Placing my reflection

One of my biggest fear would be finding myself unable to enjoy reading, and unfortunately I think that is exactly what I am experiencing right now. I noticed this last week as I was flipping through Zadie Smith’s book of essays Changing My Mind. I love Zadie Smith’s writing, I love her columns in The New York Review of Books, and I definitely don’t think I have any problems reading complicated essays knowing I’ve read, analysed, and written academic articles. But for the life of me, I could not immerse myself into the book the way I did with so many others before. I refused to think it was Smith’s fault (it couldn’t be!) so I tried picking up random books from my shelves and sat down to read. It took me multiple tries to focus on a single page. I think I understood now what it is that I dubbed ‘reading burnout‘.

Burnout. I hate it that it has become such a word that had infiltrated my entire 30s.

One of the comments in the thread came from a professor who advised his students to give themselves a few months to ‘do nothing’ after their comps — which I think is the word for viva voce / oral defense for American grad students — just to catch their breath. I think that’s a good advice to follow instead of diving into one book and another (and another) — like I did — and I might try just that.

A 3-panel collage of three kittens against a plant as their background

L-R: Arlo, Milou, and Valerio.

I had to cut a work call short yesterday because there was a kitten emergency. Some feral mama gave birth to three super cute babies (above) and decided to move them into my yard, where I found two of them already trying to climb onto the car tyres! Having grown up with so many cats — mine or otherwise — accidentally ferried away from their homes to some other locations because they managed to find themselves underneath the car engine, I’m saving myself the heartbreak of finding them there — or worse, killed — so I’m fostering them till they are big enough to be neutered (along with the mama). Then… we’ll figure out what to do. This is why I am such a big fan of neutering and spaying your pets, and Trap-Neuter-Release initiative, because overpopulation of kittens and puppies — though as cute as they might be — could lead to more dangers than good.

Product Lost is one of the newsletters that I subscribed to and enjoyed reading whenever its new edition arrived in my inbox. The newest edition talked, among others, the tendency to retreat into a whole new space of our own to be able to express our reflection — which obviously couldn’t be offered by any of the social media platforms these days — and I found myself nodding as I realised the amount of time and words I have poured into this blog this year.

I’ve hit this point where I’m now searching for the space to place my reflection. More and more, I don’t enjoy being very public about my life. I don’t feel the need for it. I just want to work, have people look at my work, understand it. I view this newsletter as part of the documentation of where my mind has been issue over issue.

Some related, some not:

  • “When you write for someone else’s publication your writing becomes disparate and UN-networked. By chasing scale and pageviews you lose identity and the ability to create meaningful, memorable connections within the network.” Write for the right network.
  • I’m so jealous yet so happy for the treatment this guy received from his workplace. This is how a workplace can do right for its people.
  • TIL a person who constructs crosswords are called a ‘cruciverbalist’.
  • “Is love a lack, always imbued with prayer?”

The Happiness Machine

A watercolour illustration where a man overlooks a bridge in Alexandria, and the word scrawled on the walls of the bridge reads 'wahashtini' — meaning 'I love you'.

“In the Arabic word is wahashtini which means “I miss you” addressing a female. The city’s name is also female, and as I saw this hashtag on the old corniche on a day I was barely able to see the sea, I felt it was symbolic – almost as if it was a complaint from the citizens who miss their city.” — architect Mohamed Gohar on Alexandria.

My first exposure to Nick Cave’s music was — believe it or not — came from this compilation album for my favourite TV series at the time, The X-Files (to say it was a favourite would be an understatement, I practically worshipped the series). Nick Cave wrote and contributed a few songs, along with his band at the time The Bad Seeds. After that, I never actually listened to any of his other works. Until I was introduced to his newsletter, The Red Hand Files, where he answered fan mails sent through Tumblr with poetic thoughtfulness.

Grief seems to be a recurring theme in his newsletter, especially after he lost his son Arthur in an accident. Struggling with handling grief myself, I find myself numb when facing questions from others who had lost their loved ones on how to deal with the emotion — in fact, emotion isn’t even the perfect word to group grief in. It isn’t a phase either, you don’t outgrow grief. One adapts with grief. If I could write within an ounce of as good as Nick Cave does as so I could offer comfort to these people, it would be nice. I have been taking notes.

There’s a question today on handling anger, fear, and being possessive. The poster lost her mother in a city where everyone also loved and cherished her, and she was angry that she felt she didn’t get to claim her mother for herself. Cave answers, in no way at all invalidating her anger — where in many occassions would often be framed as negative, but not to Cave — as he apologised earlier on if he “fall short” for he “cannot claim to understand the complexities of your situation”:

It feels to me, that the meaning exists within the anger. Not only is your anger justified, it is compassionate and essential and, as you said, connects you to your mother, even as those around you take possession of her, eclipsing your feelings with their own needs. The righteous energy of your anger is the flaming sword you hold above your mother’s memory. It may be the very thing that protects her, shielding her from the suffocating demands of the world. Perhaps, at this time, your anger is a way of safekeeping the spirit of your mother, of caring for her, of seeking her, of calling her to you. It is a pure and holy anger.

Then there is also another form of grief — as we all know it’s not exclusively for people, for it encompasses all aspects of loss — of a city one lives in, as shown by architect Mohamed Gohar in trying to document both the past and the present of his hometown Alexandria, the ancient Egyptian port city. “For a long time I have been attached to the past – or the past is attached to me. The constant fear that the essence of the city will disappear and that I will lose all traces of my own past here, as well as the pasts of others who have lived in this city over the centuries gave me the urge to start documenting what is still standing before people or time tear it down.” Grief is feeling the grip of attachment, or what’s left of it.

Some related, some not:

Proofs are cruel

I’m onto my draft thesis corrections now, and if there are sentiments that ring true at this point of time, it comes from Zadie Smith from her book of essays, Changing My Mind, where she talks about receiving proofs:

Proofs are so cruel! Breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain. Proofs are the wasteland where the dream of your novel dies and cold reality asserts itself. When I look at loose-leaf proofs, fresh out of the envelope, bound with a thick elastic band, marked up by a conscientious copy editor, I feel quite sure I would have to become a different person entirely to do the work that needs to be done here. To correct what needs correcting, fix what needs to be fixed. The only proper response to an envelope full of marked-up pages is “Give it back to me! Let me start again!” But no one says this because by this point exhaustion has set in. It’s not the book you hoped for, maybe something might yet be done — but the will is gone. There’s simply no more will to be had.

I came back to my draft and my 35+ tabs on a spreadsheet that I prepared especially to track down to-do lists for my thesis. If there are anything I should be thankful at this moment, they are my tendency to overdocument and my sense of overpreparedness. I was looking through the draft to be amended and I thought of checking a tab where I had listed down the references for all journals with more than three authors that I had mistakenly in-text cited them as just et al.s (if you must know, for APA format you must cite all these authors by their last names for first time mentions, then et al. for the next mentions onwards). I was worried that I had to find these names all over again throughout the thesis. But I was delighted to find in that very tab, I had listed down all the references for the journals, complete with the correct format of citations, sections name and numbers, and page numbers. Once again, my overpreparedness saved me the headache for another day’s inconveniences.

Last week, this thread made it round, and imploded around Twitter. There were many conversations about how ’emotional labour’ should not be framed to when it’s a conversation between two friends, as it was said to be defined as “the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job.” Friends are not jobs, and it was said that it was selfish to send a templated response to a friend who is struggling and wants to talk. This situation is complicated, and I have been on both sides — previously I was always the friend who would pick up calls even though I myself was already running out of spoons, and also of whose boundaries were always violated because I never said no. Post-burnout, I decided to assess my emotional situation first before I could help others, as I could be of service better to my friends if I am mentally equipped. Of course, this does not apply to emergencies, and clearly there is no black and white interpretation, so we could always play by ear. There is still definitely a lot more to be unpacked here — devoid of context it might sound that the thread owner is selfish — but I still am a big fan of setting up boundaries so I can be a better friend to my friends.

Some related, some not:

How to make contrails

I finished reading Doris Lessing’s book of essays Prisons We Choose to Live Inside today. It is only 76 pages long, and it contains the essays Lessing had written for the 1985 Massey Lectures. In one of the essays called Group Minds — which is an observation of how hard one would be able to maintain an individual opinion within a world where social conditioning is perverse — “Does everything have to be so predictable? Do people really have to be such sheep?” she lamented, she mentioned on the instance where the writers in the Soviet Union, during one of their periods of severe literary censorship, had taken the steps to censor themselves before their network did. The action was called “inner censorship” and Lessing was taken aback that the writers were so naive, and prided themselves in saying and doing that. She said:

This “inner censorship” is what the psychologists call internalising an exterior pressure — such as a parent — and what happens is that a previously resisted and disliked attitude becomes your own. This happens all the time, and it is often not easy for the victims themselves to know it.

I have also been thinking a lot about my previous post and what lead me to easily fail myself before anyone else does, or even if no one else does. I couldn’t be a competitive sibling — for I am an only child and I believed I grew up with such a privilege of not having to compete for resources to do anything I want. If anything, instead of growing up willingly censoring myself, in the conditions I was brought up, I should end up spoiled. I did find my answers later, which does not lie in my own generation apparently, but I don’t think I shall discuss here.

So there are two things I shall do for 2020: one, is to no longer do self-deprecating jokes, and two, to never fail or censor myself before anyone else does. These two actions (self-deprecating jokes and self-censoring) imply that by doing these, I give other people permissions to pummel me to pieces and not take me seriously, because even I don’t think highly of myself. That will change. ⁽ᴬˡˢᵒ ²⁰²⁰, ᴰʳ ᶻᵃⁿᵃ ᶠᵃᵘᶻᶦˀ⁾

I also learned today that the streaks of white cloud slashing across the sky are called ‘contrails’. My dad liked to speculate that when the jets managed to do that in the sky, it meant that they were close enough to see us so every time I saw the contrails, I would wave to the ‘pilots’. Apparently, NASA also produced a document on how one could make contrails at home.

It made me happy to learn that in data journalism, people still remain more important than tech. “I think some people have the idea that “data journalism” means staring at spreadsheets until a story magically appears, but in the real world that almost never happens. The best stories almost always emerge from talking to people, whether they are experts or just ordinary people affected by the issues we write about. They’re the ones who pose the questions that data can help answer, or who help explain the trends that the data reveals, or who can provide the wrinkles and nuances that the data glosses over.”

For the weekend: “In the morning I drink coffee until I can see a way to love life again.”

The worth of defeated valour

I received my thesis corrections yesterday from my supervisor, after a month long of ruminating its fate in his hands. Honestly now I that looked at it, I had no idea why I was so worried about it, seeing I knew I have done the job well. There were some disconnections between the theories and the research questions of which my supervisor wanted me to have a look at. “It’s normal,” he said, adding, “even during viva voces people still have these problems sometimes.” “But I want you to walk in the oral defense fully prepared with all we know, so please have a look over my suggestions.” The rest of the list were minor — past vs present tense, I missed a figure number, shorten abstract to only one page, add one or two sentences to justify over this part, and so on so forth. We agreed to meet again in two weeks to discuss the final draft before I submit the thesis for examiners.

Over the month in the absence of the submitted thesis, I managed to concoct the worst ever scenarios I could think of in my head of the 300-page research that I had worked on within countless hours (actually I spent about 623 hours on it this year, I have my Toggl report to prove it) — insufficient data? Data analysis method totally wrong? Book written willy-nilly? etc. in which all scenarios require me to start the research all over again. In short, I have failed myself before anyone else does that to me.

I do wonder about why we do this a lot — preparing ourselves for the worst news possible. I always thought that it was so that I would be ready to make room for all the things I needed to do to receive the consequences of these bad news. I lost my dad when I least expected it, so. I set the highest bar for myself and the lowest expectations for praises I would receive even though I knew I have fully dedicated myself to the task, so I wouldn’t be let down. “I know what my misery is capable of and will never underestimate it again”, wrote Saeed Jones in his newsletter, and even though our contexts are different, I realised I am always making myself ready for what my misery could break me — even though I have dealt with enough fires already.

There was this whole Twitter thread on best things people have learned at therapy (also check out Notes From Your Therapist), and this particular tweet came barging through my front door the eve of me receiving my corrections:

I feel seen. It’s a call-out. I swear it’s written specifically for me.

Some related, some not:

On building and sustaining

A collage of six men diving

Men diving. Credit: Patchwork of Narratives

I woke up Sunday morning wanting to read more about Lebanon. Two of my best friends from university are from Beirut, and the uninformed, almost selfish me at the time never got around to inquire them more about their beautiful country. I know that the country at the edge of the Mediterranean, despite boasting a population of over 18 religious communities, is a small one — no less than 12,000 sq kilometres — in fact 12 times smaller than the New York state. The country is roughly rectangular in shape, that my friend Sami told me that you could drive from one end of the country to the other only within 2 hours. Newly recovering from the Civil War that lasted from 1975 till 1990, Beirut in particular was nicknamed ‘Paris of the East’ after World War II, attributed to the fact that Lebanon was once colonised by the French and that was where the cultural and intellectual influences came from. There were plans of me visiting, but something got in the way (two things actually — my PhD and then the current Lebanese revolution) so I told them I’ll finish this PhD first and while at it they’d need to yallah get a new, shiny, trusty government before I come visit.

I realised all these years I have always been interested in the matters of human organisation, maybe partly due to the fact that I was used to managing a team before. I am interested in the dynamics of people in a team, and that no two teams are ever the same, and despite multiple articles posted about how to build the perfect team, there is in fact, no perfect team. More so than ever, I am interested in the matters of collective solidarity and action of people who converge together united by one goal or shared grievances — and despite all odds and complexities of their backgrounds — an organisation emerges amidst these all. By now, you would probably have recognised I am talking about social movements, a research area I feel very strongly about. I am also interested in the contradiction of this scenario — where within the rigidness of organisation, entropy still makes way, of which plans were constructed to the most meticulous details yet some parts still fail. For the life of me, I don’t have the best examples right now, except that if you have ever watched La Casa de Papel, you would understand what I’d mean. All in all, building is just one the first steps, sustaining the organisation is another work to consider.

While Internet trawling about Lebanon, I found Patchwork of Narratives, apparently an exhibition catalogue for an urban project at Färgfabriken where cities are examined through stories, symbols, prejudice and expectations interweaving with the physical infrastructure. The thing about cities — especially the ones rebuilt out of wars and destruction — are often caused by the greed and intervention of others (I’m looking at you America). This edition particularly tries to capture the souls of Mostar and Beirut, two cities which carry traumatic history and are facing great challenges. “The effects of the destruction during the war can be divided into two categories: physical and mental consequences. The physical ones are the most visible — roofs, frames, windows and parts of facades have been blown away by grenades and bullets destroying buildings and creating vacant dwellings next to the streets that are full with grenade shell holes”, a reminder of what the cities once went through, their dwellers unable to forget, as long as the buildings are still there. “How could one commence his or her own mental reconstruction when the physical environment is destroyed? “

I have always heard about the Old Bridge of Mostar, and its tradition. “One of the most important traditions of Mostar is the diving off of the Old Bridge, which has occurred since 1567. It used to be a ritual where young men dove off the bridge in order to prove their manliness and impress young women.” The tradition is carried until today, where little boys learned to dive until they are skillful enough to do that on their own. A diving competition is held every year. It is said that every Mostarac man had ever dived from the bridge.

Of all the things man builds, nothing in my eyes is better and more valuable than bridges. Bridges are more import than the houses, brighter than the temples, because they are intended for a greater number of people; they are everybody’s property and equal to all, useful, always erected in a meaningful way, at the point where the highest number of human needs cross. — Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina (1945).

What’s interesting is that shared architecture like the Old Bridge, forms a heteropolis, which refers to an urban assemblage that thrives on differences. “In that single space there is the piecing together of all sorts of people and narratives.” Mostar itself was said to mean ‘bridge-keeper’ after Suleiman the Magnificent commissioned for it to be built in 1557. When the bridge was attacked in 1993, it destroyed the very idea and identity of Mostar where the fear of the Other through the ‘bridging’ is shredded away, until the bridge was rebuilt in 2004.

There has never been an original Whole into which all parts could once again harmoniously fit, but only antagonistic pieces that different forces try to exploit and put together in conflicting ways.

All of this reminds me also of the book called Frankenstein in Baghdad — it is a small book, but had strongly impacted my understanding on wars, survival, and rebuilding lives so much, along with An Unnecessary Woman — all of these stories about resilience and reclaiming any semblance of normal life (is it any?) after wars. Rebuilding is already a work by itself, sustaining it is another.

Some related, some not:

Wholehearted and sure

A morning wet market.

A morning wet market in Kuala Kedah

From Austin Kleon’s blog, I found these words of Wendell Berry’s from his 1968 essay called A Native Hill:

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice. My return, which at first had been hesitant and tentative, grew wholehearted and sure. I had come back to stay.

It’s the start of school holidays in Malaysia today. I live in a small town of a fishing port near the mouth of Kedah River, and often the way I could tell it’s the school holidays or any long public holidays is by the way out-of-state cars would drive within the stretch of the road leading to and from the jetty. The road is populated by villages and residential areas on each sides, and because it is a small town, life tends to lean more on a slower, chillier side here. There’s a lot of jaywalking, random children playing by the roadside, some unspoken rules of road-hogging by motorcycles on the left side of the road (we drive on the left side of the road here, one of the still many ways we experience colonial hangover probably) and rempits — a phenomenon that has stemmed out of socioeconomic inequalities more so than ‘public disturbance’ as stated in the link — so locals would know to drive within a safe, acceptable speed limit.

A car with an out-of-state plate number was tailgating me as I was driving home today. As I swerved to the left lane to give him way and watched him sped onward, I found myself saying, “You are in my town. I don’t appreciate the way you impose your urgency on us.” My town. It surprised myself even saying that, and to be honest I wasn’t even saying it out loud, and said to no one in particular, as I was driving alone — and probably for that reason it makes it even more personal. A few months ago I still had difficulties accepting that I might be a resident of this town forever, and to be honest I might still have. But the slow easing of accepting this small town as my town, and to jump to defense every time people make uninformed comments about how backwards we are here as I launch yet into a tirade of criticism of unequal resource and wealth distribution that’s happened in this country and state that has made us appear backwards, I can safely say that, maybe I had come back to stay. Wholehearted and sure.