Any visit to the Big Apple demands at least three hours perusing The Strand.
Discovery Times Square – Harry Potter: The Exhibition where you can step into Hagrid’s Hut and sit in his chair, or gape at the Ron’s dressing gowns for the Yule Ball. Check out the Half Blood Prince’s potions book, oh and ah over the Goblet of Fire, and these are just a few of the countless curios they had on display.
Step into Edith Wharton’s New York at the Neue Galerie, which featured Secessionist work, post Bauhaus in “Vienna 1900: Style and Identity” through June 27. Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street. (212) 628-6200.
Tasty concoctions in a swanky intimate setting at Death + Co. in the East Village.
Vermouth on tap at Amor y Amargo where they specialize in bitters.
Sights missed this time ’round but hope to see on next visit:
Apotheke though the NYT had once reported that this joint was shut down because of fire hazards.
On Saturday, May 14, I had the honor and pleasure of delivering the keynote speech for the Asian Pacific American Student Associaion Graduation Celebration at Saint Mary’s College. Upon arrival, Hagerty Lounge was transformed into an elegant venue dressed in gold and purple with red and white table cloths laid out in the back for some fine dining that would take place after the speeches and ceremonies. An undergrad named Craig, immediately welcomed me and got me situated. Organized by Joan Iva C. Fawcett, the Director of the Intercultural Center, which sponsored the event, the celebration opened with an address from Jef Aquino, the MC. Alex Carbonel, a talented musician, singer, and basketball player performed throughout the celebration, and her beautiful music really added to the ceremony.
Trying to hold my own, I gave my speech, included below. Three awards were soon presented: the Student Scholar Award, the Student Leader Award, and the Dean Grace Cardenas-Tolentino Award then Brother Camillus Chavez gave the candle blessing, after which all attendees were invited to taste some delicious dishes from James Na and Jim Fawcett’s catering company as well as listen to the beautiful ukulele played by Eileen Lindley, a former student of mine.
This was a happy, tear-filled event, which I am very grateful to have shared, and I hope to attend more since these students are so wonderfully inspiring.
Here’s the keynote speech, a tribute to my family, speaking of inspiration:
APASA 2011 Graduation Ceremony Speech
Thirteen years ago, I sat in uncomfortable folding seats, just like you. Tipsy from excitement, thrilled to be sharing this moment of arrival with family and friends, eager to finally be an independent adult. With all frankness, I don’t remember the graduation speeches. I couldn’t tell you which prominent speaker said what, but I remember feeling like I could catch air and fly. I also distinctly remember hitting ground after graduation and crashing into the reality of life after college. There were the student loans, the string of jobs to pay the rent. I floundered between careers and learned more about what I didn’t want to do rather than coming to some instant grand destiny. Life after college was a process of elimination. Messy and confusing. What kept me sane, tethered to my dreams, and confident in my sense of self were my friends from college and my family.
Every once in a while, like today, we get to step back and survey what we’ve accomplished, celebrate the distance we’ve covered, and chart the new heights we hope to achieve. We are always arriving. In 1947, a newly married Filipino bride and groom, my grandparents, arrived in the U.S for the first time. Traveling by ship, they crossed the Pacific from Leyte, Philippines. You’ve probably heard similar tales such as theirs. Between the bride and groom they had two ten-dollar bills to serve as a nest egg for their new life in the States. The young woman carried a smile that could rival sunlight. She admired the ideals and beauty America stood for so much that she decided she wanted to be just as pretty and fair as the Hollywood actress, Hedy Lemarr. So my grandma got it in her head to turn her dark Pilipina skin to lily-white just. She basked on the rocks next to the river where she washed and dried her family’s laundry, thinking she could bleach herself the same way her brothers’ shirts and sisters’ linens were whitened in the heat of the sun. When she got home, she found herself darker than the earth she walked on. She learned an early lesson to just be yourself.
My grandpa had been encouraged at age eleven by his mother to make a living in the States. She told him that if he ever wanted to be someone he had to go to America because the tiny island of Limisawa didn’t offer the same opportunities he would find in the States. And, after she died, he went to California, all alone, at sixteen-years old to discover himself and a world that he’d make his home.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to the Philippines to marry his sweetheart and they sailed back to California. On their journey they met another Filipino who had no money but hefted a load of responsibility and promises that he also made to his family back home. This fellow Pinoy, asked my grandparents, if they could lend him some money, and my grandpa, being the overly generous soul he was gave the man one of his ten-dollar bills. Of course, grandma was furious. “Why did you do that?” she asked.
“Don’t worry, dear, we’ll be all right,” he answered.
My grandpa always knew whatever adversity he and my grandma would face they’d succeed. He hadn’t the smallest doubt that they’d find their way and be able to share their fortune, so he always took great lengths to help others. I look to each of you today, and I see you doing the same. You’re honoring community and family, supporting your brothers and sisters who journey into the unknown alongside you. I know that by your commitment to APASA, you each have stayed true to who you are and where you’ve come from.
With no safety net aside for their love for each other, my grandparents embarked on one of the scariest endeavors we could ever take, daring to make their way in a new country, living a foreign life among strangers. Imagine if they had Facebook, Twitter, or Skype to keep them connected to home and to warn them of the dangers they might come across.
Today you have so many tools and means to keep you informed and stay linked to your family and friends. My grandparents had only the relationships they’d make along the way and the ambitions their families inspired within them. Still, you’re every bit the pioneers my grandparents were. They, like you, embraced a new world, unsure of the next step or the step that would follow after the first one. Faith, hard work, and commitment to family, friends, and their heritage kept their nerves steeled, helped them grit their teeth, and hold fast to their dreams. I have every confidence you’ll be doing the same on your journey.
You’ve navigated some deep and choppy waters in the different classes you’ve taken at Saint Mary’s, and the different activities you’ve participated in. I’m thinking now of Collegiate Seminar which has given you the rare opportunity to reflect honestly and deeply about some of life’s most important ideas. Rarely will you get a chance to just sit and discuss some of our most muddiest concerns.
At the same time that you’re drawing upon your college education as a foundation for what’s ahead be sure to also remember the stories, experiences, and advice that your family and friends have shared. Think of all the challenges your grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins, and parents have faced to help you get where you are now. Keep learning and shaping your own wisdom, which rests on the wisdom of your loved ones. Honor their words and memories.
I’ll leave you with a couple life’s lessons and you can do with them as you will. Firstly, try with all your might to avoid debt or try not to get into any more debt. Credit cards are bad. Stay away. I learned that the hard way. Don’t be me.
Secondly, stay hungry and keep your thirst for knowledge and experience. Read everyday of your life. Always be inquisitive. Try to see the world from someone else’s eyes and walk in their shoes.
Thirdly, and lastly, keep engaged and connected to your communities. Don’t forget about us here at Saint Mary’s because we’ll miss you and we want to chart your success. Stay close to family and friends as you scale your ambitions and make your way in this world. Keep your communities close to heart because each of you inspire us.
Let’s take a moment to thank and congratulate one another for arriving here, celebrating all that we have accomplished and wishing only success and good fortune for what’s to come. Today is your day, and I wish you many successes. Peace and blessings!
Big thanks to APASA for including me in such a grand event!
All photos, except the pic of Hedy Lamarr, are courtesy of PJ Sanders.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
**DISCLAIMER: This review is written by one of the contributors from the anthology. Please read with discretion.**
In her Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa writes of the mestiza consciousness: “The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be a Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates on a pluralistic mode–nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad, and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.” The Filipino-ness, as discussed by Rocio G. Davis in his introduction and depicted by the twenty-plus authors in this anthology, develops more than a tolerance for contradictions but zeroes in on the good, the bad, and the ugly, drawing strength, voice, character, and meaning out of the ambiguity that lies at the inherent core of Filipino and Fiilpino-American experiences. Filipino history is Pluralism, and Cecilia Manguerra Brainard through her keen compilation and organization of these deceptively simple tales shows readers the complexity of individual experiences and stories in this beautifully orchestrated anthology.
rating: 3 of 5 stars Being citizen of the world is crazy-making. You belong to nowhere and every where claims you. You could be Egyptian, Thai, Fijian, Spanish or Persian, and strangers with a downright rudeness will marvel at your hair, dissect your skin color, and speak brazenly about the otherness of you. Mixed race, multi-culturals must learn to straddle borders and serve as ambassador to a crowd that only pretends to be homogenized. Members of the “rainbow tribe” learn to belong to multiple worlds and become schizophrenic in the process. Bharati Mukherjee’s rambunctious and mythic novel, Leave It To Me is a fast-paced tale that lassos and wrestles the mixed race experience to the ground. Her writing, as in Jasmine and Middlemen & Other Stories, scintillates. She cuts through all the B.S. and morass to get to the beating, bleeding heart of our racially complex world.
Debby DiMartino, or the reinvented and reincarnated Devi, is a force of a nature. What makes her a great main character is that we don’t know what she’s capable of and neither does she. The best literary characters instill just enough fear in their readers, so that we’re surprised, almost aghast, at their potency. Half Indian and half American, Devi raises a path of destruction and retribution as she seeks her birth parents. Born and raised in Schenectady by her adoptive Italian American parents, the family that cared for and loved her throughout childhood, adolescent, and teenage years gets tossed aside, while Devi follows a thin line between sanity and insanity, stalking her heritage to the Bay Area of California, a bastion for changelings and shape-shifters. Circuiting the cracked out Haight, berserk Berkeley, and even an off-road jaunt through the Caldicott Tunnel for an evening of suburban madness in Lafayette, Devi meets soul-searchers and cosmonauts who are more lost and more confused than her own orphaned and jumbled self. With psychic and transcripted transmissions from Rajasthan, Mukherjee alights the Pacific Rim with a burning tale of explosive souls enmeshed in a Vietnam love versus war saga. Devi’s origin is the twisted tale of a hippie American mother, who romanticizes the East, bowing to her Oriental lover and lo! a hapless baby with a hunger for revenge is borne. Leave It to Me, is a perverse dance of both classic and contemporary themes, when Casteneda meets Conrad.
rating: 5 of 5 stars Jane Eyre, at fifteen she seemed entirely too cerebral, almost to the point of pretension. Too downtrodden and bound to earthly matters, certainly no match for the metaphysical and passionate likes of her literary sister, Catherine Earnshaw. I was not a fan of Charlotte Bronte in high school. I much preferred the transcendental and other-worldly spiritedness of Cathy and Heathcliff. Charlotte and Jane were just too drab and dreary.
Some fifteen years later, most of my adolescent ardor has tempered. I no longer think The Doors are the end all be all, and I cringe at my idolisation of Jim Morrison. I see the gaping faults in Cathy and can’t forgive Heathcliff. And Jane, dear, wise, level-headed, answer-to-her-own-will and stick-to-her-own-principles, Jane Eyre is an end all be all in Charlotte’s profound and unsettling universe. I recently re-read Jane Eyre this past month and was so swept away with awe and inspiration, I read it again. That’s right, twice, in a row. Jane Eyre is as complicated, keen, and perceptive as any philosophical protagonist. Move over Stephen Daedalus, watch out Raskolnikov, shut your pipes, Pip, and stuff it Hans Castrop.
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.
Jane is as strong willed and autonomous as any man. A critique of the Biblical story of woman as temptress, in Bronte’s world, men are weak and tempt damnation. Rochester urges Jane to live in sin with him, but Jane is too upstanding and moral, not in a cloying and nauseating way as Esther Summerson or any other Victorian female do-gooder, think Eliot’s Romola and take your pick of Dickens’ heroines. Jane stands apart because we see from the beginning that she holds firmly to her own principles. And, at most, we share her credo. We want her to leave Rochester, we hail her for rebelling against Mrs. Reed, and we hold the same caution as she does against Helen Burns’ extreme piety. The brilliance of Bronte’s first person narrator, is that we see exactly why and how Jane acts on her decisions, and we follow her every step and struggle with heart and reason. Throughout all the trails and turbulent tribulations, and even in the advent of marriage, Jane doesn’t lose her autonomy but gains only more agency and wisdom for herself while Rochester pays for his transgressions through his body and soul. He literally becomes a broken man by his own doing.
Such is the imperfect nature of man! Such spots are there on the disc of the clearest planet; and eyes like Miss Scatherd’s can only see those minute defects, and are blind to fill brightness of the orb.
The Brontes revel in flaws. Their characters are glorified by humanly fatal flaws. Jane is too headstrong. Rochester, prideful. There’s dogmatic Helen, the statuesque and too evangelical St. John, and Adele, who’s just too French. Bronte had just a smidge of the xenophobe in her. That’s sarcasm for you. Because, of course, there’s Bertha, the inner animal, the monstrous Other, who, despite her foreign origins, lives in each and everyone of us. Bertha is kin to Heathcliff. Without either the world would be a very cold, barren desert. Each character’s fault shapes them and makes them who they are, an Achilles Heel that makes them larger than life. Bronte magnifies each defect, and, in doing so, rejects perfection and purity. The only absolute is there are no absolutes. Absolutes are sent to the sweltering heat of India to wither and die. St. John, the model of perfection and piety, is a Greek god of beauty and has the morals to uphold his handsomeness. Yet his perfection is grotesque. And Rochester’s grotesqueness is not perfection, but we definitely prefer him over the maniacal rigidness of St. John who both repels and attracts women.
From the start, Eyre wants nothing more than earthly love. Burns says to her “Hush, Jane, you think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement.” Yet, Jane is extremely hardy and adaptable. She can grow without love. In darkness and solitude, she’ll survive and be better for it. She is capable of finding her inner strengths without outside support, and this makes her divine, god-like. Resilient and resourceful, as formidable a hero as Dante or Odysseus. Jane Eyre defines the heroine’s journey. Heroine as opposed to hero in that Jane thrives best in her relationships to those she loves and those who reciprocate equal care and compassion. “Only connect,” Jane embodies the mantra and shows us the truer and greater path, more significant than any trail a hero might trek. Our heroine happily and proudly commits herself to serve others, not in the service of god, not in any submissive or subservient manner but out of a deep sense of duty to simply care for those she loves. This is true nobility, truly heroic. To be of use, to have purpose, to fulfill duty, and uphold virtue in the Classical sense. Jane knows where she stands among the Cosmos. She knows the station to which she was born and does not seek to transcend her place, in terms of shirking from duties and responsibilities, but should anyone transgress against her rights to equality, free speech, or free thought, should anyone violate her own humanity, they will have to answer to Charlotte Bronte.
More greatness from Harper’s Magazine, “Plato’s World” published Sunday, June 6, 2009.
In Plato’s day, the world itself seemed boundless beyond comprehension, its resources inexhaustible, and the dangers and wonders of nature were a test for human knowledge. With the passage of time, humanity has grown much more conscious of the finite nature of the earth and its resources. And with time, Plato’s conceptualization of the earth as a living creature has also become a more appealing model–it pointed the way to discovery of the ecological systems by which the world breathed, moved, transformed and regenerated itself. Today humanity approaches final mastery of the world–but what does this mean for the world-soul and for humanity’s ultimate survival in its terrestrial setting?
Harpers’ Magazine does it again with a wonderful commingling of Emerson and Beethoven contemplating the world-soul.
In The Dial of July 1841, close to the time of this poem’s composition, Emerson writes: “Music is the aspiration, the yearnings of the heart to the Infinite. It is the prayer of faith, which has no fear, no weakness in it. It delivers us from our actual bondage; it buoys us up above our accidents, and wafts us on waves of melody to the heart’s ideal home.” He has been to a concert performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the Pastoral. “Whoever has studied the Pastoral Symphony… will feel the difference between music which flows from an inward feeling of nature, from a common consciousness (as it were) with nature, and the music which only copies, from without, her single features. These pieces bring all summer sensations over you, but they do not let you identify a note or a passage as standing for a stream, or a bird. They do not say; look at this or that, now imagine nightingales, now thunder, now mountains, and now sunspots chasing shadows; but they make you feel as you would if you were lying on a grassy slope in a summer’s afternoon, with the melancholy leisure of a shepherd swain, and these things all around you without your noticing them.”
This poem has haunted me since first encountering ee cummings. Vince Gotera provides an elegant and simple deconstruction via YouTube on his blog post “ee cummings l(a) deconstructed”:
If you’re like me, after reading cummings, you’ll perceive magic every time a leaf falls.
…What cummings uncovers for us here is how many times the number one (as suggested by the letter l) appears in the word loneliness: four times. And of course there’s also the letter l/number one in the word leaf…
rating: 3 of 5 stars “Writers are dangerous,” so says A.S. Byatt, and when you read Chris Abani you see exactly how the truth can kill. Abani’s stories show us life balanced on the blade of a knife. His novel, Graceland, chronicles a dark page of Nigeria’s history as we follow a young boy learning to live and love in the turbulent eighties. Graceland opens with a nod to Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred.” Elvis, our young Nigerian protagonist, desperately wants to be a dancer, and in the midst of war and political revolution, this dream dries up, festers like a sore, and decays with the death that surrounds him.
Graceland, like Jessica Hagedorn’s novels Dogeaters or Dream Jungle, crams fistfuls of characters into bustling Third World nightmares. Whether its Manila or Lagos, each soul, for better or for worse, is forced to angle their own path to survival. Graceland is an Inferno on earth, and Abani’s hero, Elvis, follows the footsteps of Florentine pilgrim, Dante. As Elvis matures from self indulgent and naive boy to awakened man, he’s initiated into the sinful ways of his world, and, like Dante, he sees firsthand how degrees of sin match degrees of survival. Though unlike our Tuscan journeyman, Elvis is granted two guides, Redemption and the King of Beggars. Each play tug-o-war with Elvis’ conscience. Redemption, who entangles Elvis into a life of crime, lifts the veil of innocence for us and our hero when he asks, “So are you telling me dat stealing bread from bakery to feed yourself and killing some boy is de same? Everything got degree.”
As in Inferno, the one pure source of light, our pilgrim’s enduring star, is Beatrice, Elvis’ mother. Though Elvis strays from his path and is lost in the dark wood of his country in strife, his mother through her written notes on Igbo culture and her record of recipes for sustenance and medicine, reading more like prophecies, keep Elvis sane and compassionate.
What’s disturbing and therefore powerful about Graceland is knowing that Abani’s novel is most likely true. Though the characters are make believe, anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the BBC news knows that Elvis’ journey happens everyday. Pick a country, any country, whether it be Thailand, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, or Mexico, Abani’s work serves as live wire transmissions of today’s “urban anonymity” from all the dark nooks of our global metropolises. In that respect, we also see the over-reach of American and Western culture and ideals. As Barthelme’s writing reveals, no part of our life is left unadulterated by the media, and, in Abani’s novel, we also find that no corner of the earth is left untainted by Western influences. The consequences of this is a protagonist who is hyper self-conscious. His dreams and hopes feed off movies and music, which are then appropriated and made new by his Nigerian culture. The media is constantly recycling and transforming itself, as the lives it influences actively transform and reinvent new identities as new modes of survival.
Graceland is a testament to the shock and awe practice of today’s geopolitics. Abani doesn’t flinch to bring these stories to light. His writing is dangerous only in that he holds a mirror up to us and asks us to take a hard look at ourselves.
rating: 3 of 5 stars
Lee Siegel raises excellent critical theories about our latest and greatest tool, though much of the text seems to veer into personal rant. Some of his finer points include:
Like the car, the Internet has been made out to be a miracle of social and personal transformation when it is really a marvel of convenience–and in this case of the Internet, a marvel of convenience that has caused a social and personal upheaval. As with the car, the highly arbitrary way in which the Internet has evolved has been portrayed as inevitable and inexorable.
Including scathing critiques against the rampant “self expression” that he insists tyrannize the web:
But self-expression is not the same thing as imagination. ‘Self expression’ is one of those big, baggy terms bulging with lots of cultural change and cultural history to the point where it gestures toward a kind of general meaning without expressing a particular one.
Siegel steps in as Cassandra warning us of the dangers of an insulated “Youniverse” where personal instant gratification is the rule of the day. His most enlightening observation, how digital technology is currently changing our language and perception of the world:
We have undergone a complete ‘transvaluation of values,’ the phrase that the German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche used to describe the process by which a new way of looking at the world slops into our familiar outlook. Nietzsche believed that Christianity, for example, had ‘transvalued’ earlier pagan and aristocratic values of heroism, power, and fame into meekness, humility, and eternal life. The early Christians did this while retaining pagan vocabulary, so that Jesus was still a “prince” and God as “mighty” as any Roman emperor; God’s realm was as much a ‘kingdom’ as that of Nero. But although the former vocabulary remained, the new values had an entirely different meaning.
In this digital revolution, at the dawn of the Informization Age, as Mike Davis noted in a recent interview with Bill Moyers, like Obama, we can’t see the Grand Canyon. Davis recalls the first Western explorers were unable to comprehend the magnitude of America’s vast earthly chasm, at the time of its Western discovery, we simply did not have the technology to measure it and certainly could not fathom the grandness of it.
Today, we use capitalist terms and concepts to conceive this new digital horizon before us. We scramble to gain perspective as the landscape transforms underneath our feet.
My Composition students appreciated turning the technology on its head. Most of my freshman were weaned on digital waves, so they appreciated hearing his skepticism, though many complained that Siegel’s argument inclined towards repetition and, like most literary arguments, he leads us to a solution-less, and therefore, anti-climactic conclusion. Which makes me wonder why we, as writers, can’t do more than pose great critical ideas. Must we always linger in the haze of abstraction? If we’re going to pose a problem, shouldn’t we bother to conceive a viable solution? Nevertheless, the text generated excellent and engaged discussions–what more can a teacher ask for?