Monday, June 30, 2008

It's Monday and I needed these to cheer me up...


Savage Chickens: Gorgeous Cartoon (how true indeed, how true... :P)


Savage Chickens: The Loudness Cartoon (wish my neighbours are like the second crowd, instead all I heard were shouts of YESSSSSSSSSSS and NOOOOOOOOOOOO from the Eurocup Finals last night!)

Savage Chickens: Anger Cartoon (truer words were ne'er spoken!)

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Friday, June 27, 2008

What is love...

A recent quiz posted by Yun has given me a lot of food for thought over the last few days... perhaps far more than the quiz maker ever intended. (For those who want to try the quiz, please read no further now and click on Yun's post instead).

The quiz is in the form of a tale, retold by Yun and reproduced below in its entirety:

A man (M) and a lady (L) who are very much in love, and devoted to one another are separated by a river with no way of getting across to the other side. On L’s side of the river, there is a boatman (B) who is able to take her over to the other side of the river but refuses to do so unless she pays him a price of $100, twice his normal fare. L has no money. Another man (S) then tells L that he will giver her $100 if she sleeps with him. L agrees to do so and on receiving the $100, pays B who takes her over to the other side of the river.She is reunited with M and they are very happy together. However, a friend of M (F) finds out what L did with S and immediately tells M. On learning the news, M finds L and ends things with her, stating that he wants nothing more to do with her.

Your task:
Rank these five people, M, L, B, S, and F, from best to worst. i.e. best person to worst person. (And why?)

My initial response was as follows:

I'm between two minds in this. Either:

L M F B S

Or: L B S F M

I have difficulties deciding whether it was worse to take advantage of somebody just because you can (B and S); or that it was actually worse to not be able to forgive someone you love and who you know loves you (M). And the question of the friend (F) - as the story says that he "immediately" told M when he found out, so chances are he just blurts something out without thinking through the consequences, and in that sense he's more forgiveable than M. But then F should also realise that anything of this nature must wreck his friend's happiness, and causing his friend to lose the love of his life, even if inadvertently and without malice, must be worse than M being put in that position by his so-called friend. The story ends with M wanting to ends things with L, which is understandable as an immediate reaction, but I think M would redeem himself if he has more time to think over. The person I'm most sympathetic to is L, who was forced to make a Faustian bargain by virtue of the circumstances she found herself in. Indeed, if M is able to afford the boatman in the first place, the whole dilemma wouldn't have arisen. However, who knows, maybe that was precisely what M was saving up to do? So if L has at least talked it over with M (like in the movie Indecent Proposal?), then the villain would have been plainly S.

Anyway, I can't believe I'm going back and forth over this little simple test!!

And my indecision on this probably says more about me than the actual test itself. Oh well.

And it turns out the letters stand for the following:

B-Business (I'd have preferred the term Career)
F-Friends
L-Love
M-Morality
S-Sex
And that the order in which you placed them from Best to Worst reflects the order of importance of each of these concepts in your life.

After finding out what the letters stand for, and looking back at my answer, there are quite a number of things that I disagree with regarding the interpretation of the quiz answers, such as the internal validity of the character indicator for Friendship, and that classic psychometric reliability problem: different respondents adhering to different subjective interpretations when evaluating what constitutes best and worst. (see a snippet of my rant here).

However, what is most intriguing for me, when I reflect back on my original answer, was to note that in both cases, I placed Love to be the first. This is quite surprising for me, not least because I am currently single and yet feeling curiously content about my singular status. I have been a witness to the recent love drama of a dear friend who may soon be leaving the country altogether until the situation with her partner is resolved, and I do not envy her her dilemma even though I have also witnessed how happy she was when she was with him. So to me at this piont in my life, being told that Love takes centre stage where I am concerned is rather unexpected.

This led me to seriously give thought to what exactly do I mean by this thing called Love? Reflecting on my rationale to rank the character L above the others led me to realise that there are several axioms about Love that I tacitly hold to be true, at least where my own matters of the heart are concerned. These reckonings about the most cliched of concepts struck me like a lightning bolt, and became like engravings of the mind, which I feel an utmost imperative to record here...

So what is Love? To me?

First of all: drop. the. cap. like e.e. cummings. there is no need to aggrandize love. the greatest love story of mankind is the kind told by elderly couples quietly holding hands.

love is not a grandiose thing, filled with heroics, drama and hubris. love is humble and mundane, filled with unspoken sacrifices and indeed, compromises. love is day-to-day, surviving the rough and tumble of the living, together.

Second of all: love is a constant that expresses itself as a variable. there is no such thing as an unchanging, pure love. love that doesn't include drama stagnates and dies; but love that can't survive drama is ultimately not love.

love is being emotionally close to someone and appreciating their point of view even if, and especially if, the person is being irrational or unreasonable. to love is to understand. to understand is to forgive.

to love is therefore to forgive. or, to quote Erich Segal (glib as this may sound): "love means never having to say you're sorry".

but love is no martyrdom.

Third of all: "true love" is a state of relationship, not a person. contrary to Haruki Murakami who laments that he might not have recognised his one. true. love. - his "100% girl" - true love to me is something that needs to be nurtured over time, like caring for a plant, and doesn't come in a ready-made package in the form of this or that particular person. the trick is to find someone with whom you are both willing and able to turn passion and romance into true love.

but precisely because true love is arrived at through the action of both parties, there are no guarantees in love, for actions carry both intended and unintended consequences.

Fourth of all: like happiness, true love can only be pursued. the minute you stop pursuing and start taking love for granted, the minute love starts to atrophy.

love is nothing without action. yearning is not an action, and a crush is not love. to quote a Chinese saying: 敢愛敢恨 ["dare love dare hate" (could someone who understands what i mean please help me type out the Chinese phrase, pretty please? Update: thanks LCL for the tip!) ]

to love takes guts. but this is not empty bravado, not about hanging on to someone through sheer force of will. at the most basic level, to love requires the guts to weather disappointment, to pick yourself up after failing, and to move on.

Fifth of all: best summed up by another quote from Desiderata, a prose poem from Max Ehrmann which has been a crucial source of spiritual sustenance to me at times of need since I first came across it when I was twelve:

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

The above axioms of love have been haunting me in my sleep over the last couple of days. They appeared in bold type in my dreams, not unlike the scene from Rose Tremain's Music and Silence, when the Danish king sought to protect his feverish friend by inciting his name in bold calligraphy in his imagination to ward off evil. I am relieved I can finally record them here.

Please do understand that I do not intend to preach the above as some kind of universal declaration of human love. Everyone have their own axioms of love that they hold dear. Just please don't attack me for mine.

Finally, let me end this post with a favourite song by a much loved singer in my formative years - I ain't movin' by Des'ree:

Love is my passion
Love is my friend
Love is universal
Love never ends
Then why am I faced with so much anger so much pain?
Why should I hide?
Why should I be ashamed?
Time is much too short to be livin' somebody else's life
I walk with dignity, I step with pride

(chorus) Cause I ain't moving from my face,
from my race, from my history
I ain't movin' from my love, my peaceful dove,
it means too much to me
Loving self can be so hard
Honesty can be demanding
Learn to love yourself, it's a great, great feeling

When you're down baby, I will set you free
I will be your remedy, I will be your tree
A wise man is clever, seldom ever speaks a word
A foolish man keeps talking, never is he heard
Time's much too short to be livin' somebody else's life
I walk with dignity, I step with pride

(chorus)

Time's too lonely, too lonely without words
Future voices need to be heard
Eyebrows are always older than the beards
Momma said be brave, you've nothing to fear, darling

(chorus)

I ain't movin, I've been here long before
I ain't movin cause I want more
I ain't movin, got my feet on the ground
As far as I'm concerned,
love should win the rounds.

Update: the "I will be your tree" motif above somehow reminds me of a similar image from one of Faye Wong's songs, again a favourite, and also about self-love:



Update again: and although I couldn't locate an actual video for "I ain't movin'" on Youtube (I really can't believe that nowhere on the web has it), "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree is just as good:



Update again: and to complete the trifecta of music videos that reflect the spirit of this post, below is "how to save a life" from The Fray (note what's listed under number 1):

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Flowers and Pot Plants and Life Goals... A Half-Yearly Photo Stock-Take

Have been meaning to post the below pictures for quite a long while now... Finally decided that, as we approach the half-year mark with the impending end of June, I may as well get everything up in a mini-stock-take of my home life, so that I can mentally tick that off the list of postings that I've promised (or self-promised) and never did*...

Those of you who may remember my last posting of "Spring pictures" may remember the lovely pot of roses I had back then... Well, all the blooms have flowered, then withered and died; and only one very last lone stem of rose was left last week... Its proud, majestic solitude among its supporting cast of green leaves is something to behold, and reminds me oh-so-very-much of the prideful flower in the Little Prince (and quite apposite of the conversation I had with Yun over on her blog here and here). I'm so glad to have recorded her very last moments of beauty:

Next to the roses, is my lovely pot of small Spanish oranges (or what my mum called the Chinese "gut"), technically-called Calamondin, a miniature orange fruit. I actually ate a few of them and they taste just like supermarket satsumas. Anyway, after picking off the majority of the fruits, the plant is now in its second flowering season. These little flowers gave off a very pungent scent, which is quite pleasant actually. I can't wait to see these being turned into fruits again:


Another pot plant that was just about shown in the picture in my previous post (behind the Calamodins), has really flourished into a lovely, energetic plant. This originally was the bulb of the calla lillies that I almost threw away when I was repotting my plants back in spring, but I retrieved it when I realised that there were green shoots coming off the bulb (and I thought the plant was dead when it stopped growing and its leaves turned brown last winter, little did I realise that it was only hibernating). So I repotted it and now it is so gaily flaunting its green leaves that it gives me joy every time I see it (and have an almost irrational urge to eat its lovely green leaves as a salad!). Unfortunately though, despite its abundant green leaves, I have yet to spot a single calla lily in its midst.

Another of my pot plants that is doing exceedingly well (perhaps too well) is the below green-and-white leaf plant my mother gave me along with the Calamondins, whose name I have absolutely no idea (anyone knows?). It came in very sprightly in its own white pot (below left), but with my tender-loving-care, it has grown into a monster size in a very short space of time (below right), so much so that I have to re-pot it just a few months after I got it. And obviously I had to relocate it as it's grown too big for the living room bay window.

What is still left on my living room window sill though is the cactus, a housewarming gift from a friend about a year ago now, and which is still going strong :) I do wonder if it is the type that will one day grow a little flower at the top? (ohihopeihopeihope).

The plants that I really want to showcase now though, are the new ones that I bought when we went to this year's Bloom Festival (Ireland's attempted answer to the Chelsea Garden Show in the UK, but unfortunately the attempt is still far from getting anywhere close to Chelsea). Unlike last year's inaugural event, which was a complete washout with thundery weather and muck all over the place, but which was strangely enjoyable nevertheless, this year we were blessed with gorgeous sunny weather for the June bank holiday weekend. But oddly enough, the quality of the exhibition actually went down (so it was just as well that we got in via free tickets that my dad got via his business contacts). Anyway, managed to get myself a really, really lovely pot of French lavender, and another beautiful pot of pink flowers (whose name I never found out actually). I had to re-pot both of these, and it was especially tricky for the lavender, and for a while I was really holding my breath as I was so afraid that my amateur re-potting might have killed it. But thankfully, so far both of them are doing wonderfully well on my balcony:


In addition to the above, I also got a pot of peach-coloured lilies for my otherwise-vacant living room bay window. Lovely as they are, I couldn't help but think that I should have gotten proper orchids like I did last year, because these peaked too soon and then I'm just left with a plant with dark green leaves, when I actually wanted a spot of colour on my window sill. Anyway, these are still really eye-pleasing while they lasted:


In addition to the above real flowers and plants, just thought I'd throw in a few random pictures of other places in my home where flowers - or more accurately, their imitations - reign supreme:

Above Left: Corner of my kitchen. Above Right: Corner of my hallway.

Above: Snapshot of part of my living room bookshelves; Below: View from my study (the rose plaque was, if I remember correctly, part of my primary school artwork from Hong Kong!).

Other views of my home that bring me inexplicable joy:

Finally, as this is meant to be a half-yearly stock-take of my life, below are my commandments to myself that I wrote at the beginning of the year (which reflected the goals that I listed back in January):


Obviously, having such a public declaration of my goals is a sure recipe for inviting ridicule from my siblings, who helpfully scribbled the words "stupid" and "boring" next to my life goals just to make sure I have no illusions in my head about what my goals entailed.

Of the five, even though half a year has gone by, but I still haven't got much to show for the first 4 of my important goals (it was all a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back process). However, I did make some little tentative progress on the altogether frivolous things associated with Goal no. 5 (how typical of me to get my priorities entirely upside down!). Below are a few photographic evidence:


At least I bought the digital piano! Whether and how diligent I've been practicing is entirely a different matter though.

But at least I am progressing relatively okay where my so-called culinary arts are concerned:


A couple of my salad and pasta dishes :)

My first attempt at cooking my mother's chicken curry, Chinese-style. And it worked!! I was so thrilled :) (But god, I almost broke my kitchen knife trying to break the chicken wings into pieces - in fact its blade is now forever blunted - I really should have gotten a proper Chinese kitchen cleaver for the job).

But really, I should have my priorities straight. Stop doing stuff that don't add to my goals (like blogging).

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm finding it extremely hard to maintain my blogging habit. I've already tried switching off from political debates online (cf. my hypergraphia post), and by and large I've managed to stay out of things (no more Chinese politics debates for me at least, although I'm still sucked into American ones, arrgh!). But then I veered off into lengthy comments on others' posts, especially over on ReadandEat (e.g. here and here) and lately, Green Space (e.g. here and here). Not only am I hogging others' blog comments, but the irony is that I still have a list of looooonnnng overdue posts that are hanging like millstones around my neck and a constant source of blogging guilt!

*DIFF Feb 08... Almost all the films that I've seen but haven't yet properly blogged! (Yikes!)
*Self-analysis of the short shory I posted entitled "Quizas Quizas Quizas"
*Hillary Jun 08... still to come Part 2 (Feminist Icon) and Part 3 (Looking Forward) (Must do these somehow before events completely superceded whatever I wanted to say... if they haven't done so already)

Not to mention other posts on the pressing environmental issues that I've wanted to blog about and of which I had formed solid paragraphs in my head but which I have yet to get it down on (virtual) paper... *sigh*

But let me get back to my priority No. 1 now first though. Laters.

[Update 30 June 08: Perhaps there is no need for me to feel so guilty about my promised-but-yet-to-materialise postings now, as I just got an apology from Technorati to say, in regard to my ping query, that my previous missing posts can never be indexed now... which actually included my post on Hillary Part 1... Sob sob... and to think the amount of time I spent researching that post... oh well...]

[Updated again 1 July 08: Actually just found out from Technorati admin how to fix the problem - something to do with setting the site feed from "short" to "full" on the Blogger dashboard which I've never noticed before now, being a complete blogging greenhorn even 2 years after I've started on Blogger. Anyway, all my previous missing old posts are finally indexed! Woohoo!]

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

It's never too late to learn... [Re-post]

Just saw this from a fellow Chinese-Irish's blog, the rather boldly-biculturally-titled "Chinese Blood, Irish heart". Ed Lee is currently in Beijing covering the run-up to the Olympics, and uploaded a few videos of some stuff he's done recently, one of which is re-posted below. I just can't help but smile at the elderly Beijingers' enthusiasm to pick up a foreign language :)



Just wish that there are similar classes for ordinary Hongkongers to embrace English as a prelude to the Olympics - after all, English is meant to be HK's traditional advantage, right? But somehow I'm afraid that the English standards in much of HK these days are not a patch on the Beijingers... Please do correct me if I'm wrong on this...

[Update: I guess I really spoke too soon... Just checked out ESWN and discovered some of the most embarrassing office signs imaginable - and this is not your typical chinese office, this is an official government department! See here and weep: The Most Embarrassing Signs At The City People's Congress Office. However bad the general HK public's conversational English might have become, at least I don't think HK government offices will display such laughable, and lamentable, signs.]

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Week in review...

Last week was a madder than usual week due to the conference that happened towards the end of the week. There are quite a few things that I wanted to record, but I kinda lost steam writing things up in any orderly fashion these days.... So forgive me while I get these things off of my head higgledy-piggledy, it's probably the only way that they could be recorded...

The pre-conference reception...

  • Was by-and-large a success. Phew! (especially when compared to the Conference proper)...

  • It was so great to see my old students again. Especially my 2006 class. They all looked so relaxed in their summery casual attire. B gave me a huge hug when she saw me, saying she won't miss this for the world, and one of them actually asked me if I'd like to come to dinner with them afterwards, but I had to decline (see below).

  • Special people included A, who talked to me about how her husband's been lately (due to the fact that he happened by sheer serendipity to be part of my research).

  • Special people also included C, who got a job in the UK so it was great that she came back for this. My goodness, she's got herself a quasi Brit accent!! No joke. But she looked really well. She also got herself a new house. I would have loved to catch up with her properly, but later I realised that she and I probably could never hang out like friends like we did before... not for the fact that she's away, but for the fact that she's... how should I put it, becoming a little bitchy (see later)... and more to the point perhaps, she considers one of the people that I loathe in the office as more of a friend (ah, if only she's known the ins and outs of the story... but I don't feel like telling her the whole sorry saga as I'm not into getting people to choose sides).

  • One common conversation topic of the evening (apart from all the catching up on personal news) - the Lisbon Treaty - as the pre-conference reception was held on the same day as the voting day. A straw poll of reception attendees that I have talked to all lean towards a No vote, and an unanimous agreement that the Government did a crap job informing its citizenry - "That piece of paper (the Government leaflet on the Treaty) was the biggest waste of money". Is it any surprise then that the Irish decisively rejected the Lisbon Treaty?

The pre-conference dinner...

  • Took place in French bistro place somewhere in town after the pre-conference reception. Myself, the course assistant (female, age 30, French-speaking), the Department Head (male, mid-50s, Scottish by birth), and an external lecturer (male, early 60's, Irish) walked up to the restaurant together for the dinner booked at 8pm, where the keynote speaker (American) and his family (wife and kid) were already there. Another Department bigwig (female, mid-40s, Irish) was going to follow us up afterwards with another keynote speaker (Northern Irish).

  • The Department Head never fails to astound me with his lack of social grace. On arriving at the restaurant, we were led to the table where the American and his wife and kid, and a totally unknown man in his 50's, were already seated and chatting merrily. The Department Head, without any introductions or further ado, plonked himself down opposite the unknown bespectacled fat bloke (and beside the American keynote speaker), and proceeded to carry on a conversation with them. TOTALLY IGNORING the external lecturer, myself and the course assistant. The table is a long trestle table and I was going to seat myself next to him, but sensing the external lecturer's unease of having to squeeze beside the unknown man without being properly introduced, I stood up again, and meanwhile the course assistant stood awkwardly to the side not knowing where to sit. And all the while the Department Head was totally oblivious to us. So much so, that after few minutes' of these awkward manuveuring, the elderly external lecturer finally said, "Well I am going to introduce ourselves to the keynote speaker if XX [Department Head's name] is not going to do us the honour", and with that, he proceeded to walk to the American keynote speaker, introduced himself properly, then introduced myself and my course assistant to him, and the American kindly reciprocated by introducing his wife (in a wheelchair) and his son to us in turn. His son is only about nine or ten, and was extremely polite and grown-up in his behaviour, wearing a necktie (!) and solemnly shaking our hands. All these happened while our own Department Head continued to not bat an eyelid and chatting nonchalantly to the fat bloke sat in front of him, as if we have never existed, nevermind actually coming up to the restaurant with him! We were never introduced to the fat bloke by anyone.

  • Not long afterwards, the other keynote speaker and the other Department bigwig showed up at the restaurant, and on arrival the female Department bigwig proceeded to introduce the two keynote speakers to each other (which was the way it should have been done by our Department Head, but did he bother with such social niceties? Hell no). The other keynote speaker - whom we have already met during the reception itself earlier - gallantly solved our seating problems by assigning seats for everyone in the late party (male / female / male etc.). He too was not introduced by our Department Head to the mystery fat bloke though! Later it turned out that the mystery fat bloke was invited to the dinner by the Department Head himself (although he told nobody this, not even the course assistant responsible for the dinner-booking), who apparently was the head of some research think-tank or other from the UK. How did we know this? Well, when the female Department bigwig sat beside this mystery man (according to the suggested seating by the other keynote speaker), and not having been introduced by the Department Head either, she introduced herself and had a brief conversation with him, and that was how the rest of the table found out the identity of this mystery man.

  • So just for the record, I do not want to grow up like our Department Head and behaved like an absolute pig with no social graces.

  • Conversely though, I don't feel too bad now about what happened when I was first invited to our Department Head's house for dinner when I first started my job. I was amongst several guests that night who went to his home for dinner, and one of the excruciating memories was how, because he only moved into the house recently and the house was still being done up at that time, there was only one couch and two decorative chairs and the latter were located far away from the couch. I remembered how I sat on the couch's armrest for the better part of the evening, and nobody made the move to move along the seat to squeeze in to accommodate the newcomer, even though technically there was some space. And did our host - i.e. our Department Head - offered to bring another chair? No, he was totally oblivious. God, my butt still hurt from that memory, and I felt so small and insignificant that evening. Now I know it really is nothing personal - if he could be so rude as to ignore an elderly external lecturer at an official dinner, with whom he was chatting away until literally just before he approached the table and forgot totally that he was a host and had the duty of performing introductions, then perhaps he really couldn't help being rude to me when I first started.

  • Although I was seated near the end of the table, by the time we finally sat down I was feeling more than comfortable in my own skin, having witnessed how absolutely graceless my Department Head was and thinking there was no way I could do worse than him. I was relaxed and chatted away with the elderly external lecturer, with whom I was co-chairing sessions in next day's conference. I had also wanted to talk to the Northern Irish keynote speaker (especially given the fact that it was impossible to approach the American keynote speaker as he and his family were way at the other end of the table), but I got the feeling that he's the type that would look down on people overtly schmoozing him (jeez, I am the exact type, and it takes one to know one).

  • Anyway, at one point I was looking down at my watch when we were waiting for everybody to make up their minds to order, as I was thinking about how long this dinner will realistically take and my bus travel time as I had to be up again very early the next morning to prepare for the conference day itself. The NI keynote speaker saw me doing this and he joked, Goodness if you're already looking at your watch now this would be a long dinner indeed for you. I laughed and explained that I was only concerned that I'd manage to come back very early the next day for the real work. We broke our ice that way and - this is totally unlike any of my Department colleagues - he began to ask me questions and views about the world. Turns out he was an absolute political junkie - he remembered 1968 really well and had apparently been thrown into prison by the Brits for his protests - and he was pleasantly surprised that I am one, too, though obviously I haven't any real protest scars to show for (I've been to one 8964 candlelight vigil in HK and the anti-war protest match in Dublin in 2003 and that's it). He asked me about the newly insurgent nationalism in the young Chinese - a topic that nobody in my office dared broach, perhaps thinking that they might offend me? if only they asked my views and found out how I'm at the complete opposite end of that spectrum to those knuckleheads - and we discussed "Chinese pragmatism" and Hong Kong identity. I countered his inquisitiveness with asking his views on the Northern Ireland's political assembly, and we both rejoiced at the Northern Irish's pragmatism in seeing their political leaders rightfully as their "public servants", rather than being revered as some latter-day saviour and we both sneered at the kind of "wrap-in-the-flag" political hubris evident in some Americans and Chinese people. At one point then, he stopped and remarked, "So you are a political activist." I have never thought of myself as one, but I shall consider it a compliment!

  • But I think our NI speaker had just a tad too much to drink though. As at some point in our conversations he revealed to us sitting at this end of the table that he thought his youngest son is gay. We all proceeded to discuss how sexual orientation is no longer a big deal these days, even though he continued to worry that in his neck of woods it very much does... I never managed to voice my thought that, you know, gay or straight is only a "big deal" when you use it to label someone, or when you let the labelling to affect you. Like, somebody would use skin colour or your ethnic background or your nationality or your gender as a label, without bothering with the whole person behind the label. Given his avowedly progressive views, I thought he would understand this.

  • When it comes to almost 11pm, I was talking to my course assistant about what we need to prepare for the next day. She talked about how she needed to be at two places at once in the morning, and I volunteered to collect the things from the reception venue at 7:30am so that she could focus on the things she need to get done in the office. (I was at the venue at 7:25am, before the doors even opened, but then she arrived a few minutes after me!). The external lecturer overheard our conversation and said that he was also thinking of heading home soon now. So in the end, the external lecturer and I were the first to leave the party early (the rest left soon afterwards, it turned out). We walked together for the better part of our common route to our respective bus stop and train stations and wished each other luck the next day.

The Conference itself...

Things that made me mad... (but I am no longer mad now and am letting it go)
  • Others not doing the jobs they have promised that they would do - the assigned graphic designer (really just one of the executive officers in our office who was good with photoshopping) responsible for inserting the text into the template has promised that she would be able to finish the job in one day, even though at the time I was expressing doubt about whether that was possible and if she could assign more time to the task just in case the inevitable happens, and she brushed me off saying it would be all fine, not to worry, as if I was being a worrywort rather than being realistic about how long the task demanded (and I have shown her the type of texts and stated the quantities of the posters - 18 - that would be needed a month before). On the day when she was supposed to be doing the graduate posters for my group, she spent the big portion of that day dealing with the posters (quantity - 6) from my colleague WHO HAD NOT BOOKED HER TIME prior to this. Meaning that the time that I could have used to double-check the posters over the weekend was lost, as she needed the weekend to work through the posters she has promised me to finished BY the weekend - and THEN she behaved like she is doing me a huge favour by working over the weekend for me, when the truth was that I have already asked her to make sure that she scheduled enough time DURING THE WORK WEEK to finish the posters. In the event she was only emailing the mock-ups of the posters THE DAY WHEN THEY ARE MEANT TO BE SENT TO PRINT (Monday through to Wednesday), when we had a ton of other conference related preparations to go through.

  • Others not knowing how to do their job - the same graphic designer, was only asked to insert the texts that have been emailed to her into the pre-agreed template. Yet even this cut-and-paste job was beyond her as she mixed up portions of one graduate poster's text with those of another, as well as missing 1 poster altogether. Thank GOD I was fastidious in double-checking the missing poster, and thank GOD the printer guy on campus was amenable to re-printing inaccurate posters. There was 1 that was too late to reprint when the graduate spotted the mistake, and I spent my own time trying to resurrect that by pasting the correct section over it...
  • Others focusing on useless tasks that prevented them from doing what they are supposed to do - my trusty assistant, bless her, is an extremely hard-working gal like me, and I am always thankful for the fact that she is my help as I had experienced a lot lot worse. However, there are times when she focused on inconsequential minutiae to the exclusion of things that really matter. Like the fact that she was so bound up with making a "really nice conference badge" for some of our speakers that she spent the morning of the conference day (we both arrived at 7:30am on the dot to collect materials back from the pre-conference venue, having had a really late night the previous evening after the dinner with the speakers. I myself had only 4 hours' sleep.) agonising over this rather than actually setting out the registration desk in preparation for the morning registration rush. I was the first to arrive at the scene on both days to set up posters and ended up putting up all the signage myself (with the generous help of fellow lecturers and a few of my lovely graduates who turned up early), precisely because I was the first one to show up while all the others were still getting ready at the office. In the end, they turn up with the registration materials AT 9am, precisely the time when registration is MEANT TO START. And I had to be the person to apologise to our delegates while they were still faffing around DISCUSSING WHAT TO DO WITH THE FEW BLEEDING BADGES! I had to tell our new office gopher to help start the registration set-up, and she was good enough to step in and start, while my own assistant was being called away by our Department head to go back to his office to download HIS opening remarks presentation as he didn't have it with him and he only completed it that morning!

  • Others not doing what they are supposed to do because they have been inundated with tasks - There were also genuine reasons for why my assistant wasn't able to be on top of things as she usually did, which was the fact that she was constantly distracted by others' petty requests (like the above Head of Department example). But more importantly it was because the original professional conference organizer was on sick leave very shortly after the conference process started, and so everything is left on my assistant's shoulders to be the main organiser even though she had no previous experience of doing same. It had been a steep learning curve for her and by and large she handled things pretty well. However, during the pre-conference dinner both my co-chair and I asked her if the conference packs contain the speakers' biographic informatin, and she replied in the affirmative. What turned out was that she only had 4 of the speakers' bios printed as part of the pack, and none on my own speakers, even though they had all emailed her with their biographical information (but she reasoned that it was the course director who was in charge of that part of the pack and she must have left the last 4 out). There was then a mad search through her emails to locate these speakers' bios, and we only located 2. So in addition to handling the posters, the registration, I was also searching for the missing speakers, both of whom I only finally caught up right before our session, and I was able to literally only jot down their bio information from their laptops right before then. Talk about an unnecessary mad rush and jeez, what an impression that must have left on the speakers...

  • Being blamed for something that was not my fault (1) - The graduates whose posters I was responsible for thought, naturally enough, that the simple cut-and-paste mistakes were my fault. In a way, it was, especially because we are supposed to have the time to double-check the posters before they sent out to print. But I wouldn't have felt like I've eaten a dead kitten (Cantonese expression) if the feckin' graphic designer actually did her job right and actually stuck to our prior agreement. What transpired was that both the course director and I had barely had time to tell her to re-fix the formatting before they have to go into print. I was especially agitated by one particular graduate, whose thesis I have helped enormously with, who had the cheek to ask me to edit her poster text for her before the poster submission, and when I politely refused, and it turned out that her posters were among the ones that had to be corrected, she "jokingly" said to everyone who would listen that she initially thought the copy-and-paste mistake was my attempt to help her edit her text. THE BITCH!

  • Being blamed for something that was not my fault (2) - In addition to apologising for the late start of the registration process, it was also a bit of a chaos as they only had brought over one registration list and they limit the registrants to ONE queue when they should have opened at least two or three to deal with the registration rush. When I went over and asked them to open another desk the outgoing executive officer (who is finishing this month, and one is among the bitches in the office that I'm glad to soon see the back of) actually said that there is no need and that they are doing everything right. When I offered to help set up one more desk and deal with the registration my offer was rebuffed. Finally the course director herself had to get one of our students to help man an extra desk to deal with the registration so that the conference time-table would not be jeopardised. In the end there was a 15 minutes' delay, but we somehow managed to keep the rest of the conference on schedule. Thank goodness.

  • Being thanked in a manner that was only marginally better than being slapped in the face - At the end of the extremely long day of the conference, my course assistant and the office gopher and I were divvying up things that we needed to carry back to the office. I asked the two of them to go ahead of me while I carry the rest of the stuff and lock up the place and return the key back to the security guys. As I was trying to put the key into the lock, while trying to hold on to an extremely large roll of conference posters (all A0 size), a heavy bag containing spare stationery, as well as my own laptop bag and a gift bag (given to me by one of the graduates as a thank-you), the course director came up to me and thanked me for my help that day. Actually I didn't realise it was her thanking me. I kinda heard her voice speaking really fast and she just walked past me, but all the while I was trying to fit the friggin' key into the lock while doing a juggling act balancing all the stuff that I had to carry. She didn't even offered to help take one of the bags while I locked up the door, but carried on "thanking" me in a quick-fire way and walked past me to go upstairs. I only realised it was really her when I turned around and saw her and mouthed a quick "oh have a nice weekend too" before she went up. The fact that she didn't even bothered to look me in the eye properly to thank me, much less help me with one of the bags while she was speaking to me, when she saw that I clearly needed the help while locking up, made me feel like I have been slapped by her rather than being thanked by her. JESUSCHRISTALMIGHTY, my bosses HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO MANNERS WHATSOEVER, EVEN WHEN THEY SAY THANKS!

Things that I regretted...

  • Not talking to the American keynote speaker himself. Although I did manage to talk to his wife and his kid towards the end of the conference. But he seemed rather taken with my own student's research presentation at the end, of which I'm the supervisor. So I guess I'd follow up with him.

  • I didn't get to do one jot of work on my chapters because all my time this week was sucked into the conference drama, much of it unnecessary had people been doing their jobs properly.

  • Not being forceful enough in directing the "back-room" operations of the conference in spite of my previous experience in assisting with conference organisations. I wished I have simply told the outgoing exec officer to feck off and just started an extra registration desk, as that was what our female Department bigwig ended up asking one of our students to do. I should have also realised that I could not leave everything on my course assistant's shoulders and should have been more forceful in directing her to do what are the necessary tasks rather than allowed her to waste precious time over nothing.

  • The fact remains though, that I am NOT the conference organiser, the course assistant was. And I really resented and regretted being portrayed as the overseer of the conference just because I was the one who turned up early on the scene while the rest of them went AWOL, and when all I have volunteered to do was to help out with the conference posters. If anything, the course director/female Department bigwig should have been directing the operations. Instead she was cleverly staying well away observing the chaos from a distance and chatting to the graduates and the guests as if this was never her idea and she had no role in the organization whatsoever. Which was a complete lie. If she had been directing the course assistant and the office temp what to do from the get-go - after all, they arrived together at 9am. Then I could have been spared the time to put up the posters properly, rather than being forced to run like a headless chicken between sorting out the posters, sorting out the regisration, and sorting out the audio-visual. I should learn better next time and step in in a manner that is clear to everyone else that I am only pitching in to help sort out a chaotic situation, rather than being portrayed as the cause of that chaotic situation when I wasn't responsible for organising said operation.

Things that I am grateful for...

  • The graciousness of our delegates - Despite all the chaos that happened in the early registration process, quite a number of people came up to me and said that they really enjoyed the day and thanked us for organising it. They might have been just being nice, but my heart leapt at the really kind compliment, all the same.

  • The graciousness of our speakers - I apologised profusely to two of my speakers for the missing bio information and they were all very gracious; and in the end I was a bit garbled in my introductions at the beginning of the session as I was straining to read by (or their) handwritten notes. We got through in the end and they have all been extremely nice about it, and said that it had been an honour for them to participate and that they would love to do it again! Thank you S, S, M and P, from the bottom of my heart.

  • The gracious helpfulness and forgiving kindness of my own students, past and present - During the chaos on the morning of the conference day, my lovely students - those whose theses I have personally supervised, or whose theses I had a lot of input to even though I was not the formal supervisor - came to my rescure and cheerily offered their services to help sort out the posters and signage, etc. I could never ever thank them enough. Thank you so very much P, G, A and L. You are such a star! Thanks for being a life-saver, yet again.

  • The conscientious helpfulness of the new office temp - Of the three office admin girls during the conference, the new office temp shone through in her pragmatic can-do attitude. She was a real help and a joy to work with. When asked to help set up the registration desk she went ahead and do it, and although she could have done a better job if she had known better (like laying out the delegate badges on the table rather than trying to retrieve them from a bunch one at a time), but she did the best she could. When asked to be the roving mike just before the conference started, she stepped up to the plate and handled the job beautifully, and paid attention when I ran through the session schedule with her so that she knew which sessions would need her and she was always on hand before the Q&A formally started. At the end of the day she also helped carried one of the heaviest stands back to the office. We really couldn't have asked for a better help at this crucial time. Thanks S, from the bottom of my heart. (And unlike my bosses, I managed to thank both S and the course assistant in person and looked them in the eye while doing so).

Things that made me happy...

  • I managed to be diligent and correct the majority of the graphic designer's mistake and liase with the affable printer guy who kindly helped us finish the rush jobs.

  • I managed to design and produce the course poster without help from the graphic designer. It turned out so great that it was also included in the conference pack as advertisement for our course.

  • It was so nice to see the graduates again, especially during the pre-conference reception. Everybody looked so well in their bright summer clothes, and it was great to catch up with them, some of whom I haven't seen for years.

  • One of my graduates whose thesis I've helped with in the revision process gave me a gorgeous thank-you card and a gift at the conference! I only realised that the gift was a gift voucher after I opened it on the bus on the way home, which means I'd have to return it. But it is the lovely thought that counts, bless her!

Things that really made me smile...

  • After the pre-conference dinner, I caught the second-last bus home (around 11:15pm). Maybe it was because of the wine and the extremely long day, I actually fell asleep on the bus, and didn't realise it until I was near the bus terminal (and apparently about 5 miles from my stop). The bus driver was really kind and said that he would drop me home from the terminal. At first I thought he meant that he could drop me off on the bus on the drive back, but it turned out that he dropped me off in his car. I was a little wary but as the other drivers also saw us, I felt a little safer. Anyway, although he was quite a young lad - in his mid to late 20's I guess, he was a complete gentleman. It's a little awkward though at the beginning, I mean, what could one talk about with an complete stranger in a car? (Can you just tell I'm not the hitch-hiking type?). Anyway he asked me about why I was so late and I talked about the conference and which university I was based. He was really impressed with the fact that I worked in such a prestigious university, but when he tried to find something academic to talk about he could only hark back to the history books he did in secondary school, and we both knew then that the gulf was too great... Too bad, as he was a really nice guy. Anyway, we moved on to the subject of the bus and the general publc transport system in Ireland, and here we both have a lot to say about. I learnt quite a few things I didn't know about buses from him during our relatively short but interesting conversation. He dropped me off right in front of my estate (he offered to drive into drop me outside my door but I politely declined), and I left with a smile on my face...

  • ... That is, until I actually arrived at the door of my apartment block, and then I saw a girl around my age sitting outside the entrance. She then told me that door was not working as the electricity for the keypad had apparently short-circuited, and that she called the electrician already and it would take a half-hour for your man to arrive. I just laughed at that stage as I needed to be up very early the next morning and I thought falling asleep on the bus was bad enough. But this apparent misfortune again turned out to be another pleasant serendipity - as the girl and I started chatting, we realise we are neighbours who've never known about each other. She said that she and her boyfriend bought the apartment about 3 years ago, and she recounted how thrilled she was at having found the place, which completely mirrored my own experience of having discovered this estate. We talked about our neighbours (and how little we both knew about them, and how bad this is), our neighbourhood, our jobs and how we commute (so seguing into the state of public transport in Ireland again), and it was really great fun. So much so that we didn't even feel the time passing and pretty soon the electrician turned up. AND it turns out that I actually had one of the keys that could open the door after all (I was given a bunch of keys I never tried, as I used the keypad all the time). Anyway, in the end, we were both saying how glad we are to have met each other and how great it is to have finally known one of our neighbours properly (and her name is Martha by the way!). I walked up to my flat with a huge smile again on my face :)

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Hillary... Goodbye and God Bless (Part 1)

In spite of the mountain of work that I have to do (conference organizing and the usual mountain of papers I have to correct at this time of the year AS WELL AS my chapters deadline), over the past weeks I have kept an eye on the endgame of the U.S. primary season. My Sky box though went kaput about a week ago (I only made one phone call to the technical support, which advised me to just wait for up to four hours, hah! Of course nothing worked, but I decided not to follow up not only because I didn't get around to, but also because it's one less distraction when I need to put my head down to work), so I only really got my news through the Internet (though I strictly stayed away from blogs in the last while). Anyway...

I have so much to say about Hillary Clinton's historic run for the Democratic nomination of the U.S. Presidential office, that I am going to not only break my blog curfew on politics, but am going to write several posts on the subject - on race, on gender, and on looking backward as well as, and most importantly, forward.

So, without further ado...

LOOKING BACK...

Part 1. Surviving the Obama Hate Machine. (Yes you read that right, I too can't believe it, and it really pains me to type it).

Reflecting on Hillary's historic run for Presidency, given my interest in her candidacy from the very beginning as I compared her to other female world leaders both past and present, there have been much done on Hillary's part in the final stages of her campaign that has disquieted me. Not for the fact that she stayed in the race until the very end, which is actually most commendable (which I have written before, but more on this later). But for her dangerous sabre-rattling comments on Iran, and indeed, the whole she-should-really-have-known-better "sniperfiregate" gaffe. In all fairness, these two incidents were no less alarming or troubling than Obama's so-called "tough stance" on striking Pakistan during an earlier Democratic debate, and his really-should-also-have-known-better "Auschwitzgate". But I am not so blind in my admiration of her candidacy from afar as to think Hillary should not be held accountable for these mistakes, just as Barack should be held accountable for his.

What Hillary should NOT have been held responsible for however, were the blatant lies that have been spread deliberately to misrepresent the Clintons as "race-baiting" by the Obama campaign (a whole catalogue of such outrageous charges and perceived Clinton-on-Obama slights are helpfully collated by net-savvy Obama supporters into a wikipedia here, though, contrary to their presumed intents, their so-called "incident tracker" actually shows up their sheer bat-shittery for what they really are; which are not unlike the rants from some crazy Obamatons that you would find on the Guardian blogs here, who demonstrate their uniquely overrated critical faculties by wilfully projecting any and all of their own anti-Clinton biases into even the mildest and most innocent of utterances).

For some reason, it is perfectly okay for Obama's campaign to highlight from the beginning that his biracial background is the reason why his candidacy - rightfully portrayed by his admirers as a historic one, with a huge potential of him becoming the first African-American President in a country whose history had been blighted by centuries of slavery - is particularly inspirational and meaningful, especially in current times, a point on which I totally, whole-heartedly agree, myself being a member of an ethnic minority in the country that I live in. And yet it is considered an offense of the highest order if the Clinton camp made precisely this very same point. The so-called Jesse Jackson (Youtube footage of the full dialogue) remarks by Bill were used by the Obama camp for what a commentator on the NYT elegantly called "fake umbrage", crying foul at Bill's audacity to compare Obama's historic bid of the presidency to Jackson's previous attempt to do the same, even if all Bill said was that they both ran good campaigns. The so-called "fairytale" (ABC.com video of the full dialogue) comment from Bill to describe Obama's "judgement" argument, based on what he saw as misleading distortion of Obama's voting records as compared to others, was later grossly contorted by Obama surrogates as referring to Obama's overall chance at landing the highest office in the land itself. The latter would have been a huge insult - unfair and unjust - if indeed it was true. Except it wasn't. Not at all. And yet this slime on Bill as belittling Obama's chances stuck, as a result of yet another cut-and-paste mainstream media sound-bite job. And the "kid" comment attributed to Bill as describing Obama by an op-ed columnist in the NYT? Here there is not even a cut-and-paste, as no actual source could be found for it (not even those zealous Obama slight-trackers at the afore-mentioned wiki could find it - though they have no problems including it and commenting on it of course).

Bill was subsequently portrayed, again with utter disregard to the facts, as taking out on the press (a jokey repartee "Shame on you" (Youtube footage of the full dialogue) at the end of a civil and pleasant conversation between Bill and several reporters about how the media trumped up charges of the race card for both candidates gets turned into an "angry outburst" in mainstream media).

Obviously I recognised that there have been really regrettable instances when clearly inappropriate comments were made, such as Geraldine Ferraro went over the line and subsequently resigned from the Clinton campaign, just weeks after Samantha Power was fired from the Obama camp for making similarly over the line comments. Both otherwise worthy women - Ferraro was the first woman to be on a U.S. Presidential ticket; Power is a policy professor from Harvard specialising in the topic of genocide - both quickly resign from or let go by their respective campaigns for their unfortunate mouthings-off. Both candidates were quick to distance themselves from such inappropriate comments, and should therefore NOT be held responsible for them. Indeed, when the Jeremiah Wright controversy spiralled out of control, causing the eventual painful split of Obama from his church, it helped to establish that "guilt-by-association" is NOT a kosher campaign modus operandi.

Yet fake umbrage continues to be turned into a fine art by the Obama camp in the last so-called RFK assasination comments (actual Youtube footage), when they exploded in apoplectics over Hillary's so-called veiled suggestion for an Obama assasination, when it was plainly obvious from the context of her speech that she was comparing HERSELF (and not Obama) to Bobby Kennedy (in the same way that she was comparing herself to her husband Bill Clinton to remind people that her campaign should not be called to end prematurely):

“My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right?” she said. “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”

(This intrepretation was not only just invented for backpedaling expediency, but was consistent with her earlier use of the remark:

NYT Reporting: In March, she told Time magazine: “Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn’t wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual.”)

Even Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who endorsed Hillary, defended her use of the language: “I’ve heard her make that argument before,” Mr. Kennedy said, speaking on his cellphone as he drove to the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. “It sounds like she was invoking a familiar historical circumstance in support of her argument for continuing her campaign.”

But it is perhaps not so surprising that, on closer inspection, Obama's campaign is not any more purer-than-thou than his supporters and neutral observers have hoped and indeed been promised. For all the high-minded rhetoric and above-the-fray imagery of Barack Obama the man himself, his campaign and his surrogates, not to mention his legions of fanatic supporters, have not necessarily engaged in good-faith, above-the-gutter politics.

There was one very specific instance that made me turn from a diffident neutral observer (my neutrality stemming not only from the fact that, in terms of race and gender either of the two camps would have fitted me fine, but more importantly because I do not believe in supporting a candidate because of a biographic affinity, and for a good while I was thinking Obama and Clinton were both second bests to Edwards policy-wise), to a specifically Hillary Clinton supporter.

This incident was in relation to Obama's smear of Hilary's universal healthcare plan, a subject on which I actually know something about given my professional background (and is the chief reason why I think Edwards was superior to these two, and why I think Clinton's actual mandatory universal health care plan was both more realistic and more feasible than Obama's watered-down non-mandatory version). Here I will use Hillary's own words in denouncing Obama's campaign's dirty tricks (the dirty trick in question was substantiated by an Obama supporter's angry retort of the same video, thinking that by declaring this dirty trick was brought to Hillary's attention much earlier than she stated it would absolve Obama's campaign. No it doesn't.):



"... Drawing contrasts in this campaign, I think that's imporant for voters so that they would know where we stand, what our records are, what it is we will do as President. Today in the crowd I was given two mailings that Senator Obama's campaign is sending out.

And I have to express my deep disappointment, that he is continuing to send false and discredited mailings, with information that is not true to the voters of Ohio. He says one thing in speeches, and then he turns around and does this [holding up the packaged mailings from Obama's camp in her hand].

And we have consistently called him on it, it has been discredited, it is blatantly false, and yet he continues to spend millions of dollars perpetuating falsehoods. That is not the new politics that the speeches are about. It is not hopeful, it is destructive. Particularly for a Democrat, to be discrediting universal healthcare, by raging a false campaign against my plan. To be talking about NAFTA in a way that tries to make him look like a plan when he does not.

This healthcare mailing, which is very reminiscent of the health insurance industry's attacks on what we tried to do the last time we went after universal healthcare, is the worst kind of politics. Number 1, it is wrong and untrue. And Number 2, it is exactly the talking points, that the health insurance industry, and the Republicans use on a daily basis. Senator Obama knows, that it is not true that my plan forces people to buy insurance even if they can't afford it. My plan has more financial help, my plan has been evaluated by independent experts as actually achieving universal coverage, and providing the financial assistance so everyone can have healthcare. This mailing about NAFTA, saying that I believed NAFTA was quote a "boon", quotes a newspaper that had corrected the record. We have pointed it out. The newspaper has pointed it out.

Time and time again, you hear one thing in speeches, and then you see a campaign that use the worst kind of tactics, reminiscent of the same sort of Republican attacks on Democrats. Well, I am here to say, that it is not only wrong, but it is undermining core democratic principles.

Since when do Democrats attack one another on universal healthcare?

I thought we were trying to realise Harry Truman's dream. I thought this campaign finally gave us an opportunity to put together a coalition to achieve univeral healthcare. That's what Senator Edwards and I fought for and talked about throughout the campaign. Just because Senator Obama chose not to present a universal healthcare plan, does NOT give him the right to attack me because I did.

So let's have a real campaign. Enough with the speeches and the big rallies and then using tactics that are right out of Karl Rove's playbook. This is wrong. And every Democrat should be outraged. Because this is the kind of attack that not only undermines core democratic values, but gives aid and comfort to the very special interests and their allies and the Republican Party, who is against doing what we want to do for America.

So shame on you, Barack Obama, it is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public. That's what I expect from you. Meet me in Ohio, let's have a debate, about your behaviours and your tactics in this campaign."


Of course, what we actually only heard played back from mainstream media reportage over and over again, was only that Senator Clinton "shrilly" "yelling" "shame on you" to Obama. Hillary's honest challenge to Obama to answer for his campaign's questionable-at-best tactics was twisted by HIS supporters as Clinton "going negative" on Obama. As if calling out an opponent's use of dirty tricks on you with clear evidence is proof positive of you playing a "negative tactic" on said opponent!!! The phrase, "using tactics that are right out of Karl Rove's playbook" actually was used by the Obamatons as a catch-phrase for Obamatons to beat the Clintons' with.

This is the kind of political Swiftboating - attacking an opponent's strongest point using false data and outright slander, in order to neutralise any advantage the opponent may have in objective comparisons with one's own candidate - I thought would never happen in the Democratic primary race, given how Democrats themselves are vowing to watch out for these behaviours in their fight to oust the criminal Repugs this time (they probably didn't expect it to come from within their own). And I certainly did not expect this from the "high-minded", "change-we-can-believe-in", "new-politics" of Barack Obama.

Convenient political point-scoring over your opponents' own missteps and gaffes, yes, by all means, that's just part-and-parcel of realpolitik. I could even try to forgive the reverse race-baiting documented above as just fair political opportunism, taking advantage of the lazy mainstream press who doesn't bother to fact-check and who delights in sound-bite controversy. Outright slanders on the other hand - that are painstakingly printed in meaty glossy magazines, that are financed, produced and distributed by your own campaign direct to voters, and not just a staffer or an associate accidentally-on-purpose spouting off to journalists - against your opponents' stated policy positions, that is just unacceptable. And THEN accusing your opponent of going dirty on you when your despicable practice was called out, that is plain disgraceful.

And given Obama's "good clean politics", we-have-to-clean-up-Washington-corruption rhetoric, it is unconscionable.

What a shock. What a disappointment.

What is clear also then, to me, is that there are indeed very legitimate reasons to not support Obama.

At the start of Barack Obama's candidacy, when he made his first victory speech after his surprise win of Iowa, I was so inspired by all that he represented, and given the powerlessness and disenfranchisement after 7 years of Bush's regime, I was really heartened by the Americans' new-found sense of optimism, and indeed, their "audacity of hope", as a result of Obama's positive, generous-spirited public persona. I read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s autobiography not long ago (I visited his memorial centre in Atlanta a couple of years ago while on a conference trip and brought back several books on him), and I found similar passages of hope and inspiration resonating in many of Obama's stirring speeches. I could fully appreciate why Obama is a candidate one might fall in love with, rather than merely arouse respect. I understood and appreciated what Caroline Kennedy meant when she wrote that she saw qualities of his father in Obama.

From the beginning, I even felt protective of Obama's candidacy. Thinking how his historic candidacy in the States would represent the first minority national leader of any Western country, and how absolutely inspirational that would be, for me personally. After all, the highest gender glass ceiling in our land over this side of the Atlantic has long been shattered by our own very capable female presidents. The only remaining barrier that would be meaningful for me personally is the ethnic one. I personally bristled at the many, many instances of cheap (and real) race-baiting, by right-wing mainstream media talking heads who deliberately try to mispronounce Obama as Osama (there is one such American right-wing commentator, a regular contributor to a popular political radio show here, who tries to slip this in all the time, in a rather transparent and pathetic attempt to subliminally misrepresent Obama, and Irish listeners would ring in and correct him, disallowing such cheap shots to be fired at a minority candidate in the U.S., even though Clintons are generally more favoured here because we know them well and they have done an enormous amount of good for us, not just in Northern Ireland). I too thought initially that those people who would be actively against an Obama candidacy must be, one way or another, racist, even if such racism may only be latent.

Now I think different.

Having observed how his campaign and his supporters behaved over the last eight months, who managed to tar and feather two of the most progressive Democrats in recent history who consistently supported the cause of African Americans in action and not just in words (pouring resources into African American-dominated districts, approving affirmative action legislation), and branded them as "racists", thus discrediting their decades of noble public service in the cause, I no longer buy into the meme that all Obama opposers are racists. Nor indeed, would I any longer buy into the myth that Obama ran an "honest, clean" campaign.

In fact, far from it. Excepting those unreconstructed Appalachian rednecks who are suspicious of anyone foreign and different, some of the Obama opposers may actually be the most racially-progressive Democrats in the Party.

It is such a pity - nay, absolute disgrace - that Hillary and Bill Clinton have been dragged through the mud by the Obama hate machine (if not Obama himself, in whom I continue to retain a measure of hope, how audacious of me?), and being lumped in with the likes of redneck Appalachians, when they are really two of the finest examples of the racially-progressive Democrats. After all, Bill didn't get the label of being called a "Black President" by pretty words alone.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

In praise of female friendships... [Mini Spoiler Alert]

... as portrayed so wonderfully in Sex and the City: The Movie.

My best gal pal and I just saw it on Friday night, as a fitting opening to this June bank holiday weekend :)

We thought it was almost not going to happen at all, as it turned out that ALL tickets for the movie were sold out (?!?) in ALL city centre cinemas for the entire long weekend!! This has never happened before in the history of Dublin cinemas to the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge, and I cannot believe, even as a SATC fan, that Carrie and co would have such drawing power, such that evening shows were sold out by phone/internet a day before the long weekend. Especially when Indiana Jones is also in town.

Fortunately, there is a new small cinema in the little seaside town that my friend has moved into recently, and miracle of miracles, there were free tickets for Friday evening! My friend was going to pay for the tickets by phone immediately as a precaution, and was pleasantly surprised by the relaxed and bemused tone of the operator, who reassured her that she didn't need to worry about paying over the phone, that the tickets would definitely be held for us, and that we could pay when we arrive, and recommended us to be there 20 minutes before to secure good seats as it was free seating. Such a difference in attitude towards customer care between a small town venue and the city theatres! As I had to get a train to get out there after work, we had just enough time to go for a meal at an (again newly-established, and surprisingly good in both service and food) Italian restaurant right next door, sharing a whole bottle of wine between us in just three quarters of an hour before the movie (it was a pity that the restaurant didn't serve any cocktails, so that we could live it up with a Cosmopolitan a la Carrie and friends before the movie, but beggars can't be choosers in a small seaside town).

I have been looking forward to this film for years, although I have to admit I didn't really get sucked into the TV series until well into its later seasons. I guess I was turned off initially by the show's title. I mean, "Sex and the City"? It just seemed like it was trying way too hard to be this avant-garde show that would blow sexual taboos to smithereens (and indeed, that was its premise). At the time I was in my early 20's and I thought the most post-modern attitude towards sex then was actually not to harp on and on about it. Just do it and spare us the psychoanalysis. And I was also having a sneaking suspicion that the show was all about titilating the senses and playing to the "male gaze" (a term I was only learning to pretend to drop with ease in quasi-intellectual debates with friends, having pilfered it from my gender studies classes) under the politically-correct cloak of so-called female sexual empowerment.

But how mistaken I was. For some reason or other I started catching a few episodes from beginning to end, and before long, I was HOOKED. Seriously hooked. I started to realise that the show was not so much about sex as RELATIONSHIPS (indeed, as the self-proclaimed "sexual anthropologist" Carrie lamented in one of the episodes about her first book deal, her newspaper column was being miscontrued by the agents who thought her work was all about carnal pleasures, nothing more). And it was also not just about romantic relationships, although these figured prominently in the series for each of the four female leads (and which were breezily re-capped in the title sequence of the movie in the space of two minutes - though I was horrified, I mean absolutely horrified, that they saw fit to change the iconic theme music in the opening credits. Sacrilege!).

No, the key relationship that ties the whole show together, that lies at the very core of the overwhelmingly female fandom of SATC (reports said that over 90% of the audience in the opening weekend in the States thus far have been female, and in the little seaside cinema where my friend and I saw this movie, there were only a handful of guys, all apparently dragged in by their girlfriends/wives), is female FRIENDSHIP. Four New York women, each with totally different personalities and different career trajectories, managed to become, and remain, really good friends with each other, in all the ways that a girl can be counted as a friend to another. They went out as a gang to all these trendy clubs and bars (the various nightspots of NYC became tourist traps after they were name-dropped on the show by the fabulous four). They shopped and lunched together (had there been any show in the history of television before SATC that unapologetically revelled in the joys of female shopping? I don't think so. The series was ground-breaking just for this tiny fact).

Most importantly, they talked to each other incesssantly, all the time. On. Any. Subject. That was a true revelation about this show where sex is concerned. These four thirty-somethings to forty-somethings gossiped and analysed their individual sexual escapades over their Caesar salads, as ordinary as if one were merely debating the merits and demerits of Prada versus Louis Vuitton. Even the goody-two-shoes Charlotte was drawn out of her prim and proper self when she was with the girls. Thus sexual taboos were indeed blown to smithereens as a result of SATC, not because of the fact that it showed some full-frontal nude shots or some softcore sex scenes in prime-time television, but because women are shown talking and debating about sex and its various practices openly, nonchalantly, totally selfishly, and as easily as men traded sex jokes with one another. This is not only in relation to the nymphomanic Samatha's trademark unflinching and unabashed discussion of sex anytime, anywhere (one of which was recapped in the film's opening credits, when Carrie, on hearing Samantha's TMI non-sequitur as they waited for the dessert course to arrive, promptly asked the waiter to cancel her rice pudding order), but also for women who would have otherwise been thought of as characteristically square. One of such standout frank exchanges from the TV show was when Miranda wondered aloud with her three friends, again as they sat down to eat in a smart restaurant, about men's sudden interest in the "butt area" ("when did they get the memo that it's suddenly on the menu?"), the particular form of which Carrie, in true sexual anthropologist mode, immediately denoted as "toku... lingus". Before Carrie (B.C.), talk of sex is deemed as too distasteful and degrading for the sensitive female ear. But with the SATC, the FEMALE gaze has well and truly arrived.

And the girls were there for each other when it really, really mattered. The friendships between Carrie (fun and kooky newspaper columnist), Miranda (sensible and workaholic corporate lawyer), Samantha (assertive and sex-crazed PR extraordinaire) and Charlotte (sweet and conservative art curator) are in someway reminiscent of the close bonds between Rachel, Monica and Phoebe from Friends (in fact, one could argue that women like Carrie et al in their 30's and 40's are merely what would become of girls like Rachel et al once they have passed their 20's). And it is this idealistic portrayal of female friendships in SATC from which the later Desparate Housewives drew its inspiration, despite the dramatic change in settings and life circumstances. It is no coincidence that girls within their circles of friends started comparing themselves to these various women "archetypes" on the SATC in the same way that girls in the 1990's proudly proclaimed themselves as one of the Friends' characters. (For the record, I'm apparently Charlotte on the Facebook quiz, and I was apparently Monica in similar quizzes for Friends).

Regardless of which SATC character I apparently most resemble, of the four, I must say that I most admire Samantha. A shallow TV audience will take one look at her nymphomaniac ways and dismiss her as a brainless broad. But to a more observant viewer, it is clear that underneath all her sassy brazenness, she has a heart of pure gold. Samantha was most loyal to her friends. She turned up at Carrie's book-launch despite her face looking like an orange due to an ill-advised skin peel facial procedure, because she had promised Carrie to be her "plus-one" at the party, and didn't mind when Carrie bluntly told her to leave precisely because of how her face looked after she reluctantly unveiled herself. She didn't mind accompanying Carrie to the West Coast on a stupendously long and boring train journey, and grumbled only a little when she was unceremoniously forced by Carrie to leave the hotel suite mid-bath just because Carrie needed the room for sex with Big, when she herself was supposed to be nursing her self-esteem on one of her uncharacteristically low days. She once switched a long-awaited hair appointment with a celebrity hair stylist for a stint of baby-sitting Miranda's colicky baby, in spite of her distaste of young children in general; and she didn't hold a grudge when Charlotte phoned to tell her about her sexual breakthrough with her inhibited first husband, even though Charlotte had earlier insulted her by almost calling her a shameless slut. In fact, it was precisely because Samantha was so uninhibited and unapologetic, not only physically but conversationally, that the rest of her friends - and by extension, the rest of us female viewers - finally got permission to take their rightful place at the sex table without any fear of loss of respectability.

I was therefore relieved that they waited until Kim Cattrall came on board to do the SATC movie, rather than doing without her character as a result of alleged off-screen hostility between Cattrall and SJP. As it has been said elsewhere, it was Samantha who stole the show again in the movie, with the best lines and the best gags. The scriptwriter Michael Patrick King knew what he was doing and stayed true to the on-screen relationship between Cattrall and SJP's characters, despite whatever negative feelings the actresses might actually have towards one another. (Although, at the movie's premiere at London's West End, SJP charmingly said that she considered it one of her life's blessings to have known and worked with all of the other three leading ladies over the past ten years). In the movie, after the big let-down from Mr. Big, it was Samantha who persuaded the other girls (especially the workaholic Miranda) that Carrie needed them to be with her in Mexico; and it was Samantha who persuaded the unconsolable Carrie to finally eat something. And oh, it was extremely satisfying to hear Samantha, confident and assertive, loudly counter-interrupt a smartass guy with a brazen, "Shut up dickwad, I am speaking."

That is not to say that Sex and the City the movie doesn't have flaws. Actually it has quite a few. For my friend, the film was way too long at two and a half hours (though for me, I didn't mind the actual length of the movie, given how long it's been since our last fix of SATC, but they certainly could do a lot better with pacing it). The other qualities that made SATC great as eye candy for women, such as the brilliant costumes and the fabulous shoes, became way too obvious as product placements in the movie (I mean, jeez, do we really need to see the Manolo Blahnik shoe box and the Louis Vuitton gift box in addition to SJP clearly pronouncing what they contained? And do we need to be told exactly which designer created which wedding dress at the Vogue photo shoot?) The "Louise from St. Louis" character was also way too cliched, and some of the scenes between her and Carrie were just too toe-curlingly cringeworthy in their stereotypicality. Also, what happened to the wit and charm of the male characters? Mr. Big became merely an aging place-holder of his former wisecracking self, completely devoid of personality. Steve turned even more puppy-doggish and henpecked by Miranda (although I did surreptitiously shed a tear at their reunion scene). Smith became more cardboardish than was previously thought possible. And Harry? His movie character could be succinctly summed up in one phrase: "lucky bald guy".

Still, it was really, really gratifying for SATC fans like me to see this movie, being rightfully dubbed as "the finale that never was". All four New York gals stay true to their characters, despite the four years that have elapsed since we last saw them. If you have in any way missed any of these four fictional women from your screen over the past four years, watching the movie is like catching up with good old friends who haven't changed a bit, with whom you could pick up right where you left off. In the small cosy theatre that my friend and I saw this movie in, there was no shortage of appreciative laughters from the audience throughout this movie - even the guys accompanying their girlfriends sitting in the row in front of us joined in (although, I would totally understand how, as Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian said, as a male member of the audience you may need to read three Andy McNab novels back to back just to get your masculinity back up to metrosexual level after this movie). If you didn't like the series when it was first out on TV, this movie is probably not going to persuade you to suddenly go hunting for previous DVDs of the show. But to those who care about, or are charmed by, the unabashedly female and (distinctly unfair) privileged lives of Carrie and friends, this movie doesn't - and I mean doesn't (finger-wagging a la SJP) - disappoint.

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A bunch of snowdrops by any other name...

SNOWDROPS
S is for Sweet
N is for Natural
O is for Open-hearted
W is for Worldly
D is for Dedicated
R is for Romantic
O is for Original
P is for Perfectionist
S is for Special
What Does Your Name Mean?