Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fear of Home


Preparing for my trip back I recall Thomas Wolfe ‘You Can't Go Home Again', a book I had not read. I did read ‘Look Homeward Angel,’ but somehow I recall the evocative title of his other book, something I always remember for some reason since living abroad for the past 12 years.  Somehow the phrase evokes meaning;  one cannot go back to a previous life after being away for some time.  There is a passage in Wikipedia from the novel that evokes that feeling:

"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

I always admired Wolfe because he gets to the heart of things, though for different reasons, he seems to settle on phrases that have universal appeal with timeless meaning, attracting people under different circumstances, who identify with his words.

I discovered Wolfe in the American library in Manila, amazed to find a great writer I never heard before, astounded by his talent, reminiscent of Walt Whitman, but more like Hemingway in his first person narrative, but with a more exuberant, elegant flourish.  On a trip to Asheville, North Carolina a few years ago, I stumbled on his mother’s boarding house while walking the streets during the Belle Cherie festival, separated from my family as we explored the city in its festive reverie.  Discovering Wolfe was always an accident, or happenstance, wandering a city or browsing in a library. Now after changing my citizenship and having not returned home for at least 5 years, the title of his book evokes a certain truth for those who attempt to come back. One also has an irrational fear of returning home, as if death lurks in wait though someday it will, but perhaps my parents who are now in their twilight years, declining in health with the old home decaying and crumbling. I wonder what I can do, the old house barely inhabitable; a place I can no longer live in its present state, let alone my folks.

I changed my citizenship many years ago, leaving the corruption and inefficiency of the homeland, struggling on visas for trips to other countries, preferring the efficiency of one’s adopted country, before moving to the USA. The passport assured my escape, to flee the past and start anew; to leave a place that almost assures that one will not prosper. But one also recalls other difficulties: endless traffic, the robberies at home, the numerous car crashes that luckily had not turned fatal, amazed at one’s luck of having nine lives, plus worker strikes and company shutdowns. In later years, further troubles have occurred: the folly of ones relatives, the decline and mismanagement of finances, the bad luck that seemed to hound the clan’s fortunes. What does one fear? To be engulfed in the shadow of misfortune, the fear of losing what one had gained; a chance to succeed, to have a better life, the possibility of becoming what one dreamed, to live a life one wishes. The paranoid mind creates existential fears, of some bureaucratic foul-up, the machination of some government agency turning against you, the specter of deportation. Far fetch admittedly but the brain’s cognition falters with fear.

One misses the good side, to recover something that was lost, to meet old friends and relatives, to share the brief time left of ones parents, perhaps to make things right. Travel always makes one fearful, perhaps  the plane flight, crossing the ocean, to be above the clouds; the fear of flying, a dread I had long ago when I used to travel frequently, now coming back to  haunt me. Returning home requires you to conquer fears at many levels, to face demons that lurk in the mind, whether valid or not, like ghosts in the darkness of old homes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Smokey Mountain Redux

Yesterday I decided to go home instead of going to the Upstate museum, not attending a lecture on the war of 1812, electing not to go to the gym as well, preferring to exercise at home. I brought my bike into the living room and attached the stationary gadget so I could workout while watching a documentary on Appalachian parks. I realized I watched this show before, but I saw it with fresh eyes after spending a few days in Gatlinburg in the midst of the Smokey Mountain, riding the Smokey Mountain train in Bryson city and traveling through sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway during my vacation. I enjoyed the show despite seeing it for the second time, due to my new understanding as now infused with meaning. After dinner, I wanted to attend my online courses but feel asleep after updating my writing and reading about the scandal of 1812 (surrender of Fort Detroit) in Wikipedia, the subject of the lecture I missed, figuring that I could learn about the subject without wasting time going to the museum, discovering the ill-fated invasion of Canada that ended with the British incursion into Washington DC and the burning of the White House. I always thought the 1812 war was started by the British, but instead was in retaliation to an American attempt to wrest Canada from the British. After a short nap induced by a full dinner of chicken soup and strawberry crepe, I wasted time surfing the Internet from 11 pm to 12 midnight.

I keep piling up activities to keep me busy, as if afraid to write a novel, fearful of failure in creative projects, thereby resorting to distraction. I also have insomnia, preferring to keep the mind busy, thinking of the impeding trip but not doing anything, instead surfing the Internet, watching television or attending online courses. My father’s stroke changed my thinking, letting me see  frivolity for the first time, similar to the period after my relative’s heart attack, the realization that your time on earth is limited. But the motivation to be serious, to start meaningful work is always side tracked, the devil of procrastination striking every time; the distraction keeps piling up: to watch the new cable series, to read the latest book, to attend the latest lecture; it is the fear of being unqualified to be a writer or an entrepreneur or whoever you want to be. Perhaps it is also a fear of returning to your homeland, to dredge up family feuds and old mistakes, to clear up the mess one’s clan started, to face the difficulty of losing one’s parents and heritage. It is always easy not to go, not do anything, let things crumble and fade away; in the end one cannot fight the ravages of time, the inevitability of decline or the wasting of things. Just let it all go since the experience is painful to endure, just drink your alcohol and numb your feelings away.

I am starting to enjoy Nassim Taleb’s book ‘Anti-Fragility’; initially I was turned off by his righteousness but I started to appreciate his anger, like a philosopher raging against the state of things, the last man standing with common sense. His logic is like a jolt of electricity, his words have periods of perfect lucidity, and so one appreciates his fury, similar to the resentment one feels in his circumstances: too much work, no support from colleagues, gossip, stupid actions, consumerism, sickness, aging, lack of sleep and wasting time. One is not saved by shopping, to spend money as therapy, by distraction. It is important to do what is right, is the subject of Taleb, without compromise, to strive for anti-fragility (a new concept) instead of robustness. Sometime it seems erudition trumps everything, but it is a mistaken notion, a snobbishness that can result in delusions. During moments of confusion, envy and stress, work pressures and impending death, the strong voice is soothing, giving solace to the confused mind. Stress is self-inflicted, like shooting yourself in the foot, having too many desires resulting in foolishness. His book is like a tonic for the mind. At the end of the day, one can only rely on oneself, on one’s logic and values, to act with the feeling that it is the right thing to do.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Feverish Thoughts


Yesterday we had our project managers meeting, where everyone contributed to the discussion, listened to presentations, asked questions, ate lunch together and exchanged ideas. These monthly meetings are helpful, fosters team work and camaraderie, though one’s ideas are not always appreciated, and for those who are sensitive, liable to have hurt feelings with a trace of paranoia, like ‘why doesn’t anyone understand what I am saying’? It is a jostling contest where one tries to be better than the rest, though  one admits to a tendency  towards dominance, a superiority complex but in fact shadows crossing the mind. But one learns to accept the majority view, to descend into a point of tolerance and acceptance, instead of paranoia and anger, a gift of Thomas Jefferson by enshrining into the independence declaration, the pursuit of happiness. It’s an Eastern concept, seeking harmony with the rest despite the rancor of debates, political plots and bitter fights; to be able to rise above petty differences and tolerate acceptance. Nevertheless, one feels a tinge of existential fear, that others don’t really accept you despite the outward appearance. Leaving the meeting, one was happy of the communion but the mind active to lurking doubts.

After work, a journey to the gym, meeting coworkers and having a chat, one losing his keys that one wonders if he should have helped. Thirty minutes spent in the treadmill, looking at the aerobics class where one thinks about social commitments, feeding the mind with uncertainties, adding to the brain’s feverish state, as earlier in the office one responds to emails, with perceived slights in the wordings, plus a nasty dispute with another.  Visits to the gym are normally therapeutic, but one wonders why the mind was not relieved, where thoughts from work still fester. Perhaps the lost opportunity of not swimming, where the waters cleanse confusion away, instead rushing to the shower and back to the streets as one journeys to a Chautauqua event, held in a fine arts center. Perhaps it was the audio book one was listening to: ‘Anti Fragility’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose venomous tirades against economists, bankers, suckers and the rests of the non-comprehending humanity set the stage for more feverish thoughts,  clinging to the illusion of intellectual superiority, goaded by the logic of his arguments. It is this constant quest to be better that’s driving the culture, to be like sports heroes, or Internet millionaires, or having the best house or luxury cars that drive consumerism; the quest to be exceptional.

It was a musical event, an elegant piano player, middle aged with a full white beard and pony tail, standing under a spotlight, at the center of the concert stage, talking about Leonard Bernstein, playing Chopin and Bernstein’s music from ‘West Side Story’, regaling the audience about Stephen Sondheim and the great George Gershwin. The usher kindly led me to the concert room, walking through the exhibition hall, looking at artworks, settling into my seat and enjoying the show. I thought an evening of music would relieve my mind, but the situation seemed alien, not a part of me, trying hard to blend in the scene but one felt like an outsider. It felt foreign, the chat with the elderly usher, the discussion by the musician, although I did understand the cultural aspects, I was uncomfortable. I arrived home at 9 pm, ate a light dinner and watched the lectures in the online course. I went to bed at 12 pm but I couldn’t sleep, lying in the dark surfing the Internet by phone, looking at old friends in Facebook and Pinterest, familiar faces now old or young ones with a tinge of regret. I felt like I was waiting for something, perhaps the fate of my parents, waiting for the call from home or perhaps the hidden urge to go back, to overcome fear, to meet parents enfeebled by dementia or stroke or the decay of their bodies. A confrontation with reality, to accept mortality, the truth one is no longer young, unsheltered by the protection of fathers and mothers but alone, facing life without their embrace.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Chautauqua in the Deep South



Last weekend I attended several events in the annual Chautauqua festival, enjoying the various performances especially Harry Truman, appreciating the high quality of the shows; a wonderful way to understand history; sort of like a short cut to learning (instead of reading history books). In a way it like those battle reenactments, for both the revolutionary and civil wars, but Chautauqua is more intellectual, delving into historical individuals, while the battle field enactments provide a direct understanding of the actual event, away from sterile stories in books and into direct participation in history, where one can smell the smoke of battle, hear the shouts and cries, experience the thrill of victory or defeat. Supplementing the impersonation and enactments are visits to museums and watching documentaries and movies, aside from visiting historical sites as a way to learn other than reading, which can be time consuming and boring after studying several tomes; instead looking at artifacts in museums and enjoying play acting, but one should also listen to audio books by good authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Barbara Tuchman and David McCullough. Documentaries by Ken Burns are also excellent including several series by HBO that can complete one’s education.

These are different ways of learning, something unfamiliar in Asia, particularly creative enactments and impersonation, preferring museum and set pieces, also good when done well like the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore, combining high technology and excellent scholarship. Nowadays, audio CDs, YouTube videos, online courses, Sound Stream, video on demand, online lectures are the best way to learn, no longer the old way of reading books and spending time in libraries or classrooms. The situation is dynamic, especially the massive online open courses or MOOC, where sites like Udacity and Coursera provide cutting edge knowledge, like attending college virtually. I enrolled in several, indulging in my propensity to overbook my time, especially on knowledge gained freely, whether in libraries or online; knowledge treated like scarcity when it’s now in abundance.  But in fact, time is scarce, and mistakenly one partakes into the abundance of knowledge, and instead the result is the scarcity of with less bandwidth to undertake truly important tasks. Hence, instead of novel writing or starting a business, one is always reading, attending lectures, trying to gain knowledge and be a better writer or entrepreneur when time is actually wasted and lost.

Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment, to be effective in the current task demanded right now, rather than focusing on the future or past. Meditation is the method where one can gain mindfulness, (but one can take shortcuts to learning like attending Chautauqua). Recently several ideas start to coalesce: irrational behavior and behavioral economics, the concept of scarcity and bandwidth, mindfulness and meditation. The emerging idea is that mindfulness and meditation is the answer to fighting the problem of scarcity and bandwidth, as a way to correct irrational behavior.   This seems to be the trend in corporations, the recent rise of mindfulness seminars, to be alive in the present moment. I guess this is the charm of Chautauqua, away from book reading via a direct confrontation with history. This is not some abstract lesson of ideas, where the mind is churning and lost in noble thought, but an experience of reality, to watch the performer enact a historical character. Hence, one must stop the mind and observe, to watch the performance; an act of mindfulness that serves as a history lesson. It would help when supplemented with other learning, for example, listening to the audio book of ‘Moby Dick’ beforehand to appreciate the impersonation of Herman Melville as in last year’s Chautauqua.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Orchard


Last night I watched the film adaptation of Anton Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, recalling a similar play staged in Singapore but adapted to China, the same tale of a wealthy family’s decline, a particular Russian specialty, recalling the fate of the Romanov dynasty, due more to revolution but also to mismanagement or wrong decisions or profligacy by the family head.  There is a strain of fatalism and romanticism in these stories; destiny foretells their decline, their natures placing them in a path of destruction, unable to bend the arc of their fate. Is this the same for families everywhere, as parents grow old and continue on their way, their offspring bewildered, scattered all over the world, unable to find a narrative that can sustain the story of the clan. When did the road turn to disaster? Was it the fault of the matriarch, sheltering children instead of throwing them to the wind, to find their place in the world, but instead kept in familial embrace, distorting their independence and growth like in the film ‘Failure to Launch’ starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey. Sometimes wealth, even meager fortunes, can distort characters, spare money spent indulgently, corrupting sensible thinking.

To be Russian means to be a romantic, to ponder the tragedy of the Tsars, or the Romanovs, the collapse of the Communist dream, lost fortunes, forlorn dreams and illusions, of failed revolutions. It is also the story of family, the decline of clans and their affluence, the rapture caused by change. Similar to the collapse of the sugar trade in Negros, the play of generations as the dream of the elderly vanish into illusions, the twilight of old age. In a way, the Russian story is similar to the German story, with Wagner’s twilight of the gods, the fall of the Nazis, the trauma of the world wars. There is despair in the soul, unlike the optimism of the French or the English or the Americans, where providence seems to shine in abundance.  Perhaps it is the protestant ethic, the hard edge accounting, where the puritan reigns in terms of currency, though extravagant in all else. The French had their revolution, but they also had Napoleon to bring back their mojo, unlike the Germans who had Hitler and the Russian had their Stalin. In Chekov’s play, the orchard is lost, like the fall of the Soviet empire, and perhaps Ukraine as their leaders lean westward to Europe, a tragedy the Russian in the Kremlin hope to avoid, like losing the orchard to the newly rich.

Each family have their own orchard, the old family home, crumbling and decrepit, their inhabitants long gone except the elderly, living in a dream of a beautiful past, imprisoned in memories like the old butler left behind inside the old house in Chekov’s play. The orchard can also be a dream no longer valid, like the illusions of an aging playboy, or a penniless aristocrat, clinging to hope no longer there. Or perhaps it is a failure of optimism, missing the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, the Englishman in the Hindu desert in full regalia drinking tea, or in the African jungle, the optimism of both Roosevelt fighting against all odds. Perhaps it is the failure of the imagination that is at stake here, an imagination that has reason and one verging in insanity. Churchill had imagination to fight against the Nazi hordes while the heroine in Chekov’s play was living a false hope similar to Blanche in Tennessee William’s ‘A Streetcar named Desire’, on the verge of dementia.  In a way, it is the story of aging, when one needs to accept the onset of time, as one’s bones start to creak, one heart ages, or muscles decay, the mind forgets and old dreams remain, hopefully to be picked up by the young so a new journey takes place, bringing the torch to a distant land, and fulfil the hopes of those who have passed.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mother Russia


In the past, Russia did not seem interesting, preferring China with its ancient history and imperial dynasties, especially the communist revolution and remarkable transition to a modern semi-capitalist state. I enjoyed Harrison Salisbury’s book ‘The New Emperors’, where he noted Mao Tse Tung as never a real communist who strictly followed Marxist Leninist doctrine, but instead studied the Chinese emperors, following their style when managing China into the modern age. Mao was always accused, particularly by Stalin, of having a limited understanding of communist thought, which proved that the Chinese are practical, not ideological, confirmed later by Deng Xiao Ping, with his opening of the economy and integration into world trade. He famously said, ‘does it matter if the cat is white or black as long as it catches the mouse.’ In the end, the Russian revolution collapsed in its own weight, while the Chinese revolution prospered and evolved into a hybrid free market but totalitarian state, soon to emerge as the biggest economy in the world. Strange that I appreciated the Chinese story by reading Harrison Salisbury’s book (among many others), as he was a Russian expert, enjoying his tales of the Chinese communists, bathing in ancient pools of the emperors, idly smoking cigarettes as they pondered politics, an elegant picture of guerilla leaders compared to the primitiveness of other revolutionaries.

In Russia, the Romanov family was brutally executed, unlike the last Chinese Dynasty allowed to disappear into history, the imperial Manchus descending quietly into the proletarian masses. But despite the brutality of the regime, a sophisticated elegance exists, reminiscent of the literati and imperial mandarins, but ruthless and calculating as any despot or bureaucrat. For instance, see the guerilla poetry of Mao or the cultured diplomacy of Chao en Lai. But I discovered Russia in depth recently, intrigued by the tumult in Ukraine, the seizing of Crimea and the Black Sea ports. But I also discovered Russia through the story of the English spy Sidney Reilly (actually a Jew born in Ukraine), enjoying the BBC program of Far East intrigues, the rise of the Bolsheviks, of Lenin and Stalin, and of his tragic execution. During the weekend, I watched ‘Nicholas and Alexandria’, the epic story of the Romanovs and modern Russian film by Alexei  Popogrebski: ‘How I ended this summer’ and ‘The Road to Koktebel’. Previously I enjoyed Andrei Tarkovsky’s works: ‘Stalker’, ‘Solaris’ and ‘Voyage in Time’, thinking his films followed the stylistic oeuvre of Michelangelo Antonioni. But I realized Russian cinema reflect a strain of culture I missed: mysticism and spirituality. I discovered this aspect in the Romanov film, in the depiction of Rasputin and Sidney Reilly with visions of his death in the Moscow snow.

Hence, Russia is better understood, as the largest country in the world, with its heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church, the merging of western and eastern culture that one begins to understand its motivation. In a way, it is the spiritual descendant of the Byzantine culture, of the ancient Christian faith and the orthodoxy, the claimant to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor, in the ambitions of Peter and Catherine the Great; the inevitable tragedy of the Romanovs, the dynasty ending as the German monarchy did in the turmoil of the first world war. This is an ancient land, perhaps as old as Chinese civilization, the nomadic warriors of the Moghuls in the high steppes, the Golden Horde of the Khans, the mysticism of ancient Asia mingling with Christian Byzantium. One understands the intricate plots of spies, double agents and Moscow rules; the sophisticated tactics of its chess Grand Masters, the absurd bureaucracy of the Communist hierarchy (following Kafka and George Orwell) are the tradition of Byzantine intrigue and the turbulent politics of Central Asia and the border countries of Georgia, Ukraine and Poland. Vladimir Putin and previously, Medvedev and Boris Yeltsin are the new emperors, benefitting from the radical miscalculation of the last communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, pursuing ambitions of the Tsars in a seemingly democratic nation, though the mysticism of the Asian steppes and Byzantine intrigue lie underneath. Russia is a complex conservative country following the labyrinth culture of ancient societies like India and China, not the modern transparent culture of Western Europe and the United States.
 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Wrong Behavior


There are numerous new studies on behavioral economics which seem to say that one’s usual instincts and hard wired mental models are incorrect. This results in mistaken behavior with outcomes that one had hoped to avoid. In other words, the mind is actually misleading you, even if you think that you have superior instincts and intellect. Someone had said that intelligent people are in fact the easiest to fool, being adept in abstract reasoning but ungrounded in reality, lacking street smarts or down to earth skills (i.e. repairing a lawn mower, etc.). The Chinese have a saying that knowledge not used is useless knowledge, hence, putting scorn on intellectuals who learn from books. There is a backlash on smart people but there is another problem in saying that down to earth folks have more wisdom. For example, the predilection for huge homes, despite the absence of need, or the practicality of large spaces that are unutilized, the urge for bigger and better whether housing or food portions, or indulgences in the scale of a Las Vegas production. Bigger is always better. One starts to doubt himself if one does not follow the crowd, or wallow in envy if one does not follow the Joneses, like in the hysteria after the terror attacks, to be unpatriotic even when profiling Muslims and Middle Eastern men as described in the book ‘Zeitoun.’

On the other hand, the recent book ‘Scarcity’ reflects the opposite reaction, where one is pound foolish but penny wise, striving to save dollars and cents but splurging on large purchases (i.e. Mac Mansions).  Hence the mind is a beast to be tamed, far from the logical computer like efficiency that people sometimes think it is, perhaps like Sherlock Holmes who solves difficult crimes but resorts to smoking opium as a way to relax.   Improving one’s mental skill while destroying his faculties in the long run by taking drugs, plus the risk of being addicted, a story never fully explored by Arthur Conan Doyle. Or someone like Bill Clinton, brilliant as a policy wonk and a superior politician, but self-destructive in his urges, resulting in disgrace in an otherwise brilliant career, though still popular despite his follies.  Similarly in investment behavior, despite the proven method of Warren Buffet, as most investors still buy during bull markets and sell in bear markets, buying flashy overvalued stocks and disdaining value stocks. Perhaps like buying a luxury car, expensive to maintain and not fuel efficient but with sexy styling. But one never knows, living in a materialist consumer society, when not shopping is considered a sin, not spending a sickness. What is the use of money when unused?

What does behavioral economics tell us? That man is a victim of his passions, succumbing to the desires of the body, forever looking for release and instant gratification. The rare individual who is self-controlled is viewed as an aberration; a savant or dyslexic or an idiot. It is an uncommon trait that a whole discipline in economics is devoted to disproving one’s instincts, one’s supposedly rational mental capacity. ‘To one’s own nature be true’ is a good saying, never to be swayed by fads or by media. An individual thinker is rare, for someone to make his own mind and stick to his own reasoning even against the common norm. Behavioral economics is about irrational behavior, the lack of financial literacy, or unwise thinking that maybe fueling the trend towards a data driven life. To get objective facts and be guided by data, not by the mind when following one’s instincts. Often times, the correct outcome is counterintuitive, not the expected behavior. For example, when a politician disdains war (Ron Paul or  Barack Obama), preferring diplomacy and negotiation, which conservatives consider incorrect, not bombing Iran, or toppling the Syrian government. Hence, not going to war is as a mistake, a sign of weakness when it may be the wisest thing to do.  But one never knows, considering the superior arsenal one possesses; what is the purpose of advance weaponry when unused?

Obesity is another example of irrational thinking. An article in Time says that counting calories is the incorrect way to lose weight. It is not the quantity that matters but quality. In other words, one should eat less complex carbohydrates and sugar, but instead eat lots of fruits and vegetables even healthy fats in foods like avocado, olive oil and nuts. The key is metabolism and one should focus on foods that will aid metabolism. In other words, eating less and exercising more will not help you achieve the goal of losing weight but choosing the type of foods that will improve metabolism. Experts now say that eating less and exercising more only works for a select group of people.  Hence, eating less carbohydrates and exercising in the gym is the wrong behavior when trying to lose weight. Who would have thought that was the case? But the data from the studies show otherwise. Data trumps everything.