Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Comic Not Artform

Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, American Born Chinese has be nominated for a National Book Award in the young people's literature category. Tony Long is a copy editor from Wired and he has this to say about the nomination:

But it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.

If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award, the American equivalent of France's Prix Goncourt or Britain's Booker Prize, is exceedingly difficult.

I'm linking the full statement here. Just so that you can read for yourself what he wrote.

(I have seen the graphic novel in question. In fact, I ordered it for our bookstore. I would not consider a mediocre work, though it's not actually representative of Chinese culture per se; it tells a story and the artwork is good.) Now, personally I LURVE Mr Long's whining about the "Age of Mediocrity". I feel closed-minded opinions like Mr Long's in fact contribute significantly to this dark Age of Mediocrity. Expand your mind, Mr Tony Long, and get an idea. It is the quality of the work, not the medium that matters here.

The cool bit is Neil Gaiman's dignified response to Tony Long. (Neil Gaiman's The Sandman won the World Fantasy Award - and some people they will never allow a comic book to win ever again):

I suppose if he builds a time machine he could do something about Maus's 1992 Pulitzer, or Sandman's 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, or Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan winning the 2001 Guardian First Book Award, or even Watchmen's appearance on Time's Hundred Best Novels of the 20th Century list. Lacking a Time Machine, it seems a rather silly and antiquated argument, like hearing someone complain that women have the vote or that be-bop music and crooners are turning up in the pop charts.

I like the bit where he says that he hasn't read the comic in question, but he just knows what things like that are like. It's always best to be offended by things you haven't read. That way you keep your mind uncluttered by things that might change it.

Neil Gaiman is my Number One Nice Guy. I sat next to him at a luncheon once. When they served me my vegetarian set, Neil, misunderstanding that the hotel screwed up on my order, offered me his fish. Awww, what a sweet guy ... ;)

Friday, October 27, 2006

YOUTUBE | Funniest Feedback Survey EVER

Some lecturer are the university was conducting a survey for his teaching method during lecture. It turns out to be really funny. Must watch!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

100 Books To Read 2007 | Set In Stone Selection #1

Penguin Deluxe Edition

It's only October 2006, but I'm already planning my 100 Books To Read 2007. It's a bit of a headache, as I'm not even halfway done with the 2006 reading list. I'll probably carry some titles over for 2007.

I'm still shortlisting (and abandoning) titles. But some titles have been Set In Stone as Must Reads. So, here I present:

100 Books To Read 2007
Selection #1: Kristin Lavransdattar by Sigrid Undset

For those who have never heard of Sigrid Undset, you're in good company. I'm ignorant of Norwegian literature. Part of the purpose of my 100 Books To Read list is to set a schedule for myself to read more widely. Thankfully, William T. Vollmann did a recent round-up of Norwegian books to check out for Salon.com. Here is what he wrote about Kristin Lavransdattar and her other masterpiece, The Master of Hestviken:

Kristin Lavransdattar's three novels (1920-1922) follow their eponymous heroine from her early childhood to her death from the Black Plague. It is one of the greatest love stories ever written, because it is one of the truest. For the sake of a man, Kristin sacrifices a great deal that she values, including her purity, her honesty and her obedience to her father, who is one of the most lovingly delineated characters in literature. She finally marries her sweetheart, only to learn that he and she cannot make each other happy. But Undset manages to convince us that if happiness will not be hers, perhaps she has won something similar to the treasure of an Eddic heroine: a destiny, a doom, that simultaneously fulfills and befits her. At the end, one feels that she could not have lived her life in any other way, with any other man.

"The Master of Hestviken" (1925-1927) is also a love story of sorts. The hero of this tetralogy is a friendless orphan named Ølav who cleaves only to his foster sister, Ingunn, a weak-willed, sickly girl to whom he was betrothed by his dying father. When the young couple are parted by violent legal difficulties, Ingunn has a fling with an Icelander and gets pregnant. To save her honor, Ølav kills the seducer, marries Ingunn and gives out that the child is his. All his life he longs to confess the manslaughter and do penance for it, but first Ingunn pleads with him not to, and then later, after she has suffered a long and ghastly death, he feels a mixture of duty to Ingunn's memory and revolted pity for the bastard, who adores him; and so the years go by, until this faithful, loving, bravely steadfast man has been utterly eaten up by his unshrived sin. Every time I reread this book I try to find the place where Olav "went wrong," and I cannot. This work reminds me of Sophocles -- or, better yet, of the old Norse sagas, whose heroes are simply "fated" to do what they do. Indeed, Undset's Norway retains its Eddic dwarfs, elf temptresses and mountain dwellers. Even Odin and the death goddess Hel get mentioned. And both Kristin and Olav are Eddic in their uncomplaining bearing of destiny's burden.

~ From Salon's Literary Guide to Norway

JAN MORRIS | Trieste

Melancholy is Trieste's chief rapture. In almost everything I read about this city, by writers down the centuries, melancholy is evoked. It is not a stabbing sort of disconsolation, the sort that makes you pine for death (Although Trieste's suicide rate, as a matter of fact, is notoriously high.) In my own experience it is more like our Welsh hiraeth, expressing itself in bitter-sweetness and a yearning for we know not what.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
By Jan Morris
Published by Faber & Faber

When I found out Jan Morris turns 80 this October I decided I have to pick up Trieste before - well, before anything permanent happens to her. Okay, it's a morbid thought. But as soon as I finished the final pages of The Master and Margarita, I picked up Trieste. And that was 3 am in the morning.

I have always wanted to read Jan Morris, but -->insert excuses here<-- Excuses aside, I've since set down Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere as the first Jan Morris book to read. Really.

Trieste was said to be her last book. Thankfully, that has been proven to be just an unfounded rumour since the publication of Morris' novel, Hav, in 2006.

What do I know about Trieste? Very little. I happen to know James Joyce lived there for a while, and he taught English to a middle-aged Triestino gentleman who will one day be know as Italo Svevo. Otherwise, nothing at all.

Why does Jan Morris come back to this dead seaport that lies in limbo - officially a part of Italy - yet according to a poll in 1999, 70 percent of the Italian people have no idea Trieste actually belongs to Italy.

Jan Morris first came to Trieste as a young man. It was at the end of the Second World War, and James Morris was a soldier in Her Majesty's service. Decades later, after her gender-reassignation surgery, she returns to Trieste, the city that is for her, "an allegory of limbo."

"My acquaintance with the city spans the whole of my adult life," she writes, "but like my life it still gives me a waiting feeling, as if something big but unspecified is always about to happen.”

Trieste is a place sympathetic to Jan Morris's heart. She tells us of listening to Signor Umberto Lupi, a famous Trieste artist who sang in the Trieste dialect. He is of a certain age himself, and his audience elderly. As Signor Lupi sang his sweet songs, in their language, the eyes of his audience were full of tears. Jan Morris wept with them. Because she knows the songs will not last much longer, because she is at an age where you realise the best years of your life is behind you, and what is to come, dark. This is the state of unease, where you have not yet resigned from life, yet aware of the inescapable decline. Like Trieste, Jan Morris faces these questions: where do you belong in the world? Where do you go from here?

I am homesick, I am thinking sad thoughts about age, doubt and disillusion, but I am not unhappy. I feel there are good people around, and an unspecified yearning steals narcotically over me - what the Welsh call hiraeth. Pathos is part of it, but in a lyrical form to which I am sentimentally susceptible, and at the same time I am excited by a suggestion of sensual desire. The allure of lost consequence and faded power is seducing me, the passing of time, the passing of friends, the scrapping of great ships! In sum, I feel that this opaque seaport of my vision, so full of sweet melancholy, illustrates not just my adolescent emotions of the past, but my life-long preoccupations too. The Trieste effect, I call it. It is as though I have been taken, for a brief sententious glimpse, out of time to nowhere.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LIFE | Married Women

I'm reading Taslima Nasrin's blog on the Words Without Borders Forum:
I cannot talk for more than fifteen seconds with most married women. Because right from the start, they make you listen to what their husbands like to eat and like to wear and so on. Apart from this, they have no other stories of their own. Telling all these stories, they try to hold on in society because they think there's no other means by which they can hold on.

I find that I face similar problems with my married female friends. They used to be independent-minded swinging singles back when I first knew them. Then they marry, and then it's the husband - and later the children that occupy their conversation. It is their world, and I am interested - up to a certain extent.

What about you? I want to scream. What happens to these intelligent women when they marry that they have come to subjugate their identities to husbands and children?

OBITUARY | Eric Newby

Eric Newby, author of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, died on Friday, aged 86. First Wilfred Thesiger, now Eric Newby. Newby's one of the old guards of travel writing. They travelled and lived to write about it in the days before Lonely Planet guidebooks.

Someone go check on Jan Morris, please.

From The Guardian's obituary:

Evelyn Waugh wrote a preface to the book, which is considered a classic of travel literature. In it, Newby describes encountering the legendary traveller Wilfred Thesiger in Afghanistan. Thesiger observed Newby and his companion Hugh Carless inflating their airbeds, and told them: "God, you must be a couple of pansies."

Baba Novelist In Turkey

Orhan Pamuk's winning the Nobel Prize caused a mixture of anger and delight in his home country. In the Guardian, Elif Shafak offers an explanation, on the expected role of the novelist in Turkey.
So the novel - a literary genre which was new, modern and, unlike the old tradition of poetry, utterly western - gained a unique position. No wonder then that a novelist is always more than a novelist in Turkey. He is, first and foremost, a public figure. Novelists are the "babas", the fathers of their readers. They are loved and hated, looked up to and looked down upon. This is a society which is writer-oriented, not writing-oriented.

Full article.

La la lalala la la la la la

The Smurfs turns 48.

Did you know they were an allegory for Communism? I didn't. Must be the blue.

Commie Papa Smurf

POETRY | Mary Oliver Selections

Of course I have always known you
are present in the clouds, and the
black oak I especially adore, and the
wings of birds. But you are present
too in the body, listening to the body,
teaching it to live, instead of all
that touching, with disembodied joy.
We do not do this easily. We have
lived so long in the heaven of touch,
and we maintain our mutability, our
physicality, even as we begin to
apprehend the other world. Slowly we
make our appreciative response.
Slowly appreciation swells to
astonishment. And we enter the dialogue
of our lives that is beyond all under-
standing or conclusion. It is mystery.
It is the love of God. It is obedience.

Excerpt from Six Recognitions of the Lord

Sunday, October 22, 2006

YOUTUBE | SNL Parody of LoTR

SNL parody of Lord of the Rings – stars Jack Black and Sarah Michelle Gellar. It's very funny. ;)

POETRY | A Month of Days and Nights

A Month of Days and Nights

By Jane Hirshfield

Days that could have
been anything,
nights that could have been anything,
turned with the leaves.

Then, someone played
the piano -
halting, unpracticed, and perfect.

I listened to pity
and lowered my head in shame.
Ashamed not at my tears,
or even at what has been wasted,
but to have been dry-eyed so long.

Pink's Birthday


Pink's birthday is 8th September 1979.

This makes her Virgo. ;)

Friday, October 20, 2006

WTF | Your SESAME STREET Persona Test

WTF?? Guy Smiley? Not even Snuffle??!

Guy Smiley
You scored 45% Organization, 56% abstract, and 32% extroverted!
This test measured 3 variables.

First, this test measured how organized you are. Some muppets like Cookie Monster make big messes, while others like Bert are quite anal about things being clean.

Second, this test measured if you prefer a concrete or an abstract viewpoint. For the purposes of this test, concrete people are considered to gravitate more to mathematical and logical approaches, whereas abstract people are more the dreamers and artistic type.

Third, this test measured if you are more of an introvert or an extrovert. By definition, an introvert concentrates more on herself and an extrovert focuses more on others. In this test an introvert was somebody that either tends to spend more time alone or thinks more about herself.

You are mostly organized, both concrete and abstract, and more introverted.

Here is why are you Guy Smiley.

You are both mostly organized. You have a good idea where you put things and you probably keep your place reasonably clean. You aren't totally obsessed with neatness though. Guy Smiley is your average Joe. He'll dress up and look nice for his game show, but he's not a neat freak.

You are both a concrete and abstract thinker. Guy Smiley uses his imagination to come up with ridiculous game shows. However he's concrete enough to stick by his rules and perform his role as host. You know when to be logical at times, but you also aren't afraid to explore your dreams and desires... within limits of course.

You are both introverted. At first glance Guy Smiley may appear to be an extrovert given he hosts a popular show. But in reality he struggles to relate with other people. His prizes tend to just be Guy Smiley merchandise. For whatever reason you are a bit uncomfortable in social settings. You may have one or two people that you are close with. You'd rather do things by yourself and you dislike working in groups where things are always so inefficient.

The other possible characters are
Oscar the Grouch
Kermit the Frog
Cookie Monster
Big Bird
The Count

My test tracked 3 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 13% on Organization
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 53% on concrete-abstra
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 2% on intro-extrovert
Link: The Your SESAME STREET Persona Test written by greencowsgomoo on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Thursday, October 19, 2006

LIFE | General Stuff

I have about three stacks of books reserved at my work desk. Every payday I buy some of the books reserved - spending only within the budget I set for myself.

My boss nags me from time to time on how much I spend on books every month. I always remind her that it's the books that keep me working for the bookstore. Take away my staff purchase privileges and I'll quit immediately for a more lucrative job.

For the past 2~3 years I've noticed my priorities shifting. Yoga and books have come to take an even larger role in my life. But I wonder if, instead of expanding my world as I hoped, I am merely diverting my energies from one narrow focus (JOB) to another (YOGA & BOOKS).

I haven't been spending much time meeting new people of late. I've been meeting the same people at work, at yoga class, or just at home reading. In spite of my preference for solitude, I still believe the social aspects of one's life is important to mental well-being. But then again, I have often been reminded that I'm not quite accepted as "sane". In fact, when I feel most myself, colleagues often ask me, "Are you okay?"

Am I going the right way in my life? Or should I make an attempt to expand my life. Perhaps try new things (salsa, perhaps?) Learn a new language (always wanted to learn Italian).

But I am content right now. Maybe a little complacent too. But I'm comfortable.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

YouTube | Stupid Girl MTV

Ladies and gentlemen, let us revisit Pink's Stupid Girl MTV

Pink is just so fun! ;)

Dictionary | Definition of Catholic

Here is more proof that I'm not very bright. I didn't know there was an alternative definition of "catholic" - as in broad or wide-ranging in taste.

Does this means I have a catholic reading habit?


1. broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded; liberal.
2. universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.
3. pertaining to the whole Christian body or church.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Three Musketeers

In The Times Online, Antonia Fraser reviews the new translation of The Three Musketeers positively.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Just One Day

Just one day.

Today, I found out someone I knew just gave birth to a baby boy. It's alway nice to hear news of this nature, even if you don't know them that well.

Later in the evening, I found out a good friend of mine will have problem having a baby. My friend also told me she had been suffering from insomnia these past few weeks. Her doctor placed her on one week's medical leave to rest. I think she's taking the news harder than she allows herself to admit.

We take a lot of things for granted. Things like having children. Some of us put it off, thinking we'll get around to having off-spring soon. Then one day it hits you - you've put it off too long and now the priviledge has been forfeited.

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, although I really believe it's a Nobel Prize for enduring stupid law-suit from your country.

He's not the only Turkish writer who has been sued recently for "anti-Turkishness" - Elif Shafak comes to mind. But I guess he's the most famous.

You can check out:

The New York Times write-up
The Guardian write-up.

FILM | Scoop

Scoop Movie PosterScoop (2006)
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson & Hugh Jackman

I confess I've never been a fan of Woody Allen's. I know The Brat likes Woody, but I don't get him. He's fidgety, nervous, self-conscious - I don't get it.

So how do I like Scoop - the cinematic latest enterprise from Woody Allen? I like.

My initial motivation for watching the film was Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson. How can I not watch a movie with Hugh (Hugh! Hugh! Hugh!) and Scarlett? I wasn't expecting to like it, but I was entertained.

Woody Allen and Scarlett Johansson work well together as a comedic part. Most of the time it's Woody's nervous lines that set the laughs, but together they are fun. That line about how if they put their heads together "you'll hear a hollow noise" - you can see that. They are both such awkward, bumbling fools trying their legs at detective work they make you root for them.

And On her own, Scarlett Johansson's gawky, be-spectacled reporter character is endearing too. She was enthralling in Lost in Translation with her soulful, waifish blondeness. In Scoop, it's how she's obviously Scarlett Johansson - and yet convincingly unconscious of her own beauty. It warms me to her character.

Unbearable Hugh!

Next reason I like Scoop (or another reason why I love Hugh Jackman)- Hugh Jackman appearing in swimsuit, looking all wet and with a wide, wide smile. "You have great enamel," says Scarlett Johansson. Oh yes, I agree.

Yes, the character's flat and he doesn't do much acting in the movie. But he does the most important bit - striding around looking beautiful in his usual full-blooded stud-muffinness. What is it with Australia that has all these beautiful, heterosexual men that oozes such musculine charm? Just look at Eric Bana, Heath Ledger and even Russell Crowe has his own beefy manliness to him; I offer L.A. Confidential as supporting evidence to the meaty beauty of Crowe. (And in spite of what some people say, I think he pulled off Master and Commander splendidly. If I was the monarch of England, I want Russell Crowe commanding my warships).

Yes, the plot is thin, but it's a nice entertaining movie for a weekend. Woody Allen never meant for this to be a serious movie. That's why he threw in the bit with Death and the souls of the dead. And who can forget dark Ian McShane without his mustache? If you've watched Deadwood, you know how sexy that man can be with his rumbling voice.

Scoop is just fun.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

No Boring Place

From The New York Times:
I find that some business travelers are numb to the portals through which they pass, focusing only on the destination. I think they’re missing a lot. Something as mundane as an airport stopover can be fascinating. On a flight from Bali to Madras, India, I had a seven-hour wait at Changi International Airport in Singapore. Instead of sitting around like many of the other passengers, I made a room in the airport hotel my temporary headquarters and went exploring. Changi has a fabulous bookstore, a health spa, great restaurants and a permanent orchid show. It became a destination unto itself for me.

That’s when it occurred to me that there is no such thing as a boring place. Only boring travelers.

Full story here.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

My Carebear

A 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition Friend Bear, from the Carebear Collection.

Brat may appreciate this. ;)

Looming Bookshelves of Death Part 2

This is the bookshelf that sits facing my bed. It's the one with my favourite authors, as well as books on yoga and related subjects. It's also the bookshelf most likely to crush me to death in case of an earthquake.

[Picture 1 Above: A fuller view of the bookshelf. The long, black thing hanging off the top right hand corner is a yoga bag.]

[Picture 2 Above: Lower rows. Bottom row are the yoga, meditation and spirituality titles. Top row are the Jeanette Winterson titles, Dostoevsky in paperbacks and the Everyman hardcovers. And of course, Sherlock Holmes]

[Picture 3 Above: On the top row are mainly my graphic novels; The Sandman, Hellboy, Strangers in Paradise. Bottom row - standing upright are the collected works of Samuel Beckett, next to the Everyman editions of R. K. Narayan on the right]

That's it for bookshelves. I'll try to find something else to shoot with my camera phone.

BOOKS | What I'm Reading Now

Yes, I'm still playing with my camera phone. These are the books I'm in the midst of reading. The black book with the fountain pen is my journal.

Poetry | Foreign

I've came across discussions about reading poetry recently, and I find myself thinking about my own relationship with poetry. I admit I don't read a lot of poetry, even in school (I always preferred a good story.) As an English Lit major I had to read the important poets: John Donne, William Blake, W. H. Auden, Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot to name a few. But really, we read them because we had to; not everybody will come to loves Sylvia Plath (While I appreciate her works, I personally prefer Ted Hughes' earlier works- especially the shamanistic The Crow). Classroom poetry rarely made enough of an impact on our lives for us to carry them with us beyond school.

The irony then, that I discovered the poets I love after graduation.

I'm trying to recall the very first time I really responded to a poem on a deep, personal level. I guess it had to be Carol Ann Duffy.

We were using the anthology 20th Century Poetry & Poetics (edited by Gary Geddes) as a text for a third year module on 20th Century Literature. Carol Ann Duffy was not covered in the during class but some of her poems were in the anthology. I am of the disposition where the only time I do anything with interest is when I don't have to. So naturally, I read the poetry that are not included in the exams. I read Carol Ann Duffy's Foreign.

I cannot understand why this poem touched me. This is not about my situation in life. I should not be able to identify with the poem, but it moves me deeply. It is about me. Is it the universal theme of alien-ness within a cityscape that speaks to me, I asked myself - but this is the conditioned response of an English Lit student. In schools we were taught to approach a poem analytically. Look at rhythm, rhyme, structure, themes and motifs. What does it says? What does it mean? Suddenly, I stumble across a poem that hit me square in the chest. And I am less concern with what it say - but rather, how it makes me feel.

How it makes me feel is that I feel like the man who speaks but his words cannot translate. I try, but I do not understand the strangeness of the world I live in. And sometimes I feel that the world is unreal.

... and now you do not know
why your eyes are watering and what's the word for this.

By Carol Ann Duffy

Imagine living in a strange, dark city for twenty years.
There are some dismal dwellings on the east side
and one of them is yours. On the landing, you hear
your foreign accent echo down the stairs. You think
in a language of your own and talk in theirs.

Then you are writing home. The voice in your head
recites the letter in a local dialect; behind that
is the sound of your mother singing to you,
all that time ago, and now you do not know
why your eyes are watering and what's the word for this.

You use the public transport. Work. Sleep. Imagine one night
you saw a name for yourself sprayed in red
against a brick wall. A hate name. Red like blood.
It is snowing on the streets, under the neon lights,
as if this place were coming to bits before your eyes.

And in the delicatessen, from time to time, the coins
in your palm will not translate. Inarticulate,
because this is not home, you point at fruit. Imagine
that one of you says Me not know what these people mean.
It like they only go to bed and dream.
Imagine that.

PS: To be fair, I should mention that whenever Christmas preparations start to drive me crazy, I make it a point to re-read T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi. I find that it helps keep the holiday in perspective. Perhaps something from classroom poetry did make a profound impression.

Monday, October 09, 2006

My Bookshelves

Bought a new camera phone, so I was trying out the camera function. A glimpse at my bookshelves in a gradual 3 parts view from the floor upwards. (Click on the picture for a larger view)

[Picture 1 Above] These are the stacks on the floor. No more shelf-space. The penguin is one of the Carebear Cousins. In the background you can see the bookshelves. My poetry collection (small collection) on the left, the hardcovers on the right.

[Picture 2 Above] Mid-rows of the bookshelves. Besides books, there are the Little Endless figurines, Robotech bookends, Sandman bookends. Next to the little Greek armour statue is Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and other works on ancient history and mythology (such as Homer, Plutarch, Herodotus and Suetonius).

[Picture 3 Above] Is it just me or is there a "looming bookshelves of death" feel to this picture?

PROUST | Elstir and the Follies of Youth

An excuse to reference Proust, because all things are connected, and everything comes full circle.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the narrator finally meets the artist Elstir in Balbec. And Elstir, with regards to himself, offers the narrator some advice that would hopefully benefit the young man:

"There is no such thing," he said, "as a man, however clever he may be, who has never at some time in his youth uttered words, or even led a life, that he would not prefer to see expunged from memory. He should not find this absolutely a matter for regret, as he cannot be sure he would ever have become as wise as he is, if indeed getting wisdom is a possiblility for any of us, had he not traversed all the silly or detestable incarnations that are bound to precede that final one. I know there are young men, sons and grandsons of distinguised men, whose tutors, since their earliest high-school years, have taught them every nobility of soul and excellent precept of morality. The lives of such men may contain nothing they would wish to abolish; they may be happy to endorse every word they have ever uttered. But they are the poor in spirit, the effete descendants of doctrinarians, whose only wisdoms are negative and sterile. Wisdom cannot be inherited―one must discover it for oneself, but only after following a course that no one can follow in our stead; no one can spare us that experience, for wisdom is only a point of view on things. The lives of men you admire, attitudes you think are noble, haven't been laid down by their fathers or tutors―they were preceded by very different beginnings, and were influenced by whatever surrounded them, whther it was good, bad, or indifferent. Each of them is the outcome of a struggle, each of them is a victory..."

Respect Everything

The ego has a way of tricking us. We think we have matured, evolved to become a better person. Then something happens and we realise: Nope, still same old me. Still have miles to go. I'm still the same person making the same mistakes. And yet - I understand a little bit more now than I did.

I was thinking of something, so I went and dug out an old issue of Shambhala Sun.

There was a piece I recall a long time ago that stuck with me:

Te-shan asked the old tea-cake woman, "Who is your teacher? Where did you learn this?"

She pointed to a monastery a half mile away.

Te-shan visited Lung-t'an and questioned him far into the night. Finally when it was very late, Lung-t'an said, "Why Don't you go and rest now?"

Te-shan thanked him and opened the door. "It's dark outside. I can't see."

Lung-t'an lit a candle for him, but just as Te-shan turned and reached out to take it, Lung-t'an blew it put.

At that moment Te-shan had a great enlightenment. Full of gratitude, he bowed deeply to Lung-t'an.

The next day Lung-t'an praised Te-shan to the assmbly of monks. Te-shan brought his books and commentaries in front of the building and lit them on fire, saying, "These notes are nothing, like placing a hair in vast space."

Then bowing again to his teacher, he left.

Natalie Goldberg elaborated on this parable:

But, oddly enough, Te-shan only had that one meeting with Lung-t'an, and he woke up. Of course, he was a serious scholar of the dharma for a long time. Who is to say scholarly pursuits―studying books intently and writing commentary―don't prepare the mind as well as sweeping bamboo-lined walk-ways, sitting long hours, or preparing monastery meals?

Zen training is physical. But what isn't physical while we have a body on this earth? Sitting bent over books, our eyes following a line of print, is physical too. So that when Te-shan had that single evening in Lung-t'an's room, he was already very ripe. Lung-t'an merely had to push him off the tree, and Te-shan was prepared to fall into the tremendous empty dark with no clinging.

Te-shan was shown true darkness when Lung-t'an blew out the light; he held at last a dharma candle to guide his way, but he still had a lot of maturation ahead of him. Don't forget the next morning he made that grandiose gesture of burning his books in front of the assembly of monks. He was still acting out, choosing this and leaving that. He was not yet able to honor his whole journey, to respect everything that brought him to this moment. Te-shan still envisioned things in dualistic terms: now only direct insight mattered; books needed to be destroyed. He didn't see that all those years of study had created a foundation that supported his awakening with Lung-t'an. Originally he traveled from the north with his sutras on his back to enlighten the southern barbarians. Here he was doing a complete reversal, torching his past and revering his present experience. Someday he would embrace the north and the south, unify all of China in his heart, and attain a peaceful mind. But he was not there yet. We see him engaged in drama, presenting a flaming pageant in front of the other monks.

His life has not yet settled and become calm....

How can anyone survive if the way is so splintered? What we learn is it's all whole, been whole all along. It is our perception that is broken and that creates a shattered world. But each of us has to discover this in our own lives. That is what is so sad.

The excerpt is taken from, "When the Candle Is Blown Out," written by Natalie Goldberg, Shambhala Sun, September 2004 issue. There is a lot more in the article, but it is this particular parable of Te-shan and the burning of the books that I always come to. Like Te-shan in a way, I'd believe I need to burn away my past to move on. Yet time and time again, I am reminded that I am the sum of all my experiences, pleasant or otherwise. To deny any bit of my experience is to deny the whole of myself.

Ms F and I were talking one day. The question came up: "If you could go back in time, what would you change?"

Of course, as Ms F pointed out, it's a trick question. You can only learn from your mistakes after having made them. Without the mistakes you would not want to change anything. A paradox of life - that we need the mistakes and the regrets for change. That our screw-ups can lead to a realisation of something better. We just need to be ready to see.

Another time, another place. After yet another screw-up with her no-good boyfriend, Ms C asked me, "If you were in my place, what would you have done?"

Once again: trick question; if I was in her place, I would not have made the choices that led to her regrets and heartbreaks. Similarly, Ms C would not have made my mistakes; she would have chosen differently.

This is the burden of Free Will. We are no better that anyone else; We just make our own mistakes, each one on our own path. As Goldberg wrote, "But each of us has to discover this in our own lives. That is what is so sad."

This is what is so sad.

Even now, when I see my friends about to make similar mistakes, I try to warn them. I have been there, I tell them. It has costed me much suffering. Do not go there. Here we are - trying to change our past through another. But we never listen. What did I expect? That was how it was for me: advice fell on deaf ears, how I would not listen until I was ready to hear. Finally, it was the tremendous regrets that made me hear.

As the mud nourishes the lotus, yet not cling to the lotus. Respect everything that brought us to to this moment. I have to keep reminding myself of this.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Elegance, Audrey Hepburn Style

Photo Source: UNICEF/HQ88-0184/John IsaacSome background to this photo: In 1988 in Ethiopia, shaded from the sun by an umbrella, UNICEF Ambassdor Audrey Hepburn carries a girl while reviewing a UNICEF-assisted food supply project in the northern Amhara region of the country.

There was an exhibition for the works of photographer John Isaac, a few months back. Among the works on display were the UNICEF photos of Audrey Hepburn.

John Isaac had a close collaboration with Audrey Hepburn when she was special UN Ambassador for UNICEF: she said that his 1992 portrait of her surrounded by children in Somalia was her all-time favourite. (I can't be certain which photo specifically, so I put up one from John Isaac that I liked.)

When American Photo ran an issue on celebrity photography, they asked Isaac to ask Hepburn if they could airbrush her facial wrinkles.

Audrey Hepburn's replied, "Johnny, tell them not to mess with that picture. I’ve earned every one of those wrinkles."

That made an impression on me. Elegance, Audrey Hepburn style.

Bulgakov and Bakhtin

I finally finished re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita last night. Translators do matter. It seems odd, to re-read the book, and feel like I'm reading it for the first time.

Bulgakov wrote around the same time as Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary theorist. Both writers formulated their philosophy during the Stalin regime. Specifically, Bulgakov's novel made me think in the line of Bakhtin's idea of the carnivalesque. The carnivalesque serves as a strategy for destabilising the status quo which has become rigid and oppressive. It comes from the tension between that which is permitted and that which is forbidden, and is of particular significance to writers under a totalitarianism society.

In The Master and Margarita, Satan visits Moscow and causes much chaos. No one can stop him, because no one believes Satan exists in an atheist Socialist Russia. Society is unarmed by its own rigid worldview.

Will write more. I need to re-read Bahktin.

P/S: I've finally received my order of Colette's Earthly Paradise. It's out of print, but thank you for Abebooks.

Jan Morris

Jan Morris celebrates her 80th birthday on 2nd October, 2006.

The Guardian pays tribute to this extraordinary writer.

You can also check out:
1. The Guardian's Quick Guide to Jan Morris
2. Lonely Planet interview
3. Salon.com's Book Bag

Monday, October 02, 2006

OLIVER | Thirst

Thirst by Mary Oliver

Just bought my copy of Mary Oliver's new poetry collection, Thirst.

The beauty about working in a bookstore is that you can always just walk up to the warehouse people and politely ask - "Are my books in?" If they like you, they will usually tear the cartons to get you the books. Otherwise, you wait - like everyone else. Hee.

I'm reading the collection tonight. Will definitely share any poems that inspires me.

Shteyngart on a Russian Slacker

From The New York Times, Gary Shteyngart writes "the most insightful essay ever written on the subject — a short, funny, but oddly moving meditation" on Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov. It's funny.

Read it here.