18 records of a saddle.

(these records may also be referred to as "MICRO-SADDLES".)


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It's raining today. I still haven't gotten out of bed.

Last night was my first time sleeping back at Xiaoxi’s house in over a week — I’d been taking care of a cat whose owner was away in Japan — a cat prone to loneliness — a cat that needs a warm human body in her proximity in order to fall asleep each night. I woke up at 8 and then drifted in and out of consciousness for two hours. Eventually a sound like a jackhammer coming from the neighboring apartment prompted me to reach for my phone. I started thinking about the recurring problem I’d been having: my phone is out of storage. Or rather, Wechat requires 500mb of free space, and I keep dipping below that threshold. I get notifications about people messaging me, and when I try to respond, I first have to open up my photos and find 10 or 20 that I can quickly delete.

So this morning, still half conscious, I figured now was the time to go through my photos a little bit more systematically and delete around a thousand or so. This is always a time consuming activity. 95% of my photos don’t matter. They’re screenshots that I wanted to send someone, and since usually what I’m using is Wechat, they’re already backed up in chat logs. Few of my “photos” are actual photos. Yet it's not like I can just delete everything. There's a few pictures that seem worth preserving, and for that reason I have to spend far too much time looking for that handful.

I sometimes imagine what my life would be like if I were a photography person, if I went out on expeditions into the city or the forest looking for things to photograph. Instead, the only time I really ever find myself in interesting places that I might want to photograph is when I’m running — and I don’t take my phone with me when I run.

Well, in retrospect there a lots of other places I’ve been that were ripe for photo taking — yet the idea of pulling out my phone in public and taking pictures has always seemed embarrassing to me. Maybe if I had an actual camera I could pose as a professional. Whenever I’m at a music event and some guy with a massive camera is running around, shoving people aside in order to take pictures, no one complains. Everyone voluntarily gets out of the way. The camera receives a certain amount of respect, even if it’s being used to record the same images everyone else is recording with their phones. Maybe it’s just the devotion it indicates towards the photographic art — even after photos have turned disposable, excuses to add some jokey caption and post on instagram or send to a friend, there are people who spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on cameras, giving images a kind of anachronistic deference.

I’m jealous of pre-digital camera photographers. Sometimes I look at Greg Girard’s instagram, where he posts random pictures of Hong Kong and Japan that he’s taken at some point in the past 50 years. An archive that goes all the way back into the 70s! My “archive” goes back to summer 2022, and it already feels unmanageable. As things stand, I have to deal with a lot of the same problems that a professional photographer does in terms of dealing with a massive number of images, except all of my images are trash — not even photos — there’s no art in there for me to cherish. And as such, I don’t really have a reason to come up with a better archival system.

In today’s photo purge, I worked my way back to the beginning of April, not even three months. What kind of photos did I keep? Well, mostly pictures of highway underpasses, plants, and passages from books. Since most of my reading is on Xiaoxi’s Kindle, there’s really no need to photograph the screen when I want to remember some clever remark and poetic description — there’s a built-in system for highlighting, bookmarking and taking notes. Yet this is what I do. Is it habit?

Looking at the dates on these pictures, I was a bit overcome with how big a chunk of my life reading Demons took up: nearly two months, including the interludes where I read Bocchan, Sorekara and Mon, all by Sōseki. I mostly read these books on the subway or late at night in bed — and now all of that is over. I felt a little sad seeing so many bits and pieces of Demons. I had an instinctual thought: “what was the point of reading it when I didn’t even do anything with it?”

I guess what I mean is that I never converted my momentary experience reading it into something more permanent and lasting. The most obvious way to have done this would have been to write about it on here, or at least to have taken notes on paper — which I obviously didn’t do. Though there’s something a little silly about this. The book is already a permanent and lasting object. I can open it any time I please, and since I’ve already read it, I know the “structure”, I know what each chapter contains roughly. I can find the passages that made an impression on me and reread them. Yet somehow that doesn’t seem to mean much. I don’t feel like I have any real proof that reading the book wasn’t wasted on me, that I was worthy of spending so much time in that world. Instead I’m now just a person with hazy recollections of some small town where a certain incident occurred, many many years ago.

Maybe this is a symptom of the book being too long — of it being a novel and not, say, a lyrical poem or short story. There’s something intimidating about it, even after I’ve read it. It’s a book as thick as The Bible, and a book I’d been wanting to read since I first heard about Dostoevsky when I was 14 or 15. Regardless of how silly some of the contents in, it demands a certain respect, and I can’t help but feel my casual reading of it wasn’t respectful enough. Like I said, what have I done with it? What have I made of it?

Yesterday was one of those hyper caffeinated days. I used to be quite familiar with the feeling of caffeine swirling around in my body, but now it’s become quite novel and strange. I feel something like a hangover today, lying in bed in an all-too-humid room.

Being my last day at the cat house, it was my last chance to engage in the kind of life I imagined living there — namely the same sort of life I have in Xiaoxi’s apartment, but less “wasted”. I hoped I’d read a lot of books and write a lot of words. And well, I certainly did read and certainly did write — yet none of it really felt significant. None of it made me feel accomplished. Most of the writing I did was nominally for two pieces I’ve been working on for a while — an essay about novels, and a novel(la) about plants. No matter how much time I spent on either of them, it doesn’t really feel like they’ve moved any closer to completion.

I kept on trying to sit down and write records of a saddle while I was there — I kept wanting to return to the old days (i.e. a few months ago), when a micro-saddle was written in a single sitting, and didn’t have any lofty pretensions. Not literature, not even practice for literature, but just a record of a saddle. Instead, I kept amassing words with no story, thoughts with no structure, sentences that didn’t belong anywhere.

In the morning, while I was still at the cat house, I brewed a cup of coffee, but it didn’t help me come up with anything coherent to write. I said goodbye to the cat and biked back to Xiaoxi’s house. I drank another cup of coffee. I wrote more words. I tried giving up on the micro-saddle and working on the essay. That didn’t work. I tried working on the story. That didn’t work either. Then I went outside and bought a can of Sugar-free Monster Energy, which I found I’d been craving these past few weeks. It’s a drink that feels like ingesting battery acid. Somehow I keep deluding myself into thinking that strange feeling of being dissolved from the inside out will help me write. It worked once, long ago, when I wrote a novella about a girl whose mom starts dating some guy on the internet, who one day arrives at their front door with his mute little sister, who it turns out is actually his daughter. I liked that novella. It was only made possible by daily dosages of Monster Energy — the drink for teenage gamers who can’t buy real drugs and, inexplicably, Mippy, the person who introduced me to energy drinks. Anyway, that’s all in the past. Now energy drinks just make me confused and coherent. Nothing like that old novella came out of me. Just more nonsense that will get saved on my hard drive and never be read again.

By the evening I abandoned any hope of writing. I decided it was finally time to read 前赤壁赋 (Former Ode on the Red Cliffs) and 后赤壁赋 (Later Ode on the Red Cliffs), that I was ready for Su Dongpo, this name that has always felt inescapable. Even though it was early evening, there was something about reading these, particularly the Later Ode, that felt like that other world that existed at 3am, back when we lived in Yinyin’s house and I’d go into the living room while Xiaoxi and Xiaohei both snored together back in the bedroom. The encounter with the feathery immortal at the end of the ode felt like it had only one proper setting: those old wooden floors and the piles of Yinyin’s clothes. I imagined the immortal sitting next to me on the sofa and asking the same questions he’d asked Su Dongpo. I’d probably answer with a response as insubstantial as Su Dongpo’s was. Yet maybe the immortal would stick around a little longer having a sofa to sit on. Or maybe he’d feel constrained indoors and flee even more quickly, going off to wherever it is Daoist immortals go off to.

The first few lines of Su Dongpo's original copy of 前赤壁赋.

I want to make a few comments on that old sentiment I linked above, which discussed playing Animal Crossing as a child late at night, after everyone else had gone to sleep.

I think the root of the problem I described there is that there’s been a loss of continuity. Every time I play Animal Crossing, it’s disconnected from the first time I played it — from my first village where everything was new and I was slowly coming to understand this game. Each new Animal Crossing town is therefore something disposable. There hasn't been some slow buildup of meaning over months and months or years and years, as I suspect the game was meant to be played.

The brief time when I was making games seriously, it felt like everything I did was part of the development process. Games are by definition multimedia experience. They’re not just pictures, not just words, not just sounds and they certainly add up to something more than mere computer programs. They can engulf anything. Making them can become an all-consuming experience if you let it. My life, normally so disorganized, was for a few brief months structured by the game I was making. Said game being an artistic object, necessarily had its own internal structure.

(It’s similar to how I can’t just drink a caffeinated beverage and appreciate the sunshine or the sound of rain. I need to drink it while writing — I need to turn it into fuel for creativity, otherwise I feel like it’s being wasted.)

I yearn for that feeling of purpose in life, but I can’t go back to devoting my life to game development in the same way — in part because that project ended in failure. I simultaneously know too much and too little. If I tried to do it again, it’d be artificial. It wouldn’t have the same meaning. There is no continuity with that “first time”, just a naive attempt to go back to a past that never existed. Every day I’m yearning for this kind of “return”, yet I’m old enough to know this yearning leads only to disappointment.

For each “first time”, each moment of significance or value, I almost immediately feel like I’m being pulled away from it, pulled into an infinite unknown, an expanse of nothingness — the time before me is infinite, while any time I spend engrossed in art, lost in an alien city, or coming to understand a new friend, they’re all just singular points in comparison to that infinitude. I’m like Su Dongpo’s friend in the Former Ode, lamenting the time that’s passed since Cao Cao too recited poetry here, except the familiarity I have with Daoism isn’t enough to actually comfort me — its ideas about time and the distinction (or lack of distinction) between objects isn’t lodged firmly in my consciousness the way it might have been for Su Dongpo.

(If you’ve watched the movie Yiyi, you can probably guess that I’m taking this phrase “first time” from there. It’s an easy movie for me to like. It contains a major subplot about a Japanese game developer who also happens to be a wise sage. I’m not going to repeat what he had to say about “the first time”, because it will sound trite and silly when taken outside of the context of the film. All I say is that watching that movie is what convinced me that games could be art. Edward Yang somehow took video games far more seriously than any actual mainstream video game designer ever has.)



Why do I return, over and over, to the sorts of stories where nothing happens? Is this my attempt at rebellion?

A few weeks ago I finished Natsume Sōseki’s novel The Gate (門). After pages and pages of shifting urban environments, social calls to the landlord, daily commutes to the office, anxieties over finances, and uncathartic regret over the origins of his only consolation in life, the “marital bliss” he and his wife share, the protagonist finds himself in a Zen temple with one simple task: to contemplate the question posed to him by “the master”:

“‘Your original face prior to your parents’ birth—what is that?’ Why not mull this one over a bit?”

The day before yesterday it rained from morning until evening. Xiaoxi went to the ER because she desperately wished the cough and mild fever she had was some debilitating disease so that she could get out of work. We sat amongst old people frozen on top of stretchers, with expressions on their faces like Laocoön and His Sons (and with flesh just as pale as the marble of the statue). Sometimes they’d twitch or roll around as though to prove that they’re still alive.

Xiaoxi went from one office to another to perform different tests. She had her blood taken and a CT scan done of her lungs. The CT results took time to process, so this gave us an hour to kill. At first we found somewhere to sit and I read about the ungentlemanly conduct of Duke Ling of Jin, an extract from Zuozhuan found in the Classical Chinese textbook I’ve been reading. I contemplated the mysteries of the exact grammatical workings of how 貳 is used in Classical Chinese, for instance in the sentence 晉侯秦伯圍鄭,以其無禮於晉,且貳於楚也, where it refers to an alliance being formed between the states of Jin and Qin.

There was something invigorating about the humid air from outside mixing with the cold air-conditioned air inside the emergency room lobby. I could sense a vortex of sickness. There were whole families camped out there, eating takeout in green plastic trays delivered from one of the restaurants down the street. We figured we’d get something to eat too. The sidewalk immediately outside the hospital had a young lady and middle aged man with signs saying “hotel” and “lodging” respectively, asking anyone who walked by if they needed somewhere to stay. I assume there’s a big industry of housing people who come from far away to get treatment in Shanghai hospitals?

On the other side of the sidewalk there were a dozen tiny restaurants, beneath that species of tree that you see everywhere in Shanghai, lining the roads. Is this the Wutong tree I hear about so much? I encounter trees in real life, contemplate their leaves or the peeling of their bark as I walk past them, then, in a slightly state of mind, I read the names of trees in books, and I never know how to connect the two. Regardless of species, its leaves were a dark, water-engorged green, pulsating in the rain.

When we got Xiaoxi’s CT scan results back, the doctor said it was just an ordinary cold. He prescribed her some kind of cold medicine, and she paid 100 rmb (about 15 dollars) for the whole affair, medicine included. We returned home. Xiaoxi was very depressed about still having to work.

The next day, when I became conscious of my own consciousness, it was still raining. I had to convince Xiaoxi’s dog Xiaohei to put his rain jacket on before taking him out for his morning walk. Then I came home, got a shower, and by time I was finished and dried off the rain had already ended and the sun was out. If only I’d waited another hour to walk Xiaohei.

Sometimes I wonder, when I write Xiaoxi’s and Xiaohei’s names out in English like this, if people who know a little bit about China and are aware of the concept of “generation name” might wonder if the “Xiao” in both of their names is somehow linked — if perhaps Xiaoxi and Xiaohei see themselves not as master and dog, but two distant cousins of the same generation from the same family. Well, unfortunately that’s not the case. “Xiao” just means “little”.

Once the sun came out, it felt like another world. I had to walk over to The Gate (門), which bears no relation to the Sōseki novel. It’s instead an underground hallway of soundproof rooms. I’d meet there a man who goes by the designation “Globe Discount Center”, whose goal in life is to find ways to make interesting sounds come out of the pile of electronic junk he’s accumulated in his apartment.

For a moment, walking down the alley from Xiaoxi’s apartment to The Gate, after stopping at a convenience store to buy a cold bottle of green tea, I, as often happens, saw myself as a stranger, living the life of another. Growing up I’d heard my dad talk about how he wished he could live a lifestyle where “everything’s in walking distance” — his office, the grocery store, and anywhere else he’d frequent. He never seemed to attain that goal. I remember hearing him verbalize that desire, and it felt like some meaningless cliche to me — he’d come under the influence of city propaganda.

Now I’m living my father’s dream, and I’m realizing that it means something very different from what I had imagined when I’d heard him speak those words. How does one verbalize this feeling, walking the same streets everyday, passing under the same trees in the same alleyways, yet looking through second floor windows I'd never noticed before, or happening upon secret gardens behind brick walls that one can only look into by standing at some certain precise angle?

Since coming to Shanghai and living in this girlfriend of mine’s apartment in Changning, my concept neighborhood has become very confused — just like the neighborhoods of the Zariski topology, which can be made arbitrarily small in one sense, yet in another sense always expand outwards infinitely. The radius to which I can easily walk seems so small in relation to the ever-expanding metropolis of Shanghai, yet each day I go out with a different mood and discover something new — like the underground world of The Gate, where the sorts of individuals who have nowhere they need to be at midday on a Tuesday come and rub their bodies all over guitars. When I was standing outside of The Gate, waiting for The Discount Man to arrive, a smiling lady stepped out of a restaurant two doors down holding a big bowl of noodles and carried it over to the lottery store next door.

How did I find myself standing here in Changning, waiting for this fellow American to meet me at this rundown metallic staircase to the underground? I think about the first time I saw him, his hands flopping around like an octopus’s, plugging wires into televisions and banging tape recorders against a white plastic table.

Fang Yue was sitting next to me — Xiaoxi’s longest and most important friend. She had found herself in Shanghai, and it had become my duty to entertain her. Not knowing how to entertain anyone but myself, I took to all the places I frequent.

We saw this man, and didn’t speak to him.

It would be months later that he spoke to me at A Bunch of Noise, after seeing me perform with my bassist friend Yu at Trigger the week before. That was the first time Yu and I had played together for a live audience. During our first practice session she criticized me for trying to play melodies and chords.

“Why don’t you try loosening the strings of your guitar and lightly stroking it, as though it were a fluffy cat?”

Later on, when I bought a Boss digital delay pedal she expressed her disappointment in me. “Can’t you do something a little bit more interesting than Boss?”

Without her, I’d still be playing the most boring music on earth. I’d never know the joy of true musical texture, or have the guts to try “full body performance” like my idol Junky — another weak skinny man who, in every performance, somehow finds himself in a brand new confounding situation — the end of a series of transformations that no one can keep together in their mind all the way.

And so The Discount Man arrives, we descend into the darkness and once more try to make rock music out of tape recorders, a cheap pulsing organ thing he bought off of Taobao, and my single guitar.

I plug myself into my aforementioned delay pedal, and Globe Discount Center immediately says “We should start calling you The Edge!”

Once more I feel shame for being a guy with a delay pedal.

I had a dream last night that my grandmother died again. I was very confused, because I’d thought she’d already died last year.

I was with Xiaoxi’s parents in their dreamworld palatial estate, a massive structure at the top of a grassy hill. I was embarrassed about having to leave them to go to the funeral.

To get back to the United States I had to take a flight to Hawaii, and then take a train from one end of Hawaii to the other to get onto another plane destined for “the continent”.

You see, in dream Hawaii there’s an “America” airport and an “Everywhere else” airport that have to be kept as far away as possible. Hawaii consisted of a massive warehouse (in which I presumed the locals all lived), surrounded by a circular highway, with an elevated rail at the center of the highway, dividing its two directions.

The warehouse had orange, green and blue ventilation pipes crawling all over it, layering on top of each other in geometric patterns. Initially it felt like the train I was taking was right next to warehouse, but when I looked down from the train window, I could see an ocean of parking lots between the highway and the warehouse.

I was very worried about returning to the United States. While on the train I realized I needed to turn back. I was convinced if I stepped foot onto the North American continent, I’d never get back to China. I regretted ever promising anything to my mom. I kept anticipating calling her and having to admit I wouldn’t be coming.

Somehow I was no longer inside the train, but instead inside a massive tube, which I assumed must be curving through the air. This tube would lead me to the airport going back to Shanghai. At some point in the tube seats started to appear, lined up on either side. And thus I found myself on the plane back home to China.

Perhaps in future, we’ll have a network of skytubes to connect all the continents of the world, so that we don’t even need airplanes — we’ll just squeeze human-filled capsules from one end of the pressurized tube to the other, like sucking on a straw.

Yesterday’s sunshine was only temporary (as all sunshine is). It’s raining again, and I’m not sure what to do with myself, in this tiny room sitting next to Xiaoxi and Xiaohei. After I’m done typing this, I guess I’ll get back to reading my Classical Chinese textbook. Maybe I’ll finally finish the first chapter today, after working on it for several weeks. Its author, the renowned linguist Wang Li, embraces the classic pedagogical technique of starting at the beginning of narrative history with the most challenging writing a typical student of Chinese literature is likely to want to read: Zuozhuan, or “The Commentary of Zuo”, which was traditionally thought to be a commentary of The Spring and Autumn Annals despite being many times longer.

What I like about Wang Li’s book is the heavy emphasis on understanding exactly how each character is used in Classical Chinese. Knowing modern Mandarin, one can guess the rough meaning of most characters in a passage of Classical Chinese — but “meaning” is somehow distinct from “usage”, and the typical usage of a character can give all sorts clues for what an unclear phrase means. For instance, in the vocabulary section for the first chapter on Zuozhuan, ten different characters are given that all refer to different forms of speaking, talking, saying, quoting, reporting and exhortation, many of which blend together in meaning if one is only working off of how they’re used in modern Chinese. Similarly there’s a group of characters with meanings relating to groups or individuals going, moving, entering, arriving, invading, routing and fleeing. Every one of these characters is in common use in Mandarin, and I know what they all “mean”. If I see them in a simple sentence, I can see what’s being expressed. So initially I thought I could skip through these entries and move onto some of the more specialized words unique to classical Chinese. Yet I found that as I read Zuozhuan, I’d encounter all these instances where I thought the sentence had one meaning, but I’d somehow missed out on some critical nuance — or I’d come across tricky grammar in a sentence composed of characters I was familiar with, but unable to parse into anything that made sense. I realized that the key is often in the precise usages of these characters and the distinctions between them. The entries/discussions for each of the characters in the vocabulary section of Wang Li’s book often take up half a page, or even a full page for certain characters — much longer than the entries one would find in most dictionaries, and certainly longer than anything that’s in Fuller’s textbook — the English language textbook I’d learned the basics of Classical Chinese from. It feels nice to have all these secrets suddenly revealed to me. In my hands is a repository of knowledge, and all I have to do is read it — despite that being much harder than it sounds.

There are plenty of stories in Zuozhuan that, through the terse and matter-of-fact narration, become (unintentionally?) hilarious. For instance the war between Qi and Jin in the second year of Duke (公) Cheng of Lu’s reign. It starts with the Marquis (侯) of Qi, who declares “I’ll slaughter the army of Jin and still have time for breakfast!” then cuts to Xi Ke of Jin and his charioteers Xie Zhang and Zhengqiu Huan trying to repulse his assault. Xi Ke gets hit by an arrow. He keeps on drumming but cries out “I’m injured!” Xie Zhang turns to him and says “At the very beginning of the battle, an arrow entered my hand and pierced all the way through to my elbow. I pulled it out and kept on going. The blood stained the left wheel of our chariot red and black. How dare you say you’re injured. Persevere my son!” Then Zhengqiu Huan also turns to Xi Ke and says “From the beginning of the battle, every time we’ve encountered difficulty, I’ve had to get out of the chariot and push it. Have you not noticed this? And yet it is you who is injured.” Then Xie Zhang continues “The ears and eyes of every charioteer are concentrated on the sound of our drum and the sight of our flag. They continue or retreat as we do. If each of us in this chariot protect this flag and this drum, then our task will succeed. How can one use injury as a reason to ruin our lord’s great ambition? To put on armor and take up armaments, this is already an acknowledgement of certain death. As long as we’re alive, we must continue!”

I feel bad for Xi Ke — it’s not like he gave up or anything. He kept on drumming as he was supposed to. All he did was say he’s injured, but Zhengqiu Huan and Xie Zhang treated him to a massive lecture about one’s duty to persevere to death. Of course, we’re meant to imagine Xi Ke’s simple statement “I’m injured!” (余病矣!) as a stand in for a whole series of complaints and self-pity. All of the dialogue in Zuozhuan is abbreviated beyond abbreviation, where single lines represent a whole series of (likely imagined) back and forth.

Reading the particular excerpt this is from, there’s all sorts of obscure Zhou dynasty equine knowledge necessary to have any clue what is going on. People are referred to by their positions in chariots, and then just to confuse matters further they sometimes switch positions in the middle of the story for various tactical reasons.

Being a person with “saddle” in their name, you might expect me to know all of this already, so I’m sorry to disappoint you. Have I even ridden a horse before?

Well, amazingly enough, I have — but I’ve certainly never driven a chariot while at war.

The abstract imagination of concepts I’ve only encountered in Classical Chinese and not English reminds me of my struggles reading Shijing at the beginning of the year, where half of my trouble came from looking up the names for plants I’d never seen before and, even after consulting pictures, couldn’t clearly imagine.

I sat down to write this micro-saddle over a week ago. I wanted to return these records to their original purpose — a medium for me to get my thoughts out and into the internet, where they might ferment for weeks, months or years and eventually become more complete essays or stories.

Yet I can’t I can’t help myself — this record keeps growing longer, and I keep accruing thoughts, from when I’m in the shower, or while I’m running, or while I’m standing next to strangers in the rain, standing beneath the eaves, drinking our respective beverages as the green branches hanging from the tree in front of the convenience store bounce up and down with each pang of rain.

Since I’ve started this micro-saddle, it’s rained everyday. Coinciding with this has been nightly insomnia. It’s not the normal one-night insomnia that, when I’m otherwise well rested I can shake off and ignore as morning comes and I forget about my exhaustion. Every time I leave the house and walk through the rain, I feel like I’m drifting from one dream to another. Clouds rise from the sidewalk, and the vegetation sprouting from beneath the street grows more monstrous and inhuman as it sucks up this endless moisture. I remember everything I’ve read about the economic center of China moving from the North to the Yangzi river basin during the Jin and Tang dynasties as a result of the massive agricultural productivity of the region once its mountains and forests had been domesticated — it all makes sense now.

It feels so nice to go for runs on late afternoons through the cool mist — running through the legacy of a thousands of years of agricultural profits stored up, turned into human flesh, exchanged for steel edifices rising out of the ground and piercing into the clouds.

Whenever I run, no matter where I’m running, I feel like I’m somewhere far away, sheltered from my everyday reality. In the midst of a run, time feels infinite. At the very least, its flow is subject to completely different rules from those of everyday life. Everyday I’m anxious over how fast time goes by, how I’m continually plummeting into the chasm of old age without even a single ledge or crack in the cliff face for me to try to grasp onto. Running is the only time those anxieties can be set aside. My runs take at most an hour and half, which given how much time I spend unproductively studying or lying in bed unable to sleep, seems like nothing.

During my runs, I’ve been thinking about politics. Sometimes I think of my father, with his own strange world view, showing its traces in my own psychology. About once every two weeks, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I open up his twitter, look at what he’s been retweeting, and feel sad.

I wish I could have actual politics. I don't want to be like my dad, whose politics consist of “Everyone is stupid.” I’m not sure if I can completely discard his influence though. Even now, despite no longer being able to think anyone at all is stupid, every time I find myself sympathetic to someone with a particular political opinion or who has taken a stance about something they find important, I immediately start wondering if I’m just a sucker, getting pulled into a meaningless cause.

My dad, I now realize, is a nihilist. It was perhaps a little non-obvious, since we went to church every weekend growing up. I was under the impression from all the Christian adults around me that nihilism and Christianity were opposites. Yet, for my dad, I wonder if church was just a reaction to our mostly modern world and its dominating secularity. Perhaps for him it was simply a place to study arguments one could use against liberals. At other times of the week, in other situations, he’d study a different series of arguments to make against conservatives. Like the South Park guys, my dad hates conservatives, but really hates liberals.

As for me, what have I created for myself? A politics of body-hair-removal; a politics of baths; a cult of the study monster; a politics of screaming — these are the kinds of politics I find myself clawing out of the mud lining the sidewalk, like a sad old man looking for street-carrots. Why can’t I have a politics of helping people and making life better for everyone?

Politics is too hard. During my runs, all I can think about is my original face, though that’s certainly not easy to think about either.

I’m not really sure how one goes about “mulling over” a koan like that. I don’t have a teacher to explain things to me. In fact, The Gate is perhaps the only piece of fiction I’ve read that depicts someone mulling over a koan for hours and hours and, well, it doesn’t end well for him. My previous encounters with koans were in the way they often appear in secular literature, i.e. getting quoted in contexts that superficially resemble the words that make up koan, without much further comment. What would it be like to truly mull over one?

As I’ve written about on this website before, I often feel the need to “replace” parts of my life, especially parts of my childhood with the Chinese “equivalents”. For instance, what pop music would someone my age have heard incessantly growing up as a child? Can I take that and somehow listen to it in such a way that it’s not 27-year-old current me hearing it alone in the dark with headphones on in Xiaoxi’s living room, but the fictional (Chinese) child version of me (who perhaps would also be listening to it alone in the dark)? Can 20 years of off and on listening be compressed into a single moment?

A lot of my interest in Buddhism is like this too. It comes from a sort of “replacing my childhood” mindset. I was steeped in Christianity as a kid, and the superficial Chinese equivalent of Christianity is Buddhism, so I can I create a new version of myself that has a similar relationship to Buddhism? Without me telling you, I’m sure you can already guess that the answer is a resounding “no”. When I read the Vimalakirti Sutra, I’m doing it as an adult who has already read, say, Zhuangzi. In the back of my head I have the knowledge that Wang Wei took is pen-name from the sutra, so I can’t help but find myself looking for traces of his poems (or some kind of origin to his poems) in the sutra. This is clearly not how a child growing up in Buddhism the way I grew up in Christianity would read something like this. I was the sort of Christian child who read the whole bible back to back, so I do assume the Buddhist version of me would read a lot of sutras, though as we keep making assumptions about what “the Buddhist version” or “the Chinese version” of me would do, we descend further and further into ridiculousness. Even beyond this, the idea of imagining different nationalities, different cultural backgrounds, as being in opposition to each other, as posessing certain “defining” experiences, flattens culture into this incredibly boring and dualistic notion — the exact opposite of what we at Saddle Labs are trying to do here in our writing. All day every day, our only ambition is to float through a constant state of profound ambivalence.

So the question is, why try to understand this other me that doesn’t exist, when I could be trying to understand the very-real people around me? Do I think constructing this Chinese me (is he Shanghainese?) will help me understand Xiaoxi, her friends, my friends, my fellow graduate students, or the old people I see wandering the streets? Do I also need to construct a female version of me in order to understand every woman I’ve ever met?

These are the kinds of thoughts I have while running down Hongqiao Road, passing beneath the elevated highway above Zhongshan Road, and getting stuck at a red light. Originally I wanted to keep going down Hongqiao road, to pass by the one fruit store that is always blasting loud Mandopop, and to run beside the park, blocked off by an iron fence with copious ferns and bushes sticking out of it, dripping with moisture. I’m impatient though, so instead I turn left and keep running down Zhongshan Road, beneath the highway. My whole run is filled with micro-decisions like this.

As I descend further and further into insomnia, politics and religion have become unified. I have perhaps always been religious, though I usually forget about this. A lot of the time, religion feels like an excuse to give more meaning to things I would be doing anyways. E.g. some of my initial curiosity towards Buddhism was due to vegetarianism, but the origins of my own vegetarianism have nothing to do with Buddhism.

At seventeen (a dreadful age!) I stopped eating meat as a kind of preparation for some eventual life I imagined for myself in the metropolis, a world beyond time, where men are no longer men but women perhaps still somewhat resemble women. I created my own cult of the “true” city, despite having only experienced first hand what I perceived to be a stunted, half-grown city of forgotten rubble and urban decay. To be an inhabitant of the city, it seemed necessary to have as clean a soul as possible. Of course, by the time I was seventeen I was already filled with impurities. It seemed like the least I could do was stop eating meat.

In the city, I’d have no fixed address and no stable occupation. During the day, in order to keep myself from sleeping, I’d go to public libraries attached to pre-schools and Communist party service centers and hold a magnifying glass up to ancient texts. I’d been struck with the curse that no matter how carefully I tried to read the language of my forbearers, I could only truly understand it by copying it character by character, stroke by stroke, into my notebook. Therefore the notebook would fill slowly day by day, each page completely useless as soon as I finished it. In some other life I’d be a master calligrapher — I’d be able to sell my copies and use the proceeds to contribute to Xiaoxi’s rent. Instead, in our current reality, I’m just a lay practitioner in the cult of the city, roaming through its streets, pondering the mysteries of how it could have sprung up out of those ancient texts I’d copied so diligently with my terrible hand writing, listening carefully for the faintest sound of the city’s breathing.

A life spent among fluorescence —
I’ll wait here,
waiting for green rain to break through the half-open window.

On the way home from the library, crossing the street, I feel some vague sense of connection with the invisible stranger who left their umbrella on top of the recycling can beside the sidewalk. The recycling cans here are always changing position, every few weeks, following patterns beyond my comprehension.

As a kid, I never used an umbrella. My father thought they were dumb. On days that it rained he just accepted he’d get wet. Whenever umbrellas came up in fictional stories or movies, I felt like I was seeing a very different life from my own. I never learned even the basics of umbrella etiquette.

I get home, and the inside of Xiaoxi’s apartment is as dimly lit as the world outside. Xiaoxi tells me about how terrible it’s going to be to get another job.

“Everything I can find seems vaguely sinister. The job descriptions mostly involve hosting live broadcasts on Douyin without revealing one’s face.”

Day becomes night. Night becomes midnight, and then 凌晨, the earliest of early mornings, before the sun has risen.

In this world without sleep, I'm always worried my heart is going to burst.

Every sound Xiaoxi makes — the minutest clicks of the buttons on her Switch when she's playing Eastward next to me in bed — they all feel like knives piercing into my flesh. The cycle of my life has returned to the hypersensitivity phase, something that comes and goes.

There are other people who greedily dream of falling asleep to the comforting sound of their girlfriend/boyfriend playing video games. Each unintentional collision as the two of them roll around in bed would bring a spark of warm, sleepy pleasure. Experiencing this once, they’d never again be able to fall asleep alone. Unfortunately that’s not me.

Tonight I can’t take it anymore. I stand up from bed and (needlessly?) apologize. I tell Xiaoxi I need to go for a walk. I descend the four floors of steps and leave our compound from the west gate (which requires a keycard to open).

I remember nights in Baltimore where I’d stood at the bus stop, and the bus never came. I’d give up waiting and walked for hours and hours, just like tonight in Shanghai. The summer humidity in Baltimore was more or less the same. Back then Shanghai didn’t play a major role in my imagination though. Whenever it was hot and humid, I tried instead to imagine I was in Hong Kong — though I’d never actually been there, so who knows what it’s like.

Tonight, without my contacts in, everything is so blurry — just like it was through the entirety of middle school and high school — just like it was in 2019 when I got some strange infection in my eye and fell into some hysterical fever where I could no longer perceive the difference between man and tree, or between myself and the vegetation around me. my at-the-time girlfriend had to drive me to the emergency room, where they gave me magical eyedrops, and suddenly everything returned to normal.

Tonight, in Shanghai, through all the blurriness, I feel like I’ve fallen back into Baltimore. I keep on being startled by architecture that I thought was long gone, then I look closely and realize that these are just the places I walk by everyday, not those buildings of the distant past, lying dormant in my subconscious. I see fences hiding green and brown overgrown grass and ask myself "is this Baltimore?" then I remember the fences I’m thinking of were all chain link.

How often do I see chain link fences in Shanghai? Almost never.

Why is that?

I remembered in Baltimore trying to stick my too-big hand through the holes in the chain link fence, or coming across a fence that's been cut and wondering why the person who cut it did so -- will I someday find myself secretly carrying wire cutters to a chain link fence at 2am, laughing maniacally as I squeeze those two handles, feeling so much tactile pleasure in the moment that, at last, I pierce through?

Well, I'd have to return to Baltimore to do that.

At least I'm here in China legally. My presence is approved by the Chinese government, in so far as they represent the Chinese people.

One can’t help but ask how much that actually means though.

If I went back to America, where would I even go? In Baltimore, I might as well have been illegally trespassing. I was just a different type of invader.

Obviously there is the more obvious type of illegality: I was on the unceded lands of the Piscataway and Susquehannock peoples. Though that particular sort of trespassing wasn't something I thought about very much.

Sometimes when I walked down the street a few blocks from my mom's house, people would call out "Hey white boy! What are you doing here?" and then I would mumble my apologies and keep walking. Sometimes it would end at that, and sometimes there would be a "Hey! I'm talking with you!" I wonder what kinds of conversations these could develop into if only I stopped and talked with them.

I would walk past all the Korean restaurants my dad took me to as a kid, only now most of them were boarded up or had been turned into pizza parlors. Only two remained, Jong Kak and Kong Pocha, right next to each other on the same street, and I kept wishing I could go inside. But what would I even eat? I can only imagine myself going in and ordering a serving of some appetizer along with a soju, and try to make it last as long as possible as I try to rescue the faint fragments I have of being here with my dad, so many years ago — it’s only natural that vegetarianism has cut me off from my youth. I can imagine the waiter coming up to my table after seeing all my little dishes have been empty for the past hour, asking me to leave, and me beg him to let me stay just a little bit longer.

If I can't eat at Jong Kak, if I don't even dare step back into Jong Kak, then where can I return to? Beaver County Pennsylvania where I was born? My dead grandmother's house, now sold to someone else? I remember a single Chinese restaurant in the small town she lived outside of. I remember going in there once in 2019 when I'd returned to Beaver County for Christmas. A high school kid took my order. Based on his hoodie, he was on his school's track team and had the surname Liu. I wonder if he spoke Mandarin? Why do I feel like I could only connect with him if he spoke Mandarin? If he did, what would he make of me suddenly speaking in it with him? I could only imagine it would make him incredibly uncomfortable. What would I even say to him? Would he and his family allow me to sit in silence at one of the four tables in their tiny restaurant, staring for hours at the sickly sweet tofu I'd ordered?

I wonder what Fang Yue felt like, returning to Guangzhou after being in Italy for so many years. Fang Yue also had a glasses-less youth, despite having eyesight as poor as mine. She also would wax philosophically to Xiaoxi about the pleasures of blurriness, of not needing to see the world around us. When Xiaoxi introduced me to Fang Yue, when she warned me Fang Yue was coming to Shanghai, she told me that Fang Yue was a little like me. She was worried if we encountered each other, we'd get into an intense argument. That never actually happened. After our first dinner together at a Japanese restaurant, Xiaoxi declared that not just are we a little bit similar, but more precisely, we are the exact same person, or rather, two separate physical manifestations of a single consciousness. Maybe Xiaoxi felt the same way Steppenwolf felt when encountering Hermine, the double of his childhood best friend Herman. While she stayed at our house, I slept on the sofa, and Fang Yue slept together with Xiaoxi, hugging her the whole night through with a tightness that made it impossible for Xiaoxi to breathe.

For a brief few moments Fang Yue became my best friend too. We walked for twenty kilometers together. We went to the ruins of an abandoned church at one of the soon-to-be-developed areas in the outskirts of Pudong. Fang Yue kept wanting to visit all the churches in Shanghai. If only I knew about the Catholic Monastery and observatory at the top of Sheshan. I bet she would have liked that.

Instead, I took Fang Yue to my own replacement for church, Trigger. She sat next to me on the little plastic stools, for the emptiest show I'd ever seen there — the show with the aforementioned Discount Man. Junky was performing too, constantly pushing his table of electronics forward so that it was millimeters from the audience’s faces, only to pull it back at the precise moment of unbearable claustrophobia.

When the show was over, we sat in silence for a few moments. I asked her if she was ready to leave. She hesitated. Suddenly she stood up and turned to Junky. She told him he was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen — the same words I’d been wanting to say for months.

Xiaoxi was right about her single consciousness theory -- or at least she was onto something. I had never had a conversation like the two separate multi-hour conversations I had with Fang Yue. It was extremely discomforting.

Then she went back to Guangzhou. I think she's mad at me or Xiaoxi or both. We sent a lot of messages back and forth with her at first, but now she ignores us. Now we only find out about her life through her Wechat moments. Who is she posting her moments for? I remember her proudly showing us her Wechat, and we were the only contacts. When I went to a restaurant with her, she was confused about how to use Wechat to order. Had her departure to Italy predated Wechat's monopolization of human interaction and commerce?

I suppose if Fang Yue and I are one person, then our “original faces, before our parents’ birth” must be the same too.

Somehow we’ve both found ourselves in relationships of one kind or another with this person named Xiaoxi, though obviously of quite different natures. And so the three of us, once scattered across three different continents, find our faces blending into each others’.



When I first started this website, the only person who read it was my girlfriend. She would use Google translate to read my essays, and ask me about sentences that weren't clear. Normally we speak in Chinese, and while there really isn't a language barrier per se, I'm limited in the kinds of "voices" I can use, and it's really only through written English that I feel "free". So writing this blog in English opened up a new medium for communication. I would characterize her and her friends in goofy ways. Whenever she laughed at my essays about our life together, it made me so happy.

Eventually other people started reading the website, and in turn my girlfriend started reading less. I started writing about all sorts of people who aren't really a part of my life, except through fantasy and strange projected relationships, rather than real concrete connection. It turned into some kind of meditative exercise I did for acquaintances on the internet. I tried to convince myself that by examining all of my internal sadness, I might be doing someone else a service. But I think this was mostly an excuse. When I write this stuff that is for "a general audience" (in my imagination, said general audience consists mostly of Americans), the person I was originally doing this for is alienated.

Trying and failing to write about New Pants, which was a metaphor for my inability to understand China and most of the people here, was a turning point. I was no longer in a world I shared with my girlfriend. Instead I fell deep into my own imaginary nonsense world, removed not just from her, but from everyone. Sitting down to write these essays became a sort of isolationary activity. Part of this is unavoidable -- I'm writing in my own language, not my girlfriend's.

I often imagine Chinese and English as competing for the domination of my soul. I'm always worried that if I cede too much territory to English, which has certain built-in advantages, that Chinese will stand no chance and be squeezed out of my body until I've forgotten it entirely and am once more just another Chineseless individual. Were that to happen, communication with my girlfriend would be quite difficult.

Of course, I'm perhaps exaggerating things when I imagine English being isolating in and of itself. The hours I spend trying to read, say, Shiji or Wang Wei's poetry, which are obviously in Chinese, can also be isolating. It takes me an hour to read a single paragraph, and I can't really explain to my girlfriend why I'm doing this. In many ways, Chinese literature from 2000 years ago is more alienating to her than the English language essays I write on my blog about music or memories of the American Midwest. These at least offer the possibility of being interesting to her. Most of the joy I take in Chinese literature is divorced from it being interesting -- it's instead connected to the sensory pleasures of, say, looking things up in dictionaries, accumulating stacks of notes on my desk, and that strange satisfaction I get when a page that was once incomprehensible to me finally makes sense. It's for these same reasons that I've studied as much mathematics as I have. I don't care very much about Moduli spaces or vector bundles on a surface, but trying to answer incredibly specific questions about them that I couldn't even begin to explain to someone who hasn't also spent years studying math gives me an excuse to "study", this incredibly isolating and self-absorbed past time that pulls me out of the world and away from everyone around me.

I remembering reading something by Kurt Vonnegut where he gave the advice that, if you want writing to be easy and pleasant, you should imagine you're writing for a single person. When I was younger, I didn't really have anyone to write for. I kept trying to meet people and enter deep friendships with them in hopes that they'd be my person to write to. At the same time, the advice he gave seemed a little weird to me: if I'm only writing for one person, why don't I just send it to them as a letter? Why does it need to get published and be read by strangers? Well I think the answer for Kurt Vonnegut was that writing was how he made the money that him and his family lived on. If the person he was writing for was, say, his wife or one of his kids, then maybe publishing is a natural extension of writing for them, as the money earned would go towards supporting them. But what about someone like me, who makes no money from their writing? The only thing I get from any of this is strangers saying nice things to me, which of course doesn't really mean anything my girlfriend.

Reading is my hobby, not hers. By writing all of this stuff and hoping she'll read it, perhaps I'm forcing her into a different lifestyle -- one that she doesn't want.

I'm always terrified of changing people. I'm worried that my own anti-social tendencies have resulted in her spending less time with her friends -- people who can give her new experiences or invite her to do interesting things. She's started spending a lot more time playing video games while I'm at my desk, typing nonsense into my computer or staring at books. Before she'd go out almost every weekend, and many weeknights as well. It was because of her that I'd have all sorts of things to write about. Somehow though this sedentary lifestyle of mine is what seems to have won out.

It's 10pm as I write this, and my girlfriend is still at work. She's at a photoshoot that seems to have gone on late into the night, and I'm sure when she gets back she'll be exhausted. I remember back when I had actual classes I'd be gone all day and we'd only see each other between the hours of 11pm and 6am. We still lived with Yinyin back then, who'd be hanging out around the house in her underwear, swiping through Douyin or making big pots of Malatang. Sometimes I wake up in a panic at 2am and realize that Yinyin is gone forever -- that it's just the two of us now, and my girlfriend's dog Xiaohei, who was originally Yinyin's. He's lying behind me now, looking so sad and bored. Now Yinyin's somewhere in the suburbs north of Shanghai, and we're living in this other apartment, on a quieter street in a quieter building -- more conducive to sleeping in until 1 in the afternoon.

When I first started dating my girlfriend, there was a certain thrill to living the lives of 凌晨老百姓 -- citizens of the night -- going to restaurants at 2am on the second floor of decaying buildings with cigarette smoke filled hallways, or finding myself wandering the backrooms of nightclubs or pushing my way through crowds as she DJed. Part of her compensation included drink tokens, so back when she DJed regularly I was frequently under the influence of alcohol, staring at these strangers wearing bizarre clothing, imagining what their lives were like. When you do a google images search of "Chinese street fashion" a lot of the pictures you get are of incredibly conventional looking models with super long legs and massive breasts wearing revealing clothes, walking down those titular streets in highly posed photos. Not the bizarre and wonderful collages of cascading fabrics and dyed hair that you get if you google "Japanese street fashion". Yet whenever I was at these weird basement clubs at 1am, I'd be pressed between a dozen people wearing mysterious clothes far stranger than anything I'd seen in FRUiTS magazine. And everyone would keep telling me "it used to be better, back when clubs like shelter were still around, before xiaohongshu exposed everywhere cool to the most boring and conventional losers and made them into just another item for people to check off on their list of things to do in Shanghai."

Well, I think that's enough for today's meditation on sadness. It's strange how nostalgic I can feel for stuff that happened only a few months ago.



I have a friend who likes the band Sodagreen. We don’t talk very much. About once a year she sends me a letter, which usually begins with a recommendation of a Sodagreen album I should listen to. At this point, partially to anticipate her recommendations, I’ve listened to all of Sodagreen’s albums on my own time. It’s not like I think about them very much though. It takes the arrival of one of her letters (always a complete surprise) to remind me of their existence, and for a few days Sodagreen is on my mind.

If only I could listen to only one band all my life like that. Well, maybe she listens to other bands and just doesn’t tell me about them. Sometimes it's nice to listen to music like this -- music that is unambiguously music. Some of the lyrics are clever, even poetic, and the singer Wu Qingfeng is in fact capable of singing. Unlike most of the music I like, he's not just finding new ways to trick the listener into finding his horrible screeching to be interesting.

2020 was when I stopped receiving new music into my soul. I kept listening to new music, but it didn’t get stored in my soul. It went somewhere else, some auxiliary waiting room for when my soul is overloaded with music yet to be digested. I am still working through everything that came in before 2020.

I keep thinking that my endocrine system must be damaged from drinking too much energy drinks between the year 2020 and 2023, or listening to too much overstimulating music — though I guess all the way back in 2015 I remember I was already worrying my endocrine system was permanently damaged, before I did any of that. I was convinced that my brain had lost all its plasticity and that I was therefore incapable of ever finishing anything I started. I read somewhere that LSD could fix that, but I had no idea where one could obtain LSD. So I went on, waiting for my brain to finish its process of atrophying so that I could be left without any senses.

There are certain mysterious aspects to Sodagreen's history that make them fun to talk about in abstract. At some point they broke up and reformed at a new label with the exact same members under a different name, 魚丁糸, which is just radicals taken out from each character of 蘇打綠, their Chinese name. Similarly their new English name is Oaeen, which is just Sodagreen if you remove the consonants at the beginning of each syllable. Then they began the slow project of rerecording all their old albums so that they would have the rights to them.

Sodagreen is from Taiwan, and my friend is from Guangdong. I wonder if I'll ever visit either of those places. They both seem so far away and abstract, yet, more so than many other places, they emanate psychological tentacles that reach out thousands of kilometers prompting me to think about them almost every day.

The actual idea of tourism is so dread-inducing to me though. All I can think of is my trip to Beijing in 2018, where I just felt like a weird stranger who didn’t belong. In the morning I’d find myself on the subway sitting half asleep between men in suits on their way to work. In the afternoon I’d walk for 20+ km everyday, sitting at the edge of all sorts of roads to watch bikes and motorcyclists go by. At night I’d sleep in internet cafes next to men chain smoking and playing league of legends and other games that I have no idea how to play. I imagine Taiwan would be basically the same. If I went by myself I’d just feel sad and alone the whole time. If I went with someone else I’d just feel like I was following them around. Maybe it’s best for Taiwan to remain an abstraction, and for Guangdong to be a series of dimly remembered images. It’s been decreed that I live in Shanghai, so I might as well voluntarily confine myself here and not try going anywhere else.

My life since coming back from Beijing in 2018 has consisted entirely of being sad about whatever happened there, despite nothing much really happening. I’m so sad that I haven’t even really been able to write about it, except through cryptic allusions that sometimes appear in these pages. Living rooms filled with boxes, human-fish hybrids, and being forced to carry a rabbit through the streets as it repeatedly bit my arm — whenever it comes time to talk about Beijing, this is all I can put into words.

Old friends that I haven’t talked to in years always feel like portals to alternate dimensions. Whenever they appear before me, I immediately start thinking about what my life would be like if we had kept talking, if they were my best friend now instead of some person who, in their current state, I know almost nothing about. Perhaps my character is revealed by the fact that my first reaction is to think of hypothetical fantasies involving myself, and not to wonder what their very real life without me is like. Those kinds of speculations only come later, after I’ve exhausted the fantasies.

If someone knew me when I was 18 and I revealed to them all the stories of my childhood that I could think of at the time, well all of that would still be relevant to me now, and in fact would be more important in determining the kind of person I am now than the bulk of what’s happened in the last ten years. So maybe if that person had left me at 18 then suddenly fell back into my life now, they would already know most of what they need to know, and only have to fill in a few gaps.

Yesterday I spent most of the day asleep, falling in and out of dreams. During some of that time my girlfriend sat next to me in bed, playing Pikmin 4 on her Switch in portable mode. Maybe my girlfriend is a kind of replacement for my brother. They’re roughly the same age. Through the veil of memory I see my brother leading his Pikmin through forests and caves on his Gamecube, and in my dreams I hear my girlfriend leading her Pikmin around on a dog on her Switch. I woke up a few times and she asked me to tell her stories about all the times I cried as a child.

I remember my mom yelling at me a lot, resulting in endless tears, though I can never really remember what I did to make my mom yell.

Before we moved to Baltimore and after we stopped going to my dad’s parents church, we started going to another church that my mom’s friend went to. I think this was originally because their youth group was more enticing to my brother (who is six years older than me — I was far too young to go to youth group). They also seemed to have more events, like flea markets and big dinners. I remember being in that church’s gymnasium constantly. At one of those flea markets my mom bought me some Sonic book that went into all the lore about the rings and Dr. Eggman. I remember my brother finding the book incredibly stupid and making fun of me for picking this of all things.

Anyway, when my girlfriend asked me for stories about crying as a child, I immediately thought of a time my mom and my siblings were going to some event at that church, but I did something that made her angry, so I had to stay home with my dad and I cried until I fell asleep. When I woke up it was still light out and I was convinced that I had slept until morning. I got out of bed, and my dad made me a sandwich. He kept telling me that it wasn’t morning, that it would be dark in a few minutes, but I didn’t believe him. He was worried that my mom would be home soon, and wanted me to go back to my room so that she wouldn’t be angry at him for letting me out. That’s all I remember.

Sometimes I lie and tell people that my family was never religious. I’m not sure why. I had a friend I made as a freshman in college who kept saying I’d never understand her because “Your parents are white and non-religious. You don’t have to be worrying about Jesus and Mary all the time, or hearing your mom tell you about the contents of her prayers.” The white part I can’t really contest, but I’m not sure why I continued to pretend that Christianity wasn’t the central focus of my childhood. I guess I assume she’d think I was lying if I told the truth. If someone met either of my parents now, they’d definitely think I was lying if I told them any stories about my childhood. Their personalities and lifestyles changed so much after their divorce. They both more or less gave up on Christianity. My mom got a bunch of tattoos of dragonflies. My dad stopped talking to the church friends he used to have breakfast with every Saturday morning, then he moved to Boston.

I guess the band that comes closest to being my own Sodagreen is Sadistic Mika Band. Many of the songs off of Kurofune and Hot! Menu emerge into my consciousness late at night when I’m half asleep — particularly Hey, Goki Gen Wa Ikaga. Its first verse in Japanese offers generic words of encouragement. Its second verse, in English, tells a story in second person of a man encountered only in a dream who “found his fortune in Chinatown.” The speaker urges him not to go to Houston and instead come to Tokyo. It’s like every conversation I have with Mippy. She talks about going to California or Arizona, and no matter where she’s going my only response is that she should come to Shanghai instead.

The first two songs on Hot! Menu don’t have any lyrics. When the lyrics do come in on Blue, they give one the feeling of having just woke up, which of course is the subject matter of the song, today’s dream different from usual (今日はいつもとちがう夢).

Hey, Goki Gen Wa Ikaga is the climax of the album for me. When a song is narrated in the second person, I can’t help but become convinced that the events described therein all happened to me. We have so little information about this man encountered in a dream. The song could map onto a thousand different stories. The instrumental section at the end (I was going to say guitar solo, but there’s really only guitar for the first few seconds of it) tells 90% of this story that can’t be communicated in words.

I keep wanting to write stories about some Chinese version of me going to the United States, wandering around the Midwest by bus, walking along rivers and farmland, traversing abandoned parking lots, contemplating grocery stores and feeling sad.

When I went to Oshkosh to take the GRE Math Subject Test, I lied to my boss and said I was only going there to visit a friend. I wonder what sort of friend she thought I had living in Oshkosh of all places. The test was on a Saturday, and the bus to Oshkosh left in the afternoon on Friday, so I needed to take half the day off. I didn’t want my boss to ask questions about why I was taking the GRE. For some reason I was convinced that if they knew I was considering applying to grad school, they’d fire me on the spot.

The magic of Wisconsin was that, despite being inland, there was water everywhere — more water than I’d ever encountered living on the East coast. The bus traveled north along Lake Winnebago, passing by factories and warehouses.

I stayed in the cheapest hotel I could find, which was far away from University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh, where the test was held. I had to take several buses and walk for twenty minutes. Gathered outside of the library were a few members of the motley crew that makes up the kind of people who study math in the midwest. They shared tales of woe and past failures at the test. Later after the test was over I set off in a random direction from the university, walking through the town center of Oshkosh. At some point a red convertible suddenly made a U-turn and stopped in front of me. The window rolled down and one of the people I’d seen at the test appeared behind it. He told me his brain was fried and now there’s nothing to do but get horribly drunk.

“You’re free to jump in and join me,” he said.

Being me, I instinctually refused and wished him best. He made another U-turn and continued in the direction of whatever bar he had originally set off towards.

If this anecdote appeared in the story of Chinese me’s adventures in the Midwest, I’d have my alter-ego agree and step into the car. I’m sure he’d find something new to get sad about at the bar. Maybe, while drunk, he would lose his glasses, and for the rest of the story he would stumble around through a blurry haze, which he finds to suit him much better than that all-too-clear world he had known before. He’d embark on the three hour walk back to his hotel room at 2am, and eat what remained of the black bean tacos in the tiny hotel refrigerator, which he’d gotten from the Taco Bell at the shopping center on the other side of the highway. Crossing the bridge over the highway and seeing all the cars below would, as usual, give him some new shade of melancholy to contemplate. Just going from location to location, gathering shards of sorrow.

The real life American me could of course wander Southern China or traverse the length of the Yangzi River and likely feel roughly the same way I felt in the American Midwest. Sometimes I contemplate disappearing from school and running away from Shanghai. My visa would of course get cancelled, so I would have to avoid hotels, trains, buses and anywhere else they check for passports. I suppose this added sense of danger would drown out the usual melancholy I feel, and instead I’d just spend every moment worrying about getting arrested and deported. I don’t have enough money for even a one way ticket back to the United States.

It seems like it would be easier for the protagonist of my hypothetical story to get around the Midwest illegally. You don’t need a passport to buy bus tickets in the United States. He could just buy them under an assumed identity and nobody would check IDs. Maybe he’d still have trouble getting a hotel though. So who knows. 



I wish typing my writing into my computer wasn't a prerequisite for other people to read it. I wish I could just scribble onto some notebook paper, rip it out and fold it into an envelope then drop it into the mailbox downstairs, like the good old days when I was sending Mippy letters on a regular basis.

I've let computers and phones infect everything, and this is only made worse living in China. Credit/debit cards don't really exist here as plastic cards that you can use to pay with anywhere. One either uses their phone to pay or they use cash, and since the only people I see using cash are incredibly old people, I always feel ashamed when I use cash myself. I always imagine the cashier would think it has something to do with my foreignness. Maybe they'd assume I don't know how to use Zhifubao or Wechat. So, unless I'm just walking the dog, I don't go outside anymore without my phone. It doesn't even feel like I have a choice in the matter (even if, objectively speaking, I do -- all I need to do is swallow my shame and start using cash again).

Today when I was at the massive 7 floor 上海书城 (Shanghai City of Books) staff in black suits kept appearing from nowhere and telling me "The Talk Show is on floor 6, please go there immediately." I had no idea what they were talking about. Originally I figured that if I naturally found myself on the sixth floor, I might take a look and try to see exactly what this talk show is, but as I got higher and higher there were more and more staff coming for me. I was about to step onto an escalator from the fourth to the fifth floor, but a lady in a black suit saw me. Her face suddenly glowed with an expression of recognition. I immediately turned towards the wall of dictionaries beside the escalator to pretend I didn't see her. Moments later she was (politely) grabbing my shoulder and telling me the talk show is on the sixth floor. She had descended the escalator to tell me this! I told her "I have no idea what you're talking about, I'm just a normal customer!" My Chinese came out all garbled, as it often does when I'm nervous or stressed. I have no idea what sequence of words entered her ears. She looked all embarrassed, and I felt like I'd done something horrible. I stood in front of the dictionaries a little longer, not sure what to do, and I guess the shame over what I'd done compelled me to buy a pocket dictionary to somehow make up for it. The dictionary I have at home is way too big so it's inconvenient to use it while reading novels in bed or outside on the park bench. It wasn't until I'd made my way down to the first floor, checked out, and was standing on the street flipping through my new dictionary that I realized every page had a little QR code on it that one presumably scans with some accompanying app. Once more I felt a little depressed. Phones have infected everything!

When I got home my girlfriend Xiaoxi told me that when she took some cardboard boxes out earlier and set them on the asphalt next to the recycling can like one of the old ladies had told us before, a different old lady appeared to tell her that she should neither put it on the ground nor the recycling bin, and instead put it in the normal trash bin (干垃圾 or "dry garbage" in Chinese garbage parlance). My girlfriend asked why, and the woman replied "so the others don't get to the boxes before I do!" My girlfriend objected because "we're supposed to be sorting our garbage", though if old men and old ladies are constantly going through the garbage cans looking for anything recoverable that they can sell, then I suppose it doesn't really matter if we sort out the recyclables. (Shanghai also does composting, which is referred to as "湿垃圾" or "wet garbage".)

So many of the anecdotes I collect here either are explicitly connected to my foreignness, implicitly connected due to my incessant paranoia, or are tinged by shame about my Chinese level. When the old ladies have told me what to do with my recycling in the past, I spend the next 20 minutes sulking over the inadequacy of my response. For me to ponder these sorts of interactions as things that just happened, they have to happen to someone else who then relates these stories to me after the fact.

Is my whole life going to be like this?

Well, most of my interactions with strangers back in America were also filled with shame, but at least there was more variety to the shame. I'm worried that I'm going to turn into a person who can only write about all the weird feelings someone like me has living in Shanghai -- all of which are so boring. I can't imagine anyone else wants to read about any of it.

I started reading Demons a few days ago, which Haruki Murakami had described as "a book written by someone possessing a 'mental filing cabinet' filled with observations of interesting human behavior." My friend Balckwell brought up a simple example of this that I've already seen happen several times in the novel. Stepan Trofimovich, who "speaks French like a Parisian", intermittently looks in mirrors and says such phrases as "je suis un simple dependent," and "je suis un broken-down man," usually directed at his as-yet-unnamed confidant, who serves as our narrator, who, much like Luke in The Book of Acts, doesn't really play much of a role in the story, often seeming to fade out of existence only to suddenly remind us he's still there with a first person pronoun or strange personal-anecdote.

When I read this book, I'm overcome with desire to somehow write like this. Then I think of what Orwell wrote in his essay Inside The Whale, a review of Tropic of Cancer:

"That is the penalty of leaving your native land. It means transferring your roots into shallower soil. Exile is probably more damaging to a novelist than to a painter or even a poet, because its effect is to take him out of contact with working life and narrow down his range to the street, the cafe, the church, the brothel and the studio."

Even speaking Mandarin, I can't understand Shanghainese. When I pass by old men and women talking amongst each other, I have no idea what they're saying. Even when I do overhear people speaking Mandarin, it's much more difficult for me to gather what they're talking about from the fragments I hear than it would be if those fragments were in English. What I'm left with is the occasional "perfectly overheard sentence", which is often some short philosophical exclamation using relatively simple language heard in complete isolation from whatever context it was spoken in -- like a middle aged man in a white shirt and tie I passed once who, hands on his hips, said "这个世界有很多无法解释的事" ("This world contains many things that can't be explained"). Unfortunately there's only so much one can do with such statements.

I'm not sure why I need to look at every experience I encounter as potential material for some novel or other work of art. It seems a bit unhealthy. One imagines the great novelists of the past as living their lives without any thought of their work except for when they're actually at their desk working on it. How do people who don't make art perceive their experiences? It's all such a mystery to me.



It seems I've come down with one of those mild colds that's just bad enough to be annoying, without providing any of the lovely delirium that true debillitating illness can give. My sore throat and headache woke me up around 6:30, and I haven't been able to fall back asleep. I took a walk to the convenience store at the entrance of the longtang my girlfriend lives in, stumbling beneath new pale green leaves emerging out of the branches of the 80+ year old trees that inhabit this "extra-settlement road" -- much thicker than the comparitively youthful trees that line the two other roads parallel to it.

I bought a loaf of bread and brought it home, ready to cherish the morning alone in silent solitude (my girlfriend usually sleeps in until around noon), but as soon as I finished breakfast there was a knock on the door. I opened it to see the landlady, who was as surprised to see me as I was to see her. She asked where my girlfriend was, and I said she's sleeping. She asked me to wake her up. Apparently my girlfriend had scheduled for a technician to come this morning to look at the kitchen sink, which has been leaking the past few weeks. As is her wont, she completely forgot. She got dressed and now she's in the kitchen chatting with the landlady as I hide in the living room, telling her about all her anxieties and digestion problems. After taking a look at the pipes, the technician went out to buy some materials, so it's just the two of them. Now that the dog's stopped barking, I wonder if I should open up the living room door and remind everyone of my presence. That, of course, would create a moment of awkwardness, so I'll probably continue sitting here. As soon as I wrote that sentence though, all such sentiments were made moot, as my girlfriend opened the door and tried to convince the landlady to sit down on the sofa. She refused, which is probably for the best. My girlfriend's sofa cover has a picture of a blue-haired anime girl raising her shirt above her breasts so that her nipples, hidden by bandages, are just barely exposed. If the landlady saw it, I'd feel the need to apologize for exposing her to depraved nerd imagery, and then my girlfriend would get angry at me for being a coward.

This is my third day of illness, and the second night of inadequate sleep. During the first night, I decided to buy Picotron, which I'd only just found out about. Despite being a long time Pico-8 user, it never occurs to me to use social media for its most practical and utilitarian purpose of keeping notified on the going ons of people like Zep who actually do things with their lives. I'm always a metaphorical two weeks late to everything. During that first night I tried a few games people had uploaded to the BBS, though it doesn't really seem like people have had enough time to make anything substantial yet. It mostly just first experiments in making windowed applications. My headache made it difficult to concetrate, so I didn't get around to making anything either. Of course, due to Picotron's nature as windowed environment, it can be a world one can just exist in. You can spend time in this pixelly desktop without necessarily having to either be making games or playing them. For instance, I'm typing these words you're reading now into notebook.p64, Picotron's built in text editor. It reminds me of my first "digital diary", kept on the skeleton of my brother's old computer. Once we got a newer computer to put in the living room, the old computer became mine to do what I pleased with. For a few years I used it as is, with Windows XP on it, but when I was 16 or so and had spent enough time on the internet in the presence of nerds, reading them write about Linux, I figured that maybe I could bring new life to this old computer by installing a linux distribution on it. So for the next year or so I had Debian installed on that computer, using it only to run emulators and maintain the journal I kept in gedit. Despite it being impossible for anyone else to read what I wrote, I experimented with pretending I was a real cool guy, using all sorts of metaphors and wordplay that I'm sure I'd find obnoxious now. Being confined to this computer in my room that was more like a game console made writing my diary feel like checking into Animal Crossing or taking care of a digital pet.

Having this brand new environment/tool makes me a little depressed. All sorts of pixelly creations that wouldn't have been possible or made sense in Pico-8 are now attainable. Yet after further contemplation, I realize that all of the ideas I have for higher resolution games/applications in windowed environments are quite complicated and would take tens or hundreds of hours of work to accomplish. The momentary joy I felt in seeing Picotron's alpha release and realizing I can get in on something on the ground floor (something I very rarely experience) was instead replaced with a sense of dread -- suddenly I have another niche digital hobby I have to devote a massive amount of time to. There's this sense that if I can get working right now, I can make something big and deep with Picotron while there's still not that much software for it, and a bunch of people will engage with my weird nonsense who otherwise wouldn't. Is that something I need or want though? What about the essays and short stories I've been researching and writing? What about the band it seems I've started? What about my attempts to increase my classical Chinese reading ability? What about mathematics? Unfortunately, it seems I have too many hobbies. I focus on each one for a few days at a time, unable to make much progress at any of them.

I wish I could have just one hobby. What would it even be? To return to video games, which seem to have become a recurring Saddleblasters theme as of late, I wrote this sentence in my iPhone notes app two days ago: "I wish I could turn myself into a guy obsessed with 3D action, devoting all my time to designing new ways to control space, coming up with combos and dodge ideas, or planning 3D dungeons to navigate." This was written after feeling depressed and starting up the Switch port of No More Heroes, which I had bought years ago but never actually played. Suddenly I was engaging in mid-2000s character action, swinging beam sabers around and dodging guys in suits brandishing more conventional swords. I realized that 17-year-old wannabe writer me, trying to be a cool guy in my digital diary, had been channeling Travis Touchdown without realizing it. Back then I had the brief dream of playing a whole bunch of games, learning all there is to learn about them, then making my own artisinal games. At some point in the process, rather than perfecting existing genres and gameplay mechanics, I got more interested in trying weird experimental stuff, so the 3D action dream remains unfulfilled. I've hardly even played that many 3D action games. The reason the idea of 3D enticed me so much was that I had skipped the whole PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, when 3D action had really become fully canonized and mature. My personal experience with 3D ended with the PS2, which marked a somewhat awkward phase where massive gameplay innovations were still happening and there were still B-tier studios making clunky but innovative perverted action games. I suppose it's an exaggeration to imply these sorts of games don't exist anymore -- they clearly do, and in fact a lot of them are Chinese, so I suppose the 3D action dream is still in reach, if only I could learn how to actually program 3D graphics then convince the people who make these things to hire me and sponsor my visa.

A few weeks ago I attended a screening of an Indonesian noise documentary at Trigger. Junky of Torturing Nurse and boss of Trigger has apparently been interested in Indonesian noise for years, as he wrote a long article about it back in 2019. One of the performances in the documentary had some crazy abstract wireframe 3D animation going on in the background. Seeing this, I was struck with an idea: Maybe if I make a game about Junky, he'll be my friend. So when I got home, I opened up Blender and made my first ever 3D model:

Once I was finished I was too embarrassed by the result to actually think of showing it to him. I'm also not really sure what kind of game this would be. Maybe I'd model all the effects pedals and wires he uses, taped to his makeshift cardboard pedal rack. I could make them real big, so that the guitar pedals feel like buildings in a little city. Obviously there'd be harsh noise playing in the background. Maybe virtual Junky would run around wildly gesticulating and bodyslamming people, just like the real life Junky during his performances.

Of course, making a video game about someone I see every week and who would probably be perfectly willing to talk to me if I just opened my mouth is probably one of the weirder ways to make friends. So maybe it's best if my Torturing Nurse game remains as yet another one of my unaccomplished ideas. Junky of course doesn't need me for a friend, and it's perhaps unnatural for me to be friends with this guy from across the sea that, for many years, I knew only from old blurry Youtube videos.

Last Saturday I had a performance at Trigger with my bassist friend Yu, which Junky watched from the corner of the room, with his hands in his pockets. It's so sad we live in a world where all videos are crystal clear, even those taken from a phone. Nothing is left to the imagination. Everything is exposed. It was nice to be able to jump around and roll on the floor and scrape a Shamisen plectrum against my guitar strings until they snapped. I wish I was less inhibited though. Whatever youthful vigor I once had has been wasted.

I keep feeling like I missed out on all the cool experimental Chinese rock music of the mid-2000s. I had a brief conversation with one of the more well known people whose been in these circles for awhile, whom I will not name, and he mentioned that the people still around performing at these events are the same people from 15 years ago. He said that sometimes younger people come along, but they usually don't stick around very long. So when I watch old videos of Torturing Nurse, I wonder if all I'm seeing is the old man shadows of whatever dreams people had back in 2007. Maybe this is just because I'm looking for coolness in the wrong places, stuck in equating it with rock and noise, unable to open my mind to more vibrant scenes dominated by people under the age of 30. Or maybe I'm only capable of liking stuff when it feels otherworldly and beyond my reach.

Another side effect of Chinese noise being all the same people for the last 15 years is that everyone knows everyone else, and everything knows the whole history of their tiny scene. I feel like an invader when I show up to these events and listen to conversations among old friends. I'm this person who wants to know all the history there is, but who is scared of asking any questions. Some scenes have books and copious articles readily available on the internet that someone like me can read to their heart's delight -- but sometimes history only exists in the memories of these people I'm too nervous to talk to. So I sit in its peripherary, thinking about it, without ever really being able to understand any of it. (Though I should note that in the case of Chinese noise, a lot of that history HAS been written down (which is the only reason I know any of it). I want to make a bibliography page at some point that collects a lot of the writing I've found helpful in one place.)



I woke up this morning at 10am filled with anxiety. I have a class at Fudan a 4pm. Since I live on the other side of Shanghai, I have to start getting ready about 2 hours before the class starts. Somehow my waking brain did the 2 hour subtraction twice, and I thought I had to start getting ready at noon, which would only give me two hours (less than that when I factor in the various rituals I need to perform to wake up) for whatever nonsense I planned for the morning. Two hours doesn't feel like enough anymore. I'm not sure if it's that I've become less efficient, or if the various activities I've dedicated my life to have become more time intensive. A two hour movie would still seem quite long to me, but it comes to writing or studying, two hours hardly feels like enough time to get started. It's all irrelevant though -- my morning purification on the toilet put me in a calmer mental state, and I realized I actually have four hours, not two. I can proceed through today at a slightly more leisurely pace.

My class is on stacks, which are one of those concepts in mathematics that exist at the edge of comprehensibility, describable only through pages and pages of categorical constructs. I've accepted that my time as a graduate student will only a brief foray into the world of math, and soon it will end, and I’ll go on living the life of an imbecile. This has helped me maintain some level of interest in math. I need to soak up the weirdest, most confusing, and most abstract mathematics possible while it's possible for me to devote multiple long hours to it every day.

During yesterday's class, after finally having defined a stack five weeks into the semester, our big-glasses-wearing professor announced our goal over the next three weeks is to prove that the moduli space of curves of genus g is an algebraic space (more general than a scheme, less general than a stack) -- three weeks to essentially do nothing but manipulate language. Category theory is often referred to (affectionately) as "Abstract Nonsense". It's both an insult, and literally true. By proving an arguably concrete geometric object like the moduli space of curves meets the criteria of some abstract categorical object like algebraic spaces, we haven't really done anything new or revealed anything about the nature of curves. One hopes that eventually we'd use this new convoluted language to prove new results about the moduli space and perhaps understand it better. Though like I said, I'm not here to become a mathematician -- I'm here to witness masterful usages of this "Abstract Nonsense" and see what reactions my soul produces when I stare deep into the abstractions. To sit in the back of the room, observing this slightly too trendy young professor as he brings us through the darkest corners of 20th century mathematics is enough for me.

About a year ago I heard a bunch of people on the internet suddenly throwing all sorts of Algebraic Geometry vocabulary around and talking about Topos Theory of all things. It turned out that Cormac McCarthy had apparently written a math novel) and then proceeded to die shortly after publishing it. I haven't read it (and who knows if I ever will -- I have some weird aversion towards Cormac McCarthy), but it made me suspect that maybe if I can find an appropriately weird perspective to write about math from, maybe people will read it. A few weeks ago Kraehen followed me, who is another graduate student in mathematics from China, which suddenly made me self-conscious. I look at all of my classmates, and they're lives all revolve entirely around math. I can't really imagine them having a weird personal website. Yet Kraehen proves I'm not particularly unique, and she seems to be a much better student than I am. Maybe my attitude of just being a passing traveller through Algebraic Geometry is irresponsible. I'm wasting the resources invested in me so that I sit at my desk and dream in public.

I have several different essays that are all sort of complete, but they need to sit on my hard drive and ferment for awhile before I post them. In the meantime, this record can serve as a preview of what's to come.

I decided rather than grumbling about games, I'd try to play a handful that do something artistically meaningful and write about them. So I wrote a review of All Our Asias that I'll be posting soon enough, but the game made me so depressed and hopeless about the artistic potential of video games that I almost gave up on the project entirely. After some reflection, I decided to focus on older games for now rather than trying to play "artistic indies". I'll come back around to newer stuff eventually. I want to play some of the Yeo games (Arrest of a Stone Buddha looks the most interesting to me), Night in the Woods, and perhaps most of all Pathologic 2, which has been evangelized over and over by one of the more prolific users on the forums I post on. In the mean time, I started Tail of the Sun, which was absolutely the right decision. It is very much the antidote to All Our Asias. Without any apparent aspirations to say anything, it contains a world of contemplation. It still hasn't convinced me that video games have anything approaching the artistic potential of, say, film -- but at least it's made me more optimistic. Await my review for a more detailed discussion.

There's a certain sort of game I wish I could luxuriate in, but I'm not sure they exist in any great quantity. I want "sociological" games that explore some small cast of characters, the relationships between them and the society they exist in, without being embedded in some grand plot. Saying something about "the big" through intense focus on "the small" (a theme that this blog will be exploring in far more detail in coming weeks). There are, of course, countless films that could be described this way, the works of Tsai Ming-Liang, Fruit Chan, Jia Zhangke and Zhang Lu just to name a few Chinese-language examples of directors I adore. When I watch these, I'm always asking myself why there aren't games like these. Thinking abstractly, games seem like the ideal medium for such a sociological approach to art. They allow for free observation of characters from a variety of viewpoints in a non-linear fashion. Spatial relations in particular, a point of focus more prominent in these "sociological" films (Tsai Ming-Liang is the king of this) than in mainstream films, can be explored in even more depth in games. Simply being in control of the camera as we explore these spaces completely changes what can be communicated. However, the only game I know of that actually tries anything that compares to the works of the above directors is Chulip, and even then this seems somewhat accidental. Of course, I'm not an expert on games. I suspect there are more out there, perhaps individual titles embedded in long series. Yakuza 3? One of the Harvest Moon or River King games? The indie games I cited above? It's just, games are too focused on being fun, which often means being positive. Games like Majora's Mask which do have you observing ordinary people going about their lives, and which could serve as an excellent template for the kind of "sociological game" that I have in mind, don't really seem to want to ask too many questions about who they're examining. If anyone has suggestions for games to look at, I'd be happy to hear them.

Something I'd like to try, as I review older games that try to do something artistically significant, is to also review films, asking over and over "how can games learn from this?" It would be a good excuse to rewatch some of my favorite movies.

I started writing about Pizzicato Five quite snarkily a few days ago. I know that we're all about positivity here on the indie web, but I've always had the somewhat perverse dream of being an articulate yet trollish writer who manages to viscerally desecrate all that is held dear in ways that can't be ignored, that are written from a place of even deeper understanding than that which the most ardent fans possess, and thereby launch critiques that actually hurt, that make people truly angry. Pizzicato Five seemed like one of the rare topics that I'd might actually be able to do this on. When I first started listening to Japanese music as a teenager, any time I mentioned it to an older internet user, they'd bring up Pizzicato Five. They're a band that teenagers continue to discover and fall in love with decades later. I'm quite familiar with their whole discography, and I think I know more than a little about the whole genealogy they descend from. Yet there's something about them that bothers me, even disturbs me. I figured that maybe I could try to articulate it in a sort of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm sort of way that makes people feel indicted and weird for liking them -- though I just don't have it in me. Every attempt at anything resembling cruelty turns into a profession of admiration. I wish I could be a cool person that can just make fun of things. Instead I have to make everything so much more complicated.

To be clear, this desire to troll comes from somewhere deeper than merely wanting to hurt people's feelings. I feel like a lot of the internet writing that has affected me most positively has been trollish bad faith takes that I took a little bit too seriously, awakening in me "the great doubt". I suppose everyone's reactions are different, and one brings enlightenment for one person only makes another person hopeless and sad. I seem to often find myself in the minority, feeling isolated by what others find warm and friendly, and feeling renewed vigor in spaces that are hostile to me. Maybe at some point we're investigate that tendency in more detail.

I've expressed similar hopes in the past to return to whatever topic is at hand when I'm older, more knowledgable and more prepared -- though that was often a cop out. I've never actually believed I'd ever learn anything meaningful or gain new perspectives. Yet, somehow I really do feel in the last year of writing this website something has miraculously changed and I actually can revisit some themes explored in the past. It's not that I have any new mental tools. Maybe I just feel bolder.

The other piece I'm writing, which has gradually spiraled into something much larger than I ever hoped it to be, is about "canons". My friend Balckwell has talked to me before about his own personal canon, a handful of books he's read closely and which he can consult as a point of reference when engaging in something new. When he said this to me, the actual contents of his canon was all somewhat vague, but he's since updated his website and now has a section that explicitly tells you what's inside Balckwell’s canon. Similarly, Suboptimalism has a section of his website with a bunch of reading lists, one of them in particular being 'my "canon"'. There's a lot to be said about the difference between a personal canon and merely one's personal favorite books, though let's not get into that for now. I figured I'd try my hand at putting together my own canon, but of course nothing is simple in the world of the Saddle, so instead what we've ended up with is a novella that says nothing clearly -- and at best is a response to a certain Du Fu poem. In the days leading up to me publishing this essay, I encourage the more devoted Readers of The Saddle to open up your Du Fu anthologies and try to guess for yourself which poem the essay will be centered around.

Finally, there's a piece that meditates on "that spring feeling" I mentioned in the last record. Perhaps, more than anything else on this website, it can serve as a brief introduction to me, this stranger on the other side of the internet whose words you've been reading for who knows how long.

After getting these two long self-indulgent explorations of the darker corners of my psychology out of the way, I'd like to do some more airy "sketches of the city" sort of writing. It's spring now, which means I'm filled with a desire to go outside and observe. Maybe I'll bring the Snapshots section back.

In other news, I started Kafu Nagai's Geisha in Rivalry the other day. It's very short, so I'll probably finish it soon. It's become apparent that Nagai might very well be the perfect writer for me. I'm not sure why it took me so long to read him. I'll try A Strange Tale from East of the River next.



Today felt like an inflection point. It was 20 degrees celsius, and it will be even warmer tomorrow. Over the next week there aren’t any forecasted highs below 15 degrees. I guess it’s time to start preparing myself for all those “spring-time” thoughts I’ll soon be having: walking beneath tree lined streets, wet with the remnant of last night’s rain, on my way to the elevated metro station, from which I’ll be able to observe seas of carnage and steel frames rising out of the rubble — all the while pondering the meaning of spring in the city.

I’ve been frustrated lately. It’s one of those periods where I think a lot, but don’t have very much writing to show for it.

It’s fine to be engrossed in thought, but if none of that gets written down, was all that thinking for not? This is also what leads me worry about the form of my writing. If all I’m writing is meandering diary entries, never elevating to anything more, who’s going to be reading this a year from now? Me? Even that seems unlikely — I have a million other things I’d rather read.

If my writing is bad, then it might as well not exist. No one will be able to wade through it all.

I do want people to read what I write. Whenever I update less frequently, I get worried people will forget about me. That worry leads to posts like this one: blind stumblings towards anything that will take me out of this anxiety. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write about. In the week+ since I last updated, I’ve written nearly 10,000 words — but those words are sadly scattered across a dozen topics, and I don’t know where to even begin cleaning them up. What makes it frustrating for me is that, each of those topics, I have so much to say about. That abundance of material, rather than finding its way into my writing, piles on top of my body, paralyzing me under its weight.

Part of the issue is that the stuff I’m interested in lately doesn’t really like anything someone would hop onto a Neocities site to read about. No one cares about what I have to say about Tang dynasty poetry. If they’re interested in that, there are people who have devoted their lives to studying Chinese poetry and have written far more about it at a deeper level than I ever could.

I wish I could describe life in this city using beautiful sentences. Failing that, then I at least hope I could write sentences that create new worlds of language — worlds that could never be rendered in any visual or tangible form. Think Gogol’s nose from the story of the same name — in one moment it’s just a nose and in another it is (without any moment of “becoming”) a well dressed gentleman sitting in a carriage. Unreal realities.

This diary-like writing doesn’t really accomplish any of that. I’m not sure if it’s even serving as preparation for some hypothetical future of good writing. But lately, whenever I try to have a goal in mind as I sit down at my desk and write, it’s just too exhausting.

Maybe I need to go back to spending hours writing a single eight word poem.

As a teenager, before I knew anything about the Japanese language, I read the Kerouac’s introduction to his haiku:

“American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don't think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again...bursting to pop.”

Something about this bothered me. It didn’t seem right to ignore formal restrictions completely. I did some googling and learned the difference between mori (what haiku are actually counting) and syllables (the unit that makes most sense in English). I had the idea of counting stressed syllables as two “mori”, even though this isn’t a perfect linguistic analogue to Japanese haiku. In this scheme, “Knocking twice,” for instance, could serve as a first line. “Knock” and “twice” are both stressed, giving a “mori” count of 2 + 1 + 2.

This led to even tighter restrictions and also encouraged careful thought about the placement of stresses in a line — the heart of more traditional English language poetry. I remember being very satisfied with some of the haiku I ended up writing this way, but of course none of my notebooks from high school have survived. We therefore have no evidence that they were any good.

If I have something to say, maybe it’s best to say it as indirectly as possible. Typing up every thought I have then transmitting it to the world somehow devalues the thoughts that are actually any good.

Good ideas get buried in a sea of words — especially since I feel nervous about repeating myself too much.

Since I’m trying to become someone different, I’ll go ahead and repeat myself right now: in Saddlenet #002 I pondered a line from Soseki’s Grass Pillow (a book filled with haiku): “Yet here this young man sits, beside an artist for whom the sole value of human life lies in dreaming.”

Could I allow myself to care about nothing beyond gathering material for dreams, then it’s not so much the coherence of ideas that matters — what’s most important is words that pierce through the veil of rationality into the subconscious. That’s how I wish I could write!

In the meantime though, here’s today’s attempt at a haiku:

Black vines of
Ivy clutch to
The highway.

(2 + 2 + 1 / 2 + 1 + 2 + 2 / 1 + 2 + 2)



After chanting "period" (月经) 108 times every morning and every evening for the past few days, Xiaoxi's menstrual cycle has finally made visible its monthly recurrence, despite being very late and terrifying us all. I remember when I first met her, she mentioned that her period was incredibly regular, which was the sort of statement I'd previously assumed only women in Murakami novels make upon meeting a guy for the first time. It seems my presence has messed all that up, and now her period has veered off into the shadows, a trajectory beyond calculation or prediction.

By the time I first had sex, I was already well aware that the stereotypical guy in a nightmare story a woman might tell about horrible past encounters refuses to wear condoms. This of course inspired me to be the opposite of that. I had this vague notion that I should be a condom guy -- the sort of person who spends at least an hour a day enthusiastically researching condoms, learning their specs, on the journey to find condom perfection, and in the process accumulating an end table drawer full of passable candidates, like a guitarist buying effects pedals. in retrospect, this dream seems a little creepy, but that's just par for the course when it comes to my childhood ideals. I do have to say though that being a condom guy in China seems a lot easier than in America. The selection they have at the average convenience store here is already enough to give one month of material for exploration. When I worked at 7-Eleven in America, I remember us only having three varieties of Trojans. Maybe this is one of those trickle-down benefits of the One-Child Policy?

Anyway, being a condom proponent somehow results in deep paranoia regarding condom failure, so, despite all our precautions, in the back of my mind I'm always wrestling with the possibility that this is the day Xiaoxi's been impregnated. I imagine the ghostly creatures my sperm could grow into attached by umbilical cord to Xiaoxi. I look up at her engaging in her daily routine, smoking cigarette after cigarette (she's trying to quit), wearing her massive white Playboy shower robe while angrily replying to messages from her friend that looks like a Final Fantasy character, then I imagine an alien-demon floating inside of her (I mostly picture a form resembling the dead cricket I found in a pool of cricket blood beneath my pillow when I was 13), sucking away her life force, reforming her body, injecting strange hormones into her bloodstream. This is all too much for me.

Xiaoxi on the other hand is perfectly fine with the idea of a baby growing inside of her, but she wants to wait until her dog Xiaohei dies so that there's the off chance her baby will be Xiaohei's reincarnation. If all goes to plan, that won't be for another 8 years or so. Maybe by then, if all of these worries are still relevant to us, I'll have worked out a plan to delay things even further until these problems finally have no practical meaning.

For many years I saw my inability to write every day as a personal failure, something I was constantly trying to rectify. Then, about two or three years ago, I accepted my inconsistency in writing as an unavoidable manifestation of my nature as an inconsistent being. I have too many things I need to do -- too many ideals -- and I can't bear to part with them. If I focused on, say, just making games, and everything else in my life was put in the service of making games -- well life would feel too shallow. The same could be said if I made the wise decision of fully devoting myself to mathematics, a choice my identity as a mathematics grad student is constantly urging on me. All of the other ways I've tried to engage with the world would feel lost -- chief among them writing. So I need to keep writing, but I don't have the time or resources to make it my chief preoccupation.

I've tried to be a writer in the past. Some of the things that happened to me -- some of the experiences I had sitting in front of my computer screen, typing -- felt valuable to me and changed me. I cherish them, but not in a way I can verbalize to others.

(In fact, this is a recurring problem I have. My descriptive arsenal isn't very well suited to dealing with that which I cherish. I learned how to write at a time when I felt like I had a massive metaphorical reading list of books, games, films, music and real-life experiences that I needed to soak in before I'd have anything worth saying. So I was writing about these things that were new to me. My writing continues to consist primarily of describing the new within a framework of my own personal past.)

I keep writing because it puts me in connection with all those past versions of me who were trying to come up with clever or funny words to fill each page with, and in the process accidentally stumbled upon the faintest shadow of true meaning. This is perhaps why I find it hard to write purely on paper. When I was a 14-year-old who had just started writing, I had the opposite problem. My first writing was lists in a tiny notebook my mom had bought me. My brother told me "The key to being a real smart guy is to compose a lot of lists." I'm not sure where he got this idea from. He was the only intellectual authority in my life at the time, so what he said became a self-evident truth in that way only completely obscure ideas can seem self-evident. I wrote lists about anime and lists about philosophy, all by pencil. Later on this evolved into little essays in my notebook, and a story about a middle-aged man who meets a pornstar he'd seen on the internet when he was a teenager, with a side-plot involving a mixup with the Roman gods. (Even as a teenager, I had settled on two kinds of narrators for my stories: delusional middle-aged men with too much time on their hands and cynical 30-something women with jobs they hate. Every time I start a story with one of these protagonists, it turns out terrible. Every time I can convince myself to use a different sort of protagonist, it turns out great (comparatively speaking). Yet my imagination continues to be stuck in these two archetypes.)

I tried to start a blog when I was 15, but I found it so hard to write at the computer. I had to write my posts on paper, then type them up, changing the sentences to be less awkward in the process -- the only form of editing I've ever really learned how to do.

Then at 17, the ideal of "a life on the internet" entered my brain (which is very different from merely writing a blog), and I started keeping a diary in notepad on my computer, in which I typed as fast as I could, making sure never to phrase a sentence in a straightforward way.

Maybe this is what taught me to finally touch-type. In middle school, I had a biweekly typing class -- but I rebelled against the idea of touch typing. The only touch-typers I'd been exposed to were old women (including our typing teacher), so I guess due to some latent sexism (I had not yet learned to wish I too were an old woman), I was very suspicious about "correct typing form". There was a grand total of an hour and a half per week that I was being observed in school, so that's when I touched-typed. As soon as I was at home, I'd go back to using my two index fingers to type at a leisurely but (in my mind) quite adequate speed.

I don't remember exactly when it happened, but I have documentary evidence that by the winter after I turned 17 and I'd already spent about 6 months trying to make my way in this new "life on the internet", I was touch typing.

It's this time period, writing emails every day (mostly to an internet girlfriend I met a month into this life on the internet), that I often find myself re-engaging with each time I write something new. I don't care about those lists I wrote in my little notebook and the stupid stories and blog posts I wrote by pencil and then typed up. It's when I was directly plugged, sitting in a plastic chair at a desk, face to face with my thoughts turned digital, that I feel brought back to. It's as though the gods only granted me a single year to write. To get around that limitation, I have to mentally transport myself back into that room, back into that mind space, if I want to write anything new.

This is why, if you carefully comb this blog for references to my past, I talk about being 17 the most. It's that version of me, with all its limitations and confusions, that I have to negotiate with to write anything. However, the more time I write consecutively, the farther I get from 17-year-old me. It's like he (it?) is sitting in that room in my parents' basement with the door locked. To get into that room and write I have to knock on the door and wait for him to let me in. Before sitting at the desk, he needs to log me into the computer. We also have to engage in social pleasantries. He asks me what I'm planning today, and shares a bit of whatever nonsense he's been thinking about lately. Once I do manage to get started, he comes over every few paragraphs to look at what I've written so far and offer a few comments. Eventually, though, he settles down into reading a book or playing Katamari Damacy, and I can pull myself away from his influence. All that's left is his background noise, which I can wear headphones to mostly cancel out. Once I've arrived at this point, I really can just fall into my own world -- the world of who I am now, living in Shanghai, a decade into the future -- and forget about 17-year-old me in Baltimore. But it takes so long to arrive at that point, and to maintain it I have to be writing constantly.

What makes this even worse is that in my daily life, I don't think about 17-year-old me. I accumulate so much other stuff I want to say. If I'm not writing every day, dumping it out of the tiny interlocking system of buckets that is my brain and into the massive ocean of the internet, I have too much I'm conscious of having wanted to say. It all feels interconnected, so I don't know where to start. This is paralyzing. Once I've gotten to this point, the only thing to do is abandon any of the plans I had and trust my instincts to improvise something else. This works in the sense that it allows me to freely create something with this limited time I have, but it is rather rare for my improvisations to lead me to write down whatever it is I'd been hoping to write about. So these desires for expression turn into regret, then shrink down like uneaten vegetables in the refrigerator, getting pushed back further and further behind newer groceries. By the time I unearth them again, all that remains is their mummified carcasses. To write about them at that point would mean becoming an archaeologist, which isn't my forte.

I went to Mt. She yesterday with my bassist friend Yu. If Tokyo has Mt. Fuji, a snowcapped mountain that sometimes emerges off beyond the horizon when you happen to be standing at a window with a view, then Shanghai has Mt. She, two tiny hills in Songjiang District with a Catholic church and observatory on top of it. The peak of the taller hill is apparently the highest point in Shanghai. There are copious trees and cliff faces, which perhaps allows one to imagine they're climbing a mountain, but the path to the top is completely paved. You're never out of sight from one building or another.

As we climbed Mt. She, we carried our guitars and portable amplifiers on our backs. We were looking for a nice woody clearing devoid of humanity that we could practice at. This is a change of pace from practicing at Mingshi, a tiny room filled with books, where the owner Xie Wang is always around, reading books and drinking beer. Though like I said, Mt She is quite heavily populated. Once we did start practicing, every ten minutes or so someone would walk by and look at us with an expression of befuddlement before continuing on their hike. If we really want to escape the human gaze and surrender ourselves to nature, it looks like we'll have to go even farther outside of Shanghai.



I wonder why I keep coming back to games. I don’t play them anymore, but whenever I’m left to my own devices for too long, I find myself either frantically writing notes on loose sheets of paper, trying to visualize some abstract tactile experience that I could never hope to actually realize in a playable form without spending way more time than I have available to me -- or, on the other end of the spectrum, I end up programming very ordinary game-like systems that feel interesting to me in some way.

To continue the theme of the last record-of-a-saddle, I’ve been looking through old-gifs on my computer and finding the artifacts of some of these attempts at games or systems. For instance, there was a brief period of my life that I was very sad because an old friend would repeatedly declare all the games I’ve actually finished unplayable and player hostile. This coincided with one of those phases I occasionally go through where I feel like I need to understand “games as they are”, which in that particular case manifested itself in me doing close readings of a bunch of early arcade games like Galaga. This got me fascinated in the curving enemy formations. I imagined that, were I an ordinary nerdy game designer who makes ordinary nerdy games that people like my friend find playable, maybe I’d spend all my time programming enemy formation systems. So I spent an afternoon on that, and came up with this (made in Pico-8):

Similarly, I spent too much time last year making an isometric room designer in Love2D, because it seemed like something somehow more valuable than the silly unplayable experimental nonsense that I usually find myself fantasizing about:

A representative example of the kinds of weird uncontrollable prototypes I find neat is Twin Biters:

You control the twins with the two analog sticks of a Playstation or Xbox controller. The left analog stick moves the purple twin and right analog stick moves the blue twin. Between them, there is an invisible umbilical cord, always pulling them back towards each other. You have to use their butts to devour mushrooms. Being such good friends, the twins refuse to eat mushrooms unless they can do so simultaneously, so you have come at the mushrooms in a pincer like formation while avoiding the tangerines being shot at you (tangerines are the twins’ least favorite fruit).

I never showed this to the friend who hates my games, but I’m sure she wouldn’t like this one either.

(My itch.io page is also filled with similar examples.)

So much of how I think about the world is by imagining everything in terms of games. When I saw my girlfriend Xiaoxi DJ for the first time, her two arms twisting around the knobs and turntables, I immediately imagined a much tinier version of herself with long stretchy arms turning those knobs. The arms became ears, and this turned into an unfinished prototype that doesn’t run properly in the browser (Unity’s sound effects apparently have all sorts of problems in WebGL).

I’m unfortunately an idea person, which means that all I can do is accumulate unplayable prototypes and carefully designed systems, each destined to never meet the other in the form of a “real” game (High Tension is the rare counter example). I’m not even sure I like real games. A pivotal experience for me was playing Chulip when I was 20, thanks to the repeated recommendations of Tim Rogers. I was completely unable to make progress in the game. Yet the suggestion of all these characters and places that perhaps had stories one could one day encounter continues to haunt me years later. Part of me imagines that maybe I can do something similar with all my unfinished games — though I doubt any of them are developed enough to reach that level.

This isn’t unlike the feeling of reading Mu-Chou Poo’s Ghosts and Religious Life in Early China. In trying to reconstruct ideas and beliefs from fragmentary references scattered across a massive geographic and temporal distance, one only encounters the shadows of these Early Chinese Ghosts. It’s not surprising that in reading about them, I experienced these ghosts in my mind as entities existing in a game, separated from me by the glass of a television screen. I wonder if this is some kind of illness — to experience everything I can’t touch as a video game.



We're in another week of rain, so once more I'm stuck inside and going crazy. This time I'm not alone. Xiaoxi is here, crouching on the floor, operating a tape measure and counting to herself.

Just now I was going through old documents on my Google Drive, and I found one from when I was 17 called "Some weird fantasy about Shanghai". I was naturally curious about what was inside, so I opened it.

It turned out to be a fictional short story about some people I knew. I described a person named "TT", whom I don't remember at all. From context clues, this was someone I'd met on the internet, living in Shanghai. I was meeting a lot of weirdos on the internet back then, from every city of the world, all of which who offered me their sofa if I ever found myself in whatever country they lived in. That's precisely what this "fantasy" was about.

The plot was that my off-and-on internet girlfriend who defined my life up to around the age of 21, whom I'll refer to as Y, went with me to Shanghai. We stayed at TT's apartment, which was apparently down the street from Loushanguan road station. Seeing that particular detail was a bit of a suprise to me. How did 17 year old me know about Loushanguan road station? That's about a 20 minute walk from where I live now. Well, presumably I'd looked at a subway map and picked a station at random. Or maybe in my conversations with this TT person, she mentioned it was the closest station to where she lived.

In the story, TT took me to opposite edge of Shanghai to explore, which I apparently imagined as resembling neighborhoods at the edge of Baltimore, with sidewalks covered in gum that's turned black over the years. I now know that the "ugly" parts of Shanghai are nothing at all like Baltimore. They're not covered in gum at least.

After we got home Y asked to have sex with me while TT went to buy groceries. I hesitated about this, because I didn't want Y to she me naked, but in the end I gave in. After it was over I asked Y "Does orgasming make you feel this way too?"

"What way?"

"Like you did something horrible to someone. Like you're a naked monster doing something disgusting, and everyone is watching."

"No," she said. "Orgasming doesn't make me feel that way at all."

When TT got back with the groceries, Y was still in the shower. TT didn't seem to suspect anything. After we ate our dinner (which I described as "beef" -- I wouldn't stop eating meat until about 4 months after this), we watched a movie together: Yi Yi. That's how the story ended. I'm not even sure I'd seen Yi Yi when I wrote this. I think I'd heard of it and wanted to watch it, but had only imagined what it was like based on a few stills I'd seen.

It was quite a strange feeling to read this, as I have zero recollection of ever having written it. It's important to mention that I had just started learning Chinese a few months before I wrote this. I still thought I'd only need a year or two to "become fluent", then I'd move onto some other language (probably Japanese, which I imagined I'd learn even more quickly). I still didn't really know anything about China at the time. Even though I had this internet girlfriend from China, I wouldn't go on to feel like I have a "special bond" towards China until I was 21, after she was more or less totally out of my life. (I shouldn't need to say that that special bond is completely in my head, and is positioned on the top of the list of problems I need to see a therapist about.) So when I wrote this, it was not at all a given that I'd someday go to China. It really didn't become a given until I'd already been there twice.

Besides this weird story, there's no small amount of other strange and confusing material from those days I could delve into. I was writing a lot back then. It felt too difficult for me to ever write something "real", so instead most of my writing was an exercise of one variety or another. I tried a bunch of different ways to tell a story, without actually having a story to tell. A lot of what I wrote just ended up being about sex. In these two respects, I do have to admire my earlier self. Now I do have no small number of stories I want to tell, feelings I want to convey and ideas I want to express -- but there's a certain unity in how I write that's been bothering me. I don't know how to experiment anymore. Moreover, I wish I could write about sex -- I have a whole bunch of aborted drafts on my computer that in one form or another talk about sex -- but I'm too embarassed to continue any of them.

So instead, we have to settle for the words of a me from nearly a decade ago. Back then, I don't think I'd imagined I would still be this sexually confused all these years later, after having actually had a non-negligible amount of sex with multiple people. I should have known, since that's what, like, every Murakami novel is about -- though I suppose my sexual confusion is a little different from his. The difference, I suppose, was back then I was fascinated by sex -- it was mysterious and far away. There were so many things I was fascinated by back then, and sex somehow became a metaphor for all of them. I wish I could be that fascinated by something again. I guess this is why I ended up living with the person I'm now living with -- someone who is decidedly not confused about sex. Her dream is to draw hentai for a living, yet she resides in a country where pornography is ostensibly illegal. Of course, it's not illegal enough to actually stop anyone from downloading it off the internet for free -- but its illegality does present difficulties for someone trying to make a career out of it.



The sky is blue and cloudless, with the faintest hint of smog as the train I’m in rushes past flat barren fields. There's also the occasional wind turbine and quite a few clusters of one or two story buildings in the distance. They look like old faded legos, except half of them have little diagonal solar panels propped up on top of them. My first thought was to compare it to the South Dakota I saw as back in 2022 I pierced through the northern part of the USA on my way to Portland, but South Dakota felt much more lacking in actual people. Along either side of the road there'd be fields extending to the horizon, sometimes separated by little strips of forest. All these fields presumably needed someone to maintain them, but there were hardly any houses. Here, as we pass through Anhui, these fields feel a lot more inhabited, even if I haven't actually seen a human being any time I look out the window. It's winter after all. I imagine everyone's indoors.

We're rolling from small town station to small town station. I'm on the high speed rail, but not the express train. These towns are very strange from an American perspective. As we approach, one sees a few tall residential buildings between 10 and 20 stories, but there's not really any commercial skyscrapers, and these apartment/condominium buildings aren't really arranged around a center axis, gradually dying out the way you'd see in a large city. Instead there’s just scattered haphazardly.

Between Suzhou and Nanjing, there were lots of hills (one might even say mountains) covered in think green forests, with the roofs of temples poking out near their peaks. At some point though, perhaps while I was sleeping, we crossed a certain line, beyond which the trees are leafless, the grass is brown and the land is flat, save for a few squat hills in the distance with massive power-line-supporting metal frames sweeping over them. I suppose this is the oft-alluded-to divide between the north and south. I'd certainly been aware of it, having spent time in both northern and southern cities, but this is my first time really noticing how sharp and sudden it is.

In the course of writing those three paragraphs above, we've already arrived in Xuzhou, which seemed so far away when I started writing. There are smoke stacks and and massive cooling towers next to the station, and a little bit in the distance a sign for 中国硅业: China Silicon. Now the train is rolling again and we're once more amongst hills, this time covered in pine trees.

The next major metropolis is Jinan, my final destination. That's where Xiaoxi's parents live, and where I get to spend the next few days feeling mildly awkward. Every time I'd gone in the past Xiaoxi's parents apparently complained to her that I didn't bring a gift, so this time I bought a few boxes of dried fruit and crackers. I made sure to pick varieties I'd never choose for myself, under the assumption that Xiaoxi's parents' taste is the precise opposite of mine. Unfortunately, when I sent her a picture of what I bought, Xiaoxi said my gift is pathetic, so I'll have to get something else for them tomorrow. That paper bag filled with snacks is stored above me in the baggage compartment. Every time I lean back and see the edge of its white handle sticking out, I feel a little embarrassed and wonder if I should just throw it away. Maybe a bad gift is even worse than no gift at all.

Moments ago we were in a barren land, then I turned my head just now and found us passing through a cavernous world of high rises, littered with cranes suspended above them, as though pulling these newly constructed buildings out of the ground. It felt like as though this tiny city had been made from scratch yesterday. Then it too disappeared, and now we're in a pitch black tunnel, but this train moves so fast. Before I was two words into the sentence describing it, we already exited it. That’s been a recurring theme as I write this. There’s not enough time to contemplate the world outside our window, this world we’re flying past.

It's not even 5pm, but I'm so sleepy. I originally planned to go to bed at 9 last night. I slept maybe 15 minutes, then woke up and spent the rest of the night sending messages to my bassist friend and another internet acquaintance whom I've never actually met. It turns out she’s going to Jinan too. She quit her job at Bilibili last year, and ever since she’s been wandering from one friend’s house to another. It seems she has friends littered across the entire country. We talked until midnight, when I finally tried to force myself asleep. This failed and I started reading Natsume Sōseki's Kusamakura, the story of an artist who goes on a journey to a mountain inn, hoping to think thoughts brimming with artistic feeling, but constantly disappointed by all the "vulgarity" that keeps managing to creep into these reveries of his. Finally, I fell asleep around 4 am, waking up around 8. 4 hours of sleep certainly isn’t very much. Hopefully I can stay awake for when we pass Taishan, which I've never noticed on any of my other trips to Jinan.

My first time hearing about Taishan was from a poem by Friend of the Saddle, Du Fu:



Here is a prose translation by David Hawkes, who I feel is one of the more controversial translators of Chinese literature. If you've read his translation of Dream of the Red Chamber, you know he likes to make Chinese poetry feel like it was written by an Englishman at the end of the 18th century. I changed the transliteration to pinyin to make it consistent with the rest of this website:

On a Prospect of Taishan

How is one to describe this king of mountains? Throughout the whole of Qi and Lu one never loses sight of its greenness. In it the Creator has concentrated all that is numinous and beautiful. Its northern and southern slopes divide the dawn from the dark. The layered clouds begin at the climber’s heaving chest, and homing birds fly suddenly within range of his straining eyes. One day I must stand on top of its highest peak and at a single glance see all the other mountains grown tiny beneath me.

The hills behind the smog have gradually grown larger and more angular. I suppose one might call them mountains now. The grass too has transformed. It's taken on an even thicker shade of brown. It's as though vortices of fibrous diarrhea ooze out of the base of the mountains, which one could imagine as volcanoes spewing out this endless haze. It'd make an excellent subject for one of my friend Yifan's oil paintings.

The inside of the train is so loud now. When I got on it was deserted. Shanghai was the first stop. The kids behind me are staring at their parent's phone, or maybe playing a game of some sort, echoing those goofy sorts of sound effects I know from Yinyin watching Douyin at 3am. I'm sitting right in front of the bathrooms, so people keep walking past me, pushing through the suitcases placed sideways on the floor, stacked against the walls opposite the bathroom doors. I guess the luggage racks filled up too quickly. The lady next to me is reading a book about Han dynasty portraiture, and once more I look out the window and see walls and walls of residential high rises with solar panels beneath each window. This time they're set against the background of a massive mountain, just behind the city. I'm not sure if this is Taishan, or just another mountain in the same range. Big ornate street lights line the highways. The sun is descends and its light grows more and more orange. We pull out of the city and are bombarded with copious amounts of shrubby, bended trees, like full sized bonsais poking out of the ground. The next stop is Jinan.

As always, I'm dreading what I'm going to say to Xiaoxi's dad when he comes to pick me up from the train station. He recently recovered from his second bout of Covid. I tried insisting that he stay home and rest, which was just an excuse to let me just take the subway from the train station to their house -- however his will is greater than mine, so he will come and pick me up, as he always does. We can only hope Xiaoxi is coming with him. I'll hand him my shameful gift and he'll say "oh", then I'll step into the car and we'll sit in silence on the way to their own high rise residential tower at the edge of Jinan.



The clouds started to break four days ago. I meant to write something about it at the time, but as soon as I put my hands on the keyboard, I found myself going on and on about something else — something that I hope to share with you someday.

I was out that day trying to buy a small enough screwdriver to turn Xiaoxi’s father’s Panasonic tape player’s hidden inner screws, imbedded behind the circuit board that Xiaoxi had desoldered. Xiaoxi takes some perverse pleasure in desoldering things — poking that metal probe into the anatomy of old electronics and watching the silvery liquid get sucked into the copper soldering wick. We were trying to change the tape player’s belt, but we hit a snag when we discovered there was an additional set of screws behind the circuit board that held down some circular piece of plastic hiding the belt. These screws were much smaller than the outer screws that we initially had to unscrew to open the case. So the tape player has sat on our living room table for the past few days.

Once Xiaoxi set off for Jinan, I thought that maybe I could buy the tiny screwdriver we needed and fix the tape player myself. I'd be a hero, bringing it back to Jinan as a surprise for Xiaoxi and her father. That’s what brought me outside, that day already half a week in the past, as the clouds broke and a few scattered stars appeared in the sky. Unfortunately I’m much worse at interacting with the innards of electronics than Xiaoxi is, so maybe I should stuff all the parts and tools into my bag and get Xiaoxi to finish fixing it while we’re there. But most likely, it will continue to sit here in Shanghai, without a human being in the house, waiting for our eventual return.

A few songs I’ve loved for years and have found myself relistening to lately. Though mostly of a quality that makes me a little embarrassed, but all the more reason to share them with my friends on the other side of the internet:

性的地狱 (Hell of Sex). I continue to feel silly that this is probably my favorite song ever.

我来自北京. He’s talking with some lady, alluding to some deep truth he dare not speak of tonight, then cries out in English “I was born in Beijing!” I imagine finding myself at a party, withholding my own dark secret: “I was born in Pittsburgh!” One time Xiaoxi walked past as I was listening to this song and angrily whispered to herself "He sure doesn't sound like he was born in Beijing..."

电视机 (TV). I haven’t had a television in years. Sometimes I’m filled with faint memories of turning the TV on and exploring whatever mysteries lied within.


100 100. I really like older Won Fu (旺福). See also 水蜜桃 (Peach). Here’s an attempt at a translation of the opening line: “A butt-like appearance -- but to speak of its taste, it certainly doesn’t have the fecal flavor that surrounds one’s butt.”

While we're at it, let's just insert a mini-list here of other Won Fu songs I like: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

安定的笑容. I have a very happy memory of listening to this song on repeat, over and over, as I drove home one night from a very sad day in Washington D.C. -- a city that, in my heart, is the capital of nothing but regret.

快乐玩 (Happy Play). Here’s a translation of a line from the song that I posted on Bluesky a while back:

“A person from a dream appears on the road before me. All through the night I ponder how I can keep unpleasant thoughts from flashing before my eyes.”

好极了 (It’s great). I like the transition at "来一杯咖啡" ("Have a cup of coffee").

Angel Maybe.

Don’t Change Your Love. So that I might claim this list isn't just Chinese songs, here’s an American RnB classic.



The rain seems to have stopped. It’s overcast, but the ground is dry. Will I be seeing the moon soon? The last time I saw it, it was nearly full. That was before the rain started, over a week ago. The moon is rapidly approaching emptiness, I imagine. The lunar new year is on Saturday, which, finally connecting the dots, I realize must mark a new moon. I’m not sure if we’re going to get a cloudless sky before then.

Tomorrow I will go out — I will walk the streets from dawn to dusk — a flaneur. Today, however, is a house day.

I started reading another Japanese cat book yesterday: Hosaka Kazushi’s Plainsong. This was a complete accident. The title of the book and the blurbs I read made no mention of cats — yet just a few pages in, after explaining how he ended up living alone in a spacious two bedroom apartment in the suburbs, the narrator begins describing an orange tabby with whom he longs for friendship. The feelings felt towards this tiny cat lead to phone calls to an old classmate and friendship with the girlfriend of the highschool-dropout wannabe-filmmaker who inexplicably moves into the narrator’s house. The narrator doesn’t necessarily object to people he actively dislikes deciding to live in his house of their own accord. In fact, he kind of likes it. This is relatable to me. I yearn for the exact situation the narrator finds himself in. Some of the happiest days of my life were those when Mippy commandeered my bed and I had to sleep on the floor. More recently, friend of The Saddle, Fang Yue, slept over here, which gave me a reason to sleep on the sofa. That was quite nice.

The narrator remarked that his house in the suburbs was his first experience living on the ground floor. Before that he’d only had apartments several floors up in multi-story buildings. I suppose my situation is reversed. At the house my mom rented for many years in Baltimore, I could look out the window into the alley and see cats pass by. That was one of the joys of living alone with my mom. We were both deeply tuned into the happenings of the neighborhood cats, though we observed them at slightly different frequencies. My mom would bring in news from talking to the neighbors — whereas I would stare out the window at them during the day, while she was at work. When our own cat Luna went missing for a week, I went out stalking the alleys, peaking beneath the porches and crouching under parked cars, trying to find her. All of the alley cats were so fat. I’m not sure if it’s because Baltimore was infested with giant mutant rats, or if it was just because everyone over fed them.

The cement of the alleys where we lived used to be worn down to a slurry of loose rocks mixed with garbage. From my upstairs window I could look down at the black telephone lines, hanging like a ball of yarn over the rocks and filth. My mom led a (one person) campaign to cleanup the alleys. This, of course, ended in failure. In 2020, however, in the midst of the pandemic, they repaved the alleyway. If I remember correctly, this was either right before or right after a month long period where the city stopped collecting garbage. Too many garbagemen had gotten covid, so we had to take all our garbage directly to the dump.

Having windows on the first floor directly out to the alley, I could be at home all day and still feel loosely connected to the world. The library was a five minute walk, so in 2022, during the months leading up to my departure from America, I went there three of four times a week, just to sit amongst strangers and read. Now I live on the fourth floor, so far from any any alley cats, and the nearest library is a 20 minute bike ride away. I suppose that’s where some of the feelings of isolation I have come from. It could be that I’m just lazy. 20 minutes really isn’t that long. When I was commuting everyday for work (or even now when I have to commute to school (only once or twice a week)) it took nearly an hour both ways.

Plainsong isn’t the first Japanese book I’ve read about a guy approaching his 30s with a bunch of weirdos living in his apartment rent-free. I read The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside by Kazufumi Shiraishi a few months ago, another Dalkey published English translation of a book recommended by Mallet Under Heaven. The novel is a series of ruminations on Buddhism punctuated by arguments with the narrator Naoto’s primary girlfriend Eriko and graphic descriptions of sex with his other two girlfriends, single mother Tomomi, and Onishi Teruko, who is older and married. Xiaoxi, fan of all things pornographic, was quite interested in the book when I described it to her. There’s a Chinese translation (我心中尚未崩坏的部分), so maybe I’ll get her to read it so we can discuss it together. I’m of course trivializing the book when I describe it this way, as it’s not at all an easy book to talk about. It alternates between extreme relatability and total alienation, sympathy and disgust.

I never really know what to do with this particular genre of story where we are introduced to a handful of sensitively described female characters who are mentally abused by the observant yet narcissistic male narrator. I read on, fascinated by the characters, terrified of what Naoto’s going to say to them next. Yet somehow he patches things up each time, sharing with them a few moments of happiness before once again disappointing them. The exception is Mrs. Onishi, who is as cynical as he is, and who listens to Naoto’s stories as a sort of distant confidante, not unlike the reader. The first of these sorts of books I’d ever read was Hero of Our Time by Lermontov, though I suppose the protagonist Pechorin of that book did much more horrible things than Naoto, who is mostly just selfish. I also realize now, going over its plot in my head, that A Hero of Our Time was, more than anything else, a book about imperialism, related through the eyes of aggressor — though I certainly didn’t think deeply about this when I read it as a 14 year old, nor am I completely sure if Lermontov meant it that way. I’ll have to reread it sometime.

It must be noted that Naoto, much more so than Pechorin in Hero of Our Time, is quite capable of selfless care for others. He treats Haruka and Raita, a younger couple living in his apartment for free (the reason I brought the book up), like his own children, personally invested in their growth, hiding his depravity from them. Tomomi’s son Takuya is the reason he keeps coming back to her, despite his determination to break up with her once and for all. While some people are the object of his unwavering (always platonic) affection, his love interests somehow flicker between toys for him to play with, obstacles to be avoided, and, for brief moments, real human beings that mean something to him.

I’ll probably read Shiraishi’s other book in English, Me Against the World, next, after I finish Plainsong and before I get on the train and head to Jinan on the third day of the rapidly approaching year of the dragon. Let’s hope the smog in Jinan is as thick as it was the last time I was there. I always find the yellowish tint of the sky strangely beautiful — which seems like as good a metaphor as any for the feelings I had reading The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside.



Water drips from the brown needles drooping at the end of each branch of the massive coniferous tree outside my kitchen window. I thought pine trees were “evergreens” — yet whatever species of pine tree it is that populates our longtang seems to, on the arrival of winter, have the tendency of turning into a skeleton of the tree it once was. In early evening, three windows, arranged vertically, glow behind those branches. The middle one is half open, with towels hanging to dry behind it.

During the summer it would rain every day, but usually before the sun had set the clouds would clear and there’d be a few moments of sunlight. This week, however, has been a week of continuous darkness. Who knows when we’ll see the sun again. I’m starting to miss the sunlight sensation, which is something I’d never expected to feel. Normally the sunlight makes me feel dizzy and confused. But I suppose everyone needs a vacation now and then — even the sun.

I read The Guest Cat today, which friend of the Saddle, Mallet Under Heaven, recommended to me a few weeks ago. If I could summarize it in a sentence, I'd say it's about "The Melancholy of Renting." When I first opened the Amazon page Mr. Mallet linked me to, I saw in the “frequently bought together” pane two other books with “cat” in the title by Japanese authors. I scrolled through “More items to explore”, and saw Japanese cat book after Japanese book. I clicked on one of these, The Cat Who Saved Books, and was met with the blurb:


From the #1 bestselling author in Japan comes a celebration of books, cats, and the people who love them, infused with the heartwarming spirit of The Guest Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles.”

Apparently there’s a whole industry of translating books about cat by Japanese authors into English and giving them fancy delicate covers (perhaps started by Sōseki’s I Am a Cat).

I’m not really sure what to make of this, other than to wonder what other seemingly global objects, themes and experiences have or will be colonized by Japan? The Suboptimalist has a section on his website devoted to canned coffee, the vast majority of cans he’s acquired originating from Japan. Somehow being Japanese makes these cans seem more exciting than they would otherwise.

In the binary between cat-people and dog-people, I suppose I’d have to classify myself as a cat-person — however, this household of ours has only a dog, Xiaohei. As I read this short novel, about a man, his wife, his neighbors and a cat that visits their tiny home late at night of its own accord, Xiaohei and I sat on the sofa together, his body curled up and his nose rested on my leg. This strange, perverted, hyper-intelligent dog is the creature I happen to have a relationship with — a relationship I never chose.

When I finished the book and stood up, Xiaohei jumped off the sofa, looking just a tiny bit too excited. I assumed this could only mean one thing: he had to pee. One of the side-affects of the rain is that we can’t take Xiaohei out for walks. His skin is sensitive and if he gets just a little bit wet, he breaks out into some strange rash. This is why we can’t bathe him at home. No matter how hard we try to dry him, it always seems we don’t do it right, and the next day he’s scratching at his ears or licking his armpits.

On days he can’t go out, we lay pink pee-pads in the bathroom shower. I point at the pee pad and yell “Pee!” He looks at me, looks at the pee pad, looks back at me, then reluctantly walks over into the shower and starts peeing.

This time an ocean of yellow, steaming urine started flowing out. It seems he’d been holding his bladder for quite a long time. I’d tried to get him to pee earlier in the afternoon, before I had my 3pm shower, but that time he didn’t seem interested. Maybe he thought if he refused to pee I’d eventually take him out for a walk.

Xiaoxi came home at 10 after an all day photoshoot. We went to the fruit store together and bought four oranges. I thought about my relationship with Xiaoxi, and the narrator of The Guest Cat’s wife. Said wife writes in her notebook words like “It was small and white, with eyes wide open, like a bird striking a lighthouse,” which the narrator secretly peeks at when she’s not around. Xiaoxi, on the other hand, whispers beneath her breath about how my friend Mippy, whom Xiaoxi has never met, needs to break up with her boyfriend.

Later, while making dinner, the name of a tree that played a prominent role in the book — the Zelkova tree, with its rustling leaves — echoed in my head. I realized that if this had been a Chinese book and the name of the Zelkova tree was a compound of Chinese characters, I’d have looked it up the first time I’d seen reference to it and stared at a picture of it for a few seconds. Being an English word appearing in an English translation, however, I let the word pass through me. As such, it wasn’t until I finish cooking that I came to have a clear picture in my mind of what a Zelkova is (櫸 in Chinese, 欅 in Japanese, which appear to just be different forms of the same character).

Finally, I’d like to emphasize that, despite what the blurb copied above may lead you to believe, The Guest Cat is not heartwarming. If anything, it’s kind of creepy — but in a way that, as a bit of a creep myself, I find relatable.

With that, I bid you good night (or good morning).



It was raining today at noon, when I woke up. The daylight never came. I opened the curtains, and it was as dark as night. The neighbor on the other side of the balcony had their own curtains up and their lights on. I remember it’s an old man living there. He’s either bald or has his head shaved. I’ve seen him there before, leaning over, washing dishes — but today there was no trace of him.

Somehow, Beach Boys songs started emanating from Xiaoxi’s speakers in the living room.

I don’t really like Pet Sounds. The lyrics are silly. The arrangements are too much for me.

The only “Brian” Beach Boys album I really like is Wild Honey. All I can really say is that the lyrics of Let the Wind Blow are far closer to poetry than anything on Pet Sounds. It’s filled with words that rhyme with “oh”: “blow”, “grow”, “go”, “glow” and “snow”. That’s all one needs.

I’ve been (re)playing Dragon Quest Monsters, determined to finally finish this game I often cite as having great importance to me. Traversing the worlds of forests, rivers and mountains behind the traveller’s gates (which in the games mythology, are imagined as different layers connected by holes) has put me into one of those moods I occasionally find myself in when I think deeply about nature in the most abstract terms possible. That, of course, has led me to pick up Shanhai Jing, the Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经), which has some of the easiest Chinese of all those Pre-Qin books. Rather than envisioning the world as planes stacked on top of each other, Shanhai Jing instead views it as concentric circles. One keeps going 100 li, 50 li, 180 li in one direction or another, and along the way creatures ranging from very ordinary seeming fish to bald men with holes in their heart appear before your eyes, not unlike the random encounters of an RPG.

Monsters aside, what DQM has me thinking about, more than anything else, is plants. Maybe it’s the little leaf icons you gather. When they enter your inventory, they get called “herbs”.

Vegetation seems so far away from me — something that can only be simulated digitally. Of course, there’s a shelf of plants next to my bed, and I live in an extremely plant rich city. In another month or two, the world will be green again. Yet when I try to look at plants closely, or even try to touch them, I wonder if I’m really seeing them, or if I’m really feeling their leaves and stems. Perhaps the first time I ever felt this way was when I gazed at the cover of Derrida’s Of Grammatology at 3am, when I was in high school. The shadow of a tree emerges from red stamped characters. I never felt like I was really seeing the picture clearly. It also seemed blurry to me, no matter how close I positioned my eyes from it. I remember trying to do a pencil drawing copy of the painting, as a way of forcing myself to truly look at it — to finally see it clearly — though I’m not sure I ever succeeded.

Besides Shanhai Jing, thoughts of vegetation have me reading Shi Jing, the Classic of Poetry (诗经), which of course is completely incomprehensible to someone like me. I can open to a random page and see what must be the name of some species of plant I don’t know, a type of bird I can’t pronounce, a surplus of onomatopoeias, plucking and pulling, winds blowing, snow fogging, and so many 兮s.

I remember a lady on the internet telling me novels are for the lower class — the elite need only poetry. I tried to converse with her about Du Fu and Li Bai, but she only made fun of me. She told me if I want to understand poetry, I have to start from Shi Jing. From that point onwards, every time I read any poem that isn’t in Shi Jing, whether it be Western or Eastern, ancient or modern, I always feel a hint of shame. As the words on the title page of my edition say, “不学诗 无以言”: “Without studying poetry [i.e. Shi Jing], there is nothing to say.” Presumably this is a Confucius quote.

It’s just, whenever I try to actually read it, I encounter lines like 东门之池,可以沤麻. I look up what 沤麻 means, and I encounter the definition “to ret flax”, and then I have to look up what “ret” means. Suddenly I'm curious what flax — one of those plant names I’ve only encountered in writing — actually is. And then there’s the question of what “麻” refers to. I of course know that “sesame” is “芝麻”. Does that mean sesame is a type of flax? And then there’s the question of why we’re retting the flax? It turns out it's for making linen. So that results in me looking up how linen is made. Then in the next line we’re 沤ing something else: 伫. What is 伫? Ramie. And what is that?

Rather than studying poetry, I’ve found myself studying the names of a dozen different fibrous plants. Confucius, of course, anticipated this:

“[From Shi Jing] we learn the names of most birds, beasts, grasses and trees.”

I’m not sure how much knowing the names of grasses actually does for me though. I can look at pictures of ramie on the internet, but if I saw one growing in person, I’m not confident I’d recognize it.

This, I suppose, is why vegetation feels so abstract to me.

How does one read a poem and actually digest it? How does one see a plant and form a real relationship with it? Am I going to have to take another subway ride to the outskirts of Shanghai, take a bus to the nearest place agriculture is happening, and walk from field to field until I find one cultivating flax or ramie? Does anyone even grow either of these within 100 kilometers of Shanghai?

As a kid playing Dragon Quest Monsters, seeing these pixelated other worlds and hearing that dingy electronic music, I was filled with sensations that were new to me in their clarity, yet somehow familiar. A few days later, when I was stuck at church with a bunch of other kids, one of them started playing what must have been a Bach piece on the piano, the first few notes I mistook as being the music from Dragon Quest Monsters. I realized these feelings I was having playing that game weren’t created in a vacuum — they derived, somehow, from a tradition.

Many years later I’d listen to Bach and I’d find myself reading these Chinese classics that presumably are as close as one gets to the origin of the tradition DQM derives from. Does this allow me to finally understand those sensations I first felt as a kid playing video games?

Ok, I’m finished with asking these rhetorical questions. For now, I’ll continue thinking of ways I can get closer to plants (I am a vegetarian after all — every plant I’ve ever eaten is trapped in my body forever, screaming). I’ll let you know if I ever find something better than creating a pixellated pink creature who hops on bouncing grass beneath the snow.



After dark. A thick mist covers the skyscrapers that emerge above Xujiahui.

I stood at the elevator, which can be accessed directly from outside. It faces Huashan road, one of the major roads that converge at Xujiahui. Red lights of cars leaving us and white lights of cars approaching us reflected on the puddles.

I’d just spent the two hours before this listening to recordings of our practice sessions with my bassist friend. We were trying to locate the snippets we liked and edit them together into something longer.

Working in Audacity reminds me of being 14 and finding Audacity installed on my brother’s old PC in the cold, moist basement, which had become mine. I recorded myself playing my brother’s acoustic guitar and added all sorts of effects to it. This was the first music I made myself, and it was already in the realm of noise. At the time all I listened to was 60s and 70s rock. Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. I’d read descriptions of “industrial”, but I’d never heard it before, and didn’t really understand what it was. I tried to replicate the sound of my imagination. I tried to make something that hurt, though I didn’t really succeed.

The sound of cars passing in front of me mixed with the mental echoes of my guitar pick being dragged up the strings, and my bassists fingers finger sliding over her synthesizer’s ribbon keyboard. Then I remember the Pacific ocean, that Mippy took me to — the first and only time I’ve ever seen it. Even living in China, on the other side of the Pacific, I’ve never gone to see it. It was raining that day too. The grass was bright green, almost glowing beneath the fog. We stood on a cliff, rocks formed vertical islands off the coasts, and patches of sand emerged from the waves below us.

The sound of rain and the sound of waves — two water sounds, completely distinct.

The winding of the first three strings on the guitar feels like sand or rock when I drag my finger nails up it. The grainy sound of my bassist’s analog synthesizer feels like sand digging deep into my ear — sand that I can’t dig out.

Xiaoxi arrived and we took the elevator to the fifth floor, where we got hot pot. It was already midnight. After we finished we biked back home, the roads of Xujiahui empty. Xiaoxi is going back to Jinan soon, by herself. She keeps whispering to herself that before she gets on that train, she needs to return to Metro City, on the other side of Xujiahui, and taste once more the Japanese soft serve ice cream in the basement that she had had once, while Liuyi was eating candied cherries and Fang Yue drank coffee. The building we had our dinner at and Metro City — they both belong to Xujiahui — but to cross that massive congregation of six-to-eight-lane roads and get to the glowing glass sphere of Metro City — it’s quite a journey.

She still has a week or so. We’ll get her that ice cream, one way or another.



Overcast. When I stand at the balcony and look out my window, I see the asphalt below is wet, and ripples emerge from the puddles scattered across the alley. However, when I look forwards at the windown opposite us, or up at the sky, there's no visible trace of rain as far as I can see. I can't manage to pick out any droplets while they're still falling through the air.

I started writing a review today for Junkyard (废料场)'s collection Total Junk (全是废料). Rather than engage in my usual process of writing these things by computer, I'm going to try do this one entirely by hand.

I'm in part influenced by reading François Cheng's Chinese Poetic Writing, the introduction of which emphasizes the many different layers that make up the particular medium these poems were created in: e.g. they were often written on paintings (think Wang Wei's Wang River, which I alluded to not long ago when writing about Weinberger's 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei), these poems are constructed out of characters, which are in turn constructed out of radicals and strokes, and which simultaneously represent sounds and ideas. I generally only engage with Chinese characters through print media and produce them only through typing, which separates me from the calligraphic existence that these characters would be confined to in the days before the invention of print. English, of course, is also made out of (Roman) characters that, for a very long time, were only hand written -- not printed, and definitely not typed. To put is simply, when typing on the computer, every "d" is the same, so "d" is just "d". When handwriting, every "d" is different. "d" can just be "d", but there's room to let every "d", or at least one particular "d" have other purposes. We'll see if that actually has any impact on what I produce.

I've always enjoyed editing video (as opposed to shooting it). I took a photography class in high school that, to my surprise, also functioned as an introduction to video editing. The word "edit", when applied to video, means something very different than what seems to me to be the most common conception of editing a written text: taking a draft and changing parts of it, moving in the direction of "completion". For video, the editing process is where the original creation happens: pieces of raw material that have been "gathered" from nature are cut out and stitched together into total body. This is, in fact, more-or-less how I create my writing. I've always thought of this process as relying on the digital nature of my writing -- but there's really no reason I can't do all this editing by hand. So I'm going to try that. With this review, I want to see what happens when I create words with nothing but paper, pen, scissors and glue.