Red bricks

I was reading a Slate article about Ursula K Le Guin on a hot and humid post-rain Sunday morning, and it brought back memories of the old National Library – this red brick building located between school (on Coleman Street) and McDonald’s (at the YMCA) – and the smell of books, specifically old paperbacks with yellowed pages. At the time I was determined to read all the Isaac Asimov the library had, and after I seemed to have accomplished this significant feat, I came across her books because of their sheer abundance. As I trace the steps that I took now in my mind, I see the library shelves, very high, and I remember hunting down mystery books too – and I kept coming across Georges Simenon, whose books for some reason I never read.

I haven’t been to the new National Library building to borrow books, but I do wish I could go back to the old red brick one, to see if the Asimov and UKL books are still where they used to be.

Inconsequential

Last evening, I was talking with a good friend at Curry Favor*. We talked about how the last few months of our university days – spent in the ulu** reaches of NTU, completing our final year project (which took the form of an interesting experiment comparing personal relationships formed in face-to-face communication with those formed in ICQ-type instant messaging communication), writing lyrics that used to be familiar and challenging one another to remember the name of the song or the singer – were some of the best of our lives. As we talked, I realised that, to us, this FYP – to be completed so we could graduate – was one of the most important things in the world. We argued over whether the word “dovetail” belonged in an academic article. We made sure that each time the experiment ran, the two chairs our experimental subjects sat on to talk face-to-face were the same distance apart, because we did not want “distance between chairs” to be a variable. We approached a government organisation for grant money so we could provide some incentive for folks to participate in our experiment. We stayed till late to run the experiments; late was when students were not in class and therefore available to participate in them.

And then I realised that two rather contradictory things almost at once: One, that, while it turned out to be a widely cited paper, the FYP was inconsequential for me – I firmly believe I could have gotten to where I am without it. Two, that I don’t feel for my work a fraction of what I did for that thesis, in terms of sheer doggedness to getting it done and doing it right, and willingness to learn stuff and accept alternative views.

And my conclusion then was that what we do probably fades in significance to us as we age, due to a combination of increasing jadedness and growing recognition of the fact that what we do will not change the world. I thought it a natural thing, this paling of the world as we age.

I told my sister this, and I was feeling a little proud of myself for coming to that conclusion – I thought I had come across a truth. When I finished talking, she looked puzzled for the tiniest moment, then said, “But that’s because you’re not as passionate as you were…”

I realised my sister (she’s 11 years younger) was right. I realised I can re-capture that sense of dedication to excellence, that sense of crafting something that matters. I just need to find out what I’m passionate about.

P/S. My sis is a sage in disguise, I tell you.

PP/S. Our theme song for this half-year of late nights was an oldie by 邓妙华.

温柔的夜

<词:木子*** 曲:李思菘/李伟菘>

我的心是悠悠的湖水 温柔的月色是你的倒影
你把自己浸在夜里 未湿的长发牵动我的相思

我的心是轻轻的涟漪 开展的波纹是我的情绪
若能让你向着湖畔 你眼睛将是我梦里最美的心

多希望拥有小小的衣裳 轻轻为你点亮一盏灯
让我看清你 让我看清你 怕过了明天你不是做梦的年龄

多希望用我全部的生命 滴滴为你清唱这爱情
让你感觉我 让你感觉我 思念的湖水里浮动你的倒影

让我看清你 让我看清你 怕过了明天你不是做梦的年龄…

*Tried their beef and mushroom curry udon. Thought the curry was bland, the mushrooms okay, the beef cubes excellent. Also tried an appetiser of mushrooms coated in batter, deep-fried. I liked the fact that the mushrooms retained their winey juiciness.

**”Ulu” means out-of-the-way.

***Really enjoyed being taught Chinese by 木子 in secondary school.

Back

So I had dinner with some university classmates recently. I think the fact that we are all current or former Government employees says something about Singapore, but I’m not sure what.

Also recently, I saw a photo of our graduating class at a friend’s blog. It’s been more than four years since the photo was taken, and I’ve forgotten most of the day’s happenings, but I remember the emotions: in the beginning, taut tension* and camaraderie^; then, as we realised that the procession of graduates would take a fairly long while, the nervous energy started to dissipate and we started to get more comfortable, really soak in the occasion. We talked about classmates who had chosen to miss the ceremony and cringed when a graduate tripped, stumbled and nearly fell on her face on stage and mentally warned ourselves against doing the same. Then it was our turn, and in an orderly line we snaked our way out of the rows of chairs and onto the bottom of the stage. We were supposed to walk up the stairs to the stage and a little further, then stop for a photo to be taken – one’s face would then be displayed on a large screen, for the benefit of the audience – and then walk to receive the degree from the person who was presenting the degree, where another photo was to be taken (I believe it was President Nathan presenting the degree; it was; I just checked the photo). We went up in time-honoured alphabetical order, and Afdillah (what is he doing right this moment, I wonder?) made us all laugh by making a funny face at the camera.

One thing I used to do in school that I don’t think a lot of folks knew about: I’d get in early in the morning, go to the media centre, walk down the spiral stairway to its basement and, there among the computers and shelves of books and with the morning sun streaming in from between the window blinds, if there was no one around (which was usually the case that early in the morning), do cartwheels on the carpeted floor. I doubt I can do cartwheels anymore.

*I wonder now whether it was because I was going to be presented on stage with something I had worked four years for, or because my parents and grandma were there to see me receive it.

^I remember a near-acquaintance unexpectedly helping me with my unruly graduation gown – a sign of the sort of esprit de corps we felt among us that day – but the camaraderie was a little strained because, despite numerous promises to remain friends and keep in touch, we knew deep down we were in no informed position to make those promises.

Personal MBA

So I came across this interesting idea – a 42-book syllabus to improve one’s knowledge about business and improve one’s effectiveness at work, like getting an MBA is supposed to. As the manifesto clearly states, it’s not a substitute for the MBA one’d get at a business school, but investing in the syllabus would mean learning about business at a relatively low cost.

I already have some of the books in the syllabus, and some of the others cover topics I’ve been wanting to read about for a long time, so I am very intrigued. Also, I’ve always thought graduate school was a definite further down the road for me. This looks like a good way to clarify my thinking on graduate school…

Back…

So eight years ago, during the first World Cup of Zidane, a more naive, more incomplete me stepped into the not-so-hallowed walkway at the School of Communication Studies (fondly and forever remembered as CS). By the next World Cup, I had spent the best four years of my life there. And last evening, six classmates and I spent a food-fueled, laugh-filled evening at our old stomping ground (well, okay – more like mugging-for-exams, rushing-for-video-projects, staying-overnight-for-newspaper-production ground).

I had not been back to CS at night for a long time, but a familiar scene greeted me as we unloaded from the taxi. The layout of the ground floor had not changed. The tree at the atrium might have been a little taller. Handcrafted-then-photocopied posters exhorting students to join the CS Club made themselves obvious on pillars and doors. The benches – heavy wooden picnic-tables with seats attached, where we had always spent time talking, studying, napping – littered the central area. Between two pillars, thick string stretched, laden with cards and papers clipped to the string with wooden clothes pegs. Our cohort had too used wooden clothes pegs (cheap mah – we were students, remember) to affix such messages in this exact manner. Even the occasional cooling breeze seemed like an old acquaintance.

Trevor was waiting for us at one of these benches – I don’t know why he chose one at the edge of the whole ensemble. We noisily greeted him and plonked down our bags of fast food and junk food. We are great proponents of healthy food, you understand – after all, we also brought along a half-dozen tetrapaks of green tea – but we also like having other food around.

At the end of the night, after we had talked easily separately and together, after we had made fun of the one among us whom we made fun of the most and each one of the others, after Trevor had reprised his multi-reprised role of photographer, after an impromptu birthday celebration, after we had polished off the food we could, after we had decided who would pile into Trevor’s car and who would try their luck at getting a cab, we parted, as if we would get together again, the seven of us, very soon.

And we will :)

P/S. Terrie’s doing her Master’s in CS, and she has a nice office there. Weijie’s working at the business school nearby, and his office was more used, and more cluttered. I found myself quietly envying them both. (Terrie also has a new tablet PC, folks.)