John Tang

My Father in the Morning

Posted in Short Stories and Excerpts, Uncategorized by Jt's Item Roster on March 15, 2012

Every morning I would find my father in his bedroom with his head down over the Bible, the one with torn pages, where the plastic covering was falling apart, praying goodness comes to the family and himself. He would be in his military uniform, camouflage, green and brown, with steal-toe boots laced up the shin. He had rough skin and a flat nose that would shift in its clay-like material as my father closed his eyes, wrinkling the skin about the face with his eye lids, asking the lord to heal his brother Louie from his heart disease, to bless the Tang family, to bless him the opportunity to contribute more to this family tragedy, to give him strength to make it to through a busy day on the military base which was laying off contractors because America was bringing their soldiers back home.

I would wait for my dad under the doorframe outside his room. With sheer curtains, the window allowed some light into the room. Maybe I might save my childish query for another day: Can I have the plasma tv back in our room, because you guys don’t even use it?

Why I wrote this passage: Not only do I love my father, but I need to practice Gardner’s psychic distance. As I get closer to my father in details, I can get closer to his soul as a person, or as the modern generation tends to call the soul, the psychology of the man. I hope understood him and rendered him with care and a strong sense that I am no doubt his son. I hope it shows that I love him very much.


Being Tone Deaf also applies to Writers

Posted in Short Stories and Excerpts by Jt's Item Roster on March 11, 2012

I have this feeling I don’t have a voice of my own. Writing my last story about a toad-man, I have the crisp prose of Ernest Hemingway; now what I mean by crisp, I mean lines are complete from one sentence to the next as if they can stand on their own. Sometimes they can sound too clipped. That’s my main concern. I want my prose to sound like music, from one sentence to the next, without pause or end in the thought until we get to the passage. But it seems I’m tone deaf and I lack a cadence in speech. Before Racleo, my friend and piano teacher, left for South Dakota, he told me I was tone deaf. I asked him to teach me how to sing, and as we went up and down the scales, I couldn’t really match pitch or keep harmony with the chords.

“Is there a problem with me?” I asked, taking my fingers off the keys of the baby grand piano.

“No, there isn’t.” Racleo said. “You are just tone deaf.”

“Is there way I can improve my ability to hear?” I asked. “Is there a way I can learn perfect pitch.”

“I don’t know.”

It devastated me to know I can’t listen to music well as others. The quartets, the bebop, soul, hiphop’s drum and bass, rock’s sharp guitars, all of that has no meaning to me. I’ve been feeling the wrong emotions when I listened to them. Then I see the deficiency bleed into my writing. I can’t keep a steady voice like my heroes before me, who can command language to swing and pause like song, who can end a passage intensely as a crescendo, who can take us through a dream state with the subject simple as the coffee mug sitting on the corner of the desk. Why do I not have a strong voice?


It reminds me of my revision process. When I finished my manuscript and printed it out, I would go ahead and correct the grammatical errors in each sentence. But sometimes my eyes would glaze over the beginning of the sentence with a conjunction perhaps, like But, and I quickly think to myself if I can remove it or not; do I want to begin with the tone of the sentence with a contradictory? But I forget where that sentence belongs in the passage. Maybe I’ve rendered the atmosphere in a positive light, but at the end of the paragraph I wanted something a bit darker because the character was about to appear on stage and disrupt the atmosphere:

All his things on the table were out of order, or as David liked to call his room, the perfect example of Chaos Theory. Half the things he owned didn’t really have a place on the table. Time left it there. There was a day-old coffee, its whip cream beginning to smell better. There was an empty ketchup bottle lying against the mug of loose change. There were books, bottles, staplers, notebooks, computer mouse, and folders with student’s manuscripts. What could he be using all this for? David was lying in the bed that sat beside his work desk. He woke up and got behind the laptop and began writing the worst sentence. He lifted the coffee and didn’t realize how old it was until he felt the weight. The bitter odor reminded him of body odor. The books took up half of his working space. He saw the ketchup bottle leaning against the mug of loose change, picked it up, and threw it away. What could I be using all this for?

I don’t know if I rendered the example clearly as I want, how our psychology reflects how we treat objects. I wish I could muse over the Things in my room like Rilke and Pamuk, but it seem stories don’t always do that, unless your character is a poet. And this fact seems very restricting for an author.

Ten Things I’d rather do than Write

Posted in Sketchbook by Jt's Item Roster on March 8, 2012

Things I’d rather do than write: (1) Watch The Office on the laptop on the internet. (2) Eat a full meal with brown rice and two pieces of spam on an oily paper plate. (3) Eat four more pieces of spam because I ran out of brown rice. (4) Look for music on the internet and play it until it ends and replay it; by the second time I’m already on a different webpage. (4) Prepare my lecture on creative writing so I didn’t look like an idiot come Tuesday afternoon. (5) Read my favorite authors randomly off my bookshelf or my backpack. (6) Read one of Rilke’s letters to a young poet and encourage my future imaginary student to do the same, and prepare for Tuesday’s lecture on creative writing. (7) Find the submission date for my thesis online. (8) Change the themes on my WordPress, sometimes in a solid black and white scheme, sometimes quirky like the model for Esquire magazine. (9) Check on the internet for update from my favorite rap musician, hoping something novel has come out. (10) Think about what hasn’t been finished on my imaginary island that existed somewhere above Australia: The Nibui Island.

Have I grown Deaf to Things?

Posted in Sketchbook by Jt's Item Roster on March 8, 2012

When was the last time I walked around without music, in silence? Even in high school I rode the bus with a cd player and watched the flowers flow to the rhythm of hiphop; then eventually I’d give my attention to the artist as if I wanted to be him. Have I forgotten Things, in the Rilkean sense, has music, too? Have I lost the innocence to pay attention to Things, the dreams they’ve rendered for us? It makes me sad to believe I don’t listen well enough, not with the precision of a poet like Rilke—the master and close friend of mine. Today I walked home from San Francisco State listening to a rap artist by the name of Copywrite. The man had amazing sense of cadence and precise lyrics about his family and those who oppose him in a battle rap cipher. When I came home I unplugged my ear phones and put the ipod on the table. My studio apartment was so open even though it was about half the size of a car garage and filled with books and furniture. While I plugged in my laptop, I also pulled out a book I forgotten since this morning: Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letter’s to Cezanne.” They weren’t letters addressed to the painter, but they were his thoughts on the painter through letters to his wife, friends and publishers. I read a passage that lifted me from my seat: You must live in your work. I thought, When was the last time I wrote genuinely, when I wrote with necessity? I came many more passages in the letters that had beautiful renderings of life, of the rain, the greenish yellow of the flower’s petals, so on and so forth; and the Rilke’s renderings made me thing: When was the last time I rendered an image? With my thirty minute walk back home, I should have a room full of Things. But I didn’t. I grew ashamed at my artistry. I had forgotten Things have voice, and I only needed to do was listen to them well to live inside my works.

The Problem with Hot Chocolate

Posted in Sketchbook by Jt's Item Roster on March 6, 2012

The Problem with Hot Chocolate

There was a coffee house on Irvine St. by the name of Tart to Tart that sat in front of the Bart tracks. When I’d lose my mind in the small studio beside my home owner’s car garage, I would drive to this coffee house for coffee, depending on my purpose, whether it was for my personal gain or for school. Most times I would stop to render characters and pay attention to the clothes people wore, the clock hanging over the entrance, the students who come here with their laptops and sometimes the occasional group of older men and woman that came from a bar. This week in particular I had thesis to turn in. But I really didn’t care for it, thinking I’d tell my creative writing students tomorrow: The only thing school really taught you was how to push shit when you really didn’t want to.

The coffeehouse was filled with students, from the back to the entrance, under the dim orange lights and slow ceiling fans. There was a group of students sitting at a round table, and I thought, why don’t I practice rendering a camera shot from group to individuals. Or what about rendering that bearded man with a large, silver-rimmed headphones from Sony? Why do people tend to walk away from his table? Or eavesdrop on that conversation about Filipino men who always wore their button shirts down? She told her blonde friend they were pretentious and conceited and if they could carry mirror in public places they would: “Then I’m like, mom, I can’t date a Filipino.” There was so much to render in the coffeehouse. On a night like this, I needed a small cup of coffee but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome with unsteady hand and unfocused thought, and then deprived myself of sleep because it was already 9:30 PM.

So I ordered a glass of hot chocolate for two dollars and twenty cents. I saw the concessionaire (I say that because I didn’t believe he was a baker) used a steal pitcher and heat the milk in the barista’s steel rod. In couple of minutes the milk was steaming from the surface. He poured the whole thing into the glass, leaving a eight of room for me to sip. It was sweet and a little bitter from the dark chocolate. The warmth put me in a dreamy state as I looked for a table close to an electric outlet. Maybe I needed to practice transposing long-hand into type.

Everyone hung over their books and laptops and notepads, in little clusters like dandelions. I peered all the way to the very end where there was an old oak table, the surface beginning to fade away and all you saw were dark spots, scratches and pen-doodles of cartoon cats. There were two people sitting there. I didn’t think they were a couple until I asked if I could sit here and the girl kissed the boy on the lips slowly and rubbed his bearded chin, and said, “Go ahead. It’s alright.” She wore thick plastic frames and her hair was short under the hood of the sweater, while the boyfriend wore an orange and black San Francisco winter coat and matching baseball cap and shoes (which were canvas and orange).

I turned on my laptop, and while I waited for the screen to change from Microsoft XP into the backdrop of James Jean’s acrylic painting of a shoe maker, a heavy usage of gray and maroon, I began drinking my glass of hot chocolate. The warmth hasn’t changed since I first sipped it, nor did the bitterness changed. By the time I finished loading the beautiful desktop, I was halfway into the glass. As I tipped the glass to my lips, I could see the dense powder of dark chocolate at the bottom. I was drinking it quicker than I’d preferred. I had to ration the sweetness for the evening.

There was a girl sitting beside the wall under the framed photographs of the streets of Italy. She was Filipina according to her soft hair and the dark tone of her skin. She wore a blue-and-white striped sweater, loose-fitting, with tight jeans that caught the contour of her thighs. I remembered last week a young Caucasian joked with her, poking her with his elbow, smiling, and playing with her hair, as she seemed to enjoy it, playing along. He was with her tonight, wearing the same clothes he wore last week, a hooded sweater, athletic shorts, and a Boston, Celtics headband. His triangular nose was well-defined and had little brown dots. I had to render their relationship accurately? What gestures displayed affection? When were they able to disconnect, through their eyes—the hardest angle for me to render. More important and lastly, is it me who values their relationship or is it how each person value one another?

By then my glass of hot chocolate was down to the last quarter. I was growing tired from even trying to write the bra strap that could be seen through the Filipina’s sweater. I wondered: Should I buy a second glass so I can sit and study this couple? But that would never give me the strength to get into their minds, because for now, I’ve only been rendering their appearance in a positive light (for I believed they were having fun in light of each other’s company). Imagine all the beauty the man developed for her over the week. How he has grown used to the appearance and was now in a stage where he saw her soul, her values:

Alex met Elaine Rodriguez at Tart to Tart last week near the entrance. She was cute, darker than the usual Asian girl, but nevertheless, had the dark silk hair that flowed off her shoulders. She had neat soft cheeks that lifted her small eyes. She was reading a large textbook on psychology. Alex needed to type an essay, but his Mac laptop was running dry. He pulled out the cord from his backpack and tried to weave the cord around her, where he bumped into her little Converse red shoes.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s alright,” she said. “Are you trying to plug that? Here let me help you.”

She brought the plug all the way to the electric outlet between two tables filled with students and their laptops.

“Okay, thanks.” He said. “I have a friend at SFSU who studying psychology. So, are you reading Freud’s iceberg.”

“No, I’m passed that. That’s like lower-level undergraduate.”

–I’m tired. So let me bring it to an ending we could all rejoice over good fortune: The young lovers lived happily ever after. Sadly for me, there wasn’t enough chocolate to partake watching these young lovers.

Renderings of a Literary Colleague and Family

Posted in Uncategorized by Jt's Item Roster on March 5, 2012

Call of Duty after Midnight

There a little boy reciting his essay, “and this happened…and this happened, then this happened…” through the wide television screen where my brother was playing a serious game of Call of Duty, a video game that rendered accurately World War I and War II, from the ruins of Germany to the guns of the French rifle called the Canine. Very interesting. It was Sunday night around eleven o’clock and there was a boy who playing a violent game. It was safe to assume that the boy—if he lived on Pacific time, and he if lived in the east coast, then it was absolutely pass his bedtime—snuck out of bedroom for a quick game before he had to submit himself to the day of responsibility that we called middle school.

Afternoon in Sacramento

We were driving to Sacramento to the Arden Mall this Sunday afternoon. It has been months since I been to the northern side of California—well, perhaps this is an exaggeration, but that is because I’ve lived in San Francisco for the last two years. So when the dry farmland, the blue skies, the broken boughs, the green Sacramento River, pass through my vision like a movie, I feel alien to the surrounding and feel almost refreshed to be there.

            “I don’t think California is the best state.” I said to my brother (who was driving) and to my cousin. “Look a Chad. He lived in Arizona and he’s happy. Look at Morris. He moved from Sacramento back to Texas, and now he’s happy.”

            Chad and Morris were close friends in high school that we’ve grown to love as brothers until now.

            “It sucks we didn’t get to hang out with Morris that much when he was here.” My brother said.

            “Yeah, it’s true.” My cousin said. She lived miserably here for the last ten years, with a boyfriend who wasn’t romantic like the men in Philippine and a job as a administrator for Bank of America who has manager who treated her poorly.

            “Maybe,” my brother said. “We haven’t really lived in the other states. So we don’t really know.”   

            “No, I have.” My cousin said.

            “Where have you been?”

            “Ohio,” she paused. “Wait. California is better. I’ve also been to NewYork.”

            “No, you haven’t.” My brother said. “When?”

            “When I first came here, we went to New York.” She said. “It was nice. I wouldn’t mind living there, but you know how much it costs to pay for parking: forty-five dollars. Just for parking! I’m not saying we’re cheap. You know, we’re coming from Philippines, so when you see forty-five dollars for just parking, it’s a lot.”

My Friend who Teaches Literature to Middle School Students

Beneath the very passage I’m writing now has a few flaws. I wrote it freely, without who has priority of desires, my friend or me. In the end I do, however, have an epiphany. Is the story for me, and is it earned?

We were moving in May, and I needed to get rid of some of my books. I’ve been boxing them for weeks now, when I texted my friend if he could take them: “I’m heartbroken I have to depart with them.” My friend, Aaron Capri, was an avid reader. He was a thin young man, who dressed well for casual days, in a dress shirt and jeans, leather shoes, in example. He was in word ready to be a teacher for the modern age. One time he came over to my house for short stories.

            “I hate kids,” he said. “They don’t have the attention span to listen in class.”

            He was a substitute teacher for high school in Fairfield.

“What were you teaching?” I asked.

“Romeo and Juliet.” He said. “Do you remember the irony in the story? It’s like the humor you get from Kafka; if you didn’t laugh, then you didn’t get the story. Romeo and Juliet is the same. You have these two lovers who disregard everything, their families, their lives, and when in the end, when Juliet doesn’t recognize Romeo and Romeo doesn’t recognize Juliet asleep—asleep, because they’re not dead–and they kill each other; that is irony.”

            I saw the tragedy in the inebriated state of romance.

            “I see.” I said. “Don’t you think you’re teaching something too hard to grasp. Kafka is a dense piece. So is Shakespeare.”

            “We had to go over Shakespeare in class.” He said. “One thing I learned about them: their teacher doesn’t teach shit. We had to memorize the end and act it out. How can you know how to act it out if you don’t understand the work?”

            I brought out the anthology he asked for. From Ralph Ellison to Gabriel Marquez, from John Keats to Yusef Komunyakaa, from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller, it carried a breath of literary masters, from traditional to contemporary—which in fact used the traditional forms. The anthology used thin pages and was worn down. I had kept the thing since my undergraduate in college.

            “So why do you need this?” I asked.

            “I’m tutoring this girl.” He said. “God, she’s dumb. We were reading Kafka’s ‘Before the Law,’ the one we read in Mr. Wiley’s class, where a guy appears at the gate and the gatekeeper doesn’t let her through. Right there, John. That is literally the plot. A guy appears at the gate and the gatekeeper doesn’t give her entrance. When I asked the girl, what is literally happening on the page, she goes, I don’t know.”

            He mocked the girl saying the last remark in an upward inflected falsetto.

            “How old is she?”

            “She’s in middle school.”

            “You don’t think that story is dense for middle school student?”

            “But it’s short.”

            “Then what’s the second one you went over?” I said. “Over the phone you said it was a Marquez piece. Was it ‘An Old Man with Very Enormous Wings’?”

            “No. I haven’t read that one yet though.” He described the second short story. I faintly remember it; I have read the entire collection of Marquez, but was never able to grasp the full meaning of the mythological renderings of people in all the stories. The one my friend described had a dentist and mayor. I tried to dialogue the meaning of the story for myself, but all I could remember was the last scene had emotional intent and the character had motivation, when the dentist drilled the mayor’s tooth.

            “Something like that happens.”

            “Doesn’t the dentist have motivation to drill the mayor’s teeth?” I said. “Something about the town’s money? Doesn’t the dentist torture him in the end?”

            “I don’t know about that.” He said. “The way Marquez described the dentist’s utensils is amazing and suggests torture is in story. But I don’t remember the dentist torturing him.”

            “Anyways, he’s as dense as Kafka,” I said. “Maybe his prose a little softer.”

            “But it’s short.” He said. “All she has to read is like three pages.”

            “I agree.” I said. “Well, all my suggestions are in that book. They use contemporary language. It’s not too highfalutin. Then some of them are even funny. I would start with Sherman Alexie. It’s accessible culturally and thematically; you have several attack points.”

            “I’ll go ahead and read them, first.” He said. “I hope the student learns from them.”

            “I think you should teach college students.”

            We shook hands, and I had to part ways with my anthology—because I knew I gave it to a very intelligent man who could reconstruct a million world-views in each story. I remembered the anthology kept me interested in literature, beginning with Metamorphosis by Kafka. As I sat on the dark-brown woven chairs on the porch, I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge what was accessible and what was inaccessible to a student. Perhaps they just need the right density to challenge their minds and at the same time keep them stone through the text. Then again that stone was a naive dream we all rendered in our minds.