on ‘documentaries’ and ‘sweet misery’

There is a scene in Jean Pierre Jenuet’s Amelie in which Audrey Tautou is sitting on her red bed, in front of her green television, watching what appears to be an imaginary documentary about her own sad death. She weeps as it showed footages of crowds attending the funeral procession, as the documentary paid tribute to the noble causes she has supported in life: feeding the poor, tending the sick, etc.

We know of course that Amelie is merely depressed, and this is her way of “letting it all out.” Moments earlier in the film, she is grating cheese for her dinner pasta when she stops suddenly, looks out the window, sees her recluse neighbor having the same exact meal she’s preparing, and decides her fate is sealed.

Why is drowning in misery so cathartic—that momentary tightening of the chest as one imagines a successful suicide, that split-second when your head is clear and you recognize truths you have so far otherwise ignored?

It’s a situation I’m not entirely unfamiliar with. The other night, I lay in bed admiring my bedroom ceiling, dead tired after having a rough day of making myself busy with tedious chores just so I could avoid checking my phone every few minutes for a missed call or an unread text message.

I wanted then to see right away if there are any more furniture undersides left for me to dust, dim light bulbs to replace, or dining table stains to scrub. But the pull of the alternative is simply irresistible. I searched instead through my memory for my own “TV documentary.”

While mine does not involve funeral parades or soup kitchens, I have perfected it by diligently cutting out some of the more awful scenes and adding in some good ones. Of course, in the end, it’s no longer a documentary but a set of disparate short films. Considering the advanced level of despair I had at the time, I picked two of my favorite short films and “played” them.

The first one is set in a rather expensive restaurant—the waiters are dressed in tailored suits and the crystal looked real. Nothing really happens, except I am closely watching two people on the other table. The other is set in a hospital room and I am afflicted with a rare skin disease caused by some unknown strain of virus.

And then my phone beeped and I scrambled for the wretched thing in the dark. When I finally discovered it beneath one of the pillows, I found out that it’s just an automated alert, reminding me I have enough reward points to subscribe to some unlimited texting promos. I threw the phone away and went to sleep.

In the morning, as I woke up, I decided to become a good person with nice thoughts. At least until today when I once again remembered the ingenious Amelie and her indispensable TV. ▣

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2011, simplified

There are two familiar ways to write a personal year-end review. The first involves a simple chronology of all the good, the bad, and the ugly, followed promptly by an epiphany and a new year’s resolution. The second involves making fun of myself (and possibly everyone else), which is sometimes nothing really more than an attempt at humor. But either of the two would be easy, and convenient, and redundant, since I have already done both previously.

So I thought: Why not make it a lot easier and more convenient, without having to repeat myself? This year, I tried to condense twelve months into the following illustrations that would help me simplify things, without, of course, having to look forward to the Mayan Apocalypse.

Of course, these do not tell everything. For example, I’m too embarrassed to openly admit how often I listen to Adele and that  everything was self-rated. Also, these graphs are created only using estimates, which means it’s possible that I may have been, I don’t know, a little careless? 

A “Happy New Year” to everyone and may you guys never have to resort to graphs next year.

anxiety versus physics*

He has not called or texted me for two days now. Yep. And rather than be sucked into a miserable blackhole, I decided that tonight, at least, I will try to find out how quantum mechanics can offer me solace a logical explanation for what might be going on.

First, there’s this guy Hugh Everett III whose death was probably caused by obesity, smoking, and alcoholism. He claims that for each possible outcome to an action, the world splits into copies of itself.

You see, it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book–only you don’t choose between either jumping into the rabbit-hole or going back to reading your book by the river, because the universe splits in two so that both actions are taken.

This means that in an alternate reality, he did call or text me. It no longer matters that I happen to exist in this one reality where he did not call or text me. Because he actually did. In an alternate reality. His own choice isn’t important, because at that precise moment when he could have called or texted me, the world has already split in two.

And then there’s this Niels Bohr guy who says that “particles” exist in all states at once and that it is only forced to assume a definite state when we try to observe it. Which is another way of saying the proverbial tree in the forest has fallen only when we try to find out if it did.

This means that as long as I do not try to find out why he has not called or texted me, there would be equal probabilities to all reasons why he has not called or texted me yet. As long as I wait patiently, all of these reasons would coexist truthfully and I would not have to confront the real reason just yet.

So: he has not called or texted me in two days. No big deal. It’s nothing. Really. Now I will go publish this bullshit and be perfectly pleased with myself. Thank you, Hugh. Thank you, Niels.

* first published as “Bien Venido” at “Chairport

the great migrations of the earth

The great migrations of the earthtell me that I have nothing to fear. It is not destiny that guides birds in their first journey and return across the skies. They are swept by a wind stronger than their hollow bones, their young hearts.

Which is to say memory is not only the things we have done, the places we have seen, the people we have become. I think of you andI remember a bedroom you will paint white and green, the breakfasts we will skip, the leaky faucet we will have to fix. I remember the weight of your arm at night, the warmth of your breath in the morning, the streaks of gray in your hair.

I do not know the future, its roads of cloud and mist. I remember it.

losing in religion

Some of my greatest flaws as a person are probably offshoots of my wretched social skills—an inherent tendency to find a common interest to spark a polite conversation and avoid awkward silence, and a selfish instinct to censor myself from saying things that might be uncomfortable for me talk about.

So it was not exactly a surprise that within roughly ten minutes of my arrival here at the house where I will be staying while I tutor two Hawaii-bound kids, I made my first big mistake and quickly managed to follow it up with a second one.

You see, there was this portrait of Jesus Christ, hanging on the wall of the living room, and I needed only a couple of neurons to figure out that it was one of those Mormon church-commissioned paintings.

By the time I blurted out that I am a “brother,” and my hostess rushed to shake my hand in ecstatic fervor, I could no longer bear to break her heart and disappoint her. There wasn’t an urgent need to tell her that I have not really been able to drag my feet to a chapel in almost ten years, was there? Who was I to deny her the delusion that an old-fashioned Mormon boy has come to keep her company for two months?

For the next several weeks, she was tireless in encouraging me to prove that I was exactly the nice young man that she thought I was. She did not fail to ask me to attend sacrament meetings with her every Sunday. She often talked to me about the spiritual rewards of going on a mission and the blessings of a temple marriage—over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She even had girls my age to come over for snacks in an attempt to interest me in what I call a “date with a saint.”

Of course it was not long before she realized that I am batting for the other team that I deceived her. Somehow she finally saw through my rotten soul and promptly threw in the towel. And I bet it was not just because I sometimes smell faintly of menthol cigarettes.

Just last week, an ex-missionary came to visit with his whole family and stay for a couple of days. You know those Mormon families who are the embodiment of niceness? Those whose piety ooze from their pores and form a halo around their blessed heads? They were one of those. I am familiar with that sort because my own family used to be one. (And then my parents started to hurl furniture against each other and decided to separate out of a very Mormonish mixture of guilt and decency.)

On the very night this saintly family arrived, they held a Family Home Evening, a wholesome activity that involved hymns, scriptures, pastries, and parlor games. My hostess apparently got the memo, but somehow, somebody forgot to send me an RSVP. No surprise there. Rumors of an evil reputation travel fast.

I was inside my room when they started to sing “I know that my Redeemer lives.” You see, I was on the phone, talking to MSF, and I could have excused myself so I could join the Mormon folk and enjoy some spiritual air. But I systematically crushed this sentimental emotion, because I cannot help but observe the fact that they did not bother to check if their wayward brother wanted to redeem himself.

So is it just my attempt at dry wit? Or did I write the words “sentimental emotion” out of an entirely different reason? You see, whenever this sort of thing happens, I remind myself that I survived high school without a clique, and nearly all the friends I made thereafter do not share my political leanings.

But for a few seconds at that moment, while I was inside my room, listening to the hymn-singing and scripture-reading just outside the door, I could have sworn it would have been nice to be invited to this Mormon thing, even if my testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet has not strengthened since I was eight. I could have sworn it would not have been that bad to be with a group simply for the heck of it. Just because.

Ah. Well. I guess that qualifies as another flaw in my otherwise splendid set of personal qualities.

ten-second bytes

1. I am not safe in your beauty; in the arms of your words, laughs, sighs, dreams; in the comfort of the corners in your mind. I am not safe, but I have no desire to be somewhere else.

2. What can I tell you about you? That you have undone my poetry and my fiction. And I must write now these truths. Here. And also, here, beneath my hand, where the walls are not made of paper.

3. Time forks, unceasing, into endless futures. In one of them, I am your lover. In another, I am someone you barely remember.

my purpose-driven life

My mother used to claim that when I was in grade school, I wanted to become a barber. Not the fancy kind who works in a posh beauty parlour and whose job description includes giving you compliments about your exquisite facial bone structure, but the grubby kind who always, always cracks a lame joke by asking if you want your head shaved.

This is a very curious story. Even at the best of my abilities, I cannot ever recall any childish fascination with scissors, or comb sets, or mirrors, or hair that grew on heads other than mine. “You were such a strange boy,” my mother would always insist, as if she was talking to Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Sometimes I could not help but wonder if her use of the past tense was a grammar slip.

These days, I think about it a lot: not that bit about the grammar slip, or that bit about my mom calling me a “strange boy,” but that part about what I really want to be. Being born and raised in a lower middle class family, I grew up with both cavities and vague ambitions. Years later, I quit college and promptly signed up for call center thraldom so I could finally afford dental services. Now as for that other thing … Well. I now teach English to East Asian expatriates. I’m just not quite sure yet how that makes any difference.

What is it exactly that I want to do until I’m old enough to wither away in some old-age care facility? Am I cut out for such a pattern in the first place? Do I enjoy teaching Korean adolescents? A week ago, I asked a class to write an essay on whether homework is good or bad for teenagers like them and they all of course wrote that homework is good, homework is effective, homework helps them to devote more time to studying, that sort of rubbish.

When they asked me what I personally think, I told them homework is sometimes unnecessary and that they often get in the way of more productive activities, like sports, or learning the piano, or reading novels, or hanging out with friends. Then this tall guy from the back of the room, Micky Mao, smirked, mumbled something in Korean, the other students nodding their heads at what he said, and I could not help but ask what that was all about.

“Seon saeng nim… We were just saying. In this school, yours is our favorite class, because you’re not like the regular teachers. You’re so strange, we don’t even know why you’re a teacher,” he said fearlessly, without pause, unaware of the potency of his words. For a split second there, I almost realised that, at last, I finally found … my calling, something that I would like to do from now on, for the rest of my life. Genocide.