People regularly inform me that they get most of their news from my Facebook feed. I’m happy to do it.
However, this also means Mark Zuckerberg is indirectly profiting off my incessant information hunting-and-gathering, and that bothers me on an existential level. Especially considering that I drive by Facebook’s large and pleasingly manicured headquarters on a bi-weekly basis.
On that note, I’ll be sharing my latest Interesting Stuff I Found Online over here, and regularly.
We have all encountered that gullible, slightly obnoxious individual who becomes deeply indignant about an Onion article, preferably one that deals with pressing social issues. This glorious website has collected these responses from the satire-impervious into one convenient location.
“The irony is that by standing beside Russia and pointing fingers at fascist phantoms in Ukraine, Western intellectuals are aligning themselves not just with the autocrat in the Kremlin, but the legions of far-right parties across Europe that have come to Russia’s defense, among them Hungary’s Jobbik, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Austria’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Lega Nord and the French Front National. Who says Russia needs propaganda? It already has its useful idiots.”
This story, and others like it, bring to me this observation: Sherpas, even incredibly heroic ones, are perennially referred to in the possessive, as if they’re interesting, contract-subject luxury objects — somehow both more and less than a plain old “guide.”
The possessive usage of “Sherpa” stands out particularly because our society has at least made some kind of effort to eliminate old White Man’s burden tropes from the language.
“My black boy,” “my punkhawallah,” “my coolie,” “my kaffir” and the like spring immediately to mind, as servile tropes that we in Western society once regularly used as a good bit of horrible colonial fun, but have by now mostly been purged from the language by decent, liberal humans.
But “Sherpas” are still someTHING that, for a temporal period of time, is “yours” — or at least that’s how the English usage of the term makes it sound.
Here’s a sentence I’ve read some variant on many times before, in my perusal of climbing writing: “I was out for a trek in Nepal when my Sherpa suggested we stop for a butter tea break.”
Not “My trekking guide, Lakpa Sherpa, suggested…”
Which is, of course, how one might refer to a guide of your own race in English.Say, “My trekking guide, Bob D. Smith, recently of Palo Alto, suggested we stop and hella tear into those Clif bars.”
No, it’s “my” Sherpa, as if your relationship with this autonomous adult human being is considerably more intimate and exotic than a fairly pedestrian exchange of money for physically arduous services rendered.
The possessive terminology of “my Sherpa” is regularly used in a fond sort of way by people who fancy themselves as progressive, inclusive types who do lots of yoga and donate to charities. There’s even a New Jersey IT company called MySherpa.
I have yet to overhear one of these well-traveled, enlightened people fondly refer to their tour guide at Angkor Wat as “My Cambodian” or “my coolie,” though Christ knows that I’m not ruling it out.
Perhaps the “owning” thing goes rather deep indeed.
As Jemima Diki Sherpa wrote on her excellent blog :“Still, it is undeniable that, in “post”-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us. Internet listsicles call us ‘badass’ and we have a very large, very coveted piece of real estate in our back yard. It is a stereotype, sure, but a positive one.”
I’m quite willing to hear out the argument that the turn of phrase “my Sherpa” is not meant to turn people into possessions, and is instead a pleasant honorific. But I’d like to hear that argument from a Sherpa, not from one of the climbers that regularly uses their services.
Sure, it’s just language. Just terminology. But considering that the Sherpas are currently embroiled in a very public fight for recognition and increased wages, perhaps we should be taking a closer look at how they are addressed — and respected — by their Western clientele.
On a semi-personal note, different pay grades for local workers and international workers are an unsavory aspect of expat life Southeast Asia, where the operating logic is that it takes much more money to persuade a highly educated Western worker to give up their life of glamour and iPhones to reside in a foreign country with weird food.
I’ve definitely been paid more than local colleagues to do the same sort of thing. Most Southeast Asia expats have had the same experience. However. When you’re sitting side by side to someone in an office and doing the same sort of things, with the same level of proficiency — but one of you is foreign, and thus getting paid much more — well, one wonders.
I would imagine the intensity of this discomfort and resentment is amped up considerably when your day job involves very regular exposure to being crushed to death by falling ice.
Something to think about.
At the very least, this horrible climbing disaster has led to an interesting public dialogue about Sherpas and the Western mania for conquering big, expense-heavy peaks. Here’s some links to good writing.
Addendum: It has come to my attention that there are two Special Western Teenagers who are deeply, deeply butthurt that their Mystical Everest Dream has come to a traumatizing end. That’s because 16 people were uncool enough to up and die while paving the way for them to climb the mountain.
When I lived in Phnom Penh, Khmer New Year was that time of year when everyone took off work for a week and all the businesses shut down. The normally traffic-besotted streets of Phnom Penh became quiet and empty during the holiday, and everyone who could scramble the vacation days (and that was most people) returned to their native village or headed over to the shore side to marinate in the sun for a bit.
I worked at the newspaper and we didn’t get the time off, the march of progress waiting for no one, and especially for no reporter. But the holiday was interesting: the Theraveda Buddhist temples choked with adherents paying their respects, the small sea of food dedicated to the monks as reverence for the harvest-time, the traditional games. People of all ages broke out small plastic shuttlecocks and kicked them to each other during the dim-yellow lights of the street at night, as I rode home on a motorbike: I did not know anyone well enough to get invited to a family celebration, but I liked to think of a time when I might.
Cambodian New Year has crossed the ocean, of course. This is Northern California, where a huge population of Southeast Asians moved after the bloody 1960s and 1970s and still resides. California is home to the biggest Khmer minority in the United States, with an estimated 86,244 — per US census data.
That Friday, last week, I’d been to a political event for the CNRP in Milipitas. Dozens of well-dressed, middle aged and elderly Cambodians streamed into a red-and-gold convention hall to hear Kem Sokha, second in command of the CNRP, and Yim Sovann, a party leader, talk. The mood in the air was thickly political, and images of Hun Sen portrayed as an animal and as a sock puppet of the Vietnamese flashed upon a television screen. This was the face of Cambodian-America deeply concerned with the home-country, and ready to donate both money and time to influence the situation.
I talk to old Cambodian-Americans and most harbor dreams of buying property back in Phnom Penh or in the countywide, of retiring there at least part of the year. But Hun Sen’s regime stands in their way, they say, this pervasive sense of uncertainty, of corruption.
The politics was shed over the weekend. I attended a Khmer New Year celebration at one of San Jose’s three Khmer temples, Wat Khemara Rangsey. The crowd numbered a couple hundred with an impressive array of ages. The women around the back hustled to make copious quantities of fried rice and curry with bamboo shoots and spring rolls. Before everyone ate, monks blessed the food inside the interior of the wat (a small converted house), as people streamed in and removed their shoes and streamed out again.
Then, everyone lined up outside the wat, and handed small scoops of rice to the monks in their saffron robes. Then, the feasting began – egg rolls vanishing first, great mounds of food in silver urns and white Styrofoam containers, and candy and chips for the kids, doled out outside. The air was familial: for an American with our provincial perspectives, approximately the same as Thanksgiving, but with more flavorful food.
An old man in a white collared shirt hovered around the sand-filled urn for offerings. As people knelt to light incense, some unaware of what to do, he advised them, pointing here and there. “This way,” he said, in Khmer. When they got up to go, he adjusted the little sticks again, which had elaborately cut out sheets of white paper stuck to them, evocative of ghosts.
The next weekend, I went to Stockton, where something around 20,000 Cambodians reside. It has the biggest Khmer New Year celebration in Northern California, at the opulent Wat Dammanak temple. Huge plaster and fiberglass images of the Buddha, monks in a row, and a fountain resided over by spirits dot the grounds.
Families milled around and slapped sunscreen on each other. Most had spread out a blanket under a chosen patch of shade and consumed great quantities of rice and stuffed chicken wings and curries from home.
The monks came in a line through the grounds of the temple at least twice while I was there, guided at the helm by a small orchestra. An old man played an electric Chinese violin, which had an amp wheeled around in a shopping cart. The monks smiled and waved and squirted passer-by with aromatic perfume. They walked to the sand stupa near the back of the temple grounds, which was bedecked with fake flowers and ribbons, and had many sticks of burning incense in it. They lit incense, too.
Outside observers want to stick a Khmer Rouge narrative on essentially everything Cambodians do. I am prey to this. But that’s not the point here, as multiple Cambodians assured me. There is a holiday for remembering the dead. That’s Pchum Ben, a 15 day religious festival when ancestors are fed rice, and when families venerate those who have passed.
But that is not what Khmer New Year is really about. Khmer New Year is a harvest rite, a time for fun, for gorging yourself on food and throwing shuttle-cocks at family members. I am glad it is here, in the US — that you can drive down a dusty road in Stockton and make a right, and find yourself in a small outpost of Cambodia, one that is dotted with many US and Cambodian flags.
Protesters in Eastern Ukraine are digging in for the long haul, or so says a recent report by PRI News. This report on a very worrisome topic was illustrated with an image of a man riding a pony through the deserted streets of Donetsk. You can see it here.
For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to do this.
My mother regularly threatens me with writing a really terrible obituary if I die before my time.
“It’ll be full of puppies and rainbows,” she says. “It’ll go on about how sweet and kind and inspirational you were. A little angel sent down from a sunbeam to live among us.”
She knows this would wound me to the core. This is a clever way to ensure against my early demise, or at least to ensure that I look both ways when crossing the street.
My utter revulsion towards this often-repeated, happy narrative about nice young white girls cut down against their time also gets me thinking. How do we eulogize the young and dead unfortunately? Why do we do such a sugary job of it, most of the time?
Marina Keegan was the latest example. Struck down in 2012 at the age of 22, on the way to Cape Cod, after graduating from Yale with the love of her peers and professors alike. Already tapped for a coveted New Yorker gig. Full of potential. Her essays now are seeing the light of day, republished on the New Yorker and blasted across the Internet.
Keegan’s brief life is being heralded as an inspiration, the sort of thing meant to make you weep with the Joy of Life over your computer keyboard. We’ve seen this before. Keegan is being re-purposed, posthumously. A sort of passionate Deepak Chopra figure, here to give us life lessons from her lovely young life — reaped before its time.
To be quite frank, this post-death exultation makes me a little ill. And it is not because of her, or her writing, which is perfectly good from the snippets I’ve read. It is because I would like to talk to her and see what she made of it. Part of me wonders if she would despise being re-purposed in such a way, rendered an inspirational figure — eulogized in USA Today, a Sad But Gentle Soul.
It brings me back to a greater observation. How often do we conclude about a young woman smacked down by fate about her time that she was not only brilliant but also at times difficult, snarky, complicated?
Truth. Young men and boys dead early are also portrayed through rose-colored glasses. But their naughtiness is also (at least more often) exposed. A lazy Google search for “obituary mischievous young boy” reveals dozens upon dozens of hits. Such a search substituting “girl” receives nothing of the sort. Young women are, more often, portrayed as magical angels come to live among us, here to blow the fairy dust of hope amidst us sad, earthbound beings.
This is, of course, bullshit.
Young women, especially the kind that are very good at writing, are usually just as cynical and wretched as their male counterparts. I believe this very strongly. Yet this is not how we honor them. We honor them by taking away the peculiar bits of their existences that defined them, denuding them of complexity, of blemish. We render early-dead young women eternally grinning, pretty little positive dolls. The reality of the young woman herself is irrelevant.
I don’t like Christopher Hitchens much. I liked Gore Vidal more. Both died relatively recently. Both their eulogies, on the whole, captured their intractable, loathsome asshole sides. To reiterate: I am not saying that Keegan, or any other Cut Down Before Her Time woman, was a secret curmudgeon. These are extreme cases.
But all of humanity, and especially those who are particularly creative, have their strange and ambiguous traits. These made them human. Perhaps it’s simply much harder to eulogize the dark and weird sides of young people who are not terribly famous, who do not have an immense body of work, whose grieving families are more able to take the wheel of such remembrances. But why is this so?
I am young, and thus a terrible, malevolent idiot. So too are many of my peers, or at least the ones I really like. Must you possess a certain gravitas (so often denied women of any age) to be remembered as both brilliant and as a miserable asshole? Does the flower of youth automatically disqualify you as being seen as a terrible curmudgeon? Should we let these early flowerings of cynicism and holy rage go unnoticed, even if they were the primary concerns of the young and early-dead?
There is one book I have read that did a good job of eulogizing a very young and very clever man. It is John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud,” which I picked up in a used bookstore the day after a friend and colleague died. Johnny Gunther died from a brain tumor when he was 17, a preternaturally sharp high-schooler who corresponded once with Einstein on a mathematical problem. Gunther documents his son’s more inspirational utterances, that is true: “God is what’s good in me,” for example.
But he also documents Johnny’s decline, the details of his suffering. He describes it when Johnny grows angry at his affliction, when he is exasperated, when he succumbs to his own humanity. And so, with these details, the obituary suddenly becomes more complete than any other I’ve come across. I read this memoir — published in 1949 — and feel the same sort of thump in the chest: both John Gunther and Johnny Gunther are dead now, and yet I feel them keenly. That’s how it’s done.
I do not know a thing about Marina, beyond the somewhat inadequate descriptions of what she was like that are being shuffled about the Internet. Perhaps she would have happily agreed to this sort of lurching inspiration machine generated around her death. That is her right.
But I also concern myself with the posthumous notions of the young and horrid. Call it self-preservation. I do not feel there is much in my story that anyone in their right mind could deem Inspirational, but — and but – perhaps with some airbrushing some Story of Triumph and Adversity could be re-animated, voodoo-like, from beyond my personal veil. The beer truck hits, and I am transfigured.
Should we attach a rider to our wills, that states that our obituaries be brutal and truthful? That no one describe us as “Full of Love And Life,” or we come back and haunt their closets, and permanently tie their shoes together, and attract moths to their underthings?
I think I will. I shall make it legal, or at least scribble a note in the margins of my legal documentation, or something. If you’re going to make the effort at all, don’t remember me as an Angel of Love, or a Gentle Beacon of Light. Remember me as a frightened, smallish, oft-difficult human, trying at times to make a legitimate effort.
When I began writing, it was a food blogger. I was 15 and was noticing the explosion of popular food blogs online: most importantly, I just really liked eating stuff. I started a food blog when I was sixteen and then threw myself more thoroughly into it once I got to school at Tulane, where I (conveniently) worked at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, complete with an enormous culinary library.
And I ate stuff, which is the primary trajectory of a well-spent time in New Orleans. I must have tried every reputable gumbo in the region, and concluded none quite came up to the family recipe — and the Vietnamese food, crawfish boils, po-boy establishments of ill repute, and all the rest. My family is French Creole in origin and so I justify some of this gluttony as a kind of cultural interface. Eat until you make yourself slightly sick, more so if you add in cigars and lots of really aggressive red wine. Reminiscence. This is black jambalaya from Crescent Pie and Sausage Company in Midcity, a really excellent entry into the already-booming “New Orleans restaurant that makes its own sausage” market. It’s black because there’s black-eyed peas in it, and it tastes delightfully filthy. This recipe has been dubbed Bad Bart’s Black Jambalaya and you can make it via Food Network instructions, an experiment I think I will make very soon. Who is Bad Bart? Christ if I know.
Jokes about sausage samplers write themselves. Suffice to say the boudin was spectacular, and the re-imagined Little Smokies were crunchy and good. Something is existentially satisfying about ground meat. I won’t be needing your vegan pamphlets, thank you. Chicken and biscuits from the Ruby Slipper, with tasso gravy on top. Evokes memories of being in a hurry on the way to school as an elementary school kid in Atlanta, and we’d pull over and get fried chicken on a biscuit from Chick-Fil-A, which would degrease your entire system by 12:00 PM. But it was worth it. This was better —lighter. I’ll never get chicken and waffles. There ought to be crumble.
At some point my entire New Orleans return-trip denigrates into a bunch of Instagram images of oysters. It’s hard to know what to say about oysters. Beyond the fact that the first time you eat a raw and enjoy it, you feel you’ve passed some magical veil into adulthood. When you’re little they tell you they’ll give you food poisoning and ALSO you won’t like it, and so you take their word for it. Then you’re like fourteen or so and it’s a nice dinner and someone foists one on you. Needless to say I accepted that challenge and have never looked back. Damn you BP. Curse you to hell. “Only Louisiana oysters will do,” my grandmother always says. “The California ones are too big.” Some people don’t know that New Orleans is home to a large Vietnamese diaspora population, attracted to the area by fishing and shrimping jobs in the aftermath of the war. This means you can get great Vietnamese food in the metro area, and lately, that great food has begun migrating into the inner city itself. The Eat-Well Food Market on Canal is one of those gems, with a front area containing the usual assortment of cigarettes, various pork rind flavors, and beer, and the back with a really excellent Vietnamese street food menu. This was superb Bun Bo Hue, considerably meatier and richer than versions I had in the actual Vietnamese city of Hue. Delicate lemongrass broth, and bones with marrow you can suck out. Perfect.
The banh mi were pitch-perfect as well – oh, and enormous AND cheap. Or Vietnamese po-boys, as the adaptive language goes in New Orleans. Roll with it.
Cochon Butcher is where I always stop, eventually, both because I think Donald Link is cool and they have really great sandwiches. Home-made meats and a counter ordering system. I always seem to get the bacon and collard greens melt, combining two of my favorite things into a distinctly salty, melty, slightly sour little slice of excellence. I may try this at home, actually, as I often have orphaned left-over collards. Recently discovered by every suit in the Financial District, so gird your loins for lunch rush.
We drove out of the city one day to go look for the swamp, the location of which we deduced from Google Maps and conviction that driving any direction from New Orleans will inevitably lead you to somewhere murky and populated by alligators. Well, it didn’t work – we neatly bypassed the Jean Lafitte park and instead found ourselves further and further out in nothing-in-particular country, with little white houses on stilts and the occasional Catholic cemetery, and few trees.
But on the way back, we stopped at Salvos in Belle Chasse, which my friend Harry introduced me to a couple of years. There, the oysters and indeed everything else cost a good $3 to $4 bucks less than the food everywhere else in the city, and everyone sitting down to eat all-you-can-eat boiled seafood is just From Around Here. So we ordered a dozen raw oysters, fat and gleaming, while my friend Una covered her eyes and grimaced at the spectacle (understandable, perhaps — take it intellectually, the act of eating an oyster. Loathsome and yet immensely pleasurable.)
New Orleans: the only airport in the world where you can get a cup of gumbo with cornbread for breakfast before your flight out. Good gumbo with a proper crab claw and a chicken wing in it, too. I eat this before I leave and regard the fools ordering from the Subway next door with deep disdain, as I surgically extract crab-meat from the shell of a crustacean at 9:30 AM. That’s living, you jerks.
What I miss most about New Orleans is definitely the music. Most cities in the world view music as a semi-interesting sidebar to the more important stuff. Venues are rare and expensive, outdoors festivals feature beer gardens and security scrutiny, and the occasional major band blows through like traders in the desert, selling $300 coliseum seats to the middle-aged fans who can afford it.
Then there’s New Orleans, where music is considered an expected part of the week, something that just sort of exists and permeates the air, a given inclination. Avoiding music in New Orleans becomes the hard part, for any extended period of time. You’ll be riding your bike through the neighborhood and encounter a hundred-person strong second line with a marching band, and then you’ll stop and look because everyone stops and looks. Also, all the shows are bar shows, or just about. This is eminently more reasonable.
It is needless to say that people rarely sing into drums and sit on pianos in Palo Alto. This is because people in Palo Alto are not properly civilized.
This is Sal in the Oopsie Daisies, who I remember from Hare Krishna free dinners, which were a real college institution when we didn’t feel like paying for Indian food. He’s a good singer and musician and I’m glad he’s doing this.
Buskers on Frenchmen Street. Isn’t the word “busker” sort of pleasant? Regardless. They’re another fixture here, and some people just sort of come down to New Orleans to spend their vacations engaged in a bit of busking and sight-seeing. I think this is a nice point-counterpoint way of handling things.
Wednesday music at Congo Square, with the Hot 8 Brass Band. Ho, hum. Wednesday.
One of the many youthful brass bands that hang out in the Quarter. Sure, some are better than others. But these guys were good, and I’ll always appreciate the youthful enthusiasm. Here is my friend Blake, who studies music at Loyola University and plays the trumpet, sometimes in front of psychedelic backdrops but usually not. He is in a band called Sycamore Soldier, which is just starting out, and you can read about them here.
House shows at Loyola. I don’t think I’ve already aged out of these but it’s more that I haven’t gone to one in a long time. Everyone looks very interested. Interested and in possession of daquiris.
I haven’t been back to New Orleans in two years. It’s a damn sin, and I’m glad I could correct it this March. The weather was cold and overcast, but not too much had changed.
Here’s some photos from around town — a few more blog posts to come, most likely. I’m thinking about millennial tribalism, apocalypses (and how to recover from them) and Going Home Again, Or Can You? this week.
Bicycles seem to have a rather outsize place in every memory I have of New Orleans. Who needed a car in college when you could have a second-hand BMX with Tool stickers on it? I certainly didn’t. (The tradition continues: didn’t use a bike this trip and felt weirdly disabled the entire time, although the gloomy weather wasn’t exactly ideal).
The courtyard at Cafe Amelie, where I have never actually eaten, but which my mother assures me is good. I like these Creole courtyards and the vague acquisitive part of me wouldn’t mind owning one someday, although I imagine they’re hell to keep up.Study in gutter punk and dog on a cold spring day in the Quarter. I miss gutter punks, sort of. I wouldn’t mind having a few of them around Stanford. If you have seen the Portlandia skit on gutter punks, please be aware it is essentially a work of 100% accurate documentary. (I miss Hare Krishna dinners, and all those kids with Moleskines who smelled sort of weird but were down to talk about Thoreau).
A brief lick of blue sky. And some spires. The family’s Ancestral Cathedral, although we fell from faith a couple generations ago and show little sign of returning into the tender embrace of Catholicism. (I manage to be guilty enough on my own).
The acrobatic show in Jackson Square, where clever young men persuade tourists to give them money to jump over them. I wish them all the best. You walk by on your way somewhere else and think “I won’t stay for the jump, this time.” But the tourists are lined up and on the off chance some calamity happens, you always DO stay.
A doorman at DBA and a bit of red-glare ambiance. Not enough red lights in Palo Alto. Red lights mean good things to me. Phnom Penh does them well enough.
The never-disappointing tableaux of stuff at Electric Ladyland, where I guess I would get a tattoo if I ever got a tattoo. My personality is not decisive enough yet. (I would get a quote from Moby Dick about striking the sun and a scrimshaw image of a squid fighting a whale. Then I would be very cool at bars).
Acrobatics in the sunlight. Colder than it looked, but they were mostly from cold, miserable climates and weren’t nearly as whiny as us about it
Enjoy that sun, kid. The dock of the bay — well, river — by the Jax Brewery. Fun at night if you’re sanguine about muggings. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time doing. When I was briefly in Iowa by the Mississippi, I would find it rather comforting that the big red ships passing at all hours were on their way, inevitably, homewards
My college commute to Tulane for a brief time was this, back when I lived on St Charles near Valmont. Than I discovered bicycles. But sometimes it’s still nice. Was it always $1.25? Am I getting cheaper?
The alma mater. I swear it’s been pressure-washed in my absence, but this too could be the influence of magical and selective memory.