Five things I recently and not-so-recently read

We learn 25% from our teacher, 25% from experience, 25% from our friends, and 25% from time #WitchOfPortobello

– Text of a tweet by @paulocoelho, which I read to mean that the quote is from Paulo Coelho’s book The Witch of Portobello. I had come to know about Paulo Coelho through The Alchemist and Veronika Decides to Die. After I typed out the text of the quote, it struck me that saying that we learn 25% from experience and 25% from time was repetitive; but then I thought, was it? Learning from experience could learning from doing something or being affected by some event; learning from time, on the other hand, need not – the passing of time itself may convey some lessons…

In the frosty gloom of Dec. 30, as a hissing wind spun litter through the air, the Maltz company had among its cars a 2011 Mustang convertible, multiple Mercedes-Benzes, two cars that didn’t even run and George Bell’s 2005 Toyota.

– The start of a paragraph from N R Kornfeld’s The Lonely Death of George Bell, published in The New York Times on 17 October 2016. The story is about the leavings of a man who died alone, in New York City. You can hear the wind hiss and see the litter being spun.

China may not yet be a great power but it has already acquired great power autism.

– A sentence from the highlights of a conference organised by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service on China. To this layman, the metaphor of “great power autism” – autism being a condition characterised by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people – seems so apt.

Sharon sounded prepared to be bored.

– A line about a tone I could so readily imagine, from Ovidia Yu‘s Aunty Lee’s Deadly Delights, Aunty Lee being a latter-day counterpart to and hybrid of Miss Marple (her well-intentioned social interventions) and Nero Wolfe (her being a gourmand).

“What was truly surprising for me,” Donahue said, “was going into a space that was ancient, and to crawl around the ceiling and look at the walls and realize that they were looking at things acoustically. It wasn’t just about the architecture. They had these big jugs that were put up there to sip certain frequencies out of the air … They built diffusion, a way to break up the sound waves by putting striations in the walls. They were actively trying to tune the space.”

– A quote from Adrienne LaFrance’s Hearing the Lost Sounds of Antiquity, published in The Atlantic on 19 Feb 2016. The article is about researchers trying to understand the acoustics of ancient churches, and the person being quoted is one of the researchers who studied how the physical design of churches affected their acoustics. Another superbly evocative metaphor: jugs, which themselves are vessels of liquid, sipping frequencies out of the air. Wow. (P/S. People actually talk like that! PP/S. Although LaFrance could have interviewed Donahue over email. PPP/S. Still!)

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Flex again, and stuff I want to remember

I have not written or read for myself for a long time, it seems. I think part of it is that I’ve become addicted to the sheer availability of reading material online – plain old books now seem too uncertain a proposition.

I did read Caroline Paul’s Lost Cat recently – it was short enough that after reading the blurb I was confident there would be no unpleasant surprises. It’s supposed to be a true story about what happened after the author got into a plane crash – she helpfully clarifies it was an experimental plane – and I read it in an hour and a bit, not including the time I used to make sure I was not going to the miss the lip of the escalator (I would have, by a couple of feet, if I hadn’t looked up), and the time I tried to prolong the book, after I realised it was ending in a few pages. I found it to be an interesting look into how pet-owners see their pets and how people come to terms with the life of their significant other. I also enjoyed the funny drawings which accompanied the story; I remember that I came to know about the book through Wendy MacNaughton’s blog, and her art was one of the reasons I looked forward to the book. One line early in the book stuck with me; it set a tone I could identify with: Every day I expected Wendy to lean in, whisper that she’d had enough, and walk out the door. And who would have blamed her? We hadn’t been together long enough to justify this kind of burden.

***

Some weeks ago, a few days after the first rain in a long spell and the inevitable flight of the large black winged ants, many of which got attracted to the lights in my kitchen, I heard a chorus of frog croaks. And as I think back on it now, it was a muted chorus, just a few frogs, and soft. There was a time when frogs and toads were not an uncommon sight in my garden on wet nights, and it’s a little strange, but I can’t remember if the chorus had been louder then.

***

In Ottawa, again relative yonks ago (August 2013), I saw a garishly lit-up stretch limo which had been converted into a roving casino. Think there was one person in there.

***

On 3 March this year I had my most vivid dream in a while. I was in a neat and pristine army bunk, a modern flat of a bunk, nothing like the poorly ventilated, poorly lit room I had lived in for a good portion of my life while I was doing national service, the sort of room that somehow stayed dirty and grimy no matter how one cleaned it. And an erstwhile bunkmate was there with me, and we were discussing how a big shot was going to inspect the place, and how the new four-to-a-bunk regime made it infinitely easier to prepare for the inspection than the old many-to-a-bunk arrangement. He was quiet, now that I think about it, but smiled more than when I last saw him, or remembered. And slowly with no warning I realised the room was too bright, and I never had a four-to-a-bunk sort of bunk, and he was smiling altogether too much, and I could see him too clearly – and then I woke up, unsure of what time of the day it was, half-remembering that it was evening, that I had just taken my customary weekend late afternoon nap, and then after an effort, and checking the time, I realised it was morning, and I had just awoken from a late night, having dreamt of a fellow Sim who had been dead for more than 17 years, and whom I never really knew that well.

***

Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the Men in Black movies, told a very funny story in the 1 March 2014 edition of the news game show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!. (I was going to transcribe it all, but it’s already all there at the link – you can listen, or you can read, or you can listen and read.)

***

I was in Salt Lake City not so recently (just checked – it’s amazingly almost half a year ago in November 2013). And while I was there I ordered these earphones. Because I couldn’t be sure they would reach my hotel before I left for Singapore, I paid the shipping fee. The merchant sent me an email with a link that allowed me to track the package on its way to Singapore. So I did. The first stop for the package was to Salt Lake City. Nice coincidence. Then, when I stopped in San Francisco for a couple of days and checked the link again, I found that the package had been sent to San Francisco. And from there of course it followed me to Singapore. Brilliant. What’s more brilliant: I came to learn that the same earphones, but without the mic I did not want, were available for way less on a special offer.

***

It was good to do some personal writing again. I can feel the atrophied muscles start to grudgingly slough off their stiffness as I flex just a little bit.

Eudaimonia

I just learned a very good word.

Eudaimonia means “human flourishing” in Greek. I learned it from Alain de Botton, who wrote about how the the study of “The Art of Travel” (the title of his book on the subject) could contribute to it.

I like the concept of eudaimonia – the idea of a world set up for humans to be the most/best/happiest/most competent that they can be – and I like also the idea of studying something so as to contribute to it :)

Put six words together. Mix well.

A few months back, I blogged about Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story.  Imagine my joy when I chanced upon an article on Wired.com in which the editors got some sci-fi luminaries to write six-word stories!

Here are my favourites:

Longed for him.  Got him.  Shit.  – Margaret Atwood

Lie detector eyeglasses perfected.  Civilisation collapses.  – Richard Powers

I’m dead.  I’ve missed you.  Kiss…?  – Neil Gaiman

He read his obituary with confusion.  – Steven Meretzky

Hilarious

Late one night, when I was just about to fall asleep, my sister came bounding in to my room, and showed me a piece of paper. On it were examples of quite hilarious writing. Thought I’d share them with you :)

1. Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.

2. Her vocabulary was as bad as like, whatever.

3. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

Pulitzer

The 2007 Pulitzer Prizes were announced today, and I’ve always liked to write, so I read some of the winning works. Then I discovered the Pulitzer Prizes web site, and discovered this very moving story, a winning work from 2006 about a US Marine major “who helps the families of comrades killed in Iraq cope with their loss”.

Reading it, even in a totally removed situation, I couldn’t help crying.

The joy of a moonlit night

So I thought this quote was interesting:

“The true joy of a moonlit night is something we no longer understand. Only the men of old, when there were no lights, could understand the true joy of a moonlit night.” – the guest, “Toward Winter”, Yasunari Kawabata, 1926

My folks got married on 8 Sep thirty years ago, and tomorrow they are going away for a few days all by themselves.

Thirty years ago, like it was this year, 8 Sep was the fifteenth day of the lunar month, and the moon was round and round.