Saturday, May 17, 2014

Malay Fusion

On Mother’s day last Sunday, we ate in a downtown restaurant that specialized on Asian fusion food, ordering laksa – a spicy noodle soup that I used to buy in Tanjong Katong in Singapore.  The prices were steep, considering the food did not deserve such a price as one could get a similar and better meal for 1/5th the price in Singapore. The only good thing was the atmosphere, sort of like an Asian chic ambiance with modern design, Buddha figures, dramatic lights and a trendy esthetic, reminding me of those dimly lit sleek bars near the Central Business District that we used to go in the evenings.  After lunch, we had a gelato around the corner, watching people in the downtown streets enjoying the day, as it was Artisphere, a local event the promotes local art, walking beside Asian restaurants all owned by a Malaysian chef, cashing in on the Asian craze with restaurants that are a step from the usual cheap Chinese joints. But it was good to be able to get this type of food, authentic in taste and reminiscent of the sexy new bars in modern Asian cities, with dark lights and Buddhist figures, heralding a unique Asian vibe here in the Deep South. So much has changed since we left five year ago, especially the buildings, for instance the new entertainment and casino complex raising beside Manila Bay, a poor cousin admittedly to the government led behemoth in Singapore.

Another hectic week, multiple meetings, email deluge, phone calls, problems in multiple programs, stressed out folks and late nights. I missed a Toastmaster meeting, feeling tired and over whelmed, struggling along despite the fatigue, still able to go to the gym twice, planning to do work at home for an hour everyday just to keep up, something that can be done if I curtail my television viewing, reducing all my library borrowing and focusing on work. I borrowed and purchase some books on how to tackle this feeling of being overworked: ‘Organize you Mind, Organize your Life’, ‘Scarcity’ and so on. I am also attending an online course on irrational behavior, thinking that my own actions are irrational (if not stupid), a realization that one’s own action is the cause of stress. Perhaps it is the feeling of heaviness that must be thrown away, to be light in one’s feet and mind, something that is achieved by indulgent vices and escape but temporary as one return to the grind of work. One is starting to understand the ideas behind behavioral economics where irrational behavior rule, where the body does one thing despite contrary goals in mind, like indulging in carbs when one is actively trying to lose weight, like the body is moving forward of its own volition. How can one breakthrough the daily grind and hypocrisy? Last night I watch an interesting artist that drew mystical paintings hosted in “The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors’, whose theme is like a mix between ancient Eastern beliefs and psychedelic art hyped with LSD. Perhaps this spaced out consciousness is needed to keep one grounded.

Tomorrow I will be travelling to Columbia for my last meeting as Area Governor, after the meeting I will visit the book fair at the convention center and possibly attend some workshops. My term as Area Governor has been hectic, it opened me to new experiences, discovered my limits, given me stress but it was a good experience. It was the twin challenge of this year, coupled with my new role at work, another taxing experience where I am barely surviving, living from day to day, from crisis to crisis. Now the year has gone, rich with experience and again thick into new mind absorbing task like attending online courses. Presently I am enrolled in the following subject: entrepreneurship, leadership, guitar lessons, modern Europe, irrational behavior, business and philosophy. It like new experiences opens up a craving for new knowledge that the tendency is to drink from a firehouse, opening the doors for an influx of data that one can drown in. It is a wonder that one can absorb all these stimuli, but that is one’s reckless nature, like a drunken boxer ready to accept a challenge until someone comes along to deck you with a solid punch. It is again an example of irrational behavior or perhaps a low self-esteem that one unnecessarily undertakes risky behavior. Perhaps that is what one is trying to find out, to discover his nature by opening the doors of untrammeled input, massive stimuli, akin to overdosing in drugs.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Road to Normalcy

Too much time spent in triviality, like escape was the only way to keep sane, distraction by watching television, reading books and surfing the Internet, lost in a world of diversion. An elitist feeling, that of being knowledgeable, spending time keeping up with social, cultural, political and art events, acting like royalty as in Lorde’s song, with someone’s day job enough to pay bills. But in fact, a snob at the end of the day, despite the love of knowledge, thinking one is special by being intelligent. In a world of practicality, it’s a waste of time; the need to focus on reality becomes apparent as one faces money problems, as loans are due and one needs to hustle. No more time spent in trivial things but on how to make a buck. I read the book ‘The Buy Side’ in the weekend, a true account of a Wall Street trader, more like an every man story as he strives to make millions on the stock market,  the un-Buffett or the un-Soros, a life of excess, trading information and investing in tips, with some sober moments of good analysis. In the end, the author crashed and burned; a victim of alcohol and drug filled indulgence, a life anyone would have ended up, given the chance, instead of the sober long view and patient actions of a Buffett or Soros.

This is true life, where one needs to scramble to make ends meet, where the mind has to focus, work long hours, work like a grunt, his mind back from the clouds, avoiding day dreams and facing reality, hopeful of flashes of inspiration after time spent in reveries. It is the application of insight learned from dreams, hopeful of a different perspective; a detached view that one could apply to real problems. The problem is the feeling of superiority, by being up to date, in the know with the latest and greatest, though one is an employee, trying to feel special. Perhaps it’s what’s great in America, when leisure is possible with a normal wage, free to develop and grow as one sees fit. But excess money leads to indulgence, as one learns in ‘Irrational Behavior’, where more money does not translate to better performance especially in creative tasks, only in tasks that are mechanical. Living in dreams, despite being in debt, not being practical, is a form of irrational behavior, too. Like the trader in the book, full of irrational behavior as his life sinks into depravity, fueled by drugs and alcohol, while trying to pretend to normality. What about an excess of time? Does this also lead to excessive behavior?

A normal person only needs little to live a decent life, but in a situation of excess moolah and time, effort is needed to be sober and wise, to devote time in meaningful activities instead of waste. The answer is not in travelling more, watching the latest shows, spending money in trivial things but in tasks that use time wisely, perhaps to apply what one learns until middle age. Some worthwhile activities are: grow a garden, plant trees, look for meaningful activities outside work, or write a book. This will keep one lean, away from being obese in mind, body and spirit, in a state of continuous effort, not from the poverty of olden times, but from the excess of free. 'Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much' is a book that talks about the ‘scarcity mindset’, for example the scarcity of time, when one loads up with activities that one has no time left for tasks that really matter. Why does one feel scarcity? Is it because of fear the one’s job will consume one’s time, away from the feeling of exploring new things, like flying in the air, imprisoned by work, away from the reality that brings you down to earth, to normality. Perhaps it the fear of losing freedom until one realizes that neglecting meaningful tasks will also result in a loss of freedom, a victim of dreams.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Multi-Tasking Life

Recent studies claim that multi-tasking destroys your brain, a change in point of view especially as one boasts of having multi-tasking ability, but in fact can cause biological deterioration and cognitive decline, where the best thing is to focus on one task at a time. One had earlier thought that people who can only focus on one task are simple minded, unable to grasp the subtleties of mental multi-processing similar to a computer chip, where the mind moved along parallel lines. Someone said that having 2 contradictory thoughts is a mark of true intelligence, now it’s the reverse, the single task focus is the wiser path; the so–called simple minded folks are in fact the wiser, whereas the multi-tasking fool is often stressed out, ready to crash and burn in his own ideas of superiority. The single task simpleton has a healthy brain, with serenity in life; bereft of pressure and stress, contrary to the high achieving multi-task personality who is actively destroying his brain with unnecessary labor. Making one’s life complex, by indulging in multiple activities, was one way to be interesting, following a book by Edward de Bono, the originator of the thinking hats theory, was in reality a road to mental deterioration.

The weekend was again a whirl wind of activity, where Friday was spent completing late work, attending 3 morning meetings at the same time (remote by phone), rushing to a park at lunch time for the department picnic, enjoying food and games in the trail, rushing back to work and going to a nearby hotel to help arrange a Toastmaster conference, going to the gym to swim at dusk and rushing back to the hotel in the evening to observe the impromptu speech contest. The next day, Saturday, was a journey back to the conference, attending the training sessions, listening to the speeches, skipping lunch and going to Wal-Mart to buy gardening supplies, going back to the conference for the plenary speech, leaving at dusk and going to the gym again to swim, and rushing back to help in the main speech contest; putting on wireless microphones on speakers before they walked onto the stage. It was a very educational day, attending training, listening to speeches, meeting people and watching the drama of speakers practicing their speeches, with one losing his thoughts and walking out, his pretty daughter rushing out of the main ballroom to embrace him, a family drama played out in public, the hidden story of a young son afflicted with type-1 diabetes.  

Awaking early Sunday morning, digging holes to plant new shrubs, white and red azaleas, mixing the red earth with garden soil from Wal-Mart, doing difficult work before the sun rises, completing the task in 2 hours, going back inside to cook breakfast of turkey ham omelet, catching up on reading and watching a film or two from the library or recorded in the DVR. Going fishing at 2pm with 2 colleagues at work, enjoying a bucolic afternoon beside a minuscule lake, hidden in one of those sprawling trailer park  subdivisions with few houses, drinking beer, trading stories and catching a fish; borrowing a fishing rod, when one’s own proved too complex, enjoying fishing until 6 pm. Rushing to read magazines and books at home, enjoying the Sidney Reilly series with Sam Neil, talking to relatives to discuss the problems of life and difficulties in the home country; sad that brothers and sisters don’t help each other, with one oceans away from being able to help parents in their declining years. One feels guilty with the ease of life here, but one misses the drama and excitement of being home, where one is constantly in motion with third-world traffic and issues, otherwise one goes fat and obese with the affluence.

How does one help when one is oceans away?  In a way, it’s no different from work with outsource companies in India or the Philippines, meeting remotely and trying to solve problems far away. With the shortness of time, pausing like a deer in the headlights is not an option until one is buried with the ephemera of cyberspace. I am reading a book called ‘Organize your Mind, Organize your Life,’ reading in the parking lot as one waits for another event in the conference, opening the air condition in the car and blocking the sun as one reads the book, tackling head on what one has been grappling with recently at work, the onrush of life that results in being overwhelmed and stressed. Hence, the ‘focus’ on multi-tasking, to try in catch up with the onslaught of work, but finding out that it’s bad for one’s mental health. This is maybe the best book I would read this year, to achieve a balance in one’s life, offering some techniques to be effective. I enjoyed my time at the conference, despite my hectic schedule but I realized it was not for me, my responsibilities both in the club and at work has taken its toll. It was a good experience where one realized his limitation and priorities, now coupled with family challenges back home in his native country.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Alternate Reality

Philip Roth’s ‘The Counterlife’ is the best book I have read on the Jewish diaspora, the conflict in Israel and the identity of Jews; plus their lives in Judea, New Jersey and England. It is also about identity and Roth’s claim that living in a great country like the United States removes one’s ethnic heritage, coming into a wider more generic identity, adapting to a new world where old baggage is left behind. The book re-affirms Walt Whitman in his poetic epic ‘Leaves of Grass’, celebrating the diversity of New York, its bustling alleys with new immigrants unloaded from ships from the old world. I am starting to believe that Roth is possibly the best American writer around, aside from Cormac McCarthy; ‘The Counterlife’ is inventive and post-modern, if I can use that term, with ghosts as characters like in Macbeth, or characters from a book coming alive, counter scenarios thrive like alternate realities, all tackling the question of Jewish identity, with depictions of ultra-conservative settlers in Judea, or the West Bank as the media would describe it. More people should read Roth, aside from Thomas Friedman to understand the inner motivation of the diaspora.

In fact, Roth’s book is more a celebration of the American experiment, to leave the past and start new, the effort of re-invention. There are second acts in one’s life, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I watched the original movie last weekend starring Robert Redford, which I thought was inferior but in fact much better than Baz Luhrmann’s version, though Baz did a better job visually explaining the book. Jay Gatzby is an example of counter life, a new person created for love, though tragically lost, as forces of fate realign along a Greek tragedy. Roth’s book is a sly meditation, an elegant discussion of identity, both as an American and as a Jew, weaving stories that compare and contrast various points of view, attacking the militant ultra-orthodox people shaping Israel today, and perhaps preventing peace in the Middle East. Recently Secretary of State John Kerry used ‘apartheid’ to describe the situation, a view started by former President Jimmy Carter, perhaps a view that’s gaining mainstream acceptance and, unfortunately, may result in a return to anti-Semitism. All these strands come together: from the works of Roth, Fitzgerald, Whitman in trying to celebrate the best of the American experiment, of re-creating a new identity as a way forward, away from age old prejudice.

For the past several nights I watched the English mini-series ‘Edward VII’, an excellent but dated production about the eldest son of Queen Victoria, a series that won several awards with good performances. It was a good program with excellent insight on European royalty, especially politics and history, perhaps the start of a successful attempt to institutionalize a monarchy as others lost theirs during a turbulent period; for instance, the brutal killing of the Russian royal family by the Bolsheviks, the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany after the end of World War I. Linking the books I read, with scenes of Arthur Balfour, the Prime Minister who authored the Balfour Declaration, promised a Jewish homeland in answer to Zionism; the show depicted the forces that led to the world wars (i.e. rise of Germany), resulting in the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and troubles in the Middle East.  A young Winston Churchill was present, who played a prominent role as colonial secretary in carving out the fallen Ottoman Empire in the Hejaz.  Edward VII acted as peace maker and his death may have assured the occurrence of the world wars.

In both conflicts, America played a prominent part, rescuing the old powers from destroying themselves, watching the excellent HBO series ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’, understanding the rise of a new global state as the old world receded from stage. The rise of the new order, plus the experiment in a different humanity as written by Fitzgerald and Roth; that it’s possible to solve an intractable old conflict with a fresh ‘can do’ spirit but also results in illusion like Jay Gatzby (an officer in World War I) trying to re-claim a lost dream. It’s the new Turks that threaten the current order, plus the lack of wise men like Edward VII, who hold things together with his influence and prestige (like an English version of Secretary of State). One recalls a scene in Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’ where the royalty of Europe gathered for Edward VII’s funeral, walking the streets in their resplendent uniforms, as the funeral procession made their way; onlookers felt the end of an era, where a deadly evil was just around the corner. Disparate strands of thoughts come into synthesis; finding links and relationships, perhaps like Eastern philosophy where everything is connected; a holistic view of totality that make sense when scribbling thoughts in a page.