Sunday, May 24, 2020

Strangeness in my mind

During the lockdown, I was thankful that I had not lost track of my days in a week. As I occupied myself with  some work from home, I found  that the line between my home and work became blurred. Most days, random  thoughts glided through my mind, at times crystal clear but very often fragmented. On days when I felt rather on edge due to lack of control over what was going on, I made cookies using an easy recipe that was no brainer. To me, any flour recipes with butter, coffee, chocolate or raisins cannot go wrong. When I could use the time to read those books that I had been meaning to read or halfway reading them, my spirit would be lifted. Though I do miss a good conversation over a meal with a friend or two,  I do not mind the isolation except for the bit where work and office are concerned. Aside from books, what has kept me sane is my espresso coffee and our dog, Holly. 

I started reading  ‘Writing with Intent, Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005’ by Margaret Atwood. In the author’s introduction, the following passage resonates with me:-

Everything we do is embedded in time, and time changes not only us, but our point of view as well. Also you find out what happened. One year’s prophecy becomes the next year’s certainty; and the year after that , it is history. How could I know, when visiting Afghanistan in 1978 --- six weeks before Muhammad Daoud was assassinated, initiating the chain of events we’re caught in today – that this beautiful, strange country would become unrecognizable over the next twenty-five years? We’re always looking over our shoulders, wondering why we missed the clues that seem so obvious to us in retrospect.”

Such an insightful statement. It makes me wonder about the saying hindsight is 20/20. As we navigate ourselves through the uncertainties and gloom that has the threat of CoViD-19 permeating our daily life, most parts of the world are in either full or partial lockdown. Every day as  I receive more information about how easily the coronavirus spread, I find myself being so bothered about the hygiene around me that there is no turning back. I miss those days when I would not look at my shoes and think about what lurks beneath them as I would happily swap one pair for another depending on the occasion and how they made me feel. If I could travel back in time, I would tell my young self to be more prepared for this pandemic. Each day, I take a walk with Holly and the walk helps to kick start and anchor my day. When we stroll along the street, she is chuffed despite the lack of activities in the neighbourhood.
Here is a excerpt from  False memory, a fiction  written by Dean Koontz.
When she realized that the dog had finished his toilet, Martie slipped her right hand into a plastic pet-cleanup bag, using it as a glove. Being a good neighbor, she neatly collected Valet’s gift, turned the bright blue bag inside out, twisted it shut, and tied a double knot in the neck.The retriever watched her sheepishly.
If you ever doubt my love, baby boy, Martie said, remember I do this every day.
Valet looked grateful. Or perhaps only relieved.
Performance of this familiar, humble task restored her mental balance. The little blue bag and its warm contents anchored her to reality. The weird incident remained troubling, intriguing, but it no longer frightened her. Excerpt From: Dean Koontz. “False Memory”. Apple Books

This is how you lose track of your time during the day.
Wash your hands. Did I read somewhere that you should wash your hands every fifteen minutes? I suppose as frequently as you can. At the beginning of the lockdown, I remember watching a video uploaded by WHO and since then, I had been making sure that we would spray sanitizer and wipe down every packet of stuff we have purchased from the shop and remove the plastic wrapper if there is one. The routine is tiresome but we want to be safe from all that microbes that might be lurking on those packages.

Oops, did I spend 20 seconds washing my hands? Let me wash again.

The same 20 seconds rule must also apply for the sanitizer to work when wiping down every item we bring into the house. 

Spray, sanitize, wash hands with soap and make sure you wash and clean your hands thoroughly.

How about commonly touched surfaces like the taps, doorknobs and switches?  Yes, that too. Again more spraying, more sanitizing and wiping down with alcohol-based cleaning solution.

Hey, you cannot use the same wipe or the same cloth, you will be transferring the germs from one surface to another.  Use tissues?  Oh no, that’s so wasteful, so not environmentally friendly and so uneconomical. Your mind tells you not to think about environmental issues so now we have gotten rid of plastic and we are dumping tissues? I tell myself tissues are recyclable and the garbage bags we use are recyclable. Perhaps you can use the cloth, then you have to wash and dry the cloth, you think about water usage. Perhaps you can soak all the dirty cloth in soapy water, you imagine all those microbes dancing in the pail. Of course, you think about the environment when you feel compelled to throw away some good plastic bags just because you need to remove the contents as told by all the information fed to you and me. Am I just performing the procedure for a false sense of comfort?

Silly, you just make sure you wash own hands and avoid touching your face. Oh, that hair in my face, I just flipped it away, was my right hand clean?  Silly you’re supposed to always press the lift button or turning the doorknob with one hand and leave the other hand clean. But I cannot recall which hand  I  use to open the door or press the lift button, the strand of hair is tickling,  I cannot ask you to push it away for I cannot trust another person’s hand.

Breathe, breathe, breathe. How long are twenty seconds, you are told you sing Happy Birthday twice, how many birthdays have passed. Twenty seconds when a zillion thoughts vanish from your head, have you scrubbed your hands clean? I notice that my hands are dry from all the washing. Remember don’t touch MEN,  mouth, eyes and nose. It is time to drop the bad habit of touching my lips mouth when I speak and rubbing my eyes when eyes are tired.  Wear your mask.  It helps to keep your hands away from your face when your mask is on.

Breathe, breathe, breathe. All that blabbering, all that in your head.

Here is delivery.
Every packet of stuff you have bought online or received seems to be staring at you, daring you to touch them, open them without wiping any sanitizer down. Does your sanitizer contain 70% alcohol? Yes, that too. Is it safe to breathe in all these alcohol-based sanitizers? 
Then I stumbled upon the Spanish film TOC TOC. The movie is about OCD patients. How relatable. One of the female patients has a career in the laboratory, she has seen all kinds of microorganisms under the microscope. The cleaners threaten to complain to the Union when she starts mopping the floors despite their protests. The therapist is actually amongst the patients, pretending to be one of them, but the patients do not know. It is hilarious and it is a reminder that I do not become overly obsessed about those microbes. Sadly I can no longer be taking off my shoes without imagining them swarming with germs or lounge around after returning from work without hurriedly heading to the bathroom for a good shower head to toes. 

Arundhati Roy has written an excellent article in Financial Times, stating that the pandemic is a portal between the old world and new world. click
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 
We are going through extraordinary times. Perhaps the world needs some sort of resetting hence the pause caused by the epidemic is necessary but not all setbacks are equal. When  I find myself bothered by the presence of microbes, I watch Holly who seems to sniff at everything like she is Inspector Clouseau and how she skips and yelps when she is about to step out for a walk whenever she sees one of us picking up the leash. I find myself drinking my coffee and tasting my wine and food with more intent.

There is a kind of strangeness, something is brewing, it is certainly not coffee.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Nostalgia Ride

Every now and then, I travel down memory lane thinking about those with whom I once shared my growing years and wonder what has happened to them. Perhaps given a chance, it might be nice to meet them just to see what their life stories are after we parted ways but is it really wise? Quite often it is probably best that we leave our memories of them as they were.  I am a late developer and I was going through my twenties with rose-tinted glasses, wide-eyed and full of optimism. I miss those years when I could just act on a whim or an impulse. As we grow older, we evolve and become pragmatic but not necessarily wise. We often romanticize the memory of what actually happened and wonder about the path not taken.  No matter what reasons we gave for having parted whether mutually or unilaterally and if we had really meant for one another, we would have ended up together.
Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson is about first love that is powered through  a mutual love of music and songs in the late 70s.  It is a nostalgia read.
The story is very well written, this is how it begins.
23 December 1978
‘ There they go, at the beginning of it all, their younger selves, walking through the dark, winter streets of Sheffield : Daniel Lawrence and Alison Connor. He’s eighteen, she’s sixteen, it’s Saturday night and they’re heading to Kev Carter’s Christmas party, and nothing much has been said since he met her from the bus, but each is achingly conscious of the other.’
They were on their first date. Then the story is fast forwarded  to October 2012 in Edinburgh where Dan is a journalist at a gig. ‘Dan never sat if he could stand. You should never sit at a gig; it wasn’t sodding theatre, it wasn’t cinema, it was music.’
Dan Lawrence is now married to Katelin and they have an eighteen-year-old  son, Alex and they live in Edinburgh. One late night and it is 3 a.m.  amidst a stream of tweets that appear in the feed and notifications from people with whom he barely connects and messages from people he actually knows, a new notification pops up that catches his attention. It’s from Kev Carter who alerts him to AliConnorWriter. Ali Connor is Alison Connor who is  now a bestselling novelist,  based in Adelaide, Australia. They are on opposite sides of the world. She is the one that got away thirty years ago.
Alison has two teenage daughters and married to Michael McCormack.They start communicating across the ocean and  over thousands of miles their shared love for songs by sending each other links to songs. They go about their daily lives interacting with their families pretending that it is all harmless. They are transported to their shared history through music that resonates with them and find each other again.

The story is written in two alternating timelines. Daniel and Alison were from very different family backgrounds. Alison never allowed Daniel to send her home. She was living with an alcoholic mother and an older brother who was always looking out for her while Daniel lived a charmed life with a cosy loving middle-class family  and a protective mother who had thought Alison was trouble.

In their present days,  Dan deals with Katelin’s contempt for his  chosen profession as a music journalist while Ali deals with her rebellious daughter  and her husband's arrogance and sense of entitlement  that comes from being born with privileges and his belief that  the family must follow what he says and he is not used to dissents. Alison ran away from where she was and met Michael while travelling with very little money that her brother, Peter had saved up for  her and work along the way.  She met Michael who was walking the Camino with  ‘a loaded pack, strong boots, wet-weather gear, a tent, a sleeping mat’ who would be befitting as a mountaineer while she was the accidental pilgrim. Michael ‘ had a thick wad of traveller’s cheques in his money belt and  an emergency private telephone number for the Australian Embassy in Madrid, where an old friend of his father was chargĂ© d’affaires.’ He had rooms booked at hostels and refugios all the way from Le Puy to Santiago. So they met while walking to Santiago de Compostela.

The story tells you how Dan and Alison become separated completely. The characters are all vividly drawn, while I know nothing about the soundtracks, I cannot help getting invested in their  stories as to how they have become separated for thirty years. Quite soon into the story , it is  apparent that Dan and Alison are having  their second chance  and it is obvious that Dan will not let her get away a second time.

I am apprehensive about the ending of the story not because I expect a happy ending. Life is complicated. I wonder at what cost should one pursue his or her one chance of happiness if he or she  could imagine exploring another life.  Can you be happy if you make people whom you care and love sad and disappointed? Whatever it is, your past is an integral part of you as whatever you have experienced along the way makes you who you are today but when the past catches up with you, it can become complicated if you mix your past with your present life, it may become a botched-up tape. The one that got away can be alluring if he or she is still as charming as you remember. 

Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson is well written and a commendable read. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Powerpuff Girls

There are books that I had meant to read for decades and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is one of them. I had a false start a couple of times and I am truly glad that I have finally read it.  Margaret Atwood is an awesome writer and she has an acute and insightful observation about friendships between females. I have never thought that the female sex is perpetually benevolent even though social expectations appear to typecast the female sex as such. Growing up, I have encountered female friends who had a tendency to make offhand remarks that did come across tactless or unkind, mostly were inconsequential. There was this one time when I was in my early 20s, I remember feeling appalled as  X, my one time best buddy from early teenage years told me that my younger sister was more of a grown-up than me. I guess I did not like to be judged. Surely everyone comes of age in his or her own time. In our twenties, X became a wife and mother while I was still footloose and unsettled. Decades later, when we caught up at school reunions, I finally saw her for what she was. On reflection, my best friend from school had always been a focused individual and knew her priorities. I used to think that we had shared common ideals when we had spent endless hours  discussing about social norms and the school system. We were in our early teenage years. I was twelve and she was turning thirteen. We were both newcomers for the Convent school that we were attending. For a year or two, she was close to one of the Irish nuns before they were all sent away. She had kept in strict confidence what she had shared with Sister G and she became a Catholic. As we giggled and wondered about what our parents were doing behind closed doors, we were also vocal in school being members of the students’ council and we performed skits before the old folks at the Home for the Aged making a fool of ourselves as comedians. I cringe when I think about how self- righteous we were. We were righteous alright.  We scoffed at how the society should place much importance to external beauty, material wealth and social standing. We definitely aspired to be strong women and I know she must be one. When I was eighteen, I had my first opportunity to go abroad with my father sponsoring my studies. X became a teacher and settled down. She and her husband moved to a bigger city. Her husband is now a successful businessman whose company had gone public and  listed. We lost contact for years until the time when schoolmates started locating friends with a view to reconnect with each other two decades ago. During one of the  first gatherings with some school friends, one former classmate casually quipped along these lines, “ Hey you know I bumped into X and she is investing in properties and she is now a Datin and her husband is a developer, why don’t you contact her for some work?”

My classmate obviously knew that legal practitioners always look out for new clients and  real estate work is one of the areas that are being sought as it is usually straight forward and can generate steady income if the development is selling well. In my experience as a solicitor, we know that  developers and the public generally make unreasonable demands on law firms in terms of fees chargeable and services provided by us .
 These offhand and careless banters might have appeared to be inconsequential, but they represent the kind of values we are contending with. They are neither good nor bad, friends were just offering pragmatic advice about the planet we live on. 

 Cat’s Eye is largely a meditation on ageing and what ageing does to our memories of the past.
Approaching 50, Elaine Risley is back in Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her paintings and she finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her childhood. Her parents had moved there when she was nine and she grew up along some girls. Before her family settled in Toronto, they had led a nomadic life. They ‘spent a lot of time driving, in low-slung, boat-sized Studebaker, over back roads or along two-lane highways up north, curving past lake after lake, hill after hill, with the white lines going down the middle of the road and the telephone poles along the sides, tall ones and shorter ones, the wires looking as if they were moving up and down.’ Queen Mary Public School, the school both her brother and her went to was some distance away, past a cemetery, across a ravine and they took the school bus to school. While she was close to her brother, Stephen  when she started going to school, she wanted to be initiated into the female realm.

Despite her success as an artist , Elaine is still taunted by memories of what Cordelia, Carol and Grace did to her. The irony is these girls behaved the way they behaved not because they were her enemies. To her understanding, they were her best friends and they wanted to help her improve. Amongst the girls, Cordelia’s mother was the only one of their mothers who had  a cleaning lady. Cordelia told her that she was not normal and she was not like other girls so she needed help and Grace and Carol would help her too. She did not want to lose these girls as friends. It was in the late 40s

Then they were in different school after completing six grades.

Carol Campbell moves away and I hardly notice. I skip Grade Seven and go straight to Grade Eight, missing the Kings of England in chronological order, missing the circulatory system, leaving my boyfriend behind. I get my hair cut. I want to do this. I ‘m tired of having long wavy hair that has to be held back by barrettes or hairbands. I’m tired of being a child. I watch with satisfaction as my hair falls away from me like fog and my head emerges, sharper- featured, more clearly defined. I’m ready for high school, I want to go there right away.’ 

As fate would have it, Cordelia was going to be attending the same school as her.
The day before the first day of high school the telephone rings. It’s Cordelia’s Mummie; she wants to speak to my mother. I assume it’s boring grownups’ business and go back to reading the newspaper on the living room floor. But after she puts the phone down,  my mother comes into the room.
“ Elaine,” she says. This is unusual, as she doesn’t often use my name. She sounds solemn.’

Cordelia’s mother rang to ask if Cordelia and her could walk to school together. Elaine’s mother was a little anxious about the proposal but she did not mind as she had forgotten about  all of the bad things that happened in primary school. She had other friends.

“ Why wouldn’t I ?” I say. I’m already sliding into flippancy, which goes with high school, but also I can’t see what she’s getting at. I’m being asked to do Cordelia, or Cordelia’s mother, some kind of a minor favour. My mother’s usual like is that you should do these favours when asked, so why is she hedging on this one?

But Cordelia has a certain power over her and it has continued to  haunt her for forty years. She thinks of encountering Cordelia without warning and she thinks of all the scenerios that she might find Cordelia in. Somehow  she is still haunted by memories of their  past friendship.

 ‘ What do you have to say for yourself? Cordelia used to ask. Nothing, I would say. It was a word I came to connect with myself, as if I was nothing , as if there was nothing there at all.’

If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good?
Probably the latter, I still have that need.
I haven’t seen her for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to see her. But now that I’m back here I can hardly walk down a street without a glimpse of her, turning a corner, entering a door. It goes without saying that these fragments of her ----a shoulder, beige, camel’s hair, the side of a face, the back of a leg-belong to women who, seen whole , are not Cordelia.
I have no idea what she would look like now. Is she fat, have her breasts sagged, does she have little grey hairs at the corners of her mouth? Unlikely: she would pull them out. Does she wear glasses with fashionable frames, has she had her lids lifted, does she streak or tint ? All of these things are possible : we ‘ve both reached that borderline age,that buffer zone in which it can still be believed such tricks will work if you avoid bright sunlight.

Early this week, when I started writing this post, I had thought of a friend from my student days abroad. We were flatmates for one year before entering the university. It was uncanny that a couple of nights ago, it was almost midnight, she sent me a photo of me and her taken when we were twenty years old.  She is in a time zone that is hours ahead of mine. It was past her midnight. She said she was unable to sleep and began looking through old photos. Over the years, she had from time to time sent me greetings but I did not hear from this particular friend for a long time. What a coincidence. Due to our courses, we did not attend the same university.  She had tried to dissuade me from doing law as she was told that the passing rate was low. Seemingly my female friends had a tendency to offer unsolicited advice and they might have had good intentions. Perhaps I was dreamy and did appear to operate on a different plane at times. Incidentally, a few years ago, there was this one time X and I were visiting London around the same time, I managed to catch a coffee with her and her husband at Monmouth CafĂ© located in Covent Garden. As we ushered into the year of 2020, new year greetings were being exchanged in the group Whatsapp formed by former schoolmates, X had shared a spectacular video of the fireworks at Taipei 101, the landmark in Taipei. I had just caught the fireworks from an apartment facing the Taipei financial centre 101 at the time. My family happened to be invited to a dinner at the apartment where one of our relations presently resides. It was another coincidence that  X and I happened to be travelling to the same destinations around the same period.  It was my family's first trip to Taiwan and after being on the move for almost two weeks, I looked forward to winding down the end of our trip with a book and drinking coffee, my favourite pastime.  

Now that we are growing old and many of my school friends have retired, they get together regularly and on the odd occasion when I  did join them, it was quite a jovial outing. I usually turn down the invitations to join the activities because I find that the dynamics can be overwhelming. While I appreciate the occasional hellos from friends who want to stay in touch, I am not exactly the sentimental kind.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Being there

I enjoy stories that are about passage of time or premised on alternate universe and  “what if you could travel back in time.”

The opening paragraph in Cat’s Eye , a fiction written by Margaret Atwood reads:
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once.’

 I have read Less  written by  Andrew Sean Greer and it is brilliant so when I came across The Impossible lives of Greta Wells and knew that the fiction  by Andrew Sean Greer  is about ‘what if ‘ and time travel, I had to read it. The concept is uniquely original as it is about time travel and yet it is not really about time travel as the character has not left 1985, she merely experiences the version of her in 1918 and 1941.

 Greta Wells’ life is falling apart. Her  charismatic twin brother, Felix, has just died of AIDS and Dr.Nathan Michelson, her lover of many years has also left her. Her aunt, Ruth is her sole companion in these months. Ruth is her father’s sister and her father ‘would not have approved of her visits; he always found his sister flighty, selfish, uncontrolled, the dangerous artist who had to be stopped.’ But Greta finds an ally and a comfort in Ruth. To heal her pains, everyone has advice. ‘ Try acupuncture, try acupressure, try yoga, try running, try pot, try oats , try bran try, try colonics, quit smoking, quit dairy, quit meat, quit drinking, quit TV, quit being self-centered. Finally she finds Dr Gilleo, a psychiatrist. She tries antidepressants from Ambinalon to zimelidine. She still mourns for the loss of her beloved brother. Then her psychiatrist recommends her to see Dr Cerletti for electroconvulsive therapy which  process will be twice a week. Purpose of the therapy is to bring her back to herself. During these sessions, she finds herself being cut out of her current world in 1985 and  transported to  1918 or  1941. During the treatment process  that will take twenty-five procedures, Greta gets to travel back and forth between 1918, 1941 and 1985. When she goes back in time, she is fully aware that she is experiencing life as it might have been had she and Felix, Alan (Felix’s friend), Nathan and Ruth existed in those years as well. In tackling events of her life in those earlier years, Greta has the  benefit of the wisdom that is acquired through her experience in 1985.  She is definitely proactive in taking steps to  gradually gain her present life back.

She explains to her aunt.
Electroconvulsive. It’s a last resort. They tell me it’s a seizure to break a pattern in my mind, but I know what it really is. They think I should be someone else. This Greta isn’t working, obviously. She’s worked for over thirty years, but it’s time for an update. Replace all the parts.”
“ Just one part.”
“ Just one part. Just me. I hate it, but I don’t know what else to do. I can’t…. I can hardly get up in the morning. And yet….”
Andrew Sean Greer’s writing  is beautiful,  acutely sensitive and funny. Here is an example.
It is almost impossible to capture true sadness; it is a deep-sea creature that can never be brought into view. I say that I remember being sad, but in truth I only remember mornings when that person in the bed – the person in which I was contained – could not wake up, could not got to work, could not even do the things that she knew would save her, and instead did only what was bound to destroy her : alcohol, and forbidden cigarettes, and endless lost black hours of loneliness. I’m tempted to distance myself from her, to say, “ Oh, that wasn’t me.” But that was me, staring at the wall and longing to crayon-draw all over it and not even having the will for that. Not even the will for suicide. That was me in my room, looking out the window on Patchin Place s the maples turned yellow into autumn.

It is a commendable book if you are a fan of stories about the character inhabiting alternate realities and alternate versions of how one's life could go. I like reading stories that are premised on themes like ‘ what if’ as  in what if there were a parallel timeline and there are different versions of us  or that you can travel back and forth in time. The  plot for The Impossible lives of Greta Wells is fascinating  and  I particularly like  the moral of the story that suggests that no matter what circumstances we land ourselves in , we are the same person as our core remains the same and there is only one version of us in every individual. 

Do you ever ask yourself if this is the person you dreamed of becoming when you were little?  I think we are chameleons if we allow ourselves to be and at times, we Decades ago I watched  the movie Being There and absolutely love it. In the movie, the character, Chance  is a gardener to a rich recluse who lives in a townhouse. Chance has lived all of his life inside the townhouse and he has learnt everything from watching television. When his benefactor dies, he is evicted from the house and for the first time, he has to step into the outside world where he chances upon a rich man's wife whose chauffeured driven car ran into him. He has been allowed by his benefactor to take the well-tailored clothes from the attic thus his attire is courtly and respectable. Chance is taken into the rich man's home. When he introduces himself as  ' Chance, the gardener ', he is mistaken as Chauncey Gardiner.  The plot is hilarious but the moral of the story is  "Life is a state of mind." Brilliant. Click