Wabi-Sabi

An excerpt copied from a quirky book (Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life) that excerpted it:

Sabi: a mood – often expressed through literature – of attentive melancholy.

Wabi: a cozier, more object-centered aesthetic of less as more

Wabi-Sabi: As a single idea, wabi-sabi fuses two moods seamlessly: a sigh of slightly bittersweet contentment, awareness of the transience of earthly things, and a resigned pleasure in simple things that bear the marks of that transience.

I feel wabi-sabi right about now: so happy that I know there’s bound to be a come-down round the corner, so happy that that’s okay.

Chinese New Year readings

Over Chinese New Year, I read a couple of books.

Michael Chabon‘s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (see reviews here and here) turned out to be a tremendously enjoyable read: action on every page, characters to care for and sympathise with in their imperfections, a serviceable plot.  I found Chabon’s descriptions to be an alchemy of evocation.  An insignificant, random sample: a baby “smells like yoghurt and laundry soap”; a tired lady’s bag “hits the floor like a body”; the same lady, a police inspector, drawn into a case in spite of her better judgement, starts “gnawing at the bloody joint of” a juicy clue.  Chabon densely peppers the book with them, and the flavour is so intense and rich and rewarding – I think people’s brains have a pleasure centre for deciphering such creativity – that you keep flipping the pages, searching for the next kernel of spice, like: someone “peels back a match from the matchbook, scrapes it into flame”; someone who’s just come in from the Alaskan snow is “[c]old to the honeycomb of his bones”; the profile of a large, large man is “regal, worthy of a coin or a carved mountainside”.  And so on and so forth. Un-put-down-able stuff.

Joe Hill‘s 20th Century Ghosts (reviews here and here) turned out to be a collection of some of the best horror stories I’ve read recently.* I liked the stories because they don’t just scare, they make you care (hey, that rhymes!).  I’ve always thought a horror story derives its power from how much you can identify with the character(s) in the story, how – with just one slight shift in perception or twist of malleable reality – you could be him/her/them.  And at his best, Joe Hill taps into many of our familiar wounds, in creative and fantastic ways: A boy is ostracised by his schoolmates, lives with uncaring parents, and eventually turns into a giant locust and goes on a Columbine-like killing spree; a woman is attacked, escapes, tries to live a life unhaunted, but eventually finds her way back to the horror that made her; two boys are best friends, but one – who has an actual inflatable body with a nipple through which air can be pumped in and a fatal vulnerability to sharp objects – gets mauled by a dog and develops an incurable leak, and the other has to let him go, by the sea, borne away by helium balloons; a boy has an autistic younger brother who can build intricate tunnels to nowhere with boxes and twine, and who protects his brother by coaxing someone who threatens him into one of these creations, and who also eventually disappears into one of them himself. Affecting stuff.

*I used to buy horror anthologies every month, or so it felt like.  My all-time favourite story is Michael Marshall Smith‘s The Man Who Drew Cats.

Plato in a joke

In Sun with Moon*, and afterwards at the Borders** Bistro downstairs, I had the conversation I have come to expect with two good friends – thoughtful, opinionated, passionate academia-related stuff. As usual, I came away from our session thinking about teaching and doing research at a university for a living.

This time, we talked about what the teaching and research were for. About how schools sometimes focus their research more on theory – i.e. aiming to unearth a more complete picture of the world – or application i.e. aiming to solve problems.

About what to teach one’s students – how to pick among focused, immediately applicable skills (how to write an “inverse pyramid”-style news story, for example), less immediately applicable “life skills” (say, how to think and write clearly) and probably ultimately useless skills (case in point: do we need to know, really, how to do differential equations if we don’t end up teaching others how to do differential equations?).

About the differences between education in polytechnics and that in universities.

About how that distinction may get complicated again, if we talk about the teaching of professions – in which case the value-add in universities may be teaching would-be doctors how to think about doctoring, for example.

At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned that I had read that, after his student complained about not gaining anything from being at his school, a Greek philosopher had given the student a penny and expelled him. Impressed, one friend asked which book I had read. Here is what I read, and from where:

In the fourth century BC, the great Athenian philosopher Plato established a school (the Academy) at which mathematics was a key portion of the curriculum. It was taught with the utmost rigor of which the times were capable, and it dealt with idealized shapes on which idealized operations were performed.

One student, who was put to stern mental exercise over the Platonic conception of mathematics, kept searching in vain for some application to the various forms of artisanry for which he knew mathematical concepts were useful.

Finally he said to Plato, ‘But, master, to what practical use can these theorems be put? What can be gained from them?’

The old philosopher glared at the inquiring student, turned to a slave, and said, ‘Give this young man a penny that he might feel he has gained something from my teachings and then expel him.’

– Joke 142 of Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor

Here’s Joke 137 from the same book. I do hope my friends won’t turn out to be too much like the good Professor Krumpelmayer:

‘I have brought a frog,’ said Professor Krumpelmayer, beaming at his class in elementary zoology, ‘fresh from the pond, in order that we might study its outer appearance and later dissect it.’

He carefully unwrapped the package he carried and inside was a neatly prepared ham sandwich.

The good professor looked at it with astonishment. ‘Odd,’ he said, ‘I distinctly remember having eaten my lunch.’

And here is Joke 156, about the utter uselessness of it all. Maybe.

Finkelstein had made a huge killing at the races and Moskowitz, quite understandably, was envious.

‘How did you do it, Finkelstein?’ he demanded.

‘Easy,’ said Finkelstein. ‘It was a dream.’

‘A dream?’

‘Yes. I had figured out a three-horse parlay, but I wasn’t sure about the third horse. Then the night before, I dreamed an angel was standing over the head of my bed and kept saying, “Blessings on you, Finkelstein. Seven times seven blessings on you.” When I woke up, I realized that seven times seven is forty-eight and that horse number forty-eight was Heavenly Dream. I made Heavenly Dream the third horse in my parlay and I just cleaned up; I simply cleaned up.’

Moskowitz said, ‘But, Finkelstein, seven times seven is forty-nine.’

And Finkelstein said, ‘So you be the mathematician.’

Or the person who learned the right math. Or taught it.

*One friend had the wafu ramen, which came with red dates. The other had a pork don. Both dishes got enthusiastically positive reviews from their tasters.

**I’d have added a link for you to subscribe to the Borders newsletter, which delivers some pretty good discount vouchers to your email address. Thing is, one has to print them out. And that’s tree slaughter. Anti-greenery is not cool.

Alzheimer’s

The 9 Dec issue of the New York Times Magazine recognised screening for Alzheimer’s disease (may require registration) through a test administered on the telephone as one of the year’s best ideas. That got me thinking.

I think I first came across anything like Alzheimer’s in Dean Koontz‘s Watchers*. This was in my teens. The protagonist of the book, a dog with human-level intelligence, is stricken with distemper. His friends, a couple he essentially matchmade, are sick with worry that second-stage distemper would bring brain damage, and that the dog – his name is Einstein – would live his life in a kind of greyness, knowing that there is something missing and yet not quite knowing what it is.

I imagine Alzheimer’s to be something like that.

A few years ago, an aunt described to me the devastation Alzheimer’s wrought on her dad and her mum. He would wake up in the middle of the night in the house he built and has known for years and years and ask where he was. He would ask for the thermostat to be turned up, complaining it was freezing cold, only for his wife and daughter to see him not dressed.  Her mother struggled to take care of him and eventually – not without guilt – let others take care of him away from his home.

I imagine that, when he died, those who loved him were relieved.

I recently read a New York Times article titled “Love in the Time of Dementia”, and it opened like this:

So this, in the end, is what love is.

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, has a romance with another woman, and the former justice is thrilled – even visits with the new couple while they hold hands on the porch swing – because it is a relief to see her husband of 55 years so content.

I imagine that love that comes with shared experiences – mundane, intense, everyday, momentous – is a special kind of unity; even when you are alone, what you experience is shared with her, your reactions spiced and sprinkled with her own; you know her that well, and she matters that much.

*Koontz was my favourite author in my teenage years; I think Lightning, Watchers and Mr Murder are his best books.  I enjoyed how he combined the conventional elements of different genres.

What 2008 brings

This is late. I’ve been meaning to write about some cool ideas I particularly liked in the 9 Dec 2007 issue of the New York Times Magazine, then I thought I’d make it a review of 2007 and a record of some lessons, so that the passing of the years is coupled with the gaining of experience and knowledge, then I got to thinking that my table is too high, and therefore my keyboard is placed at an awkward position for typing, and therefore maybe I’ll do the blog another day. Procrastination: I am a master at it. I don’t even have to try.

A few things happened to jolt me out of that.

One, a colleague got me a book that late KPMG CEO Eugene O’Kelly wrote in the roughly 100 days between the diagnosis of his brain cancer and his death in Sep 2005. Chasing Daylight is a clear-eyed memoir about dying, and, knowing you are about to die, doing a good job of it. Upon knowing his fate, O’Kelly describes how his accounting-trained mind resolved to complete a “to-do list”, and one of the items on this list was to “unwind” his relationships, to “beautifully resolve” them through a combination of reminiscing, appreciation and authenticity. A short excerpt from the book should make clear what I’m babbling about:

For example, take my college roommate, Doug… [w]e spoke maybe once a year now, but we shared a history, and we’d always enjoyed each other’s company and were intrigued by what the other was doing. I wrote him a note.

Doug,

As you probably have heard, my health is failing me as I deal with advanced stage cancer. I wanted to write to tell you how much our friendship over the many years since Penn State has meant to me.

Best wishes in your life.

God bless,

Gene

I’d planned to follow this with a call, to elaborate on my gratitude, but first I wanted to think about all the great memories we’d shared. The summer of our freshman year, when he and I had done ROTC duty on the USS Wasp… played cards against these two guys from Miami of Ohio… get served four meals a day and worked on the flight deck and in the boiler room…

Doug called me first… we had a good conversation… he reminded me that I had been the first among our group to reach a number of milestones – getting married, becoming a father – and now I was first to the next life. He and the other guys would be joining me later, he said.

Toward the end of the conversation, I told Doug how much I appreciated what he had added to my life. He did the same. I was not teary-eyed, nor, it sounded, was he.

At the end, Doug said, “Good-bye.”… No platitudes or denial. Just good-bye. I appreciated that.

Essentially, O’Kelly actively sought closure in each relationship he cared about. I think this is one of the wisest things I know of. What Chasing Daylight also made clearer to me was that successful people are driven – I think what made O’Kelly CEO of a big accounting firm also made him want to manage his death – so I should be a bit less lackadaisical about things e.g. blogging.

The second thing that jolted me out of my procrastination was a simple flip through the Straits Times’ Recruit section. I realised that little of my achievements in my five years of working would help in my successfully getting most of the jobs I wanted. That wasn’t strictly speaking a surprise, but the immediacy of it was a wake-up call. Ergo, I need to take more control of my career.

The third thing. In my room, there is a soft-board that I use to pin bills and warranties and so on – to remind me of stuff I need to do. I came across an envelope I had thumbtacked to it a while back. I knew it contained contents from my wallet that I had taken out before I went for reservist training, and that I had resolved to put back into my wallet when I had the time. Sorting through the discount cards and receipts, I was shocked to realise that I had last looked at that envelope more than six months ago. Time accumulates day on day like no one’s business.

So, I shall procrastinate less. Will be blogging about those NYT Magazine stories when I return, but first, a haircut and booking my GMAT date.

Making what I read stick

I read quite a bit. I’d like to say I get something out of what I read – especially the non-fiction books that are typically more expensive and that are supposed to impart knowledge. I think I do, but not nearly enough. So a couple of weeks back, after finishing Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist”, I had made a resolution to summarise it (probably chapter by chapter) and put it here, just to make what I learnt stay in my head a bit longer.

(I’m not sure what this says about the way I learn: Is the short-term “learning” a vestige of the (here comes a euphemism) exam-smart mugging we are accustomed to? Or perhaps most books just don’t communicate ideas well enough to have them stick in your head? Or perhaps a compromise is required: books should be clear, sure, but there is something active the reader can and should do as well to make learning stick?)

And just today, I read about Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made to Stick”. The book explores why some ideas are like Velcro and some like Teflon. Presentation Zen already has a really good post about this book (two others are featured in the post), and the idea is expanded in this educational* side-by-side comparison of a sticky article and an un-sticky article by Dan Health himself.

Given that ideas that stick, by definition, become part of the stickee’s thought process and have the potential to become assimilated as long-term learning and/or change behaviour, knowing what make them sticky is important. In their book, Chip and Dan boil stickiness down to characteristics that spell SUCCESS. (That ought to stick! :p) And I thought it would be interesting to do my summary of “The Undercover Economist” with the additional challenge of making it sticky. More fun for me, and, I hope, more useful for whoever reads :)

*Just started Jeffrey Pfeffer’s “What Were They Thinking”**, and in his first chapter, Pfeffer commented that “[e]ducation is concerned with helping people see and understand things in different ways, getting them to question previously unquestioned assumptions and ideas, and mostly helping them think and ask questions to uncover some fundamental insights”. That struck me as a very accurate description of what a senior colleague has been doing for me and others (except I am not sure I uncover any fundamental insights). I haven’t always been comfortable when he raises these new perspectives, because there is usually a part of me that wants to think things through, and another part that wants to continue the conversation, so I have probably been less appreciative of his efforts that I should be. Now he’s leaving, and I will miss that bit of education. Am thinking of putting the quote above in some way in a farewell collage that we’re doing for him…

**There is a preview of the book (Contents and Chapter 1) available at this link. Look for a “PREVIEW THIS CONTENT” button below the picture of the book.

A week on national service

National service

This past week, I was in an army camp, on national service. (Where I live, male citizens form a conscript army, and we are called back to revise our training every year or two.)

These couple of weeks are a bad time to be away from work – just so many things to be done, by not so many people – but my time back in the army has been fairly productive. In the sometimes lengthy interstitials between lessons, I finished Ram Charan’s Know-how, and half of the Chinese translation of Norwegian Wood, a Japanese novel by Haruki Murakami i.e. 挪威的森林 by 村上春树. Know-how lists a set of leadership know-how (e.g. how to position one’s business, how to judge people for leadership potential, how to make people work as a team), which the author posits can be learnt and honed. I came away from the book urged to try my hand at other kinds of work, different from my current milieu. Couldn’t identify with the characters in Norwegian Wood, but (on the evidence of the translation) I found Haruki Murakami’s writing very evocative, especially in his detailing of the textures of emotions. Still wondering whether to continue with the second half…

I made several acquaintances among my fellow NSmen. One is a pilot; one wants to be a pilot; one is an airline/aeroplane buff. (I have to say, I feel a little old and more than a little inadequate in this whole group – I feel most are more successful, more comfortable with themselves, more what I want to be, than I myself am.) That last person recommended a web site – SeatGuru – that identifies good seats and inflight amenities for different aeroplanes and airlines. Those who fly a lot or are particular about their flight experiences may want to check it out.

Mistake

My big boss spoke to me recently about my promotion prospects. To cut a long story short, I missed a great chance to ask for feedback on how I could improve. That was dumb. Sigh.

Collapsed umbrella, Stephen Covey, Japanese pasta and a shopping spree

I’ve been meaning to use my blog as a diary for a while, but this may count as its first diary entry.

From the depths of the MRT station to daylight is a walk of two, maybe three minutes.  I turn right after letting the gantry read my card, get escalated up a level, turn right again and follow an up-sloping, left-curving tunnel to the next escalator, and get raised to street level.  Today, everyone stops here – beyond this shelter, under a sunny morning sky, rain is falling, the warm sort that is heavier than a drizzle and much more irritating.  I have an umbrella, a really compact one bought in Taiwan (from a street vendor whose boast that Taiwan makes the best collapsible compact umbrellas impressed me).  I take it from my bag, unsheathe it, telescope out its handle and push it open.  Or struggle to.  Somehow the supporting struts that normally spread out the umbrella’s shade – intricate lengths of metal lined with tough white plastic – won’t straighten.  I push harder.  And realise that one of the struts had tore through and become snagged in the fabric of the umbrella shade.  The umbrella wouldn’t fully spread and therefore lock, but if I keep it from collapsing by pushing it open all the while, it is serviceable.

When I get to my workplace, the irritating aspect of the rain is forgotten; instead, I am grateful it is not heavier.

I am taking a two-day course on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (based on a book by Stephen Covey).   The course is facilitated by two colleagues.  I find that the most engaging part of the course is the video clips featuring Covey.  Covey has a gravelly voice that sounds as if he is about to break out in a horrendous cough at any moment, a bald pate atop earnest eyes and an expressive smile that often unexpectedly turns into a gleeful grin.  Think he is quite a presence on video.  (This link leads to a YouTube search of Stephen Covey – quite a nice sample.)

I have lunch with two colleagues at Pasta de Waraku – a strange chimera featuring a Japanese take on pasta, pizza and gratin.  Waraku, which also has a more traditional Japanese outlet in the same mall, reminds of the house of food that tempts Hansel and Gretel.  The most amazing and appetising facsimiles of actual dishes deck the spot-lit windows.  It is as if one is already choosing one’s dish from outside the restaurant and just has to go in to order.  I have the squid ink pasta (that’s the dish on the top left in the picture at the link above), and my colleagues and I share a scallop and prawn pizza.   The squid ink pasta stains terribly, of course – I have to be very careful not to splash the gravy – but chopped tomatoes blunt its fishiness, and the outcome is an unremarkable dish.  The pizza has crust thinner than wafer, and perhaps because of that, the cheese baked onto it is light and tangy and creamy, not rich or cloying at all.  My colleagues and I end the meal by agreeing to share two pizzas next time.

I end the day with a shopping spree.  With $30 of Kinokuniya vouchers and seduced by the 20% discount, I none too remorsefully bust my budget and buy three books: Ram Charan’s Know-how, Lawrence Block’s Hit Parade and Peter Mayle’s One Year in Provence.

Reading

So I think I’m carrying my reading binge a bit too far. Over the past three months, off the top of my head I believe I have finished or partially read over a dozen books. Now that I think of it, that’s like a book a week, so it’s not as if it’s an groundbreaking feat or anything like that – it’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever read so much in such a span of time in my life. What does this mean, I wonder.

Okay, that’s enough wondering. The thing about me is, I leave my books lying in piles around my room, so it’s easy to track my reading choices. I realised there were four books I’ve left lying around, partially read, for a couple of months liao:

The Daily Drucker – Peter F Drucker Started on this a while back, before Mr Drucker passed away. I have not read enough of his work and others’ work to know for myself how significant he is, but many more knowledgeable than me think of him as a sage in the management field. This particular book is organised into 366 pithy executive summaries, and I’m stuck on 7 May. I plan to start again on this one soon.

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories – Yasunari Kawabata Bought this attracted by the short-short stories. Some of them are barely 3 minutes long. I like to write, and reading some of these stories help me understand how plots can unravel in the tightest of spaces.

Developing strategic thought – Bob Garratt, ed. Was recommended this book by Weijie. Reading this book made me realise how ingrained the habit of reading a book from cover to cover is. I couldn’t just read only the chapters that sounded interesting to me; I just couldn’t.

I Am a Cat – Soseki Natsume The idea of a cat as narrator intrigued me.

Books I’ve read in the last three months include:

A right to die – Rex Stout; Homicide trinity – Rex Stout; Three for the chair – Rex Stout Am a huge fan of Rex Stout, who wrote nominally in the genre of mysteries. To me, his stories about the eccentric garrulous gourmand detective Nero Wolfe and his wisecracking worldly sidekick Archie Goodwin represent the most realised fictional world ever. I love so much to read about them and spend time in their company that I re-read his books most nights before falling asleep.

First, Break all the Rules – Marcus Buckingham; The One Thing You Need to Know – Marcus Buckingham
Thought the books made a lot of sense. Would be a good experience to interview the folks he did to gain these insights, I think.

Teacher Man – Frank McCourt Teaching always struck me as an increasingly thankless career choice in Singapore. Frank McCourt’s memoirs about his travails as a teacher were funny, heartening and inspiring. I think learning is a human instinct, and all young people want to learn, and teachers can make a big difference.

Books I’ve started in the last couple of weeks and will finish [grim, determined look on face]:

The World is Flat – Thomas Friedman My own interpretation of a flat world was from the point of view of diffusion of knowledge or innovation – generally, if you are plugged into this flat world (and one could make the argument that more than half the world’s population are not), you can now have access to new knowledge very quickly. I think from what I’ve read so far (merely 30-plus pages) Friedman’s flat world refers more to an equality in power – every individual with access to this flat world can now become a powerful individual and advance his or her interests. Not so sure I agree with that yet.

What Should I Do with My Life? – Po Bronson I am asking this question, so I wanted to to see what other folks had to say. I suppose I was looking for a short-cut, an easier way to determining and achieving my end/meaning/desire/goal, but from what I’ve read, the book essentially says: there are many ways of arriving at a satisfying, energising state that resonates with your core. And I think this is both an encouraging thing, and a letdown. The search shall go on…

Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury I used to be a big sci-fi fan, and therefore a big Ray Bradbury fan. This book has been a really encouraging, motivating read so far.

Winning – Jack Welch A couple of speakers I heard recently mentioned this book, so I’m reading it :D

P/S. Am trying out a new “skin” for my blog :)