Beer League

I’m playing tennis again, which is a very good thing. On a somewhat related note, I think I’ve tasted the world’s coldest beer.

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A few weeks ago, I was in New York and luckily found myself on a clay court on the west side of Prospect Park. At that point, I had experienced the longest tennis hiatus of my life (13 months) since age 6. A few rallies in, I remembered that, hey, I really like to play. Thankfully, the thousands of hours I’d spent in lessons and being taxied around the Midwest to junior tournaments were not for null, and I retained a least a semblance of my old consistency and loopy topspin .When it came time to fly back to Saigon, I hastily shoved a couple of rackets in a giant checked bag and set my sights on hitting the courts of Viet Nam.

I sent some Facebook messages and, in no time, strapped my rackets to the back of my motorbike en route to a set of two run-down courts in the middle of the city. The modest pro shop was overshadowed by hanging palm trees and doubled as a parking garage for the bar next door. My hitting partner for the day was running late, so I used the time to coat every inch of exposed skin with sunscreen and warmed up a few serves. He arrived, and, five minutes into our warm-up I looked like I’d just taken a swim; in my excitement, I’d neglected to consider the fact that we were playing in the heat of the afternoon. Nevertheless, spirits were high. Squinting through the October sun, sweat dripping down my nose, I started to remember why I loved playing in the first place. As the day went on, errant forehands bound for Australia became fewer and further between, and I relished in that extra effort to dig up a low-and-flat crosscourt slap whizzing over the net.

All in all, I was beyond satisfied with my first South Asian tennis outing. Little did I know, however, that the best was yet to come.

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The tennis culture of Vietnam appears to be one carrying great whimsy. I’ve played in my fair share of men’s leagues, both formal and unsanctioned, over the years. Perhaps because I was always the young guy, intent on not intruding on other players’ time-honored traditions, these leagues, despite being overwhelmingly pleasant, seemed a little stuffy. This, too, may have also been the result of me being too young to partake in the after-match festivities. Now, however, I’m older, wiser, and carry a responsible craving for adult refreshments. It would seem I’m in luck; my first experiences, at two different Saigonese tennis clubs, included the expectation of not only a post-session beer, but one enjoyed on the very court dotted with my sweat. On day two, one court over, a group of four 50-something men finished up their set, rid themselves of shirts, and gave a loud cheers (Moc, Hai, Bai!) after cracking open a few Tigers.

They invited me to a cold one, and cold it was. In fact, it was probably the coldest beer I’ve ever had. There are few words to describe how cold this very beer was in this very moment. Cheers to old hobbies.

Musical Moments, 10/9

Very specific moments of songs that have been on repeat—part II in a highly-sporadic series.

  1. Sometimes all it takes to send you into a state of euphoria is a 3-note snare fill. In this case, it’s from Gilberto Gil’s ‘Palco’ (1981). Who knew mid-career Gil sounded so much like Earth Wind & Fire (or perhaps vice versa)? As Youtube commenter Melissa notes, “purest groove. greetings from france”.

  2. Perhaps the best day I spent in calendar year 2018 was made up of a solitary walk around Prague in crisp October air. I walked and walked; in fact, walk is pretty much all I did (I have the health app data to back it up). The soundtrack of the day was Khruangbin’s excellent record Con Todo El Mundo, from which I had previously enjoyed a few tracks but hadn’t granted a complete listen. Somewhere in the late morning, having just squeezed my way through Old Town Square, the song ‘Friday Morning’ came on. It starts slowly, but results in an addictive, empowering outro, which crept onto my headphones just as I rounded a sunlit corner overlooking the Vltava River.

  3. For a while, I had the immense luxury of being able to walk to the gym—living in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s pretty rare to be able to walk anywhere. It only took a few minutes to cross an inexplicably green-colored canal and dodge through a hectic street to get there, so I only had time for a song or two. More often than not, though, I found myself rewinding to this moment of perfectly-reverbed synth (1:50-2:20) in ‘Come Be Me’ by Helado Negro.

  4. I don’t do well with heat, but have nevertheless lived in a tropical climate for nearly a year. As such, there are certain artists whose music is absolutely necessary for me to find some moments of peace while I, both metaphorically and physically, cool down. Pretty often this is Mocky—lately, more specifically, it has been this break (that’s Miguel Atwood-Ferguson on strings for those keeping track at home).

Onboarding Session

Probably the only book of length I’ve read from start-to-finish more than two times (but just less than three) is William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. In fact, it could be called my favorite book. Though there is much more to the memoir than just surfing—odd jobs across continents, reporting from apartheid South Africa, and, broadly, coming-of-age—its pages are tied together through accounts of the sport. Finnegan chronicles the peculiarities, trends, and profiles of waves around the world and painstakingly describes the art of reading a given beach’s surf. He is, of course, a skilled surfer with a lifetime of experience in the matter. And despite his depictions of more than one near-death experience, the book always made me want to paddle into open waters.

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The opportunity to surf finally presented itself last week. I was in Bali with a friend, splitting time between Ubud, a now-yoga-centric enclave in the island’s center, and the beach town of Canggu. Surfing had certainly been on my radar for the trip, yet when I first strode onto the beach I was incredibly intimidated by the ocean’s crushing force and the hoards of what I assumed were semi-professional surfers, tanned and muscular, whom I had encountered crowding the Aussie-style coffee joints around town. There were also scores of first-timers hauling massive boards and dawning matching swim shirts around the beginner beaches, but this was also kind of off-putting. Surf lessons, however, were advertised everywhere, so I swallowed my pride and walked up to a stand on the beach and signed up for an 8am slot.

After dropping my pal off at a yoga studio, I drove back to the beach for my first surfing lesson. My teacher that morning, Cal, a wise-cracking Balinese guy with hair half blonde from the sun, first gave me some '“theory”. Paddle upward, not down; land hard and on the center of the board; if I shout then dive under the wave and you won’t get your head smacked. The biggest curiosity I had concerned other board sports—I’ve spent most of my life snowboarding and skating, and kind of naively thought this would give me a huge leg up. I waddled alongside him, my ankle already secured to the leash, for about 200 meters until we found a suitable strip of small waves. It was a windy morning, so we had to wait around for 40 minutes while things cooled down.

At long last, we were in the water beneath the unrelenting Indonesian sun. In the whitewater I hopped on the board, Cal flipped me around, and shouted, “okay now PADDLE”. So I did. Then he shouted, “get UP”. I did that, too. In a stroke of beginner’s luck, I actually managed to catch and ride a tiny wave on the first try. The next few goes weren’t quite as smooth, though. And surfing, it should be said, is a lot different than skating or snowboarding; weight is firmly on the back, and on-board adjustments once standing are less forgiving. It was addicting, depleting. For whatever reasons, be they Beach Boys songs or not, surfing used to seem like something more akin to a slow-and-smooth dance than a jolting, abrupt change of positions. The latter was true, that pivotal two-step onto the board being a high-pressure, exacting split second.

What I thought must have been the entire morning turned out to be just an hour and twenty minutes. After catching a couple whitewater waves in a row on my second outing, I almost felt I was getting a slight hang of things, but was swiftly humbled by a yard sail, tugged to shore by my oversized board. I came out winded, exhilarated and, under Cal’s watchful eye, unscathed.

Oh, and feeling, as I should, like a massive kook.

In High Definition

I heard, discovered, and re-discovered a lot of great music on a recent trip to Tokyo. Having read about the hi-fi bars scattered throughout the city, which entail a simple setup of incredibly high quality amps, vinyl, and two-ingredient cocktails, I found they truly lived up to the hype. Phones are discouraged, and I quickly noticed it was easy to spend hours sitting, listening, and waiting to see what would be played next. The album of choice is displayed under a light and, in an effort to remain unplugged, I tried to take a mental note of the tracks I heard. Audiophile or not, it’s hard to deny that these setups grant something special—at one point, around 1am in a smoky Shibuya basement, the straight-faced waitress behind the bar put on Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin’, and I was almost certain it had to be an alternate cut. It turns out it was indeed the original, but I’d never heard it anywhere close to so clearly. Here are some other selections from around Tokyo:

Late at Night

Part of Saigon’s beauty is its comprehensiveness. What I mean by this is that with a motorbike and the proper determination, one can find pretty much anything they desire at pretty much any hour of the day or night. No sliver of the market is left unfilled (peanut butter prices, nevertheless, remain high). Once, ahead of a short trip, I found myself in need of a small duffle bag; my flight departed in nine hours and, on a whim, I took a stroll around my neighborhood to see if I could procure something. Not more than 450 meters away I, quite literally, stumbled into a store devoted completely to duffle bags—I made the flight comfortably on time.

Another well-charted point of Saigon’s charm is, of course, the food (specifically that found on the street). Free of pretension and with a norm of all-day preparation, from stewing pots of tender beef to steaming, inexplicably-rich rice porridge, street stands dole out highly specialized dishes that, if not up to snuff, will quickly be replaced by someone who can do it better.  As a general rule, the lower the plastic stool is to the ground, the better. 

Perhaps the most quintessentially Saigonese cuisine is com tam, or a plate of rice topped with a tender pork chop, runny egg, pickled vegetables, and a drizzle of fish sauce and pepper flakes. It’s everywhere, and it’s usually very good. Finding a truly exceptional one, though, is a satisfaction akin to the feeling of the perfect topspin lob, the 7 iron stuck next to the pin, the un-recreatable haircut. 

One June evening, finishing the last round of beers over the canal in District 3, conditions were right to sample a fabled com tam. My pal Andy, a Brit who had spent the preceding few months writing music and sampling dozens, if not hundreds, of the city’s humble dish of choice, had received a hot tip—deep down a dark alley in nearby Phu Nhuan was supposedly a com tam operation run out of an apartment that opened its doors only from 12:40AM to 3:30AM. Excited by this prospect, Andy and I hopped on our bikes and, after missing the alley’s entrance a couple times, putted down the dark, narrow strip in second gear until we came across a sign. At this time it was 12:20, and all was silent. Indeed, they hadn’t opened yet. Come back in 20, we were instructed.

Our minds already made up, collective hunger only barely tolerable, Andy and I killed some time at a neighborhood cocktail joint around the corner. Over very sugary concoctions, we chatted and he told me that I really needed to check out Istanbul, but it’s hard to explain why. Every few minutes there was a mutual glance to my watch. Finally, close to 12:50, we tried again. This time, cautiously traveling the same alley, we began to see billowing smoke from a grill and quickly realized there was nowhere to park; in 25 minutes, the alley, with roughly 7 tiny tables set up, was filled to the brim. We waited, and waited, then took a seat, our knees peeking over the metallic table. 

I let Andy, with some Vietnamese under his belt, order for us. In the moment and not wanting to break the silence by speaking more words than necessary, something was perhaps lost in translation, and it turned out we ordered the wrong thing: pork ribs came out instead. We ate, enjoyed ourselves, laughed at the build-up and spectacle, then parted ways. You know what? It tasted good.

Fear Factor

In the past year, I’ve had a lot of trouble with locking mechanisms. I have a long history of struggling to open things, and, by all accounts, this is a trend that will persist. Once, in Berlin, I was attempting to enter a sublet 1-bedroom and so noisily and clumsily failed to open the lock that an elderly neighbor nearly rang Der Poizei. The earful I received instead, delivered primarily in German with splashes of English, reiterating my idiocy, was equally terrifying.

About six months later, a mere three days after moving into a new apartment, this time in Ho Chi Minh City, I accidentally locked every other tenant out of the building, only to discover my grave error after hearing shouts and peering over the balcony, shirtless and groggy (nevermind that it was 5:15 PM). I tried to place some donuts in the common area with a crudely translated note in Vietnamese—so sorry I accidentally locked you all out, don’t think it will happen again!—to rectify my error, but I fear this first impression forever solidified my incompetence in the eyes of everyone in my immediate vicinity. The deadbolt on the front gate’s lock was removed the next week.

Yet my greatest source of lock-related angst comes not from a set of jingling keys, but from the online world.

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Scaling Whateverest

When mining sources of inspiration, introspection, and palpable emotion, mockumentaries are perhaps low on the list of where one tends to look. It doesn’t have to be this way, though; as such, may I point you in the direction of a head-scratching, whimsical, and, above all, contemplative masterpiece: Kristoffer Borgli’s 2012 short film Whateverest.

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It should be noted that the piece itself requires a bit of explaining, but it goes something like this. The film is meant to be a look at the real-life namesake of Norwegian electronic producer Todd Terje’s nu-disco epic ‘Inspector Norse’. Terje’s seminal tune, no stranger to closing out the night on no-nonsense techno floors and at Balearic beach parties alike, is a bouncing, ridiculous, arpeggiated jaunt, replete with UFO-sounding synths and bass lines that hop from floor to ceiling. It’s said by many (see: me) to be the best piece of electronic music made in the 2010’s. Much more could be mentioned about the song, created entirely on a single analog synthesizer, the ARP 2600, but for now this much seems plausible: it’s the type of track that needs a backstory.

And Borgli, in collaboration with Terje (known himself for a sense of humor that can only be described as on-the-nose—his first album was titled It’s Album Time), has given us just that. Whateverest opens, after a short interview in Terje’s keyboard-stacked studio, with a wobbly camera walking up to the man in question, Marius Solem Johansen. Johansen, smoking a cigarette and dancing obscenely, confirms his identity. This dancing, a spastic combination of arm-flailing and stationary jogging, is what has made Marius famous—he, as the story goes, uploaded videos of himself dancing to Terje’s music on Youtube under the guise ‘Inspector Norse’. He may or may not also be routinely high on a homemade drug called the Inspector Norse Special, which, in one of the film’s only true nods to its mock nature, shows the chemical breakdown of the concoction as identical to that of methamphetamine while simultaneously flashing ‘not on the list of illegal drugs’. But that’s neither here nor there.

In describing his affinity for a certain type of electronic music, Solem elaborates on a primal joy, one that leaves him no choice but to dance. He leads a life of relative ease, operating a tanning salon, running errands on his bicycle, and spending the occasional evening cooking drugs, his headphones, of course, omnipresent. But Solem’s story is, in many senses, a sad one: he had big dreams of moving to Oslo, then his father became sick and he stayed in his hometown. He made electronic music himself, too, but, as he recounts somberly, “I don’t know, it just didn’t seem like anyone cared”. Hence the room in his home covered in pictures of Mt. Everest, or, to him, Whateverest; “the heap of things that never worked out”.

Somewhere along the line, though, our protagonist strategically abandoned his ambitions and came to live a life centered on simple joys. In his kitchen hangs a different set of matching posters: a palm tree with the slogan ‘No Bad Days’ strewn across it. There’s a dizzying nonchalance to all this; life appears, at first, to be passing him by. But on reëxamination, perhaps it is the self-important, the stricly goal-oriented among us that are truly missing out. Here the film’s genre can really complicate things. Just as you dig in and start to find some real themes within this strange piece, you can’t help but be reminded that it’s all… a joke?

Observers have come at the film from varying levels of sincerity; many, safe to say, have been tricked (as was I). Alexis Petridis, a critic for The Guardian, had a similar encounter. In his initial column, he borrows from Will Lynch’s review of the EP from which Inspector Norse is taken, stating that the film as a whole “captures the elusive feeling of having a supremely, impossibly good time”.  After adding a footnote explaining how he only later realized the film was a mockumentary, Petridis still doubles down on the sentiment.  He elaborates, “even as a piece of drama, it really does capture the ability of music to take you out of yourself”.

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Near the end of the film, Marius dances on the beach in front of a burning sunset.  Sitting alone atop this backdrop, taking in the music that soundtracks his life, he reasons, “no wonder I have ‘no bad days’ as a motto when you see this shit, right?”.  What was apparently once a necessary phrase to balance the sadness of failure became his truthful outlook. A second look at the situation proved necessary—is there some sort of larger point here about audience and the fluidity of genre? Could be, but let’s keep our ambition in check. Unplagued by seriousness, it’s a good time regardless of the meaning you choose to attach to it.

100 Seconds of Solitude

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There’s a great scene in the show High Maintenance that captures a phenomenon I (and, quite likely, you) often ponder: unplugging. In it, a man sits working in a typically cool Brooklyn café, slowly realizing that he’s doing the same thing as everyone else—and it’s no coincidence. Staring into a laptop screen, he sees curated ad after curated ad, the sensation brought to life when the guy he asks to watch his laptop is wearing the exact same retro-styled overalls he dawns. A flight to Lisbon (an escape from it all!) he eyes is, it just so happens, being watched by 500 others. Then, peering outside, he notices a distinctly offline man sitting next to an old motorcycle, leafing through a worn-out Isaac Asimov novel, and, finally, picking up his phone (a dumb phone). Envy ensues.

I’m thinking about my relationship to screens more lately after reading the Canadian journalist Michael Harris’s wide-ranging reckoning The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. When I picked up the book, I anticipated it would elicit a pretty simple reaction—that is, to drop my phone in the nearest shallow pond and head to a book store, intent on saving both my eyes and my soul. And, I should mention, I could totally do this right now! I’m in a weird, in-between stage of my own life where I only receive, like, 3 emails of any importance per week. But, unfortunately, Harris’s thesis isn’t that simple. For each page that makes me want to stare into space and embrace the power of the solitary thought, there’s another that convinces me that adapting to a collective attachment to the smartphone is, yes, pretty lame, but also natural, inevitable, and even a sign of some sort of progress.

A particularly interesting school of thought cited by Harris belongs to Susan Blackmore. She argues that, “technologies with a knack for replication will obviously rise to dominance”. Like evolutionary theory, the best technologies, she posits, will succeed in setting new norms, as they are not only widely replicable but, by nature, incredibly addictive. Their intellectual value and reputation as “productive”, however, are set wholly by outside forces. This is where I, at least, began to question my default inclination to label time spent on my phone as inherently wasted. Each iteration of information-dissemination technology was met with strong criticism; the printing press and books themselves, as Harris chronicles, encountered powerful enemies:

W. Benjamin: “The distinction between writer and readership is thus in the process of losing its fundamental character”

T.S. Eliot: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

So, perhaps shortly after the printing press came to be, you might’ve received judgmental glances from elders for not looking up from the ink in your freshly printed pamphlet. And maybe in 75 years we’ll long for a time when people had to hold something, anything in their hands to look things up.

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The applications of the technology we’ve readily adopted, nevertheless, leave room for questioning. Right now, I’m sitting in a cafe and everyone is taking pictures of each other (and that’s fine). What will they do with these pictures? It’s not clear. Would previous generations, had they powerful cameras in their pockets at all times, have done the same thing? The more I think about it, the more I think the answer is, “probably, yes”.

All of this being said, lately I can’t help but feel like something stands in the way of declaring absolute gratitude for the technologies that content me for roughly 17 hours per day. It’s true: if I’m sitting in my apartment for an hour and there isn’t any form of media accompanying me, I start to feel uneasy. Arriving at the gym and realizing I’ve left my headphones behind makes me, without pause, turn around to go get them. Even so, I get a lot of satisfaction (and some weird form of self-reward) from spending the day without my phone or computer, and am able to read a lot more when I can’t check Instagram every two pages.

Later in that High Maintenance scene, the onlooker tries to adopt a less tech-reliant lifestyle, clumsily struggling to text his friends back on his new dumb phone. I feel like that guy, simultaneously admiring an offline life while acknowledging that, without quick access to the internet and its conveniences, I couldn’t really do anything at all. So I’ll leave the bulk of my skepticism behind, and, when I find myself picking up my phone a little too often, try to remember one of Thoreau’s observations at Walden: “in proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office”. Oof!

Mr. Lucky

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Though the future of physical music ownership remains blurry, there’s still something to be said for a perfectly fitting album cover. In fact, even in this profoundly digital age of consumption—I’ve only ever owned one physical record—, I’m still, more often than not, first drawn into a record based on what I see. And while there are many fine examples from recent history of an album’s artwork giving you a taste of what’s to come from a record, I contend that one man’s catalog still stands head and shoulders above the rest in this pursuit. I’m talking, of course, about Vince Guaraldi.

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Although Guaraldi’s legacy is inextricably tied to the Peanuts series, his solo work is remarkably influential. An innovator in the Northern California jazz scene of the 60’s, Guaraldi crossed paths with all the greats of his time (and, interestingly enough, worked with Jerry Garcia). An anecdote from his biography Vince Guaraldi at the Piano relays a night in which Miles Davis, apparently a great admirer of Guaraldi’s, got sick of their chit-chat and said, “Hey, I didn't come here to talk to you, motherfucker; I came to hear you play. So go play”. And who could overlook the late pianist’s place in the American Christmas canon?

Yet all of this only tells part of the story. Alongside his form of most agreeable bossa standards comes a collection of outstanding album artwork, at once soothing and reassuring. Take, for example, the accompanying image to 1989’s Greatest Hits compilation. It’s a solo picture of the pianist, handle-bar mustache protruding, standing with his arms crossed in front of a backdrop of wood paneling and baby blue. Perfect! I’m feeling at ease already. Then comes his work with the Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete, from which we see Vince and Bola chilling out, a knowing glance that hey, we’re really onto something here gracing each of their faces.

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The font seems to be, today, often-recreated, yet to no effect as great as here. It’s all so delightfully retro, knowingly cool, and, most importantly, without a pinch of self-seriousness. Other efforts, from 1964’s Jazz Impressions to The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi, impart a similar whimsy. Long live Vince.

Materials World

In the spring of 2010, Miller Lite introduced the Vortex Bottle, a new consumption vessel designed with grooves to, “create a vortex as you’re pouring the beer”.

On a brisk, November Tuesday in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, nine middle-aged men met in a nondescript conference room for a focus group meeting. Karl, the research and development manager running the day’s session, addressed the group excitedly. He had just stepped off an Amtrak from Chicago, where he’d received positive, if a little uninspired, responses at a stop-in with a logistics company’s corporate team-building workshop.

“I want to welcome you all here today and to thank you again for volunteering your thoughts on the Miller Lite family of products! Please, if you wouldn’t  mind, fill out the placard in front of you and make yourselves comfortable. There’s pumpkin kringle and coffee up front—don’t be shy”.

A team of researchers and executives in three-piece suits sat behind a one-way mirror, observing the respondents’ small talk ahead of the day’s free-form conversation hour.

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Stress and the Art of Motorbike Maintenance

For a while in early 2019, I owned a motorbike from the year 1978. It was a perfectly cute, red and white Honda Cub with no fuel gauge, 3 sticky gears, and turn signals which appeared to be inspired by Dr. Seuss books (they didn’t work; my hands could do the trick, I was assured). For a while, each time I attempted to kick start my tiny motorcycle under the beating Saigon sun, I asked the same question: “is it supposed to feel like this?”.

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It wasn’t.

At the time, of course, I had no idea. This was, after all, the very first motorized two-wheeled vehicle I had operated. I learned to ride it slowly on a back street with the help of a patient mentor and felt like I was getting the hang of things. I became convinced that the sensation of an engine sputtering and gasping for air, the omnipresent smell of gasoline, and a sharp rightward lean were just par for the course when it came to old bikes. But when it was good, it was good; and when it was bad, it was fun.

On a scorching Thursday afternoon in January, when I first bought the little Honda Cub, I didn’t know how to drive it. Not to fear, however, because the guys who sold it to me, a smiling group of middle aged men in an alley in Gò Vấp, a neighborhood 12 kilometers from my place, nominated one of their pals to drive it back to my apartment for me. The thing kicked up dust and shot out smoke like a champ, its pilot bobbing along happily, cigarette-in-teeth. He wouldn’t accept my offer to pay for a cab back home, which I still feel bad about. You meet the nicest people on a Honda!

Anyway, it did seem to run alright when it came under my ownership. My friend Dan, who helped me buy it and, by a truly astounding coincidence, had purchased an impossibly cool Honda 67 from the same men 3 years prior, was happy to guide me through its necessary repairs. He got the thing on its feet and I started to drive it to work. I thought it was weird that I ran out of gas a day after filling it up, but was blinded by the Cub’s charm and didn’t question things until it became a true inconvenience.

Whenever I felt like something was wrong with it, I would stop by a mechanic and type into Google translate, with mixed results, the following request: “drive it and tell me what you think”. I figured the combination of me speaking next to no Vietnamese and, somehow, understanding even less in the parlance of mechanics might cancel each other out. This approach got me a new carburetor (nice), a fixed gas tank, and, on one occasion, a drastically loosened rear brake (?). Only once did the cost of one of these fixes exceed 12 USD, so I was cool with it. One time I met an Australian guy at a cafe who also drove a similarly-dilapidated Cub and looked like he might be knowledgable of motorized things, so I asked him to take it for a spin. “It’s not that bad, but, mate, don’t put any more money into it,” he said kindly. You meet the nicest people on a Honda!

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Thankfully, I didn’t run into any real trouble on the bike, but it did keep things entertaining. One lovely night, I was returning home from dinner in Thao Dien, which requires crossing two large bridges. After coasting down the second bridge, I could feel my attempts to accelerate grow feebler and feebler—by then, I knew the feeling. I had run out of gas on a large road, and refuge was on the other side of a median. I flagged down a moto taxi driver, hoping he’d give me a push for a couple of kilometers; instead, he pointed to our collective biceps and motioned for me to grab the back of the bike. We then carried the cub, without much care, over the length of the grassy separation between highway and petrol stop. I laughed the rest of the way home.

Nevertheless, I felt that a more reliable form of transportation was probably a good idea. The last straw came when I visited a mechanic who, after giving it a trial run, mimed an engine exploding and typed the word '“soon'“ into his phone. From there I drove it to a garage whose proprietor—shirtless but wearing dress pants and a bluetooth earpiece—bought and sold bikes. This was a negotiation process I would unquestionably lose. At one point, the salesman grabbed a shirt from a hanger, but then decided not to put it on. So I wrote down a number, he wrote down a number, and, in the end, I was happy to take whatever he’d give me for it. The process turned out to be remarkably easy and I was thankful that he’d entertained my proposal out of the blue. You meet the nicest people on a… you get the idea.

Goodbye to my Honda Cub, you will be missed (sort of).

Paris in Black and White: Pham Tuan Ngoc's Analog World at Noirfoto

“This show is to complete what I’ve started—and it’s been a long time coming”.

The photographer Pham Tuan Ngoc, who runs Noirfoto Gallery and darkroom in Thao Dien, has led many lives. From an initial stint as an auditor in Hanoi to a graduate student in the north of Sweden to a sushi delivery driver in Paris, there has remained one constant: a passion for analog photography. Today, at the gallery and darkroom he developed from the ground up, Ngoc’s own dedication to the art of printing is manifest.  His upcoming solo exhibition at Noirfoto, a retrospective titled ‘9 - Paris in B&W’, makes clear, above all else, a commitment to storytelling through a medium that demands reflection, re-evaluation, and patience.

Pham Tuan Ngoc

Pham Tuan Ngoc

‘9 - Paris in B&W’ is the culmination of two years spent living and breathing a city that, Ngoc recounts, “immediately drew me in”.  Though he initially came to Europe to study e-commerce in Sweden, Ngoc happened to stop in Paris for nine days on the way. That was all it took—soon enough, on any break from school, he found himself returning to Paris. After gaining some practical skills through a photography internship and, as he puts it, “learning about perfectionism” in a strikingly new environment in Sweden, Ngoc moved to Paris in 2009.  How, exactly, he would find work was secondary to the desire to fully immerse himself in the city.

At the beginning of his time in Paris, Ngoc began to develop film in the darkroom of a friend’s university. “Before I had a job, even if I had no money or anything, I would sneak in and work all night making black and white prints there”.  

Then, a blessing in disguise presented itself: a gig as a sushi delivery driver. Glamorous? Not on the surface. Nevertheless, Ngoc quickly saw more of the city than many Parisians would in a lifetime.  With a job description that necessitated navigating hidden alleys, forbidden courtyards, and, sometimes, the insides of peoples’ homes, Ngoc was at once an outside observer and a flâneur. His view of the city was intimate.

“To me this was an amazing job. Why be a waiter? You only see the kitchen and the table. I wanted to see more. Sure, I drove in the freezing rain, but I still loved it”.

And during this time, he never stopped taking photographs.  Even in the harshest conditions, the beauty of the city drew him in.  One photo featured in the exhibition, a glimmering cobblestone in the nighttime rain, was taken on, “the worst, coldest night. I got stuck under an overpass, waiting for the rain to stop. But I still had to get this one shot”.  Ngoc’s own devotion to the craft of black and white photography made the decision to feature Paris a clear one; though he has lived across continents and in numerous cities, he contends that Paris, even without color, retains its identity and takes on new meaning.

From ‘9 - Paris in B&W’

From ‘9 - Paris in B&W’

Now, nine years later, Ngoc will share his work at Noirfoto, the space where he has also crafted his own darkroom. And much like the years taken to reflect upon his time and photos in Paris, the exhibition’s chosen medium, black and white, is an exercise in deliberation.  In an age of digital photo editing aimed at instant gratification, key in Pham Thuan Ngoc’s work is the consideration of moving slowly: to take the time not only to capture a photo and develop the film, but the time to understand what it means in the physical world .

Time is at the forefront of the photographer’s personal philosophy.  “To take pictures with film”, he says, “is to combine light and time. By shooting film photography you create something tangible with it, something you can hold in your hand. For me, art is not just the content but also the medium”.

9 - Paris in B&W’ runs from March 31st at Noir Gallery.

199bis Nguyễn Văn Hưởng

Thảo Điền, Quận 2, Hồ Chí Minh

*This piece also appears on blisssaigon.com

Mailing It In

The internet is fine but could be better. Its ills are profound (disinformation, social isolation, public shaming), but when it’s good, it’s good (I haven’t bought a piece of shaving equipment in person for two years).

From the comfort of sleek apps and enticing websites, it seems we can now procure anything within reason in 3-5 business days. The emergence of an economy based upon walking to your doorstep to retrieve whatever you need is reaching new frontiers of ubiquity. What began with Netflix in the pre-instant era has spread to all sectors, from grooming to grocery shopping to, it turns out, fitness supplements.

A few days ago, I was spending a few mindless moments scrolling through Instagram when I saw an advertised post for a mail-order, personalized supplement service called, aptly, ‘Gainful’. It seems no territory is left uncharted when it comes to the subscription market. Although I’ve never purchased whey powder and swore off fitness supplements after taking some pre-workout and feeling like I had heart palpitations for the next 4 business days, the company’s market research division prevailed, and I soon found myself on their website punching in only-slightly-inflated fitness info for their specialists to review.

After listing myself at a charitable 5 foot 10, describing my weekly activities, and selecting my preferred end-of-regimen body type (muscular/toned), I was given a final question: chocolate or vanilla. Then, after due deliberation leading to vanilla and one last edit to say I should probably add a few pounds to my build, I waited on a loading screen and was presented with a breakdown of hard-to-pronounce chemical compounds that would, with any luck, leave me somewhere between toned and torn.

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Where will the age of hyper-personalization leave us? The democratization of expertise, it seems, could give everyone the ability to be their ‘best’ selves, attuned to the dangers of sedentary lifestyles and condensed fats.

More likely? I stare at the screen for what time I would’ve been working out and convince myself I have a glucose deficiency, then order Chinese food to the very couch from which I’m planning my ascent to the peak human form.

25 Tracks from 2018

“My mind tells me this is cliché, but my heart tells me I am fundamentally unique”

Reading & Re-reading

Some articles and a book I keep returning to—

  • Elif Batuman - The Murder of Leo Tolstoy

    Coming from someone who knows nothing of Russian literature, this piece passes the test. It was the first thing I read in an excellent nonfiction writers’ workshop this fall and does everything you’d want a good piece of longform to do: laugh, scratch your head, and become deeply interested in something which was previously totally off your radar. You can sense the author herself falling down a rabbit hole, and it’s full of great anecdotes (my personal favorite being the time Chekhov ran out of a sauna into the street because he heard Tolstoy was in the building and didn’t want to meet him under such circumstances). If I’m ever a grad school student looking for a grant and have a little extra time on my hands, maybe I, too, will head to the International Tolstoy Conference and meet some worthwhile figures.

  • William Finnegan - Barbarian Days

    This book has become something like a holy text to my brothers and me over the past few years. Any time I’m planning to travel somewhere for longer than a week, I bring it along. Bill has done all the things I secretly and not-secretly crave—to travel a great many far-flung locales and live to tell the tale, to surf untouched waves, and, of course, to eventually write about it all. A good primer comes from the piece that would eventually turn into the book, ‘Playing Doc’s Games’.

  • Joshua Rothman - The Sage of Yale Law

    Here’s something I never thought would affect me as deeply as it has: a short profile of a theologian in New Haven. Rothman introduces us to Anthony Kronman, the former Dean of Yale Law School, “arguably the world’s most fulfilled man”, and the foremost authority on Born-Again Paganism, Kronman’s personal ideology that centers on a deep appreciation for the the minutia of day-to-day life. It’s a look into a life of the highest academic privilege, where one’s only concern is to think the big thoughts. Once, I presented it in a senior seminar on ‘the future of work’, trying to contend that Kronman has the right idea and maybe we should all just stare at ivy growth patterns for a while (?)—everyone hated it. Nevertheless, it always makes me think of what my own form of absolute contentment may look like.

De Luxe

On a sunny Schöneberg afternoon in early September, an Italian man grabbed my arm and said this bike fit me just right. I’m glad I fell for his pitch. Long live the Montana De Luxe!

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IRL

I don’t think, unless I was really bored or had mono or something, that I’d gleefully spend 35 minutes on Instagram looking at photos of right hand breaks off Portugal. And then another 20 perusing Kitchen Toke, the first magazine devoted to Cannabis cooking. Plus a leisurely leafing through Do! It! Yourself! (the thought of building a stool by hand is most abstract).

Thankfully, through a chance encounter with Soda Books, I was, if only briefly, reinvigorated by the visual-physical medium and the pleasures of non-algorithmically curated discovery.

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Sure, I guess it’s nice to have people tell me what’s cool and beam filtered images directly into my eyes from the comfort of my bed each morning, but the more organic editorialization in a place like Soda is a helpful reminder of the power of deliberation

Soon, it was dark outside, and I didn’t have the usual regret or neck pain that comes with having stared at my phone for two hours and forty five minutes. Magazines: they’re good.

Busy Being Busy

A few weeks ago, a roommate of mine posed a peculiar question. I was describing the common path of a great many new graduates from US universities - that is, to take one or two months off, then begin a very serious, very full-time job in a major city - when she began to look confused.

“That’s so crazy. You guys are all, like, 22, yeah? Do you even know if you want a career yet?”.

I had no good answer and was admittedly puzzled by the notion.

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