Month: June 2014


I have possessions, some small, some large, but nearly all of them are transitory. Electronics get worn out and become obsolete. A favorite pen will eventually run out of ink or fall apart. Chairs, no matter how comfy, get left behind during a move. And while other men might have Super Bowl rings or family heirlooms, I don’t have any such jewelry. Even my collection of physical books–you know, the paper kind–are giving way to electronic copies. It doesn’t mean I don’t treasure the ones I keep, but the knowledge within them is a far, far greater prize than the medium.

One thing that I have brought with me from place to place for almost a decade is a photograph. It’s not of me or of any place I’ve been. It’s neither a professional shot nor an amateur Polaroid. The picture is of a boot kicking out a car window, sole front and center, and cubes of shattered safety glass exploding out past the focal point in a glittering bubble. Inside the car, one can just barely make out my father’s face, shrouded in shadow. It’s a perfect line of motion, frozen. I bring it everywhere with me partially because it’s a conversation starter. What is this? Why? Who? What’s the story, man?

Well, what is the story? The car belonged to my parents’ friend, Charles, and the window had had a crack and needed to be replaced. Item number one on the to-do list was take the old window out. Of course, why gently remove a piece of glass if you can smash it–and why boot out the rear passenger window of a Volkswagen if you don’t plan on making an art project out of it?

For the longest time, I had assumed that my mother, not Charles, had been on the other end of the camera. The car is a Volkswagen Beetle, and I know we used to have a blue one when I was very small. I called it the Bu Bo-baxen. I am a marginally better conversationalist now.

But this is the other reason I have kept the photo for as long as I have. It’s a constant reminder of the malleability of memories. Even a photograph requires context. Without knowing who took the picture, when they took it, where they were, and why, it’s just a pretty picture. Some photographs include all this information in the picture. Wedding photos, for example, are a special kind of archiving; this happened to these two people in this place, at this time of day, and with these emotions. They’re the kinds of photos you can instantly understand when walking into someone else’s home. Ah, you say to yourself. Married, two kids, wealthy enough to have this kind of wedding, but not insane millionaires… and on and on. It’s the Darmok of our lives. Dick and Jane in Hawaii. Dick and Jane holding hands. Jane in her white gown. The happy couple, their feet in the sand. These kinds of photos are the most logical way of compressing tons of sensory and emotional information into an easy-to-transport package.

The same applies to the kind of moment captured in the photo I take with me from place to place, only with an important difference. As art, Jack in the Volkswagen, his boot through the window, is, to everyone but Jack (and possibly Charles, his eyes shielded), an almost entirely subjective experience. You can get the straight story from him, or you can get an interpretation from Emmett, his hands gesticulating. Sooner or later, however, the story will be lost, and all that will remain is the photo, compressed data awaiting extraction. The car, its window exploding.

Not to make too much of it, but go back in time and ask Leonardo about the real dope on the Mona Lisa, and he might have something to say. Now, though, we have the Mona Lisa Smile, which each of us interprets according to whatever bits and bytes of information our minds need in order to fill in the gaps during data extraction. It’s the same concept as Jurassic Park, where they used frog DNA to fill in the missing chunks of dinosaur code–only with an slightly smaller probability of horrible death.

That incompleteness is what makes the photo so valuable. It’s neither data that can be compressed further nor knowledge that can be learned. It’s neither purely in the domain of memory, nor is it purely art. The image remains, but the story, known to me now, still mingles with the memory of the story I’d created for it. Understanding the picture, for now, means understanding its changed nature, and means understanding who has it and why. The photograph remains in a wonderful little gray area, a node in the network of how I understand the world. My existence, in relation to the object, puts a lot of weight on it, perhaps unfairly. But once I’m gone, it is free once again to be just an object until someone else comes along and weighs it down again.

For Day 20

Monkey Search: Concluded

My parents have come into town to see where I live and to visit in general, and today, we went out to the Batu Caves. The last time I went, I was not able to get inside because of the massive, cutlery-bedazzled crowd, but this morning, we went super early and arrived before most of the other tourists, so we had a more-or-less peaceful outing, and had the run of the place.

Batu Caves is still an active Hindu temple, so while services were ongoing, I tried to remain as unobtrusive as a tall, camera-wielding white guy can be. But there was work to be done. Monkeys had so far eluded me, save a brief glance during a jungle hike, so I was on a mission to document the local monkey population. Turns out, they can get a bit aggressive. We already knew this going in, but it was still kind of surprising to see how fast they descended on the temple once people began to arrive in quantity. The general guideline is that they will steal or attempt to steal anything not strapped to your body, so food and cameras should be secured. Because they are a menace (or at least can be), some of the locals took to throwing rocks at the monkeys climbing down the cave walls. I interpret it as a show of dominance, since none of the rocks seemed to be aimed to maim, and because the rock throwing petered out once the monkeys outnumbered the humans.

The arrival of the monkeys also brought out bunches of bananas and coconut husks, which the occasional service-goer would hand out to the small, agile creatures. Monkeys love bananas. No joke.

Also milling around the caves was a litter of small puppies, wrestling each other and greeting guests as they arrived. They approached us fearlessly and immediately began tugging on our shoelaces. I must have walked a good twenty paces, tiny, excited puppies hanging off my shoes. It was adorable, but we couldn’t help but feel a little heartbroken, knowing that they are unlikely to find a loving home. I worry more about a monkey getting ahold of one, but more than anything, I try not to think about it.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t post some of the pictures I took. Yes, most of the pictures are of or contain monkeys, but I’ve included the puppy pictures, too.

Batu Caves 1

At the top of the long stairs.


Batu Caves Interior 1

Just past the main temple. More stairs.

Cave Monkey

Monkey #1

Pondering Monkey

Monkey #2

Batu Caves Interior 2

An alternate entrance, if you have wings.

Cave Puppies


Batu Caves Exterior

On the edge of the cave exterior. I’m still trying to figure out how they got out there with the statues.

Roof Monkey

Not Monkey #2, but the next decent-quality picture I got.

Fence Monkeys

Just a couple of monkeys hanging out on the fence.

Monkey Thinking

Deep thoughts on a Friday morning.

For Day 19

Points of View

Day 18

Sensitive child. That’s what I’ve heard about me. I’d sit on the porch, eating apple slices and watching the squirrels grab fallen acorns off the lawn, or bury them there for later. They spring from one spot to another in a series of perfectly semi-circular arcs, and then come to a stop, sniffing the air, heads darting around before bouncing away to the next spot. I’d take a sip of lemonade and watch a couple of the bushy-tailed creatures chase each other around the trunk of the big oak tree. Eventually, my gaze would settle on a squirrel, gray with tawny streaks, that sits and gnaws on an unidentifiable piece of something it holds in its tiny paws. The longer I watch, the more I focus on its delicate features: the joints in its arms, the black expressionless eyes, the teeth.

As if undressing the squirrel with my eyes, my mind starts at its teeth and peels back its skin in a rotten black slough. Paws become rigid, and curl up like dried oak leaves. The bones in those delicate joints jut through a matted mass of fur. The eyes now convey only surprise and horror. Feeling ill, I retreat back into the house, leaving the cool spring breeze behind.

In the bathroom, I lean my head against the mirror and stare down into the sink, not because I’m going to be sick, but because it beats looking at anything living. If I look at myself, I’ll only end up deconstructing my own features to match those of the squirrel, who had long ago hopped away in search of more food. If I look up now, I’ll be looking directly into my own eyes. I’ll see the fibrous sunburst of my irises not as a part of me, but just as a part–an object removed from context, ultimately flawed and perishable.

I can jump off the roof, crash my bicycle, and test the perishability of the context, but woe unto me should I focus on the minute for even a minute. Big cuts will bleed, staining clothes beyond the purview of ice and soda water, and thorns will sit in a fleshy pincushion, waiting to be plucked out, but these things are right and good. They are life itself. It’s the uneven fingernail scratching the skin–a subtle reminder that below the fragile covering are bones just awaiting a good bleaching in the sun–which makes the spine tingle and the mind spiral into oblivion.

100 Words About Nothing

For my 100th Post, here are 100 words on nothing.

I fear nothing–not No Fear–the sour falseness of that insane bravado melts on the tongue, staining the teeth white as snow, or bones bleaching in the sun, which should inspire fear, but are set dressing for the Big Empty–big, wide nothing, stretching on and on and on–but something, as always, to fear–the same nothing said with crossed arms and averted gaze–rough seas ahead, it says–nothing–not nothing to fear–nothing to say–nothing to see here–nothing going–move along and take that nothing with you, and its fear, too–but, please, leave the something–take something from it, even if you can make nothing of it.

Day 17: In the style of proto-beat Burroughs.

Radio Radio

Serial Killer III: Radio Radio

Technologically, the mid-’90s was an exciting time to be young. By ’96, I had watched as the computers on our desks had gone from the single-unit Mac Plus, to alternately shrinking and expanding variations on the desktop tower. Monitors went from black and white to grayscale to 256-color to lifelike color. Games, at first simple distractions of shades and vectors, became immersive, story-driven works of art.

Our first 14.4 modem’s screeching, clicking and hissing echoed venomously through my parents’ newly built studios, but we harnessed the beast and rode it confidently into the Internet. As baud rates increased, exploration of the unknown went farther and deeper. Soon, my uncle’s stories about sending messages back to the States from Europe in the ’80s at (a bone-crushing!) eight baud drew laughs. When my friend Scott’s house was wired for DSL, I spent my first afternoon truly just screwing around on the Web. What happens if we type this? Where will this seemingly made-up url take us? And that continued at home, only for shorter bursts. But I found nothing that I, even at thirteen, hadn’t already anticipated. Human nature plus complete freedom and unlimited space yield pretty obvious results.

The big discovery for me in this era was the illusion of privacy–through a lower-tech medium than I’d expected. One warm spring day, I was helping my mother clean out her office and installing a newer, more reliable cordless phone. Cell phones weren’t universal yet, but having a cordless was standard. The new set installed, I began putting away the old one, when the handset fell off the cradle. I bent to pick it up and heard a sound coming from the earpiece. The years have tarnished the total recall of what I heard, but this is what I remember of it after gingerly picking up the plastic handset and listening to the conversation bubble through the light static:

… comin’ to me.

So what you do?

I hit that nigga with the pipe. Knocked the mothafucka out.

Well, that’s how it goes… So what you doing Friday?

Sometimes, all it takes to uncover a massive crime is luck and a little bit of battery power. Those old cordless phones could, with their telescoping antennae and the right environmental conditions, pick up other conversations on similar frequencies. While the phone still had a little juice left, I turned it on and went up to my room for higher ground and a better signal. I spent the next hour sitting at my desk and listening to hissing, popping and the occasional garbled transmission until even the background static faded out as the battery died.

Weeks later, I bought myself a scanner radio with a much wider range of frequencies. Tuning in late at night, I would reach into the invisible lost-and-found bin of the electromagnetic spectrum and eavesdrop on the lives of others. Police tracked a burglar across the city, a pair of medics tried in vain to save a woman who’d been hit by a car, and construction workers told jokes over their walkie talkies. And I listened.

In the years that followed, I used the lessons of the radio to safeguard my own privacy. I would only put out into the digital world those things that were approved for public consumption. But it went further than that. I also began boxing thoughts, ideas, and even parts of my personality within myself. The concept of the memory castle might be an apt description of how I began storing these things. Room by room, hallway by hallway, ideas had their place. Some I’d stored in common rooms, available at any time for use in conversation and writing. Others I merely hid in rooms, freely available to those who took the time to look. And still others I put behind doors, accessible only though an increasing number of locks and keys. But even that isn’t secure. Substances, discomfort, and lack of sleep can unlock doors more efficiently than the craftiest of questions. How do you keep the worst of your demons on lockdown when faced with that kind of security liability? The answer, it turns out, is obvious, given the source of the question: fragment and encrypt the information and store it in the clouds, far, far away from the castle.

Raw Power

After years of screwing around and listening here and there to a few songs, I decided to buy an album that I should have bought and listened to years ago: Raw Power by Iggy & The Stooges.

It is far and away one of the best albums I’ve listened to recently, if not ever. From the first song to the last, there isn’t a single one that isn’t bone-shakingly, face-meltingly awesome. Here in Malaysia, with mainly Top 40 and Chinese pop (C-Pop?) on the radio, it’s easy to forget how good rock ‘n’ roll used to be. There’s a werewolf gnawing on a guitar, and the rhythm section pours out ordered chaos like a chum bucket in a rough sea. Iggy himself howls and wails as if possessed, and while he’s freakish and belligerent, he’s not incoherent, lyrics spotted with moments of genius, like this line from “Gimme Danger”:

There’s nothin’ in my dreams but some ugly memories, kisses like the ocean breeze.

It’s enough to make a weary soul believe in the Power of Rock again. And in some ways, it’s better than sex.

Smudge Exercise

In lieu of interesting words today, I am posting another sketch. Basically, I wanted to work with and figure out the basics of the paint and smudge tools, at least as far as getting digital half tones. It’s so much easier to get nice gradients with actual paints, but I’ll get this digital thing down sooner or later. I really am considering getting a tablet for the computer, though–something that’s more accurate and has more options. In general, though, I need to work on anatomical/figure drawing. I want, at some point, to be able to draw a figure that can be recognized as human, even if it is more cartoony than realistic.

Today, I started drawing a clown, but it ended up as weird version of The Joker.


Advice to the Broken

Day Fifteen: You’re told that an event that’s dear to your heart — an annual fair, festival, or conference — will be cancelled forever (or taken over by an evil organization).

So you’re going to break up, huh? I suppose it was inevitable. Things change. People change. Be cool, and take some advice. It’ll help.

The first thing to remember is that you’re going to be alone. You’re not going to have that person who doesn’t just tolerate, but gets your humor. Cold nights are going to be colder, and on rainy days, you might find yourself setting up a board game and then realizing, when half the pieces are out of the box, that you’re going to be playing alone. It’s a valuable lesson, because somewhere, somehow, you started making assumptions. Did he or she really want to play that stupid game? Find out what it’s like to play against you. Finish setting it up, and play that game, anyway.

Obviously, the sex is gone. But you’re ready for that, or so you tell yourself. Don’t get hooked on porn or stuck in your head. If you have a fantasy, and you have the skill, write it down. Because it’s yours, it’ll be better than any one you can find. Hell, if you need some sense of validation, post it anonymously to a website somewhere, and maybe you’ll finally get people to read your writing. Or just start a blog and write about the fantasy of the fantasy, because it’s the next best thing. Yeah. Do that. If no one reads your sex fantasies, you’re pretty much a failure. Why take the risk?

Going to the movies by yourself is going to be weird, but hopefully you still have someone to go with you because you weren’t one of those guys who forsakes his friends when he’s in a relationship. Oh, who’m I kidding? Take the time to patch up your friendships. Also, feel free to drink a little too much a little too often for a few weeks afterward. I’m not going to tell you that people won’t judge you for it, but screw ’em. And screw ’em literally, too, if you can do it without weeping openly. As long as you’re not looking for validation in it, a little casual sex can keep you psychologically healthy.

Also, you’re getting older, so it’s going to be more difficult to find someone your age who’s single, but not single-for-obvious-reasons. On the bright side, when you do, they’re likely to be in a similar situation as you. They’ll have been knocked around a bit, and maybe a little hardened because of it, but even though there’ll be more layers to peel back, you’ll have much more to talk about. In the end, you’ll almost certainly come away with a better knowledge of who this other person is. When you were younger, your relationships began a lot like this: “You like this one thing? Me too! Let’s be together and do that all the time!” Now that you’re older, they might go more like this: “Look, I work a lot, and won’t be home much, but when I am, I like playing backgammon, having ritualistic Weird Sex once every full moon, and drinking the blood from live chickens. But I’m also sensitive, and I write and perform free-verse poetry to my cats.” And if you’re into that, or not, you can run with it, or not.

Just remember that you’re newly sad and alone, not doomed.

Dear Death

To Whom It May Concern

We idled through the line with our trays and then took our plastic-wrapped tunafish sandwiches and coffee in Styrofoam cups over to a small formica table. Flug talked about the problems he was having with the Gun Control Bill–trying to put it into some form that might possibly pass the Senate. I listened, glancing up now and then toward the food-bar, half-expecting to see somebody like Robert Kennedy pushing his tray through the line… until I suddenly remembered that Robert Kennedy was dead.

–Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, p. 29

Dear Death,

How do we forget?

I know why we forget; let me put that notion to rest. We’re afraid–even paranoid–that you’ll show up on our doorstep unannounced. We do anything and everything we can to delay you–or, at least, we’re supposed to. We know this deep down, because our survival depends on it. And yet, we yearn for a moment where we don’t have to think about you, and we try to forget. So now, here we are, licking the Cheeto dust off our fingers and talking on the phone while wandering into the street.

We like to tempt you, for sure. We throw crazy parties in your honor, but not because we want you there. These are the kind of invites you’re supposed to respectfully decline. By inviting you, we want to look good, but if you show up, it’ll be awkward. With all due respect, you can be kind of a wet blanket.

This isn’t to say that we don’t outright beg for you sometimes. We’ll give you the address to a different house, and you’ll show up there and party for a while, but of course, they’ll eventually give you the right address, and you’ll come right over. And so on, and so on. So, yes, sometimes we deserve you.

You show up, and then after a while, leave with people we love, taking them “back to your place.” It’s rude, is what it is. But after you have left, hardly a moment goes by before we begin thinking of you nostalgically. You really were the life of the party, weren’t you?

Warmly (for now),



[Today, I’m revisiting and editing (for the millionth time) an essay I wrote a long time ago. Partially, this is due to blog fatigue. Being unable to get out of the house to do anything other than run errands makes finding something new and interesting to write about every single day a special kind of torture. The other part to “partially” is that the essay fits nicely and neatly into the prompt, and comes directly after the revelations in the pervious Serial Killer post. Enjoy.]

Serial Killer II: The Lord of the Thongs

The summer after my first year in college, I come back home and find myself working a temp job at Nordstrom’s Rack, a discount outlet that carries overstock and items that just don’t sell in the regular Nordstrom’s stores. Most days, I drag myself from the warm pocket of air between my sheets at about four in the morning, cram some food into my stomach, shower, and then get a ride to the mall, where I sit on the cold curb, watch the sun come up, and wait for the store manager to arrive and unlock the employee entrance. The work is decent—if a tad monotonous—and it allows me a regular schedule so I can plan outings with the girl I started seeing a week before I moved out of the dorms.

Because I’m just a temp and not technically a store employee, my duties include tagging and sorting clothes for the women’s department, while keeping my distance from actual women. During the early mornings before the store opens, I walk the floor with the regular employees, inflating balloons and straightening up displays that look as if they had been torn apart by rabid dogs. During the day, however, I am typically cast from the customers’ view and forced to set up shop in the stock room, where I organize and tag new arrivals. I fill rack after rack with blouses, sport coats, and slacks, all the color of unripe bananas. With a laser scanner strapped to my right arm and several industrial-size rolls of red, blue, and green dot stickers hooped around my left, I try not to let the hard fluorescent lighting rob me of my consciousness. It’s the kind of light that casts no shadows, except in the darkest loneliest recesses, way back behind shelves of lipstick and eyebrow pencils.

I have finally begun to have an interesting sex life, so it follows that fate, in its grand cosmic humor, arranges my singular instruction for the day: sort the children’s thongs. This means not just tagging and scanning, but putting the tiny thongs on the tiny-thong end of the rack and the itsy bitsy thongs on the itsy-bitsy end. This rack, like all the others in the stock room, is a three-tiered, two-sided construction of twenty-foot-long steel bars jutting out from the wall. It is designed to hold a few hundred thick parkas, but the thongs are so small and the rack so full that I am afraid to guess how many we have and why. As I look up at it, the twenty-foot expanse of frilly lace and string between me and the wall seems to stretch on to infinity. My supervisor suggests that the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll finish.

Three hours later, sitting atop a sturdy orange ladder, I have an armful of size extra-extra-small spaghetti-strap underwear, the smiling images of Strawberry Shortcake, Barbie, and Hello Kitty emblazoned on the triangular fronts. I find it is best not to let my mind wander during this particular assignment. If I do, I envision the nine-year-old girls who absolutely mustn’t have panty lines, and then the mothers, the purchasers of the Strawberry Shortcake thongs that now lie limply over my knee. And then I wonder if the girls really did want them in the first place. We have enough thongs to last us a year, so there must be demand. This Christmas, will one of these girls tear open a small soft package to have three or four of these pink lacy contraptions fall into her lap? And will she ask, noticing the dainty, floss-like construction, what in the world they are—or will she hold them up proudly like the Stanley Cup? Will she be asked to model them—or will she volunteer? These are dark, sinister questions best not asked, let alone answered; yet the thongs themselves seem to be questions without answers. Aside from the time lost to the unusually long breaks I take this day—sitting out in the relatively fresh air of the parking lot, watching the shoppers bounce from shop to shop, and forcing myself to think about anything but the frilly lace inside—I spend every minute of my shift sorting the questions, both on the rack and in my head, and when I finish I feel as if there is an indelible stain on my cosmic record. This can’t be one of those things that everyone goes through—one of those experiences that build character—can it?

One of the quirks in oral storytelling I’ve developed over the years is the tendency to start with a statement or question, often pointing toward some awful or perverted aspect of human life. But the trouble with oral storytelling, especially to a live audience, is that the story gets bogged down with skeptical inquiries. It’s like watching a movie with that one hyperactive friend who won’t pay attention, but still wants to know what we’re all laughing at.

Let me tell you: there is little else in this world more humbling and sullying than having to walk around with armfuls of tiny, size-zero thongs, especially when they have Barbie and Hello Kitty printed on them. This one time, I was home from college for a summer, and I found work through a temp agency. They shipped me out to Nordstrom Rack, where it eventually became my job to sort little girls’ thongs. And—what? No, I’m sure they were children’s thongs. They had cartoon characters on them, for chrissake.

Listen, the specific size isn’t really what matters, because sizes tend to differ with manufacturers, but let’s just say that they were so small I wouldn’t have been able to fit them on my head. No, it’s not a sexual thing. Haven’t you ever been tempted to put underwear on your head? Well, your loss. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s actually a joke I played on a girlfriend once. While she was preening in the bathroom mirror, I dug around in her dresser, found a pair of smooth red panties, and put them over my head so my eyes were in the leg holes. When I jumped out of her closet, declaring, “I’m Spiderman!” it looked for a moment like she was going to cry or hit me. Or both.

So they were smaller than normal. Anyway, can you imagine a grown woman wearing a Hello Kitty thong? 

At this point, I face a quiet room and a lot of worried stares. But these stares I actually find interesting, because it tells me who assumed I actually thought about putting a thong on my head at the time. I hadn’t. The Spiderman incident won’t happen until almost a year after my brief reign as Lord of the Thongs. I’ve done some strange, questionable, and potentially (and actually) reputation-damaging things, but I do them if I think I’m going to get a rise out of someone. The only thing I would have gotten out of my boss is a pink slip. Maybe I’ll get a reputation as a premature Dirty Old Man, but in the perilous world of storytelling, that’s an acceptable risk.