#2109 | I’m with you in Rockland – City Lights Bookstore San Francisco

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San Francisco, California

I make it a point to visit at least one bookstore in each new city I go to, but with City Lights Bookstore, it was more of a pilgrimage. I don’t even know how to describe City Lights in a way that would remotely do it justice, but lets start with this: it was the place that published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and subsequently got embroiled in an obscenity trial as a result, which was eventually dismissed under the First Amendment protection in American court because it had “the slightest redeeming social importance”. This paved the way for previously banned books to be published in America again and now its a designated world heritage site. WILD OR WHAT.

Anyway. Today was my last day in San Francisco, an insane four-day trip on agenda for Disney Pixar. I have so much to say about that, but that’s a post for another day. My girlfriend Kate flew down from New York to meet me in San Fran, but she left after lunch today to meet her cousins a town over, and so I found myself with a block of free alone time in the bay. I pottered down to the bookstore (an adventure in itself, figuring out public transport in SF city, because they DONT LABEL THEIR BUSSTOPS) and eventually a bus 30 got me somewhere near and I walked the rest of the way.

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The view while walking over

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I DIE. SO EXCITED.

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If I’m not wrong the founder of City Lights is BFFs with George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company in Paris

The bookstore physically reminds me of Three Lives and Company in New York – one of my favourite bookstores in the world. It is not an architectural showpiece like Los Angeles’s The Last Bookstore, which I visited last year end and loved as well – it’s more cozy and grungy. There are hand-drawn signs everywhere with slogans like EDUCATE YOURSELF, READ 14 HOURS A DAY and FREE SPEECH ZONE which I suppose reflects the bookstore’s iconic status as a proponent of free speech back in the fifties. It also has a very intimate feel, and everyone there moves with an air of reverence, almost.

As well as being a bookstore, it’s also a publishing house, and that was what gave it its cult status back in the fifties because it published what was considered the most alternative literature back then. Ginsberg’s Howl is one, but Jack Kerouac’s poetry books were all published by them, and he also spent a lot of time there writing his novels. Most people will know Kerouac by the super common ON THE ROAD BY JACK KEROUAC penguin book passport cover which Penguin has mass produced for the hipster demographic, but he’s also one of the key figures for the Beat generation back then.*

*The Beat generation is an american post-war literary movement that explored culture and politics, and that often gets described as bohemian or hippie culture hahahahaha cos they’re all about SPONTANEOUS LIVING and NON CONFORMITY

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A shelf of their latest published works. I bought a Bukowski book from this shelf

It sounds terribly academic when I phrase it that way, but the effect of the above was that for the first time ever, literature became a popular movement in the US. I think the only time, lol, cos after that period everyone just went back to watching TV. But anyway the point is that City Lights’s role in creating beatnik culture is super iconic in American literature ok. And till today, people are welcome to just show up at the bookstore and sit and read anywhere they want in their three floors. Whether there’s space is a different story lah cos it’s still a bit of a squeeze, but the result is that the entire atmosphere is humming with an adoration for the printed word.

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Level three is the most spacious of the three floors, and sells only poetry, much of which is published by City Lights.

They host events, readings, and book launches up here too. I wish I’d been in town when an event was happening, but chances are I wouldnt have been able to get in anyway given how tiny the space is. I think forty people in this room, max?

This room was actually slightly intimidating because the stairs creak going up, so evernote already on level three can hear you coming, and the dude sitting in the corner looked super grumpy when I walked in cos obviously I was disrupting his reading ~flow~ I mean, ok, dude. It’s a free world!

They’re also pretty famous for their pocket poetry series which sells good poetry in consumable forms, via little pocket books. I bought the Howl one for a girlfriend because it is obviously the most iconic thing in this bookstore. I mean the owners went to court for an OBSCENITY TRIAL because they dared publish it lolololol HOW TO NOT BUY? #consumerism #ironic

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If you’re more into fiction, and are too shy to talk to the staff for recommendations (strangely, many bookworms are introverts, so I think something went wrong with me somewhere cos i LOVE talking to strangers), there’s helpful little labels with staff picks and little descriptions to help you along. Many bookstores do this, and in retrospect I suppose its geared towards catering for the introvert nature of obsessive readers.

You also wont find chick lit here – this style of bookstores (as opposed to chain bookstores) are very curated, and City Lights in particular specialises in world literature, progressive politics, and the arts, so the book selection reflects that. I actually saw a book that was titled Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? by Mumia Abu-Jamal which was published by City Lights, which basically tells you everything you need to know about the bookstore. (It’s very highly rated btw, with a 4.3 on goodreads. Not that goodreads is the definitive guide to great books.. but Alice Walker also had a lot of praise for this book, which I can get behind.)

Anyway, I didn’t want to take up too much space hovering around the shelves and also, I had a flight to make, so I bought three books and left after awhile. Would have gotten more, but luggage space was an issue. At checkout, the hardest thing I had to say this whole trip was to the cashier..

“I’ve changed my mind about these (5) books.”
“You sure honey? They’re good.” (a stab to my heart.)
“I’m sure.. I have no more luggage space.”

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Still pretty pleased with my buys! It comes in this old school brown paper bag, which I had to carry around the rest of the day WITH PRIDE before getting back to my luggage storage facility and heading to the airport.

The bookstore is also right next to Jack Kerouac alley. I dont know why they called it that cos it’s just this tiny alley that leads to Chinatown, so I googled it and turns out it used to be a garbage dumping spot until the bookstore owner pitched to San Francisco Board of Supervisors to transform the alleyway, and so now it’s like another iconic place full of street art and poetry engraved into the floor I guess. I mean in theory it’s pretty nice but in real life the alleyway smells like weed and has suspicious looking people smoking joints on the floor. So.. ok. It’s not dangerous la, so its still worth walking down, it’s tiny and it’ll only take like three minutes.

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You pop out on the other end in Chinatown! Which is pretty funny because now there’s a resurgence of interest in Asian literature so its like you go into this Western literary route of passage and pop out in china hahahahahaha.

Ok after that I just walked around till I hit the pier again, then I got my luggage and went to the airport. So happy that I managed to squeeze in a bookstore visit in SF, I think the moment i passed the threshold of the bookstore was when I truly fell in love with San Francisco – prior to that we had gotten along amiably, pleasantly. But the bookstore to me represented so much more that I couldnt help adoring the city vis a vis its lens – and I suggest you all take a gander if youre in town too x

City Lights Bookstore and Publishers
261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

x
Jem

#2107| pachinko: airport stories

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Over the past few years I have taken so many flights alone that the airport has started to take on a strange significance to me as a breeding ground for the inexplicable. A limbo of reason, if you will. Logically I know the probability of this being true is low, but still it seems to be my truth that stories happen to me in airports, places of transit.

Leaving Okinawa I nearly lost my temper at a tiny man who smiled at me while telling me he could not help me. It is a story I don’t want to elaborate on, it is boring and dull as stories of petty authority often are. I knocked out on the hour long flight to Taipei, so consumed by my annoyance that it had exhausted me completely. It occurred to me that I had a vast amount of work to be done once I touched down in singapore, the reality of which I had unwittingly escaped for the past seven days of shoot in OKA thanks to my shitty internet connection. It gave me a bit of a migraine. Also, my iPhone was acting up – it had been ever since the announcement of the iX earlier in the week, and this ever strengthened my resolve to jump ship to android. Shaking my metaphorical fist at the international money men, as it were. Whatever. I know one is the same as the other but it felt necessary. Anyway. This meant that I was struggling throughout my two hour transit in Taipei, trying to fix my phone, trying to set up and liaise meetings for homeground. I settled early at my gate, trying to fix my phone despite being totally unqualified to do so.

A girl’s voice chimed: Jemma. I looked up to a totally unfamiliar face and prepared myself to attempt to recognize this girl I had never seen before in my life, cursing my hopeless facial recognition skills. But it was unnecessary. The girl continued: I follow your Instagram. I can see your – she gestured vaguely at my skirt – underwear. Then she looked away and stopped talking to me.

My skirt had ridden up without me noticing it. I rearranged myself and nodded my thanks to her but she’d looked away already. Later on, I boarded the flight and spent three hours devouring 531 pages of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which I had bought in another airport’s bookstore because it had a gorgeous cover and also because on that gorgeous cover Junot Diaz had testified that the book was ‘luminous and powerful’. It was both these things. I thought to myself, one day perhaps I will be friends with Junot Diaz and tell him I bought a book because his recommendation was on the cover. I truly believed this for a moment.

It was doubly annoying to me, then, that through these few hours of what seemed to me as great personal growth (all reading blocks seem to me that way, the entrance and exit into another world), the handsome German boy sitting next to me had taken off his shoes to reveal hideous pepsi cola socks, and was intermittently scratching his balls. I had seen the trio of German boys earlier in the Taipei airport while transiting, and had noticed them because they were ridiculously good looking. I identified them as German because I heard them speaking in the familiar inflection reminiscent of my seven months of student life there, and has felt a strange compulsion to walk up to them and make conversation and prove that I could speak mediocre German. Kommst du aus Deutschland? I used to do this, after my student exchange there – randomly strike up conversation with Germans I ran into despite my incredibly bad grasp of the language. I must have been so insufferable. I feel like I had possibly been the reverse figure of that white person who goes Ni Hao to every vaguely Asian looking person. Anyway, I no longer do this because I don’t know why, but I’m thankful that I don’t, because in retrospect it seems like a stupid thing to have done. Back to the point – I had noticed the trio earlier and thought they were handsome, and thought the same thing again when they sat down next to me in the airplane, and then I felt so annoyed when they took off their shoes and started scratching themselves in strange places that it took me a moment to process my irritation. Perhaps it was the fact that Pachinko was a book about the quiet grace of Koreans living in Japan, a literary cubby that I had been so immersed in, that to see these Germans behave like the airplane was their home assumed a certain entitled confidence that chaffed at the conservativeness I had momentarily adopted from the book. Perhaps it was also that no German I had encountered in my seven months living in Stuttgart would have behaved like this, leading me to question the authenticity of my life there, my life here, these people beside me in the plane. Perhaps it was as simple as the fact that I could not reconcile their good looks with their behavior. Why would you scratch your balls while sitting in an aisle seat? Anyone can see you. There was no attempt to at least hide under a blanket or something. I had to blink my irritation away, and I felt old, and stuffy.

I didn’t see the girl from the Taipei airport again although I knew she must have boarded the same flight. As I disembarked, I wondered why I hadnt told the boy to please stop scratching himself next to me. I wondered how I lacked the courage to make that simple statement when a total stranger could tell someone she followed on Instagram that her underwear was showing. I thought to myself, wow, that girl, with something like admiration. I lacked the information to feel anything past that. And then I collected my bags and was back in my home ground and life stopped being a story and started being real again, and I thought I had better write this all down before I forget, and so I did.

X
Jem

#2106 | Amenable

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This is what I consider press-conference garb, obviously. Here you see me sleep deprived and in between interview sessions at the Dr Wu press conference last month, a mad 48 hours in Taipei, running across the street for – you got it – the strongest iced americano the place has. My hair is no longer that color of purple-rose thanks to my recent diving expeditions, but when I saw this picture in my phone’s photo album I felt this pang of missing something artificial and man-made but something that you’ll still love to bits anyway. I’m currently in Okinawa filming a travel series for Jetstar and Okinawa Convention, blonde, because I’m sure i’ll dive here too, but I’m thinking about going back to that hair color when I get back. Yes, thats exactly what I’m thinking of – my hair. This is really the extent of my consideration and concerns at this point in my life because the girly frivolity is precisely what I need to balance out things in my head. Not that life has been super mega heavy for me of late, but for some reason I’ve felt incredibly low on energy and I suspect I went through a minor burn out somewhere in the last one month without me noticing. As a result yesterday I did something I havent done in years – I went shopping. I got into a cab during my half-day alone in bangkok, went to the nearest mall, bought like five things, and then I went to get a matcha latte from some specialty matcha store, and I recognised the cliche mimic of my actions, and I liked it. I remember thinking to myself at one point: I work hard. I deserve this. and I remember the reflexive guilt that came with it. I dont know why we are all conditioned to be so hard on ourselves. Perhaps this is the strange limbo between graduation and assured adulthood that I am experiencing, this unmooring, this coming undone. Perhaps not. Either way, it will pass, and so will your phases of doubt. Chin up.

x
Jem

#2104 | August in Panic and Wonder

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We are so quickly here in September I cannot believe it. It seems only yesterday I claimed to be offended that July flew by so fast. But it did, and so did August, and now here we are.

August in particular was a pretty insane month for me. I did three huge things in August which I will elaborate more on when I have the time/headspace to do so – I 1. submitted by Masters thesis, a monster two years in the making, 2. took my Advanced Open Water diving certification and 3. launched the film + campaign that I conceptualised, wrote, and produced for Laneige Singapore, which you can watch here. That one was a year in the conceptualisation and refinement, which probably would have been shorter if I hadn’t been trying to write my master’s thesis at the same time. And also because of the nature of the project it was very secretive which meant I couldnt talk about it at all, and so whenever I looked like I was about to die of stress people nodded sympathetically and were like, it must be really hard doing your masters. Which i mean, it is, but that’s besides the point.

Anyway, those are all things that I am pretty proud of, so I’ll definitely want to properly document them here when I have the time, if only so I have something to look back on and remember the intensity of emotion and ardour that went into the three separate things. And then also in August, I had a couchsurfer Shane and I crashed with in Salzburg come visit, so we did a really touristy weekend, I emceed Melissa’s wedding lunch and dinner over two days, so I did a weddingy weekend, and then I also fit a 40 hour press trip in there to Taipei and a shoot for the National Heart Foundation and gave a talk to my church’s youth group, so I did a lot of things lah is the point. Actually now looking back I think it was no wonder I spent most of my August in a kind of red alert high panic mode daze, walking around in horror and jumping at every little thing. On hindsight of course I’ll say it was all amazing, and I do think it was. But that’s essentially what August was for me – a solid mix of panic and wonder.

Now that it’s over, and my three biggest projects are more or less wrapped up (still handling PR for the Laneige film but the bulk of that is also done), I feel like it’s time for me to really get back into the grind of life and get my shit together. The last two years of my life have been more or less on standby while I was working on my masters, and now I’m finally able to get back on track with everything else and establish a semblance of routine and so i am EXCITED for that. HURRAY, i say. Time to make some plans.

x
Jem

#2103 | An airplane is a stateless place

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In the air, the best and worst of people surface. Shoes come off and toes are splayed. 32,000 feet above sea level, people don’t believe that they are bound to the authority of any land, and it shows. Does the person in front of me and really believe I cannot see him pick his nose and wipe it on the plush of the airplane seat, I don’t know. I turn to the window, wanting to nap, but someone’s toes are propped up, wedged between the tall edge of my seat and the airplane wall. In the air, I am almost a person who can poke at these oblivious toes with a pen, nudge them hard off the seat so they go back to their rightful place on the floor and not beside my face. But I don’t. I pull a book out of my bag and read instead.

The first meal is served as we’re passing over Puerto Princesa. There is always a queue for the restroom after the meals are served. Meals on board are curious – you see people tell themselves carbs don’t count while in the air while they scarfe down mediocre pasta, you see people drink too much because it’s free. And then there’s the queue for the restroom. People standing around in close proximity pretending the other doesn’t exist, which is fine, I guess, and then I see a kid trying to pry open the door to the crew quarters. I think: people behave so badly in the air. But maybe kids dont have a sense of personal boundaries even when they’re grounded.

I end up sleeping after all. I am woken by a bumpy landing and find myself in Taipei. For a moment we are both in a new state and not, half bound still by the communal bubble of stale airplane air. The seat belt sign is still on and the plane is still moving when a man stands and starts pulling his bag out of the overhead compartment. Immediately the stewardesses erupt into a chorus of Kindly sit down sir Please sit down Kindly but they are still belted to their crew landing positions and don’t (can’t?) get up. The man, incredibly, acts like he cannot hear them. The hint of a pause doesn’t even register in his movements, he continues yanking things from above, duty free shopping bags and the like. The refrain from the stewardesses continue. He stays vertical. Kindly sit down please be seated kindly kindly kindly. We all stare. Then the plane grinds to a halt and although the seat belt signs are still lit, more people get up. Kindly sit down please please. You have to give it to the stewardesses for persevering in the face of such humiliation. They keep on going until the seat belt sign clicks off and then they have to get up and help. You really have to give it to them. For smiling and nodding at each passenger as we disembark, despite their in flight authority being completely and publically dismissed. I absentmindedly nod goodbye to the one closest to me. Thank you see you again thank you for flying with us.

Later on I see the same man who started it all stride out of immigration, brimming, and kiss his wife hello in the arrival hall. It’s the kiss of confidence and for a hot minute you can kind of see how he’d have charmed her back in the day. In that moment I feel communal in this charm. I walk past them and think to myself how an airplane is a stateless place.

x
Jem