Slice of pie

Austin Kleon shared a shot from Booksmart — which sadly I haven’t been able to watch! — and in his words, “If other people have to lose to make you feel like a winner, something is broken — in you, and in the system in which you participate.” He then shared a picture of a passage from Ursula Franklin’s The Ursula Franklin Reader, juxtaposed with a clipping from an article about The President Who Shall Not Be Mentioned, who has the tendency to see things in binary and nothing in between — winner and loser.

…many people are hypnotised by the mentality of zero-sum games. In this mentality, if you want to win, someone else has to lose. If you want to gain, someone else must give something up. It is not difficult to point out the many instances in which this scheme falls down.

[…] We should consciously avoid representing all events as conflicts, and in an either-or framework. There is a great need for us to avoid either-or presentations and images of confrontation, of teams, of winning.

I think about scenarios like this so very often. It reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my nieces. She was about 11 or 12 at the time, at the cusp of adolescence and oily skin and major breakouts. I had stumbled upon a mean comment by (presumably) one of her friends in her Instagram picture, and I had imagined her picking up her phone, typing relentless, this reply (I translated this from Kedahan Malay), “Tak payah kurang ajar. Tak hilang pun habuan hang kalau orang dapat lebih.” (“There’s no need to be mean. You’re not losing your slice of pie if one takes their own.”) I asked my niece what she meant by that — that her friend is not losing her slice of pie? With a bored look and while fiddling with her phone, she answered, “She’s been jealous of anyone being better than her in everything. She needs to know that she’s not losing even if someone else’s winning. We all win if everyone does.”

There was a thread going around last week on Twitter, asking cishet Twitter users of what made them supporters of trans rights. There were so many heartwarming answers, ones that made us momentarily forget of the polarising nature of the discussions on Twitter made possible by its many features. But it was pointed out by Harry Josephine that the answer they is looking for is just very simple, “because my liberation is bound up in yours.” It’s that simple, a reason without any agenda or charitable reason — recognising that everyone regardless of background, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, etc. deserves basic human rights and decency. Life’s not a zero-sum game. In this life, you’re not losing your slice of pie if one takes their own.

Some related, some not:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Finished Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, and was amazed at how much lessons packed in such a short book. Will write about it soon.
  • Viewing: I… definitely did not watch anything today.
  • Listening: It had been a slow day today, where I let some podcast episodes playing the background. Will possibly pay more attention tomorrow.
  • Food & Drink: It’s been a slow day — not sure if it’s attributed to the ring of fire solar eclipse, but I’m just saying! I’m not sure what I had for meals today, but I definitely had a mug of iced Nescafe.

Because someone woke you up

I just finished my 70th book of the year. It was Rachel Cusk’s Transit and in my opinion it was, well, A-OK since I am in the mood of reading something with at least some plots happening and Transit is the kind of book that does not offer that. I was once asked if I remember details from all the books I read in a year, possibly in an attempt to validate their own beliefs that read better > read more (also in trying to imply that even if I read a lot, I don’t necessarily understand a lot), and also since I read a lot (the image that comes to my mind right now is of Amy Santiago of Brooklyn Nine Nine proclaiming “fifty books is not a lot“), and dutifully I answered: nope. Definitely not. But I have always been a ravenous reader, and I read in between other daily routines — in between work breaks? I read. While waiting at the bank? I read. While eating? I read. You got the picture. While I might not remember a lot of things from what I have read, there are books which stayed with me, and those books were filled with highlights and underlines and scribbled marginalia and extra pieces of paper clipped in between the pages because there were no more space for me to write in the margins. There might be some reviews I have written about those books here in this blog, or Goodreads, or at least in my own personal Moleskine journal. Then when I read other books, sometimes about topics remotely unrelated at all from the previous books I have read, I managed to somewhat connect the dots between two or more unrelated topics altogether, and I would write about them all over again here in this blog, or my own personal Moleskine journal. It has become somewhat of a mental exercise, and it brightens up my day every time I manage to come to a revelation or connect the dots. In conclusion, I maintain that in order to read better, you still have to read more.

I’ve always prided myself on the diversity of the topics of the books I read. It’s a blessing and a curse to have such boundless curiosity, sometimes more than enough to keep me awake at nights. This is largely due to the Internet, and also the fact that I have friends who are amazing and involved in all sorts of amazing things too, and I always wanted to know more about what they do and what they are interested in, so I always try to ask about books they like, or enlist Goodreads’ help for the manual voyeur into their virtual bookshelves. Author Anakana Schofield in Book Post newsletter asked us to examine our reading experience — this after she found out about the term ‘fern up’ after reading Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal on his fern exploration in Southern Mexico:

How much of our reading is accidental, how much intentional, how much directed and influenced by the readers in our cohort? Is our receptiveness and direction in reading hardwired into our brains or responsive and evolving? Are we drawn to single-species enthusiasms or more diverse ecologies? I’ve always prided myself on never having to be told what to read. I take a flaneuse approach and read widely based on what captures my interest, what I bump into. How many lifetimes do we need to read all that we want, and how to resolve the inevitable subtraction from that imposed by wasting time on the unsatisfying or what we’ve been forced to read for work.

I don’t know if I am a fast reader (I’ve been asked if I am). To be honest, with the amount of highlighting and underlining and researching mid-reading and writing in the margins, I could not possibly be. And if I ever was, it was certainly not intentional. There are few things you should know about the anatomy of reading before you can decide to attempt speed read: the eye pauses in between reading to process what one has read are called ‘fixations’, the rapid movements in between them are called ‘saccades‘, and the inner voice we give ourselves when we read is called ‘subvocalisation‘. All of these three are important for reading comprehension, but in order to speed read, one needs to learn to limit fixations and subvocalisation as they slow down the process of reading. A college-educated adults can read and comprehend 200-400 words per minute. Some experts estimated to have read 500-600 words per minute with a good comprehension to be called a speed reader. John F. Kennedy was said to be able to read 1,200 words per minute. Evelyn Wood, the inventor of speed reading herself, was said to be able to read 2,700 words per minute. I, personally don’t care. I am quite done with all the hustle culture and the move fast break things bromantra already, let’s not inflict more of them into something I genuinely love.

Speaking of reading, my friend Syar sent her big long list of things she liked reading this year, encompassing topics such as prison abolition movement, disability justice movement, transformative justice, environmental issues, being queer, labour and work, being women, and many more! I am currently having many tabs opened while reading the articles recommended in her list, and I learned so much already. (See? I have very amazing friends doing amazing things!)

Some related, some not:

  • “I wanted to yell at some of the people I run into, “If you think you’re woke, it’s because someone woke you up, so thank the human alarm clocks.” It’s easy now to assume that one’s perspectives on race, gender, orientation, and the rest are signs of inherent virtue, but a lot of ideas currently in circulation are gifts that arrived recently, through the labours of others.”
  • “The best companies I visited, all through the years, were never very hurried,” DeMarco said. “Maybe they used pressure from time to time, as a sort of amusing side-effect. But it was never a constant. Because you don’t get creativity for free. You need people to be able to sit back, put their feet up, and think.”
  • Just replace the government with TikTok teens!

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Finished Rachel Cusk’s Transit. Next in line will be Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a collection of essays on borders and migration issues in the United States, particularly ones afflicting Central American migrants.
  • Viewing: Pitch Perfect 2 was on the telly just now, and I cringed so much at all the racist, sexist, fatphobic, and homophobic stereotypes strewn all throughout this movie. To think that I never caught all of these when I watched it for the first time only last year!
  • Listening: A Spotify playlist called Persian Chill.
  • Food & Drink: I felt like having a good bowl of curry noodle today, so I did. The Tealive barista knew my order by heart already (it is always iced shaken coffee with grass jelly, no sugar).

Every bright spot

An image of the night sky filled with bright dots believed to be distant galaxies

I am currently reading Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which is the second book in her Outline trilogy about a writer, Faye, who goes through multiple phases in her life and the books in the trilogy documents conversations with — more of like anecdotes from — people of whom she has met. That is basically what the trilogy is about — they are entirely plotless, and if they were any, they play a minor role to any of the things happening around her. Faye, the protagonist, more so than the one initiating conversations, is just there to listen (“I had found out more by listening than I had ever thought possible”) and everyone seems more than willing to open up to her. The central theme is the philosophical anecdotes (“… the problem with being honest, he said, is that you’re slow to realize that other people can lie”, “it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief”,) dispensed by all the people in her life — from her ex, to the plumber, to the renovator, to her stylist, and so on so forth — which got me wondering about the whereabouts of all of the smart, ordinary people conversationalists in my life, or was I not paying enough attention?

By virtue of nothing whatsoever, I have been trying to articulate something, anything, that describes how I felt towards ending 2019 and entering the new year and the new decade as a whole. And aside from the fact that I slowed down on work almost completely and decided to focus full time on my thesis, one thing I managed to commit in 2019: keeping indoor plants. I started by keeping some succulents, but they never lived — more so I never knew how to keep them alive (do I water you often? do I water you little? do I not water you at all?) so I decided to input literally these keywords online: “plants that communicate what they want” and most recommendations directed to a pothos. So I got one (then two, then three, now four) and they easily tripled in length over months! I am happy for my serpentine babies with their healthy shiny leaves and tendrils climbing all over the room.

Author Austin Kleon shared these excerpts from the book The Liberty Hyde Bailey Gardener’s Companion on the connection between our state of mind and being able to nurture the best form of relationships — which made me think a lot about the wonderful friendships I have made and kept (and friendships which didn’t work that I kept distance from because I finally learned they were painful to me) this year when I am now in my most optimum state of mental health so far:

The satisfaction of a garden does not depend upon the area, nor, happily, upon the cost or rarity of the plants. It depends upon the temper of the person. One must first seek to love plants and nature, and then to cultivate that happy peace of mind which is satisfied with little. He will be happier if he has no rigid and arbitrary ideals, for gardeners are coquettish, particularly with the novice. If plants grow and thrive, he should be happy; and if the plants which thrive chance not to be the ones which he planted, they are plants nevertheless, and nature is satisfied with them. We are apt to covet the things which we cannot have; but we are happier when we love the things which grow because they must.

There is a word I wanted to write so badly about, but I think I will wait until it’s the perfect time for it to make an appearance. It’s about celebration long overdue, one that I totally deserve, for I had been keeping myself small over the years in order for other people to feel bigger. I can sense its arrival, for 2020 onwards is the year my fears are not allowed where I am going.

Some related, some not:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Rachel Cusk’s Transit.
  • Viewing: Thor: The Dark World was on the telly. I also have Netflix’s A Year in Space in the queue, which is about two men who subject themselves to the harsh punishment of living in space, for science.
  • Listening: Discovered French folktronica/pop psychedelic musician, Samba de la Muerte through my Spotify Discovery this week.
  • Food & Drink: I decided to torture myself (again!) eating this Korean hot ramen noodle, Samyang. My unexplained affinity with Samyang noodles can be summarised through this monologue after consuming one, “why did I do this to myself? It’s so hot!” yet I would find myself buying them more the next day.

Slow and delicate

(This is another post where I lament about how we overlooked the implications of the things we built.)

Full disclosure! Sometimes I read back my previous posts and was amazed to consider how the blog has changed itself over the course of the year as I set out to write 300 words (almost) every day at the start of the year. There were two modes as to how I often oscillated while reassessing my own writing: Modo Uno was “wow I wrote this damn I was good” and Modo Dos was “who wrote this I don’t know her” and more so than often, the second mode often took control. However, I am glad to say that in the case of the evolution of this blog this year, it’s Modo Uno. It’s possibly another unmarketable project of mine that I managed to stay committed on quite a long term, and it’s interesting to watch how it has taken on a life of its own.

I have been thinking a lot (when was I not?!) about how a platform or a medium has shaped the content or how we consume the content. For those who have learned or read about media at one point or another, it’s classic McLuhanian. The way our social media platforms are designed these days make it difficult to fight the good attention fight, as exemplified as last week’s instances of being bombarded by violent protest videos in India, only for the timeline to be taken over by another completely different issue in just another few minutes or seconds. In just those few minutes or seconds, you have to choose whether to scroll or engage, where we “are trained to engage in metrics warfare rather than quiet reflection”. If we do not have the awareness that this is something we could note down and reflect later, then there’s it. Despite all the search features, it doesn’t make it any easier for any of us to go through the timeline again and search for the specific post at hand, and refer to or cite later. Despite all the conversations about the awareness of media and information literacy, the truth is not everyone is expected to understand the intricacies of it all, and majority of users really just want to use the platforms — and sadly, through the way they were intended, by rewarding misinformation and outrage for engagements.

The newsletter Kneeling Bus last week opened up the article with this line, “we design new products with insufficient attention to the voids they’ll leave behind after they cease to exist.” This does not only refer to the utility fallacy, which is defined as “the tendency, when evaluating the impact of a technology, to confine your attention to comparing the technical features of the new technology to what it replaced” e.g. emails to replace voice memos, Slack to replace emails, and so on so forth. But these technologies, as mentioned by Newport, “when it comes to consumer-facing technologies, the more important story is almost always how they end up mutating our socio-cultural dynamics”. Ana Andjelic who wrote for an edition of WITI listed down all the technologies she could think of from the past decade (“the verve, the creativity”), along with their implications (“alarmed by the unicorn and minotaur valuations”) then mentioned, “We went very quickly from being mostly uncritically excited about things to being confused as to how to deal with them. The problem seems to be that we do not think of these innovations systemically, in terms of how the existing social, political, and economic networks can support them and/or how they fit. We isolate them from the laws, regulations, and policies that have been put in place to maximise benefits and minimise the downsides of progress.” None of us probably expected the implications of the technologies we created — all of these unknown knowns — and especially how they could harm people, but given all of these scenarios happening in the last decade, maybe in the next decade — all the things unexplored, all the paths not yet taken — we can go slower, take time to reflect, fix things, and do better.

Some related, some not:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, which I am still deciding whether I like it or not.
  • Viewing: The Astronomy Club on Netflix.
  • Listening: Flow State recommended Patricia, an electronic music producer in Brooklyn today, so going to give that a listen.
  • Food & Drink: Just some nasi lemak and chocolate waffles, and my own cold brew.

I do not believe as some / that the vote is an end

Last week was tough on the mental front. It wasn’t only the hours spent on the second draft thesis —which was relatively easier from the first one even though it meant I have to deal with the weird Microsoft Doc formatting again which infuriated me — but also strangely, UK elections.

This is what had been baffling me. Major elections — and by major, I almost always meant UK and US-centric because of how dominated these countries are in the media sphere, these privileged lot — always put me in an anxious state. I remember staying home from work during two epochal events of 2016, those were the Trump presidency and the announcement of Brexit. I remembered that stupid, anxiety-inducing needle during 2016 US election that made me unable to put my phone away, thus sent me spiralling me further while lying on bed, inciting more thinkpieces and op-eds about what a horrible, non-empathetic UX it was. Strangely, despite the political sphere in the home front, I wasn’t this anxious during Malaysia’s 14th general election last year. I remembered staying up watching the live telecast of the results, tweeting throughout the night. I remembered feeling elated as the new government was announced, ending a 62-year reign of the previous regime, marred with corruptions and wrongdoing. For once, there was hope.

Last week, I woke up to the news of the victory of the Conservative Party. I texted a one-liner text to a good friend who happened to be vacationing in the UK, “Well, fuck.” Hours later, presumably right after waking up, she texted back without any questions of context, “Same.” I didn’t know why I was so devastated, but I briefly wept. Around the same week or next, the Indian police stormed New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University and Uttar Pradesh state’s Aligarh Muslim University, wielding their batons and weapons against the students protesting against the contentious citizenship law — the law which grants citizenship to religious minorities from neighbouring countries, except Muslims. I saw in a state of helplessness as the videos of this violent confrontations circulated the social media. Around the same time, and ongoing, the Uighurs are being persecuted and incarcerated in ‘reeducation’ camps in China’s western Xinjiang region. Then there’s Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and many others which made my shoulders weary even thinking and keeping track of. I got so upset while working I accidentally snapped at my mother and yelled at my cats. I felt so bad.

Initially, I couldn’t pinpoint why I was so upset and anxious following the UK elections, giving that these happened miles away from my country and despite the claim that we might not be directly affected (which actually we will, but that needed further ruminations). But after letting it sit for a few days, I now understand why I felt so upset. The UK was just a trigger, a culmination of many events which had happened, some of them listed above, some might be personal. I realised I was upset because evil won, again. Personally it made me think of my school bully who is, according to their social media, is living their happiest life. They might have changed, I know, but here I am still trying to stay afloat. I couldn’t remember the last time when I wasn’t struggling — was it during the year in London? Probably because it was a year of escape and irresponsibility masked in a pursuit towards an MA, although despite it all I still managed to score a distinction? Anyway.

It made me realise that despite it all, we would still wake up in a world where evil thrives, racism has won, lies have won, xenophobia has won, look at what we had rewarded. Not only that, this also sends a signal to other fascists that they, too, can win (big!) and despite their lies and atrocities they had committed, people are still going to choose them. This I realised, was what sent me to weep after waking up to the news of the UK election results.

There were records of people feeling despair after elections — Toni Morrison after Bush was elected, Jenny Odell after Trump was elected where she retreated to her favourite rose garden in which she wrote most of her book How to Do Nothing, and Teju Cole turning to poetry during Bush and Cheney years. On social media, words and epigraphs were shared, dispensing comfort, reaffirmation, and a call for revolution. Someone on Twitter posted a quote by Antonio Gramsci which says, “the old world is dying, the new world is struggling to be born; now is the time of monsters“. It felt like a defeat. It felt like surrender. But also, Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” It’s the time of monsters, but it’s never too late for change. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.”

So mourn, weep. But not too long, as the world is burning in flames — literally (hello climate emergency) and figuratively — we need to come together. Activist and writer George Monbiot wrote a handy guideline on how to fight back against misinformation and draw strength from mass movements, and while it was written in the context of UK, there are parts where we can adapt to other political situations. It was noted by Twitter user @bunnyrabble that “one of the biggest challenges will be to find time and energy to organise in a political atmosphere that will no doubt try to fill increasing amounts of our time with work — both paid and unpaid”, so it was important to conserve energy, redirect attention towards what really matters, and again harness the power of the collective whatever possible. As everyone’s situation is different — one might be socially anxious, disabled, financially unstable etc. that might prevent them from doing substantial mental and physical work in organising — Rivers Solomon offered some tips of what we can do in these situations. One of the comments in these threads mentioned, dismantling my scepticism of ‘be kind’ (it felt watered down because people kept saying that along with other faux positive affirmations e.g. ‘positive thinking!’, ‘chill!’ etc. without any analysis of the underlying root causes which lead people unable to ‘be positive’), was not to devalue the act of being kind in these tough times — “not the polite kindness that supports evil by looking away. But the active kindness that envelops communities and people with love, care, trust. and acceptance.” The vote is not the end.

Some related, some not:

  • On the politics of tech platforms, although the title is a little misleading.
  • Greta Thunberg warned against adults giving her fancy awards and not doing the job, yet they did exactly that. This obsession with charismatic leadership and not harnessing collective resources is exhausting.
  • “Politics is being transformed, with campaigns adopting many of the tropes that have emerged on Instagram, in particular the culture of “staged authenticity”. They show how supposedly things “really are” backstage, away from the limelight, to make political leaders appear more “relatable” and humane at a time when their approval ratings have reached rock bottom.”
  • I do not believe as some / that the vote is an end / I fear even more / It is just a beginning.
  • Because times are tough(er) and we often turn to poetry in these times, here’s a second poem of the day: you were saved not in order to live; you have little time you must give testimony; be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous; in the final account only this is important.

STATUS BOARD

  • Work: Submitted second round of thesis revisions. Should start working on proofreading, Turnitin screening, and final bound books.
  • Reading: DNFed Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. Picked up Rachel Cusk’s Transit and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk for 80% off at the bookstore near my university, which was about to close down, how unfortunate.
  • Viewing: The Astronomy Club on Netflix, an all-black sketch comedy show.
  • Listening: My Spotify Discover Weekly playlist, which introduced me to a Tuareg band Le Filles de Illighadad (Daughters of the Desert) with their hypnotic sounds from their djembe, their drum kit, and their calabash.
  • Food & Drink: Bought a bottle of kombucha and two chocolate rolls, which got me reminiscing about an evening in Melbourne and cute cafes in London with all their delightful pastries.

Chimney pots and slate removed

I am very intrigued with the idea of attention redirection towards something that is much more worthy, as advocated by Jenny Odell in her book How to do Nothing (and if you have been reading here long enough or are my friend in real life, you’d know how much I have been raving about the book already). ‘Worthy’ in this sense refers to the resistance to feed the outrage and blasphemy residing in the infinite neat little boxes of our social media timelines, and start to pay attention to something that is not decided by algorithms and filter bubble of the social media platforms. Odell does this by birdwatching, an act that is an exact opposite to adhering to algorithms, as birds only decide when they want to come near you instead of because you like them or you can relate to them. It is all a happenstance, one that is so unpredictable yet pleasant.

I’ve been texting my friends these recommendations on paying attention, writing down notes, and keeping a notebook by writer and translator Lydia Davis. Her own included hilarious tidbits like “I kept smelling a smell of cat pee but could not find where it was coming from, until I found the cat pee—on the tip of my very own nose!” or “High wind yesterday blew women’s long hair, women’s long skirts, crowns of trees, at dinner outdoors napkins off laps, lettuce off plates, flakes of pastry off plates onto sidewalk.” It also reminded me of an episode from Jane the Virgin where Jane found herself in the midst of a writer block, so her mentor advised her to keep little notes where she should write ‘dispassionate narrative’ of everything she had observed, including the people she loved. Knowing Jane as a romance writer, she ended up writing these notes in a narrative that is so passionate anyway, as pointed out by her mother.

I really appreciate this chart of Beaufort scale where it indicates the force of wind written in vivid imagery, as shared by Davis in the same article (thank you @byrogriffiths for the image below). I wonder if Sir Francis Beaufort himself was a closet writer, and if he also kept a notebook along all day with him.

A chart of Beaufort scale from 0-12

Some related, some not:

  • Discover the scary, yet exciting unknown of the deep sea (I scrolled and read all the way through!)
  • After major protests in March 2014 in Taiwan, the PDIS set up vTaiwan as a new process for consultation — a mix of online & offline consultations aiming to use the Internet to pull people together rather than split them apart. Some critical analysis on technosolutionism still needed, but good initiative so far.
  • Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.”

(Note: I’m starting the practice of keeping a status board as inspired by Alan Jacobs in his newsletter as a way to, well, pay more attention.)

STATUS BOARD

  • Work: Thesis revisions!
  • Reading: (Still) How to do Nothing, and just purchased This Is How You Lose The Time War, an epistolary poetic SF novel from the points of view of two time-travelling spies, which comes highly recommended by Gretchen McCulloch, who wrote Because Internet, which I love!
  • Listening: A playlist on Spotify called Contemporary Classics as I was working on thesis revisions.
  • Food & Drink: A couple of chapatis from Manzur Chapati, which was way too good and too soft and worth revisiting, and home-brewed coffee.

No there and then

I think the last time I ever went anywhere and voluntarily decided not to be 24/7 connected to the Internet was five years ago. It was a weekend trip, and I got my flight booked to attend the TEDxTalk in Ubud, Bali. I decided to splurge on staying at a villa overlooking the terraced paddy fields in a village 20 minutes away from the town centre, which required the driver or the ojek to drive me to and fro the town centre. The owner of the villa offered to waive the fee for the pickup ride to and fro the airport, so I never had to worry about looking for any transportations to take me from the Ngurah Rai airport to Ubud, which would take about an hour. It was a weekend trip, so I never had to be on standby to check and answer emails or work texts. In other words, all my needs were already taken care of. Also in other words, I had the due privilege to splurge on all these luxuries and could afford to be disconnected for a while, of which something I am really grateful for. Additionally — not sure if this related — it was five years ago, which meant Instagram Story wasn’t invented yet, so I didn’t have the pressure to upload pictures there and then as an ‘update’, for some reasons I am still unclear till today (the idea that I felt I had to update everyone on social media there and then). I still remember the weekend trip till today: I got to talk to people from many different backgrounds at the conference, at the restaurant a Sri Lankan couple invited me to join them at their table where they showed me pictures of their daughter who was about my age currently studying abroad, went on a road trip with a friend around Ubud, took hundreds of pictures (but didn’t upload right away!) and went home and wrote a blog post on things I have learned and done.

I was reminded of this trip (and was again reminded of how privileged I am and how I must use it to help alleviate someone else’s burden too) after reading today’s edition of Anne Helen Peterson’s newsletter on the privilege to go slow and our acquired impatience for everything optimised — must be 24/7 connected, same-day delivery, paying extra to be prioritised for our Uber/Lyft/Grab ride because we somehow needed to get to the office earlier to catch up on emails before work hours, checking emails itself on our commute to the office, etc.

… the inverse fetish for on-demand services is so clearly a symptom of how we’ve overpacked our lives. We need overnight shipping because we didn’t have time to shop for gifts until the day before. We need a Lyft at our door right now because we’re trying to squeeze in a few extra minutes of work before heading to the airport. We need the food done in 20 seconds because we’re trying to feed kids and ourselves and the dog while also sorting the recycling and changing the laundry and making a grocery order on FreshDirect which, ugh, why can they only deliver at 6:45 pm tonight, not 5 pm the way I’d like? Busy-ness fosters a perception that the only way you can possibly survive is through convenience — and you’ll pay a considerable amount the money you make through that busy-ness to obtain it.

This accompanying article listed down in Peterson’s list of recommended articles also resonates with this whole notion on always ‘optimising’, where everyone was always trying to make their morning routines Instagram-ready, always super ‘productive’ — all of those routines of waking up at 3.30, doing yoga, catching up on emails before the sun rises etc. But then also there’s this that points out how absurd this is:

But something sinister seems to be going on if you feel that you have to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual to improve your well-being, so that you can also work 60 hours a week, cook dinner, run errands, and spend time with your family. In a culture obsessed with self-optimisation, “we are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading.”

There was also a chapter in Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Always Be Optimizing, where she talks about the tendency of modern women to always ‘optimise’ themselves, by “sweating it out at Pure Barre on your lunch break, then refueling at Sweetgreen with a salad designed to be eaten in 10 minutes flat, wearing athleisure the whole time, all the better to discipline oneself to efficiently perform office work while also efficiently adhering to contemporary beauty standards.”

It’s crazy. How crazy will we get? How have we allowed ourselves to this point? Sure, there is a choice not to do these, but again it seems individual if we are the only ones disoptimising, and what about people who could not afford to do so? The first group of people that came into my mind are the Amazon warehouse workers, people working on low wage expected to toil themselves more than 12 hours a day, single mothers juggling multiple tasks at work and at home while trying to survive from paycheck to paycheck, and many others. It reminded me of my first exposure of Peterson’s newsletter where she asked the most crucial question — do you actually care about other people? — that we always expect things to always be handed to us there and then so we could run to do other things there and then? Because behind every line of job — it involves conscious actions of real human beings. And that implies that as we try to rush things there and then, we are complicit with the companies in contributing to the overoptimisation culture that will rush these workers there and then, depriving them of rest, adequate meal times, vacations, and many others. Maybe before we decide to click on the ‘same-day delivery’ button (or if you could afford it, forgo Amazon for real), maybe we’d learn that there is no need to have the thing we want right there and then anyway.

Some related, some not:

  • To refuse to participate often takes much more dedicated effort than continuing as usual; it’s a risky endeavour, to just not.
  • Tell your fears they are not allowed where you are headed.
  • No.

For what we will

I’m so happy to receive my long-awaited copy of Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing in the mail two days ago. I have been struggling with the idea of digital detox and self-care bath bombs etc. because they seem so individual and temporary. I wish with all my might that I could disconnect for real and leave for the cabin in the woods and not consume news or speak to anyone, but it would be selfish not to participate in the society and not to mention, such a privilege notion to be able to afford not being unaffected by the political maladies that have been making the rounds these days. I read a lot of medium posts on digital detox and was following Tristan Harris’s Time Well Spent initiative for the longest time, but I felt… alienated. The answer didn’t lie in digital detox, but more importantly in how we change the system. The hogging of our attention now is more a problem of a systemic level than an individual level, and I am glad Odell is addressing EXACTLY this. It also helps that she’s an artist so she makes a point to look at things in a wider context (social, historical, political etc.) rather than just purely looking through the lens of technosolutionism. As someone who studies social movements, I find collective strategising more valuable than the idea of charismatic leadership (which again seems so individual) so this is a book that highy resonates with me. I am still in the first half of the book, and I have a lot to unpack, so probably more review coming soon.

I love her notion of ‘attention-holding architecture’ which refers to a piece of literal architecture — any building, any room — in Odell’s case, it’s a rose garden near to where she works, where you could temporarily ‘escape’ in order to reflect and realign. I wanted to relate this to two cases: one where I found myself also building my own ‘attention-holding architecture’ as I held Odell’s book (or any good book for that matter) and found myself isolated from the outside world as I read through my tea time, and the latter one where it had to do with building a workspace where you could protect your ‘focus hours’. The latter was especially important as I am highly protective of my space so I could work and focus, but I learned it was a luxury to others after I had spoken to a few PhD colleagues, especially those who had been married and with kids. It was almost impossible for them to have these ‘focus hours’, so they did all they had to do: spend the whole day at the campus writing in the library, sneak in a few hours of writing late night after the kids had gone to sleep, forgo weekends, and so on so forth. Acknowledging my privilege of time, space, and finances to be able to work undisturbed, I also wanted to know what I should do if I ever find myself in the place of my colleagues, and also to help them. I hope Odell addresses this too.

In the first few pages of her book, there was a passage that reads:

… I came out of this book different than I went in. So, consider this not a closed transmission of information, but instead an open and extended essay, in the original sense of the word. It’s less a lecture than an invitation to take a walk.

I love that notion — “coming out of this book different than I went in”. How it applies to my thesis writing journal too, and yet despite almost finishing them at this moment, I still find I have a lot more to learn. A work in progress.

I think I have also found my word for the year, which is ‘collective’. In 2018, it was ‘boundaries’. Setting boundaries means I get to let the right people in. In 2019, it was ‘renewal’, where I made some space to self reflect, realign, and at the same time trying to be better friends to my friends (still trying). In 2020, it will be ‘collective’. For none of us is free until all of us are free.

Some related, some not:

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?”