Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New Earth

Eckhart Tolle’s book ‘New Earth’ is a welcome vision for today’s world. It provides an update to the spiritual teachings of modern day gurus like (late) Krishnamurthy or Dalai Lama. It moves beyond the spiritual and quotes work from science as well as modern writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and concepts like existentialism. He also focuses on modern psychological ideas like the ego. So it is a mix or fusion of various disciplines into a modern and coherent message that is relevant for today’s stressful people. He makes the case that ego is the main culprit in today malaise. Quoting French Cartesian philosophy ‘I think therefore I am’, he points out that this is the start of the ego’s rise that inevitably results in mental dysfunction or delusional thinking. According to him, one does not ‘think’ but that thinking just happens like digestion. It is a function of the body. Hence, thinking is just one small facet of a person’s total consciousness.

The problem arises when one equates thinking as the representation of the person himself. This results in self-created ‘concepts’ that one fashions to explain himself. He identifies with his thinking in the brain but it’s just the ego trying to expand its importance. This results in delusional thinking and alienation because one is not the thinking brain. It’s too small to explain the totality of a person.  Thinking is just a biological impulse that must be recognized as what it is – a minor component of a person’s consciousness.  A person’s consciousness is composed of many things – his spiritual nature, his emotional nature, sociological aspects and so on. Thinking otherwise is just folly. Writing here now is not an expression of me, or my thinking self but an exercise in abstract symbolic expression. I am expressing myself here now not to define myself but to respond to certain biological or psychological urges.

Listening to a New York Times science feature on addiction, the research shows that addiction (to drugs or alcohol or sex) has no moral connotations. It is a misbalance of the body that responds to a predilection to endorphins or other such hormones that produce a certain high. Controlling addictions is resolved by taking medicine not attending counseling or psychiatric or religious sessions. Counseling tries to make the thinking mind dominant and forces the mind to resolve biological problems. The recent research on addiction seems to be consistent to Tolle’s view that the thinking mind is just the ego at work. Taking medication for addiction is following Tolle’s view but a transformation of consciousness is also a valid alternative. This means the transformation of consciousness will give enlightenment to the individual but not in the intellectual or logical sense. It is in the spiritual arena where faith is the answer - not words or thinking or logical constructs.

According to Tolle, the disappearance of ego results in masterful performances – where the person forgets himself and just immerses himself in the act. When one is conscious of himself then the performance becomes mediocre. One can be a technical virtuoso by being a technical master but he will not rise to excellence if he is always thinking about himself. This lesson is applicable to golf (or any sport for that matter) where one should stop his thinking and go with the flow. Over thinking is often the bane of great golfers and the solution is just to forget everything and have a good time. Hence, one loses the ego and ‘becomes’ himself with unselfconscious performance.  The churning mind is the culprit especially when the person identifies with his thinking. The golf swing is a function of the body, age, feeling as well as the mind so one must remove ‘thinking’ as the only means to play better. In fact ‘over thinking’ may affect one’s body and overall feeling (i.e. no confidence) to the detriment of the game.

How to apply the lessons to creative writing? One must remove the ego from the writing process and just write. Journal or diary writing focuses on the person. Moving to creative writing is a change in mental gears.  The take away of a diarist is the exercise of writing as a skill not as a thinking process. Journal writing is more often an act of self-reflection that can also feed the ego. The ego is the hero of a journal but self-reflection reduces the role of the ego by providing a larger perspective.  Hence, journal writing is a therapeutic device not a creative writing exercise. Moving to creative writing – one can mistake the ego as being the hero of the novel. This is the seductive allure of Hemingway’s work that one loses sight of the craft of creative writing. To be good in creative writing means losing one’s ego like in golf. The novel is not about the diarist but a different set of characters that one must bring to life.

Like in other endeavors, overthinking is the killer of one’s goal. Eckhart Tolle attempts to remove overthinking by reducing the role of the ego via self-transformation. Perhaps this is also the solution to being a creative writer – to remove the role of the ego in the creative process. One does not strive to write the great Asian or American Novel and be rich and famous like Hemingway. It’s the ego trying to achieve recognition but hamstrings any sincere attempt to write. With the ego dominant in the mind, there is no progress. Perhaps this is the true cause of writer’s block.  The technical skill of writing or expression in language exists plus the craft of creative writing but the disappearance of ego is needed, too. Unless one is writing an autobiography or other forms of non – creative fiction then perhaps one needs the ego as well.

This is a strange conclusion considering that some great writers do have outsized egos. Just look at Winston Churchill or Ernest Hemingway.  Maybe a healthy ego is really needed to exist as a writer not as a component of creative writing. Removing the ego will make the act truly professional. The removal of ego means a removal of one’s emotions and sentimentality. The result is a disciplined and no-nonsense act of structured creativity. One cannot be a great editor if one is emotional. Great writers are actually great editors which require one to be ruthless in one’s own work – to discard and start over again if the novel does not come out right.  Hence, one can have a healthy ego in one’s personality but no ego at all in the act of creative fiction. This is the only conclusion that one can get. After all, Eckhart Tolle is striving for a transformation of the individual’s consciousness to be better human being - not a better writer. With humility, one can be a better person and perhaps a better writer as well.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Growing Up Late

I watched the classic movie ‘The Way We Were’ last night. It was not the movie I expected. I had thought it would be a run of the mill romance but in fact ended with the couple leaving each other. The last scene was the couple meeting again after many years apart although the meeting did not result in reuniting. The movie is billed as an adult romance where love stories don’t always end happily ever after. In fact, the husband essentially left his wife and abandoned his newborn child. Meeting many years later they recalled their fun times as well as the realization that reconciliation is impossible. I agree it was a mature movie which did not play the way most movies of this genre do. It also had a historical back drop of university scenes during the Spanish Civil War, red-scare in Hollywood, World War II plus rich scenes in New York and Los Angeles. It was an enjoyable movie.

The movie had an undercurrent of civil rights battles with the heroine passionately against the Red Scare in Hollywood and protested in Washington to get their rights heard. The topics remain relevant today. Robert Redford is known for his political awareness especially with his film ‘All The President’s Men’ – another political movie that I enjoyed. I am revisiting his old classic movies having reserved the following in the library: ‘The Candidate’ and ‘Jeremiah Johnson.’ I also reserved his biography. I think he is one of the few artists who will make a lasting mark on cinema with his Sundance Film Festival. He is also an accomplished actor and director although not in the caliber of the truly greats. Nevertheless, he does make interesting and relevant movies that are consistent though modest hits. Despite his stardom, he does not have a messy personal life unlike other people in his profession.

In the movie, the Redford character attended a class on creative writing. The professor singled out his work and he eventually became a novelist and screenwriter in Hollywood after serving with the Navy in World War II. The course he attended is probably for a degree in English or literature which would have been interesting if it was a degree I pursued in college. Instead I preferred an esoteric discipline like economics thinking that I would be technocrat working in a high level government office or in a bank. It may have been better if I had pursued my passion in writing instead of business. Now I am attending creative writing courses in the hope of being a novelist, working as a computer analyst while keeping modest financial investments in the hope of striking rich.  I guess my degree led me to computers while keeping me aware of economics and finance so that I could benefit with that knowledge by investing in the stock market.

As I approach middle age, I still have a passion for writing although with no novel in sight. I had just realized one does not become a writer by just blogging or reading widely or writing journals. It is increasing one’s skills in creative fiction writing – precisely the lessons that the Redford character had in college. Is it too late? I guess the reasonable target is to strive for a second career as one has already undertaken one. It was a circuitous journey where I find myself facing the same writing challenges I had while in grade school when I contributed a short story to the school paper. One should have persisted despite the risk of not earning enough. What tangled lives we live as one would say. The Toastmaster experience is another aspect that could have served my youth well instead of discovering late. I guess this is more a cognitive exercise to keep one fit as one ages in mind and body. But one cannot help but feel that one is chasing a dream that was lost in one’s youth.

Perhaps it is the circumstances that require it – with constant change and travel, with the free time that has come with this phase in life, with the opportunities at present plus the abundance of creative writing courses have brought about a chance to reclaim lost chances. Life happens when you are planning something else.  Perhaps one has achieved a certain experience – did that, done that but found the experience wanting. There is a question of ‘what if’ – what if things were different which the movie ‘The Way We Were’ seems to allude to.  Of lost chances and different roads taken that one looks back in time. Watching the Redford movies brings me back when I enjoyed some sort of innocence. I hope to borrow his film ‘Three Days of the Condor’ which I first watched in Camp John Hay as a teenager. I watch it with my parents and brothers in Baguio City inside the military base that gave me my first glimpse of American life.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Structured Creativity

Writing a novel has more structure than most creative endeavors. I think it has more procedures than painting or sculpture for example. It is not a spontaneous event that most people think it is. Paul Allen the co-founder of Microsoft said that programming is like writing a novel. I agree with him. I have never written a novel but I have done a fair bit of programming. Programming has clear rules and steps which depend on the computer language. One cannot proceed to the next step if one has not finished a dependent component.  But it is more structured than novel writing although it is a creative expression in a highly abstract language (C++, Basic, etc.) whose final product is working software. One does not appreciate the computer language when one looks at the code but in the elegance of the working software. In other words, one does not appreciate the architect’s blueprints but the finished house.

Writing a novel requires an expertise in syntax in a sense similar to computer language. The program will not work if the syntax is wrong. Similarly, the novel will not work if the basic sentenced structure is incorrect. There is poetic license but it can only go far. Creative endeavors that push the boundaries of syntax such as James Joyce ‘Finnegan’s Rainbow’ or ‘Ulysses’ are great works but are only enjoyed by literary elites. It is the sound that the work makes that count when one ‘reads’ his works. These works are inventive and don’t follow accepted syntax but effective if listened to. At least by the ordinary folks who can appreciate a performance as compared to reading a complex book. Now watching a movie of the novel is even better. Hence, to be a good writer one must master syntax or sentence construction as the basic foundation. One can make his own syntax if one has risen above the level of the ordinary.

After mastering sentence construction and syntax, one proceeds to the functionalities or workings of the story. In software, this means the feature set, functionalities, performance, stability, software design and so on. For novels, this means character, plot, internal coherence, point of view, and atmosphere and so on. It is the vision thing when one visualizes how the story should proceed or how the software should work. Great works arise if one has an insight on a feature that would make the product great. For example, the broadcast feature or profile page or wall in Facebook. Similarly the way author John le Carre’ constructs his intricate stories in say ‘Our Kind of Traitor.’ The elements of plot, story, character and point of view all come into play. The concept of internal coherence is also important to achieve believability (or suspension of disbelief) as explained by Mario Vargas Llosa with the use of elegant tactics like ‘Chinese Boxes’ or ‘Communication Vessels.’

It is the functionalities or workings of the story where one’s structured creativity is exercised. This is the part that is missing for most would be writers. Crafting sentences is the first part but progressing towards the vision thing is the difficult part. Being able to visualize how the story or software should work is the challenge. The creative visualization of a story is sometimes achieved in day dreams. The challenge is writing the story down in prose that is exactly right. I guess daydreaming is a sort of exercise of structured creativity but it cannot be substitute for actual creative writing experience. In fact, working on software means constantly testing, building, revising, debugging and assessing the final product during successive builds. Only if the software is working based on one’s specification can it be released to the public. Drafting a novel is also the same endeavor although in a different light.

Constantly working on the novel with its various drafts and re-writing does not focus on crafting good sentences because it’s a given. It is expected to be at a high level already. So daydreaming and its constant revisions are done until an internal coherency is reached, it’s the act of structured creativity. To be sure it is the exercise of the imagination as well as incorporating the knowledge one has gained by deep reading and experiencing life. Changing one’s mindset into thinking that writing a novel is like conscious day dreaming and writing software makes it more achievable. Like Paul Allen, comparing writing to software development is a good way to reframe the challenge especially if one has programing experience. The term ‘structured creativity’ is understood if brought under a more understandable framework. It di-mystifies the creative process and brings it into a more constructive mindset understood by common folks.

Yesterday was another hectic day. I was nominated president of my Toastmaster club, made a short speech, ran a few software tests, wrote e-mail and went to an amusement park for the company outing. In the park, I tried go kart racing, laser tag and mini-golf. After the afternoon fun, I went back to the office to address a small issue from the warehouse, went to the library and borrowed some movies, filled the car with gas and went to the gym where I jogged for 50 minutes, had a dry sauna and shower. When I got home, I watched a documentary, read chapters in a book and an article in Time magazine. I finally got to bed at around 11 pm. That night looking back at the events of the day, being elected president and some events at the park kept me awake. I realized that being in this position will be a new challenge for me. One needs to be open and forthcoming to be successful in a leadership position.  It’s another task away from my comfort zone.  I guess to be successful is to be creative too.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Warehouse Blues

This morning I came to work faced with problems coming from the warehouse. This has been the story of my life after going live with the system about 2 months ago. It does not happen all the time but it is irritating to come to work with a critical problem in your hands. I used to dread these mornings that I got into the habit of coming to work early. In my past life I would be at my desk about 15 to 30 minutes after eight but recently I would be at my desk at exactly at eight or 30 minutes earlier.  Coming early gives me time to fix the problem right away instead of rushing to meet the deadline. Delay is the killer because you would have a bunch of people standing around with nothing to do, waiting for a fix. I have gotten used to having these issues in the morning but now it has tapered off, I got back to my old routine of coming to work late.

The problem was fixed at about 10 am after feverish phone calls, frantic checking of servers, consulting with users, racking brains about possible solutions and just trying to remain calm. My colleague came around and mentioned that all these issues have to be fixed before moving to the next warehouse in Nevada. Otherwise, it will be a mess. If it’s not one issue, it’s another.  But the goal has been set and would be difficult to change course. Any future issue is a support issue and one must keep moving forward.  In other words, it won’t be my problem but another person’s problem who happens to be my colleague.  So here we are at the verge of success but these little problems coming out, preventing a clear victory. At least it won’t be my problem as it will be a decision of the committee to move forward. At least I did my bit of getting the product to production and go live in our first warehouse.

The stress is that other projects are lined up behind this one. It is crucial to succeed. Otherwise the dominoes will fall one by one. It’s times like these that try men’s sanity. All the truism that one’s hears are right and one should just keep at it. Failure is not an option and so on.  Surprisingly, one has matured and no longer emotional. In a previous life, one would go bonkers and run around like a crazy chicken with the head cut-off. Nowadays it’s part of the routine, remain calm, think about the options, create a ticket and move on. One is no longer the hero fixing problems but part of a large machine. The machine should address the problem and one should get out of the way. One just tries to help the machine. The machine is made up of people, systems, procedures and tools. It’s like a huge orchestra where one just plays his tune and not improvise. Although one does improvise now and again because the machine has loop holes. But one should proceed as if the machine works so everyone will enjoy the symphony.

The weekend was eventful. My wife and I bought bookcases in Ikea and some household stuff. It was an hour and half drive to the store. I bought a large photo that I wanted to hang in the living room but could not fit in the car so we had to return it. I have to go back again in the future because it looks good at home. We had lunch at Ikea thinking that we could deduct the cost from the bill as advertised. But the checkout lady said that it was not for this weekend. After getting back home, I assembled the bookcase in the afternoon until the evening. I finished at around 8 pm. While I worked, I watched the DVD movie I borrowed from the library aside from 2 other movies that were free from the cable channel. On Sunday, we had lunch at our favorite Asian buffet to celebrate Father’s day. I ate kimchi, olives, Japanese rolls – some with white cheese inside which was the first time I ever tasted that concoction, sweet and sour soup, clams cooked in pepper flakes and sea weeds.

In the afternoon, I worked on the ceiling fan for my son’s room. Last week I installed a ceiling fan in the living room. I hope the ceiling fans would help reduce my electricity bill. Last night my sons had the fan running and did not reduce the temperature of the central unit. So it looks promising. I still have to do more household stuff like place a film in the kid’s windows to reduce the heat coming in; set-up the bike hooks in the storage room and set-up the curtain rods in the living room. My weekend would be full aside from my trying to write and learning to kayak.  After installing the fan, we stored the old bookcase and DVD rack in the storage area. I felt tired after all that work so I took an early shower, ate dinner and had 2 drinks of vodka and lemon juice while watching the movie ‘Middle Men’. It was an entertaining movie but Luke Wilson is not suited for serious movies. I think he should stay in light comedies like his brother. It was educational too because it told the story about the early days of Internet porn.

I finished reading the last chapters of Mario Vargas Llosa’s ‘Letters to a Young Novelist.’ He has an interesting perspective on the craft of novel writing. He focused on ways to make fiction work by achieving an internal coherence and consistency. I liked the chapters on ‘Chinese Boxes’ and ‘Communicating Vessels’ as ways to tell a story. He cited a chapter in Madame Bovary wherein a farm fair was held while Madame was being seduced in an upper room in front of the fair grounds. The contrasting stories in that single chapter made the fiction believable.  He also wrote about Hemingway and his realization that his story would be more interesting if he did not write about the main event – letting the reader fill the blanks. He cited Hemingway’s short story ‘The Killers’. It was the first time I understood what Hemingway was trying to do despite all the Hemingway books I read. I guess it takes one Nobel Prize winner to decode the work of another. The book was overdue but I did not want to rush reading it to allow the lessons to grow on me.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Burnt Out

There comes a time when one realizes that one’s assumptions is crap. A readjustment is needed to get back into track or at least to sanity. When does one realize that one is heading towards a cliff, after following all the self-help books that one can find? It’s a realization that all is for naught; time is wasted and spent on triviality. The urge then is to accomplish something right away to make up for lost time.  Is it an epiphany when one sees his neighbor doing well with seeming ease while one is burning the midnight oil chasing some dream or another to keep up? When do you question one’s reality when one’s dream is not fulfilled? Or least the frustration that no one seems to understand and one is looking for some acknowledgement that one is in the right path. Sadly, that’s only in the movies and one is left floundering. Not God or family members or friends will give that sign.

There are just too many things to do. I think that is the problem.  The stress and anxiety is self – inflicted because one has a long list of desires. There is no more time for quiet and reflection.  For instance, one feels burnt out with the constant pace at work that one needs a break. A vacation would be good but no one in the family seems to want one; preferring to stay home to surf the internet or watch television. ‘Get a life,’ one would shout while one’s colleagues and neighbors travel and go on vacations. One is left trying out his dreams to no avail. Last night, I wanted to go to a scribbler’s session but was lazy. Instead I watched the lecture I bought about building good sentences. A good alternative because the lecture was educational. Hence, the desire to improve as a writer was met for the day. One just quenched a desire to try something new like going to a scribbler’s meeting.

It’s the proper prioritization of activities. What really needs to be done? Finally, one has spent time working on the tablet, trying to coax it into usability and relevance. It’s not just the feeling of ownership and exploration and new knowledge but actually finding uses in day to day life that’s important. The technology will in fact help one organize one’s life if used properly. Most of the time technology is a source of diversion and entertainment. It’s only in business where one tries to use technology to make work efficient and, thereby, cut jobs or outsource work to Mexico or India or China. Not a good outcome for those who lose their jobs. But technology is also the answer to re-invent oneself. There are choices to be made: to be a technologist or a writer.  Blogging was a way to serve these twin goals but now one is confused on the road to take. It’s always this cautious stance to have all the bases covered that one loses out.

Is this a character flaw? One wonders as he faces a cross road. Was this the correct direction to take or a reflection of a character flaw? In one’s mind one needs to decide if one has gone to the right path due to logical reasoning or a desire to have one’s hand in every pie. One is not in a society where everything is possible. Achieving one’s goal is also a curse. See the numerous successful people who have driven off a cliff: Dominique Strauss Kahn, Lindsey Lohan, Charlie Sheen and other folks who have gone out of control despite their seeming success. Hence, the solution is more a reduction of one’s desire than an accumulation or satisfaction of one’s urges. It should not be a hedonistic lifestyle but an austere one. But this does not mean a boring one as an austere lifestyle can be adventurous and fulfilling if one lives within one’s means.  It is staying within a rational or reasonable framework.

One flaw I do recognize is a tendency to get more than one can chew. It is a reality in work and in eating food and also in impulse buying. There is this urge to be relevant by buying something or doing some new adventure. I guess one is trying to settle down into an austere life after living in the excessive east where one’s desires can be gratified. Now all that accumulated sin is coming back to haunt me. It distorts the values that one tries to adopt in the new world. The result is being burned out where one’s mental calculation goes haywire. There is no more option except to relax or face a nervous breakdown.  Last night while watching my son play soccer, I had thoughts of playing tennis or joining a soccer team. The sight of all these people running around and enjoying themselves under a cool summer night is the best way to spend the season.

But one is felt left out by the seeming rush of the world. One has this urge to go running and join marathons, to compete in tennis matches, to play golf, go skiing or kayaking.  It’s the staggering options that are easily available that one is driven to stress. What is one to do? The realm of the possible has been breached. This is the meaning of freedom one would think. It’s to be free in the pursuit of happiness as Thomas Jefferson penned in the Declaration of Independence. Or is it a recipe for disaster that would end in bankruptcies or financial bailout or stress and anxiety.   Jefferson was bankrupt after all. Hence, it is a question of philosophy; one that would enable one to keep sane and live life in serenity. There are just too many things to do and experience coupled with the demands of work and career that burns you out from attaining grace or bliss or whatever.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Keeping Up

We installed a storm door in the entrance to the back patio. My son helped me put it up. A sticker in the door claims that it will save 40% of electricity cost. Perhaps for that immediate area but not the total electric bill. It will filter the cold or heat by adding another layer to the back door which has a glass window. I still need to add a layer of insulation to the inside of the storm door because there’s a sliver of opening that will allow the outside temperature to seep in. This weekend I plan to install an overhead fan. My wife is not keen on this type of fan but it’s popular in the South.  During the summer, I plan to open the fan and the screen door to allow air to come in instead of lowering the temperature of the central unit. Hopefully this will save electricity in the summer. In winter, I plan to wrap a blanket around the water heater to reduce heating cost. I will also place a thin layer of bubble wrap in certain windows which some say would reduce about 15% of heating cost.

I am keeping up my responsibilities at home instead of just watching movies. I had spent too much time lost in thought and the early incident this week snapped me out of it. This weekend I will put in the bicycle hooks in the store room ceiling to save space. I wanted to do that for a long time. I bought the hooks last year but did not feel up to installing it.  I have confidence now after working on the door and brought out my tools like my electric drill which I had bought in Singapore. The store room needs more space after putting all sorts of stuff like my inflatable kayak and collapsible hammock. I still have not used the hammock or the kayak or the bicycle or the trampoline or the golf accessories that I bought. I am spending too much money in an imagined future lifestyle that has not yet come to pass. To keep up with my dreams, I plan to kayak this weekend in Lake Robinson. This activity will replace my weekend skating in the park which I stopped after breaking my wrist 2 years ago in Singapore.

I still plan to run in the weekends but never had the inclination yet. I know running is the answer to keep me healthy with my constant over eating. Running will not resolve all my health concerns but it’s a start. I think this exercise will trigger more sensible. I also planned to keep up with my studies on stock and option investing but I got tied up watching movies in the evening. Obviously the issue is in my use of time. I get distracted easily and tend to focus on other activities which are not my true goal. Going to the library is like an alcoholic going to a saloon. The library is a house of temptation for me where I cannot help but borrow books, CDs, DVDs or magazines that will sap my time during the weekends or evenings after work. Hence, I can be accused of not being serious. My priorities are warped and skewed towards self-indulgence and procrastination. But I am starting to realize that I should wake-up and focus especially since my kids are completing their college in a few years.

I need to get some ideas out to engage them especially if no work is found and, therefore, no income in the early years. Our town house is a starter home and not suitable for a family with young adults with their own cars and lifestyles. I am glad to have moved forward in my plans by attending writing and investing courses and keeping myself sharp by attending Toastmaster and keeping my PMP certification. It’s sharpening the saw ala Steven Covey. In the coming landscape I think the future is based on the Google vision of free application, search advertising and the like. The structural employment problems experienced in the country will become more apparent once all the stimulus and stop gap measures are exhausted. The Google vision is the future and will encompass innovation in the technology field. I now have this idea to get the Google certification for AdWords that will give me a step up and hopefully share with my family.

These future plans require action and careful plans with realistic objectives. Investing in foreclosure properties is also an attractive investment that keeps coming to mind. All these plans are afoot, which can easily get thrown off track with one mistake or unfortunate tragedy or ‘black swan’ event.  Being realistic means being awake in the moment and I am guilty of being one of those walking deluded – living in one’s own inner world. Missing cues that would have opened up different doorways. I now realize what it means to be mindful in the Buddhist sense. Mindfulness has a different meaning and not only in the meditative state. It’s being awake in the present moment and responding to subtle signals that one does not pick up from verbal noise but other means. I think I have missed much from the subtleties of life preferring to move in a perceived superiority but losing out on down to earth realities. One needs to be truly awake.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Going Berserk

It’s like a blinding flash when all semblance of reason disappear in anger. The body moves in an unthinking gesture, driven by dark emotions. The episode ends in violence that one deeply regrets later on. Soon shouts are heard and the kids rush in trying to resolve the problem that had suddenly erupted in the night. One is ashamed by the lecture of these young men who berate you for going berserk. Apologies abound trying to bring everything back to normal but still emotions are high. One feels ashamed and gives endless apologies until everyone goes back to their rooms and a semblance of normalcy is achieved. How can this senseless disturbance occur? From the immediate aftermath one feels that one is not respected or insulted by the other and triggers an unfortunate episode. It’s the act of a family psychopath hidden in the layers of domesticity.

There is no excuse for these incidents but one is prone to these episodes like a recurring virus having counted 2 previous episodes in the long distant past. How does one go back to that dark place despite the conscious attempts to self control? Perhaps it’s the stress or lack of sleep driven by challenges at work. Or the constant thinking that is driven by reading too much or doing too much or desiring too much. One looks internally to discover that hidden flaw that triggers such senselessness. It’s looking into the dark night of the soul. The house now seems too small with no place to crawl into; disgusted at the event and the role that one played in it. Self awareness dictates that one examine the factors that led to it and try to prevent it. Truly shameful but one is shamefully glad that the kids came in to bring one back into normality before feeling disgusted in the end. How does one face them again?

Is this the sign of a dysfunctional family? Jonathan Franzen writes about family dysfunction in his books but in fact it’s the norm in most families. There is a rage that builds when one does not get what he wants. After all the credit card debt is exhausted or loans re-financed and spent that one faces himself again with what is left. It’s the struggle for a normal life by a modest income family. The only one with money is those rich folks and European royalty who have butlers and other staff working for their benefit. Ordinary people with 9-5 jobs (for those lucky few who still have work) like to be Donald Trump and desire bigger homes, 2nd or 3rd homes, more vacations, more things like boats or computers and end up in debt. Most families also have children who go to college and one needs to pay for these expenses too. It’s the normal demands of a middle class family that drive people berserk if one is not careful.

External factors don’t explain the problem. It’s not an excuse for domestic violence. It’s the internal reaction to these external pressures. In fact there is also stress created by one’s own behavior and desires. Self awareness regarding one’s reactions to stress is the key. When one is on the verge of going berserk, approaching the threshold of mindless rage, one needs to step away. Does it feed the wrong behavior in others that will continue to provoke senseless fury? Step back, relax and stop thinking. The general order of business is to control one’s desire, live a modest life and accept others as they are. The challenge is controlling the mind to have achievable needs. Perhaps it is the perceived slights that provoke one into mindless rage. It’s not an intellectual challenge but an emotional one. It’s not something that one can fix by sophisticated thought or analysis. It’s just controlling one’s temper which is an act of will and emotion.

In the end it’s the challenge to continue to live with shame and disgust. To drive home from work everyday and reconstruct the shambles of family life. One cannot crawl into a dark hole and escape one’s action. It’s a small house that one cannot flee from; to get drunk somewhere and forget the troubles. It’s an everyday task to humble one self and ask forgiveness from one’s family in order to make whole again what one had disrupted in momentary insanity. It’s a gut wrenching task to strive for normal daily conversation and strip away that night of remorse so that it won’t be a memory that would scar the children’s or spouse’s future. It never too late but one should be brave enough to accept mistakes and continue living in this difficult world. It’s the acceptance of one’s flaws and to have the family embrace again and emerge from the darkness that one had descended.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Letters to a Young Novelist

A slim book by Mario Vargas Llosa is written as a series of intimate letters to a budding writer. It provides good insight from a Nobel Prize winner - meaning a seasoned and admired author as compared to the text book from the NYC Writing School. I appreciated the text book for its sensible and down to earth tone with chapters written by different authors though not as distinguished as Llosa. It is very useful for starting writers because it reads like a work manual in a style similar to learning about plumbing or carpentry. On the other hand, Llosa’s book is for the MFA candidate or serious readers or writers who read widely – preferably South American or European writers. Both books need to be read in sequence and a good way to end the writing workshop which used the NYC text book. Actually, Llosa’s book is in a caliber expected from a Nobel Prize winner and offers subtle lessons if one can move beyond the seemingly intellectual tone.

In the past weeks, I listened to Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ and Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Secret Life of Bees.’ Franzen’s book is a broad elegant take on middle class angst and dysfunction. Kidd’s work is the coming of age story in the American South amidst the civil rights struggle of African – Americans in the 60’s. Kidd is the better work in my opinion by sticking to a highly effective first person narrative. Franzen’s is entertaining but possibly way to long. One just appreciates and enjoys Kidd’s work more. It’s the difference between the works of Llosa and the other lesser known authors who contributed to the NYC text book. But don’t get me wrong – Llosa is a master as is Franzen but the lessons learned requires a subtle understanding of the deeper themes that their work ascribes too. Kidd is an effective writer having plumbed an excellent story from her life experience and pushed to a masterful level. She is the inspired amateur.

Reading Llosa results in an urge to write. It’s like reading Dean Karnazes’ book or watching his movie ‘Ultra Marathon Man’ – there is an inspired urge to get out and run. It’s the effect of truly inspirational people who say ‘you can do it, too’. Kidd on the other hand is a singular story that can only come from her own experience. One cannot write that story except Kidd herself. There is a feeling of the inspired exuberance of the first time author similar to discovering sex. On the other hand, Llosa is a veteran writer in the same way that Karnazes is a veteran runner. The long hours of toil has brought them to a level of expertise that can be translated or transmuted into inspiration to their fans. Kidd is the inspired beginner with more hours to log before reaching the kind of guru status that envelops people like Llosa or Karnazes. Like me, she is the true beneficiary of the NYC Writing School course.

I am reading John le Carre new book ‘Our Kind of Traitor.’ This is probably one of his best works – not only plumbing new areas in the spy game but in the manner of relating a story with his well described characters. One can enjoy Llosa’s ‘Letters to a Young Novelist’ by applying his insights to le Carre’s book as John le Carre’s is obviously a master writer himself. The enjoyment one feels reading his work is not only due to the cloak and dagger stuff, the intricate plots, the relevance to international espionage and contemporary politics but also in the writing craft. He is like Herman Melville transplanted from the New England fishing village into the spy craft and intrigue of modern day London and the various international hot spots of the secret agent – Berlin, Washington, Hong Kong, Vienna and so on. The magic is in the point of view – possibly some middle-class Englishman educated in the public schools or perhaps college in Oxford, reaching a turning point in his life, a willing pawn is some global game or an actor in a plot orchestrated by an obscure but scholarly civil servant. His stories are authentic and have an internal coherence that Llosa writes about. Llosa is best understood when reading the works of great masters.

One achieved an epiphany after reading Llosa. Creative fiction is the art of persuasion - the ability to create a self-standing world that exists independent of the author. In fact, it’s the facility of imagination that is described. So what is imagination? Normally, it’s the overactive churning of thought that sees conspiracies in political events, paranoia or persecution in everyday work, fantasies and sexual innuendo in imagined couplings and the enjoyment of porn (a form of creative fiction) in all its manifestations. But it’s also the exercise of creativity at work; in crafting solutions, organizing projects, software programming, blogging, etc. It’s also living the new lifestyle in the modern computer age. So the challenge for the budding writer is to channel these everyday expressions of creativity and imagination into the writing craft. Hence, the skill exists but needs to populate new ground.

It is no longer the acquisition of new experiences or reading books but understanding the psychological underpinnings of creativity that matters. Creativity and imagination is alive and well but living in sin, paranoia, conspiracy theories and the enjoyment of technical diversions. The churning mind must be diverted into the creative pursuit of story telling. Perhaps one does not realize creativity exists which one accumulates subconsciously from watching movies or reading books or traveling. It needs to be brought up front into the blinding light of writing prose. It’s a surprising insight that one gets from reading Llosa’s book. The fuel needs to be brought to the right fire. The practice of a craft is the way to go – sitting down to write regularly (even if no prose is produced, perhaps an outline or any scribbling will do), having a place to write and fill out worksheets on characters and plot and so on.

After all one need to exercise every day, go to the gym and eat the right food to compete in a marathon. It’s getting into a regular habit in order to fashion the necessary skill. For the creative writer, the habit is churning out draft after draft until a mature manuscript is completed. Not the daily journal writings of a diarist. It’s the conscious application of creativity and imagination to the task of storytelling. Hence, the mechanical task of putting thoughts to paper (by dictation, by typing, by long hand via pen and paper) is just baby steps when compared to the craft of drafting, revising and editing. Sitting down to work even without divine inspiration is the sign of a mature writer. It’s the act of moving one’s imagination away from sin, paranoia, conspiracy theories and indulgent diversions towards constructive creativity.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Rich Dad, Poor Fool

Last week I finished an online training for stock and option investing. It was a six hour class spread out into three evenings. Most of the time I had trouble keeping up as I fell asleep during boring moments. But it was a good session when I managed to stay awake. I learned new stuff on options and technical trading. The trainer is from the Rich Dad Company of Robert Kiyosaki. Last Tuesday evening I attended a free overview on investing in foreclosed properties also from Rich Dad. It was educational although I did not decide to continue with the paid course. I also watched a DVD on purchasing homes from the library but I had to watch it twice as I feel asleep in the middle. I believe in Kiyosaki’s advice on increasing one’s financial literacy so I am always keen on attending these courses. I still need to read the three e-books I bought as part of the stock investing seminar to really complete the course.

The stock market went down this week and I took the opportunity to buy 100 shares of Bank of America at $ 11.29 per share. As the saying goes, ‘buy stocks during the dips’ is the eternal advice. I think the stock price will improve as the bank recovers it’s mojo in the next 5 to 10 years. I project the stock price to reach the $ 20 to $ 40 dollar range in the long term. Financial stocks have taken a beating and most folks are fearful of investing in them. But even in the worst scenario, these stocks will not fail because of the systemic risk and the ‘too big to fail’ scenario if these banks get into trouble. The government will just step in. I like both Citibank and Bank of America because of their services; the current depressed prices reflect the market’s opinion on short term performance. I project these companies to improve in the medium to long term after their near-death experience during the last crisis.

Yesterday I learned about the new Google certification program for AdWords. I immediately enrolled in the program and plan to achieve certification in the coming months. My blogging experience and general knowledge of the Internet will keep me in good stead to gain certification although I am not in the marketing or advertising field. I guess it’s a way to gain a new skill in case I need to switch careers. More importantly, I hope to share this knowledge to my sons and try to make money with my blogs. I have been blogging for nearly 5 years. I had hoped to earn money and also learn the new Internet landscape while developing my creative writing and technical skills. I achieved most objectives except getting rich. Being a certified Google expert will hopefully give me a better chance and solidify my credentials in the new Internet economy.

Of course, this will again delay my aspirations of being a writer as I am focusing on another area again. One cannot help but be diverted with the goal by being a Jack of All Trades but Master of None. I guess it’s covering all the bases while achieving nothing. It’s a pity as I just finished the 10 session creative writing course although I intend to participate in library’s Scribbler events and attend writing courses offered in community centers and online courses. I am one step into the game with a possible short story that I can sell. I plan to continue my book and use some of the chapters as short stories for publishing in literary journals to gain recognition until I finish my novel. I will also try to monetize my blogs with self-publishing sites like Blurb. If only I can focus on one activity at a time so I can accomplish something.

Aside from these goals, I plan to start running and join a marathon later this year or the next after being inspired by ‘Ultra Marathon Man‘ – a book I recently read about the runner Dean Karnazes. One has to have an above average physical fitness to be able to achieve all these goals. I also plan to start kayaking in the weekend at the nearby Lake Robinson. These plans follow Stephen Covey’s theory of striving for holistic growth. I read that Covey nearly had a heart attack with all his activities. I guess this is why I borrowed the books of Eckhart Tolle so I can stop myself from this onward rush to destruction possibly via a heart attack or nervous breakdown. It’s the so-called rat race wherein one has many ideas coming into mind; purchasing Internet bargains on exercise gear or sports equipment like kayaks as part of the goal towards self-actualization. But it’s really a race towards stress and anxiety.

I also have an insane desire to read the books of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen and Cormac MacCarthy. It feels like a literary vein has been uncovered so one needs to satisfy a blood lust. Does one really need to read all these books, attend all these courses before one can write or invest? That’s the question I want answered by reading Eckhart Tolle. Perhaps meditation and relaxation techniques will help one be successful in satisfying one’s desires. But the real solution is to cut down - read fewer books, watch fewer movies and do less stuff. But the blood lust is just too strong – a desire that is the root of all suffering. Perhaps one is subconsciously waiting for an accident to happen - to wake up from this mad race. A heart attack or stroke or car accident is the only way out.

Or perhaps to start running like Dean Karnazes until a sense of freedom is reached in the open road. This reminds me to buy the new core rollers sports equipment to massage my tired muscles after running. One should not forget the life vests in kayaking as well.