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.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Choosing the Good Stuff

Yesterday one had the opportunity to attend a creative writing course at the local community center; the fee was reasonable, $ 60 dollars for a six week course, meeting every Wednesday from 7-8:30 pm. I had attended a similar course last year, I remember the class well; some new things were learned, met fellow struggling writers and had a chance to experience a writing seminar for the first time. The text book was based on the New York writing class, a well-regarded course that charges $ 400 dollars for a 10 week program; a class that seem to have more rigor and assignments. Despite my initial plan to attend the course at the community center, I had second thoughts and decided to stay home, eat dinner, watch 2 movies while working on my blog and planning for my trip. I had decided to attend the online writing course instead of the classes at the community center, deciding against meeting interesting people and perhaps some learning; instead focusing on the expensive option; likely getting more benefit from the seriousness and well planned curriculum. The mistake perhaps of going home first before going to class; a more deadly route than going to class directly from the office; allowing the allure of television, good food and the welcoming couch to create inertia and stop the propulsion forward; proving the notion that it’s difficult to move an object at rest.

Nevertheless, one believes it’s a good decision, deciding against the social motivation of attending the course at the community center; deciding also against the writing workshop at the local college this July; a workshop I attended last year which I found interesting for the social aspects, networking with would-be writers and meeting at an old college. One is attracted by the communal feature of public courses but one wonders if there is benefit for serious writers; doing the lonely grind of online courses with more work and assignments but more fruitful after one has done the rounds of the local writing circuit. Yes, one did that, done that. The initial idea was to learn on the cheap, but a year after the easy courses, no novel has been written and procrastinating reign supreme; so back to square one. So one must try a different tack, change the mix of activities, and alter the game plan. Continuing on the same road and expecting a different result is the perfect definition of insanity; the hard decision to stop one’s loses and go a different direction is difficult, but one must pay to get what one wants; paying more puts more skin in the game. It’s like buying cheap wine to satisfy one’s fill, but one gets tired of the cheap, one must go to the good stuff even if one has to pay more.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Awaiting Vacation Time

Three more days before vacation, traveling overnight to New York this Friday midnight, afterward to Toronto to meet old friends; itinerary set for the return back to Manhattan, to meet another old friend, traveling by overnight bus; owned by a company called China Bus who gained notoriety when their transport crashed after a trip from Atlantic City; with passengers from Chinatown, fresh from casinos. It was the cheapest fare one could find, entrepreneurs from Chinatown starting a bus line that competes with venerable Greyhound and another company called Mega Bus, tapping a market of riders who prefer the lowest fare possible; something like Wall Mart, avoided by snobs or those righteous ones who think cheap products come from China, but saving money nonetheless for the general public, allowing one to spend more on entertainment; Broadway plays, ballgames at Yankee Stadium and visits to night clubs. One’s itinerary fully booked, after reducing costs in both travel fare and lodging, by utilizing cut-rate bus companies (though risky) and the Internet to book shared rooms (Air BnB), perhaps the way of the future, avoiding big name companies or hotels and going directly to these ‘grassroots’ entities.

 It’s like backpacking for the new generation, not exactly like the hippies or beatniks of the 60’s, but more posh with scheduled buses, clean rooms, Internet, hookahs and boutique beers; travel by Generation X, with compressed wages and student loans, looking for the best deal – the Ramit Seth generation – a bow to the scrappy financial adviser who studied in Stanford; applying negotiating skills to bring fees down, a heritage from Indian ancestors, those legendary deal makers in South Asia; perhaps rivaling the Chinese tycoons spread out all over the Far East. Intelligent travel to discover the world in the cheap, a last hoorah for the near-middle age, not just the young generation, but the boomers still attuned to latest trends and savvy enough to use it. Middle-aged employees, tired of working, but still far from retirement, paying mortgages and supporting sons in college, awaiting progress in their careers, planning a last adventure into Manhattan – a wonderful place enjoyed in the films of Woody Allen – maybe one can succeed like him, the old perennial genius, still accomplishing new things like Clint Eastwood.

There’s a buzz in the air, like something about to happen, but one is unaware, tired from work and expecting an event that would change one’s direction; likely a minor modification but welcome enough to avoid boredom and inertia, to slow the descent into mediocrity. Perhaps it is the anticipation of travel, to explore alone and see the world like a younger person, maybe to become someone better after seeing the sights. In the end, it’s meeting old friends that will remain in memory, to see how the other has done, like a common journey of youth but with different paths taken; perhaps thinking how one could have become if one had followed another road; but it’s the reminiscent of past adventures when one was young, an attempt to recapture something lost long ago. This morning one met the ‘boss man’ at the atrium lobby; my old nemesis and supervisor from Singapore, the source of anxiety and psychic pain long ago; the source of countless insults and brilliant talk; but the old memories did not come; upon seeing me was surprised like myself, looking at our aging faces, not like old friends but like old adversaries that briefly had moments of fun and camaraderie. Perhaps he did not even recognize me in my present look; my mustache and beard momentarily confusing him; but it did not matter; we did not have that kind of relationship that called for celebration when old friends meet.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Information Glutton

When one reads Umberto Eco’s ‘The Prague Cemetery’, one is enveloped in dense detail, like walking into a thick fog; the only way out is to prepare in advance, to know the terrain beforehand so one can hope to grope about and work his way towards his destination; feeling his way by touching any nearby structure, or walking towards some dim outline, in the hope that it would give an idea where one is. It is the same feeling one gets when reading his other works like ‘In the Name of the Rose’ or ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’; one should read a synopsis or book review to understand the premise or plot in advance before plunging into the miasma; soon one gets used to the gloom, sees better and work his way forward with confidence; perhaps that’s why his latest book has pictures; a device to keep the reader focused on his book instead of throwing it away. Otherwise, an advanced degree in European culture and history, a familiarity with obscure historical legends plus expertise in medieval folklore are the required tools to read Eco’s work; in which case the fog lifts and one strives forward through the erudite prose with assurance; armed with multiple PhDs and the teaching available only to scholars.

European writers have this habit, to display their erudition evolving from their Old World heritage; but Spanish writers like Arturo-Perez Reverte do a better job in keeping their prose attractive to the general public; unlike Umberto Eco who follows the style of Alexander Dumas but with more detail, expecting the readers to know the context like a professor who requires his students to read the text book before attending class or face public scorn. In his latest book, one should be familiar with the obscure ‘Protocols of Zion’, apparently a hoax created by some Russian writer, about prominent Jews and rabbis meeting in a Prague cemetery to plot the control of Europe; a tract that led to the persecution of Jews from the pogroms in Russia to the Holocaust in World War II; a work that directly influenced Adolf Hitler. The tale is told by an anti-Semite working in Europe during the revolutionary upheavals of the 1890s; Garibaldi’s attempt to unify Italy and create a republic, the Paris commune in France and the Dreyfus affair are the backdrop for this sinister forger and assassin, as conspiracy is woven into the capitals of Europe, working with an obscure band of conspirators, actual historical figures. One gets the context and background by reading book reviews and not from the pages of Eco’s novel; a deficiency perhaps of planning, plotting or style.

If one does not have any personal connection to this sort of story, will one read it? Perhaps the attraction to conspiracy theories, like a secret knowledge to be gained; resembling Dan Brown’s novels that reveal an underlying  reality existing below the surface; satisfying an urge to be ‘in the know’ like a political junkie forever listening to gossip.  Hence, one is a consumer of media, like a gourmand, one becomes a glutton for information; measured in bits and bytes, one can gauge how much one consumes data. But instead of being corpulent like Orson Welles, an information glutton displays signs of over extension and stress, losing sleep and perhaps over eating, too. Reading Umberto Eco requires one to read trivia,  absorb useless knowledge in order to understand his work, a rewarding experience in a previous time but now a waste (the other measure of consuming information is the time it takes to absorb data). Here lies the dilemma of Eco’s books, interesting and engaging but requiring more effort to enjoy, in need of extra research before one can understand; perhaps a rewrite is needed but at the risk of losing the charm, of hearing the voice of an erudite raconteur.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Distrust This Particular Flavor

William Gibson writes about his evolution as a science fiction writer in his recent non-fiction book; first an admirer of HG Welles’ work, such as ‘Time Machine’- a movie I watched a few years back with excellent special effects; but Gibson is wary of this type of fiction writing; a forecasting effort, something like predicting the future, a feat that George Orwell achieved in his book ‘1984’ (or was it a warning shot?). Instead Gibson was attracted by the works of ‘beat’ writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, writers who often write about alcohol and drugs, or living in the edge of experience; for instance - Burroughs accidentally shooting his wife dead, or his life in Tangiers or Kerouac on the road and dying of alcohol abuse; writers who focus on chemically induced transcendence. The influence of HG Welles, Burroughs and Kerouac results in the interesting mix in Gibson’s work; avoiding the predictive ‘flavor’ of Welles though with enough elements of forecasting to qualify as science fiction; with living in the edge quality derived from altered insights; reminiscent of chemical hallucinations from the stories of the beat writers – themselves a forerunner of a new type of writing, futuristic in itself (i.e. spontaneous stream of consciousness). 

Lying in the background is the immense influence of George Orwell, a better ‘futuristic’ writer than Aldous Huxley; Orwell is a giant, not an ordinary novelist who rushes out to scribble but one who establishes a central theme relevant to society; then crafting the appropriate literary vehicle to expound his views: poverty in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, imperialism in ‘Burmese Days’, politics in ‘Animal Farm’ and totalitarianism in ‘1984’. Despite his meager output, Orwell remains relevant today because he accurately pinpointed the important issues of the age, crafting wonderful plots with excellent humorous writing, influencing artists everywhere (see Apple computers first Super bowl commercial).  Orwell insights in ‘1984’ influenced Gibson one thinks, himself a circumspect writer not known for prodigious output like Stephen King, but with a minimal, almost ascetic and elegant style, who did not strive to predict the future but enough to foresee the coming age, to coin terms like ‘cyberspace’ and write about pattern recognition, Soviet martial arts, Cuban spies, computerized intelligence gathering, Japanese anime, drone surveillance and other esoteric subjects way ahead of its time; indicative of carefully research and reflection reminiscent of Orwell.

One reads Gibson to make sense of the new age, of technology, or to understand the trends surfacing in the world, someone who sees future markers before anyone else; Japan as the future state, Singapore as totalitarian Disneyland, the internet as a vehicle that cultivates solitary experts, or as a global nervous system (where dead people remain alive), an expert in cool trends (guerilla fashion, ‘avant garde’ videos). His essay show the thinking behind the writer, derived from a unique perspective or an altered state of consciousness; a contemporary attuned to modern tastes; his appreciation of the music of ‘Steely Dan’ for example, identifies him amongst the cool hackers of today, writing for ‘Wired’ magazine, give him street cred. William Gibson is maybe today’s George Orwell, a writer living within the complications of his age, where the big issues lie buried in the infrastructure, with pattern recognition the needed skill to decipher reality.  His journey through the worlds of Burroughs and Kerouac kept him remarkably intact, perhaps more so than writers like Hunter Thompson; avoiding the excess and chemical indulgences that this type of writing induces; a continuation of Hemingway’s hedonism; but instead emerging as a modern seer from this psychedelic mixture. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Burmese Days

George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ is similar to Jose Rizal’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’; a story set within a backdrop of a colonial outpost in Asia; the interaction between European colonialist and the natives the main subject; the colonials trying to preserve their bastions of imperialism and power while the natives trying to break in; be accepted in pseudo European society in the Far East. Rizal’s novel is written from the point of view of the locals and mestizos (mixed blood); intermingling with Spanish colonials in the early 1870’s in Manila. Orwell’s story is written from the view point of an English liberal colonialist, living in a remote outpost in Burma during the 1930’s, with sympathetic portrayals of the native population though with Rizal’s disdain for locals who wish to aspire to Western acceptance. Rizal scorns the aspiring native society who wish to ape the Spanish circle in Manila; the poorer populace just trying to achieve parity in their native land; struggling against injustice in a pre-cursor to bloody revolution. Orwell story, with flavors from Jane Austen, is also about a poor English girl looking for a proper husband, with rapacious Englishmen (timber merchants, government officials and officers) and their native mistresses; clearly racist in their attitudes with Orwell scorning their imperial arrogance.

Both novels end in tragedy; Rizal’s heroine going mad after being raped by a priest, the hero fleeing the islands – a European educated reformer thwarted by a powerful corrupt priest; Orwell’s protagonist is an Englishman who commits suicide (after being scorned by his love) a victim of Burmese intrigue; his Burmese tormentor eventually accepted in local English society; and the hero’s ‘girlfriend’ marrying a much older man; both novels have evil triumphant. Rizal’s novel was a catalyst to the Philippine revolution against Spain in the 1890s; Orwell’s novel did not achieve any impact in local society though Burmese nationalists eventually achieved independence against the British after the 2nd word war though evolving into a totalitarian dictatorship protected by Communist China; a theme alluded by the mysterious author (spy?) Emma Larkin in his book ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’.  Both colonial powers exercised different attitudes; Spanish colonialists assimilating with the local populace, resulting in the mixing of cultures (mestizos); driven by a severe Catholic tradition that resulted in the unification of Muslim Iberia into Spain; evolving into the first European power in the 1500s. English colonialist, on the other hand, kept their social classes distinct, the first global mercantile power, exploiting colonies and people for goods and markets in the 1800s; the precursor to globalization.

George Orwell eventually wrote his 2 masterpieces ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ thereafter; his experience in Burma and Spain, during the civil war, nourishing his vision of a totalitarian state; not necessarily Communist or Fascist but a possible evolution of a democratic state; an observation pointed out by William Gibson decades later, seeing surveillance cameras in the streets of London, not far from Orwell’s publisher.  This vision was remarked upon by Christopher Hitchens in his book ‘Why Orwell Matters’, echoed by his friend Salman Rushdie in an epitaph after Hitchens death, where Hitchens supported the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq; one of the first who saw the link between Islamic fundamentalist, terrorists and the formation of an Islamist state exemplified by Iran. But these visions came much later; instead I wallowed in the romance of English colonial history, watching ‘The Letter’ with Bette Davis, from a story by Somerset Maugham, about infidelity in the Far East, English rubber planters in Malaya and Singapore, the lush gardens of tropical houses and plantations, China town and Malay workers, and the murder victim having a Chinese-Malay wife, known as a ‘nonya’.  

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bette Davis’ Eyes

Watching Bette Davis for the first time in ‘The Letter’ and ‘All About Eve’ is like discovering a talent for the ages; except for a few cases, she is heads and shoulders above most of today’s talent, possible 99% better except for such actress like Jane Fonda or Meryl Streep but still one is not sure; reason being is that one does not have the great stories, directors and scriptwriting in today’s movies. These two films are prime examples, the merging of great script, director and actress coming together; one cannot recall any other performance in recent years, though there are great movie scenes, like Meryl Streep as a rabbi speaking at a funeral in ‘Angels in America’, but there is no sustained brilliance throughout the length of a film as exhibited by Bette Davis, possibly with the exception of Katherine Hepburn in ‘A Lion in Winter’. It’s her eyes that capture the audience, her eyes portray her intelligence and skill, similar to Elizabeth Taylor but whose beauty eclipses her performance, one of the better actresses but not in the caliber of Bette Davis; an artist of the first level, perhaps as a person too, working well into her advanced age.

One cannot help but think the great ones are long gone, people like John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Ingmar Bergman and Bette Davis; replaced by self-obsessed narcissists with limited though admittedly brilliant output (Warren Beatty?), brilliant people who could have produced more like John Huston; sadly only Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Woody Allen remain inventive and prodigious in their advance years. So discovering Bette Davis is a revelation, someone with the talent and courage to accept difficult roles like an adulteress or an ego-centric actress and making her portrayals fascinating and riveting, perhaps like Charlize Theron – a competent actress willing to accept unglamorous roles though without the same quality of talent as Davis. One thought that one has seen all the performances, then one day one discovers an artist like Davis and realizes that all is not lost, seeing someone in fine form despite the old dated films, someone that can still inspire people in the future. Going back to the past make one feel that one has completed the circle, the newness of certain films are really not new but a return to the old, where actresses like Bette Davis had already pushed the envelope long ago that later artists seem boring and uninspired when compared to her.

In fact, there is newness in Davis performances simply because no one does her type of roles anymore, perhaps it’s a lack of talent which I suspect or lack of material; perhaps even a lack of courage from today’s stars; an accusation made by Francis Ford Coppola, accusing great thespians like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro for not striving for difficult roles; unlike Marlon Brando who was willing to portray an aging mafia don, a sexual obsessive and an insane military officer in his later parts. Most artists today prefer the classic leading man or woman roles; avoiding deviant personalities, with the exception of Clint Eastwood who seem to thrive in anti-hero types; perhaps this is the real American character, not those wholesome personages like George Washington but interesting personalities like J. Edgar Hoover, Dick Cheney, slave owning Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton and, yes, Bette Davis. People love their eccentric heroes; someone who is imperfect, who acts with conviction despite being misguided; people who strive in the end to rise above their flaws or perish in their failures like Captain Ahab; trapped in the side of the great white whale and drowning to his death. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gibson’s advise

William Gibson, in his recent book of essays, described his early writing process; focusing exclusively on creative fiction, vowing never to spend time writing diaries or journals, or being a writer of non-fiction; making sure all his output is geared towards fiction writing; a strategy that proved effective considering his output as a novelist of science fiction. Only recently has Gibson allowed himself to stray from his own rule, coming out with his recent book of non-fiction but explaining his decision early on; similar to Hemingway who tended not to give lots of speeches or speak publicly in a professional manner; preserving all verbal output to prose, thinking that non-fiction writing would waste that reservoir of magic; senselessly dispersed if wasted in activities other than creative writing; hoping to focus only on fiction that results in being well paid. Mainly because writing in journals or non-fiction is easy to do, a deceptive activity that feels like writing but distorts the creative forces at work; a sort of corruption that would derail one’s goal of being a fiction writer. Focusing exclusively on fiction is something that full-time writers can do, unlike others who have a day job and need a minor outlet for creativity; something that would keep the dream alive.

My experience is the complete opposite; which explains my failure to finish a work of fiction, wasting time in journal entries or even in Toastmasters as trivial outlets of creativity, hoping these tasks are worthy exercises to keep the writing nimble; but now realizing that whatever benefit one can get has already been taken long ago. Gibson is right in thinking that this type of writing is painless to do and corrupts the creative instinct, now one wonders if it can be regained. He has interesting insights; one about reading as the spark for a writer; one becomes a writer because of his reading, so at least one is correct in reading broadly but one wonders how much is needed to get the appropriate mix that would stimulate magic. But ‘magic’ is not the right word, it’s the grinding work of craft, the one way to focus exclusively in fiction; a requirement of sheer discipline that writers like Gibson has achieved; no fooling around – a no nonsense approach; an effort needed for full time writers or one’s starves to death like one of those unfortunate artists unable to achieve financial success. Hence, weekend writers like me, trying out writing activities whenever one can (like blogging), probably is misguided and in need of formal guidance, perhaps attending expensive MFA courses maybe the way ahead.

There is stealth to being a writer; feeling a sense of inadequacy in one’s present circumstances, similar to James Joyce last sentences in ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’, living in the shadows until one writes about the ‘uncreated conscience of his race’, or similar to Clint Eastwood when he remarked that he has ‘a rebel in his soul’. Perhaps this is what drives creativity, an unrequited desire that is unnameable like an animal urge to procreate; an artistic instinct to create, hurling people forward; being bohemians in spirit but trying to be regular folks. But Gibson is right; concentrating in fiction channels the animal spirits towards expression in the right direction, not frittered away in works that achieve nothing but playing with one; a sort of mental masturbation. Maybe this is what reading books does to you, make one see other shores, other peoples, other stories and create an urge to be more alive; reading stimulates the instinct to write because the same mental circuitry is engaged; the alchemy of imagination becoming animate in the appreciation of prose. Bringing the imagination derived from reading and towards creating fiction requires craft, like forcing a wild horse towards the discipline of focus, instead of the unending self-reflection and clever non-fiction writing of a dilettante.