Monday, September 22, 2014

Tiger Writing

Gish Jen is a Chinese-American writer who gave a series of lectures about the difference between Asian and Western writers and turned her talk into a book called 'Tiger Writing - Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self'. The use of the word 'Tiger' is a recent phenomenon, which refers to the strict discipline of children by Asian parents such as in the book Tiger Mom, thereby giving Asian students an advantage in school and work. On the other hand, Gish Jen's book refers to the different perspectives and narrative style between Asian and Western writers. Interestingly, the work of Qi Wang is often cited like 'Are Asians Forgetful? Perception, Retention, and Recall in Episodic Remembering.'

According to Jen, Asian writers have an interdependent point of view while Western writers are more individualistic, with better recall of episodes as compared to Asian writers. This explains why most Asians like me find it difficult to talk about oneself as compared to Westerners, preferring to see the wider context of the situation, rather than focus on one's individual impressions, a trait that can be corrected with Toastmasters with its emphasis on public expression. Her book opened a new perspective which I never thought about before, between the different styles of writing between ethnic groups. She quotes other writers like Orhan Pamuk, citing his own celebrated lectures on the naive and sentimental novelist, as well as Henry James and Milan Kundera and their book similarly titled "Art of the Novel."

The book led me to the work of Otto Rank, a well-known psychologist and right-hand man of Sigmund Freud, who also was an inspiration to the psychologist Rollo May, whose book 'The Courage to Create' was an inspiration for me when I was young. Rank wrote an interesting book (which I have not read) called 'Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development', about the self actualizing urge to be creative, where one learns new skills and unlearns old blocking habits and disregard destructive patterns of thought. This was the true value of the book for me, to discover Rank's work on personality development which explains one's urge for expressive writing (or journaling) and joining Toastmasters to improve public speaking skills, plus mind mapping and cognitive therapy, which is the natural urge when leading a creative life.

My recent struggles at work, forced me to search for new techniques, to be more effective and efficient at work (like Getting Things Done or GTD), with anxiety driving one to be better (is it because I am Asian?). Anxiety is good according to Otto Rank, a healthy challenge that help individuals to grow. Anxiety has led one to expressive writing which has kept people sane, as well to discover clustering and cognitive therapy to correct bad thinking (attribution error) and calm one's mind (together with Tai Chi). Strange that the book 'Tiger Writing' seem to have pulled all these ideas together, to explain some of the urges that has driven one to write, and explore new skills and experiences for self development. Western writers have access to this tradition because of their strong individualism like in America where people can re-create themselves and start anew, towards a second act in life.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Innocence of Objects

The companion book to Orhan Pamuk's 'The Museum of Innocence' is an interesting picture essay  called 'The Innocence of Objects'. I have not read 'The Museum of Innocence', instead I borrowed the other book which depicts a real museum created by the writer in Istanbul, Turkey. It's interesting because it shows the creative process of a great writer. Although I have not read 'The Museum of Innocence', I could see the desire to catalog objects, as a way to help him write his book. In a way it is like one of those visualization tools like mind mapping which tries to help the writer by creating artifacts that aid his imagination. Instead a curation of objects is a good way to catalog everyday things that belong to the characters of his book, a way to create  depth in the story and flesh out characters; an act of visualization similar to  a visual representation of ideas and concepts as done in mind mapping. But the museum of objects is not only an act of visual creation but an act of curating historical objects.

Each section in the museum refers to a section in the book, helping guide the reader to  understand the characters more by looking at their objects. But in creating the museum, the writer is also trying to complete his work by aiding his imagination, by the cataloging the ephemera of everyday materials like bus tickets, photographs, glasses, calendars, movie posters,  coffee cups, matchbox, clocks and and so on. The museum is also a work of art, and the way the writer crafted his objects, in his choice of materials, the purchase of the building in one of the old neighborhoods of Istanbul, the restoration of the building, the preparation of an exhibit, the way the exhibits were designed and  the objects chosen. The museum becomes not only an addition to his book but also a real museum about the people of Turkey, particularly the middle class of Istanbul, a way to recapture a time in the past that is lost in today's world. In a way, the museum is the book or the book is the museum as created in reality, which everyone can enjoy without reading the book.

I don't know of any other artist who has done this type of work, and Orhan has elevated the art of writing, the process of being a writer and artist, by his lectures and by the creation of this museum, the grand way of the imagination. Any would-be writer would understand the creative process by reading him especially this work. After my father died, I went to the old crumbling house in Manila and saw all those personal objects which I wanted to preserve, the old photographs, the old letters, the antique furniture, the tables and chairs, to preserve the memory not only of my father and of the family. So discovering Orhan's book in the sense of valuing these objects, showed me a way on how to accomplish this task, perhaps as a way for me to write my own book, and assess the experience during the funeral and the return home. The creative endeavor requires the preservation and cataloging of personal objects, to make sense of history as well as the creative  process of writing the novel.

Last Weekend, during the labor week holiday, I tried to catch up on my office work and realized that I needed to prepare before doing the work itself, to organize myself in the way a chef organizes his kitchen before cooking a special dish. Similarly, in writing a novel, one must also organize himself, by preparing the tools of his trade, his work area, his visualization tools like mind mapping, whiteboards were one could write or illustrate ideas, notebooks to get his everyday thoughts, recording devices, software tools like Ever note and Scrivener, out-liner tools and so on. Therefore, one should not rush and do the work or create the output or product, but  focus on the process. I think creating the museum is part of the writing process, to visualize the story, the characters, the location, the period of history, the everyday objects, and assess the experience and meaning before sitting down and writing the novel. It is this process of organization that is the craft that needs to be learned other than the writing itself.

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.