Saturday, January 29, 2005

"Blessed are the forgetful..."

For those of you who came to our movie night, here's the Michel Gondry diagram as promised. It's amazing how it all seems so discombobulating as he conceptualized it but so *right* when translated into the movie; it's like yes, this makes so much sense! Honestly, Eternal Sunshine (this is a great review) has got to be one of the sweetest, smartest and most poignant love stories ever committed to film. Jude and I can't wait to get our hands on the soundtrack and the Special 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD...

Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?
Howard: Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage, but on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss.

[click for larger image]

Friday, January 28, 2005

Soul Food

So Jude and I were at the store the other day day and chanced upon what can only be considered a poultry deal of a lifetime- 10 lbs. of chicken for US$4.99! That's 49 cents a pound folks- talk about leading cheapened lives, those chickens had no clue if you ask me... But having bought it (and by now cooked it all), it's almost as if I'm torn by simultaneous feelings of glee, guilt and resignation. The satisfaction of such a steal is unquestionable, and on a graduate student budget no less; but there's also the nagging question of why the chicken was going at such a deal? Where were they from and what were they fed? Or injected with? Jude's convinced that at the rate we're eating poultry here (and the hormones that go into cultivating half-pound sized chicken legs), we're going to start clucking...

I wish we had the means to buy organic food, not just for the sake of our bodies but also for the merchants who sell them. Of course you can make the argument that places like Whole Foods (with their over-prized apples and stratospheric notions of how much cheese should cost) hardly need more revenue, but for every Whole Foods, there's a People's Food Co-Op which believes in the holistic health of the community- I don't mean holistic in the incense-burning, crystal-worshipping way, but a community's physical, social and economic vibrance. Therein lies the dilemma- I respect and want to support the principle behind organic food but it's just so darn expensive. Buying it on any regular basis is just not an option for Jude and I. We've taken to shopping a whole lot at Trader Joe's where we always find affordable and wonderful foods that are good for you (read: no artificial flavoring/ preservatives), but even then, the organic meats and vegetables are still not cheap.

What we try to do then is to cook at home a lot. No pan-roasted veal loin with au jus reduction or anything of course. Mostly pasta, stews, roast chicken- basically anything that's satisfying without feeling your arteries clogging or an attack of heartburn impending. We like cooking, and cooking together's always fun so that's nice. But more importantly, you know what you're putting in the food that's ultimately going into your body. There's just a very different feeling knowing that you've just had a home-cooked meal no matter how simple it might have been. A couple of weeks ago, Jude made me a hot bowl of noodles when I was down with the flu- there weren't any fancy ingredients, just noodles, water and miso paste. But it made me feel a whole lot better, and we're not just talking about my sinuses.

It's difficult sometimes to make time to eat at home, and with my crazy schedule this semester, even having a proper breakfast isn't always possible (should I sleep that extra 15 minutes or wake up to fix a sandwich?...) But we try. And at the end of the day, I believe it's worth it. You don't just save money, you save your bodies. And you know what else? I love cooking for my husband- not in a "1950s-surburbia-gingham-dress-with-apron" way, but a "little-things-you-do-for-the-person-you-love-so-you-wash-the bathroom-I'll-cook" way. Alton Brown from the Food Network says it well:

"Here’s what it comes down to kids. Ronald McDonald doesn’t give a damn about you. Neither does that little minx Wendy or any of the other icons of drivethroughdom. And you know what, they’re not supposed to. They’re businesses doing what businesses do. They don’t love you. They are not going to laugh with you on your birthdays, or hold you when you’re sick and sad. They won’t be with you when you graduate, when your children are born or when you die. You will be with you and your family and friends will be with you. And, if you’re any kind of human being, you will be there for them. And you know what, you and your family and friends are supposed to provide you with nourishment too. That’s right folks, feeding someone is an act of caring. We will always be fed best by those that care, be it ourselves or the aforementioned friends and family."

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

You're kidding me right?

I have decided to move from the planet. I’m sorry but I don't think I can live in a world where A Very Long Engagement is left out of the Best Foreign Picture list of Oscar nominees. Cinematography? Oh come on... Admittedly there's much to love about this year's nominations but for the moment, just let me go sit in the corner and mourn the death of good judgement for a while...

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Suicide is painless

Most deadpan hilarious line from the incomprehensibly acclaimed, subliminally misogynistic, occasionally sweet yet on the whole over-rated Sideways:

"Hemingway, Sexton, Plath, Woolf — you can't commit suicide until you're published."
-- Miles (Paul Giamatti), "Sideways"

The movie was ok, but the writing was great.

Friday, January 21, 2005

A girl, a boy and a band

Last night reinforced my belief that sometimes, the best concert venues are small intimate clubs rather than huge stadium-like arenas. We watched the Hem concert at Ann Arbor's very own The Ark, a non-profit theatre and apparently one of the country's best-kept performance venue secrets. It was a wonderfully cozy and warm, and the audience made up of your typical college town folks: liberal leaning grad students, Whole Foods-embracing middle class parents, baby-boomer professors whose teenage idol was, and continues to be Bob Dylan, and your oddball hippie who probably graduated with a PhD in classical Greek twenty years ago and never brought himself to leave this place... All in all, a cool bunch.

Hem was ok I guess- they sound like the music of Karen Carpenter meets Emmylou Harris meets Jane Siberry. What's most fascinating about them is that they're from Brooklyn but sound as if they came straight out from south of the Mason-Dixon line. We're talking as close to bluegrass as possible without actually being bluegrass. Folksy Americana- if that actually means anything... The band sounds great on CD- lead vocalist Sally Ellyson has one of the most ethereal voices I've ever heard, and they use the glockenspiel, mandolin and pedal steel guitar to such enchanting effect. But as a live band, their opening acts stole their show last night.

Dawn Landes and David Mead opened for Hem and they were wonderful. Landes sings back-up for Hem, but on her own, she was sublime. It wasn't even that she has the strongest vocals; in fact, I think it's because her voice was a little timorous at times that made her singing so appealing for me. So there are people who sing from the lungs, and those who sing from the diaphragm; Dawn Landes sings from the heart, her heart. It's like listening to your best friend singing to you in your own living room. And she was so sweet, and polite, and... grateful almost for the attention and applause. It was absolutely refreshing listening to someone who seemed to believe that it was an honor- not a right- to be on stage.

David Mead was a blast too. Jude thinks he's a cross between David Gray and Rufus Wainwright. I think the way he plays the keyboards reminds me a little of Ben Folds too. He was funny- somewhat bawdy songs written to melodies only (in his own words) "a struggling solo singer-songwriter" can. In fact, his opening track was "A Bucket of Girls", splendidly written as a prayer to the Lord for, yup, a bucket of girls...

I guess what I liked about both Landes and Mead was their lack of guile. They were simply two people who happened to enjoy singing, are blessedly good at it, and just happy to be sharing their craft with a bunch of coffee-drinking, beer-sipping people who appreciate them. Their music made me happy last night, the kind of happy that makes you think of hot chocolate, sunflowers and freshly laundered sheets. It was nice, very nice...

Monday, January 17, 2005

"Forget about the plot... and focus just on the visuals."

These are the wise words of Roger Ebert and good ones to keep in mind as you enter the theatre to watch Zhang Yimou's highly-touted (but now in our view, highly over-rated) House of Flying Daggers. Zhang Yimou has always made beautiful films (see Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou), but the cinematography in those movies have always been in service of the plot. The most striking scene in Raise the Red Lantern in my opinion is the one where servants are made to unveil huge black lanterns to hang outside Gong Li's concubine quarters to represent her "banishment". The visual impact of those looming black lanterns (as opposed to the symbolically and literally powerful red ones) and the almost operatic movement of something as prosaic as dust are stunning in and of themselves; but they have a greater purpose, to carry the themes of thwarted desire, sexual enslavement, and the profound politics among husband, wives and concubines in feudal China.

Sadly, there is no such depth in House of Flying Daggers. It is a lavish film- stylistically marvellous and visually sumptuous. However, that is all it has going for it. I thought Zhang Yimou was already going the way of style over substance in Hero, but at least there, the colors played as much a thematic as well as cinematographic function. In Flying Daggers, it's all style; and the plot, while gripping in parts, reduced the audience to laughter in the end when I'm sure the opposite reaction was what was intended.

And incomprehensibly, Zhang Yimou ends the film with an Oriental-inspired English aria; I'm not sure if that's only for the American release, but even then, it seems too much like pandering to me. Also, lead actress Zhang Ziyi recently made a small but significant change to her name- Ziyi Zhang, putting her last name behind as is convention on Western shores. It's meant to symbolize her transition to international stardom, but some may also see it as a sucuumbing to the pressures of Hollywood celebrity. While there's something to be said about opening up the Chinese film industry, there's also much value in maintaining diginity and fidelity to your art.

One interesting thing I did take away from Flying Daggers though is a strangely greater appreciation for the Chinese language. Maybe it's being away from home and feeling a more acute awareness of my heritage but watching the movie made me truly understand the concept of things being lost in the translation. I guess Mandarin is a more metaphorical language than English and so many Chinese metaphors are used naturally in regular conversation that they sound awkward when literally translated in the subtitles. I had to translate a whole bunch of Chinese articles for Jude some time ago (believe it or not, all done without a dictionary! Thank you, thank you very much...) and realized how little I had appreciated the lyricism of the language. (It's amazing how much your regard for a language increases when you don't have to take an exam for it...). And so for those of you who read Mandarin, a line from the film (which got really mucked-up in the subtitles, so you can imagine how it lost its punch): "我名是随风...风流的风..."; for the rest of you, there's always Babel Fish. Trust me, it's hilarious...

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


So apparently, in 1958, as a fraternity pledge, the brilliantly twisted minds of the Lamda Chi Alpha house of MIT decided to use Oliver Smoot to "re-measure" the Harvard bridge, an endeavor that finally ascertained the bridge to be 364.4 Smoots and one ear long. This article provides the interesting details.

I bring this up not to highlight the already well-documented eccentricities of people with over-developed mendulla oblongatas (our one friend from MIT will forgive my impudence no? *wink*), but as a reflection of my own new-found unit of measurement. As the not-so-proud owner of a new iPod (whose questionable origins have apparently gained infamous reknown in some circles), I've realized that it is ostensibly possible to approximate the time I take to go places by the number of songs I hear as I get there (unless of course I'm listening to Jude's Deep Dish Essential Mix which goes on for an hour and fifty-seven minutes, in which case I could drive to the border of Canada and back and it'd still be playing...) So today, it took me the first stanza and chorus of Letter for Elise by The Cure to get from our doorstep to the bus-stop, two and a little bit more of Pete Yorn's songs for the bus-ride, and Etta James' At Last! took me to a couple of steps just before my office door (I would have listened to that twice actually- it was our wedding song; but another time...). So maybe 20- 22 minutes?... It took an extra song and a half yesterday when I stopped to get coffee, but that's about right.

The trip home is a little trickier to calculate because I chatted with a friend on the way without switching the iPod off, so maybe Aztec Camera's Oblivious and Frou Frou's Let Go from class to the bus-stop (including the delay), the nihilistic Motorcycle Emptiness (Manic Street Preachers) and Transatlanticism (Death Cab for Cutie) for the ride, and Outkast's Hey Ya buoyantly accompanied me to the post-box and home.

I've stopped counting how many people have told me that getting the iPod was a life-changing moment in their lives- equivalent to say, turning 21 and having a baby... For me, it just makes going to school and home a lot more fun.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Robitussin rocks

Just 4 tsp of the cough mixture and I was out cold for 11 hours. And boy was I grateful... The past four to five days have wrecked havoc not only with my sinuses but I swear also my blood pressure and stress levels. Teaching has always come quite naturally to me and I've never had issues with planning or conducting a class. But when faced with the prospect of teaching my first undergrad class last week, it was like the first day of school all over- the panic attacks, the "oh-no-what-if-no-one-likes-me-or-listens-to-me" jitters and every part of my body turning to jello just thinking about those thirty pairs of eyes looking at me expectantly (I could only hope) for the key to unlocking the wisdom of the world. I obsessed over everything I was going to say- "what's your name?", "where are you from?", "why are you here?", "how can I makes this less painful for the both of us?..."- and was just this short of timing my jokes and bringing in my own laugh track. A momentary thought of lip-syncing my lesson actually crossed my mind. It was really quite nerve-wrecking. I couldn't sleep for 3 nights straight, promptly fell sick, and had to spend the weekend nursing a flu that was supposed to be miraculously alleviated by a good Hot Toddy. I shall withhold opinion on the efficacy of the drink to protect the identities of the individuals who convinced me of the medicinal properties of above mentioned drink, but let's just say the next time we have drinks while I'm sick, I'm just going to stick to orange juice. This is actually brings me to a story about gastro-intenstinological reactions to scallops, but I think I shall leave that for another day...

Anyways, in the end, teaching went far better than expected. Having undergrads isn't really that much different from teaching Singaporean kids, hip-hanging gym pants or no hip-hanging gym pants. They responded to me fairly respectfully, laughed at my jokes and most importantly, got my message, which is about as much as I can ask for right now. Teaching the philosophy, history and politics of education to a bunch of 20 year-olds may not be the easiest thing to do, but at this moment, it feels right and good. The teacher in me is nodding her head in sweet and silent agreement.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Se rappeler Le Canada (Remembering Canada)

And so we're home. Ten blissful days of unfettered relaxation, i.e. sleeping in, shopping, eating and drinking copious amounts of coffee. It was a wonderful holiday, snow and all- the only dark cloud was that we lost our beloved digital camera... It's not so much the cost of the camera that upsets me but the sentimental value- I bought Jude the camera as my wedding present to him, so losing it kinda hurts. We're still hoping it's somewhere in our uncle's home or that the places we've called will find it and call us; but honestly, we're not holding our breath...

Nonetheless, the break was much-needed and much-appreciated. Just some highlights of the trip some of you may appreciate in case you ever want to drop by Toronto/ Montreal (in Winter no less...):

1) Jude bought me a handmade bead and resin bracelet from the gift shop at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. It's really pretty- red and turquoise- and goes with everything I have. The art gallery itself is really cool too. They were having a Modigliani exhibition but Jude & I were too cheap (and hard-pressed for time) to get tickets for it.
2) We found the most delicious baklava this side of Beirut. Not the drippy sticky Greek version though; Middle-eastern baklava is richer, less sweet and more nutty. The shop in Montreal, Aboh Sali, is actually a branch of a Lebanon-based baklava company and apparently, they deliver world-wide. What are you waiting for?!
3) Shopping in Montreal & Toronto (or any major city for that matter) is so different from shopping in this little college town. In larger metropolitan areas, you have a critical mass to support a large variety of merchants, from multi-national conglomerates like GAP and Barnes and Noble to independent stores like the many along Toronto's Queen Street and Montreal's Rue St. Denis. It makes for an infintely more interesting shopping experience than just your regular run-of-the-mill stuff. At Pages, a "fiercely independent" bookstore (as they call themselves), we found a treasure-trove of graphic novels, design books, stuff from smaller publishing houses and other literary gems we rarely see elsewhere. I bought myself an anthology of writings from the Paris Review and can't wait to make time to savor it slowly.
4) Because of the bad weather the first couple of days, Jude & I spent a lot of time just staying in and watching cable. Saw episodes of my TV guilty pleasure, CSI (the original one thank you very much- the Miami and NY spin-offs are no where as intelligent or well-written); HGTV's What Not to Wear (it's terrible to be addicted to a show that thrives on people's bad fashion sense, but I can't help myself!); Good Will Hunting (for the first time, believe it or not), When Harry Met Sally (for the second time ONLY, believe it or), and Days of Being Wild & Infernal Affairs on DVD. You have to catch Infernal Affairs; as far as cop-and-robber stories go, Hong Kong films have got that down pat and this one will go down as an absolute classic.
5) Shopped at Caban, a lifestyle store based in Canada. Everything there is exactly what Jude & I want for our home (when we can finally afford one of our own that is...). Clean and simple designs that just have enough of that edge to make it interesting without being obnoxious. Didn't buy anything much except a box of lights and a cute skirt which were both on discount. Mental note: clear the store when earn enough money.
6) Visited the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal for the second time. A Montreal monument, this cathedral is profoundly breath-taking. No photo can do the interior of the building due justice but the website comes close. Bearing the weight of both history and religion, this cathedral also requires a two to three year wait if you want to marry in it, and is the church where former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's funeral was held, attended by world leaders from all over. On another note, this is also the place where Celine Dion got married...
7) Discovered maisonneuve, a general interest magazine based in Montreal. Covering everything from pashmina to politics, it's very intelligent writing that manages to be both funny (sometimes downright hilarious) and thoughtful at the same time. We then bought the commemorative box-set that has all six 2004 issues. Jude and I are now plotting to worm ourselves into writing for them...
8) Sat for two-hours in an old-fshioned jazz bar in Toronto, The Rex. Nothing fancy, just decent drinks, good music and a relaxed atmosphere you can soak up for hours on end.
9) Finally had a taste of the Vietnamese sub, Bahn-Mi in Toronto's Chinatown. A humble sandwich, it was surpringly refreshing and very hearty too. I wish Ann Arbor had more places that sold such simple, affordable (CAN$1.50!) fare.

All that's left to do now is to cross our fingers that we find our camera so we can retrieve the photos we took, take up French in preparation for our next trip up, suck it in for the next 4 months until the next holiday (hopefully home), and call our uncle often to remind ourselves of the last ten awesome days.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A fist wrapped in blood

I should have known better; Jude would say I asked for it. He’d watched the Broadway version of it a couple of years back and told me it would be a painful experience. I’d read the reviews and really thought I was prepared for it. I mean, how vitriolic could a love-story be? Besides, it’s Julia “I’ve-got-the-megawatt-smile” Roberts. Darn was I wrong…

The last time I flinched so much at a move that didn’t involve hockey masks, a machete and a creepy soundtrack was at 21 Grams, interestingly a similarly non-Christmas movie playing during the holiday season last year. But unlike 21 Grams, the affliction in Closer is less visual than verbal. It’s the emotions that first burgeon slowly underneath and then explode with scathing intensity that carry the weight of the film,

What cuts so deep is that the characters don’t hurt each other physically- except in one scene; it is the emotional and psychological devastation of a word, a glance, a slight gesture that is so brutal.

I guess what I found so unrelenting about Closer is that just as romantic comedies divest love of all the accompanying pettiness and jealousies of real emotion, Closer is all pettiness and jealousy, plus guilt, rage, possession and vengeance thrown in just in case you didn’t get the point. There is nothing redemptive about the love in Closer. The words “Hey stranger” are not an invitation to a nurturing relationship, they’re a lure into a journey so lacerating and debilitating as to leave the audience emotionally exhausted, lest of all the characters themselves.

Next time, I’m going to listen to my husband.

Short and sweet

I love end-of-the-year wrap up reports that magazines and newspapers put together to commemorate the year that has just passed by. Two particular film/ entertainment magazines I always look out for are Entertainment Weekly (for more mainstream movies and what I like to call celebrity journalism- Jude has no respect for this magazine though...) and Sight and Sound (for independent movies and the good film writing). It's harder to find Sight and Sound here because it's British and I can't buy Entertainment Weekly as often as I'd like. I did buy their annual "Best Of..." issue (my seventh one since they nominated Ellen as Entertainer of the Year in 1997- yes, I loved her when she was just an actress. She was my first inspiration to open a bookshop with a coffee bar...) where they give little snippets on the best movies, books, music, videos, etc. of 2004. Thought to share with you what was written about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of our favorite films of the year, maybe ever. It's proof that 1) a quirky movie doesn't always have to be annoyingly aware of it's own quirkiness; 2) Jim Carrey can act; 3) there is life for Kate Winslet post-Titanic; 3) there are good writers out there who clearly know and love a film enough to choose the exact right words to describe the exact right things about it, and all in less than 1000 words:

"Only from the unique, origami mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman could such an original valentine of a movie spring. Here's a brainteaser that says love is more than the sum of our memories or our pixels, and that the delete button of the mind doesn't take into account the hard drive of the heart. And only from the sweet-and-salty blend of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, perhaps, could director Michel Gondry fashion a creation of such style, whimsy, and poignance. Watch Eternal Sunshine, let it drift from your thoughts, watch it again, and something marvelous happens: The rainbow colors that enchanted the first time look even more strangely and wonderfully intense."

Thank you Lisa Schwarzbaum.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Here's to a better year

It's two hours and forty-six minutes into the new year and I'm no where near going to bed. Jude and I spent New Years' Eve on St. Laurent Boulevard having coffee and delicious ice-cider, a combination whose after effects are keeping my synapses wide open right now. I doubt we can get to sleep till 5am... I have a ridiculously low alcohol threshold but the ice-cider was irresistible. A 350ml bottle is made from 5.5 kgs of apples so you can just imagine how sweet and syrupy it is. The particular one we had, Domain Pinnacle 2002 is produced in Quebec and is related to the ice-wine in that they both use late-harvest fruits, one apple, and the other grape. It has a 12.5% alcohol content but really, you don't feel it at all- it's like drinking honey almost. And with black coffee on the side, pure bliss... And now, I'm paying for it.

St. Laurent was crazy tonight- there were lines snaking outside the various clubs and bars and women dressed to the bare minimum- we're talking flimsy sequined handkerchief tops held together only by even flimsier straps and a leather mini-skirt with fishnet stockings. All in -5C weather (not taking into account the windshield factor). I tried counting the number of these insane Frenchie-poohs but stopped after I almost slipped on black ice as a whiff of what I now know as pot swept by my way. Jude and I decided we're 1) too old to partake of these "we-need-to-find-ourselves" festivities; 2) too cheap to pay $100 to get into a place where the only form of communication is fearless nudging and/ or decible-defying shouting; and 3) too sane to waste the last hour of 2004 standing in line with people who believe that voluntarily exposing their skin in sub-zero temperature is defensible on any grounds. We hopped into the nearest cab, tipped the cab-driver $2 for a $8 ride and got home before 11.30pm.

We came back in time to wish our uncle a Happy New Year and watch the ball drop in New York. Thinking back, 2004 hasn't been a great year actually- it was the year of reality TV, Paris Hilton, a "mandate" for a second term, and a SEAsian disaster. But it was also the year Jude and I celebrated our first anniversary, moved into a real house, and welcomed our niece. There are always blessings amidst what seems to be a lousy situation and as we stand on the edge of the next 365 days, let's hope we've been made a little wiser from last year's mistakes and a little stronger from last year's disappointments. To everyone- HAPPY NEW YEAR!!