how winning is done, and that’s how champions are made.

Who will pay the price? Who wants it more? Who has the guts to go for glory? Who is man enough to take it? Who will meet the moment? WHO WILL GRASP GREATNESS?

To end off, here’s a bad lip reading of the NFL:

“An orange peanut? For me? Aw. Wow. An orange peanut? Well I accept you.”