Old Year’s Day

Last summer, and over the months that followed as I finished a rather substantial book by Professor Randy David, I was introduced to the idea of life as a narrative. I’m pretty sure it’s an idea that would stick with me for many years to come. And it’s bound to come up especially during times like this, on the eve of the new year, when the sociable thing to do is to reminisce and tweet about one’s favorite moments from the past year. (The more contemplative ones like to blog the products of their ruminations as well.)

Here’s one way to think about everything that has happened to you in the past year: they were either things that you planned, or they were the things that you didn’t plan. Thanks to the things that you didn’t plan, you can tell a story of the past year that’s more exciting than if everything turned out well. For example, if you’re a student like me, tonight you can tell the story of how you planned to get your grades up, but then you got caught up in the activities of some charitable cause-oriented organization so much that your grades suffered, but it’s alright because you found that work fulfilling and there you learned things you will never learn inside the classroom. Compare that to if things turned out well: you planned to get your grades up, and, well, they shot up. End of story; you need not provide further details because no one will listen to such arrogance.

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An exercise in tranquility

The darkness goes on.

A stream of early November air coyly slips into the room, unconscious of its cold effects. It swirls onto the floor and slithers around my feet, before deciding to settle in the room for good. The interior atmosphere accommodates it with a drop of a few degrees in Celsius. The oxygen and nitrogen molecules, playful and hungry for energy even at 3 am, can only get their heat from one of two sources: the table lamp or the computer. Thank God for electricity, for the power grid—for the power plants, the distribution lines, and the operators and technicians who stay awake to keep running it all.

The bulb in the lamp has always been unhappy. It has always complained of what it sees as an oppression, an affront to its existential purpose. The problem is that much of the product of its labor—photons mainly of the yellow variety—is confiscated by the lampshade by mere virtue of being positioned above the bulb itself. The bulb wants a fair share of the lamp’s output. It wants a just compensation for the fruits of its hard labor. After years of protest, however, the power relations in the lamp has remained essentially the same. The frustrated proletariat light bulb continues to work for the smug capitalist lampshade. And in this November night, the lamp flickers. Its light falls a shade darker and the bulb is dimmer than ever.

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Lenses

Ask any architect or painter what perspective is, and they might tell you that it is the representation of three-dimensional objects onto flat surfaces in the same way as the eye sees things. There are several ways of projecting, or drawing, objects onto surfaces, but the special thing with perspective is that it mimics the way light rays converge to one point—the eye—to form a clear image. As you read this text and appreciate the distinct curves of the letterforms, or as you look out the window and take in the myriad textures of life, all those visual details in the form of light rays have to travel and assemble through your eyes before you can perceive things.

One key principle of perspective is that as the distance of an object from the observer increases, its size as projected on the paper decreases. It’s not difficult to see that this principle in drawing, worded a little differently, is the same as an essential insight about life: that the further things are from you, the smaller it becomes in your mind. It’s not simply about physical distance, however.

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Myths in the movies

There is an abundance of movies loosely based on mythologies coming out these days. Take note on the phrase “loosely based.” I don’t understand why critics and other commentators take issue with these pictures taking their liberty of playing around with their source material, especially when the source material itself is not really immutable. Off the top of my head, I can’t say this for sure regarding Norse myths, but the Greeks had very diverse, and contradicting, stories to tell about their deities anyway.

Besides, I think being “alive” is the most valuable aspect of mythology, and it’s what sets it apart from normal, publishing-house fiction. Myths are fascinating not only because they’re really engaging stories, but because they’re tales that address our deepest questions about the world around us. How did we come to be? How did the sky, mountains and seas come to exist? Why does the sun rise from the east and set in the west? Mythologies reflect the hopes and dreams of the societies that created them. They’re social products in the fullest sense; they’re genuine records of culture.

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Reading, process, writing

I’ve always been a reader. (Let me assume a different role for now, of course. Allow me to write, and please, be my reader.) All readers, at least those who fit in to my ideal of who and what a reader is, have this particular love for words that defies rationality. We have this passion of the most obsessive kind for the fleeting but incomparable pleasure of reading beautiful text. And if that sounds insane to you, it probably is, because my idea of a reader is most likely equally mad.

But sanity is statistical, George Orwell would tell you, and I know enough about statistics to make this non-argument moot at best, and pointless at worst. But this discussion already is pointless, so let me rewind.

I’ve always been a reader. Being a reader is easy, however, and what I’ve always really wanted is to be a writer. To be a good one, at least, although most writers dream of being popular, of being widely-read. But what then? What is the point of being someone able to write something so many would want to read, regardless of its inherent worth?

I’ve long come to the conclusion that it’s not a selfish agenda. I’ve never related to the idea of desiring fame for fame’s sake; even if by some unimaginable twist of fate I end up with enormous power and wealth, I don’t think I will ever want to commission statues and name places after myself. If I become a famous writer, then I will be thankful not because of the financial benefits, but because of the attention it will bring me, not to the details of my personal life but to the unique perspective with which I view the world.

The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, if I understand and remember my social sciences right, said that all men are naturally arrogant in the sense that there is no person who does not believe that his thoughts and beliefs are more correct or superior than that of anyone else’s. The optimistic in me immediately rejected this idea, but then the realistic, critical voice in my head cannot help but admit that there is some truth in this. Ultimately, I figured out that it’s not as much about arrogance as a simple, human need for understanding, and a social urge to share one’s unique world-view. It’s not as much as “I’m right and you’re wrong” as it is “we have different ideas and opinions, let’s share them and see which we can change or agree upon.”

This is the primordial calling that converts genuine readers into writers. Only those who read widely, and actively work to reap as many ideas as possible in whatever concern or issue or area of knowledge they are interested in, are likely to develop the kind of fresh perspectives that are essential in advancing human knowledge. And sooner or later, those people will feel a critical mass of insights pushing out from within them, and they will fervently try to put those flashes of brilliance into written words. And it will be natural for them to seek as wide an audience as possible, not out of arrogance, but out of a sincere desire to expand human horizons.

I’ve always been a reader; for almost as long, I’ve also wanted to be a writer. And I’d like you to hear me out.