Brainstrummings from a Bug-Eyed Bookworm

Tiff is a PhD student in English literature at UC-Berkeley. She takes no prisoners, bars no holds, holds no bars.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Edgar the Eggplant Plant(s)

Does anyone remember the nursery rhyme,

I had a little nut-tree
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden pear


Now that's one confused nut-tree if you ask me. I don't have any little nut-trees, but I have recently decided to try my thumb at growing eggplants. Originally, the plan was to buy one eggplant plant and name it Edgar. But the plants came in six-packs, like beer, so I bought six plants and divided them among two pots.

For some reason Blogspot is giving me trouble and won't let me post any eggplant plant pictures on the web, but they're starting to blossom into little purple flowers, the ovaries of which will hopefully turn into eggplants!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Business As Usual At The Bone Room most people I know are already acquainted with the fact that I work at a natural history store which sells fossils, insects, and human bones. What follows is a business e-mail exchange between a customer placing an order and Diana the manager.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent.


I was referred to your website by a Santero from the Orishalist.

I am looking for two (2) Havelina (Wild Boar) Tusks -- known in Spanish as "colmillos de jabali".

Do you carry these or can you refer me to a Vendor who may be able to?

Thank you very much,

Amber Emmenthal Smith
Los Angeles, CA

Dear Amber Emmenthal Smith,

We do not (cannot, by law) carry wild boar tusks, but we do have African warthog tusks, if that will do. They cost from $12 - $20 each.



Dear Diana,


Thank you for your response. I would like two of the African warthog tusks, please -- the $20 ones (hopefully, they're the large ones). There is a specific Path (or Camino) of Eshu Elegba that requires them in order to consecrate the fundamento.

It would be great if they could arrive by 09/22 (the Obatala Feast Weekend, and an auspicious time for me to have my new God consecrated). Do you have 3-Day Shipping available?

I remain ...

Yours very truly,

Emmenthal Smith

English Editors emulating Chinese Shopkeepers

From Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle (one of the multitude of Victorian books I must read for the dread qualifying exams):

The narrator of the book apparently writes "at an epoch when Puffery and Quackery have reached a height unexampled in the annals of mankind, and even English Editors, like Chinese Shopkeepers, must write on their door-lintels, No cheating here..."

Friday, September 08, 2006

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream....

....I ever dreamed before.

Well, maybe not the absolute strangest. I've had some really strange dreams. Often the really strange ones are nightmares, and involve the grisly murder of someone: my mother, my baby sister, and Bart Simpson are the more memorable victims.

But in this one, I was in Naan 'n' Curry on Telegraph Ave. (cheap Indian restaurant in Berkeley) for the first time, except Naan 'n' Curry wasn't an Indian restaurant. Instead they sold swords, guitars, and guitar accessories. They also made freshly-baked manju (a type of Japanese cake) filled with either red bean paste or green tea paste.

So the owner of Naan 'n' Curry was a jovial, plump, middle-aged Indian dude with a mad streak of generosity who enjoyed giving huge random discounts to students and massive Banghra parties. The amount of discount depended on how much the owner knew and liked you.

I am standing in line to buy a cloth for cleaning my guitar, and the student in front of me is charged only $1.02 for a samurai sword. The owner is about to charge me $6 for the guitar-cleaning cloth, but gives me the cloth for free eventually: it's just a matter of fumbling in my wallet and being slow enough with producing my citibank mastercard to allow him enough time for his generous nature to kick in. Then who should emerge from one of the doors in the wall but Ann Huss, a tall blonde woman who was my Mandarin professor at Wellesley. She appears to be sopping wet from head to toe and laughing.

It's the next morning, and for some reason, I'm taking a morning class which meets at Naan 'n' Curry. Everyone is munching of freshly baked manju, given freely by the establishment. Ann Huss is there again, but this time, as the teacher for the class. Then all of a sudden, the owner emerges from one of the side doors and goes, "Ann! You have to see this! Only for one minute! This is amazing!"

We all peer through the door to find that the passage leads directly into a river in India. We are confronted with a lush and verdant landscape populated with villages and elephants and temple ruins to explore and clamber over. Music blasted at full volume over the entire scene: the song, "Relax", by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

"This NEVER happens," exclaims the owner with a mischievous grin. He is obviously lying. Ann Huss knows this.

"Just this once, Prof. Huss!" we all exclaim, trying to get her to adjourn the lesson and party, even though she's obviously "partied"in such a way at Naan 'n' Curry before.

"Well, all right," she says reluctantly. And in a line, we all follow the owner through the door and directly into the river. Professor and I have to take off our sneakers mid-way through the river (everyone else is barefoot already for some reason). As I take off my sneakers and place them on the ledge of a temple ruin to my right, I find that the heel of my right sneaker has been broken off for some reason.

So we're clambering all around the landscape, music still blaring in our ears, and I realise that we're still in Berkeley, but that it seems to have been taken over by the Indian countryside which has sprung up in and all round it. The inhabitants of Berkeley still live in their houses, but now have to navigate their way around elephants and fields and trees and crocodiles to stay on the sidewalk. Ann Huss then turns to me and says, "This is a nice public space...since my apartment now leads directly into this space, I'd be willing to sell it to you for $1,500."

And then I woke up.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Luxury of Dining Out Alone

When I was a but a wee snippet of a girl, whenever I would eat out at a restaurant with my mother, she would always discreetly call to my attention anyone in the restaurant eating at a table alone. By "discreetly" I mean that she would point, lean in my direction, and whisper loudly in my ear while looking at them.
"See that? He/she is eating alone. How sad."
"Why sad?"
"Because it means that he/she doesn't have anyone to eat with. That's what I dread most. So lonely. That's what I'm sacred of."
"Eating alone?"
"Yah! Can you imagine having to just sit at a table by yourself, nobody to talk with, everybody staring at you wondering why you're alone?"
My mother is a fearful woman in many respects. In particular, she fears a lonely old age. She fears old age in general, attested to by the many anti-aging measures she has taken to keep her looking youthful. She lives in fear of the day when her body will one day smell like "old person", of the day when her skin will wrinkle and her jowls sag. She especially fears that her children will stick her in an old age home. On our annual Chinese New Year trips to the "Home for the Aged", with every red packet and pair of oranges we would hand out, she would whisper, "See how sad? Their own children don't even care about them. You can never do this to Mummy, right? Right?" Even now, I can almost hear the words hissed into my ear, feel her grip tightening on my arm. She fears old age for her children as well. When she came to visit me, she was horrified that I didn't wear gloves for dishwashing. "Your hands will wrinkle. I just want you to take care of yourself," she said, buying me hand-moisturiser and a new pair of gloves. "Your sister studies too much. I tell her that she needs to sleep more but she won't listen to me. She OLD." My sister is sixteen years old.

But I digress. I digress greatly.

The point is that mother seems to link dining alone with an involuntarily isolated and desolate condition. With not being wanted, not having friends or family. Why, after all, would anyone want to eat out alone?

Yet, there is something pleasant about dining alone once in a while. It's calming, soothing, to sit there and slowly pick at your food, to cast a slow, serene gaze over the restaurant and the other patrons, to glance out the window and let your mind wander aimlessly. You don't need to chit-chat. You don't need to wonder whether the other person is enjoying his/her food and whether you should feel bad if he/she isn't because you picked the restaurant.

In short, you can just take a chill pill.

I don't think I ever fully appreciated the experience of dining alone until graduate school, when it became a luxury activity, equivalent almost to going to a spa, or buying cute shoes. Dining with friends has a's justifiable. The price of a meal + tax + tip is well worth the opportunity to get to know someone better, to catch up and spend time with another body. The same price spent on oneself when one's self can just eat the leftovers in the fridge becomes extravagance. I talked about this with my friend Aaron, aptly enough, over a meal at a restaurant. He lives in an area where there a lot of restaurants. "Have you tried a lot of these places?" I asked. "Actually, not really," he replied. "I usually only eat out when I'm eating with other people." I nodded in agreement.

If, God willing, I don't perish before my ripe old age by having a crate full of French horns fall on me from a great height, I think I would like to be one of those elderly old women upon whom my mother pours her pity. I would like to hobble into a restaurant and order imperiously a table for one. I would like to place my bag and shawl on the table where my absent dining comapanion would have his/her plate. I would like to coolly return the gaze of the younger woman across the room regarding me with a sympathetic eye and, raising an eyebrow disdainfully, tear off a hunk of chicken with my teeth and chew it with my mouth open, grinning all the while in her direction. And afterwards, I would like to stretch my feet under the table as far as they could go, and wave them around, revelling in the fact that I don't need to avoid any other feet that might otherwise be there if I weren't such a "lonely old lady".

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Escape to Japan: Summer 2006

This is Kathleen Chiu.
Yes. She is indeed picking her nose contemplatively with a pen (in a cafe in Hiroshima). We first met on Orientation Day at Singapore American School in August 1998. I had just moved from Indonesia because of those bothersome riots due to political unrest. Kathleen had just moved from Saratoga, CA. We ate lunch together and were thoroughly bored with each other. I tried frantically to make spirited conversation and failed miserably. She resorted to poking holes in her lettuce leaf with her straw.

And so began a friendship of 8 years.

Over the years, she has learned to embrace her inner F.O.B. So much so that she is now living in Akita Prefecture, in the northern part of Honshu island, Japan, teaching English in local schools. We decided to an exchange visit....I visit for one week in Japan, she visits for one week in Singapore. And so it was done!

First stop in Japan: Hiroshima. This is the "A-Bomb Dome". The bomb exploded directly over this building.

This is Kathleen and me at the main shopping arcade in Hiroshima.
Next Stop: Miyajima--an island off the coast of Hiroshima, famous for wandering deer, pretty maple leaves (momiji), sponge cakes in the shape of maple leaves (momiji-manju), and a "floating" torii gate (pictured below). Considered one of the three purtiest spots in Japan!

Then there was the Ramen Museum in Shin-Yokohama, where for a paltry 300 yen, you can customise your own Cup Of Noodles!

Fobby Kathleen enjoying a hot bowl of Sapporo Ramen.

And then to Akita Prefecture where Kathleen actually lives and teaches! This is me squatting contemplatively by the beautiful Lake Tazawa (Tazawako).

This is a Sports Day at the middle-school where Kathleen teaches. Sports Day consisted of different classes and grades competing against one another in various games such as tug of war and mass jump-rope competitions. It also involved the third-years kicking all the younger kids' butts because they were physically larger and stronger. The woman in mid-air is the PE teacher.

And finally, we spent the night in Tokyo before we both headed out to Singapore so that Kathleen could visit with me! This is Kathleen being discontented with her "room" at the capsule-hotel.