Review: evermore, a musical tapestry to get you through the indie winter

Wowowow. The devil works hard but Taylor Alison Swift works harder. I cannot believe that in the span of a single year we’ve gotten a documentary, two Disney+ specials, and TWO albums! Freed from the administrative and creative requirements of planning a world tour, and freed from the clutches of Big Machine Records, Taylor has more bandwidth to create than ever before and I just feel lucky to watch her take her artistry to new heights. So here are a fraction of my thoughts; I managed to keep everything under 2,000 words…

Taylor’s ninth studio album evermore is the “sister record” of folklore, in that it picks up where the latter left off—literally, the “willow” music video begins with the “cardigan” video’s ending scene. Like folklore, evermore is co-written mainly with The National’s Aaron Dessner and continues to extend the cottagecore aesthetic of folklore. The woodland backdrop that has characterized most of the album’s artwork finds its musical counterparts in “willow” and “ivy,” the two flora, folksy songs of the album. I love the vocal runs in both songs (the way Taylor sings “follow/hollow” in “willow,” and “goddamn” in “ivy”). The strumming patterns seem like a nod to the Civil Wars, with whom Taylor wrote “Safe and Sound.” In some ways, “willow” and “ivy” are quite different songs: the former is our adventurous and meandering lead single, while the latter is an understated track, placed much later on in the record. But both songs are set in the metaphorical woods and use natural motifs to describe the gravitational pull of a loved one—“Life was a willow, and it bent right to your wind” / “I can’t stop you putting roots in my dreamland.” Taylor has described going into nature as a form of escape, and it feels appropriate that the escapism offered by love is symbolized by nature as well in both songs.

A recurring scene in Taylor’s musical tapestry is the image of splendor tainted by scandal; of glamor dashed with gloom; of beauty marked by bruises. In “Bad Blood,” she asks, “did you have to ruin what was shiny? Now it’s all rusted.” In “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” a glittering “champagne sea” is emptied out because of a backstabbing friend. In “the last great American dynasty,” oil heiress Rebekah Harness parties with Dali and fills “the pool with champagne” but also spends recklessly and earns a reputation as a mad, shameless woman. And true to form, we see fancy fraught by fatality in evermore’s “champagne problems,” a tender track about a woman who shocks everyone by turning down her fiance’s proposal. “Your sister splashed out on the bottle / Now no one’s celebrating;” “Dom Perignon, you brought it / No crowd of friends applauded;” you’ve got to admire the lyrical turn from celebratory to tragic, which is as swift as a brushstroke.

Likewise, in “tolerate it,” a well-wrought scene is soaked in heartbreak. The song paints a portrait of picture-perfect domestic life (“use my best colors for your portrait / lay the table with the fancy shit;” “I polish plates until they / gleam and glisten”) and wallows in the sadness of watching these gestures go unnoticed, merely “tolerated” by an unfeeling partner. It reminds me of those Dutch still life paintings in which everything looks pristine, and yet something feels amiss or grotesque. The heartbreak in the song cuts even deeper when you realize that it’s a response to the nostalgic “invisible string” from folklore—we go from “something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire” to “where’s that man who’d throw blankets over my barbed wire.” And “tolerate it” has one of the best lyrics on the record: “Now I’m begging for footnotes in the story of your life” (I gasped!!). It’s worth pointing out that “tolerate it” is track 5, meaning that it’s the song Taylor considers to be the most emotional on the album.

While evermore doesn’t have the intricate storyline we followed in folklore (James-Betty-August love triangle), it does introduce a new character: Dorothea, who Taylor describes as a “girl who left her small town to chase down Hollywood dreams.” The song “dorothea” is sung from the perspective of someone from her hometown who knew her before she became famous; “You got shiny friends since you left town / A tiny screen’s the only place I see you now.” The song seems like a direct nod to the Lumineers’ “Ophelia” and “Angela,” two songs that are also named after women whose names end with “a” (lol) and paint a vivid vignette around a character. And “’tis the damn season” is from Dorothea’s perspective as she returns home for the holidays and seeks out the “only soul / Who can tell which smiles I’m fakin’” (faking smiles is a recurring line in Taylor’s songs, too, and often describes how she feels about life under the limelight). I particularly like that “‘tis the damn season” is Taylor’s first moody Christmas song (or second, if you count “Back to December”), which I vastly prefer to last year’s jingly “Christmas Tree Farm.” Taylor has said that evermore represents fall and winter (whereas folklore was spring and summer) and no track feels more wintery than “evermore,” the album’s titular and final track. Even Taylor’s voice sounds like the crisp winter air on this track; “Hey December / Guess I’m feeling unmoored / Can’t remember / What I used to fight for.” The piano in the song is played by Joe Alwyn, who is shockingly about to become my favorite collaborator of Taylor’s. And the song transforms magically when Bon Iver enters the song—it feels like we’re suddenly thrown into his song “Holocene,” which was the song I listened to every Christmas back in high school. While this collaboration isn’t quite as stirring as “exile” from folklore, it screams “indie winter” nonetheless.

But when it comes to the album’s features, my favorite is indubitably “no body, no crime,” featuring HAIM. It’s a revenge-themed country track in the lineage of the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and, of course, Taylor’s “Picture to Burn.” Taylor wrote the song herself after listening to crime podcasts and decided to use Este’s name in the song—hence leading to HAIM’s involvement. As a die-hard HAIM and Taylor fan, I’m obviously ecstatic. I have been waiting for this moment for five years. But I’m also somewhat disappointed—I wish HAIM had more of a presence in the song, and the fact that they only sing backing vocals (by “they” I mean only Danielle and Este, no Alana) is symptomatic of a bone I have to pick with Taylor: she rarely collaborates with women, and when she does, they only sing background vocals (e.g. Colbie Caillat, the Dixie Chicks). On the other hand, Ed Sheeran, Future, Bon Iver, Gary Lightbody, etc. get full verses and writing credits. So, I really can’t help but feel a little sad about the under-utilization of HAIM. But otherwise, “no body, no crime” is deliciously dramatic and the lyrics truly, truly slap.

Speaking of country, lyrics, and backing vocals, “cowboy like me” is the other country song on the record, and it’s just gorgeous! It has some of the best lyrics, too: I’m obsessed with how Taylor sings the word “perched” in the chorus. Taylor references Gatsby (one day I might write a longer piece on this) and romantic poetry so many times in her recent work, but from a literary standpoint, I feel like the unadorned prose of  “cowboy like me” is where it’s at. Compare these lines from folklore’s bonus track “the lakes” — “I want auroras and sad prose / I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet”—to this scene from “cowboy”—”never wanted love / Just a fancy car / Now I’m waiting by the phone / Like I’m sitting in an airport bar.” The former is flowery and evocative, but the latter simply just pulls you right into the scene. To me, “cowboy like me” is one of the most moving songs on the album.

There are songs on evermore that almost sound as if they could be a pop song. “Gold Rush,” a Jack Antonoff collab, has the soaring, shimmering quality of many songs on Lover. Lyrically, it’s denser, and makes you nod your head throughout. It also has the best rhymes on the album—”gold rush / red flush / quick brush / rose blush / bone crush.” Taylor is a real poet, you guys. Like “gold rush,” “long story short” also has a pop vibe, and reminds me of “I forgot that you existed” in that the song has big “shrug” energy. “I forgot that you existed / And I thought that it would kill me, but it didn’t” sounds very nonchalant, as does “Long story short, it was a bad time.” “Closure,” the penultimate track with a crackling percussion undertone, is defiant in this way too; the song’s speaker rejects closure. By doing so, these songs also refuse to enter full “pop” mode—they present no freewheeling bridge or climax. And without the glam and glitz of pop production, Taylor’s voice can shine more as its own instrument. I honestly think she’s never sounded better.

And yet the absence of Taylor’s trademark hooks, and the concentration of the unhurried, undeviating melodies for which The National is known, results in songs that can come across as repetitive and even monotonous. “Happiness” is a lyrically thoughtful track, scattered with allusions to The Great Gatsby. But the song is 5:15 minutes long (Taylor wrote it just last week) and doesn’t hold much structure. “Marjorie,” a song about Taylor’s grandmother, is moving and haunting (it even incorporates some of Marjorie’s vocals), but lyrically falls flat compared to the other songs on the album. And “coney island,” which features Matt Berninger of The National, sounds more like a National song than a Taylor song. I can’t quite explain it, but the way “merry go” stacks on top of “sorry for not making you my centerfold” (which is still lyrically beautiful, by the way) is very The National-esque. All this is to say, I think Taylor’s collaboration with the men of alt-rock and indie-folk has been wonderfully productive, but—I’d like to see more of her, and a wee bit less of The National, in her music.

The stories that Taylor tell on evermore flourish in the contrasting themes of return and departure; prolonging and resolution. The idiom “open-and-shut” that appears in “willow” thus serves as a perfect metaphor for the entire album. “Open” and “shut” are antonyms, but when put together, they describe a case that is indisputable. What’s indisputable on evermore is that Taylor not only creates memorable and evocative characters but is one herself; no matter what genre she steps into or which collaborators she invites into her world, her poetic and musical presence polishes and defines whatever she touches. She can transport us into any time or place—be it the Methodist church in “’tis the damn season” or the airport bar in “cowboy like me.” The leaves on the trees and the winter air feel different when I walk down the street listening to evermore. I’m drawn into the drama of a murder mystery, or a lover’s jealousy, or the thrill of an imagery former flame. I’m so grateful to be closing out the year with new music from Tay, who as always helps me get through so much. I know I’ll be listening to her music for “evermore.” 😭💖

On Forgetting, Remembering, and Accidentally Rereading William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow”

I’ve always prided myself on my good memory. When watching a movie, I can usually identify what other roles the actors in that film have played. To Kevin’s annoyance, I sometimes bring up details about our first year of dating that he can’t remember. I also have a knack for remembering song lyrics (and not just those written by Taylor Swift). Which was why I was so surprised to discover this morning that a book I had just finished—William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow—was actually a book I had already read 7 years ago, in 2013.   

Let’s rewind for a minute. I found a copy of Maxwell’s book in a Little Free Library near our apartment last month while jogging around the neighborhood. I go on a short run every day, mostly to get out of the house, and always make a point to stop by the many Little Free Libraries stationed in the area. From the outside, Little Free Libraries share similar qualities; they are often made of wood and shaped like a small house. The books inside are typically protected by a glass window that one can peer through to scope out what’s inside. I know of almost ten Little Free Libraries near me, and they’ve each taken on a distinct personality based not on how they look, but what books they hold. One library tends to contain books about food and, more recently kink. Another mostly has children’s picture books, such as Captain Underpants. A few of them often feature old paperbacks, from a beat-up edition of The Lord of the Rings to a copy of José Saramago’s Blindness. I almost never take a book from the libraries, and mostly just enjoy peering inside (I have a “window shopping” habit). But when I came across the quaint little house with William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow in it—I felt a spark light up in my brain.

My immediate memory of the book was that it was something I had once wanted to read, put some effort into finding, and never got around to reading. Or perhaps it was a book I had read, but not finished? Either way, the book sat in my mind like an unfinished task. So, I brought it home.

Over the course of reading the book, it became clear to me (or so I thought) that I had indeed never read it. This was, as far as I was concerned, my first time reading it. Occasionally I would come across sentences that seemed familiar, but I would attribute those rare flashes of recognition to quotes I had seen in passing on the Internet. When I closed the book this morning, I thought to myself—well, I’ve finally finished it.

Still holding the book in my hands, I suddenly had the idea that I should update my Goodreads account, which I used to update religiously but haven’t touched in ages. I might as well start by adding So Long, See You Tomorrow to my list of 2020 reads, I thought. Perhaps the fact that Goodreads even crossed my mind should have been a sign that somewhere deep in my unconscious, a string of my memory had been plucked. But either way, I looked up the book on Goodreads and saw—with a shock—that I had already read the book. In 2013. Not only had I read it, I had even written a little review:

I had described the book as a “hazy half-recollection,” a line taken from the fourth chapter of the novel, and my memory of the book can ironically be described as such. As I read my review of the book, I was confused by the line about the MOMA painting, which (having just finished the book) I couldn’t recall. Did I read the same book? I wondered aloud, while Kevin chucked beside me. I flipped through the first few chapters of the book again and realized that, yes, I do remember reading the part about The Palace at 4 a.m. But it’s a sculpture, not a painting. And for some reason, I had found it a more important detail back in 2013 than I do now. 

On August 4, 2013, I had noted on Goodreads: “the public library near where I live nearly lost this book, but I’ve finally found it.” Slowly, I began to remember. In my teenage years I went through a phase where I was determined to read books that were “contemporary classics,” books outside the syllabus that would help me become “well-read.” I remember pinpointing So Long, See You Tomorrow as one of those books. I also remember trying to find it at the Hong Kong Central Library, one of my favorite places in the world. I no longer know what I meant by saying that the library “nearly lost this book,” but one way or another I found it. Clearly, I also read it, and wrote a short review (as I did with every books I read those days) on my blog at the time, which is too embarrassing to hyperlink here, but here’s a screenshot of part of the review: 

Most of the review is identical with the Goodreads review, save for a number of quotes at the end as well as the first sentence: “I put a colossal amount of effort into hunting down this book, and it was worth the effort.” I could not have arrived at the same book, 7 years down the line, under more different circumstances.

If 16-year-old May had only known that at age 23, she’d find this elusive book by accident, without even trying to look for it, maybe she wouldn’t have searched so hard back then. And if 23-year-old May had not once read the book, and therefore not realized on a sunny December morning in 2020 that the book she just finished had once crossed her path, she wouldn’t be writing this blog post thinking about the unreliability of memory. 

But in a way, this is what So Long, See You Tomorrow is all about. 

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” 

The novel is told from the perspective of a grown man who cannot move on from the guilt he feels towards a specific moment in his childhood: his missed opportunity to extend a sign of compassion to his childhood friend Cletus Smith, whose father Clarence just killed the man with whom his wife was having an affair.

The narrator’s guilt seems small compared to the guilt that you’d expect Cletus’s mother Fern and her lover Lloyd Wilson (who used to be Clarence’s best friend) to feel. Fern cheated on her husband and then initiated ugly divorce proceedings that ruined Clarence’s life; Lloyd betrayed his best friend. It’s clear that these characters pay for their actions. But most of the novel depends on the narrator’s guilt, as well as the narrator’s imagined telling of the events leading up to Lloyd’ murder.

Reading my review from 2013, I realize that I now have a different reading of the book. Back then, I had placed Cletus at its center. But now, I see that our narrator’s imagination forms the scaffolding on which the entire story rests. By imagining what happened to Cletus, by going so far as to invent a fictional dog for him, the narrator uses storytelling as a form of absolution—for both himself and young Cletus. The narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow wants to absolve himself a guilt he rationally knows he should not hold on to, and to absolve Cletus of a shame that should not have been his to bear. Although the novel is told from the perspective of an adult and revolves around the consequences of grown-up decisions (adultery, marriage, murder), it is Maxwell’s exposition of childhood and sympathy towards children that pull the book together.

In 2013, I described the narrator’s description of the whole affair as a “recollection,” but the more accurate word I would use now is “imagination.” The narrator doesn’t “remember” what happened to Cletus; he reads some newspapers from 1921 and then proceeds to invent the rest. In the 7 years that have passed since 2013, I have grown more suspicious of “unreliable narrators” and perhaps become one myself. I’d also like to think I’m a more careful reader, although I know I’m still not careful enough. Like Maxwell’s narrator who compares his childhood guilt to his feelings as an adult, I now compare how I received the book then and how I read it now to arrive at some understanding of what it means to grow up, experience loss, and crave understanding.

In 2013, I had identified one of the novel’s later passages as its “best chunk.” It’s the moment after Cletus has to leave his childhood home (and his father) to start a new life. A series of losses, things being “taken away,” mark his transition from childhood into adulthood. Yet I also think of this as the scene where our narrator starts to undo his imagining by removing the elements that populated his storytelling. The fictional dog goes away, as do the everyday objects that populated the narrative: the sound of crows, a pitcher, the smell of hay. Without these elements, does the narrator still have a story to tell?

In 2020, the passage from the book that I may consider the “best chunk” can be interpreted as the opposite of the section above. This passage, which appears early on in the book, actually describes the narrator’s own childhood—before he begins to tell the story of Cletus’s. In the passage, he describes how everyday objects allowed him to cope with the grief of losing his mother. Commonplace objects, from the two big elm trees to the trumpet vine by the back door, help him go from one day to the next.

Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar—an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly colored cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects—with the help also of the two big elm trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the back door, and the white lilac bush by the dining-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contributed its creak…creak…to the sounds of the summer night—I got from one day to the next.”

Whereas Cletus’s childhood is marked by the disappearance of familiar objects, our narrator is comforted by the reappearance of commonplace things, and I think this is the crucial difference between both boys. Throughout the novel, the narrator continues to make things appear, i.e. tell his own story of what happened to Cletus, because this is the form of comfort and support he understands. And although he is guilted by his failure to reach out to Cletus back then, through storytelling he tries to give Cletus everything (including a dog)—although it all has to end, inevitably, in disappearance.

Memory is a flawed instrument, and also our most precious tool for holding on to people and places long gone. But one who seeks the truth cannot always depend on memory. Unless we have documents from the past to corroborate or correct our beliefs (be it a 2013 Goodreads review or a newspaper from 1921), what really happened or what we wished had happened may only transpire through the stories we tell ourselves. I’m glad I read So Long See You Tomorrow for a second time, even though it felt like the first time. Perhaps 7 years later, I’ll revisit the book (and this blog post, and the one before it) again, my memory of it all no doubt shaped by “a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”

May’s Monthly Memo – November

One starless night, I was stranded. Needless to say, foreigners are often stranded. I decided to translate the stories of eight girls who survived the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre, which took place in Gyeongsangnam-do, a southern province of South Korea, in 1951. My decision to translate the girls’ stories wasn’t entirely mine alone. It can take billions of years for light to reach us through the galaxies, which is to say, History is ever arriving. So it’s most likely that the decision, seemingly all mine, was already made years ago by someone else, which is to say, language – that is to say, translation – always arises from collective consciousness. Be factual, you say? As I mentioned, foreigners simply know. I will name the surviving orphans one by one in honor of the nameless children who are still homesick, captive, in detention, in internment, in concentration camps, in seas, in deserts, on Planet Nine, and such. And let’s not forget the children who are still in school.

Excerpt from Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. I teared up during her acceptance speech, which I watched during the NBA’s livestream. The translations, which are difficult to read, can be found at Granta.

Every month in quarantine felt Very Long and same-y, but November has been an exception to that pattern. After all, this month has shouldered both a grueling election and a stressful holiday, two events of nationwide importance that brought the country together, divided it, had everyone talking about the same things, while showing that we are not all on the same page.

When I was growing up I had a very shallow understanding of US politics and Thanksgiving, and that wasn’t necessarily because I was young and uninformed, but rather because neither was relevant to my life back then. I remember high-fiving friends at lunch when we found out that Obama won (the main thing people at school talked about was that he represented hope, and was pro-same sex marriage), and when Thanksgiving rolled around I remember some of my American friends posted photos of their turkeys. But it wasn’t until 2015, the year I left Hong Kong for Chicago, that I’d first taste stuffing (love it) or learn what the electoral college was (don’t love it so much).

Even now, I feel like I’m standing on the outside and looking in—or looking from the sidelines?—when I see people talk about the election and Thanksgiving. I do think that voting is important and that carving a turkey can be a really nice moment, but there might always be a part of me that feels like these are narratives I’m just not a part of. But this year, as Kevin and I walked past Kamala Harris’s childhood home in Berkeley (a few blocks from our place) shortly after the election was called, we found ourselves among a crowd of people who were playing music, dancing, celebrating. It was impossible to not feel a sense of collective effervescence right there, even as alarm bells were going off in my head (pandemic! people! crowd! gathering! pandemic!). Which brings me to Thanksgiving, a holiday that often hinges on swathes of people coming together. Of course, now is not the time to be flying places and sitting at the dining table with old relatives, but many Americans took that risk nonetheless this November. I found myself sitting at home fuming about the “selfishness of Americans” and feeling terribly homesick for Hong Kong and Taiwan. I don’t think I will ever self-identify as an American, I told myself, downloading Cantonese podcasts and reading Chinese texts ferociously. But I know that I’m selfish too, even though I’m not risking other people’s lives for my mundane needs this holiday season. How difficult it is to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions, especially as the world we live in grows more complicated.

Kevin and I cooked enough food to feed seven people on Thursday, and had a nice two-person Thanksgiving at home. Although I pelted him with annoying questions in the aftermath (Why are so many side dishes sweet? Why do Americans go out of their way to make turkey, a difficult bird to bake, once a year?), we also took long walks and talked about gratitude. It’s been a miserable but also magical year, and as much as I sit at the table and sigh about being morose, the simple pleasures of being alive and with someone I love are not lost on me.

🎬 This month, we finished watching The Great British Bake Off! Our favorite contestant won, so we’re happy. The final episode was a real tear-jerker. We also watched The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix limited series about an orphan-turned-chess whiz. The series stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who makes playing chess seem effortless, sexy, and dangerous. She’s relentlessly standoffish throughout the show, and almost always looks impeccable despite struggling with an addiction problem that seems potent enough to topple her. Learning chess begins as a fantasy for her (she hallucinates pieces on the ceiling), her brief relationships all seem to be founded in fantasy, and in a way the whole show hinges on us suspending our disbelief—a classic ingredient for a viral Netflix hit (the chess is cool, I admit).

Earlier this month I also watched My Octopus Teacher, a moving nature documentary about a man who forms a special relationship with an octopus (and in doing so, with nature). The scholar Sophie Lewis wrote a very persuasive Twitter thread arguing that the doc is actually about “a straight man who has a lifechanging erotic relationship with a female octopus.” And… she’s not wrong! The octopus in the doc is essentially a manic pixie dream mollusk who helps the narrator reach various epiphanies before (SPOILER) dying. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat octopus for a while.

Finally, I’m watching Start-Up, and it’s the first time I’m watching a K-drama as it airs! In other words, I can’t binge it all at once…and frankly, it’s better this way. It’s nice to savor the drama over a long period of time, as opposed to gobbling it all up in a week. The drama centers on rising entrepreneurs/engineers trying to find purpose and love in the start-up economy. I’ll say more next month when the series wraps up…

📚 November has been a fruitful reading month. I read Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear, a novel about a translator who goes on a quest to find the Brazilian writer she’s translating, who suddenly goes missing. The book kind of turns into a thriller, which I wasn’t expecting, but it’s very much a love letter to translation as well (Novey is a translator).

For translation to be an art … you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions that an artist makes.

Then I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, a book that many have recommended to me and has been on my to-read list for a while. Trick Mirror is a collection of seven essays and they are spellbinding. Seriously, Tolentino is worth all the hype. Throughout the book, she’s endlessly clever, persuasive, intimate, and witty, which are some of the best qualities a writer can have. She comfortably writes at the intersection of pop culture and highbrow analysis, citing Britney Spears and the Bible in the same essay. She’ll talk about the very contemporary trends of athleisure and barre classes while discussing enclothed cognition and the 1950s origins of the Barre Method. One of the best essays, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” charts the past decade through seven crucial “scams” (including the Fyre Festival, Theranos, Trump’s Election). At the center of the collection is a problem—have we all been duped, and/or are we all delusional? Seeing only what other want us to see or what we want ourselves to see, as if looking through a trick mirror? Tolentino describes the “trick mirrors” at work in society, in institutions, and in her own life. She is thoroughly self-aware and rigorously critical of every assumption. We could all learn something from her.

A lot of my reading this month has also come, blissfully, from translation. In the name of translation, I’ve Googled a lot of tree names, used the Hong Kong Herbarium Database as a primary resource, learned about Jesus’s Way of Suffering, read Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad (it’s like the Japanese version of The Little Prince), looked up a Zhuangzi reference… after spending hours translating passages about autumn leaves, every red or yellowing tree that I pass on my jogs now seem more familiar, more intimate. I translated a poem about azaleas and was super excited that Kevin and I got to check out a rhododendron garden this month (next to Lake Merritt, a lagoon and National Historical Landmark in Oakland). In Chinese, 杜鵑 means both “azalea” and “cuckoo,” and while there’s no such twinship in English, translation can indeed make you look at the world in a different way.

🎶 This month, Grammy nominations were announced! My girl Taylor scored six nominations, which didn’t surprise me. There was no way folklore wasn’t getting nomm’ed this year, especially given the Aaron Dessner collab. That being said, the Grammys have a history of snubbing Taylor (see: Lover, Red). As a result, Swifties have learned not to take them too seriously… I’m thrilled that she’s nominated, but also wary at the same time, because I’ve spent so long trying to de-emphasize the Grammys’ importance in my mind. And to be honest, the Grammys are still kind of the Scammys. Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” (a meh song that did meh on the charts) was nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance while The Weeknd’s astonishing “Blinding Lights” (a song that broke Billboard records while being critically acclaimed) was not nominated for anything at all. In fact, The Weeknd’s omission can scarcely be called a “snub.” Something is UP! To make things even more suspicious, Bieber has been complaining that his album was mis-categorized as “pop,” for he intentionally set out to make an R&B album. Personally, I think his statement a classic PR trick aiming to distract the press from asking the obvious question: why was he nominated in the first place? There are a lot of closed doors involved in the Grammys nomination process, so who knows what’s really happening. As Abel of The Weeknd says, “the Grammys remain corrupt.”

But in other news, I rediscovered my love for Simon and Garfunkel this month. Maybe because Thanksgiving has got me thinking of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, and their lovely rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” In general, I’m re-entering a folky phase. Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and Dolly Parton & Chet Akin’s duet of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” have been on repeat lately.

I’m tired of runnin’ ’round lookin’
For answers to questions that I already know
I could build me a castle of memories
Just to have somewhere to go

Count the days and the nights that it takes
To get back in the saddle again
Feed the pigeons some clay, turn the night into day
Start talkin’ again, when I know what to say

💬 For better or for worse, “scam” is my word of the month. Conceptually, it’s been everywhere this November. First, the country voted a scamming president out of the Oval Office, and he proceeded to spend the weeks following claiming that the election was a giant scam. Too many Americans have scammed themselves (and others) into believing that traveling across the country for Thanksgiving this year is a safe, or even reasonable, proposition. Netflix is scamming people into bingeing shows that are actually just “okay” or actually quite bad (Emily in Paris, for one) but seem worth the hours because everyone on the Internet talks about them and we’re in a pandemic. And on top of all this I’m afraid that I’m allowing myself to be scammed into believing that I’m doing “well,” or that I’ve royally messed up, or that everything Twitter tells me is true, and so on…

We are all what we do, and we do what we’re used to, and like so many people in my generation, I was raised from adolescence to this fragile, frantic, unstable adulthood on a relentless demonstration that scamming pays.

—Jia Tolentino

May’s Monthly Memo – October

It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?

the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception— At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

the same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

— October (5), Louise Gluck

Louise Gluck received the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this month for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” There is always hubbub and controversy surrounding the prize, no matter whom it goes to, so I feel like I pay less attention to it every year. Nonetheless, Gluck’s October feels especially resonant this month. The poems (you can read the other parts here) are heavy with grief, violence, and despair, which are unfortunately relevant moods for a month saturated with pandemic and polls–related anxiety. The poem acknowledges both hope and hopelessness, which seem to receive equal weight throughout the sequence—but I particularly like how this section ends by personifying the poem as a companion. This month, I also felt like language, literature, and art illuminated tunnels for me.

It’s easy to assume by default that nothing much happens these days (we’re working from home and staying at home, there’s nothing new), but if I really cast my memory back to the first of October I’m inclined to conclude that it was a comparatively eventful month. Cynthia flew back to Taiwan, a country that just surpassed 200 days without a locally-transmitted COVID-19 case. From what I’ve heard from my sister, mom, and aunt about their experience landing and quarantining in Taiwan, it’s not difficult for me to see why Taiwan has so successfully contained the pandemic. This month the ALTA conference that I’d been preparing for also took place, and I had the opportunity to present some of my translations of Chung Kwok-keung’s work on two free panels. Although in a pandemic-free timeline I could have been in Arizona for the conference, I must say that the virtual format worked surprisingly well! It allowed folks who normally could not have attended the conference to tune in, and from a presenter’s perspective, I also felt less nervous because I could present from the comfort of my own home. Kevin and I have also been busy making crosswords this month, and 10 of our puzzles were recently featured on the Redstone Games’ mobile app, which you can download here (Android / iPhone). As a kid, I never thought that I’d one day be paid for translation and crosswords, and I’m both grateful for these opportunities while hyper-aware of the privilege that affords me these possibilities. Finally, I’m pleased to say that my Korean learning has continued this month! Which brings me to…

🎬 I watched three K-dramas this October! Heads up: I am about to ramble extensively about them so feel free to skip ahead if you aren’t interested… 1) Legend of the Blue Sea is a love story about a con-artist (Lee Min-ho) and mermaid (Jun Ji-hyun) who meet in present-day South Korea, but have actually crossed paths before—in the Joseon era. The mermaid has superhuman strength and can erase people’s memories with a single touch, but must learn how to survive on land. LOTBS was written by the same writer who wrote Crash Landing on You (so I had high expectations), and it was rewarding and amusing to see how similar tropes recur in both dramas. 2) The King: Eternal Monarch is set in two parallel worlds: the Republic of Korea and the fictional Kingdom of Corea. Lee Min-ho plays Lee Gon, the King of Corea, who owns half of a magical flute (his traitorous uncle owns the other half) that allows him to travel between worlds. He accidentally travels to the Republic of Korea and meets Jung Tae-eul (Kim Go-eun), a police officer whose ID card he has had since he was a child. If all that sounds confusing, it’s because the show is actually kind of hard to follow. But overall TKEM rewards viewers who enjoy theorizing, forgive plot holes, tolerate incessant product placement, are good at remembering faces (lots of dopplegangers), and stan Lee min-ho. Finally, I watched 3) Goblin, the show that in part influenced me to watch TKEM in the first place (same writer and same actress, Kim Go-eun). Goblin (also translated as Guardian: The Lonely and Great God), follows the story of a 939-year-old goblin (dokkaebi 도깨비), his fated bride Ji Eun-tak (Kim Go-eun), a grim reaper, and the owner of a BBQ Olive Chicken store named Sunny. The Goblin can only die when the sword that “killed” him, which is still stuck in his chest, is removed by his bride. Of course, things get complicated when he falls in love with Eun-tak and realizes he doesn’t want to die anymore if it means they can’t be together. Another complication is that Eun-tak herself is a “miscellaneously omitted person,” someone who escaped death once (the goblin saved her pregnant mother) and thus will always be followed by it (also, she can see ghosts). And on top of all this, there is a ~reincarnation~ story line that ties the past and present together. Overall, it’s a remarkably beautiful story about love, friendship, fate, and forgiveness. Particularly through the grim reaper’s storyline, the show explores moving questions about mortality and memory. Of all the dramas I’ve watched so far, none of them has made me cry as much as Goblin—I honestly sobbed through the last three episodes. So. Good!!

If there is one theme that is absolutely paramount in all the K-dramas I’ve seen so far, it’s FATE, 운명. The signposting is transparent; in Goblin, Eun-tak even wears a necklace with the French word Destin on it. The idea that those who are fated to meet will always find their way back to each other is particularly pronounced in LOTBS and Goblin, which both have storylines that include reincarnated lovers. And the idea that fate is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem also comes across in TKEM. Are two people fated to meet because of what happens in the past, or what happens in the future that in a roundabout way also affects the past? 🤷

I find it interesting to compare the K-dramas I watched with another show Kevin and I finished this month, The Good Place. The Good Place explores the theme of mortality through a hypothetical afterlife in which you either go to “The Good Place” or “The Bad Place” depending on how many points you “earned” for being a good person in life. The show champions the idea that no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, you can always strive to be a better version of yourself. The characters in The Good Place get “rebooted” over and over again, and while it’s not quite “reincarnation,” the same four friends always end up together again. But interestingly, this is not framed as a result of “fate” or “destiny.” The notion of a “soulmate” is also first introduced, and then later dismissed (although perhaps not entirely). At one point, Eleanor (protagonist played by Kristen Bell) wonders whether free will truly exists in a world where everything is determined by factors outside one’s own control, even in the afterlife. The show is warm, clever, and ferociously funny. It would be nice if a “Good Place” really does exist!

📚 I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation this month; I loved Offill’s Last Things, so was looking forward to reading another book by her. Truthfully, though, while the prose in the book is compact and graceful, I felt like the novel overall was lacking “umph.” It’s a portrait of marriage, motherhood, and balancing the writer-domestic life, but I felt like its speaker was too “invisible.” Maybe this was the point? I might have felt differently if I encountered the book later in life.

I did finally get round to reading Cathy Park Hong’s powerful Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. The book falls into one of my favorite genres, the mishmash of cultural criticism and personal essay. In the book, Hong interrogates the position of Asian Americans in the US by looking at poetry, her own life, and history. In particular, I found the chapters of the book where Hong talks about the legacy of poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha most moving and haunting. Cha was a poet and artist best known for her 1982 book Dictee. But an aspect of her life that is often silenced, although not in Hong’s book, is her brutal death—just a week after Dictee was published, Cha was raped and murdered.

So much of the book made me feel indignant and sad. But there were also moments that felt so resonant, even comforting. Here’s one example:

English is our ever-expanding neoliberal lingua franca, the consumer language of brand recognition and outsourced labor. The more developing the nation, the more in need that nation is of a copy editor.

The book’s title comes from literary critic Sianne Ngai, who “wrote extensively on the affective qualities of ugly feelings, negative emotions—like envy, irritation, and boredom—symptomatic of today’s late-capitalist gig economy. Like ugly feelings, minor feelings are ‘non-cathartic states of emotion’ with ‘a remarkable capacity for duration.'”

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is forced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, Things are the same. You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure.

Hong also frames minor feelings in terms of literary forms; “because minor feelings are ongoing, they lend themselves more readily to forms and genres that are themselves serial, such as the graphic novel or the serial poem”—or, I wonder…the blog post? Lol…

🎶 My playlist this month just has been more Korean songs, with the addition of some Blackpink hits (I just watched their documentary last night)!

💬 My word of the month has to be fate. How are constructs of face thrust upon us, and how do we challenge or embrace those circumstances? Much to think about.

Building a Crossword

I started constructing 15×15 crosswords a few months ago, and while I’m still very much a rookie, I wanted to share an example of my process here! Typically, Kevin and I publish algorithm-generated grids (that are later edited and expanded by hand) on Crossworthy, but I’ve also been aiming to publish my own crosswords at least once a month. Today’s crossword, titled “Build Your Order,” is now live, and it’s a puzzle that I made on my own. I documented most of the process since the beginning, hoping that if everything turned out well I could share how I went from square one to a full-sized puzzle. If you’re a Crossworthy fan or enjoy playing crosswords, you may find this post interesting!


Deciding on a fun theme is the first step in making a themed crossword. Kevin’s algorithm can churn out themeless crosswords very quickly, so I’m more motivated to make crosswords “the long way” when there’s a theme or specific set of words that I’m totally committed to.

We got burritos for take out in late September and that got me thinking…what if I attempted a burrito-themed puzzle?

The first thing I did was draw up a list of burrito ingredients and take note of how long each word is. Here’s what I had in my notes folder (I bolded the “promising” ones):

  • Crema – 5 
  • Salsa – 5 *
  • Avocado – 7
  • Jalapeno – 8 
  • Spanishrice – 11
  • Refriedbeans – 12
  • Beans – 5*
  • Queso – 5
  • Cheese – 6
  • Lettuce – 7
  • Rice – 4
  • Guac – 4
  • Guacamole – 9 *
  • Sour cream – 9*
  • Carneasada – 10*
  • Carnitas – 8
  • Pinto beans – 10*
  • Tortilla – 8 
  • cornTortilla – 12
  • Flourtortilla – 13

Since American-style crosswords should adhere to rotational symmetry, you need pairs of theme words that have the same number of letters. A theme word of 10 letters that goes in the bottom right corner should correspond to another theme word of 10 letters that goes in the top left corner, etc. This is much easier to understand visually. Sometimes, we also put a single theme word in the center. Most importantly, I needed to choose pairs of theme words that had matching lengths. After consulting my list above, I settled on 6 candidates:

GUAC (4)
RICE (4)

In retrospect, I could have also went with: beans (5), salsa (5), rice (4), guac (4), carnitas (8), and tortilla (8), but I had an ambitious dream for including “tortilla” in the puzzle (you’ll see)…


Now that I had my potential theme words, the next thing to do was design the grid. So… my “tortilla” dream was to have the letters of the word “wrap” the grid, in effect “wrapping” the ingredients. Man, I really wish this would have worked out in the end! Spoiler: it didn’t. But I’ll show you how I tested this idea.

As you can see, the theme words are kind of “squished” together, which is not ideal. The puzzle looks much better when theme words are spaced out. I also designed this grid such that I wouldn’t have to deal with words that were too long (i.e. 15 letters), so there’s always a black square creating divisions while ensuring that every word has a “cross” and is at least 3 letters long.

Grid construction is crucial because the better the grid, the easier it will be for you to fill it in.


It’s always important to not get too attached to any theme words or grid designs in the early stages. There’s a high chance you’ll have to change things around! So after I established my tentative layout, the first thing I needed to do was look for the most difficult corners and “test” build there to see how feasible the construction would be in the long run. It’s tempting to start building in “easy” places first, but the last thing you want is to end up in an “impossible” corner and realize that you need to change the whole grid. I heavily rely on when constructing my puzzles; the website allows you to search for words that match certain criteria (e.g. searching for ???A will give you a list of 4-letter words that end in A).

I started with the two areas of the board that have the most theme words—the middle section. Luckily, stacking rice/salsa and crema/guac did not create major construction problems. Afterwards, I moved on to the top left corner; there aren’t many 6-letter words that begin with T and end in C (1-down), so I wanted to see if I could make things work there.

The “order of construction” is important because of the aforementioned rotational symmetry. If you change something in one corner, you have to change something in the diagonally-opposite corner. So after briefly testing out the top-left “tragic” section, I moved on to the bottom-right area, which is also challenging because of the “A” in the corner (I’d need 2 six-letter words to end in A).

As I tested more words, I realized that I could potentially un-stack rice/salsa and guac/crema to create a more aesthetically-pleasing board. So, I moved guac to the top-left section of the board and rice to the bottom-left. Just some minor shuffling!


After more testing, I realized that the grid above was giving me too much trouble, so a do-over was necessary. All part of the process! However, I wasn’t ready to totally give up on the “tortilla” wrapping:

Sometimes, it’s easier to totally reconstruct the grid when rearranging theme words so that you can see everything more clearly. Side note: I should have mentioned this earlier, but I make my crossword drafts in Microsoft Word (using a 15×15 table) so I can easily shade important words and delete or change letters.

I got pretty far with this new layout, but as you can see below, the tortilla wrapping started to fall apart, especially at the top. The top left section was just giving me toooo much trouble! While I was relatively satisfied with the lower half of the grid, the top half was truly a mess. A lot of the words that you can see here aren’t ideal—”ruel,” “monbera,” “rich media.”

So it was with a heavy heart that I abandoned the “tortilla” wrapping. I decided it was more important to keep my ingredients intact! The grid can be the metaphorical tortilla wrap.


After letting go of the “tortilla” constriction, I began to edit the entire puzzle with an eye towards filling everything in and eliminating as many “unideal” words as possible. Starting from top/left to bottom/right, here are the different revisions I went through before completing the puzzle. Most of the changes happened in the upper half of the puzzle, particularly in the “rice” and “crema” sections. If you look at where “rice” is, you’ll see that the down-word crossing the “I” changed several times—from Wikipedia to Lithuania to finally Minnesota. I truly had to give the right side of the puzzle a facelift several times as a result. Similarly, while I really wanted “crash” to appear in the puzzle (3rd picture, the “C” above the “R” in “rice), I knew that “philomathy” had to go (I really want to write a Crash Landing on You clue…).

A few interesting things to note—”USSENATE” was kinda the only thing I could put above salsa, meaning that “TSARS” was also kinda the only word that could fit in the TS??? section. I say “kinda” because I’ve seen words like T SLOT in crosswords before, but ultimately I think readers will have an easier time with TSARS. In the first 3 puzzles below, you’ll see that I put “EASY A” next to “TSARS.” “Easy A” (the 2010 Emma Stone movie) is one of my favorite words to use because it’s a really handy way of isolating that pesky “A.” But once I got rid of that “A” I suddenly had way more options in the bottom right corner.

Anyway, here’s the final puzzle, inputted into AmuseLabs (the platform we use to publish our puzzles):

To be honest, I’m not totally satisfied with the final fill—I want to never put “EMU” or “EMUS” (55-down) in a puzzle ever again (nothing against the bird, but it appears way too often) and I also want to avoid using too many French words. I also don’t love “rabic” (5-across, it’s just kind of a yucky word) or “cert” (9-down) or “terr” (13-down). But since all those words have appeared in crosswords before, I felt that it was acceptable to keep them. To see how many times a word has been used in past crosswords, I use the very-handy wordplays website, which also shows you the different clues that were written for the word. Both “cert” and “terr” have appeared at least a 100 times (the max. number of entries that Wordplays displays), so they are crossword-acceptable. However, it is important to note that using the Wordplays website is not a foolproof way to determine crossworthiness. For example, “soh” has appeared at least 89 times in crosswords as “fifth musical note,” but a simple Google search will tell you that it’s really more often spelled “sol.” 30-across used to be “soh,” but I later changed it to “sav” for this reason. By the way, I mentioned earlier that I like to use “EASY A” because it isolates the “A;” 6-down is an example of this theory in reverse, whereby “A” begins the word—”a rest,” as in, “give it a rest.”

Another useful tip I’ve learned along the way is that when you fill in long words, it’s handy if they are long words with “some flexibility”—for example, 4-down could have also been chemistry, in case palmistry didn’t work out. That way, I don’t have to change the middle section that crosses the letters “mistry” in the event that the top section needs to be edited. Similarly, “determiner” and “stationer” could have been “determined” or “stationed,” such that 13-down could end in “err” “erd” or “edd.” I would have liked to use the word “nerd” but unfortunately that would have caused problems in other areas of the puzzle. Just to show you, though, if I didn’t need to keep “rice,” I could have easily incorporated “nerd” without changing too much of the rest of the puzzle. “Omit” would have become “I’m in,” “rice” –> “dice,” etc (see the picture on the right below). But then I would have had another French word, “Ete,” lol. Alors, c’est trop!

What I love about crossword constructing is that every single word in the puzzle ends up with its own story. I can look at each word and remember exactly how I ended up with that word instead of another. And what’s more, they all have a shared history because they all exist in relation to each other. But as time-intensive as constructing a grid is, it’s all for naught unless you have good clues…


It’s always important to have a sense of what your clues for your theme words will be before you start constructing. This is because your theme is the “shiniest” part of your puzzle and you want your clues to do them justice. I had vague ideas of what I wanted to do before I finished the puzzle, but when it came to clue-writing, I decided to go with a fun, narrative approach. “Build your order” is a reference to Chipotle’s burrito assembly process.

The clues for the theme words are:

  • Time to build your order! Choose between white or brown RICE
  • Never too early to think about tangy toppings, like Mexican CREMA
  • Next up: refried, black, or PINTOBEANS (2 wds.)
  • Pick your protein! Chicken, steak, or CARNEASADA (2 wds.)
  • To go with chips, SALSA is a must
  • Finally: pay extra for GUAC!

When I was writing the clues, I realized that the ingredients don’t really appear in “order of construction.” Notably, when we order a burrito, we usually add sour cream / crema at the end… that’s why writing clues “narrative style” was helpful. That way, I could say it’s “never too early to think about toppings,” thus making it seem more natural that “crema” comes after rice. I hope so, at least. Another issue I ran into is that I realized I can’t describe “crema” as “sour cream” because they’re not exactly the same thing. Also, “crema” is Spanish. So, I described it as a “tangy” topping and put “Mexican” before the blank so that players could more easily infer that the answer is a condiment and in Spanish.

When I write clues, I always like to have a few clues that are inspired by my personal life or own interests. That’s why I’ll probably always clue “Red” as “Taylor Swift album named after a color.” I think clues like this add personality to the puzzle, and reveal something about its constructor.


The final step of crossword constructing is really a step that happens at several stages throughout the process: collecting feedback! My sister Cynthia is a pro crossword player (she plays the NYT puzzle every single day) and also gives us great feedback on our fill and clues. If something doesn’t sit right, she won’t hesitate to let me know (in fact, it was largely because Cynthia and Kevin both raised eyebrows at “philomathy” that I ended up redoing half the puzzle although I had already “finished” it).

After this step, the only thing left is for the crossword to be published, played, and judged by others!

Final thoughts:

This puzzle took me about a week to construct, and I probably spent 9 hours on it altogether, if not more. I try to construct a bit each day instead of trying to do everything at once so that I don’t burn out. In fact, it’s sometimes a good idea to simply spend a day coming up with an interesting theme and sleeping on it so see if you still like it the next day.

Constructing a crossword…can be like building a burrito. The order of construction matters, and each ingredient has its own story. And, if all goes well, you end up with a yummy product that you’ll want to order again!

September – May’s Monthly Memo

Between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, Today

I read a Korean poem
with the line “Today you are the youngest
you will ever be.” Today I am the oldest
I have been. Today we drink
buckwheat tea. Today I have heat
in my apartment. Today I think
about the word chada in Korean.
It means cold. It means to be filled with.
It means to kick. To wear. Today we’re worn.
Today you wear the cold. Your chilled skin.
My heart kicks on my skin. Someone said
winter has broken his windows. The heat inside
and the cold outside sent lightning across glass.
Today my heart wears you like curtains. Today
it fills with you. The window in my room
is full of leaves ready to fall. Chada, you say. It’s tea.
We drink. It is cold outside.

Emily Jungmin Yoon
Although we experienced multiple heatwaves this month, I love Emily’s poem and think it’s a fitting poem of the month—for reasons that this post might make clear!

🖼️ Hello, or should I say 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo), because this month I started learning Korean! I’ll be honest, I did not see this coming despite my ongoing infatuation with Crash Landing on You, but I guess my 16-day streak of learning Korean (Duolingo reminds me every day) shows that I indeed have the capacity to add another item to my daily list of to-dos.

Learning a language feels so good. In high school, French was one of my favorite subjects and I remember going the extra mile to learn the language, taking reams of notes, listening to French music, reading French books (moment of silence for the French copy of Swann’s Way that I never finished). So now that I’ve latched onto another language, I guess it’s not surprising that I am really getting into it!

Here’s how I’ve been learning Korean (apart from watching K-dramas)—every day, I complete a few lessons on Duolingo. It was the first resource I decided to use, since I’ve used it before, and it’s got that “game” factor which makes it a fun way to learn languages. But Duolingo alone is not sufficient, since it mostly feeds you a very specific selection of words and doesn’t do a good job explaining why certain characters (particles) are placed in front of nouns/objects, etc. So once I realized I wanted to take my Korean language learning more seriously, I decided to start from the top. I found a great YouTube video that teaches you Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which is surprisingly “easy” to learn but harder to master, of course. Back when I had 0 knowledge of how the Korean language worked, I remember thinking that the script was mostly characterized by lines and circles. Now that I know the alphabet, I realize that all the strokes in Hangul actually help you read each character! I was relieved to learn that Hangul is in this way unlike Chinese, a language that you cannot read simply by “spelling” out an alphabet. As long as you know how Hangul works, you can technically pronounce any character even if you don’t know what it means. Since a major motivation for my Korean learning is being able to read the lyrics of my favorite Korean songs (lolol), this is a big plus.

Hangul - Wikiwand

I’ve also been working my way through the lessons offered by Talk To Me In Korean, a fantastic online resource. Each lesson is digestible, comes with an awesome podcast, and introduces you to relevant, everyday vocabulary (unlike Duolingo, which thought it was more important to teach me how to say “Baskin Robbins” in Korean before, like, “food.” But Baskin Robbins is super popular in South Korea and a good example of Konglish, so I guess it makes sense…).

In order to strengthen my vocabulary, I’ve also downloaded Quizlet on my phone, and I use its flashcard feature to practice identifying and even typing out Korean characters. In terms of learning new words, Quizlet has perhaps been the best resource. I really hope I’ll be able to keep up this new hobby!

🎬 This month, I watched two more K-dramas, My Holo Love and Itaewon Class (both are on Netflix). The former is a limit series about a woman with face blindness who falls in love with an AI hologram—but also its creator (plot twist: they share the same face). The latter is about a group of misfits who are trying to bring down the biggest food corporation in Korea, run by a corrupt man who is the protagonist’s enemy. As someone who studied literature in college, I’m fascinated by ~tropes~, and K-dramas are a treasure trove of tropes (sorry, could not resist the alliteration). In the three K-dramas I’ve seen so far, identical tropes appear—one of the main characters is an orphan, product placement is conspicuous, there’s a love triangle, the “bad guy” is sometimes inexplicably evil and also older than everyone else, the male lead always strokes the female lead’s hair, and so on…. of course, each show has their own OST (original soundtrack) and the music never disappoints. The theme song of Itaewon Class is actually so empowering, lol. Very good running music!

📚 We live near a fantastic bookstore called Moe’s Books, and my colleagues gave me a gift card to spend there! So I made my first purchase this month—Ted Chiang’s Exhalations. It’s a collection of science fiction stories, although the stories are really more about human life, history, and the future of our planet than fantasy. One of my favorite passages comes from the story The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling:

“We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.”

The story is about the power of revision; in an oral culture, people can easily revise history. In oral cultures, “histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself.” It’s not that “their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.” Chiang describes each human as a “private oral culture.” People may confabulate, reframe, dramatize, or forget memories according to their own needs. But in a fictional world where memories are recorded, like writing, this “revision” would no longer be possible.

My favorite short story in the collection is “The Great Silence,” a lovely and moving piece narrated by a parrot. If you have a few minutes to spare, I recommend you read it online here .

It’s no coincidence that “aspiration” means both hope and the act of breathing.

When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneously our intentions and our life force.

I speak, therefore I am. Vocal learners, like parrots and humans, are perhaps the only ones who fully comprehend the truth of this.

It’s been a good reading month! For my essay on Hong Kong housing and poetry, I’ve come across two sources that really resonate with me. The first is Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1957), a phenomenological text on how the spaces we live in influence the way we think and dream. Bachelard thinks of houses, memory, and words as being in relation with one another, and perceives the world in a highly imaginative way:

Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms. If these dreams are realized, they no longer belong in the domain of this study, but in that of the psychology of projects. However, as I have said many times, for me, a project is short-range oneirism, and while it gives free play to the mind, the soul does not find in it its vital expression. Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts-serious, sad thoughts-and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.

One can establish a dialogue between Bachelard’s text and Leung Ping-kwan’s short story from the 70s, “People Searching For A House.” Leung, better known as Yasi, was one of Hong Kong’s most important writers and many of his poems touch on the subject of housing. He actually also wrote a poem about UChicago’s Robie House, which really made me feel nostalgic. I love finding connections between Hong Kong poets/literary people and Chicago. I hope I can consider myself part of that lineage. I’ll aim to translate the poem next month. Anyway, I wanted to skim Yasi’s short story about a young couple searching for a house because I thought it would inform my chapter. But I ended up loving the story more than I thought—it’s amazing. It at once captures the difficulty of living / finding housing in a place like Hong Kong, as well as the flighty personalities of millennials, a condition of the city itself. Here’s my favorite passage, translated into English by moi:


They had lived in practically every district in Hong Kong. They lived by the mountains, then encountered landslides; lived in the fishing village, where violent rains brought flooding; lived near the airport, and glass shattered when planes flew past; lived opposite a power station, where there was an explosion; they lived in an old building that had to be demolished; the new place they moved into was haunted; they lived in a house near underground casinos and private clubs, so they moved; waste transfer stations and furnaces, so they moved again; the house had to be torn down to make way for the underground railway, so they were forced to leave; land was being reclaimed to build a racecourse, so they had to choice but to move once more; they lived downtown, then moved because it was unsafe; moved to the countryside, and moved again because of the village gossip. They moved for all sorts of reasons: because they got new jobs, because they fought with the neighbors, owners, or managers, because they were impatient or restless, because they wanted a better life.

🎶 This has turned into another loooong monthly memo so I’ll wrap things up swiftly here—apart from the Korean music I’ve been listening to this month, I also revisited some favorite oldies by The Carpenters (“Top of the World,” “Rainy Days and Mondays”) and Don McLean (“American Pie,” “Vincent”). Kevin has a songbook full of American classics, and we’ve been playing the guitar and harmonica together. A fun song we’ve learned to play is Roger Miller’s “Oo-De-Lally” from Disney’s Robin Hood. Finally, Alicia Keys’ album dropped this month, and it includes a beautiful track: “Gramercy Park.” The live version, performed on Tiny Desk a while ago, still rules.

💬 My word of the month is the Korean word for “no”—아니요 (a-ni-yo). It can also be used in response to “thank you” (Koreans say 아니요 more often than the actual phrase for “you’re welcome”). There are other ways to say “no” depending on levels of formality, but 아니요 is the most common one, and it’s also what you hear very often in K-dramas. I didn’t realize how often I say “no” until I started using 아니요 (or 아뇨 / a-nyo, “nope”) at every opportunity! Which is not to suggest that it’s been a “negative month,” 아니요. 🙂

May’s Monthly Memo – August

The Presence In Absence

Poetry is not made of words.
I can say it’s January when
it’s August. I can say, “The scent
of wisteria on the second floor
of my grandmother’s house
with the door open onto the porch
in Petaluma,” while I’m living
an hour’s drive from the Mexican
border town of Ojinaga.
It is possible to be with someone
who is gone. Like the silence which
continues here in the desert while
the night train passes through Marfa
louder and louder, like the dogs whining
and barking after the train is gone.

Linda Gregg

As Taylor Swift says, “august slipped away like a moment in time.” It’s a particularly relatable lyric these days, as most of my conversations with people involve one of us remarking, “what is time” or simply “time” with a sigh, often the easiest thing to say about the most challenging of circumstances.

August was our first full month in Berkeley. Kevin started work, our Shipment of Stuff from Chicago finally arrived, our home is now more of a home. I cook a nice homemade dinner almost every day (unless we are finishing leftovers), not only because we’ve gotta eat but also because it feels like a reliable form of therapy.

I think that my tendency to let my stubborn obsessions consume me has become more pronounced over quarantine, either because I’m more impressionable and vulnerable (?) or because “exciting” events are scarce these days. August has been a month for obsessions indeed; I was obsessed with folklore (as evidenced by my 2000 word review), obsessed with cleaning/organizing our home, obsessed (still) with the picture-perfect world of Pinterest (and succulents), obsessed with Crash Landing on You, a K-drama that Kevin and I started watching this month (more on #CLOY later). In my translation work, my obsessiveness often leads me down helpful rabbit holes as I try to get to the bottom of a text (for example: I spent a while Googling the use of limestone powder on graves for a poem I am translating). When I’m making crosswords, obsession motivates me to construct better grids and search until I’ve found the right words to fit the puzzle. I guess two contradicting synonyms for “obsession” in my mind are “focus” and “distraction”—I’m just really focused on stuff right now while being continuously distracted, I guess.

🎬 Two of Kevin’s friends suggested that we watch CLOY, a K-drama about a South Korean heiress, Yoon Se-Ri (Son Ye-jin) who is transported into North Korea by the winds of fate in a paragliding accident. In the forest where she crash-lands, she meets the Captain of the Special Forces, Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), who ends up hiding her and does his best to send her home discreetly. Predictable spoiler: they fall in love.

7 Places To Grab Korean Fried Chicken In Manila

But seriously—the show is somehow full of unexpected twists and turns despite delivering many of the tropes that you would expect of K-dramas. The script is hilarious, the performances are gold, and on top of it all the whole thing is very romantic. I don’t remember the last time I was so genuinely touched and moved by a show. Cynthia and I stayed up until 5 AM binge-watching the final 5 episodes one night (this is very out of character for me, so you can understand the extent to which I was possessed). Another ingenious aspect of the show is its spot-on product placement. I knew that product placements are common in K-dramas (huge source of revenue), but I didn’t fully realize until a few episodes into the show that the tasty fried chicken and conspicuously shiny jewelry that kept reappearing were, in fact, the result of brand partnerships and sponsors. In truth, one can feel slightly duped when realizing that their favorite scene largely revolves around a commercial product that was strategically placed there to satisfy a corporate brand. But ultimately, any TV show is trying to sell you something, be it a Range Rover or a love story. You’re going to be sucked in no matter what—it’s just that a particular brand might happen to profit off of your emotional investment (South Korea’s Gold Olive Chicken, which featured prominently in the show, apparently experienced a 100% sales boost after the K-drama aired).

Son Ye-jin will always have a special place in my heart because she starred in The Classic (2003), one of my dad’s favorite movies that we watched many times when I was young. Watching her bring Yoon Se-ri to life (and she did suuuuch a brilliant job) felt like such a gift, and actually helped me remember the joy (and emotional turbulence, lol) of watching The Classic.

📚 Last month, I made a promise to myself that I would read more this month, and while I didn’t exactly deliver, I am off to a good-ish start. I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which remains a timely text in our current climate. I plan to go to Moe’s Books this weekend (my former colleagues got me a gift card!) to pick up some September reads. I’m still translating Chung Kwok-keung’s poems and preparing for two panels at the virtual ALTA conference next month, so I’ve been reading and translating his work. I’ve been invited to contribute a chapter on Hong Kong poetry for a book that is being published by Routledge, so I re-downloaded Zotero and put my academia hat back on. The working title for my essay is: “Writers in Residence: Housing and Property in Hong Kong Poetry.” Not bad, eh? I’ll be writing about Chung Kwok-keung’s “The Growing House,” Lok Fung’s “Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box,” and P.K. Leung’s “A Poetry of Moving Signs.” In preparation for writing the paper, I also read Martin Heidegger’s essay on poetry and dwelling (like I said, putting my academia hat back on for a bit). Finally, I’m copyediting a full-length book on marketing (also for Routledge), so I’ve been reading and learning a lot about the future of branding.

🎶 This month, I have been listening almost exclusively to folklore and the CLOY soundtrack. Songs that Kevin is sick of hearing on repeat include: Flower by Yoon Mirae, Here I am Again by Yerin Baek, and The Song for My Brother, a lovely piano track composed by Nam Hye Seung and Park Sang Hee that plays an important role in CLOY. In typical obsessive fashion, I have also learned to play the song on the guitar!

💬 My word of the month is “marketing.” It’s just something I’ve been thinking about as I edit this book on branding and ponder the product placements in CLOY. Of course, marketing is always in every aspect of our lives. But it feels like a fitting word for August, a month that went by so quickly, yet was packed with so many obsessions. I want to end with a quote that I saw on Twitter the other day:

She remembered it was August and they say August brings bad luck.

But September would arrive one day like an exit. And September was for some reason a lighter and more transparent month.

—Clarice Lispector, In Search for a Dignity (t. Katrina Dodson)

Folklore: Tales, Traditions, and Taylor Swift

On July 23, Taylor Swift surprised fans worldwide by announcing a midnight album-drop—an unprecedented move by an artist who is known for carefully-orchestrated “Easter egg hunts” and well-timed single releases. The record, she wrote on social media, would consist of 16 tracks largely co-written with The National Aaron Dessner and include a Bon Iver feature. Taylor wasn’t just releasing a surprise album—she was releasing her first alternative album.

Taylor is no stranger to genre-crossing, having written songs that topped both country and pop charts. folklore isn’t her first foray into indie territory, either; her 2012 collaboration with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody gave us one of her best duets, “The Last Time.” That same year, she teamed up with The Civil Wars to write “Safe & Sound” for The Hunger Games soundtrack. Even “22,” one of her poppiest tracks, has a memorable line about an “indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Taylor is also a self-proclaimed The National “stan.” All this is to say that folklore has been a long time coming.

A trademark feature of Taylor’s songs is their focus on her personal life, something that has both brought her praise and much unwanted attention. Both the media and her fans go to great lengths to track the subjects of her lyrics, which are sometimes hinted at in the song title themselves (“Dear John” is about John Mayer, “Style” is about Harry Styles [allegedly]) or otherwise addressed through clues (Taylor used to capitalize letters in her lyric books to spell out secret messages). Since the Lover era, however, Taylor has been vocal about the evolving scope of her songwriting. She’s not just writing about her personal life anymore, but drawing inspiration from books, films, and friends.

Folklore makes a triumphant return to Taylor’s storytelling roots, and three of the album’s best songs form a narrative arc: “august,” “betty,” and “cardigan” (coincidentally “ABC”). As Taylor explained in a YouTube comment shortly before the “cardigan” video dropped, there are three songs on the album that form a “teenage love triangle.” The three players in this triangle appear in “betty”—Betty, James, and an unnamed “she.” The song is sung from the perspective of James, who recalls a summer where he falls in love with Betty but then ends up in a fling with another girl who invites him into her car. The song ends with him making it up to Betty (musically, through a very welcome key shift), showing up on her porch and letting her know that he misses her. Here’s how Betty ends:

Yeah, I showed up at your party
Will you have me? Will you love me?
Will you kiss me on the porch
In front of all your stupid friends?
If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it?
Will it patch your broken wings?
I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything
But I know I miss you

Standing in your cardigan
Kissin’ in my car again
Stopped at a streetlight
You know I miss you

Now, “cardigan” is written from Betty’s perspective. Although “betty” and “cardigan” are sonically quite different (“betty” is country and harmonica-laden, “cardigan” is more alternative), both songs share similar motifs:

I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired
And you’d be standing in my front porch light […]
And when I felt like I was an old cardigan
Under someone’s bed
You put me on and said I was your favorite

So “cardigan” shows us that there is a happy-ish ending for Betty and James, who end a tortuous summer by reconciling. By the way, I like that “cardigan” falls into the clothing line of Taylor Swift songs over the years, joining “Tim McGraw’s” “little black dress” and the “Dress” of reputation. As the album’s first single, “cardigan” also has the sonic flair and catchy hook that make it a strong contender for radio airplay.

So it’s a love story for Betty and James, but how about our unnamed troublemaker who got between them? “august,” the most pop-reminiscent and arguably most “fun” song on the album, is sung from her perspective (“remember when I pulled up and said “get in the car?”). The song invites us to empathize with her, for whom “august slipped away like a bottle of wine, ’cause you were never mine.” The best part of the song is the surge at 3:09.

Although “ABC” may be the holy trinity of folklore, its themes are still resonant in the other tracks on the album. The opening track, aptly named “the 1” (“august” is track 8, “seven” is track 7, I see what you did there, Taylor), laments that “the one” got away, setting us up for the loss in “cardigan” that immediately follows as track 2. It’s a springy song that ties remorse and optimism together, just as “cardigan” paints a sad ending as a romantic compromise. Interestingly, both songs are also connected by motifs of days long gone—“roaring twenties” and “vintage tees.” The theme of infidelity explored in ABC also finds fuller volume in “illicit affairs,” a haunting track about the heartbreak that romantic betrayal brings. Unlike Taylor’s typical “you-burned-me-so-I’ll-burn-you” songs about broken promises, though, “illicit affairs” is decidedly more helpless and somber. It’s less assertive, but more mature and vulnerable than her other cheating-themed songs such as “Should’ve Said No,” “Better Than Revenge,” and “Getaway Car.”

As a “quarantine” album, folklore makes its starkest pandemic reference in “epiphany,” a song that begins by alluding to Taylor’s grandfather Dean, who served in the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal. In the second verse, however, the song fast-forwards a few decades to today:

Something med school did not cover
Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother
Holds your hand through plastic now
“Doc, I think she’s crashing out”
And some things you just can’t speak about

By drawing an analogy between the PTSD of wartime and pandemic times, “epiphany” is a subtle but moving nod to healthcare workers on the frontlines who “dream of some epiphany … to make some sense of what you’ve seen.”

Lyrically, the best song on the album is “the last great american dynasty,” which really goes to show Taylor’s storytelling potential. “Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny,” begins the song. “Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis….” The song tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, an oil heiress/composer/philanthropist whose story is intertwined by glamour and tragedy. Throughout the song, Taylor tells us about Rebekah’s life while artfully describing her own—Rebekah was the owner of Taylor’s now-infamous Rhode Island mansion. During their time in the mansion, Taylor and Rebekah were known for throwing big parties, having a ‘girl squad,’ and upsetting local authorities. It’s a tongue-in-cheek song that’s both a fascinating history lesson and a very big flex. “And then it was bought by me,” sings Taylor in the song’s turning point (the house sold for $17.75 million), reinserting herself into the song’s narrative. “tlgad” has the same chaotic energy as “Blank Space,” for both songs are sung from the perspective of someone who calls herself “mad” while reminding you that she’s also mad successful and mad rich.  Speaking of “mad,” the song “mad woman” is a fitting follow-up to “The Man,” although the former has more of a gothic-woodsy aesthetic than the latter. “mad woman” might not dominate the pop charts the way “The Man” did, but it certainly gets the message across in a spookier way (the song is believed to be a reference to Taylor losing her masters to Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun).

As much as folklore focuses on other stories and perspectives, the album absolutely shines when we see Taylor getting introspective and self-referential (some might say that the “Old Taylor” is back). One of the loveliest songs on the album is “seven,” which takes us back to a childhood memory in Pennsylvania. Taylor sings it in a high, effortless falsetto, a style that suits her far more than the belting style of pop. Another close favorite of mine is “invisible string,” which has the loveliest guitar opening and catchiest run, courtesy of Aaron Dessner. It’s a welcome reprieve from the album’s sadder songs. The lyrics are on-point too, with verse 2 being my favorite. It’s funny that Taylor references “Bad Blood”—the two songs could not sound more different.

Bad was the blood of the song in the cab
On your first trip to LA
You ate at my favorite spot for dinner
Bold was the waitress on our three-year trip
Getting lunch down by the Lakes
She said I looked like an American singer

An invisible (or not-so-invisible) string ties the many songs in this album together as well. The lakes alluded to in “invisible string” reappear in the album’s bonus track (“the lakes”), which draws heavily on the imagery of romantic poets. With lyrics like “I want auroras and sad prose / I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet,” the song is a bit too saccharine for my tastes, personally, even though I spent an entire quarter reading romantic poetry in college. But it’s always nice to get a bonus track from Taylor—the last time we had one was in the 1989 era.

My review of any Taylor album wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t touch on track 5, which in Swift lore is traditionally the most emotional song on the album. Track 5 of folklore, “my tears ricochet,” is the first song Taylor wrote for the album, and like “The Archer” from Lover, it has a slow payoff. It’s not one of my top picks, but it does have the sharpest retort in the album: “if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” Despite the melancholy reputation of track 5s, I often find that other songs on Taylor’s albums pull more emotional weight. In the case of folklore, it’s the two songs that sandwich “my tears ricochet.” Track 4, “exile,” is Taylor’s best collaboration to date (sorry, Gary Lightbody). The Bon Iver feature is a dramatic call-and-response between two ex-lovers who are watching the metaphorical credits of their love story start to roll. Who thought that pairing the grittiness of Justin Vernon’s baritone with Taylor’s soft vocals would be such a good idea? “exile” is exemplary. Track 6, “mirrorball,” sounds just like a sparkly disco ball and yet describes someone who is as fragile as one—liable to shatter into a million pieces. Taylor’s vocals are carefully layered in a continuous harmony in “mirrorball,” as if she were lost in a crowd or out of reach. In terms of production and execution, both songs overshadow track 5 to my ears.

Overall, the album moves at a measured, nostalgic pace, making the black-and-white woodland backdrop a fitting image for the cover. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that some of the songs are a bit too slow—“this is me trying” feels a bit too trying to me, and the shiniest part of the song is its over-too-soon bridge. It does have some stellar lines (“they told me all of my cages were mental, So I got wasted like all my potential”), but the song as a whole does not take flight. This is not to say that I was not a fan of the slower, stripped-down songs on the album, though; “peace” and “hoax,” the two closing tracks, were some of my early favorites when I first started listening to folklore. Like “seven,” they present Taylor in her vocal strong suit: singing clearly, honestly, and tenderly. Unlike many of the other tracks on the album, “peace” and “hoax” also sound like songs from the present, not the nostalgic past. Perhaps they feel more grounded in this way.

Composed entirely during isolation, folklore presents us with Taylor in ultimate focus-mode, and seeing her introspection and imagination run wild on this album has been a silver lining in quarantine. Things I would love to see from the folklore era include a live/virtual performance (especially of “exile”), a movie-music video of the ABC arc, and more insight on the making of the album. Also, it would be great if Taylor could reveal the identity of the elusive William Bowery—an anonymous cowriter on “betty” and “exile.” But Taylor loves mystery after all, which is an important element of some of the best stories. We’ll just have to wait and see where her visionary mind takes us next!

May’s Monthly Memo – July

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure—
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one—
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table—
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

Billy Collins

I write this memo from my new apartment in Berkeley, which Kevin and I will be calling home for the foreseeable future! It’s lovely here—the weather is perennially nice, I’m surrounded by the nicest plants I’ve ever seen in my life, and our first-apartment-out-of-college is pretty ideal, too. Since I’m already in an August state of mind, I’ll keep this monthly memo short (I had to really motivate myself to write it, frankly). It’s not that July seems a long time ago, but rather that I’m no longer sure whether I still think of units of time in months anymore. Anyway…

This is my second time in Berkeley, but my first time living on the west coast. While the sun is out every day, I’ve noticed that it doesn’t start getting sunny-sunny until after 10 AM (typically), which means that I have more time in the morning to go on a run while it’s still overcast outside. Right outside our living room window are a cluster of trees with spiky, burnt leaves and softer fern-like things springing out the top. They’re not the most radiant plants in the world, but I’ve grown fond of them nonetheless. Our neighbors to the west grow a lot of trees (even a lemon tree), and I have them to thank for our kitchen view; if I look directly out the window, I can imagine for a moment that we’re in the woods.

I spent a lot of time on Pinterest and Apartment Therapy in July, daydreaming of how I’d furnish this home when we got here. After all, this is the first place I’m living in as an adult that I get to furnish myself! That being said, a lot of my interior decor dreams needed a reality check once we got here. Alas! At heart, I’m still a functionality/budget over aesthetics/$$$ girl. Our dining room table, TV stand, coffee table, and chairs are currently all from IKEA (which is fine, IKEA is great for staples). Once the rest of our stuff arrives (I imagine our worldly possessions are in a truck somewhere, stuck in traffic) we’ll have a better sense of how to furnish this space into a cozy home. I suppose I feel a bit like the speaker in “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” (by Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets), “trying to manufacture the sensation / of fishing on the Susquehanna.” Trying to imagine an experience from a painting or a photo, sometimes so viscerally that it feels within reach.

🎬 We watched a lot of Lucifer last month, and I honestly think the show does better job of exploring themes such as vulnerability, agency, and desire as the seasons progress. I was giving someone life advice a few days ago and realized that what I was saying was inspired by Dr. Linda (the therapist) from the show. In some ways, Lucifer is really a show about how to manage your emotions.

📚 My reading draught ends now! After forgetting how to read for a very long time, I’m determined to turn reading back into an essential life habit this month. I did finish Joshua Wong’s Unfree Speech on the plane, though. It’s a very moving and heartbreaking read at this particular juncture in time.

🎶 Just when I thought I had everything under control, Taylor Swift decided to drop an ENTIRE ALBUM!!! I had less than 24 hours to emotionally prepare and the album landed on the day I flew to Berkeley, too. It’s actually quite nice, easing into a new chapter of my life with a new Taylor album. I will probably be writing a separate review of folklore soon. My current favorites from the record are: cardigan, exile, august.

💬 Word of the month, and biggest distraction of the month: Pinterest. For reasons explained above…

May’s Monthly Memo – June

🖼️ Like most things that are turned in late, this monthly memo is brief, scattered, retrospective, and a bit lame (sorry). June was a month of big life-changes for me (on paper, mostly) although life feel the same-ish. I guess that’s how the state-of-the-world is, too—laws are signed and orders are passed, but they just seem to formalize or ignore a concurrent reality. Much like the translated poem I’ve included above, this piece still feels like a work-in-progress, but here it is anyway.

🎬 This month, I re-watched Knives Out (still satisfying the second time round), wrapped up Legends of Tomorrow with Kevin, finally finished watching My Cousin Vinny, and also watched the first season of Rhythm + Flow, which is like the hip-hop version of The Voice. I’ve never really been an avid listener of rap music but thanks to Rhythm + Flow, I now have a better understanding and appreciation of the genre. Truly some of the best rhymes are found in rap verses.

🎶 HAIM’s highly-anticipated 3rd album, Women in Music Part III, debuted this month and the sisters never disappoint. While the promo singles they released earlier this year are still (to my ear) the main bangers from the album, most HAIM songs get better after several listens—especially when heard live. All in all, I think they’ve strategized their music-release-during-quarantine very cleverly. Other songs that have been on repeat this month include Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” (a timely tune, as I moved out of Hyde Park), and Jawsh 685’s “Laxed – Siren Beat” (a TikTok hit).

📖 Tragically, I did not read much in June, unless you count many tweets, the Illinois Rules of the Road handbook, and USCIS instructions as “literature.” However, I am hoping to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and finish reading Joshua Wong’s book in July. I feel that my writing has been dry and drab recently and I think I can chalk it up to the utter disintegration of my reading habits….

💬 June’s word of the month is cul-de-sac, a term that seems to crop up everywhere for me. I encountered it multiple times in Legends of Tomorrow as a recurring trope, then in a NYT crossword (I’ve also used “sac” in my own crosswords), and then IRL in the streets of Naperville. Cul-de-sac is one of those words that I sometimes hear, know exists, yet never really need to use in daily lingo. I feel like it is a very American concept, particularly in relation to suburban life. It’s also a phrase that can sound kind of fancy (it is French, after all), until you translate it plainly: dead end. 😬

On a metaphorical, large-scale level, I wonder whether big movements happening in both the US and Hong Kong can be compared to cul-de-sacs, passages that lead nowhere. I experienced a similar frustration when I was learning to drive in the suburbs. What’s the point of driving into a cul-de sac if you just end up exiting the same way you came in?

In urban planning, cul-de-sacs were originally integrated to create safety and connectivity, but they now sometimes come under fire for being unsafe, and even bad for your health (residents living in cul-de-sacs often need to drive to get anywhere, increasing car exhaust levels as well as safety concerns for kids playing outside their home).

As we navigate the fourth month of quarantine, I also feel that the pandemic situation in the US feels a bit like driving in a cul-de-sac, going in circles without making progress. But perhaps that is taking the metaphor too far…

Anyway, I will aim to publish July’s monthly memo before the month is up. I’ll be pressing “publish” in Berkeley when the time comes!