Friday, September 30, 2011

Off campus, online

Spent the last day writing this column for the Yale Daily News.

Off Campus, Online

“Yo dawg, how’s it going?”

These days, that’s how it always begins. After a few seconds of “John is typing …” he’ll respond, “nm homie, not much.”

Often, we’ll skip the platitudes. “dude those Asian guys playing piano and guitar is [sic] so good. [insert YouTube link]”

“wow manila sounds crazy.”

“yo look at facebook. the girl who just posted on my wall.”

That’s how post-Yale conversations begin — on Gchat. It’s 1 p.m. in the Philippines; 1 a.m. on the East coast. Both of us should be doing something else: John, P90X; me, working.

But we keep talking, because post-Yale, that’s how college relationships are. John is typing …

“she definitely posted this of her own accord. without any provocation from me.”

“what did you say to her?”

“we had a conversation about how we compulsively check our facebooks. i check it for the small victory of seeing that absolutely nothing has changed since the last time i checked it 10 seconds ago. (it was funnier in person, i did a whole one man sketch scene).”

“oh nice. you should keep it up. but don’t give her too much. so obviously, don’t respond tonight.”

“s--t. I literally just posted on her wall.”

In many respects, 2011 and 2010 are very, very similar — except now, my social interactions have moved online.

Instead of tossing the football against gentle autumn winds on Cross Campus, I’m tossing trade proposals on ESPN fantasy football (Cadillac for Fred Williams? Seriously, Warren?). Instead of meeting up for a jam session on Old Campus, I’m sending out YouTube links of acoustic covers. Instead of flirting in Commons, I’m eating take-out dumplings while sending OKCupid messages. (“So … how do you feel about jeggings?”) Instead of hanging out in a common room, I’m hanging out on G+. John is typing …

“this girl is mad chill. like she’s super into college football and nfl. and she’s also super super into tennis. she’s like just an ideal chick.”

“you’re so set. just dont screw this up.”

“lol. but i really don’t wanna be distracted iwth this s--t. dammit.”

After college ended, I’ve gotten distracted a lot. My summer in New York, I was distracted offline: shows, street fundraising, busking, Argentinian women on the subway, basketball at Rucker Park. In Manila, I’m distracted online: Quora, Tumblr, Twitter, Ravelry (don’t ask), Athletics Nation, Reddit, Hacker News, Spotify and Blogger (shameless plug:!), literally all of which I either didn’t know about or barely touched back at Yale.

This is to be expected. It is part of the transition from college. As natural as learning to cook (revelation: eggs can be microwaved), using a plunger (no Yale “super-toilets” anymore), or even — God forbid — flipping through the UCS guide, “Life After Yale: A Survival Guide for the Class of 2011” (with useful tips like, “don’t expect to be the CEO after a week”). It is as natural as maintaining relationships through gchat. John is typing …

“i almost feel like she’s too much of a woman for me to handle.”


“i don’t even have her number yet. how do i go about getting her number?”

“you get her number by, one day, in the middle of a conversation, without provocation, taking out your phone and looking at it, while saying, ‘Let me get your number.’”

These are the vestiges of Yale. Without the near-frictionless social environment of college, maintaining friendships becomes more imposition than convenience: it’s 100 percent on you. Otherwise, as a 2010 friend puts it, they’ll become “nonexistent. so sad. I haven’t kept up w yale at all.” You can’t take the chicken tenders or Master Chun with you, but you can take your friendships, even if they are wedged in a small box in the corner of your Gmail account.

What is life after Yale? One friend says, “Sitting and eating and then making enough money to sit and eat some more.” He adds, later, “rambles and shambles.”

Another says, “it’s the sense of relief when your ego comes flooding back when you are back on top out in the ‘real world.’”

Another says, “It means being cast out of an edenic garden of earthly delights into the wilderness of responsibility.”

Or, maybe all Life after Yale means is having to email your friends with the question, instead of yelling it across the common room.

It’s different for each of the 1,251 graduates of 2011. There’s no statement of pure pith. Well, except for what my suitemate told me, two days ago.

I asked, “Quick q. What does ‘life after yale’ mean to you?”

He replied, “it means never having to bs my way through section again.”

Now that, friends, is something to look forward to.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Leaving Yale, Part 3: I must pee.

Part 1: Lychees and a Sock

The weather is perfect, unbelievable. The summer solstice has bent away, and the days are supposed to be shrinking, but it is bright, standing on this square of concrete sidewalk. The trees are green. Green-green, dead-serious green, veins of green, supersaturated chlorophyll watermarks against a light, intimate sky. A breeze is pushing me over gently, and the sun is whisking away lonely wisps of humidity. I am on the outskirts of campus -- on Howe street -- with a guitar slung over my back, walking towards, through, and away, from Yale.

It was never the plan to say goodbye in such a trivial way. James and I, we had just whiled away two hours in his art-deco-infested sublet. I brazenly wrestled the pictures and video of our triumphant guitar set last night from his computer, while he talked to his mum, awkward-as-a-white-elephant headphones in his ears. We are in the kitchen of a house. A house with mason jars, instead of glasses. A house with two bathrooms, both warily functional, exactly across from each other. The house speaks to us. It whispers, "You might have wire-rim glasses, but you'll never feel comfortable here." Whilst the ghosts of the tenants engage us, James and I, both of us, we just sit there, present, visceral.

“Do you like fruit?” I ask.

“Of course,” he responds.

“You can have this. I want you to keep it.”

“There’s an entire mango in here? Thanks mate! Are you sure you don’t want it?”

“Nope. That’s a present from me to you.”

Not much of a present for our friendship, or even for two nights in a real room, with a real sheet, a wake-up call in the morning, unabashed use of his computer, and a cozened generosity for my professional time-wasting activities. No, the fruit in the bag, just an over-ripe mango and a branch of lychees -- round and globular, hardened and ready for any-length fingernails to pierce with pleasure -- was not adequate for our goodbye. Not even.

So I prepared a speech.

“Thanks so much for being my friend. For having the generosity to have me, a tyro, with literally no knowledge of music, teach you, the 17-year master, how to play guitar. Because you didn’t need to ask me. But you did. And out of it came the greatest memory of this summer – and also a new friendship that, while maybe I wouldn’t have valued a year ago, and definitely not three years ago, now means so much. It was a good way to go out. I’m glad we became friends.”

At 7:25 p.m., we stood awkwardly, wedged between the arc of the front door and the staircase. (Poor design. I blame the hipsters.) I got out the first two lines – “Thanks for playing guitar with me. I’m really glad we played together” -- before he immediately volunteered a response: “Shared accountability, remember,” -- more inside joke than sentimental farewell. And, with that sweet, irreverent remark, an air of finality hit both of us; it hung in the air. I didn’t push back. Instead, we grasped in an ever-so-sloppy handshake, and then I turned and left into the beautiful day.

My heels struck pavement, my stride was purposeful, my gait long, tall, and designed-by-force. I was ready for my last tour through this school, head swirling with the soft memories of my last interaction ever. Then: "Hey, Peter!"

I look across the street. It's my KASY wife. Shoot. It's not like I don't like her, or anything; I actually do -- whenever we've hung out, she's been accommodating, energetic, beatific -- but we haven't seen each other much through the year. She's an acquaintance, and now, she's going to fall into place as my last conversation at Yale. This wasn't supposed to happen! Where's my script? The sunset, the cherry-black horse galloping into the distance, the tumbleweed?

"You're leaving! Oh man -- this is my friend, by the way."

I shake hands. I am woefully unprepared to meet someone new, not now, not after I have already put Yale and its vicissitudes behind me. Our conversation peters out, drips slowly onto the cement, the latent discomfort and patent unfamiliarity staining our skin, turning us egregious. After 30 seconds, I make the move to exit gracefully, without, of course, any semblance of grace. 

"Ok, I'll see you...uh, again! Soon! Keep in touch!"

And I'm off! The journey is back on track, and I'm planning my route through Yale: I turn right and head towards Chapel Street; then, feeling regret already poisoning my thoughts, double back and walk through the pathway between Branford and Jonathan Edwards. I decide to go even further north to High Street gate, so that I can let some of the magic of Old Campus linger. 

I walk through the gate. Should I be crying right now? Not bawling, tears hanging off my chin, but maybe a little misty-eyed solemnity, a rapid-fire sequence of blinking to hide these grown-man emotions? Crying seems appropriate. Apropos, I think, to make-up for my lack of emotion during graduation, when the end was still hazy, wobbly, un-finalized and not very present, not with a summer in New York so close. Yes, tears should be shed, preferably while I keep walking through Old Campus, even if these high school students -- what program are they here for? -- wearing their tags of identification around their small, skinny necks will see me. Tears would work well here. It would be memorable. It would be quite a Capstone. Emotions. Melancholy. The end of childhood. 

But of course, I am nowhere near crying. Not in the same block, or borough, or continent. My neurons are not obeying my commands for sentimentality. It isn't as if this is some romantic comedy, where I just broke up with this school and its now nearly 20 billion dollar endowment. Plus, I am facing a more immediate problem. It is the problem of throwing away my sock.

Oh, you hadn't heard? Well, see, back on Chapel Street, I attained a splinter in my right shoe. I thought it was poetic. An extended metaphor for my stay at Yale: overall superb, but a little niggling and nagging, a prickle, a mini-crisis. I relished the thought at becoming a literal walking metaphor. 

But 10 steps in, I had enough. It hurt too much. I stopped, peeled back the sock, and tried to locate the source of my discomfort, but I couldn’t see it. So I slipped my shoe over my toes, and then over my heel, and started walking, sock in hand. Which was equally metaphorical, now that I think about it. Slightly unbalanced. Comfortable, successful, but imperceptibly uneven, slightly awry, askew.

My sock could go into my guitar backpack! I would carry it as an emblem of Yale. It would sit in my room for a week, and then I would go to the old shop downtown and frame it underneath the saltiest old glass I could find, append a label saying, "The Last Sock of Yale," and place it in safekeeping in an attic until I bought my own place, at which point this trophy would come back in blazing fashion, mounted above a fireplace, an instant-conversation starter. Hey what's so special about that sock?Well, Mr. President, let me tell you, that sock has been through thick and thin with me. Why, back when I was at Yale...

I throw the sock away in a trash can on Old Campus.

Knit and Tonic

A man much wiser than me said that poetry's purpose is to deepen your sense of self. This is updated from July 7th. It's much, much better. Inspiration: Carol Moldaw. 

Knit and Tonic

Less hand, more fingers.
Napkins sewed to shreds.
Precision without neatness.
A task put to bed—

not old garments, but
fine wool fibers, lighter
than our cat’s hind paws,
twined to make socks

for our friends. Even apathy
deserves warmth. Afternoon
tea, and a sewing machine 
bites off cloth, patterns.

Cut, snip, brush, pout. Done!

The Rhode Island breeze lasted
one whole month. It blew
the big toe and two ankles under
the docks by the bay. Crabs and
lobsters took them home.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Harvard Business School and Kennedy Science Club: the joys of experiential learning

In the middle of 10th grade, my best friend moved away to India. More importantly, he took his basketball with him. Without it, the loose group of friends I associated with on the blacktops  we all dispersed, like ants suddenly without a home. Within a week, it seemed, everyone had made new friends, and had found new activities.

Newly peripatetic, I circumnavigated Monta Vista's hallways, bouncing from academic court to the fringes of the rally court, from the lunch line to the library. The end of sophomore year wasn't bad: I had my first relationship, and spent most of my free time with her and her friends. But by the time junior year arrived, I was freshly single again, ready to carve a serious niche for myself in the hazy high-school hierarchy. 

Turns out that niche was the classroom. I found solace talking to teachers during their break periods, signing up for tutoring and becoming a tutor, working on assignments tucked away on the second floor of a far-away hallway so that, back at home, I could engage in more worthwhile pursuits, like Super Mario World. My favorite ecosystem was the Chemistry classroom. I was taking Chemistry AP at the time, meaning I was tutoring Chemistry Honors. Twice a week, I walked through the D-building doors, spending 45 minutes helping the underclassman, talking to friends, and turning my head when the occasional cute girl walked in, looking for help.

All this lead-up is a long way of saying that I slowly developed a love for chemistry. And because of that love, I found myself, on a sunny day in January of junior year, sitting on a bench next to the basketball courts, talking to one of my best friends about how we could be "more legitimate" in our extracurricular lives. By the time lunch period ended, we had been bitten by inspiration: it was time to start a science club at our local middle-school.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Links, Week 15: 77 hours and a top-ten list

Did you know that I repeated "Links, Week 5" twice? We're skipping Week 14 and going straight into Week 15.

This week, my Manila internet access (primarily due to the SmartBro wifi USB stick) amounted to a mere 77 hours and 45 minutes. I wasted more time (28 hours, 52 minutes) than I used it productively (26 hours, 16 minutes). I also used Gmail for 10 hours, 53 minutes. The rest of the time was pretty neutral, thank goodness. This week? Let's get down to 66 hours!

Editorial: I played Angry Birds on Chrome for 2 hours, and 49 minutes, and finished all 3 worlds of the game.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Red-light district conversations: Old, fat white men in Manila

Two conversations with old, fat men tonight in Manila's red light district, two different takes on the women here. Plus bonus 30-second jaunt through a seedy, seedy bar. Read all about it!

(Note: this post is going to be wrapped into my long-read about Manila's red-light district, so it's going to disappear, probably in a week.)

Conversation un:

Norm Wilson, an Australian with his own company selling fruits and vegetables, just got married. He’s 60 years old. His bride, Diane, is 25. I met them eating Chinese food in a restaurant in the middle of the red light district. Norm is corpulent, but not unusually so. He's wearing a metallic polo shirt (hiding a pair of love handles, probably), which points upwards to his double stacked chin. He's halfway bald; his cheeks are blubbery. He looks like a fat cat, especially when he unbuttons his polo all the way to reveal a chest with wispy, pubic-hair-like curls as dense as the ones on his legs.

His wife – they were officially married yesterday, September 23rd, in city hall in front of 40 of Diane’s relatives (nobody from Norm’s side was there) – is less corpulent than Norm. In Australia, she would pass for normal-sized. In the Philippines, however, she's slightly overweight. Her features are shockingly normal: she has black hair, a cute smile, a pig-button nose. She wears sandals, like Norm. Her command of English is above-average: I can ask her questions, even in my normal, slightly run-on cadence, and she’ll answer without straining her ears or asking twice.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Yes, and: Enablers and the people who love them

As a freshman in college, I was easily pursuaded. Free food! Bright t-shirts! People! Nowhere did this manifest itself more -- in an activity that I had absolutely no interest pursuing -- than the improv groups on campus.

I was intrigued, of course, by their gregarious attitudes, and their implicit promise that they could make anybody funny. And it was free! Free shows in WLH, free workshops on Cross Campus, myriad opportunities to laugh and learn how to make other people laugh. I was intrigued -- but I was also pretty terrified. 

Figures: I never tried out for sketch comedy or improv. I did go to their shows – until, um, I realized they weren't funny (to me). As another enclave in the Yale creative scene, improv was just another form of art I couldn't quite appreciate. So, after attending three shows freshman year, I didn't attend another one ever again. My most significant interactions with the troupes were figuring out how best to avoid their glances, their hands, those flimsy pieces of paper shaped like purple crayons.

I'd like to think I was funnier than average in college -- though, of course, that means absolutely nothing. I'd like to think that during my best days, I could be wry, sardonic, and completely whimsical. I'd like to think I surprised people with my sense of humor. But really, I'm pretty sure that only my roommate thought I was funny, and even now, I still can't be sure he wasn't faking it. It wasn't until graduation that I realized what a loose, unleveraged place college was: it gave me consequence-free opportunities to fail. I should have failed at learning improv; college had been my best chance. 

This thought became blatantly clear when I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants. She talks about the golden rule of improv: “Yes, and.” Always agree, no matter what. If I tell you there’s an alligator in my boots, and you say, “No there isn’t,” our conversation has just ground to a halt. If you tell me, “Yes, and there’s a snake in mine,” we're moving. That's progress. It's a simple and powerful idea.

And yet, for its Occam’s razor-like quality, “Yes and” is so neglected in our everyday lives. Our friendly neighborhood John Song describes it this way: There are two types of people in this world – enablers and blockades.

It’s a Friday night, and you’re with three friends, ready to hit Roosevelt Bar. Then it starts raining. Jesse looks at the group and says, “Should we still go?” Here are three responses:

  •  “Yes! And I have an extra umbrella I can lend someone.”
  •  “I don’t care…I’ll go if everyone else goes.”
  •  “Nah, I don’t like getting wet. And I’m kind of tired.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of these statements; each one could be a truthful representation of what you're feeling. But in terms of social momentum, only the first response – the enthusiastic one – builds good standing among your peers. Say yes, and people will come to you, because they want to hear it again. Say no, and people will stop bothering you, because they wouldn't rather not be turned away again.

Another way to say it: The more you enable others, the more changes you'll have to enable others. It's a positive feedback loop that will just keep giving. And really, being a "Yes, and" kind of guy (or gal) is the way to go if you want to maintain your optionality. The blockade who says no will never get invited to anything again. The enabler who says yes will always get invited -- but he can also choose not to go. If you say yes, your options proliferate.

I realize this isn't a jaw-dropping thought. But it's a thought I too often find myself not remembering until it's too late. We can all do a better job of enabling each other in our lives. 

My final thought: being an enabler isn’t analogous to being positive. It’s not just saying, “Yes.” It’s saying, “Yes, and.” Encouragement is only effective insofar as you seed future potential. It's not just "Good job" – it's "Good job! Have you ever thought about this, too?" Add value by being positive; go above and beyond by offering a space for that positivity to grow. Be an enabler, in as many contexts as possible. Broaden and build, because in the long run, you’ll be paid back 10 times over.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Peter Lu in lists

On my computer, I have 14 sticky notes accumulating all my wayward thoughts. I’ve organized them into triplets. Here’s what I'm thinking about, in lists of three:

What I am currently listening to.
How to Love, Lil’Wayne
Them There Eyes, Ella Fitzgerald
We’ve Got The Blues, Leo Watson & The Spirits of Rhythm

What I will never have a chance to do.
Create a stop motion of Commons.
Give Dan Turza The Four Hour Body.
A YaleLunch, with Ed.

Three exigent thoughts.
If we all lived in a Manhattan-density area, the U.S. population would fit in New Hampshire.
Soon, we’ll have video profiles for online dating.
It’s cute when you’re five years old speaking broken English, but not so much when you’re 22.

Favorite sayings.
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
“Not even Google can satisfy every Search.”
“The best kept secret is one you don’t know yourself.”
extra: "I have a question I mustache, but I'll shave it for later."

Saying I’m not sure are true.
To forget memories, you need to make memories.
To produce great ideas, you need great lighting.
When you know, you know.

Three things I would not normally admit.
Senior year, my NJB team went 0-12.
I want to be Neil Strauss when I grow up.
I could really use a good luck tchotchke.

Advice I will follow in the future.
Don’t follow the latest fashions; wear what the fashion designers wear.
Learn to cook a couple favorite meals, and use premium ingredients. (YW.)
Never buy a dragon egg from a stranger in a bar. 

Books I keep telling myself I will read.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
1Q84, Haruki Murakami
The Dragon Reborn, Robert Jordan 

Books I keep telling myself I will read but probably never will.
Starting Strength, Mark Rippletoe
The Bible
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Corey Seymour

Movies that I secretly liked.
Easy A
Just Go With It
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Off-the-beaten-path books that I unabashedly enjoy.
Beating the Reaper
The Merlin Series
Where's Waldo

Three not-so-famous people I would love to meet.
Cherry Cheva, writer for Family Guy (and Yale psychology major)
(wait, there's no more????) 

Peace and Love.
Cameron D.
Peter C.
Jack "The Man" C.

Squeaky-clean phrases from news articles.
“At first, Shortz didn’t cotton to any of them.”
“She said, somewhat apropos of nothing,”
 “I’m talking about the good condoms, not the shit condoms you get for free.”

Magnificent words I’ll never be able to use.

Favorite phrases I like to slip in whenever the situation calls for it, which is always.
I majored in unafraid.
“How do you feel?” “Like a champion.” (via Warren)

My favorite rose cultivars.
Strike it Rich
About Face
Dick Clark

Three online dating sites I check once every two months.

I would pay someone for this.
Learning to freestyle.
Learning to tag (montana / techlak).
Learning to sing.

What I forgot to do in New York.
Buy modern organic products, summer paste.
Get fitted at Paul Stewart.
Endure a hypnosis session with Victoria Phillips of NY Health Hypnosis.

Poetry collections I am reading.
Praise, Robert Hass
Blizzard of One, Strand
Shadow of Sirius, Merwin
extra: Averno, Gluck; April Galleons, Ashbery

My favorite fonts other than Garamond, which I use too often now.
Corbel, size 10
Georgia, size 9
Corbel, 10.5

Random thoughts.
What about the infinity that occurred before we were born?
We’ve all time-travelled; we just can’t remember it.
"The last one there farts in a milk bottle!" ~ Ender's Game

Monday, September 19, 2011

Links, Week 13: 88 hours online, for one essay

I could make an excuse for my behavior. I could even tell you lies. But I'm just going to say it: last week, I spent 88 hours and one minute online. That. Is. Insane. That is 52.3% of my entire week staring at a dimly lit monitor. With the assumption of 7 hours of sleep a night (29%), it means I spent just 18.5% of my week offline. 18.5%. 18.5%!!!!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The red-light district in Manila

Part 1 & 2 & part of 3. Or check out my actual conversations under the ochre lights.

Part 1: Red-light wandering

I arrived in Manila on a Friday at the beginning of September, in the middle of the rainy season, carrying just two small suitcases. When I checked into my hotel -- Durban Inn, which TripAdvisor gives 4 stars and calls the 12th best hotel (of 51) in Manila -- I discovered that it hadn't been cleaned yet. I also found out that I was exactly half a block away from Manila's most modern red light district.

That night, I familiarized myself with the district's two thoroughfares, Makati Avenue and P. Burgos, noticing the fast food restaurants and the bank branches, the corpulent white men and the diminutive homeless, the piss on the curb and the harried traffic officers. The streets were cacophonous. In the restaurants, I noticed I was the only customer who wasn't with another Filipino. Manila's red light district is, in some ways, the epicenter of contemporary Filipino culture, a palimpsest of residents in various economic straits forced together by tourism. The service sector sells pabulum and lodging; transportation and sex. Here, Filipinos rarely buy from each other; every eye is turned towards the never-ending cycle of visitors.

Prostitution in the Philippines is illegal. Republic Act 9208, passed by the Filipino legislature on May 26th, 2003, states that the government "shall give highest priority to eliminat[ing] trafficking in persons." Anyone found guilty of actively recruiting women for prostitution gets an automatic 20 years in prison and a fine of at least 1 million pesos ($23,000); anyone who leases space to be used wittingly for prostitution gets 15 years and a 500,000 peso fine; and anyone who has anything to do with children is sentenced to life imprisonment.  Despite these laws, the sex industry is thriving. In 2009, there were an estimated 800,000 women working as prostitutes in the Philippines, and they are available through myriad avenues: bars, brothels, karaoke clubs, escort services, massage parlors, and on the street. Their main supporters are businessmen, usually of East Asian and Western origins.

On a Sunday night a couple days after I arrived, I walked outside to find some food. Because of a recent cell phone purchase, I was down to my last 111 pesos, or U.S. $2.64.

I see a woman in tight jeans standing on the side of the street. I wonder what she's doing here -- she doesn't look like a prostitute. Then she turns around and we make eye contact. She walks up to me and raises her eyebrows. I shake my head and turn away. Across the street, there are 2 other women in more traditional outfits: tight, short, shimmering dresses.

"Hey mister!" they yell. I want to talk to them, tell them I'm looking for food (and not pussy), but keep walking instead.

Manila's red light district feels safe. There's a perpetual traffic jam along Makati Avenue, and on my block, there are seven 24-hour fast food restaurants. There are also three bank branches, each with a guard carrying a machine gun in front of its doors. I am one of dozens outside on the broken sidewalk.

I walk past the Pussycat club and a tall woman who says, "Hi sir. Sex?" before I reach the McDonalds. In our borough of Manila, called Makati (like the street), there are 19 McDonalds. This is one of the nine that are open 24/7. Unlike China, Mickey Ds here is not a sign of bourgeois refinement. Waiting in line is a fat white male wearing a shirt that spells out "Philippines" in red and green over three lines of text, and a diminutive Chilean wearing perfectly square glasses. There's a Filipina woman with long permed hair sitting by herself on a stool, but it's not clear which man she's with.

I order a chicken sandwich, mainly because there's a huge advertisement on the wall for them. It costs exactly 110 pesos. The cashier thumbs through the change before handing back one peso. I put it in my pocket. The order is ready in 30 seconds. I am famished, so I start putting fries in my mouth.

On my return trip to the hotel, the very first woman approaches me again. There's no non-verbal communication this time. She asks, "Massage. Sex?" I shake my head and walk back to the hotel.

Part 2: The economics of prostitution

The women of the Philippines, on average, earn about half as much as their male counterparts. In a country where the GDP per capita is around $1,700, and where 40 million Filipinos are earning less than $2 a day, the gender disparity can be lethal. Prostitution is often the best -- and sometimes, only -- way by which a girl, without any other economic opportunities, can help support her family. "Often, the eldest child in a family is told, 'You should go to the city and find a job, wink wink,'" my co-worker tells me. "The family knows how horrible it is, but they'll send them off anyway."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Life Rhapsodies: What I learned when I learned to play guitar

Part 1.

At the end of my journey in college, I decided to learn how to play the guitar. It wasn't a last-ditch attempt to woo a girl, but it was a girl who taught me: or, put another way, it was only a girl that could have persuaded me that I needed to be taught. The timing was purely coincidental. I was accompanying my suitemate, Zach, to Bass Library, because I had nothing better planned – my last college final, History of Life, was four days ago – and I was secretly hoping that a walk through Thain Café would buy me one last morsel of that college-only spontaneity I would never quite have again. 

In the cafe, I ran into Christy. She’d been my Taiwanese-American Students Association little sibling for the year, though our “family” wasn’t very cohesive; other than a dinner at the only (and extremely lackluster) Korean restaurant in New Haven, we (Kim, George, Christy, and I) had more bonding events fail than happen. I’d always been friendly with Christy, saying hello during Sunday brunches in Berkeley, joking around at campus-wide parties, voting for her during Asian-American board elections.

She was staked out at a table in Bass, studying for her organic chemistry final. I plopped into the seat next to her, and we caught up: summer plans, clubs for next year, stories from Safety Dance – as she would say, "the yooj." “I can’t wait for this to be done so I can play guitar again,” Christy said. “Beginning of school, I’d play every day out in the L-W courtyard.”

“You know how to play?” I asked. At this point in my non-existent musical career, I held the belief that girls didn’t actually play guitar.

“Yea, I started picking at one in high school,” she said. “And then got really into it. Started playing so much.” Her words were aloofness touched, on the fringes, with passion.

“Can you teach me how to play?” I asked, for reasons that, at the moment, seemed completely capricious.

“Sure,” she said, in that way people exclaim when they make plans they know aren’t actually going to happen. “I’m done with the final tomorrow?” She was leaving the morning after, but might have time in-between packing.

I told her I was free whenever—but made sure to tail off at the end, temper my response, because, of course, I couldn't be that interested in playing guitar. I hadn’t touched one in 12 years, and hardly ever thought about learning.

The next day, we traded desultory text messages. We were to play that afternoon; then, after dinner; then, later, around midnight. I made it to her room on the fourth floor of Lanman-Wright (LW) at 11:20 p.m, armed with nothing but curiosity over how much she could teach me. Her common room was empty. The furniture had been moved out; the decorations all packed or tossed; the room was bare, open to possibilities. “Hey,” she said. “Alright let me get my guitar.”

It was a Yamaha acoustic, with metal strings. Normal-sized, but on her five-foot-two frame it looked huge.

“Ok, so we’re going to start with Taylor Swift, because that’s how I learned, and all her songs are easy,” Christy said. I gave her a thumbs up – secretly, I was ecstatic. I (abashedly) love Taylor Swift. And it’s not just because John Song introduced me to her; I’ve always loved twangy pop, and, 2 years ago, when I spent a summer in Ecuador, I’d walk to the Internet café at the bottom of the hill by my homestay and pump “Love Story” through worn-down headphones while checking my email.

The song we started with was “You Belong With Me,” my second-favorite T-Swift song. Christy sat on her balcony and turned towards me so I could see her fingers. “So the first chord is D. See what I’m doing? It looks like an upside-down D, kind of.” She taught me the next 3 chords in succession: A, E minor (Em), and G. She proceeded to play them smoothly, and sang to it, her rich voice rolling in the room's folds. Then she handed the guitar to me.

It wasn’t hard. I placed my left hand on the finger board and pressed my three fingers on the strings; my right hand naturally fell by the sound hole. I strummed, and the sound vaguely emulated Christy’s; I could hear the note, muddied by imprecision and marred by roughness. “Press harder on the strings," she told me. You got it.” This time, the sound came out almost perfectly. She acted as if playing a chord was like tying a shoelace -- simple, repeatable, natural. 

I had tried learning guitar before. In 2nd grade, my parents bought me a miniature guitar and an instructional book. I followed its lessons for 3 days, learning the names of the strings and plucking each individually to play simple ditties, but the lessons were also adamant about memorizing fingering and chord charts -- excessive work for songs I didn't care about. The guitar soon lay deserted in my closet, where it gathered dust for the rest of my childhood.

This lesson was the polar opposite. After I had tried the first four chords, I started -- mechanically and brutally -- switching between them, my fingers moving in a horde from the bottom of the finger board, at D, step-by-step to the top of the board, to G. Despite needing multiple seconds to process how to position my fingers correctly between every transition, I could hear the song in my head. I understood how much progress I was making. Playing the guitar had transformed from a mysterious, legendary skill that seemed to require superfluous front-end preparation to a simple series of steps ordered for coherence. That I had learned 4 chords in 4 minutes was success enough.

There were struggles. After working on the transitions, she taught me new chords: E, C, and F. I struggled with F. There were two ways to play it – either my index finger had to cover four strings, or I needed my pinkie as a fourth finger – and both methods were equally frustrating. I tried to splay my fingers wide to reach different frets, but my hand stiffened to concrete. I tried to arch my fingers to prevent myself from accidentally muting other strings, but I felt like I was controlling an artificial limb with a limited range of movement. Christy told me the flexibility would come, but, at the time, I couldn't see how I'd ever develop the dexterity.

For the next two hours, I sat cross legged on her balcony and played the 4 chords of “You Belong With Me,” occasionally challenging myself to strum the other 4 “higher level” chords, moving faster and faster between transitions. I wasn't worried about strum patterns yet; Christy told me to make it up, and to strum up and down naturally. She also told me not to worry about pausing the strumming between chord transitions. Even if I missed a beat, nobody would notice. I was heartened by the margin of error; this wasn't like the piano, where a wrong key would drop like a dead weight in the air. 

Christy watched me, held her interest for as long as she could, then, sensing the self-sufficiency of my infatuation, moved to more lively pursuits: cleaning up the last bits of the common room, Skyping in her roommate and laughing about ridiculous gossip, talking to her suitemate about going out that night. I sat there, feeling a little awkward that I was impeding her plans, but at the same time feverish with this limited time with the guitar. I was learning, and learning fast: Christy told me I was the quickest study she'd seen. (Though, she hadn't really taught anyone before, so it probably wasn’t much of a compliment no matter, I felt good). So I stayed and tried to blend into the background, strumming the same four chords over and over, and once, even attempted to sing/hum the song while playing (disastrous results ensued). Eventually, I realized it was 1:30 a.m., and that I really should go.

I gave Christy a hug, told her I didn’t know when I was going to see her again, and thanked her for teaching me how to play guitar on her last night at Yale.

The plan was to call it a night, but as I walked back to Berkeley, I realized playing the guitar made me fatuously happy. I was, for the first time all year (maybe all of college?), learning a skill from scratch, instead of building on what I already knew, and experiencing the exhilarating hockey-stick learning curve of a new capability. It couldn't be over so fast. I took out my phone and called my boy Graham – who I’d seen strumming “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” a couple of weeks ago, while hanging out at another friend Garrett’s party – and asked him if I could borrow his baby. I grabbed it from his room in South Court and brought it back to my common room.

On my common room’s slightly ripped black leather couch, with half my suite at Myrtle Beach, Zach peripatetic in the night, and Tommy exhausted from Belltower books, I propped myself up with Graham’s guitar, pointed Google Chrome to Alyssa Bernal’s acoustic version of “You Belong With Me,” and played until 5 a.m. The only reason I stopped was because of my left-hand fingers. The sneakiest, most underrated challenge about playing the guitar (at least at first) is developing your fingers' resistance to the strings. Holding down on the finger board is akin to having an extremely dull knife saw at your fingers for hours. Within the first twenty minutes of playing, I saw diagonal imprints on the pads of my fingertips; an hour in, touching the strings incited a sharp, neural, pain. By the time I was in my room, my head throbbed, even when I wasn't playing, and I could see the angry veins blossoming. Christy told me it was a rite of passage to develop callouses, but I didn't understand why it had to be so painful.

I rested 5 minutes for every 5 I played. I tried pressing lighter. I wondered if I could use gloves. I honestly thought I was going to start bleeding. But I kept playing. An hour later, when I had reached a mental point of no return, I eschewed the delicacy and pulverized my fingers, storing the hurt in a faraway corner of my brain, removed from the consciousness controlling my movements.

By 5 a.m., I had looped through hours of acoustic YouTube covers, confirmed that Alyssa’s was the most emulable (and best-looking), and copied her strum pattern. At the peak of my confidence, I managed "You Belong With Me" (and "Love Story," which has the exact same chord progression) all the way through. I dabbled in "Hotel California" (too many foreign chords) and "I’m Yours" (damn that F chord). I sang to myself. That night, I had taken a pick-axe and interred myself in the deepest hole of flow I've ever dug. When I went to sleep that night, the sun was coming up, and I dreamed in chords.

400-pound beauty: Part 1 & 2

Back in the yesteryears of fiction (1800s), stories were printed in installments in newspapers and magazines. The serial nature of the short story made readers keep coming back, day after day. 

Section 1 (June 22nd) & 2. 

400-pound beauty

Just like the old days, I climbed through the wooden door to the cellar, walked up the stairs, and sat, feet-first, facing her door.

“Ben, I don’t do this anymore,” Kim said, seeing me.

She was wearing a silver nose ring. Had a new tattoo of a flaming sun below her earlobe. Her hair was blonde, short, craggy, all scissored in peaks. No problem. What was: no more folds, anywhere. She looked so…pert.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How do you overcome the fear of failure?

I think a major reason I chose to study Psychology at Yale was because, at 18 years old, I wanted to answer this question for myself.

I'm 22 now, with a degree and a head full of facts, and this summer, I worked as a street fundraiser in New York City in order to develop a willingness to fail -- and I've come to one central conclusion: developing a resistance to rejection is impossible. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

100th post: MLK, pushups, and a push for breadth and height

Milestones, and the promises of social recognition inherent in their celebration, have been the fuel of my livelihood for the past 22 years. The possession is not conscious; I am a naturally competitive person, and, aided by my parents' exhortations to settle for nothing but the best, or perhaps an inability to believe that my life, as it stands, is the best of all possible worlds – à la Candide – I all too readily will yoke myself to short-lived, fiery quests.

This post is my 100th. While that’s an accomplishment, by all objective standards, Peter Writes is diminutive. My page views average 130 per day; if the sun of the blogosphere universe is the Huffington Post, I am somewhere by Neptune, floating among its shallow moons. In a personally Pareto efficient activity market, I should be spending my days consulting, eating exotic fruit, or picking up women on the street, not writing a blog that, most likely, has 20 consistent readers. But to write is to engage in mental calisthenics with passion at my side; better, for me, to be a failed novelist than a blandly successful CEO. The particularly Sisyphean struggle of writing every single day has granted me patience and resilience, and it’s deepened my appreciation for small, kind acts. I’m talking specifically, of course, about the friendly emails and comments that have pushed me onwards in this (ig?)noble struggle. They mean a mighty lot. So, thank you.

Hitting the big one-double-zero provides me a convenient excuse to re-pivot this blog, and my life. This is a two-part series, with part two coming tomorrow. For today, let’s start by revisiting the last challenge I took: the quest for 10,000 pushups.


My first love affair was with numbers. Not Russell Bertrand's Principia Mathematica; think more of a Sesame Street sensibility: counting, categorizing, and quantifying. At Yale, I kept track of it all. In the 69 million seconds I spent at our peerless institution, I took 36 midterms, 20 finals, and wrote 10 final papers totaling 200 double spaced pages. At the dining hall, I ate over 2500 pieces of fruit. I was a guest at 4 roommate’s houses, wore down 14 pairs of shoes, collected 25 Yale related t-shirts, upped my eyeglass prescription 150 degrees, played football on cross campus at least 40 times, and blacked out while drunk exactly zero times. I ended up with a GPA barely lower than the number of girlfriends I’ve had, and I’ve contracted as many tropical diseases as I have won intermural basketball championships. Most importantly, during the 100 days of second semester senior year, I did 10,000 pushups.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Tribute to Philip Levine: Eggs and Bread

The next Poet Laureate for the United States is a man named Philip Levine. I'll be completely honest and tell you that I have stopped, for all intensive purposes, reading the news. I've subscribed to Tim Ferris' ideology, which is to instead ask those around me, "Hey, what's going on in the world today?" I've done fine so far -- but nobody told has talked to me about poetry.

Thankfully, I took two hard copies of the New Yorker with me to Manila; one of them is the August 29th, 2011 issue, where Levine wrote the poem, "Black Wine." I'd link to it, but it's behind the New Yorker's pay wall. (If you email me, I'll give you my account information.) The poem is bursting with facts presented in that meandering, loosely disjointed narrative that characterizes "high-class" poetry. The prose is so devastatingly clear -- "I decided one morning to test sobriety" -- it makes me want to spend the rest of my life learning how to emulate him. Also, I think he's the type of poet even "regular people" can appreciate. I'll start here, with a poem inspired by "Black Wine."

Eggs and Bread

Have you seen a chicken peck at an
apricot leaf? My mother called it roughage
for their pruny stomachs. Three hens and
a rooster, they skittered and flew at low
elevations around my sister, who said, "Shhh"
every night as she latched a rusty hook over
their plywood home. In the lumpy dark, they
were safe from midnight raccoons. I had the
idea to strum an acoustic guitar for the rooster.
He mounted my sandals, pushed a half-eaten
apple to me with clean claws. When hens lay
eggs it is for 184 days straight, speckled
shells tumble on pebbles and tanbark,
scooped up in a hand-warmer in a Dora the
Explorer backpack. The eggs can be drunk
raw. Chickens aside, I found myself on an
ancient island once and decided to starve
myself. Spend my pesos on room temperature
eggs, ingest wisps of ivory and crumbly yolk
in palettes of white gold. To face fear as I
could not avoid it. My pores turned mealy, my
teeth yellowed, my excitement plummeted
and bottomed out. For the first time in my life,
I was yellow outside, white inside. There I stood:
barefoot, under a dimming light, no leaves or even
pebbles lining my stomach, one awkward finger
poking, trying to fish pieces of egg shell
lodged inside a pulsing yellow yolk.