Monday, December 31, 2012

March of Technology

I am spending the last few days of the year testing old gizmos. It was a way for me to see what was still working and try to revive these gadgets and use them in my quest to be more efficient. I wonder why I still keep them and not throw them away. I have been buying stuff admittedly with no intention to use immediately but in some future when everything is right in my life. After moving to my new home, I feel that I am now at that stage. Old equipment long shuttered because I did not have time to use suddenly can be used because there’s so much space that I can literally unpack theses old gadgets, line them on the floor and figure out their use in my strategy. I have used them in some way or another, then stowed away as obsolescence and new technology marched in to finally seal their demise. But I am a romantic and will try to find a way to revive their use.

Here is the breakdown of the old and used gizmos:

PDAs 
Casio Cassiopeia (one of the first Windows CE device)
Sony Clio
PALM device (one of the first PDA + phone combination)

Cell Phones
Various Nokia phones (with their own chargers)
O2 – one of the first Windows mobile phones (screen cracked last year when dropped in a motel in Flagstaff, Arizona after a visit to the Grand Canyon)
Samsung Galaxy – Android 2.4 smart phone replaces old cellphone +PDA

Camera
Canon Rebel SLR – old film camera
Sony – point and click, 3 megapixels
Panasonic – point and click, 5 megapixels

Video CAM
Creative mini – video CAM
JVC camera with DAT tape
Kodak water proof CAM

E-Reader\Tablet
Sony e-reader – given to my son but now returned to me due to obsolescence
Archos 7 inch Android tablet

Presently, I have three old laptops in various states of working order: one Dell and two Acer laptops that I am converting to the test version of Windows 8. Additionally, two Lenovo laptops: one with the latest Windows 8 with touch screen and one provided by the office using Windows NT plus a tiny Lenovo computer connected to my 55 inch HDTV to watch shows in the Internet especially Google TV. I also have an Archos 7 inch Android 2.2 tablet used for general purpose internet surfing. To keep it all together, I use cloud computing services like Google apps and Dropbox to store my documents in the cloud. Essentially I can access any document I want from any device I have. Recently I purchased a used Canon DSLR so I can use the old camera lens and filter I bought together with my old analog camera and I also purchased a new 32 inch television with a camera so I can do video calls using Skype.

Keeping tabs with all these equipment can be confusing; I have spent several moments contemplating their use by multi-tasking with my reading and watching movies. I also surveyed all the other accessories that I have or given to my kids: wireless headphones, game consoles (Sony PS1, PS2 and PS3), phone ear sets (to wirelessly answer and make calls), camera tripods and a Panasonic voice recorder which I aim to use in my writing. I surveyed my plan to make my writing more efficient next year: Dragon Dictation software (for voice to text), microphone headsets, novel-writing software.

This is my writing strategy so far with the equipment I have:

Rough Draft:
Dragon dictation software
Panasonic voice recorder
Two or three laptops that I can use to put the rough draft in writing
Google document and Google Drive to store my drafts in the cloud
Various techniques like mind mapping and concepts in the book ‘Writing the Natural Way’
Join writer’s websites like Red Room to get feedback and criticism

Research:
Android tablet and television connected to the Internet or with internet apps
Sony Game consoles for role playing games like LA Noir and Dark Rain to get ideas on storytelling
Self-Development and Craft
Attend online writing courses like NYC Writing School
Do writing exercises from self-help books (Sol Stein, Stephen King, Ayn Rand)
Stick to a regular writing schedule

I have spent too much time procrastinating and I think the new home and surroundings will give me the environment to finally complete my work. I have gathered the hardware, software, attended writing classes and read DIY books, plus practiced writing enough to get the needed confidence. Last night I watched a documentary on Werner Erhard and est training, whose teachings is similar to Eckhart Tolle (a real German) whose main aim is self-transformation principally through the teaching of Buddhism. Aside from the craft of writing, one also needs some deeper understanding of the creative urges and how it becomes a part of one’s life. Erhard came as a surprise as I had been watching Joseph Campbell - a much superior thinker and philosopher – both influential thinkers in the 1970’s and 80s. I am also reading Logicomix a graphic novel about the life of Bertrand Russell – all providing insights in my current undertaking.  In a more immediate level I hope to read Andrew McCarthy’s articles to learn how he came to write his first book which I recently read.

It now seems that I am using technology to gain an advantage or perhaps in today’s age one cannot help but be a technologist because it’s a requirement of the times. The survey of all my gizmos also displays a materialism that one tries to avoid when following Buddhist principles; of Zen and the simple life. But nowadays new technology is like sex, providing a gratifying satisfaction in today’s stressful times. But perhaps it’s a way to get ahead, where being an adept in technology is like being an initiate in some secret teaching like a disciple of est or Tolle or Campbell. This is the link between being a gadget freak (or technologist) and being attracted to self-transformation thinkers – to find meaning in life by obtaining some sort of lead. The timeless solution then in both Christian and Eastern teaching is to live the simple life or a focused life devoted to action; free of useless thoughts. Revelation: I had prided myself in living a simple life but my possessions say otherwise.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Long Way Home

I just finished reading Andrew McCarthy's new book 'The Longest Way Home - One Man's Quest For the Courage to Settle Down'. He is surprisingly a gifted writer, sensitive to portraying the difficulties of settling down for someone who is fleet-footed like him, with a spirit of a nomad traveling the world to find himself. Apparently he is a well regarded travel writer although as an actor he is not as distinguished in his first career as in his current one. His book appeals to me because it speaks of similar longings, especially for one who has lived in different countries and still finding himself in new surroundings. McCarthy writes about his visits to Patagonia, Costa Rica, Baltimore, Vienna  and his climb up Kilimanjaro before his scheduled wedding in Ireland.

McCarthy basically writes about the fear of settling down; the old fear of establishing roots and having a family, of raising kids. So he goes on a voyage of self discovery, to different places in order to find himself and understand his fear of settling down before finally accepting the inevitability of his marriage. The fear is a standard for almost all young men as they approach adulthood, overcoming wanderlust and stopping the temptation to sow one's seeds at the ends of the earth. Basically the temptation to remain single and live an unencumbered life without familial responsibilities. McCarthy is a better writer than his fellow actor and brat packer Rob Lowe who wrote about his experience in Hollywood. Instead McCarthy uses the classic storytelling device of the hero going out in a voyage to find himself and return with a secret of inner knowledge.

This is the classic hero story as described by Joseph Campbell. McCartney uses this device effectively in his book. Recently I watched Bill Moyer's interview with Campbell before his death, especially on his work 'A Hero with 1000 Faces'. His influence cannot be understated especially to modern writers and filmmakers like George Lucas. Campbell reminds me of those great Indian sages or philosophers like Krishnamurti whereas Campbell obtained his insights via intellectual study and travels to different places in the world. This work is important especially today in understanding modern life and Campbell provides empirical evidence as against spiritual truth attained through meditation and spiritual evolution. He is the modern version of the enlightened philosopher who uses scientific inquiry to validate the ancient wisdom of the ages. His work should be considered the new religion.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Another Trip Down Memory Lane

Last week I watched a documentary on Pearl Jam.  Afterwards, I logged into my laptop and started to read some of my blog entries starting from the time before I left Singapore. How time flies. I realized that my entries are dense, full of theories and analysis about the books I read, the things that happened to me and so on.  I searched the blog for my articles on William Gibson, appreciating that I wrote good stuff in a roundabout way, natural for a blog entry without much concise thought or editing. I also looked at my entries in the months before I left and found that I posted scanned pictures of my mind maps, manual drawings written down to make sense of my projects or to organize my thoughts. I realized that my past actions in the blog did indeed have some foresight, to record my thoughts in writing as well as my visual thinking, in preparation for a new life. It was in a similar vein when I looked at my video clips the night before, the photos I took, like it was to record events and people that I would no longer see, months before my move across the ocean.

Perhaps that is the writer’s mentality, to keep recording as one makes his way in life, to be an observer so that one will write their experience in novels. There is a book that I bought in Amazon about the writer’s mentality that subscribes to this characteristic. I still have to read it. I wonder why watching Pearl Jam triggered my trip down memory lane. Perhaps it was the old songs, heard in some offhand way, because I was never a fan of Pearl Jam, preferring the sublime work of U2, the best rock band in the planet. But that’s a different genre with the other being grunge – but it was the youthfulness of the band members, songs that evoke naiveté unlike the hard reality of U2’s songs, dripping of the Irish civil war, or apartheid in South Africa that touches one to the core. Grunge music seems to be self-indulgent like it was revolving around their own reality, not conscious of the problems around them. Nevertheless, I reserved some of their CDs that I hope to hear them next week when I get their CDs from the library.

Last night I bought pork shoulder from a Mexican shop. The pork still had its skin attached. This type of meat can never be bought from an American supermarket.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Nostalgia

Last night I watched ‘A Day in a Life’, a movie sponsored by YouTube where people around the world sent video clips of themselves or of some subject on a particular July day in 2010. It was an intriguing movie, where the director strung together all those different clips sent by diverse people all over the world to create a stirring narrative; a reality show about life on Earth. Peppered with modern music, clever editing and inspiring stories, one cannot help but be moved by the spectacle of life. After watching the movie including the bonus scenes, I felt nostalgic and went to my YouTube account to look at the videos I created myself, a sort of video album, watching the clips of my life in Singapore, the lunch and picnics with friends and my recent travels in North America. I watched the clips in my tablet, flicking from one video clip to another like looking at pictures in a photo album, realizing that this is the modern way of remembering one’s memories, all electronic with one’s past stored in the cloud; somewhere in the ether of the Internet.

After watching my memories play out in the screen, I reviewed my stories from the 2 creative writing class I took in the Spring and Summer, re-reading my assignments especially the story I wrote about my grandmother. There is some talent I believe, but raw and in need of structure and editing, an assessment that one can only make after some time, when the emotion of writing these pieces have gone so that one can return and criticize with a more balanced attitude. I realize that one works with his memories, the images that play out in his mind, the creative spark that seeks expression in writing. Sometimes I fear that not writing a novel soon will let me forget all those experiences that I had in the past, the fodder of novels that one creates out of his own life happenings. But I realize that my pictures and video memories preserved in YouTube will help me together with my journal writings. I guess it’s the first draft of one’s future books where one can return to his past and creatively fashion a story.

It is strange that this feeling has come upon me now. Living in a house has given me a feeling of permanency, of roots that one can build on. I had never had this feeling before, where the mind can stop and look around; perhaps it’s playing golf every weekend that my mind relaxes. Admittedly there is no stimulation or temptation present in large cities like Singapore or Manila or Bangkok or Tokyo, that one has a routine (or boring) life: exercise at the gym after work, watch movies or television at home, surfing the Internet and reading a book plus playing golf on weekends. There is space in one’s life that one can achieve more. But one goes into a rut by filling space, like buying stuff that one does not need due to the abundance of money or credit. Similarly one buys stuff to fill up one’s home or packs senseless activity to fill one’s time. Hence, one does not work on the true goal.

For instance, I have a goal to write a book but I never get to write except in journals or in creative writing classes.  But I know it’s a start especially if one realizes the gap: the gap between having a goal against the activities that one does (or does not do) to achieve it. It becomes a design problem where one determines alternatives and how to reduce the gap.

This is the premise of a design class I am attending online in Coursera.org. To re-frame the problem is intriguing: it’s not a problem of procrastination or focus but one that needs a design solution. Hence, why don’t I write? Because I watch movies, play golf and read too many books or magazines. My spare time is filled with activities that I don’t have time to write. How do I solve this gap? Perhaps by having a regular writing time, or use technology like recording devices and speech to text software in order to speed up the writing of a draft. Perhaps it’s a lack of skill that one needs to learn more by attending writing classes or reading ‘how to books’ (which I do already). Therefore the problem is solvable: to use new technology, set a regular work ethic and learn new skills – one needs to design a solution to the problem. The other way is to cut down on one’s task and free up more time: less golf, less reading, less watching movies and less internet surfing. Perhaps it is a mix of both options that will bring the answer.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Being Overwhelmed

Today was a good day because I was able to do a lot of things, mainly because there were few people in the office, being the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday so less distractions in my work. I had a chance to respond to my emails, update problem tickets, follow-up on issues and coordinate activities on the projects I am working on. The quiet time also allowed me to plan and focus on the impending project milestones. It is 2 weeks away from going live on a project I am leading, not a big one but important for me as gives me credibility and a chance to improve my prospects. But I wonder if I am not too late as I have been busy supporting an application which was impacted by another major project going live in Reno. There were some hiccups but not tragic and we were able to recover. Hopefully, it will be better next week though one doubts because Monday will be the heaviest load of the week. Supporting this application especially during network or server problems has given me the biggest stress as well as destroy the strides I have been making with my other projects. I am thrown off balance.

The coming 2 days will be non-working days because of Thanksgiving but I plan to work at home to get things moving. The support team in Europe is working this week as Europe does not celebrate Thanksgiving so I need to correspond with the team if needed. I hope to do some work as well so I am not pressured and stressed out next week when there are more people in the office and when support issues arise. I finally used visual thinking this afternoon – mind mapping – to sort out my thoughts and clear my brain. I should have done it earlier but too much work and stress prevented me from doing this task. Mind mapping has always helped me by clearing my mind (like journal writing) but I am often lazy. I started by drawing the map by hand and realized that it was no longer enough, the plain paper could not hold all the associations and the coming revisions so I shifted to the computer application XMind. Finally, there is some ‘space’ between the tasks and the thinking process that allows me to be more relaxed and analytical. I should have done this much earlier.

The coming weeks will be hectic so I need to plan more and use visual thinking tools often. I will play golf in the coming 2 days to relieve some pressure in another way – by allowing the mind to focus on play while being competitive. I spent some time today trawling the internet and checked out a golf tool called Swingbyte which looks promising for self-taught golfers like me. I plan to buy this tool as well as a 32 inch HDTV, a camera for the TV to allow SKYPE calls and a bike rack which would all cost me about USD $ 550 thinking that I could get some Black Friday deals. But I am hoping to control my spending urges if I am going on vacation in California this December. I think the trip is important for my family, especially my kids so they can connect with their cousins and establish roots here. It is also important for my mental well-being because I have not had a decent vacation since April. The house move and the pressures at work had made me feel overwhelmed but somehow I managed to muck along but not efficiently in some of my tasks. The end of the year is in sight and I am struggling to keep up and make sure I meet my objectives for the year.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

MOOC

Massive Open Online Course or MOOC sites are increasing since the success of Udacity.com, the first online course that attracted thousands of virtual students, an attendance record that cannot be matched by ordinary classroom participation. Coursera.com, the online site where I am attending a couple of courses is an example, offering interesting courses like ‘Gamification’ and ‘Modern Poetry’ and conducted by known professors from Ivy League colleges. The attendance record of thousands of students in a single ‘virtual’ class is enough to make any professor happy. Inversely, people like me have a chance to attend Ivy League classes remotely and for free. This is one of the most exciting outcomes of the internet, by engendering the possibility of educating thousands of people without cost, no matter where they live. The courses I have attended so far are well-made and extremely educational; unfortunately I am unable to do the homework or exams thereby minimizing any further benefit I could have enjoyed. But it’s still a great experiment in the democratization of knowledge.

I spend most of my free time attending these courses; last night I attended 2 lectures on investment and world history while this morning before going to work, I attended 2 lectures on design artifacts, a new course I am excited about - being a new topic for me.  I just finished a course on modern poetry last weekend, done well by an erudite and charismatic professor who led the lectures via a discussion group with students from the University of Pennsylvania. An article I read yesterday was critical of MOOC, offering the view that the ‘secret sauce’ of live classroom attendance is missing, where the interplay of student participation and teacher interaction is like a jazz ensemble, where a gifted teacher can really shine and provide a unique experience to the attendees. But this was disputed by the writer saying that the best courses he attended in college were done by student trainees or teacher assistants. Anyway the professor of gamification and modern poetry were exceptional, as I felt I was in the presence of someone unique and engaging. My only problem is that I am attending too many courses like attending college full time while working full time.

But the future of education is here and I am glad to experience first-hand, but it’s a curse for someone like me who can accept a lot of input but without the discipline of focus. I am stimulated by new things but I don’t know when to stop, though one benefits from being educated with the latest knowledge. One needs to synthesize all these data to survive or drown in an avalanche of facts. I wonder if I am stressing myself too much by treading too much on the new, where there is no stability of the routine; the serenity of the common place and the mundane. It’s the same at work when one jumps from one project to another, while others keep doing the same thing over and over, being experts in their field (hedgehog) while people with different projects flit from one different task to another (fox). So to synthesize all these knowledge, one needs reflection and journal writing, visual tools to make associations, physical exercise to improve cognition and, most importantly, to sleep and allow the sub-conscious to process the new stimuli (and rest the brain). But since moving to my new home (a stressful event in itself) I seem to have increased my capacity for the new, a survival mechanism in order to live in new surroundings. Perhaps MOOC is a way to give people the ability to survive in the modern age where knowledge is important, but an addiction for people like me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Listening to Books

I have been listening to books non-stop since moving here, taking advantage of my commute time to and from the office; as listening is more efficient than reading plus saving one’s eyesight. I also bring audio books with me on my vacation or business travels, listening while on the plane or during road trips. This brings interesting memories of my trips that merge with the surrounding scenery and with the story that I was listening to at that time. For instance, I listened to Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ while driving along the Pacific Coast highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles so memories of the highway, the mountain side roads and sheer cliffs, the ocean, lonely roads and bridges;  are linked with Kerouac’s story and vice versa. Similarly, recalling Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Enchantress from Florence’ brings to mind the desert between Flagstaff, Arizona and Los Angeles as I was listening to this book while driving home with my family after a visit to the Grand Canyon.

My daily commute is suffused with my images of scenes in  the recent books I read: Ha Jin’s ‘A Free Life’ and ‘A Good Fall’, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘The Angel’s Game’ and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s ‘The Storyteller of Marrakesh.’ Ha Jin is a particular pleasure as he writes about the immigrant experience especially the Chinese of running small restaurants in strip malls in the South like his hero depicted in ‘A Free Life’ who managed a restaurant in the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. Since reading his book, I can no longer look at these Chinese restaurants the same way, as if a curtain has been lifted and I could envision the owner’s struggles as they work hard for a new life in the US. Since coming over I have been sensitive to stories of immigrant experience that I have enjoyed stories by Jumpa Lahiri in the ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ or watching the movie ‘The Namesake’ adapted from her book.

Recently, I bought a couple of books by Carlos Bulosan who also wrote about his migrant experience in ‘America is in the Heart’, a book mentioned by Ha Jin in one of his short stories in ‘A Good Fall’. Bulosan maybe one of the first writers to write about the Asian experience of moving to the US, probably the first writer of Asian migration as previous stories should be the Chinese coolies who were ‘Shanghaied’ to the West Coast to work on the railroads. But the Chinese workers often dream of returning home to China and, more often than not, do so but a considerable number remain as seen in the large Chinatowns like in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the cultural tendency of the Chinese would be to lie low and continue speaking their language and remain below the surface considering the racist attitudes of the time. On the other hand, Filipino immigrants would be versed in English and steeped in the lessons of American individualism and Hollywood movies to be confident in expressing themselves.

I also bought Carlos Romulo’s book ‘I saw the fall of the Philippines’, a work I enjoyed being a first-hand account of the fall of Manila, an articulate narrative from a reporter who eventually became the head of the United Nations. I have been buying a lot of books by Filipino authors but had not read them yet but most seem to have a tinge of internationalism. For instance, ‘Global Filipino’ by Jose De Venecia, an autobiography of Jose Rizal and the novel ‘Illustrado’ which all have stories of foreign travel and experience. Perhaps that’s the story that needs to be told of my country – a travel abroad to find oneself because circumstances are not right for self-discovery and growth back home. It’s only when one travels that one develops especially coming from a third-world country. It’s sad that most Filipiniana books are not available as audio books so one needs to visually read them.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Modern Poetry

I have been attending a course on modern poetry, an online class available in the website Coursera, featuring videos where an esteemed professor and his students discuss specific poems, a highly effective format in understanding today’s poetry. The session starts with the usual greats: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson and Robert Frost then moving on towards poets in the 40’s, 50s, 60s and so on. The sessions on the today’s poets offer an interesting glimpse on the different modes of expression. For example, one poet takes pictures of things like card catalogues, or folded pages in a book; arranged by the poet-photographer to elicit a kind of poetry from the materials or words at hand. Hence, the distinction between photography and poetry is blurred as the artist fashions her work on these materials which require the literary skill of a writer and the visual-technical skills of a photographer. Others recite their poems in a sort of performance art where poetry need not be written but listened to.

These people are not your father’s artists – now using different modes of expression with today’s technology. Last week I watched a video series from PBS called ART:21 about artists in the 21th century. An interesting show where people like Richard Serra or Maya Lin were presented – artists who combine the discipline of architecture, sculpture and social service with their work. It seems that today’s artists are multidisciplinary – adept at different modes of expression as well as having expertise in different fields. ART:21 focused more on visual art while the modern poetry course focused on literary art but the main theme seem to be the emergence of multi-disciplinary artists. What does that say about the modern age? Does it mean the university’s focus on specialization is no longer valid? Instead a more generalist frame of mind is needed – a master of all trades? Hence, the fox is triumphant and not the hedgehog.

Art is supposed to act like a canary in the coal mine – to give signals of the subtle changes in society and culture before the change becomes apparent and widespread, where artists act like shamans who proclaim an emerging trend before it becomes reality. Perhaps that’s the lesson of the recent election where the incumbent (writer, community organizer, offspring of white and black lineage, who grew up in Asia and US, senator and president) is a mold of diverse mixes against the challenger (Mormon, scion of rich and successful parents, brilliant and technocratic, self-made multimillionaire and white) – a man who seem to embody traditional values, the John Wayne generation that’s receding from view. The incumbent won perhaps because his team was more attuned to today’s diverse electorate than the challenger who seemed wedded to an older model. One seem to evoke poetry while the other an efficient machine.

The election result was met with vitriol and astonishment especially by the conservative establishment, as if the walls were breached by barbarians, like the world no longer made sense and the mix-up threatens the status quo. But the world now belongs to the multidisciplinary man, someone adept in different fields; he can make sense of the disparate threads swirling in today’s culture. White is black and black is white. Imagine a conservative attending an avant garde show, totally bewildered at the performance, preferring to stick to his own world of certainties while the changes sweep the world and upend his neatly constructed world. But there is freedom in change and one just needs to let it sweep through; this is the feeling one gets listening to modern poets like experiencing a breeze of fresh air.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mental Overreach

Last night I watched a 2 hour PBS special on Catherine the Great. The night before I watched a Bill Moyer’s special on ‘Capitol Crimes.’ Both are excellent DVDs that I borrowed from the library. I still have more DVDs to watch: mini-series on ‘The Kennedys’, on ‘Jennie’ (Winston Churchill’s’ American mother), another Moyer special about religion and politics, a special on China, golf tips, Burn’s New York documentary and other assorted films. Aside from these DVDs, I enrolled in six online courses: modern poetry, social networks, modern history, stock investing, digital artifacts and human – computer interaction. Aside from that, I am reading a couple of books on improving my golf score, magazines like Vanity Fair, Wired and assorted Home and Living magazines. On top of that, I wanted to participate in Nanowrimo – a November Novel Writing event and bang out a draft this month. Of course, the last task will never happen.

Aside from these activities at home, I am testing and managing a small project that expects to go live in December, engaged in another project that is more complicated and larger in scope plus helping support an application that went live last year. A heavy work load that includes starting a guild network, participating in Toastmasters (being the TMOD in yesterday’s meeting) and managing the blog site of the club – an activity I neglected for the past months. It’s no wonder that I seem dazed and confused, wondering if I am getting old with declining faculties but any fool can see that I am over booked. The stress of support is also wearing me down, with different staff in warehouses calling me, requiring me to drop what I am doing and work on the problem, solve the issue and coordinate with IBM. It’s no wonder I am losing my hair and looking stressed out. Add trips to the gym three times a week plus an occasional golf game in the weekend complete the picture of a busy life.

I invited friends over this coming Sunday, celebrating Thanksgiving a week early, with plans to smoke a turkey and deep-fry another one. A celebration to thank the Lord, re-establish friendship plus rejoice on the rental of my old home - relieving me of financial pressure. There’s much to thank for including the enjoyment of my new house plus other pleasurable circumstances. I just don’t know why I need to do more; perhaps to confirm my new conditions by learning a new fact or skill. Sadly, it does not help in my goal of completing a book. In other words I am procrastinating - diverting myself to other areas. Perhaps it’s a natural instinct to learn more and seek a deeper truth after achieving some success. But I neglected my journal writing which contribute to my mental fog, and returning to my blog has cleared my head somewhat. I feel I have emerged from a deep forest and into a clearing; after completing the home purchase, renting out my townhouse, proceeding with my projects and getting things done at work and at home. Unfortunately, I am not doing the right task of novel writing but instead making my time unnecessarily hectic.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reality Sets In

The election is over, one of the most thrilling and expensive spectacles seen today, a nail biting event for some that ended with an outstanding loss for the challenger (and the super-rich), all the more amazing considering that about $ 800 million was spent to unseat the incumbent and grab control of the upper chamber. Instead, the data driven campaign of the incumbent functioned like a machine, each tasks meticulously planned in advance and executed without emotion, like a leviathan inevitably succeeding due to its massive movement.  Wealthy conservatives were astounded: people like Donald Trump, Jack Welch and Karl Rove were victims of reality as the country moved towards the Democrats despite their best efforts to engineer an upset. But their forecast was not supported by polling data, the incumbent leading in all the swing states, notwithstanding the poor performance in the first debate, a well-planned ambush that triggered a sudden move to moderation by the challenger. All for naught as the fundamental truths have not changed despite the horse race in the national polls.

Until now I read everything about the election despite its completion last Tuesday, a political junkie forever enthralled by the analysis of the pundits, borrowing more books and DVDs to deepen understanding. Last week was a milestone for me: the election and victory of the incumbent, the completion of a network event where I delivered a short talk (less than 5 minutes), installation of software in a new environment, significant progress in my other project, golf in the weekend plus watching the new James Bond movie. Life in the new house is also pleasant, more space – physically and mentally, where everything is where I had planned as if all my past furniture was bought for this particular area in the new home. It’s as if everything is now falling into place that I realized that my physical journey has ended. The journey started with my move to Singapore in 2002, living in a condominium (5 years) then a government flat (2 years), then my move to USA; living in a townhouse (3+ years) and, finally, a purchase of a house that I feel I have turned full circle.

The remaining mission is to complete my journey and be a novelist. It’s like the year is settling toward a predestined conclusion: becoming a project manager, completing the projects planned for the year, progressing as a Toastmaster (35 speech projects), visiting New York and meeting old friends, moving house and finally being a writer. The political victory of the incumbent was like a talisman, someone I had studied for a while, reading his books and following his career plus the political events of this country – an activity I have been doing since my youth, before moving here and, finally, witnessing first hand – his growth seeming to mirror my own meager progress. I have learned enough that nothing will add or detract from what I already know – it is no longer the numerous factoids that interest me but the living of life. But serenity has not come yet; I have trouble sleeping recently, my mind churning with ideas that I am forced to meditate; to control my thoughts but to no avail. I seldom do my morning Tai Chi, leaving early for the rush to work, losing sleep; mind and body persisting in disequilibrium – preferring imbalance than balance; thus preventing a return inward.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bad Golf


Last Saturday I got one of the worst scores in my golf game. I have been playing for nearly 4 months every weekend and I was improving but I now realize that I need to make radical changes. I have been fooling myself into thinking that my game was getting better but in the end I lacked consistency. According to my golf buddy, I need to start from scratch – change my swing, my posture, my stance and ball position, my mental attitude and so on. So I decided to stop playing for a while and work on my problems. I need to break everything down and start from scratch. Unfortunately, I lack the motivation and I am again attempting some short cuts, like practicing at home and using gadgets; instead of going to the driving range and perhaps getting professional help. But golf is a game for amateurs and I will continue to self-teach myself into being a better player. I will attempt this improvement by watching DVDs borrowed from the library, watching YouTube videos; taking video clips of my swing for self-analysis and reading self-help books.

Perhaps it was a confluence of events; doing too many things like taking online courses, fixing the house and feeling pressure at work and on the rental property as no takers yet that I decided to stop golf for a while. The rental property will hit me financially and I need to act within 6 months if there are no renters. Otherwise I will go bankrupt. Such is the fate for being ambitious. Unfortunately, I spared no expense in purchasing new stuff for the house – proving the case that decline starts with owning property. But I feel I have no choice – approaching middle age I need to give my family some pride and stability by investing in a decently sized house. Owning property does not make me feel more affluent; more like an investment such as buying stocks. I have purchased about 4 properties in my lifetime – one in the Philippines which I rent out for a pittance, a flat in Singapore which I sold and earned some profit and 2 properties here in the US: a town house which I am trying to rent out and a reasonably sized home where we now live.  Not an extravagant lifestyle by any measure but perhaps seizing opportunities when it presents itself.

Playing golf is an expensive sport; also feeds the illusion that one is well-off, and coupled with a nice home can increase one’s folly. I need to return to my desire to write and try to earn extra income, to practice golf smartly without spending too much. The coming months will show if I made the right bets. My Saturday golf game gave me relief from the stress at work and life but it was an indulgence and escape which I no longer can sustain without worsening my troubles. The poor golf score was only the trigger. Happily, this week was a time for self – reflection: in my Toastmaster meeting on Thursday I talked about visiting old friends in NYC last April; in the afternoon, we had a department meeting where each member was described with a specific paragraph: mine was about working in 14 different countries – a record that exceeds most of my colleagues. I guess I need to feel proud of my current state. Last week I read the short heroic biography of journalist Maria Colvin who was killed recently in Syria. I cannot help but measure myself against her life - one of constant travel, adventure and significant work in the world’s battle zones. I guess I am not doing badly.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Decline Begins with a Large House


A larger home brings space to one’s thinking. It’s like one’s petty concerns are lifted out of their usual rut. There is a feeling of having emerged from constricted thought that one realizes when living in constrained spaces; that is not conducive to transcendent thought; that one moves to television or to drink in order to rise above the small surroundings, especially if one shares space with others. Now the openness and light of a larger home have brought out the largeness of spirit. One has always thought that the mind should be impervious to one’s surroundings – a Buddhist belief I think with the image of a lotus flower rising amidst the filth of a dirty stream. One’s surroundings do influence you – so one must strive to make it conducive to higher thought. One no longer needs to rely on alcoholic substances to get mental space – a space Ekhart Tolle talks about when one must be alive to the moment without letting troubling thoughts mar one’s serenity.

Still the mental grooves remain; one still persists on living as before, forever throwing ceaseless activity to the mind, to keep churning as in the past. In the weekend, I managed to cram 2 miniseries while enjoying a golf game on Saturday morning. The German mini – series ‘Buddenbrooks’ from a novel by Thomas Mann, was an enjoyable and educational work.

Several weeks back I had watched the English mini – series ‘Downton Abbey’ which I enjoyed – another series about a wealthy family in trouble. Also during the weekend I watched the English mini-series ‘Traffik’ about the international drug trade with scenes filmed in Karachi - Pakistan, London - England and Hamburg - Germany. The mini-series was later made into a Hollywood film starring Michael Douglass. “Buddenbrooks” offers a detailed account of a wealthy German mercantile family, portraying 3 generations, whose decline starts when the descendants moved into a much larger home. As for ‘Downton Abbey’, a large estate is in peril with the death of their heir especially with the high costs associated in keeping the large estate.

So one wonders if decline starts with owning property, which is what happened in the financial crisis of 2009 when sub-prime mortgages brought the housing market down and has not fully recovered four years later. Debt and being over-leveraged are the ills of a society with easy credit, spurred on by securitization and sophisticated financial wizardry that brought down countries like Ireland, Spain and Iceland. This has become the crucial theme of the current election: does one vote for a financial genius - a wealthy business man who deals in maximizing profit and with deposits in off shore back accounts, or a political genius – a believer in the role of government to save people affected by the crisis; spending government money (i.e. people’s taxes) in the classic Keynesian antidote of fiscal stimulus to fight recession. Like the cavalry coming to the rescue, the economy is picking up, with lower unemployment reported last week, thereby bolstering the odds of the incumbent. Tonight is the last debate with the general election only 2 weeks away.

The Republican multi-millionaire has several large houses that one wonders if he is overextended. One is reminded of Donald Trump but without the extravagance and multiple marriages. But it all boils down to diligent labor not over-leverage – for example my plan for salvation, in case things go wrong, is to become a novelist – to write myself out of any financial predicament by sheer hard work and inspiration. A goal I had not had a chance to pursue due to the move and my predilection to read more, watch DVDs, attend online courses and play golf in the weekends. But next month is Nanowrimo month – where I have a chance to jump start my aspirations by completing a first draft of 40,000 words. I am still resting from my labors of completing 2 online creative writing courses but I think I have learned enough of the craft to move forward. I had also registered 500 books read in Shelfari.com, after finishing the book ‘God’s Crucible’ last week; an indication of progress since one must be a reader before one becomes a writer.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

New Home


Since my last entry, I have moved into my new home, crossed a significant project milestone, quarreled with my boss, played golf a few weekends, cleaned my old flat and transferred and unloaded all my stuff into their new surroundings. No time for reflections except adjust to the new circumstances. In the meantime, my project manager left the project, after a last week of argument and tears, replaced by someone new to the company. During this period of change, I had to complete a lot of high stress activities: finish my writing course, continue the Coursera online subjects I chose, finish a design document, conduct meetings with contractors, undertake testing in 2 different software application, lead a project and hold meetings both in and outside the company (with contractors who were fixing up my old place).

To make things more difficult, I had to wake up early than usual, about 6:30 am since my new home was about 15 minutes father than my former home (7 miles vs. 12 miles), with a total travelling time of 30 minutes. In the past, these whirlwind events, coupled with the high stress of production problems which was finally solved in the first week of October, would have required me to write out my stress in my usual journal entries. The blur of activities would also have been calmed down by my usual morning tai chi which I seldom do nowadays. Instead my sanity and salvation seemed to be resolved with my Saturday golf games. The walk in the greens in the early morning, the golf strokes and shots to the fairways, the challenges and course management of game have relaxed my mind and allowed me to forget my troubles at least for a few hours. The result is that I arrive on Monday refreshed.

Looking back on my golf record, I have been playing every weekend for almost 3- 4 months. The regularity and relaxation had allowed me to survive the change of home, challenges at work, pressure of transfer, money problems and the distraction of the presidential election – an event which I have been reading about since my youth. Living right in the smack of it allowed me to experience first-hand the amazing transfer of power in the most powerful nation in earth. Strangely, this has prevented from watching the debates as my partisanship makes me too emotional to enjoy the event. Instead I prefer to skip the debates and read the next morning analysis; enjoying the recap in the New York Times channel in Google television during the weekends.

Of course, living in a much larger home, with nice views of the surrounding landscape, with large trees and undulating hills that have allowed me to relax more. I seemed to have lost my predilection for after work cocktails, instead plunging right in the Coursera courses. Next November is a coming challenge: to participate in the Nanowrimo novel writing month and to produce a significant draft of a novel. I wonder how I can achieve this task with all the online courses I am taking. But I think this will be a good end to the year which I started by attending the Gotham writing classes. Life is a constant flux and I realize that one should always keep moving. I wrote some good short stories that brought me back to my youth and of my days in Singapore. The new home has given me roots although I do not feel any sense of permanency, thinking that this is more an investment than a lasting stake in the ground. Much change in the air especially with the coming presidential election.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Disconnected


Yesterday my internet and cable service was mistakenly dis-connected; I had already lost my phone service last week.  It all started when I called the cable company to plan in advance, trying to do a good deed and have everything ready before the big move, explaining explicitly I thought, that I would be moving on the 20th or 21st of September which is safely two weeks away. But being clever and prepared is not a good thing; the company went out and dis-connected the service almost immediately. Morons do exist in all corporations, lying in wait like Laurel and Hardy ready to play havoc on one’s best laid plans. So one comes home after work without cable and internet, which is a catastrophe for some folks, and just hope for the best, drinking bourbon on the rocks. So I spent time last night and most of this morning working with the company to get back my services but to no avail. The best that can be done to re-connect my services is next week on 13 September. Just in time for my wife to be back home. At least I got my bill down by about $ 20 dollars.




I missed the president’s acceptance speech last night at the Democrat convention in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina. At least I was able to see some clips of Bill Clinton’s speech the other night, which was really a performance; one will not see the likes of him or even of Obama for a long time. The game is on in the  coming weeks all the way to election time, a political event that I have been reading about since I was a young man, watching movies and reading books back in Asia, comparing the event with local politics back home. Now I have a chance to experience it first-hand. I recall my first reading of American politics in Theodore White’s ‘The Making of a President’ series especially his book on the Kennedy election. This introduction led me to other books like David Halberstam’s ‘The Best and the Brightest’, also about the Kennedy years. The fact is John F. Kennedy is probably the first candidate to run for a presidential election in an intelligent and calculating way - against all odds, against an intelligent incumbent politician like Richard Nixon who was no slouch himself, and win. His victory became a template for ascending politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.



I guess it says something that recent Republican candidates are wealthy people, scions or married to partners from successful or wealthy families (both Bushes, McCain and Romney) excepting Nixon and Reagan while the Democrats excepting Kennedy and John Kerry, have risen from the ranks though Carter was a peanut farmer. But the argument does not really hold though recent memory seems to confirm this observation especially Obama and Clinton who have risen from nothing, using their own brilliance to strive ahead. So the support from extremely wealthy people for Republicans shows a clear bias in this election that some game is afoot. When my cable service was cut, my initial thought was a deliberate act to prevent people from watching Obama’s speech. I guess stress and paranoia and conspiracy theories come together. Happily I was not pissed off on losing my connection and being out of the grid. Instead I prepared dinner of minced meat cooked with garlic, onions, tomatoes and potatoes, watched the video movie Doctor Faustus, dozed off and read the chic literature on Brooklyn mothers. What a waste!


Early this morning I woke up early, took down my MP3 player and radio, connect it to a speaker and listened to NPR boradcast. At least I was not completely cut off. I made my way to work, slightly late, called the cable company and prepared for my meeting, which turned out well. Later I borrowed a MIFI unit and prepared for a weekend without cable television but with a plan to connect to the internet and complete my assignments on the online courses. It may not be that bad after all being disconnected.

Friday, September 7, 2012

On wanting to work


I sit here not sure about what to do, my mind scattered, shooting in different directions. Yesterday was a difficult day because of some emails I had to respond to, some seemed to be threatening, while others hopeful but needed a measured response. In the end I got it done, leaving the office near 7pm and going to the gym. Yesterday I missed certain appointments that I wanted to attend: a compulsory meeting and a racquet ball overview at the gym and felt bad about it. Nevertheless, I felt better after doing 30 minutes in the cross-trainer and a few minutes in the sauna. The exercise had invigorated me; earlier I did not want to go to the gym and exercise but was glad I did. I got home at past 8 pm; ate dinner of chili crab, rice and pork chop, a glass of wine and grapes.


This week is significant for me because it’s closing week, finalizing the transaction to complete a significant investment. I calculated the cash flow with a spreadsheet and planned a way to liquidate some investments in Singapore if cash is needed to keep me up. The fear is that one’s finances is being stretched, spending more than what one brings in. Luckily I have Excel and I think the spreadsheet tool is possibly one of the best things invented in modern life, with the financial planning that one needs to do to keep up. Going back to my story: I needed to call insurance agents, evaluate premiums, call the movers, and call the phone and cable company and so on so everything will be in place when the move is done in the coming weeks. My wife is not around so I had to do this preparation while doing a lot of housework.





Compounding the stress is the work on my 2 projects at the office, now kicking into gear as the year ends, plus the fact that I am attending 4 classes online: a creative writing class, gamefication, handling large data and model thinking. Stupidly I have increased my reading and watching movies, too. In Orhan Pamuk’s recent lectures, he wrote about his rush to read books, to find out about the secret center of the novel, like some hidden confidence provided by the author that will explain the meaning of life. I had that urge and I still have it now in my middle age but wasted in triviality; a constant urge to read the latest bestseller or some trivial Hollywood biography or Vanity Fair article or watch some obscure movie by a German auteur director. As Pamuk pointed out:  to be part of elite, to be able to have bragging rights that one is in the know – a cognoscente.


This is the rat race: a constant journey to be someone at least in one’s own eyes. What does one want really in life? For some it may not be more money, more houses and cars but maybe just being a cultural maven. This brings me back to work, where one is not motivated on the task at hand because one has no ambition to earn more. Instead the literary savant continues to read and find meaning from external things like books and movies and experiences. But recently, the writing exercises has made me realize that I am a long way from my goal – more work is needed but I see the way clear in my mind. It was interesting to see the documentary ‘New York’ last night. The episode featured F. Scott Fitzgerald – a writer I had not paid much attention, instead focusing on his friend Hemingway. Reading his short stories and life, perhaps he is much closer to my own than anyone else. I just missed the road that he had taken and instead indulged myself, following Hemingway’s clarion call.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Secret Center


Orhan Pamuk offers interesting insights on the art of writing in his Harvard lectures. Using Schiller’s essay on naïve and sentimental poetry as a starting point, Pamuk ventures forth on his own experiences as a writer and reader. He chart’s the development of his craft that I admit offers the best framework of understanding the act of writing than most books I have read. His concept of the ‘secret center’ is something I have not read about from any other writer though he does quote some writers who have similar conceptions on a novels ‘center’. It’s an intriguing concept as the ‘center’ evolves organically and not planned or structured the way a writer started out to construct when he began writing his book. In fact, the novel’s ‘center’ may not be what the author had intended but results from the reaction of the reader as he reads the book. Hence, it‘s an unintended consequence of reading that formulates out of each readers make-up: his culture, upbringing, education, experiences and so on. But the ‘center’ is also evoked from the writer’s work as he writes his passages, his narrative and the objects and sensations he places on the page – all based on his own make-up, too.



Being a writer from a developing country, although the recipient of an ancient culture, specifically an Islamist upbringing with echoes of Byzantium and Ottoman legacy, Pamuk has the same sensibilities as writers from the third world. Specifically a culture where only a small elite writes for their own class, at least during the start of his career, where an enlightened mass of citizens don’t exists unlike in the developed world with universal education and a mass reading public. It’s an intriguing viewpoint that I appreciate: the question is raised: who do I write for? The Western reader where the mass market exist or the small elite of one’s country: the decision would impact the way the novel is written. This will sway the novel’s ‘secret center’ and Pamuk covers all the territory that would impact the developing writer. It is a unique and informed insight and he cites samples from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and other great writers who were not really consciously aware of the ‘center’ as a literary model. The theory of the ‘center’ is what distinguishes genre and literary novels and he proves to be a well-read writer citing popular authors like John le Carre as one who moves away from genre towards being a literary novelist.



His book is highly original (despite starting off with Schiller’s premise using Goethe as his model); I have not had such incisive insights from other writers who write about writing such as Ayn Rand, Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway. I attribute this uniqueness to Pamuk’s intriguing background where he comes off as a sophisticated or cosmopolitan writer from the Middle East, someone who has Western sensibilities with no hint of Islamist tendencies. Perhaps this is a reflection of Turkey itself; a modern secular state that abolished the caliphate – a truly revolutionary act (perhaps akin to Mao’s Cultural Revolution) that boldly strives forward into the modern age by cutting its ties to the past. Indeed, abolishing the Islamic caliphate is like the Western states abolishing the papacy; thereby, getting rid of the Pope’s role. Hence, Turkey can be seen as heralding the future to the Middle Eastern, a call to modern ideas that has proven radical that only a few Islamic countries have followed. Perhaps being a native of Istanbul (or the former Constantinople) with one foot in Europe and one foot in Asia provide Pamuk with a synthesis that few Western writers (or critics) can understand but whom Asians can identify with.




Saturday, August 25, 2012

Naïve and Sentimental Writer



Orhan Pamuk’s book introduces interesting concepts on the craft of writing. It is possibly the loftiest essay on writing that I have ever read. It is fruitful that I am reading his book now, during the writing course I am attending online. Pamuk has reflectively and analytically drawn a distinctive view on writing that is unique and thoroughly modern. Referring to Schiller’s primary essay as a source of his views, Pamuk distinguishes between naive and sentimental (or reflective) writers and readers. He also makes interesting distinctions between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, between visual and verbal writers, between spatial arts like painting or sculpture and time based art like novels.  It is probably one of the most academic and insightful works on writing from a great writer; whereas one would usually expect this type of analysis from a professor or academician or literary theorist and not from a Nobel prize awarded in Literature. Therefore, he knows of what he speaks, applying his insights into his art to great acclaim

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According to his essays, he is a writer who is deliberate; a reflective writer who does a lot of plotting and planning before beginning the actual act of writing the book itself. Therefore he is the antithesis of the ‘naïve’ writer who rushes out and begins writing, driven by an enthusiasm that he thinks will carry him all the way to the completion of the work. There are writers who can achieve this ‘burst’ of effort effectively, perhaps writers like Stendhal, Dumas, Goethe or the recent example of the late Jack Kerouac with his automatic writing. I thought I was of this ilk, only realizing lately, after attending writing courses that this avenue often ends in a ‘writer’s’ block. He is the first writer I have read who has effectively explained the link between painting and writing; he is like a nexus or sweet spot located between the realm of literary and visual art, able to assimilate the lessons of each realm and explain their virtues which is why it provides a thoroughly modern perspective.




Pamuk also describes the way the mind reacts when reading or listening to a story, the way words would formulate on the brain, forming visual images as the words enter the brain page by page, the art of the novel proceeding in time as the reader works his way to the end of the book. Perhaps he is the first writer who has unlocked the secret of writing and explains the secrets in a simple and easy to understand manner. Overall it’s like delving into the mind of a great artist; plus the interesting fact that he is a Muslim Turk, a beneficiary of the ancient Arabian technology of the Middle East, of Persian and Ottoman influences, of the confluence of East and West, of Byzantium and the other ancient empires along the Silk Road; that he represents a rebirth of Ottoman renaissance, heralding the rise of modern Turkey in a European union bankrupted by Western excess. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but he does have a whiff of modernity, high education and brilliance in his analysis.





I woke up early this morning, preparing for an early meeting, where we passed a milestone and approved to move to the next stage. It was a culmination of a tough week, with friends over last night where I cooked ‘cioppino’ – a tomato based stew of shrimps, clams and fish, an Italian dish popular along the docks in the Adriatic coast,  where the remaining leftovers of the day’s catch tossed into a soup by tired fishermen.  My wife has gone home to attend her mother’s funeral, staying away for a month; my youngest son is away in college and my eldest at home working on his college entrance. I am in my sixth week at the writing course reading lectures and working on my writing assignments, tasked to thoroughly revise my submitted story, perhaps following Pamuk’s advice on writing, while I prepare to move to my new house, looking forward to critiquing short stories and playing golf in the weekend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Becoming a Writer



In Ray Bradbury’s book on writing, he mentioned the work ‘Becoming a Writer’ in the very last page, praising the lessons as helping him in his journey. The premise of this work is that one needs a ‘personality change’ to become a writer and those lessons on adapting one’s personality is the key, not just technical knowledge of craft. This premise conforms to my own view that being a writer is a holistic journey that involves not only the learning of techniques or accumulation of writing experiences but also the whole development of a person.  This means traveling, reading, experiencing life and possibly things like learning meditation and cultivating public speaking skills in clubs like Toastmaster. The goal is to perfect one’s voice which will reflect on the writer’s point of view in the stories he is writing. Hence, being a writer does not mean a solitary journey of introspective writing but a holistic endeavor that covers the full development of the person.


I have not read the book yet, not having the time to squeeze into my busy schedule. But the premise was intriguing enough for me to purchase the book in Amazon, where it is billed as a ‘classic bestseller’. My weeks are filled with writing and reading assignments, participating in the writing classes and critiquing the work of my classmates. It is an online version of the Toastmaster experience, where a group of people help each other via constructive feedback. The group activity is especially useful as one learns the background and work of others in the class, helping one assess his current ability by comparing it with the rest of the other students or would be authors, who are mostly adults, retirees, and a few young people and office employees looking for another career or pursuing a child hood dream. An interesting mix that is similar to Toastmasters where one develops his public speaking skills within a club environment.


This is my second class in the online course which is not cheap but more thorough than the previous workshops I have attended last year. The main benefits are the reading assignments, sharing and critiquing of work plus the feedback from experienced teachers who are also established authors. One is exposed to humility as one reads the work of others and receives useful criticism that one should take as a constructive feedback. For example, a short story I wrote in my first fiction class was praised after extensive editing, but my teacher in my second class, advised me to start all over again. The students from my second class are more exact and seemed at a more experienced level than my first class. I feel like stepping into a higher stage with more exacting people. After this class, I will take a break and reflect on my experience. I plan to read the book ‘Becoming a Writer’ after this course.



Currently, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Naïve and Sentimental Writer’, which is based on a series of lectures in Harvard. The book introduced a concept derived from a celebrated essay by the German writer Schiller. Writers and readers are categorized as either naive or sentimental and Pamuk’s describes the difference between the two. I fall into the naive category and the learning of craft has led me towards the sentimental or reflective category. These months feel like a revolution to me, after thinking that one has already learned all he can that one finds that he must throw away all his knowledge and start afresh. A young French man I worked with back in Asia preferred to work with young people, remarking about the old saying that an old dog cannot learn new tricks. Therein lies the challenge, that one’s past training and experiences would help one move to an entirely different field of battle, ready to work with new weapons and skills.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Zen and the Art of Writing



In my last writing workshop, Ray Bradbury’s book on writing was often cited. So I borrowed the book from the library, slightly aware of Bradbury’s work especially in science fiction having seen François Truffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 and having heard but not read ‘The Martian Chronicles,’ a work talked about with awe by other noted writers. I also recently watched John Huston’s film ‘Moby Dick’ starring Gregory Peck and was surprised to see Ray Bradbury in the credits, being the writer in Huston’s film who adapted Herman Melville’s book for the screen.  Obviously, Ray Bradbury is a man of many talents, straddling the multiple genres of science fiction and fantasy, adapting a literary classic for the cinema and, as I later found out, both poetry and free-lance nonfiction writing. It also seems that his stories have inspired cult films that involve colonies in outer space or aliens burrowed deep in Antarctica.



  
His book is an exuberant paean to writing, of the variety that is homemade and learned by instinct, having avoided college education or formal writing courses, instead dashing out to write a story and learning the craft through sheer hard work, sending out stories to magazine publishers, getting rejected, and persevering until being published by pulp magazines and eventually achieving success. It’s not only the writing gusto that is impressive; it’s the exercise of his imagination and creativity, to delve into worlds beyond normal human experience, in outer space and other fantastic realms but never losing sight of a core truth; delivering a basic drama and not focusing on the special effects. One wonders how someone could exist like that, to evolve as a writer with innate confidence, bypassing any self-doubt or neurotic impulses, allowing his imagination to run free to explore new realities and having the discipline to write about it, forever trimming and editing until the work is ready.



He is an unsentimental writer, perhaps like another science fiction writer William Gibson, who never wastes a word or sentence unless it has some commercial value, making sure their labor is aimed towards a publisher unlike someone like me who constantly procrastinates and writes in self-indulgent journals. Interestingly, Bradbury uses word association to get ideas and help him write, something like mind-mapping, or cluster writing to help him finish his work. It’s the first time I have seen a successful author admit using this technique – a subject that was elaborately described in a famous book about word clustering. Bradbury also cited an author who has helped him – Dorothea Brande, author of the book ‘Becoming a Writer’ an old book published in the 1940’s. Last night, I bought the book from Amazon after reading a synopsis. Her thesis is that to become a writer one must address the psychology or personality of the person, not focusing on aspects like learning the writing craft as usually done.

It looks like an interesting book to read; the premise is something that I instinctively feel is my major stumbling block, not the learning of craft which seems easy to surmount after attending the right classes and doing the right exercises. Rather it is the underlying motivation and confidence that drives the individual that must be improved, turned towards being a writer. If her work was enough to motivate Ray Bradbury then it’s good enough for me. Hopefully this will turn out to be a work like Steven Pressman’s ‘The War of Art’ a book that focuses on motivation and being a professional in outlook in order to be a writer. In the end, writing should be like achieving ‘Zen’, a meditative state where writing becomes a joy and not a chore, something that’s achieved when work becomes love and one just writes for the pleasure of the activity. Hence, it is a psychological state that a writer must achieve as he proceeds to work in the writing craft.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Mysterious Flame

‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’ is another interesting book by Umberto Eco.  I never liked his earlier works although the stories were unique and exciting. For example, ‘The Name of the Rose’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’, both with interesting plots but not easy reading due to the way it was written, obtuse and dense to my taste. It was difficult to plod through his works as I was unable to grasp what his point of view was; perhaps one needed to be a European, to experience or understand the context to be able to grasp Eco. Later his works seemed to achieve more clarity like Mysterious Flame and ‘The Prague Cemetery’, but still the European sensibility moves towards the complex and nuanced view. American writers tilt towards simplicity, more direct to the point, writers like Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps it is Eco’s background as semiotician, essayist, philosopher and literary critic that lends his work an academic and opaque air.


Someday I hope to read those 2 books I mentioned earlier, perhaps after getting more exposure to European history. Other European writers have a similar flair but authors like Carlos Perez-Reverte have simplicity of prose that is much easier to understand despite having a predilection for density that is the hallmark of European writers. Perhaps it is the key to understanding the European mind, not the English mind which has clearness such as Shakespeare (after removing the medieval syntax in the prose). Another good example is Winston Churchill who writes directly to the point, although with an elegance of phrasing due to his wealthy upbringing. On the other hand, one is bias because one communicates in the English language and not the Italian of Eco or the Spanish of Reverte. But it’s more than language and more on the focus on certain subjects, on certain ideas that seem esoteric and perhaps superstitious to the clear cut American mind.

The American writer closest to European sensibilities maybe John Updike with his dense prose. One does not leave his works remembering the plot but more the elegant phrasing, unlike Roth or McCarthy where one remembers certain scenes and plot details. Eco has a better record as one recalls the scenes that are interesting and also the phrasing of his words. Eco’s recent works resemble a feast, an entertainment that fully satisfies the reader (or a listener like me heeding to the audio book); the first person narrative is effective in giving the impression that one is hearing a story from someone sitting beside you, the voice immediate and intimate. Reading a book is like listening to music, the words flowing into the ears and into the mind until an image forms, sounds and sights materializing in the brain as the story unfolds, like watching a film. The writer is effective when his words achieve this effect and fails when he does not, which Eco’s earlier books were, failing to provide the cinematic effect. Until one understand the context, perhaps by study, reading other books or watching a movie about similar themes that one is prepared to understand Eco’s works.
Perhaps that is how one learns as he makes his way through life, letting the words from supervisors and peers wash over you at work, or from one’s friends and relatives, the mental picture of what needs to be done arising in the mind, allowing one to function normally in society. It is a visual world but the abstract meaning of words need time to formulate and gain traction. Stress is formed when the mind has not assimilated the message, the bombardment of emails, phone calls, meetings and discussions is too much to absorb; putting multiple demands on the person’s psyche. It is the challenge that one faces in modern life, similar to the narrator in the Mysterious Flame as he tries to reconstruct his memory from comic strips, books read and artifacts from childhood, having lost his memory after a stroke. In another sense, one is trying to determine the next step with the onslaught of information bombarding the mind. A typical example: working as project manager in a small project, supporting an application installed in seven warehouses, testing an application that is not working, organizing a seminar in the coming week, answering emails, reading multiple books and so on all at the same time. Achieving sanity and grace is like looking for a mysterious flame to light the way forward.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Writer's Biography


I moved to South Carolina 3 years ago from Singapore. I always wanted to be a writer but never had a chance to seriously pursue the craft. So instead I write a blog – a way of telling (or fooling?) myself that I am a writer, to keep the dream alive; thinking that blogging is a way to practice the way a runner trains for a marathon.



But for years I struggled to complete a novel and some short stories, always blocked from finishing the work. Maybe I procrastinate too much; in between raising kids (both boys now in college), doing my day job, keeping my wife happy and having a decent family life. Trying to become a creative writer felt like a secret life, or a hidden vice like a drug addiction; going to work for a large company, working with computers but surreptitiously reading and enjoying books, practicing writing by blogging and attending short courses.




Now close to middle age, I feel time is running out, realizing late that writing is more about craft than divine inspiration; perhaps misled by writers like Ernest Hemingway who made it look easy; the first author I enjoyed reading, who led me on this path, soon progressing to other novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, George Orwell, Yasunari Kawabata, John le Carre and Arturo Perez-Reverte among many others. Writers advise us to read widely and broadly as the first step, so I got that right but stayed far too long, neglecting to learn the writing craft; the clinical steps of revising or editing.



Recently I read ‘The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield, one of many Do It Yourself books I read, as if writing can be learned like assembling furniture or gardening, like reading something like ‘Investing for Dummies’ , but this time it felt different. Inspired to be serious, to be a professional instead of an amateur, I was moved by the work, reading it while on a bus from New York, leaving Chinatown near midnight, travelling south towards rural fields, resolving to be a real writer by attending this course as the first concrete commitment.  

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Shooting Toronto



I spent three days in Markham, a new community north of Toronto - Canada; stayed with an old friend one had not seen for 17 years; meeting his children, his brother and sister whom we were close during high school days; having dinner, drinking wine, telling stories and catching up on the lost years. A good friend whom one shared many drunken nights long ago, from early school years all the way to college; someone whom I have spent more time growing up than anyone I can think of, except for my close family and siblings; now a family man with a delightful grandchild plus kids in their mid-20’s, adults themselves; amazed at how time flies and how we aged; ourselves included – not escaping the onrush of time. Earlier we took an overnight bus to Manhattan - New York, spent a day roaming China town, Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum before taking another bus at 11 pm for Toronto, arriving the next day at 10 am, arriving amidst new buildings and slick bustle of downtown (strangely similar to Shanghai), seeing my old friend come out of his Jeep, limping like always, his white hair receded back in his head, the old smile and happy eyes; it seemed the same as before but not quite – both of us family men now, weighed by responsibilities, no longer the single happy go lucky youths of yester years.


Nevertheless the old excitement was back, like we were kids again, rushing with his son to a firing range in the outskirts of the city, traveling for an hour until one was amidst rolling hills and fewer houses, talking about old classmates and how they turned out, arriving at the gun range which seemed like the American South; pick-up trucks and men with guns, but with a sprinkling of young Chinese men, wealthy offspring from Hong Kong, holding expensive but high caliber weapons. His friend came over, an old grizzly veteran but light and lithe; a killer from the way he moved, confident amidst the Canadian outback populated by Canadian ‘rednecks’; apparently a member of military intelligence back in the old country, a body guard of the infamous Ilocano Governor Singson, now retired and a big game hunter living in a remote cottage in the Ottawa woods. He brought a number of hand guns which he allowed us to use, consuming hundreds of rounds before trying the long range rifles, using reloaded bullets made by the old veteran; one is surprised on the number of weapons in the range, reminding one of those nuts preparing for the end of days, perhaps after a nuclear holocaust that will require the survivalist with his weapons as the only salvation, living off the land like trackers hunting deer or moose.


After a few hours, we fired six weapons, both handguns and rifles, the long range guns used for hunting game; shooting targets 50 yards away for hand guns and rifle targets at 100 yards; the empty shells scattered everywhere, our ear protected by mufflers, finishing our shooting by 4 pm when the range closed, gathering empty shells for reloading in the future. The weapons used were:

Hand Guns
.45 Colt, Vietnam Government Issue
.357 Smith and Wesson, short barrel
.9mm CZ Czechoslovakian, automatic pistol

Rifles
.300 Browning Winchester magnum, ‘elephant gun’
.243 BLR White Gold Medallion Browning
.308 Winchester Wood Master

Soon we got home at about 5 pm, the old veteran joining us with his wife, bringing smoked fish; we drank beer while barbecuing steak, finally having dinner of grilled corn, fish, steak, rice and talking about hunting; the proud hunter showing pictures in his iPhone, beside dead bear, moose, deer; holding all sorts of rifles, telling stories of his life, the SARs epidemic in Toronto, stories of the dead victims, police shooting of an unarmed youth; telling them that I preferred the .45 colt but the .9 mm CZ handled well though not as accurate as the .45, amazed that gun culture is thriving in Canada, something one would not have expected, thinking that it was only in America that the love for weapons was great.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

It’s a New Day


A wonderful song played during the farewell ceremonies honoring a beloved company president; retiring after more than 30 years of service, videos of friends and colleagues saying goodbye from offices around the world; their faces gleaming with pride and sorrow, shown in large television sets scattered around the lobby, the inspiring music echoing in the halls. After the ceremony, the revered man spoke about all the secretaries who have helped him, talking of each person by name, an inspiring sight to see, acknowledging the people behind the limelight, avoiding any grand subject but just a sincere and honest thank you. Now that’s the way to go, not talking about world events or magnificent themes but stick to the people who actually helped you; the old man talking about his rise, telling his humble stories like being a waiter in college to pay for his tuition; an inspired speaker with natural grace and dignity. He is a rare individual, watching his life play out, in the tributes of his friends, in the large screen was a touching scene; like being in the presence of someone special. One wonders if he will ever get this kind of tribute, organized flawlessly and played out in elegant surroundings, but one feels it will come if one deserves it; one’s life a testament to whatever one had set out to achieve; perhaps being a decent person is enough.

I watched the movie ‘Siddhartha’, adapted from the book by Herman Hesse, a beautiful film that tries to grasp the essence of life, about one who searched for enlightenment, achieving his goal and living his old age as someone who helps people cross a river. The scenes of India was perfect, cinematography by Sven Nykvist, and directed by Conrad Rooks, heir to the Avon dynasty and substance abuser, who may have found salvation from the book. In an interview, Conrad first read the novel when given by his wife together with Jack Keroauc’s ‘On The Road’, an intriguing mix that is enough to drive anyone crazy; hedonism and asceticism in both books, reflecting the hero Siddhartha who rejected teachings from the Buddha, preferring actual experience; instead of religious lessons, meditations and the usual road taken by ‘sadhus’ – India’s name for holy men. The film showed the Brahmin’s journey from wealthy youth, then a wandering ascetic, searching for truth but departing from the holy life; learning business, sex from a courtesan and finally living as a river pilot in his old age. A contrast from the company president’s life, though similar in the diversity of experience; a difference in the end, with one living humbly in his final years, and perhaps the other with wealth and idle time filled with charitable causes.

Being middle age is a time where one re-thinks his directions; for most people it means a decline towards death, but perhaps it means a rebirth, where one is able to go forward with more confidence to achieve one's true dreams in life’s last decades; youthful exuberance long gone and hormones stable, ensuring a more mature life; the accumulation of experience enough to fuel the next stage. One is eager to get to the next challenge, tired by the recent years of doing the same work; now an opportunity presents itself, perhaps more challenges; an attempt to rise above the usual mediocrity, but is it only the usual drive for better things or more experiences?  It’s a new day for sure, but one wonders where the right direction will be, perhaps meeting old friends this coming week will clarify the way. Surfing the Internet one sees old friends; from high school, from college, from one’s fraternity; pictures scattered in cyberspace, eating in restaurants, playing golf, posing in pictures; once young faces now mostly wrinkled and old, some with grey hair, some still smiling and having fun, some in the old country, while others living abroad; one sees the road one could have taken and be in those pictures, too.