Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Road to Perdition

I finished reading 2 books where the protagonists were subject to harsh circumstances that transformed them, a watershed event that shaped them thereafter, marking them for the rest of their existence.  ‘Zeitoun’ by Dave Eggers is about a Syrian immigrant, living in New Orleans who experienced Hurricane Katrina, plus incarceration in a prison camp with charges of looting and the destruction of his home and way of life; the brief imprisonment shaking his belief in American justice. ‘Miracles of Life’, an autobiography by JG Ballard, is an extraordinary memoir by an exceptional writer, especially his youth in Shanghai,  World War II and his family’s imprisonment in a Japanese prison camp, the atrocities of war, the disintegration of British colonialism in China (and elsewhere) and his eventual upbringing in England after the war.  Both stories are about survival, the individual’s way of coping with unbelievable difficulties; Zeitoun as a middle age contractor picking up the pieces after surviving Katrina and Ballard surviving, as a young boy, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Zeitoun is also about an America that can go wrong, the prejudice and injustice that can happen in the face of catastrophe while Ballard's memoir is also about the decline of the British empire .

These 2 lives seem to be coasting along in their normalcy until the road to perdition is taken though beyond their control, where they are challenged with their wits to survive and, finally, able to achieve a sense of normality.  One has experienced this as well moving here where the onslaught of work is much more than previously experienced, where the demands of life are great, where one needs to put attention to more work and a new way of living. Although materially abundant, there is a sinister seduction of materialism that can also corrupt the spirit, wildly clinging to technology for some sort of salvation but trapped in a sort of hedonistic indulgence. Also the coming of middle age, the dreaded period where life catches up with you, to discover frailties not only in your own body but of your loved ones, suddenly affected by chronic illness, one faces mortality. One had two difficult challenges since coming here: the troublesome warehouse program and the new assignment given last year where the stress and pressure was something one has never experienced before. Together with one’s changing circumstances, and extra work outside (complex tax codes, kids off to college, materialistic urges, envy, etc.); it is a miracle that one can maintain sanity.

Since coming here one has changed homes twice, changed roles twice and experienced difficulties that one had to solve on his own plus the health problems of loved ones.  I looked at my notebook when I was in Singapore, where I had written notes, drew mind maps and realized that I stopped using notebooks since coming here, preferring to write in scrap paper or on the white board, working with more powerful devices like smart phones or tablets but still scatter brained and confused at times. When watching the HBO series ‘Treme’, about New Orleans after the hurricane, a story about survival, about the artists, bar owners, cooks, musicians, cops all trying to rebuild their lives after the devastation, also the political maneuverings and breakdown of government services, one understands change. Compared to their travails, ones problems are trivial but nonetheless important; one must adapt and survive whatever the circumstances.  In one’s case, stress is caused by oneself as he tries to exploit the opportunities that come in the wake of the 2008 financial crises: to invest in stocks, in real estate, to buy a larger home, to get the latest gadgets, to keep up with the Joneses. One realizes in this milieu, in a culture of materialism, of striving to get one better over the other, is a road to perdition in a more deadly form.

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