May’s Monthly Memo | January

Happy end-of-January, and welcome to a new tradition that I am launching—May’s monthly memos! Since the new decade began, I’ve been thinking of a blogging practice I want to turn into a habit. I didn’t want to blog about something every day, and I’m trying to train my brain to not think about time in weeks, which is what four years of the quarter system have taught me to do. A month seems nicely-sized, and lends itself to an alliterative title, which often influences my decision-making. I should probably say something about the word “memo,” too; I chose it not only because it starts with ‘m’ (I could’ve gone with “musings” or “mail”), but also because I like what “memo” means: according to Wikipedia, “memo” is derived from the Latin memorandum est, “It must be remembered,” a fitting motto for my monthly blog posts. There’s also a formality about memos, which are used in law and business communications, as well as an informality—I can write in bullet points and keep things short. My monthly memos will likely begin with a poem, briefly go into “notable happenings” of the month, discuss movies/books/music I consumed, and conclude by unpacking a word or phrase that sums up the month. Here I go!


Because the year is new and the great change
already underway, we concede a thousandfold
   and feel, harder than the land itself,
a complicity for everything we did not see
or comprehend: cynicism borne of raw despair,
long-cultivated hatreds, the promises of leaders
traveling like cool silence through the dark.
My life is here, in this small room, and like you
   I am waiting to know—but there is no time
to wait for what has happened.
What does the future ask of me,
those who won’t have enough to eat by evening,
those whose disease will now take hold—
   and the decades that carry past me once I’ve died,
generations of children, the suffering that is never solved,
the heat over the earth, its marshes,
   its crowded towers, its unbreathable night air.
I would open my hand from the wrist,
step outside, not lose nerve.
Here is the day, still to be lived.
We do not fully know what we do.

—Excerpt from New Year, Joanna Klink. This poem feels uncannily appropriate for January 2020.

🖼️ January is one of my favorite months of the year because it always signals a new start. For the past 4 years, my Januaries have started with travel—flying from Hong Kong to Chicago. This year, the transition was particularly difficult, and I felt homesick in a way that I hadn’t before (nostalgia + guilt + worry). Leaving and going are often part of the same miserable equation. But before I knew it, “the great change [was] already underway,” and I soon settled back into my Chicago life. I got a gym membership, and for the first time ever now “work out regularly,” going to the gym 5 times a week with Kevin. I typically run on the treadmill, swim (because swimming is marvelous for thinking), and lately have also been enthralled by Cardio HIIT classes (I am sore in 4 different places as I type this). At the beginning of this month, my essay on Chung Kwok-keung’s poetry was published on Asymptote, and I experienced (also for the first time ever) what it’s like to go viral-ish on Twitter. Last week, I received some more positive translation-related news, but I’ll wait until February to announce that here… This month, the world saw the outbreak of the coronavirus; “disease will now take hold,” as Joanna Clink says in the poem. Masks and food staples are sold out in many places, and there is fear in many corners of the world. What’s most distressing to me about the virus is the way in which its arrival has piled another calamity onto Hong Kong, a city that has spent the past 7ish months embroiled in protests. Months earlier, people feared going outdoors because of tear gas; now, people stay indoors for fear of a dangerous virus. Both political instability and health epidemics are rooted in government incompetence. There is no way to truly talk about the virus without also talking about China’s dictatorship (and Hong Kong’s puppet administration). It’s in times of serious viruses that the connective threads of the world become exposed; global commerce and travel are also victims of the virus. I hope next month brings better news.

🎬 Because I started the New Year on a 15-hour flight, I watched a ton of movies this month. On the plane, I saw Boy Erased (grim and haunting, about a conversion therapy program), Mary Queen of Scots (badly written Oscar bait, imo), Olaf’s Frozen Adventure (to clear my mind after having watched 2 dark movies), Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Cate Blanchett is a gem), half of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (one thing I’ll say about that movie is that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie make chewing food looks really good). Back in Chicago, Kevin and I finished watching Season 4 of Star Wars: Rebels (shockingly good) and are now watching selected episodes of Clone Wars. Earlier this month, we also watched CATS in theaters. It wasn’t…
that bad. The cinematography and performances are great. Of course, Taylor was fantastic. And Sir Ian McKellen was actually quite convincing. But… all things considered…it was a bit of a catastrophe! I 100% saw Judi Dench’s human hand and gold wedding band at the end of the movie. By far the best movie I saw this month was Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson. It. Was. Delightful! I love a good whodunnit. The film was supported by an outstanding cast in outstanding costumes. Tonight, I’ll be watching Miss Americana, the long-awaited Taylor Swift documentary directed by Lana Wilson. You can expect a review of the doc to appear on this blog soon!

📖 This month, I’ve mostly been reading one big book: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I planned to kick off 2020 reading novels by women/ POC writers, but somehow ended up picking a staple of the (mostly white male-dominated) western literary canon. I can explain myself—I’ve been following a Moby Dick bot on Twitter and every quote the bot tweets is, quite frankly, profound. I actually knew relatively little about the novel going in; I didn’t realize it was kinda a gay love story (although I’m not too surprised; I’m familiar with the Melville-Hawthorne love story theory). I also didn’t think to take the novel so literally; Moby Dick is literally full of dick jokes. And I mean this in the most literary-analysis way possible. Phallic symbols are everywhere, including the titular sperm whale. The book also explores race; there’s a chapter on whiteness (the whiteness of the whale and of people) and one of the book’s main characters is a person of color. There are almost No Women in this book, although Melville does have a rather long chapter on whale “harems.” It’s always an ~experience reading a novel by a narrator who is blithely unreliable; there are moments in the novel where I think our narrator (“Call me Ishmael”) has got to be kidding me! And he probably is. He claims to be a geologist, art critic, poet, playwright, sailor, whale-expert… Moby Dick is kind of an 800-page long white male fantasy. But it’s a fantasy that is often beautifully written, and isn’t afraid to tell on itself. In as much as it presents a grim view of society, human relationships, and the environment, Moby Dick is a playful read. It’s like whale-watching at sea; there are time in the novel where you just stare at the ocean and lose interest, and times when the hint of a fin or spout of water totally grips your attention. If you want to experience some of that Moby Dick Magic without having to read the whole book, I’d recommend checking out the Twitter bot, reading the chapter on whiteness, and also the chapter on “spermaceti” (the chapter is titled—I kid you not—”A Squeeze of the Hand”). Aside from reading about whales, I’ve also been reading poems by Chung Kwok-keung, as he gave me (very kindly) a number of his books in December when we met up for lunch. I look forward to translating more of his work!

🎵 Since I’ve been going to the gym this month, workout music is essential. To Kevin’s dismay, I spent the first week listening to “Mr. Mistoffelees” and “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” from CATS. My most-played song of the month is probably Eric Church’s “Heart Like a Wheel” (recommended by my brother) or “Neon Moon” (both the Brooks & Dunn and Kacey Musgraves remastering). I looove country music. Towards the end of the month, Chinese New Year kickstarted my nostalgia for old Chinese classics; I’m currently listening to 老鼠愛大米 (a classic from my childhood) and 你知道我在等你嗎 (which my sister and I heard in Chinatown). They truly do hit me in the feels. I also discovered the Postmodern Jukebox version of “ME!” and it’s giving me LIFE. I’ll regularly update my 2020 songs on this playlist.

💬 Now, to wrap up this quickly-elongating memo: my January word-of-the-month is threads. This month, I sewed my frayed sneakers back together; I threaded together beaded rings with fishing line; I scrolled through countless Twitter threads to keep up with the drama of our times. And “threads” has come up in the media I’ve consumed, too, notably in Knives Out (threads of mystery, ya feel?) and chapter 47 of Moby Dick:

“…it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. …The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course- its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.”

It’s kind of a gnarly paragraph to unpack, but Ishmael is drawing a connection here between threads and fate. What parts of our future do we have the “free will” to weave? Are the threads of our lives “unalterable”? Ultimately, Ishmael seems to suggest that the vibration of chance determines how our destiny unravels. So, threads speak to the future. And just 3 nights ago, I watched the ending of The Return of the King (which always makes me cry) with Kevin, and Frodo similarly wonders:

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand… there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”

It’s a quote that immediately spoke to me, as I—even in January—am already thinking about where I’ll be in six months, whether I’ll be here in the US or back in Hong Kong, picking up the threads of an old life. As Clink says in “New Year,” “what does the future ask of me… Here is the day, still to be lived. / We do not fully know what we do.”

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