Saturday, April 19, 2014

Expertise Rule

Recently I calculated that I had spent more than 10,000 hours writing a blog, therefore following the famous rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’; to conclude I must be an expert in blog writing. Admittedly this is not creative writing, as in the form of writing a novel, but it is writing nevertheless, which gives me confidence in starting a career as a writer. I may have also spent nearly 10,000 hours reading books, so that makes me a near expert in book reading, too.  Most writers would tell you that reading and writing is important to being a good writer, therefore my experience so far should give me a step up. But the medium of a blog also provides other expertise as well, like being an expert on the Internet and ways one can monetize (or not) his online work. The point is that after nearly 8 years of writing a blog, one wonders what he is an expert in. Does it mean expertise in clear thinking, or expressing ideas, or is it a facility in understanding? One is sure that the motivation was to clear thoughts and de-stress, the act of journaling is really a form of meditation. Perhaps this is the true expertise one has gained, to handle anxiety and settle the mind, sort of like a wisdom practice.

I believe in making progress a step at a time, and one strove for expertise in writing, in finance and investment, real estate, stock, bonds and online ventures. One achieved modest success but the effort is wanting; a need to make a breakthrough so the investment in time is well spent. Unfortunately, one has dilly dallied, spending time indulging in a bookish life, to be a literati, or scholar in the Chinese sense. But the Chinese have a saying that unused learning is wasted learning. All the more reason that one must justify the past years of blogging, or it will turn out to be a large waste to time and resources. The conclusion one has a good foundation to succeed; hence, the challenge to control or manage the mind to get the job done. Perhaps this is where true mindfulness begins, to focus on the moment and sit down and write plus learn more about the other areas of improvement.  But there are visible signs of progress in real estate and stock investing, plus a direction to go to the next level, by forming an LLC, trying options (covered calls) or investing in bonds. Online ventures are also another way forward by maximizing experience into monetizing a food blog, using ad words and video resources. Hence, a way ahead in these areas.

Unfortunately, for creative writing projects, there is no other way but to write. Perhaps it is more of a creative exercise, where one must use tools like mind mapping or visual thinking to get a novel going. Thus a strategy is born, to maximize an experience that started with journal writing and de-stress, to blogging, to the internet and online investments. The other day my friends came to the house for dinner: Singapore dry noodles with minced meat, fish balls and mushrooms, ham, fried chicken wings, chocolate cake, mango and sticky rice. It was a nice time to catch up and especially share stories and future plans: moving to a new city, to a new job, a new house or new gadgets, all the trappings of moving forward.  These were all easy things to do, external movements toward something new; bereft of internal progress or perhaps a deliberate discipline to move ahead, one that requires reflection. But one is amiss as well, descending into stagnant satisfaction, not taking the considerable next step. Hence, time to assess what one achieved and to make a leap. It’s the courage to be dissatisfied, to know what one possesses is nothing if one stagnates; to undertake a journey that is primarily an internal quest.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tax Deadline

During the weekend, I struggled to complete my tax return using Turbo Tax, working on Saturday and Sunday and finally completing by Sunday noon. I have been working on my taxes since last week after office until I decided that the effort needed a full weekend; to focus on assembling documents, preparing spreadsheets, making calculations on expenses and so on. The task is time consuming and requires a sustained effort of concentration, made difficult by the many diversions available: movies, books and music.  After I completed my tax return, thanking God for Turbo Tax, I wanted to play golf but I did not have time, I vacuumed the house and watched movies borrowed from the library. The source of stress is oneself, and I realize that I am driving myself crazy, the only way to cut down is to avoid going to the library, where the many books and magazine lie in wait, ready to entice me with numerous possibilities for distraction and mental strain. But working on my taxes and organizing my financial affairs, one realizes is THE important task; all others are frivolous distraction. But there are just too many good films to see or books to read that I remember St. Augustine praying that he be converted a little bit later so he can enjoy his philistine life a moment more.
I also realize that one’s mind is not as sharp as before, coupled by the effects of medication like statins that supposedly cause mental confusion, realizing that a sustained mental effort requires a force of will. One wonders if the challenge at work is really a suicide mission: the urge to fight back and conquer the work place is really stressing the mind. Age is what stops people from achieving their dreams at a late age, except for the late bloomers who seem to reach the pinnacle of their efforts at midlife. The need for mindfulness, the meditation technique pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is now practiced by more people in the workplace, confirming my instinct several years back when I discovered his work, but lapsed in the years since with the occasional Tai Chi and Yoga practice. One is glad of PBS with sponsored programs that feature Deepak Chopra, Daniel Amens and others who advise on how to keep the brain young and fight the ravages of time. It all came together in the weekend as I struggled to complete my returns and watched these shows that advised on the latest techniques. Strangely, I had a chance to read about Southern writers, a book by William Ferris with supplemental DVD and CD, with accounts from Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren and Arthur Haley, keeping the dream alive; as one struggles with age.

Recently I meet with insurance sales men, talking about life and term insurance, about annuities plus reading about retirement design. Financial planning is clear now, especially last weekend as one organized his financial assets, going in the right direction and following instincts. I think one made good decisions, cautious on spending and investment, making small mistakes, following Nassim Taleb latest book on probability, focusing on diversification, savings and value investing. This effort requires clear thinking and abstract reasoning but affected by age, stress, exercise, diet, sleep habits and alcohol.  It can all come undone if one is not careful. There is too much living in the future or in the past where one is not mindful of the present moment; a curse that one did not realize until one begins to have problems focusing, escaping into books or movies to distract the mind. Mindfulness is a Buddhist discipline, not only an effort of mental exercise but philosophical intent. One is attracted to the element of discipline but lost to the transformative experience if one does not accept the metaphysical implications; a contradiction of both thinking and unthinking; to focus on the moment.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Leaving the Tunnel

A few weeks back, we returned from a trip to Savannah, Georgia and Beaufort, South Carolina. A visit to the old South, as people would say, enjoying the parks and public squares of Savannah, the stately homes around the square, enjoying the tours particularly the pirate house and other interesting legends like the Williams Mercer residence, the subject of a book and a film directed by Clint Eastwood. My memories of the so called American South did come from the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, the gothic atmosphere, the decadent and aristocratic city recovering from the Civil War, an update on “Gone with the Wind”, where the landed elite lose their holdings amidst the destruction of  General Sherman’s army.  But it was a young town, with students from the surrounding universities, the playing bands in the squares, the music festival, young people lazing in the park, bring a youthful vibe reminiscent of New York, with both its greenery in its public spaces and the cosmopolitan taste of its food and culture. The trip was a welcome escape after the area contest I organized and dues payment deadline which I worked on the previous week.

I did not expect Beaufort to be more interesting than Savannah, but I was mistaken, enjoying first the beach and lighthouse at Huntington State Park, imagining life in a remote area beside the sea, with the museum on light keepers enough to trigger romantic images. The mansions in Beaufort were next after an excellent lunch of Shrimp and Grits, fried oysters, shrimp bisque; enjoying the waterfront and finally a tour on a horse led carriage, around the quaint settlement beside the Beaufort river, the guide talking about the history of its old houses. But Beaufort was a Union town, after Robert Small (later congressman) helped the Union army takeover the surrounding coastal areas, effectively blockading the South and stop any shipment of arms from European enemies. The pace was slow and leisurely, topping the surprise and enjoyment of the Savannah excursion, thinking that one must return and enjoy these old cities saved by Sherman who visited the area before the war, instead marching on and burning Columbia to the ground. The legacy of the Union presence is Parish Island, the training ground of the US marines; also the historic capital of the Spanish colonies, long before the English came and changed the history of the continent. 

After returning from the trip, one was engrossed with the problems at work, back to the grindstone, fighting issues and assaults from colleagues, finally settling on a system of more organized work, instead of the current turbulence. Last Saturday was the division speech contest, where I served as judge for 4 contests; enjoying the orations and glad my term as area governor is finally coming to an end. I was crazy to take on that role plus my new assignment at work, compounding my stress and increasing work load. I feel I am emerging from a tunnel, hopefully better organized, with more free time, instead of being dictated by problems, meetings and fighting fires.  The trip to the old South was refreshing, reconnecting mental images conjured in books, finally seeing the old coastal towns where ships from Europe crossed the Atlantic and berthed into the New World. During the road trip, as we travelled along  towns and highways, we listened to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatzby’, possibly the great American Novel, equal to ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’, by exploring the way wealth corrupted the New World in its mad dash to supremacy. ‘The business of America is business,’ said Tocqueville.

I felt a connection to the old towns of the South and Jay Gatzby, the drive to accumulate wealth by vice, enriched by slavery in the cotton, indigo and rice plantations, transforming the local planters into a landed gentry but eventually destroyed by war; the cleansing of an evil, the stately homes now owned by carpetbaggers as the old aristocratic families fled in the wake of Sherman’s destruction. There is history looking around the stately parks, the old churches, the ruins in Sheldon of the Anglican cathedral, of long lost grandeur and decaying mansions, the military presence in Parrish Island was like a lifeline, a sort of equalizer that started de-segregation in it’s ranks after the world wars, a lifeline for Jay Gatzby, too as he embarked on a quest of re-invention and wealth accumulation, perhaps like the slave owning plantation owners, with a sort of twisted purity of a lost time, only to perish in violence. It’s crazy to try to link the history of the south, with its stately homes and crumbling ruins, to a romantic hero chasing a gold digger, who also owned a mansion beside the sea. But there is the same core of purity amidst the corruption like living in the antebellum South with its soft gentle manners and cruel slavery.