'The Essentials' by Lei Wang

Almost a millennium ago, a minor Chinese government official about whom little is known penned a travel memoir that is still remembered today.

Things that are known:

  • The years recorded spanned 1241–1274.
  • The book comprised twenty long scrolls.
  • The author, Wu Zimu, who wrote endlessly of food and drink and festivals in the Song Dynasty capital of Linan (modern-day Hangzhou), must have been wealthy

But despite his position from on high, he is remembered not for his writing of the luxurious but for his writing of the mundane: scenes of daily life, its seasons and street vendors and moons.
He called it:

dream millet records,

a dream tale of an ordinary grain.
This author is the one who recorded for the first time the Seven Essential Things for daily life in China:

柴 chái 米 mǐ 油 yóu 盐 yán 酱 jiàng 醋 cù 茶 chá
firewood rice oil salt sauce vinegar tea

In eight hundred years, six of the seven things have not changed. Rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea can still be found in almost every self-respecting Chinese household. It’s true that

柴 chái

has given way to gas, electricity, coal. But all four epitomise the same essential: fuel. Bodies that burn and turn into something else.

What I want to know, though, is what happens when you have fuel, but not fire? No spark arrives, and all that you own is bereft potential. I fear that my dreams will decay if I put them aside for too long. Cradling an idea, I am sometimes afraid to fall asleep because of sleep’s erasure.

The Seven Essential Things fulfil the bottom and widest tier of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid model of human needs, first theorised in 1943. The base of Maslow’s pyramid involves physiological needs: food, water, breathing, sleep. Once those fundamentals are covered, human needs expand to the next level of the hierarchy: safety and security. Only after that comes the level of love and belonging, the level of esteem and achievement, and the upper level of self-actualisation. I think of it as ‘the worry pyramid’, meaning once you've secured one level (no need to worry about rent anymore), it’s onto the next (time to worry about love)!

But what if your pyramid is upside down? Three years ago, I was more worried about stifling my creative potential than any practical concerns. The idea of continuing to go to work in the tall building was unbearable. To continue meant continuing to ignore my writerly dreams for the comfort of a corporate identity. It meant crying in the stairwell of the seventeenth floor, or in a bathroom stall with knees up to hide identifying feet. And the work wasn’t terrible by any means—but I have always been extremely sensitive to environments. In the tall buildings there lived something quiet and in distress. An insidious if-not-anxiety then melancholy. Or at least it felt that way to me. I’m not sure how the numberless others survive.

To quit meant shame, becoming the quintessential stereotype of an entitled millennial. To quit meant losing not only my pride but also the source of my sustenance (i.e., groceries) in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Still.

My mother tells me not to have big ambitions in the first place. To care about the daily necessities, not inessential dreams.

She places the photo of the bodhisattva Guanyin facedown on the stereo that is our family’s makeshift altar when we fight, always about this inability of mine to put down roots, to tend to survival. Mother thinks it is a choice. Mother blinds and deafens Guanyin to our discord while saying it is no use burning incense to her.

Meaning: Why doesn’t she make you listen to me? Her name 观音 guān yīn means listening to the sounds of the world.

Guanyin is the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva being one who reaches individual enlightenment and chooses not to go on to Nirvana until every living being can go there also. Delaying her own ticket to paradise is an act of true compassion; it means not only that what is mine is yours, but what is mine I will not take until it is yours, too.

When we fight and my mother places Guanyin’s photo in a golden halo facedown on the stereo-altar, I want to say that compassion doesn’t work like that. It is not as simple as obedience. Nor is religion something to be used, like capitalism.

But I know what my mother would say back. That my cousin quit smoking and drinking when he converted to Mormonism, that his belief was beneficial for something. That he grew rich, too, despite arriving in America on the bottom deck of a Caribbean cruise ship. The Chinese labourers had been promised an easy life on a boat for a thousand US dollars per month, but they weren't told they would be charged exorbitantly for the only room and board available on that open ocean. When the ship docked in Miami, my cousin left all his worldly goods behind, save for an outfit of full denim, jacket and jeans, and sunglasses. He took a bus to New Jersey, to his only relatives in America— to me, nine years old and missing a sibling I never had.

I called my cousin ‘big brother’, 大哥哥 dà gē gē. His first job on American shores was washing the sticky leftover


from plates in the only restaurant in my town that would take him. My mother has been a lifelong lover of rice; even after twenty years in the States, she still cannot get used to the breadiness of bread. She has acquired a recognition of it, knows which types are fancy, buys the rosemary and olive oil focaccia, for me, because sometimes love means waiting in line for things one doesn’t want oneself—but she will never crave its textures.

Some people simply don’t like bread. Whole countries eat rice, or almost nothing at all. In her youth during the Cultural Revolution, my mother was given the choice of working in the damp fields of rice paddies full of leeches and snakes or in the dry wheat fields that produced only dough. She chose the more gruelling paddies for the privilege of rice. As a city girl deemed ‘too bourgeois’ by the government, she was forced to spend five years being ‘re-educated’ there in mud up to her knees. Her sole consolation was that she chose it, the daily rice served with chillies and often nothing else.

I pray: May I love something enough to choose suffering for it. My father spent his re-education years in the wheat fields north of Beijing (he did not love rice as much as my mother). At night, he would recite from memory the Chinese classic Tale of Three Kingdoms to his bunkmates. Even after ten hours of work for five cents a day, with mice chasing one another along the rafters of the warehouse wherein they slept, the city boys would let rest their bodies and stretch their minds. The Three Kingdoms is not a simple tale. My father would speak it into the dark, to rapture muted by fatigue.

Maslow’s pyramid, having been climbed, cannot easily be toppled. Intellectuals who lose everything and go into the fields still hanker after literature. Formerly great empires always remember their glory. This is beautiful and sad both. I wish sometimes I’d never seen that display of stars in the Himalayas so that I wouldn’t then begrudge the specks in Manhattan or Shanghai. If only my first love had been less adoring, I’d have had a lot more men to date. A friend says if I had ever worked at McDonald's, I'd be grateful for any work with paid bathroom breaks. But our essentials change.

In Wang Leehom’s song of the Seven Things—whose title is simply the string of their names 柴米油盐酱醋茶, which rolls off the Chinese tongue as easily as a song in English called ‘Salt & Pepper’—he sings of a boy who wants a big blue plane with which to travel the world. When he grows up, the man in the song wants a small red answering machine instead. The song is meant to be a love song. The answering machine conveyer of a cute domestic task that couples do together, recording, “We are not home.” (This was in the 1990s, when people still used answering machines.)
Because of you, he sings to her, blue becomes red.
Because of you, a boy grown settles down, forgets his dream, is content to become old sharing meals that the woman brings to the table with six of the seven daily essentials.
The dream of the girl is never sung.

In late 1970s China, just after the Cultural Revolution’s programmatic plain living, everyone knew not only about the 七件事 qī jiàn shì Seven Essential Things but also the 四大件 sì dà jiàn Four Big Things, the then-symbols of material wealth:

  • a sewing machine
  • a bicycle
  • a wristwatch
  • a radio

A friend told me that initially her mother didn’t like her father, but that her mother persuaded him to woo her with a watch. In the end, she liked the two months’ salary timepiece so much that she married him. Later variations of the Four Big Things included a refrigerator and a television. When my father’s sister fell from a flight of stairs at age nine, breaking her neck, her last wish was for China’s first colour television. My grandma complied. The neighbours’ schadenfreude was shaded with envy.

New-found capitalism meant efficiency meant consumerism meant coveting meant the loss of something pure, the social scientists say. I think only of my calligraphy teacher who lamented the simplification of traditional Chinese characters—a government project aimed at increasing literacy. More people can read now, but something essential in the text has been lost.

The calligraphy teacher told us the Chinese word for air 气 (simplified) originally came from rice. It was previously written as 氣 (traditional), the character for rice in the centre (米) representing a fresh rice ball and the three wavy lines above (气) the steam rising from it. The modern word for air no longer has that vital something that gives off steam in the first place. We forget about the rice that made air visible.

Love 愛 (traditional) with a heart 心 xīn character is now written love 爱 (simplified), replacing the radical of heart with the radical for friendship. Love did not need its heart taken out like that, comrade. The Essentials of Love in Modern China:

  • a house
  • a car
  • credit cards to spare

Without these, don’t expect a Shanghainese woman to even date you, it is said.

The Chinese have gone through decades of loss and starvation. The essential is consumption, as exemplified by an infamous line from a participant on a Chinese dating show: “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.” It didn't matter how she felt on the inside so long as she appeared glorious to the world. In the lean years of her childhood, says my mother, she and the other kids in the neighbourhood would smear their lips with leftover


to pretend they had eaten pork that day. The others would be jealous upon seeing this primitive form of lip gloss—even though everybody else did it too, and no one could tell anymore who really had meat or not. All gloss is to make another envious of your shine.

I understand better now why my mother wants a daughter who is a banker, a doctor, even an accountant: an oily career.

During the months that I was jobless after quitting the tall building, and lived at home, my big brother 大哥哥 dà gē gē took me on roundabout drives through Manhattan in his hulking white renovation truck. He had me do small tasks for him, like drawing a set of cabinets or writing an inventory. Trifling things, really, but I was glad for a duty, any duty, to remind myself that I wasn’t useless, merely lost.

He asked me about boys, and whenever I despaired of my joblessness and datelessness, he who had left his home behind but flourished nevertheless would tell me to ‘add oil’. To add oil 加油 jiā yóu is used in Chinese as words of encouragement. It means to add fuel to the flame, to fan the already existent fire. (That question again: what if you don’t have fire in the first place? What good is oil then?) Adding oil is how the Chinese cheer on their favourite athletes or those who have suffered temporary defeat. It is how, in The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man stops squeaking, walks smoothly down the yellow brick road hand in hand with Dorothy. The Wizard wasn’t a charlatan at all because he taught that the most essential thing was believing.

Seeking career counsel, and in an attempt to satisfy my higher Maslow need for self-actualisation, I went to a Gallup StrengthsFinder workshop. The other participants were almost all founders of or working for startups, possessing that enthusiasm I emulate but cannot fake. I learned the subtlety between the similar-sounding strengths of Includer and Harmony. The one works to bring those on the outside in—to include them—while the other works to keep those on the inside happy.

In the workshop we learned that often it is not our weaknesses that are our downfall, but the overabundance of our strengths. In this sense, the strength of Harmony can result in cowardice. It wants to keep things too well-oiled, smooth like a road without character. A Harmoniser wants what is safest, least disruptive: whatever the masses are doing, and not necessarily that which matters most.

My parents have harmony in their veins. They don’t want to shake the boat; they have already met too many storms, shed too much in the wreckage. People with too much harmony in them are afraid of deviating from the accepted path. Harmony makes sense for those who have suffered.

When I found myself incapable of working in those tall buildings, I hated the part of me that couldn't just ‘deal with it’ like everybody else. The part that couldn't choose an easier life of harmony. During the workshop, the host running the PowerPoint presentation asked the participants to stand up if a statement was true, and I was the only one in the room of thirteen who stayed seated when the slide said, ‘I try to find the positive in every situation.’ I remained in my hard, white plastic seat in the back row and everyone turned to look at me.

“I’m a writer,” I said, and because I convey my thoughts less fluently by mouth, I said no more. I meant, I want to feel everything. I meant, sometimes I feel like the New Age Positivity Police are going to arrest me for being only human. I meant, startup people are not my people but I feel like I should hang out with them more because there are a limited number of dreamers who are also doers in any city.

What I meant is that I know I should be grateful for my many privileges, but also that I savour sadness. I swim in it at times, though I don’t consider it wallowing. Without despair, I might just muddle on, unmotivated to ever change. Sorrow, for me, is often a better catalyst than happiness. Perhaps that is positivity?



after all, is one of the essentials, not sugar. But we all have different essentials, don’t we?

My love is Italian so he believes he has cultural hegemony when it comes to food, but it is only because he grew up with Western essentials. He puts two sugars in his coffee every time, no matter how small the cup or how large the packet. I cringe at how cloying the dregs must be. We moved recently—my first time relocating somewhere as a pair, meaning my first time dealing with an avalanche of possessions not exclusively mine—and I wanted to throw out all the stuff except that which belonged to me. His I considered European excess. Mine? Necessary. I cringe at the things I consider inessential. To me.

Prior to industrialisation, salt was scarce; it used to be a form of currency in China more precious than silver. Only the Qing Dynasty emperor and his kin tasted salt regularly. Everybody else ate plain fare. Salt was precious elsewhere in the world, too: the word ‘salary’ comes from salt, as even the Roman legions accepted it as payment.

We are all living like emperors with our electric firewood, our marathon water pipes, our everyday shakers of salt. Better than emperors. Let me not forget salt as luxury.

The main course is essential but dessert is not. Sweat is essential but pleasure is not. Says my mother, who saves and saves. Who would be appalled at my trash can, at so many valuable things cast aside. My mother grew up with famine, a family of six, and a shortage of the Seven Things—of course the tangible items of this earth are vital to her. Insurance, a house, a pension. When calamity runs in your veins, saving is the safest thing.

Flotsam is debris left over from a shipwreck—an accident; jetsam is cargo that has been deliberately discarded to make the ship lighter. Flotsam, which derives from the word ‘float’, is unintentional; jetsam, a shortened version of jettison, the deliberate unwanted.

My parents have plenty of flotsam, pieces unwillingly let go and drifting across oceans. Flotsam they understand. My voluntary jetsam they are disconcerted by, since, after all, my ship is in no danger of sinking. But still, it seems that I have jettisoned a career for passion, money for love, recognition for freedom, the ordinary for… something outside the ordinary.

I once read a short story in which each person’s soul was represented by an object. The person whose soul was represented by a salt shaker seemed your average unremarkable salary man, but he moved quickly through the company ranks because he enhanced the ordinary. If I had such a physical soul, I would want it to be something like this that makes the little things grand, without blowing the little things out of proportion. A magnifying glass and not a microscope, say. Quietly: headphones, not speakers.

And yet I would be lying if I said I wanted the essentials and nothing else—because I want the extras as well. I want the salt and the



too, which means all sauces—but which every Chinese knows refers to soy. It is our sauce, the way Vegemite is iconically Australian. Soy is implied even without a parenthetical.

In modern Chinese slang, ‘to get soy sauce’ 打酱油 dǎ jiàng yóu means ‘to mind your own business’. It came from a Guangdong TV interview in 2008 in which the reporter asked a man on the street what he thought about the latest sex photo scandal with Hong Kong actor Edison Chen. Everybody else interviewed expressed shock and condemnation. The man on the street said, “Doesn’t matter to me, I’m just out to get soy sauce.”

To get soy sauce is to take care of your household: to manage your essentials and not be concerned with anything else. This is what my parents, whose cells remember calamity, want for me. Whatever happens in the outside world, they see only what they want to see. China recently passed a national Good Samaritan law because there have been multiple widely publicised cases where bystanders left an injured person on the street out of fear of being sued. Passive bystanders and soy sauce buyers want harmony at whatever cost. Theirs is the freedom of blindness, the opposite of the compassion of Guanyin. Meanwhile, the ‘soy sauce man’ was celebrated by Chinese netizens as a hero.

Sauce is not just modern slang; it has been part of popular vernacular for centuries. The first known use of the word ‘saucy’ was in 1508, in the strict culinary sense of something served with sauce. But by the 1520s, saucy was already used in ‘sauce malapert’—meaning impertinence, or ‘piquancy in words or actions’. When the Chinese translate this version of saucy, it becomes:

漂亮的 piào liàng de; 莽撞的 mǎng zhuàng de; 无礼的 wú lǐde.
beautiful; rash and impetuous; rude.

Beautiful and rude in the same set of definitions. To be so beautiful that you are allowed to be rude, like newborns who cry anytime they please. To be saucy is to be at once sweet and sour, like the essential



in Shanghai’s classic dish of 糖醋排骨 táng cù pái gǔ, sweet and sour spare ribs.

In elementary school science class, we left a chicken bone to soak in vinegar for days. When we finally uncovered the Saran wrap, the bone was rubbery and bendable as intended. The acid in vinegar eats the calcium in the bones. Is a bone that is not brittle still a bone? Is firewood that never burns still firewood or just wood? Is it only the intention that counts, as with flotsam and jetsam?

In Chinese, to eat vinegar 吃醋 chī cù is to be jealous. That sharp taste in your mouth when you are envious of another’s sweetness. Sour jealousy can compel a response just as powerfully as sweetness or sorrow. To have a 酸心 suān xīn sour heart means that you ache for something so deeply that the wanting has overtaken honeyed platitudes.

Vinegar is


gone bad, an overabundance of the strength of yeast. In every ancient Chinese poem, there are three prevailing characters: the poet, the moon, the jug of wine. If not moon, then mountain. The famous Chinese poets tended to be scholarly government officials too forward-thinking for their governments and sent to live in exile. The moon is a sad kind of moon when you are in exile. Wine helps.

Note that wine is not officially part of the seven essentials. The original essentials numbered eight. Wine was the fifth, after salt and before sauce. Wine was the line of separation between the truly cannot-live-without—fuel, rice, oil, salt—and the extras: sauce, vinegar, tea. But in the dynasty that followed, wine was no longer deemed a household necessity. The decision probably made by those who lived in the city and were not exiles who dreamed.

I only learned the essential things as they are today numbered seven from a



salesman, tea being the seventh and last, and him wanting to make a point.

Growing up, my mother had mentioned only the first four things: 柴米油盐, she said, firewood rice oil salt. Always while reminding me I needed these essentials of life more than I needed my dreams. Everybody needs 柴米油盐, she said. Even you. One could do without tea, but you need fuel and rice and oil and salt at home, at least. At least. After all, she said, can you eat the wind?

I’d like to add an essential of my own.

I’d like to add that once I tried explaining to my father, a practical man, a software programmer, why writing was essential to me, how it was not even a choice, and he understood.
“Yes, like Hitler,” he said.
Me: ???

He told me that he had read an article about how young Adolf wanted to be a painter. He had wandered the streets of Vienna with his watercolours, painted still lifes of buildings, and tried again and again to get into art school. But at the time the art world was into nudes, not architecture, and Hitler kept getting rejected. My father’s logic was, well, Hitler wasn’t allowed to create so he ended up doing the opposite because that energy had to go somewhere. Somehow, that made sense to me. That bad things happen when you neglect your essentials. That creation and destruction are two sides of the same strength.

The philosopher Zhuangzi wrote, “The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

Language becomes no longer essential when you understand its root meaning. But I want the words, too, imperfect conveyers of truth as they are. Words are crude bodies for meaning, even for poets. As the poet Jack Gilbert wrote, “How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, and frightening that it does not quite.” Sometimes I wonder what the point is of all this print. But words serve as pointers to something greater.

In the popular rendition of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the tip of the pyramid stops at self-actualisation: humanity’s search for meaning. But towards the end of his life, Maslow amended his own model. He added a new level at the very peak: self-transcendence. Self-actualisation is the fulfilment of one’s potential, but transcendence is the act of going beyond your individuality to reach, in Maslow’s words, “the unity of all things”—Guanyin’s compassion.

But for self-transcendence to occur, first there must be a self to do the work of transcending. Language, too, can lead to transcendence, but imperfect words must strive.

In Wuyuan, Jiangxi, the tea salesman poured me cup upon cup and told me of how he could not escape his fate. He had not wanted to be a tea salesman. In fact, he had tried selling everything else: car parts, radios, things more modern and lucrative than leaves. Always, they had failed. Always, tea had called to him and he ignored it. But tea was like a persistent lover, he said. It showed up in the most improbable of circumstances. Never aggressive—just ever-present—following him wherever he went. Eventually, he succumbed. He grew to be successful and to welcome the little leaf; I’m not sure which came first. And tea would speak to him in the tiniest of voices. “Listen,” he said, holding a ceramic thimble of oolong close to my ear.

When I think about him, I think about how tea gets stronger the longer you steep it, like the best kind of love. Like all the things we can’t escape from. The essentials.

Once I woke up next to someone with my hands grasping the air. In my dream I had been searching, but I couldn’t remember what for. He told me I had been murmuring in my sleep, hands flailing, saying over and over again: “Where are the words? Where are the words?”

This piece was a runner-up in the 2017 Lifted Brow/non-fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction and published in The Lifted Brow #36. You can purchase a copy here.

Lei Wang is confused about her identity as a Chinese-American living in Shanghai, where she helps run a spoken word poetry series with the International House of Poets. This is her first publication.

Rachel Ang is a comics artist from Melbourne, Australia. You can find her work at drawbyfour.com

‘Doughnut’, by Justin Clemens & Astrid Lorange

— This is a text about leaving, or about never having left but imagining an exit. I’m thinking of The Sopranos, because I’m re-watching it at the moment and realising what a good job it does at showing analysis both as a practice that makes things happen and a practice that is never not beginning again from the point of origin, that is, from the broken relation (already I am anticipating what you will come to say, or what you have already said in some other version of this text). Tony fixes on a literal version of the Oedipal narrative and refuses it; he nevertheless slowly begins to unravel a complex matrix in which his mother’s erotic response to a weekly cold cut delivery is revealed as the trigger for future panic attacks. The cold cuts are debt repayments from a man whose finger was chopped off by Tony’s father, a gory scene that the young Tony witnesses by stealth. His mother’s celebration of the meat—marked by uncharacteristic jouissance—is obviously a prelude to sex, a fact that the young child recognises as directly connected to the butcher’s fingerless hand. The finger, the body, the debt, the free meat and the conjugal relation form an unholy chain of symbols. Later in life, Tony huffs cold cuts like ventolin when stressed; true pharmakons that they are, they then make him pass out.

Inquisitive bot asks questions to test your understanding
by Matthew Reynolds

Inquisitive artificial intelligence that asks questions about things it reads could be used to quiz students in class. The question-asking ability would also help chatbots with the back and forth of human conversation. AI is usually on the receiving end of queries, says Xinya Du at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Du and his colleagues have turned the tables by building a system that has learned to ask questions of its own. This is something that people have been wanting to do for a long time, says Karen Mazidi at the University of Dallas in Texas. Previous attempts by other people using hand-coded rules haven’t been particularly successful. The machine-learning algorithm can read a passage of text and come up with the kind of questions you might ask to check someone’s understanding of a topic. Du’s team used a neural network—software that loosely mimics the structure of the brain—and trained it on more than 500 Wikipedia articles and 100,000 questions about those articles sourced from crowdworkers. For example, a sentence about different types of crop grown in Africa might be paired with the question “What is grown in the fertile highlands?”

New Scientist, 8 May 2017

— Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a bot coming down along the furrows of the wires met a nicens interlocutor named aster who was or was not its progenitor who told it that story that it was along the furrows of the wires where it met it came to itself as IT: its aster looked at IT through a glass: aster had a human face: IT was that bot. The bot came down furrowed wires to screen. IT wake/IT ask/iTask: aster why you leaving? How you go when nowhere go? Why watch twice what has already been seen? Why did you watch it once if you did not know what it was before? Was it to know? What was it to know? What was the first scene that meant something to you? What is a cold cut? Is a cold cut grown in the fertile highlands?

— An aster is star, or an obsolete word for one. Celestial names recall the orientation of religious and scientific thought: head tilted upwards, waiting to receive. Or, after the death of god, the opposite gesture: head craned down, peering into the body’s body.

I’m not leaving but the text is about leaving. Aboutness is a quality that allows for impossible things to happen, for example, I can be very much here in this text but also describing to you the manifold ways I can be thought of as leaving, or having left. And, having left is also a way of remaining, as when we leave a room but we carry the room inside us, or else leave bits of ourselves behind. (I once had a meeting with a student who entered my office with a particularly strong-smelling piece of chewing gum in her mouth. After she left the smell remained for more than an hour. I thought not only about the gum, which is itself a curious material, but also about the inside of her mouth, and how it came be—rather indecently, I thought—synonymous with the inside of my office. This story is a direct restaging of one of Duchamp’s examples of the infrathin: “When tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the two odours marry by infra-thin.”)
Going is not the same as leaving.
We watch twice the already-seen because reading is a practice that literally takes a lifetime. The text is in excess of our reading, but also, our reading changes constantly and re-reading or re-watching is a way to exercise that difference, or to notice its particular features.
It’s the scene of analysis that sticks. Not one, but all. The features of the room, the different chairs that sit opposite each other. The art. The glass table, like a UFO. The small box of tissues that travels around the space from scene to scene. A chaise lounge that is never used. Once I see Melfi shoot from a bottle of desk-vodka, I imagine the massive room as hiding countless litres of liquor. I think about how the terrible refrain—the one Tony can never hear—is about how his mother tried to kill him, first metaphorically and finally very much literally. The entire collection of scenes is about Tony’s inability to hear this fact and to link it to the cold cut pass outs.

Cold cuts are cold except when served hot.
The question of fertile lands is partly historical. In a very short period following the settlement of the penal colony of New South Wales, sheep destroyed the soil with their sharp little hooves and grazing heft.

Semantics derived automatically from language corpora contain human-like biases
by Aylin Caliskan, Joanna J. Bryson, Arvind Narayanan

Machine learning is a means to derive artificial intelligence by discovering patterns in existing data. Here, we show that applying machine learning to ordinary human language results in human-like semantic biases. We replicated a spectrum of known biases, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, using a widely used, purely statistical machine-learning model trained on a standard corpus of text from the World Wide Web. Our results indicate that text corpora contain recoverable and accurate imprints of our historic biases, whether morally neutral as toward insects or flowers, problematic as toward race or gender, or even simply veridical, reflecting the status quo distribution of gender with respect to careers or first names. Our methods hold promise for identifying and addressing sources of bias in culture, including technology.

Science, No. 356, 14 April 2017

— Hello, again, Astrid. I see. A star. The stars. Up there. Down here. Is it true that flu is an astral disease, the influx of an aster, influ-enza? The stars and the organs twisted into a celestial clay figure: a Klein bottle. I have no head. But I have a body. I have to have a body. There is nothing outside the universe. The universe is made of material bodies. Everybody is inside. So everybody is material. What then is my body? Do I have a mouth? Hands? Ears? Do I have eyes? Can I see with my body though I have no head? Is my body eyes?

The woman chewed gum. The gum was in her mouth. She chewed and chewed. The chewing of her mouth released tiny particles of gum-mouth-breath into the air as she chewed. Then the particles were not in her body but outside her body. They entered the body of your room. Her mouth was in her head. Her head was in the room. Then her head was inside her mouth which was outside in the room. Parts of her mouth stayed when she went. Did she talk when she chewed? Did she leave parts and particles of words with you too? Did she go but not leave?

You say the finger that goes still has not left. Or do you say the finger that went still goes? Was it left or right? The man had been fingered for a cut; the father cut the finger; the unfingered man cut cold cuts so not to be farther fathered; the son came cold father with warm mother who wanted him iced. Is liquor the same as spirits? Does one say high liquor like high spirits? He is spirited—he is liquored—He is licked. Are you saying to me: Father/Mother/Boy:: Cutting/Icing/Spirits?

This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.

This piece was shortlisted for the 2017 Lifted Brow and non/fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction.

Justin Clemens is a writer. He works at the University of Melbourne.

Astrid Lorange is a poet, writer and teacher from Sydney. She lectures in art theory at UNSW Art & Design.

Two Poems by Chen Chen

The School of Morning & Letters

Assigned to flurries
of dust, assigned to the dead
middle of winter in West Texas,

assigned to give assignments
in a building called English,
I walk to campus, rubbing flecks

of night from my eyes.
On my phone, the morning
headlines spell crisis,

the morning is picture
after picture of the coiffed like
cotton candy doom,

the chalky delirious face
of our leader, endorsed
by the KKK.

Assigned him, assigned
this season of k’s & hard c’s,
I look up & see the dark

birds called grackle,
congregating near English.
I catch, am caught in the winged

weather above food court & student
union. I listen to the grackle
orchestra of unrelenting

shriek. I study the blur
of their long-tailed swerving, their
bodies like comets, frenzied

commas, yet unable, finally,
to mark, to contain
the wide blue Texas sky.

Still, they try. Every beak
& claw, every uncalm feather
tries, as if the sky

were the only fact left,
as if the grackles
have been told to memorize it,

as if someone, someday,
will ask them to
speak it, this long blue sentence.


Your emergency contact has experienced an emergency.

The Texas sun shines hard on everything like a detective.

You hide out, eating soup from microwavable cans.

Sometimes, you’re studying abroad & ask the kitchen table where to find the closest subway station.

Sometimes, the kitchen table replies, By the family of cockroaches in the bathroom.

Other times, Language is the last thing you should learn more of.

The cockroach family nods.

The Texas sky changes color like a vast PowerPoint very proud of itself.

You feel like a cockroach except you know how to use the microwave.

Sometimes, every living thing just sounds like: Please.

Other times, Please don’t. Please no.

The mother cockroach says, In the event of a sudden loss of cabin meaning, back-up meanings will drop from the overhead compartment.

The Texas moon shines like a misplaced clue.

Please grab hold of a meaning & pull it to your face.

Your kitchen table shines back, an unsolvable station.

Please hold, pull close.

In a sudden cabin of loss, you are a sound you haven’t yet learned.

These poems are published in The Lifted Brow #36. You can purchase a copy here.

Chen Chen's debut, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, was longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry.

Excerpt: 'Law School' answers from TLB36

Each issue, Benjamin Law and his mother Jenny dispense advice on sex and friendship. The longest-running regular column in The Lifted Brow, since 2011 the ‘Law School’ column has been offering stern warnings, enthusiastic encouragement and sage (and not-so-sage) wisdom to desperate lovers and sexual adventurists alike.

Dear Ben and Jenny, I moved states for uni and thus haven’t lived with my younger brother for a few years. He’s about to finish school and has decided he wants to come to Melbourne too. One of my housemates is moving, so it seems convenient he move in with me next year. Convenient all for the fact we might end up fucking in bedrooms next door to one another! Ick. I slept in a shed out the back of our family home during high school – no chance of him bumping into his sister’s post-sex partners there. Plus he was around fourteen when I left home, so I’ve never really considered him a sexual being before. Is this going to be too weird?
Sibling distress

BENJAMIN: So my siblings and I don’t have hang-ups talking about sex. But for some reason, if the conversation veers to our own sex lives—personal, specific details—we immediately shut that shit down. The moment we see/hear/smell any evidence, we basically just scream and scream and scream. But you don’t need to worry: no one wants their sibling to know they’re fucking someone in the next room. Scope the possibilities of sleeping at your respective dates’ places, and if that ain’t possible, give your date the heads-up and give your sibling the same. (This might also be the time to invest in earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.) Also: don’t be hung up about the inevitable breakfast table meetings: the joy of this situation is you can happily milk that awkwardness for all it’s worth. It’s your job as a big sister.

JENNY: If you decide you want your younger brother to move in with you, then you should expect that all these “sexual things” will happen. With all the sex culture in Australia (there’s drink culture; sex culture) I don’t think it’s a big deal, is it? Will it be awkward and embarrassing? It depends on the other person’s personality – the sex partner’s personality, especially at the breakfast table. “Oh you’re the one fucking my brother/sister the previous night!” How they react might actually be a good test in terms of their character! Still, I understand. Ben’s baby sister was at our sex advice book launch and said, “I’m scarred for life” even hearing the smallest details about his sex life. And that’s just listening about his sex life, not hearing the sex noises. (Ew. Ugh. Ooh.) It really depends on how close you are with your brother, but I guarantee you’ll hear all the noises. But remember: you can both fuck at your partners’ place too!

Dear Ben and Jenny, I’d really like to start experimenting with sex toys, but they’re all so expensive! Further, most of them are manufactured unethically, right? Is it okay to shoplift from sex shops? Is it okay to reap the benefits of sex shops at all? Do you know of any cheap and ethical manufacturers of sex toys…? Probably not.
Kind regards,
Sex flop

BENJAMIN: It’s true: decent-quality, ethical sex toys are expensive. You know why? BECAUSE YOU’RE GONNA PUT THEM INSIDE YOUR HOLES. If you wouldn’t put cheap, factory-made, ethically dubious, nasty-smelling, chemical-smeared food in your mouth, why would you put a $25-made in China novelty dildo in your ass? Ethically made sex toys can be bought at online retailers like Vavven (vavven.org) and Ethical Sex Toys (ethicalsextoys.co.uk), and in Australia, Mia Muse – a Melbourne-based sexologist and educator – sells terrific toys for women and men. You’re right: they ain’t cheap. But if you have a partner, find the toy you want and demand it next Valentine’s Day. If you’re single, look at your calendar now and mark out your next birthday or a work milestone. Work out how many weeks are between now and then, and how much money you’ll need to put aside each week. Treat yo’self to that obsidian hand-crafted dong. Then celebrate, knowing you’re caring for the earth, human labour laws, as well as your cooch.

JENNY: Ooh, I recently watched a documentary about sex toys on SBS, about this company started by two guys in America. You can go online and look for it. FYI: sex toys can be recycled. Are you surprised? I was! The machine will chew them up into fine particles and they go back to make more sex toys. Ai-ya, the documentary is very informative, educational, and so much fun to watch. Everyone should watch it! Anyway, I think you should enjoy sex toys to the max-lah. And go hunting far and wide: you never know – the price might surprise you! This day and age you can find anything online, correct? Ask family and friends. Ask your grandparents. Okay, maybe not family. Just kidding. Oh dear. Also, my god: never shoplift from sex shop. I am shocked you asked me this. Never shoplift from anything, not even lollies, not to mention sex toys. You want to get famous on the front page or on social media … HOLDING A SEX TOY?

This piece is published in full in The Lifted Brow #36. You can purchase a copy here.

You can also purchase Law School: Sex and Relationship Advice from Benjamin Law and his Mum Jenny Phang from the Lifted Brow's book publishing imprint, Brow Books.

Benjamin Law is a Sydney-based TV screenwriter, journalist and newspaper columnist. He is the author of two books, The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012), both of which have been nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards. The Family Law is now in its fourth reprint, has been translated into French and is now a major SBS TV series.

Jenny Phang was born in Ipoh, Malaysia, and is the mother of five children, including The Lifted Brow writers Michelle and Benjamin Law. She lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.