Monday, October 28, 2013

Love etc.


Cambridge, England
Romantic comedies are often labelled as chick flicks while romantic novels are classified as chick lit.  Whatever they are labelled as , these reads and movies with happy endings are funny and entertaining. I also enjoy reading contemporary fictions where the writers are sensitive and perceptive in telling the stories of their protagonists without offering any resolutions nor happy endings. A week ago, in my course of work, a woman wanted to seek some legal advice about getting a divorce from her husband. After she had cancelled and rescheduled her appointments several times, she showed up at my office without a scheduled appointment. For some reasons, she had somehow told the husband that she was coming to see me and where she would be. The husband arrived in my chamber shortly after her as he clearly did not want their marriage to end up in court. The woman was obviously troubled so was the man. He looked bewildered when his wife left my office in a huff. 

 
In The Interestings, a novel written by Meg Wolitzer , seventeen year old Goodman, one of the teenagers was upset at the sight of his ex girlfriend getting close to a new boy at the camp, he knocked back a few drinks. Here is an extract from the book by one of my favourite writers. It is a story about coming of age and friendship that was forged by shared memories and  artistic interests.

“Gudrun, tell me something,” the very drunk  Goodman asked the counselor . “ Why do you think women act the way they do. Being all needy and then getting you completely drawn in, then screwing things up. Doing this little back and forth with you. Why are relationships so fucked up? Does it ever change? Is it different in Denmark?”

“ What are you asking me exactly?” Gudrun said. “ Why do I think the problems between the men and women of the world are the way they are today? You want to know whether the problems that you teenagers feel- will they follow you over the rest of your lives? Will your hearts always be aching? Is that what you are asking me?”
 Goodman shifted in discomfort. “ Something like that ,” he said.

“ Yes,” said the counselor in a suddenly plangent voice.” “ Always they will be aching. I wish I could tell you something else, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth. My wise and gentle friends, this is the way it will be from now on.”


As one goes through life, one becomes sinister and realistic as we know that when a deal is too good to be true, there is a reason behind and you may be a means to an end. In the “ The Truth” by Michael Palin, Keith Mabbut is an environmentalist journalist and a  straight and honest guy. He had been commissioned to write a book about the elusive humanitarian hero Hamish Melville. His agent, Silla contacted him at the time when  he had wanted to start writing his novel, a fiction entitled “Albana”.  He told his agent, Silla that she had torpedoed his first day on Albana and Silla responded, “ Albania or Nirvana. You can’t have both.”

Mabbut’s marriage had disintegrated and his estranged wife had moved on. Palin wrote : “When  he pleaded creativity, she demanded practicality . It was an argument they had from the moment they met. After they were married, she had settled into life and he had not.

When Mabbut was asked to write the book, the offer was attractive so he questioned, “ Why would a sleek, smooth plausible man like Ron Latham have any interest in an iconoclast such as Melville? The Truth is about  the decisions that Mabbut had to make in his life, the price of compromise and how the  truth can be whatever you want it to be.

Crazy Rich Asians is a funny story about  three superrich, pedigreed Chinese families and their  snobberies.When Nicholas Young heir of one of the wealthiest families in Asia brought home Rachel, his Chinese girlfriend from New York to attend his best friend’s wedding , Rachel became the target of gossips that spun through the grapevines. When Eleanor, Nick’s mother found out about her son’s plan to bring home an unknown girl, she flipped and set out to find out the girl’s roots. Eleanor asked her friend Lorena to do some investigative work and found out that there was a fellow who claimed to have information on Rachel. So she gathered her group of rich “tai tai” friends  and headed to Shenzhen to meet the man who would trade his information for a price.

“Thirty thousand yuan? That is ridiculous!” Eleanor seethed at the man in the poly-blend gray jacket seated across from her in the lounge off the lobby of the Ritz- Calton. The man looked around to make sure that Eleanor’s outburst wasn’t attracting too much attention.
 “Trust me, it will be worth your money,’ the man said quietly in Mandarin.

Kevin Kwan has told the story with a keen observation about snootiness and wealth while some of the characterizations could be stereotyping and the story per se may belong to the chic lit genre nonetheless his story telling was peppered with humour and it has been a fun ride reading it . 

The Elephant House (Edinburgh)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Deconstructing Our Mind

Bourgogne 
I wonder if we are obsessed by certain thoughts, will we lose our minds or if we are unhappy, will the brains become more susceptible to attack by some plague that damage our brain cells ? I am told that our brains are like sponges and we are constantly absorbing information; thoughts, good or bad, constantly flow out of our heads whether they make sense or not at all.

Our thoughts can hurt or pick us up. Some people are naturally happy and they are the lucky ones, some will brood over even the slightest thing. We have to be  mindful of our thoughts, things we say and do but we may react or respond badly to people who say things we do not agree with. Often people say things the way they say them because that is the way they are . We have to interact with all kinds of people and very often the phrases and things  that we hear are not what we want to hear. When we are worried, defensive or upset, we  definitely do not listen well and lack clarity of thoughts . Ideally we should empty our minds and think of nothing and just focus on the present, but our minds have a mind of their own. Thoughts are fluid so when we are not careful, we may find ourselves saying things that come out sounding all wrong or getting anxiety attacks.

Burgundy - Seurre
 If we sit back and watch our life like watching a movie, most of us will find that such a movie will definitely not make it beyond the slush pile. We may not be able to replay every scene of our life but there are certain scenes that constantly get rewound  in our head and some scenes linger on longer than others. We can remember some moments from our life well but not the others. Some of these memories may get diluted or diffused over time as we are constantly having new experiences. Sometimes we embellish our memories for self-preservation. How we feel about our new experiences is probably dictated by who we are and what we have learnt from all our previous experiences. Some people have this heightened ability to remember every single detail and even a long memory for slights while most of us can only vividly recall what we have selectively committed to our memory, it is like an outline of what has happened and what we remember is a memory of a memory.

I also think that all of us are damaged at some point of time when we are growing up and even as we grow old. Julian Barnes wrote in his novel “ The Sense of an Ending” :

 I certainly believe that we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it ; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged ; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of .”

The story is  about how unreliable our memories are and how we are often stuck with the analysis  that is entirely self-referential when we examine and try to explain the events in our lives because we are incapable of looking outside our own head. The author wrote, “ But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time …give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.”
Perhaps it does not matter what we have encountered before and how past experiences have shaped us, what is important is to be able to embrace each day with an open mind and not to remind ourselves about what had gone wrong or what could have been done. After all,the present will soon become the past.

The protagonist, Tony Webster  in his 60s asked himself :Does Character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities ;but that‘s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later; between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We ‘re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it ? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word- our tragedy.”

 The Sense of an Ending” is indeed a brilliant piece of writing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Happy Endings


Do I wish that I could freely hop onto a train from 93/4 platform and escape to Hogwarts  or go shopping for a magic wand at Diagon Alley so I  could wave away all things unwanted and bad with a wand? Sometimes I do. But  I like to believe that life could be magical without wizardry for muggles too.

As we work towards economic stability and our idea of a fabulous life, we may become ambitious and self indulgent in our chase for economic prosperity and fulfilling success that we lose sight of the purpose of our pursuits which is to be happy. Gretchen Rubin wrote in her memoir ‘The Happiness Project’ :“ The words of the writer Colette had haunted me for years: “What a wonderful life I ‘ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” I didn’t want to look back, at the end of my life or after some great catastrophe, and think “How happy I used to be then, if only I’d realized it.” Gretchen had an epiphany and  decided to take stock of her good life and devoted one year to explore and study the meaning of happiness and be mindful about the steps she can take to be as happy as she could be. A wonderful memoir that reminds us that happiness is all about our expectations, perceptions and attitudes towards our surroundings and limitations. Gretchen writes that everyone’s happiness project is different and unique. She wrote: “Do good , feel good ,feel good ,do good.” 

On Sunday night, I surfed the television channels and happened to catch the harrowing Indie movie “96 minutes” on Sundance channel. The movie was  based on a true story. It is about four youngsters, two teenage kids and two college girls from different backgrounds. The movie told the story in a  back and forth manner. There were  flash backs to what happened  before the girls were attacked when they walked to the car. The girls were about to graduate. Both of them were upset about something. One was not sure if she wanted to pursue law, something her family wanted her to do and  she was upset that her family was not going to attend her college graduation while the other friend just had a break up so they both were unhappy about their situations. Then suddenly their problems seemed trivial when they were carjacked by Kevin who had an abusive upbringing and wanted to join a local youth gang. Kevin was joined by  Dre, who came from a crime-ridden neighborhood, was smart and ambitious, but he was  too loyal to his friend and wanted to prevent him from  committing crimes. Kevin was emotionally unstable and constantly broke into rages that was beyond Dre’s control thus his acts ended them in grave trouble. There were moments Dre  had a chance to possibly change the chain of events but he did not seize those moments.

Malapascua,Philippines
The story in “96 minutes” depicts how volatile and tragic life can be. 

In Where’d you go Bernadett, a novel by Maria Semple, Bernadett Fox, a talented architect  had disappeared. Her daughter, Bee Branch, a smart and articulate fifteen year old, went searching for her based on a series of letters and emails  that were strung together by her . In the school that Bee attended in Seattle, S stood for “Surpasses Excellence” A for “Achieves Excellence”. A for “Achieves Excellence” so every kid is some kind of excellent. Bee is a straight- S student.

 Bee’s dad told her, Have you heard that the brain is a discounting mechanism?He then explained to the daughter, “ Let’s say you get a present and open it and it’s a fabulous diamond necklace.  Initially, you are delirious with happiness, jumping up and down, you are so excited. The next day, the necklace still makes you happy, but less so. After a year, you see the necklace, and you think, Oh, that old thing. It’s the same for negative emotions. Lets’ say you get a crack in windshield and you are really upset. Oh no, my windshield, it ‘s ruined, I can hardly see out of it, this is a tragedy! But you don’t have enough money to fix it , so you drive with it. In a month, someone asks you what happened to your windshield, and you say, What do you mean? Because you brain has discounted it.” 


The daughter said, “ The first time I walked into Kennedy’s house, ‘ I said, “ it had that horrible Kennedy-house smell because her mother is always frying fish. I asked Kennedy, What ‘s that gross smell? And she was, like, What smell?”

“Exactly” Dad said. “ You know why your brain does that?”

“ Nuh-uh.”

“”It’s for survival. You need to be prepared for novel experiences because often they signal danger. If you live in a jungle full of fragrant flowers, you have to stop being so overwhelmed by the lovely smell because otherwise you couldn’t smell a predator. That’s why your brain is considered a discounting mechanism. It’s literally a matter of survival.’

Where’d you go Bernadett  is about a woman trying to find her place in the modern world and it is a heartwarming story that is hilarious and quirky. It is also a story about motherhood which is emotionally draining, consuming and frustrating but ultimately a wonderful experience.

Burps and Giggles cafe, Ipoh, Malaysia
 Most of us have some level of resilience to cope with the challenges in life. In order to be happy, I  remind myself not to take things too seriously and remember that not everything is about me or to think that I am more deserving than others. I also remind myself that even if I make mistakes, it is not disastrous and more importantly, I must be grateful for the good things that have happened. Last week, I happened to lunch alone in a Thai restaurant where there were only two other customers. I overheard a conversation between  two young mothers. One of them was telling the other that she did not care about the son getting top marks as what really mattered to her was making sure that the son actually learnt the subject or the language. It was very refreshing to  have heard what I overheard  because these days, academic results seemed to be all that matters to many parents.

Brighton, England 
My elder daughter sent me a link http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wait-but-why/generation-y-unhappy_b_3930620.html for the article that is entitled “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are unhappy”, an interesting article written with accompanying graphs and drawings. The advice given by the article is summed up as follows:-

“(1) Stay wildly ambitious. (2) Stop thinking that you are special and (3) ignore everyone else.” The writer wrote this :

Other people’s grass seeming greener is no new concept, but in today’s image crafting world, other people’s grass looks like a glorious meadow. The truth is that everyone else is just as indecisive, self-doubting , and frustrated as you are, and if you just do your thing, you’ll never have any reason to envy others.”  Great advice indeed. 
Georgetown, Penang