Friday, January 31, 2014

Dear Life

St- Anna pedestrian tunnel, Antwerp 2013
These days, the web world is moving at a fast pace. Except for the activities that need our physical participation and presence, we can virtually do anything and obtain all kinds of information and data on line via the internet connection. Our lives get busier as we juggle our time between our responsibilities, commitments and web activities.

Prague August '09
When we send a text or an email, we expect instantaneous response. I feel antsy when there is no connectivity and wherever I go, availability of internet access is a prime consideration when I make a hotel booking for the family. As a result of modern amenities, I become intolerant of inconveniences and discomfort. One Sunday morning, when I wanted to shower after pottering around , I discovered that there would not be any water supply for another two hours in my area due to some maintenance work. I felt irritated as I really wanted to have my bath and get going with my day.

 Perhaps it is due to  these inventions and technology, I find that we are increasingly self-centred and often uncompromising. There is such a fine line between self promoting and egotism. In many ways, individualism is strived at and the self must be strengthened and defined  because your aptitude and abilities must be promoted in order to get noticed and hired for that post or the dream job you pine for. The web world holds the allure that  it presents immense possibilities; what is real and what is not is blurred. I believe that individuality is very much an illusion whether in the physical world or the cyberspace. Whether you are a conformist or a radical, we are all trapped in the world we think it is. As we are social beings, we  learn, we reinvent ourselves and are quick to adapt to our surroundings and the constant changes around us .

In  his  memoir  Nothing to be Frightened of , Julian Barnes talks about death and mortality after having witnessed his parents’ decline as they advanced to their old age  and eventually passing. Here are some of the excerpts that strike a chord with me.

A question, and a paradox. Our history has seen the gradual if bumpy rise of individualism: from the animal herd, from the slave society, from the mass of uneducated units bossed by priest and king, to looser groups in which the individual has greater rights and freedoms-the right to pursue happiness, private thought, self- fulfillment, self- indulgence. At the same time, as we throw off the rules of priest and king, as science helps us understand the truer terms and conditions on which we live, as our individualism expresses itself in grosser and more selfish ways ( what is freedom for if not for that?) , we also discover that this individuality, or illusion of individuality, is less than we imagined. We discover, to our surprise, that as Dawkins memorably puts it, we are “ survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” The paradox is that individualism-the triumph of free- thinking artists and scientists-has led us to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience. My  adolescent notion of self-construction-that vaguely,Englishly,existentialist ego-hope of autonomy-could not have been further from the truth....'
Chez Nous, a cafe in Penang

'That is the paradox; here is the question.We grow up; we trade in our old sense of wonder for a new one- wonder at the blind and fortuitous process which has blindly and fortuitously produced us; we don’t feel depressed by this, as some might, but “elated” as Dawkins himself is; we enjoy the things which Dawkins lists as making life worth living- music, poetry, sex, love(science)–while perhaps practicing the humorous resignation advocated by Somerset Maugham. We do all this, and do we get any better at dying? …’

Nothing To Be Frightened of is peppered with humour even on  serious subjects such as  faith, religious beliefs and death as Julian Barnes takes us masterfully through the  insights of various writers  and his musings. Julian Barnes writes,

If I called myself an atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn’t because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime; just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1859, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believe in divine purpose, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgement. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that our knowledge is so final?

Prague astronomical clock (orloj)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

More than Words

Inside Plantin- Moretus Museum- Antwerp
I am addicted to reading. I often marvel at how sensitive all these published writers are and believe that how wise they must be in their private lives since they seem to understand the human emotions so well.

Since young I found solace in words and writing. Our brains tell us how we feel and what we think. When I  can release those thoughts in writing, it is a joy. I cannot write well if I am feeling upset or restless. I need to be calm in order to map out my thoughts. So I reckon these published writers must be very wise and in control of their private lives since they write such beautiful prose. I wonder if they have to confront the same anger or bad or hurt feelings over and over again and I would like to know if they have ever found resolutions about what they experience in their lifetime.

I am currently reading Julian Barnes's memoir Nothing to be Frightened Of. It is a memoir on mortality as he muses about the most basic fact of life: its inevitable extinction. Julian Barnes is one of my favourite writers as I can often relate to what he writes about and many of his musings resonate with me. I find his writing humourous and introspective. I am therefore comforted when I come across Julian Barnes’ observation in his memoir.
 Julian Barnes writes,

" I used to believe, when I was "just" a reader, that writers, because they wrote books where truth was found, because they described the world, because they saw into the human heart, because they grasped both particular and the general and were able to re-create both in free yet structured forms, because they understood, must therefore be more sensitive-also less vain, less selfish -than other people. Then I became a writer, and started meeting other writers, and studied them, and concluded that the only difference between them and other people, the only,single way in which they were better,was that they were better writers. They might indeed be sensitive, perceptive, wise, generalizing ,and particularizing-but only at their desks and in their books. When they venture out into the world, they regularly behave as if they have left all their comprehension of human behaviour in their typescripts. It's not just writers either. How wise are philosophers in their private lives? '

I read more fictions than non-fictions. I know that fiction and life are totally different as life is definitely unpredictable and complex even though art often imitates life and life can also imitate art. What motivate me to read is that the writers share their thoughts and beliefs and their writings cleverly describe the idiosyncrasies  and  ironies of life. It is comforting to know that whatever we feel and go through are experienced by many others and I believe that nothing is really original.

14th century Printing Press
Plantin- Moretus Museum- Antwerp
Julian Barnes wrote in his memoir  that as a young man, he was terrified of flying so he reckoned that the book he would choose to read on a plane would be something he felt appropriate to have found on his corpse. It sounds morose but his deliberations about death and mortality are thought provoking indeed. 

Julian Barnes is definitely a gifted writer.
Burgundy September 2008

Friday, January 17, 2014

Que Sera Sera

One morning when I was driving to work, I heard  the radio DJ commenting  about how a number of the secondary school students aspired to become actors and actresses and if only these young kids knew how difficult it would be for them to get  acting jobs and get paid. I guess we all may dream about what we want to do when we grow up and when we are old enough, most of us will get real and know that we need a job that pays our rent and our material needs.

I came across an official receipt for some tuition fee I paid for my daughter several years ago. The receipt was issued by Be Smart Learning Centre.The name is representative of all parental hopes for their children. It is the parents’ fear that their children cannot get into a good school and obtain some academic qualifications from reputable higher institutions and accredited universities so these children are sent to  classes and tuition centres that apparently provide them the competitive edge to excel in examinations. Not every child is an ivy league candidate but it is important that the child gets a good college degree. The grown ups who think they know better debate about the kind of college degree which will set the child off to a career path  that should guarantee  material success. Amidst all the mad chase, we overlook the essence of learning and growing. In reality, grown ups do not know better.

When I was a student, I used to burn midnight oil and did all the cramming on the eve of the exam. Some friends used to say that they had not started their revision or they had not been studying. The thing is if you have not, you ace it, you must be smart. You do not want to be known as the one who has been mugging and not done well. I find that if you put in little efforts you might scrape through or even get lucky and score well. But the stuff you learn will be thrown out of the window after you have handed in the papers. Often, you do not need to know all the stuff you learn in school when you are a grown up, but it is still a waste of the opportunity while you have the chance to study them.

Because I did it at the very last minute just to get through the examinations, I did not remember all that biology, geography and history I studied in school. I  learnt nothing. It was a waste of the opportunity but when I was young, I did not know then. It was immaturity.

Ideally we should focus on shaping each individual child into a compassionate and considerate human being and not just gearing the child to perform well at qualifying examinations as schools do not prepare us for life paradoxes and uncertainties. If only we could spend more time and energy cultivating tolerance and nurturing empathy, there might be better understanding of the human race and amongst the people from all walks of life.

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up The Goldfinch from WH Smith at Heathrow and set out to read it on the flight journey home. It is a compelling tale written by Donna Tartt who tells the story in the voice of Theo Decker about his growing years since the bombing accident when he was aged thirteen. On that fateful day, Theo and his mother visited the Met in New York and his mother was killed in the explosion. Theo who had survived the accident suffered post traumatic stress disorder and the tale is about his longing for his mother  and his relationship with his reckless, largely absent father.  The accident, his longing for his mother  and his random act of  picking up the small but priceless painting in the panic of his escape  influenced the psyche of his growing years and his actions for years to come.

The fiction is narrated in Theo Decker’s voice and here is one  narration that describes his tragic feeling  about life that seems to be devoid of any meaning.

Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh isn’t he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and traveled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it . It was rotten top to bottom. Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home. It was better never to have been born- never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything…..”

Theo questions,

Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am ? Why do I care about all the wrong things. And nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way:how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet – for me, anyway – all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?

A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

Because – isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture-? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted --? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self immolation, disaster? Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire ,is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being a better person? ……………….

Monaco,October 2012
The Goldfinch deals with life paradoxes and is another exquisite piece of writing that I am glad to have read recently. 
Amsterdam , September 2008

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Bangkok 2007
Last November, I attended a talk by three women writers who spoke about what  had  inspired them to write. Annelies Verbeke is a Belgian writer while Christine Otten hails from Netherland and they both write in Dutch.  Chiew-Sieh Tei who originally hailed from Malaysia currently resides in Glasgow and she writes in Chinese and English. When I heard the European writers read passages from their writings, they had sounded so poignant and moving that I wish I could understand Dutch. It was apparent from the translated texts which had appeared on the screen that they were stories that  I would enjoy reading. The memoir that was written by Christine Otten was  about her dad while Annelies Verbeke writes about people who are quirky and Chiew-Sieh writes about the indigenous people of Malaysia.

I used to think that it was not good to react to things as it made you edgy and far from cool. I remember a medical student  I once dated said, 'the question was do we react or do we act ?' I cannot recall why it had been brought up, it was probably just for sake of discussion.  At that time I did not think much about it until later on. I kept asking myself not to react but to act only as I had a tendency to react to situations and events. But then I think I am one of those people who have a reaction to most things, as every single event can prompt or inspire a reaction. In some situations, I would be considered defensive but most of the time, I am probably just a feely person. I am what I think apart from what I eat and drink and I am also what I read. I am not sure if I am what I say when I speak. There are times I end up saying things I do not want to say, I find myself having goose bumps. There are often times where I end up not saying things I want to say, they get all stuck in my head because of civility and because I do not believe in tit for tat.

London 2014
Perhaps it is because I am reactive, I have things to blog and write about. I have all these ideas that I like to pen down and I get lost in just writing them. Maybe they are just words that mean nothing at all but I want to say them all.

The Luminaries was a feat for me when I finally read it during my recent vacation. I started reading it before my trip and had every intention to finish reading it as my luggage was already full of winter clothings and I had not planned to carry more than one suitcase. Just as the dozen characters and their  secret meeting intrigued  me and made me want to read on about the missing man and the young prostitute who was addicted to opium, I realized that I had to  take a break  and I could not rush through hundreds of pages of the writing amidst all the disruptions due to my impending trip. Eleanor Catton’s prose was so beautiful that you really need the quiet time to truly appreciate it.

 The story was set in the 19th century during the gold rush in New Zealand, Walter Moody a young Scottish lawyer arrived in Hokitika hoping to make his fortune. After he had checked into the Crown Hotel, he walked into the smoking room and stumbled upon a secret congregation between twelve men who had gathered to discuss the death of one man, a missing  man and the arrest of Anna Wetherell, a whore who was charged for attempted suicide. Amongst the twelve men, there was a banker , a whoremonger, a pharmacist , a pair of Chinese men.  a chaplain, a politician , a French man and a Maori. 

Here is a description of the ambience of the smoking room.

There was a silence in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel-a silence that , for a moment, seemed to still the breath of every man, and still the smoke that rose in coils from the pipes, the cigarettes, the cheroots, and the cigars.
Lydia Wells ,the other female character in the story was going to introduce séance to the men in town. When Mr Moody met Mrs Wells, this transpired between them . 

When he had finished speaking she said,’Do you have an interest in the occult, Mr Moody?’ – a question which Moody could not answer honestly without risking offence.

He paused only a moment, however, before replying, “There are many things that are yet arcane to me , Mrs Wells, and I hope that I am a curious man; if I am interested in those truths that are yet unknown, it is only so that they might, in time, be made known –or, to put it more plainly, so that in time, I might come to know them.’

‘You are wonderfully free with one verb, I notice,’ the widow returned. ‘What does it mean for you, Mr Moody, to know something? I fancy you put rather a lot of stock in knowing- judging from the way you speak.’

Moody smiled. ‘Why,’ he said, ’I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides.’
‘To see it from all sides,’ the widow repeated.
“But I confess you catch me off guard ; I have not spent any time working on the definition, and should not like to hear it quoted back to me – at least not until I have spent some time thinking about how I might defend it.’

“No,’ the widow agreed, ’your definition leaves much to be desired. There are so many exceptions to the rule! How could one possibly see a spirit from all sides, for example? The notion is incredible.’

There was a description about Mr Moody at the beginning of the story.

He was resolved, in accordance with his strategy, to field  Balfour’s questions politely and without reservation :it would give him licence later to demand some answers of his own. Moody had no small genius for the art of diplomacy. As a child he had known instinctively that it was always better to tell a partial truth with a willing aspect than to tell a perfect truth in a defensive way. The appearance of co-operation was worth a great deal, if only because it forced a reciprocity, fair met with fair….

As an observer, Mr Moody was somehow drawn into the intrigue and was regarded as the men’s confidence. 

The author gave vivid descriptions of each character and you can imagine trying to cast each character in a film. The scenes in the book feel theatrical and the characters colourful. The book needs your full attention. As I was distracted when I read the Luminaries, I found myself having to revisit the pages to find out what happened to the villain in the story and also to read again some of the chapters to see how everything fit in. The Luminaries is superbly written for its creator is a master wordsmith.