Baseline in Phnom Penh

Posted October 1, 2012 by breadriot
Categories: random happenings in my life

“I just take out the trash,” said the ministry official,

while the angry doctor played his cello angrily for the greater good.

Outside, a castaway cigarette burned like a bug on the ground.

A lizard ran away from my camera flash.

Sodium lights glowed through the membranes between the

spines of umbrellas and bat wings.

I rode alone with other people’s images

until I didn’t know when I’d lost my own.

At home, I enjoyed a glass of wine,

yellow and warm, almost hot in the tall, clear glass,

like sweet piss.

I thought our words sounded alright for now.


About the cheesy url—first world problems!

Posted October 16, 2011 by breadriot
Categories: history, musings

Tags: , , , , ,

Growing up in California and wanting to go on an adventure, I was kind of stuck. While my East Coast peers dreamed of riding out West, across the now long-closed Frontier, I learned it wasn’t fair to call it a frontier, since Native Americans already had been there for a long time—though saying they’d always been there was racist and suggested their culture was timeless and static, while Western culture was constantly advancing—Westward ho! I wasn’t allowed to read Little House on the Prairie for the same reason.

Later, my East Coast university roommates were shocked to learn I’d never pretended to be a pioneer. Why would I? I was already West. My family and I had arrived, geographically, and—unlike the Joads—more or less economically.

Instead, I’d pretended to be a vaguely medieval vagabond, until I realized that even progressive Robin Hood perpetuated Anglo-centric and fundamentally conservative ideals. When the real world got too messy, I slipped into other worlds, which seemed safer until I learned the Narnia books were a huge Christian allegory.

So instead, I imagined leading a revolution, only to find myself wishing that California’s rather inefficient government were a little more totalitarian and worth overthrowing; that I had fewer choices, so that the choices I made would matter more. (Picking classes was never epic.) I thought I would have abandoned all my worldly and civic goods to go on a secular pilgrimage in quest of a narrative.


I knew I must be pretty spoiled to want fewer rather than more resources and freedoms. These were what they called “first world problems.” I had an upper middle class resource curse—a glut of freedom, and nothing to do with it besides daydream. I’d learned what values not to hold, which gods not to worship, but to replace them, I had only fiction to draw from. And despite my “wealth of opportunities”—or, I thought, maybe because of it—I felt I had few chances for a fiction-worthy adventure.

My East Coast university’s lecture halls and Jingle Balls weren’t quite the right kind of adventure. Still, they fit into the narrative of imperialism and the male gaze that I was learning to differentiate myself from in seminars. I gained friends who wanted to be pioneers—the kinds from both the 19th and the 21st centuries (both types aiming to go West). They helped me, at least comparatively, feel like an outsider, and thus a protagonist.

Guilt, not from the residue of any religion but from fear of cultural insensitivity, brought me to a class on Christianity, another element of so many American’s lives that was absent from mine. I wondered, trying not to judge, how early Christians had been so passive, eyes to the sky, awaiting the End of Days, minds empty of agency.

As I discussed founding non-profits in Asia with classmates, I wondered how many of us, in the nineteenth century, would have been officials in Her Majesty’s Empire. Going abroad for adventure could easily go imperialistic, so I stayed in the library, hoping things would happen. Instead, the books confirmed that I could learn what not to believe, but not what to believe.

Then, finally, I realized that I was being just as passive as the early Christians. With a background that taught me to question and qualify, I hadn’t dared to create my own narrative for fear it would offend. All my life, I’d been waiting, though I knew neither the day nor the hour, for an adventure to appear.

Moving forward, in a world that rejected ideas of backward and forward, would require a different kind of imagination.

Another poem about history

Posted January 12, 2011 by breadriot
Categories: history, musings, writing and books

Tags: , ,


A Scholar’s Passion

The historian

flits between massacres, a fickle lover –

one minute hustled by an old chronicler

into congress with Fortune the Strumpet, still reeking

of battle, of armies mingling desperately at the junctures of continents –

and the next minute,

gently opening up the quivering

pages of an untouched little war that is

ready to bleed for him,

and leaving the old

series of deaths

musky with carnality and


Judah’s Foresight – about the Transcontinental Railroad, again

Posted January 7, 2011 by breadriot
Categories: history, musings, writing and books

Tags: , , , ,

Is it ok to use a stentorian tone when speaking in a 19th century voice?

Theodore Judah

My dearest Anne,

I could not help but smile last night,

Wrinkles creasing my cheeks that in two months’ time

Will be wracked by deadly fever,

When you showed me your painting of our noble mountains –

A good painting – or so it seemed illumined by our campfire –

The painting not noble

But made by a woman’s fine hands

With intent that goes before the work,

Not so much like a siren as a bell.

It is our destiny, my dear, to burst our sacred wilderness apart,

As that other jungle will rupture me.

Some are cursed to step before they see, weary shovels preceding shoulders,

but you and I, we have a different doom

To see where we may never tread,

Or watch the creases between mountains where we once sat

Submerged in splitting trunks and melting rock.

I wonder if nature will forget to know

To tell the trees that summer’s coming:

Oil your engines, unfurl your leaves.

I wonder if men will forget to look to the ground before them,

Or if the ground will move too fast to look.

From my last bed in Panama,

Perhaps I will wonder what I have been doing,

Sowing the sterile seeds of our undoing

Into the knowing earth.

High Road

Posted January 3, 2011 by breadriot
Categories: history, musings, random happenings in my life

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Bob told me, “Sure, the Chinese worked on the Union Pacific.” He was the museum director at Rock Springs, the site of the worst massacre of Chinese in US history.

At that point, I had read thousands of pages about the Chinese involvement in the construction of the US’s first transcontinental railroad. All sources had been clear – while the Central Pacific, building eastward from Sacramento, had employed primarily Chinese workers, the CP’s rival, the Union Pacific, building westward from Omaha, had employed largely Irish workers and no Chinese. Less than a week before, I had looked at original Union Pacific payrolls in Lincoln, Nebraska and had found no Chinese names.

“Do you mean the Chinese started after the transcontinental was completed?” I asked.

“No,” Bob said.


“You can believe me or not, but I know what I know.”

“It’s just surprising to me, because I’ve read a lot so far-”

That’s when Bob blew up at me. He had spent years in the archives, he said, and he knew he had read about Chinese helping build the original Union Pacific, though he couldn’t say exactly where, and who did I think I was?

I was researching the experiences of Chinese and Irish workers on the transcontinental for my senior history thesis at Princeton, but I was also interested in connections between past and present that wouldn’t fit into my 100-page thesis. I liked the idea of the dead speaking indirectly to the living, through written history and also more informal means, creating resonances and myths. A grant from Princeton to travel from Sacramento to Omaha and back not only allowed me to visit local historical societies, archives, and museums but also let me learn about the attitudes of museum staff and archivists, who generally told me more about their own perspectives than about the history I was researching.

But it wasn’t so easy to separate perspectives from the history, nor was I supposed to. A few years ago, I had figured out that in order to write a good history paper, I should analyze perspectives on events rather than the events themselves – then no one could say I was oversimplifying.

In this mindset, I listened as the archivist in Elko, Nevada explained that the Irish couldn’t be blamed too much for their intolerance of the Chinese – racism was biological. You see it in dogs, and even insects, she said. I had been finding that 1860s accounts frequently compared the Chinese to insects, “swarming” around work sites. I planned to research how such myths and metaphors – bug-inspired racist views and views about racism – were formed, and how they developed.

UPRR Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa

My own myths about the railroad began early. On family vacations in the Sierras, my mother would point out tunnels in the mountains and tell me Chinese workers had built them; I learned about the Irish contribution from Laurence Yep’s young adult novel Dragon’s Gate. My Chinese and Irish ethnic heritage helped me remember the importance of both groups for the railroad. For a creative writing project at Princeton, I wrote about workers comparing fiddles and erhus (Chinese violin). For my Visual Arts minor, I painted these strangers’ bodies mixing in the earth.

With the research grant, I was excited to learn more of the actual history, follow in the workers’ dusty footsteps, and share their experience not just through documents but also through the very country where they had worked. I told a friend that it was going to be like cowboys and Indians, but more politically correct.

The problem was that the more PC the story became, the less of a story there was. My examination of different perspectives seemed to rob me of any coherent narrative. I was sure that in my thesis, argument and analysis would take the place of narrative structure – as made sense in academic writing – but meanwhile, my ideas about fiddles and erhus were deflating. I was ready for some excitement and almost jealous of the hard-driven workers, who didn’t have to deal with competing historical claims.

Dutch Flat, a Central Pacific semi-ghost town in the Sierras

Sources agreed that most Chinese who had come to California, the “Golden Mountain,” as it was known in Guangdong, shipped their bones back to China, making a final statement in death. Other stories were less verifiable. Did the rival companies’ teams of Chinese and Irish really try to explode each other with dynamite? The first such report appeared years after the two companies joined rails. I became increasingly skeptical. I had set out to find a Golden Mountain of information, and now I was so buried in my research, as the Chinese had been in the Sierras, that I couldn’t remember how large the whole mountain was or even whether I’d found it to begin with.

Rock Springs jolted everything back into perspective. By the end of my exchange with Bob about whether Chinese had worked on the Union Pacific, he was no longer shouting at me, but we were both tense. And I’d found that under a pile of differing perspectives and grey areas, I was certain of some facts: for example, I was sure that no Chinese workers had worked on the Union Pacific until the lines joined. Bob insisted he knew local history like no one else. Backtracking, we agreed to disagree.

“You know, it was really the Chinese who treated other Chinese the worst,” Bob said as I left. I decided not to reply.

When I returned to my hotel, I confirmed from my notes on Union Pacific correspondence that the UP had discussed hiring their first Chinese workers after the Golden Spike ceremony joined the two companies’  rails. I was relieved to be right but found it strange that my worst experience of the trip had occurred on the site of the worst Chinese massacre in US history – here was some resonance with history, which I’d craved, but it was hard to enjoy even petty resonance with a massacre. And my flawless paper plan to look at perspectives, not facts, was shot. I had stood up for what, from my perspective, seemed to be the facts. Or maybe I’d stood up for the facts themselves. I wasn’t sure.


Posted February 19, 2010 by breadriot
Categories: art, fiction, movies, music, subculture

Tags: , , , ,

My first short post on this blog was titled “As a luddite…”, but visiting the steampunk temporary exhibit at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science  has made me reconsider my Luddite position (aesthetically as well as functionally – as my use of a blog indicates, of course, I have my uses for techology, but before now, I rarely found it appealing in itself). In a short article in the broadsheet for the exhibit, which opened in October and closes this week, Brian Catling from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford notes, “Steampunk rewrites technology without the aid of electricity or nuclear power. It gives its sermons and tells its tales in an ornate courtly language that has never been mass-produced or suffered the humiliation of being simplified by plasticity.” Catling’s article is called “Steampunk: A Calibration of Longing.”

“Pachydermos,” gas mask – Tom Banwell

It is plastic-ness above all things that I dislike about technology. While I sometimes fear that the internet is giving me ADD, taking up too much of my time that could be spent with people in the flesh, etc., it’s more often than not the aesthetics (or lack thereof) of modernity that really get to me. I am more shallow than I’d like to think?

I’m not a huge fan of lab science, or of the celebration of hard steel and churning gears. In, say, Atlas Shrugged (which will certainly get a post when I’ve finish reading it), these elements creep me out aesthetically as well as morally. But I really like the aesthetics of steampunk. There’s enough old-ness and history in it to counteract the new-ness. It’s personable and dirty. Catling writes that in steampunk, “the mechanical is given a new status that elevates it beyond slavish function.”

I thought this guy’s bio was especially cool:

though I’m maybe less excited about his pieces than some of the others in the exhibit:

The blurbs of several artists in the exhibit stated that they had always had the steampunk aesthetic – the future imagined from the past – but hadn’t realized that it was a distinct subculture with a name.

That is, in part, because steampunk is a pretty new movement. While it got its name in the 80s as a more nostalgic relative of cyberpunk, recently it has been gathering…steam. It is principally a literary genre, but it also surfaces in other forms, like the The Wild Wild West TV show from the 60’s, before steampunk had its name, and the movie remake, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book and its movie, and (again) in Sherlock Holmes. These are not stunning specimens of quality cinema, etc., but then again steampunk in general doesn’t take itself too seriously, and maybe that is refreshing in itself.

Steampunk goggles, “Squid Attack” – Dr Grymm

Looking at these goggles and other wonders in the exhibit, one little boy, probably about six years old, said to his mother, “So this is what was meant to happen?”

Electric Skull – Amanda Scrivener/Professor Maelstromme

His Dark Materials is apparently considered to be steampunk or steampunk-inspired, with its zeppelins, clockwork, etc. So is the computer game Myst.

Most of the artists in the exhibit have unusual pseudonyms: Datamancer, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich, Doctor Grymm, Mad Uncle Cliff, Professor Maelstromme, Herr Doktor. It seems there is a certain sort of person who creates steampunk art.

Arachne Mechanica – Thomas Willeford

Many current – would they be “steampunks”? – cite Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and the like as inspiration. I am and especially used to be a fan of those authors myself, and maybe I have a little steampunk in me: here’s a mechanical fish I drew my freshman year in high school – long before I knew about steampunk:

I don’t think my fish would actually work, but that’s ok: Catling points out that mystery of function can be one of the most appealing aspects of a piece of steampunk art.

Incidentally,  when I was in London a few weeks ago, before I went to this exhibit, I bought myself a quite steampunky pocketwatch for just £9.

The long chain lets me wear it around my neck rather than in my pocket. I’m a little embarrassed to actually take it out and look at it in public – even around my neck, it is, so obviously, a pocketwatch – and I can’t tell if this embarrassment will get better or worse when I return to the US.

The issue of what constitutes steampunk music is apparently hotly debated. One group often classified as steampunk is Rasputina. Observe the steampunky wooden-gear-contraption at work around the middle of the video:

I liked that one, I think.

This one, not so much:

It reminded me of what I really don’t like about technology. Also, I swear the little boy near the end is Spoilsbury Toast Boy.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit were also quite creepy, sometimes in a fun way and sometimes not. For example, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich’s “Complete Mechanical Womb”:

Less ambiguously than cyberpunk, steampunk seems to delight in what is to me often disturbingly mechanical. And the delight is for the mechanics itself, rather than for any sort of dystopian message, though I can’t help but see a mechanical womb as dystopian. I like a good creepy image, but I don’t know if I’d want to live in a steampunk world, or at least not in Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich’s.

…and now my laptop’s hard drive is apparently fried, reminding me of why actually I do hate technology. Now come barren days of work in Hertford College Grad Centre’s stark, modern, fluorescent computer room, without the pretty view out of my room’s two windows:

back when it was snowy here…

and without a pretty steampunk keyboard:

Ergonomic Keyboard – Datamancer

to keep me aesthetically satisfied.

Thank you, Sherlock Holmes!

Posted February 13, 2010 by breadriot
Categories: internet sociology, movies, music

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Some new great search terms by which people have found my blog:

“dolphins eating plastic”

“livestock in iran”


“old chinese american men”

“what fish do turtles not eat”

“pic of a deer eating a person” (four separate searches for this)

I have also got a lot of visitors searching for various terms I used in my Xinjiang riots post: “uighurs,” “Kashgar,” etc., and, strangely, “Kashgar dentist,” “Kashgar dentiset,” and “Kashgar dentisti.” I just hope that these searchers are not actually in need of a dentist in Kashgar.

Someone got here searching for “interning at nichibei times.”

I was a little frightened to return to my blog after so much time away. I wrote a few things in the fall – one of which I have now posted and more of which are yet to come – but I just didn’t have the energy to edit and post them. As my numbers of viewers understandably declined further and further, I stopped checking.

So I was surprised to see that although the decline continued through November, the numbers experienced a seemingly random increase toward the end of December and especially through January. At first I thought maybe it was due to the simple fact that my blog has been around for more time to be clicked, leading Google to rank it higher. But I also noticed that, in addition to the wonderful search terms cited above, more people have been getting here via searches – on Google and elsewhere – for “Whack follol de rah,” both with and without the exclamation point at the end. 46 of the 78 searches for the phrase without the exclamation point have been in the past 30 days.  (My blog is the second result that comes up for the term on google, after an Irish translation forum.) Others have come here by searching “follol,” “whack follol de rah meaning,” “follol de rah,” “whack de la de rah,” and other variants.

It would have been strange, especially since I hadn’t been posting for so long, if people were searching for my blog by name. It seemed near impossible that that so many people would have thought to look up the phrase after hearing the song from which it comes, “The Rocky Road to Dublin” (as much as I would like to think that Irish music is taking over the world). When was the last time I heard Irish folk music in pop culture, I thought, and that song in particular?

The Dubliners, the group who does the best-known version of "The Rocky Road to Dublin." Adorable, no?

Then I realized that I must have Sherlock Holmes to thank. I was thrilled when I recognized the jaunty, fiery “Rocky Road to Dublin” in the background of the movie’s boxing scene, and I probably annoyed my friends by hopping up and down in my seat as the Dubliners vocally accompanied Holmes in taking out the other fighter. (This was not the only fight scene where they played Irish music, I am happy to say!)

Not sure what this has to do with the rocky road to Dublin, but that's ok...

It wasn’t a movie I felt I should like. Apparently, it has a lame plot, though this is less apparent if one never reads mysteries and gets closest to the genre by watching House.  But good old-fashioned swashbuckling, however inappropriate for the Holmes stories, as well as repartee, always appeals to me. I saw the movie twice, once in California, once in Oxford (two tickets for the price of one with my phone service here!), and appreciated it both times.

Then I appreciated it again when I realized it was bringing me blog visitors. I also noticed, while doing research for this post, that google’s fifth autocomplete result for “irish song” is “irish song in Sherlock Holmes.” This post is dedicated to those searching for that song, and those searching for “whack follol de rah,” so that their quest may not be in vain:

Whack follol de rah is a set of nonsense syllables, which are common in Irish music. A more flavorful version of “fa la la.” In The Boondock Saints, which I watched recently, when detective Greenly explains the deaths of two Russians, who he thinks were Irishmen celebrating St. Patrick’s Day: “So these guys are stumbling through the alley. ‘Too ra loo ra loo ra!’ This guy takes a blunt object, fuckin’ WAAH! Hits the guy with the bandages around his head,” he’s referring to another, much less fun and more recent song, “An Irish Lullaby.”

I picked “Whack follol de rah” as the name of my blog because, although it’s doesn’t literally mean anything, it expresses quirky, spicy joy in what I think of as super-verbal rather than sub-verbal fashion. In “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” a song about a nineteenth century man’s adventures as he travels from Tuam to Liverpool via Dublin, the nonsense syllables seem to burst out to express some sort of undefinable triumphant intensity of living.

And for the song itself, I can’t resist: Behold! The Orthodox Celts, Serbia‘s most famous Irish music group:

They’re actually quite good, aren’t they? The words are hard enough for native speakers. I particularly like the way he sings “bundle it was stole.” The Orthodox Celts have apparently inspired a younger generation of Serbian Irish groups, including Tir na n’Og and Irish Stew of Sindidun. I would almost say these groups are trying harder than the Irish to be Irish, but then again, Dubliners isn’t so subtle a name either.