To be demolished

to be demolished

There are several buildings on the historic building death row in Chicago – Singapore is similar to Chicago in that way, with few advocates to save these spaces of history. My last apartment building, which was right next to Richard Parrillo’s mansion, will be facing the wrecking ball soon as well, so this feels personal. Luckily, photographer David Schalliol, in coordination with Gapers Block, has created a photo/bio series and interactive map that catalogs the list of Chicago buildings about to be destroyed. Check them out over here. 

There are churches and synagogues in the series, but I like the plain, squat buildings the most.

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The periodic table of storytelling

Writing is as much a science as it is an art. And when the muse fails you, you turn to the periodic table of storytelling.

periodic table of storytelling

 

It’s beautiful. Leo Tolstoy said there are only two kinds of stories – a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes into town. This breaks it down a little further, and each element takes you to a detailed wiki on the trope used. Wall-E, for example, is a combination of a Woobie (character you feel sorry for), Action Girl (self-explanatory), and recycled in space (meaning the story can take place anywhere, but wouldn’t it be cooler if it was in space!).

Buy a poster here. Or just click around and procrastinate on your writing.

Self respect and the business of living

He said he hate to leave me looking so forlorn. Then he asked if I was going to stay home and feel sorry for myself.

Last night, after the crying (on my part), and the exhaustion (on his part), I laid awake while he snored, asking what was wrong with this young marriage – if I knew what marriage is, what it entails, and what it really asks of me. What was this quarrel, this problem, asking of me? (Does this sound like the modus operandi of a person who just stays home and feels sorry for herself?) He has a life outside of me. I told him I don’t wish to be tangential to that life. I don’t want to be something you came home to, but someone you came home/do anything else for. That’s the vain answer, the petulant and arrogant answer. (To deny my overreaching claim to be the center of a joint universe is to demote me to the status of a pet – a preference that I be unable to verbalize these unreasonable human demands, or perhaps be simple enough to be excited by his mere presence that there is nothing more I can ask for.)

The practical answer, the right answer, is that I go and have a life outside of him. I wanted to move. I wanted to remove myself from the reality I always knew, and construct a new one for myself. That I’ve not been an overnight success at this business of living is perhaps the issue at hand. Do I blame others? There’s the self-awareness that what I feel and do is up to me, that there are many things I can do to alleviate these feelings of loneliness and dependency. Make new friends. Pick up a new hobby. Volunteer. Talk to strangers. Yet those things I can do are in direct contradiction to what I want to strive for – solitude, a chance to read and write, and learning to be at ease with my own self. Conversation seems like a way to distract myself from my failure to succeed on first try, in the first three months.

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Cheryl Strayed wrote: “Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

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The following is a piece by Joan Didion: On Self-Respect. (emphasis my own)

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others. Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplused apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards – the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others – who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that details one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

To protest that some fairly improbable people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one’s underwear. There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samarra and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbable candidates for self-resect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than in men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace. “I hate careless people,” she told Nick Carraway. “It takes two to make an accident.”

Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for reelection. Nonetheless, character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Madhi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: “Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.” Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further those particular Indians were not, “fortunately for us,” hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnee.

In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called “alienation from self.” In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assigned unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

Perfect storm

I love Tomer Hanuka’s cover for this week’s issue of the New Yorker:

Perfect storm

“Snow is inherently nostalgic. It encourages you to travel back and think about your life. I think it’s something about the way it blankets reality, sort of erasing the present one dead pixel at a time. And that makes room for the past,” says Tomer Hanuka, about his image “Perfect Storm.”

“I moved to New York in my early twenties, after being in the Israeli Army for three years,” Hanuka says. “I have this image of myself in my first rental apartment, sitting on the edge of the bed and staring at the window. You encounter the world as an adult for the first time—I think that’s what the story was about. That’s a powerful thing. Every window you stared through before was your parent’s world, and now, suddenly, you’re in a city. You’re washed with optimism and a sense of freedom—you’ve just been liberated and that’s amazing. And then you realize you can do very little, and it’s terribly disappointing. But the heartache and all that, that comes later.”

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).

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…