There’s Something in Absentia

14 July 2009

On Absence and Return

Ozone Playground, by Pulpolux !!! with Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic licenceAbsence is often considered an intentional void, a failure to be rather than the result of a distraction or restriction. There is often a condemnation involved, at least implicitly. A list of absentees, absenting oneself from a vote, being absent without leave – none of these measure or define behaviour deemed appropriate. Yet an absence is simply the lack of an expected presence, a disappointment only because it defies what we want rather than determines what is probable, or perhaps even possible. Absence speaks to our suspicion, whispers that someone else has erred.

How, then, do we rein in our expectations, or the presumption that a regular presence is necessarily and alone a good presence? One way would be to appreciate the aggregate rather than the individual. What do we achieve together more meaningfully than alone? Teams tend to outperform the combined capacity of their individual members, and societies – by and large – maintain the trajectory of their change despite emigration and remigration. It would be difficult to define either of these examples as a form of stability, yet they both indicate that a certain type of continuity has greater value than even the most identifiable absence. Sure, any sports fan could cite a team that failed after one member left (Michael Jordan’s first retirement, anyone?) but on a social scale, even with an increase of absences, the dilution is barely measurable.

Of course, this all goes to prove that my recent lengthy absence from the blogosphere is a small nothing in a vast ocean of somethings. But it’s so often difficult to escape self-censure, which is ultimately the whisper of the ego against the roar logic. No wonder I have ringing in my ears.

No @$#*% Way!

13 July 2009

A Word or Two about Swearing

Broken, by Aeioux, with Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic licenceAge, a family and a sneaking suspicion that things can be better said are often what push people to swear less often than they might. There is always a sort of opprobrium to cursing, or what my grandmother (and yours, no doubt) calls ‘foul language’. Cue images of stench and decay, of wrongness of language that must indicate the decomposition of thought. Perhaps there’s a point to the moralising, but it often seems a convenience, a judgment of what’s proper and prudent without any indication of how that position has been attained. There are undoubtedly situations in which swearing is unnecessary – variations of the word ‘fuck’ used an adjectives can range from the emphatic (as in “I really fucked up”) to the needlessly vulgar (as in “oh my fucking God”). Yet, as it happens, swearing does have at least one purpose – to mitigate physical pain.

In the current issue of NeuroReport, Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston describe the results of an experiment in which subjects were asked to immerse a hand in icy cold water and “repeat a swear word”, and then asked to undergo the process again while repeating a “neutral” word. The result? When the subjects swore, they tended to keep their hands immersed longer. Stephens and his associates explain it this way: “swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared to not swearing”.

As an interesting aside, in an interview with the London Telegraph, Dr Stephens mentioned that he first thought about the link between swearing and pain when his wife was in labour; it would be difficult not to imagine why. His findings could well have verified what delivery ward nurses already know, and there’s a fitting counterpoint. It turns out that “swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophise”. Drama queens, in other @$#*% words.

What is Inspiration?

4 April 2009

Notes on an Unassuming Man

Fire walk with me, by by chaosinjune, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)I have often wondered what it means to be inspired, pondered the mechanisms by which a state of subdued awe can be generated, and in turn generate action in me. Inspiration seems to be ethereal, the purely subjective identification of a best case scenario according to which we might live, or at least aspire to live. The word actually comes from the Latin inspirare, to breathe in, and in that time-worn connection we should be able to grasp its significance. Something or someone who inspires us makes us breathe in new ways of understanding, or at least ways of understanding the common place anew.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of interviewing a man who did just that for me, a professor at one of Hong Kong’s universities. He’s a chemist, which might not sound inspiring in itself, but it is when seen in its proper context. As a child he wanted to be a doctor, to help and to heal, but it soon became obvious that the blood and associated gore doctors have to deal with would make him squeamish, to say the least. So, in his youthful enthusiasm, he decided to become a chemist, to research the means by which diseases might be cured.

That might sound like all too much idealism but the professor is in his 50s now, still searching, still working on molecules that might yet attack and kill cancer cells. Like all good scientists he doesn’t have a timetable for achievement, just a desire to search, try and fail, and then try again. Despite decreases in funding each year over the last 12 he continues because he has never forgotten that he set out to make a difference.

And recently he made a breakthrough in another disease. His university wants him to patent his efforts, to show that the institution is leading the advancement of knowledge no doubt, but he has quietly deflected the requests. When I asked him why he said it was simply because research wouldn’t progress if anyone had to pay him royalties before a form of medicine could be developed from his work. As always, his object was to help, to play a role in healing one day, somehow. As I left his office I realised what really inspired me the most – selflessness.

Cosmic Flight School, by nflorence2012, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)It’s somewhat ironic that the most inspiring people sometimes have to remain anonymous, cloaked because they need to dance a delicate little jig in doing what it is they do that inspires others. Inspiration is about the shifting of perceptions, the act of influence by deed and not necessarily by name. But, of course, I know who the professor is and each time I read his name I’ll be cheering him on. It’s kind of personal now – having spoken to him, my life has changed.

Welcome to the Real World

20 February 2009

It’s So Serious Here

La Jolla, CA (San Diego), by JohnnyRokkit, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)As a relatively naïve undergraduate in the early 1990s I made a statement born of my experience in the hardware and building industries. My political theory lecturer, who might well have been wiser than I imagined, had just returned from six months of deep, solitary research in the British Library. “Welcome back to the real world”, I said, to which he replied “what is the real world?” Damn, a philosopher. But it’s an interesting and rarely considered question. Just what is the real world, and how does it differ from those unreal, surreal or presumably imaginary places that we otherwise inhabit?

I ask this question because I meet the leading phrase again and again, almost daily, here in Hong Kong. There is an element of  ‘hard work is worth’ to it, but also a judgement – only certain types of hard work have value. As an undergraduate I first considered manual labour a ticket to the real world, which must have been a rather sweaty and unpleasant place, given that I lived in the deep tropics. I think now, perhaps only a little ironically, of the icy Gulag in Alexandar Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or at a more gentle remove the bleak, disappointing reality of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Zima Station”. Real life was tough – real life hurt.

And it certain did when I installed roofs for a living, but an 8 ½ year stretch of study allowed me to see this ‘reality’ in a different way, helped me to understand that effort, often prodigious effort, need not be physical. I retained my lecturer’s scepticism about real life, understood that the phrase was a demarcation rather than an observation. It says ‘On this side of the line I stand – real, working hard in some way, lending value more to some parts of life than others, ultimately disparaging a few ill-identified pockets of the surreal, the unreal, the lazy’. And so on.

It’s particularly interesting that this realisation came to me in the transition from work to study, as I shifted from being a wage labourer to a scholarship recipient. The imposition of the ‘real world’ on public discourse usually happens in observations of people moving in the opposite direction – from study to work. I constantly read it in academic descriptions of what happens after university, which is presumably some sort of primordial and carefree playground that I completely failed to notice while I was there. And, for that matter, what do such appellations say of academics? I imagine that they think more of their own efforts than they admit as they wave their students goodbye.

So, what is this ‘real world’ if not the result of a relational con? If Hong Kong is anything to go by, ‘reality’ is not the realm of hard work for personal gain as I first imagined, but a state in which capitalism triumphs over the individual will, pushing workers harder for no increased benefit (and no, Elizabeth, I’m not writing about myself now). It’s the $10 wage slave compelled to work overtime as the company slides into debt, the middle manager covering two or three positions after retrenchments. And it caries a sort of resolute morality within itself. The real world is deadly serious – you might want to check out.

So this is Christmas

26 December 2008

Hong Kong, in Three Street-Side Scenes

I'll get you the moon and the stars, by lenchensmama, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Words are sometimes not enough to express the feeling engendered in a moment, the sense that something ineffable has shifted and changed. There are only glimpses, flashes of memory like single frames in a half-forgotten movie, and if you transcribe it all into prose befitting the moment you’ll lose it to the syntax, the unerring formality of the written word. A series of images might suffice, but even then the meaning will stir somewhere below the surface, not quite escaping, never really extending to anyone else. Allow me, then, to offer a compromise, a word picture, a witness statement of Christmas in Hong Kong.

See first the carollers, singing with conviction that outstrips talent, some shuffling notes to read the words by candlelight, others with song after song ingrained in memory. In a doorway they stand, the entrance to a church. The façade has seen better days and the indifferent crowd shuffles past, drawn by the call of commerce. In Jordan something – everything – is always for sale. But the carols rise above it all, drown even the wail of taxi horns and the deep, deep throb of double-decker buses waiting impatiently at traffic lights. Look back into the doorway and see who these people are. Chinese, yes, and Indians. Africans and Australians. Filipinos and Indonesians.

This moment could be an emblem for everything that Hong Kong so often fails to be. It speaks volumes that the few people who stop to watch do so in patient wait for photo opportunities, as they might with caged pandas and as they do at stylised Christmas displays throughout the city. Sometimes someone else’s idea can be enticing, but not enticing enough.

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Time and Again

21 December 2008

What Do the Passing Moments Mean?

Time Spiral, by gadl, with Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Time captivates us in two distinct ways – as an unending process of change, what we might call ‘natural time’ and use to measure the length of a life, and as a series of repetitions, both natural and perceptual, whereby we correlate the Earth’s orbit and spin, its seasons and days, with the arbitrary ways in which we impose and mark off weeks and years. Just as history is both a string of events and our perceptions of them, so too is time at once objective and subjective, a measure and a myth by which we live. At base it offers precision and from that comes regularity, which we convert into regulation, or willing adherence to softly spoken rules of life.

Thou shalt not dismiss the Gregorian calendar; thou shalt not sleep by day and work by night; and so on.

Our experience of time’s duality is almost always conservative. Not only do we encase ourselves within a series of authoritarian dictates – and few ever escape the grind of temporal convention – but we wish to freeze things as they are, to slow change, to preserve the moment. These actions and reactions are always, and by necessity, located in the utopia of the present moment, where time is experienced as either memory or expectation, always gone or about to come, never quite happening enough.

Consider, for instance (and the etymology of ‘instance’ fittingly reveals an impatience with time), the year’s end now approaching. Of course, it’s always approaching, but we allow ourselves to think more of it – and more urgently of it – when the days turn cold or hot, depending on where we live. Aside from regular holidays (for some) and a sense of religious fulfilment (for many but by no means all), what will be fundamentally different between next week and the week after that? In a strictly temporal sense, the Earth will have completed one full orbit of the Sun, but that could be measured from any point in the cycle.

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Now That’s Ironic

16 December 2008

Or, All is Not as it Should Appear

Clown, by Iujaz, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Irony is the bitter afterthought of life, the little chuckle in the wind of fate that pushes against us as we shuffle through our days. I wrote of it recently in terms of humour – and what makes us laugh is surely that which acts against our expectations. But the concept is descended from the Greek for dissembler: eirōn, one who simulates inaccurately, who creates a false impression. Complimentary to its central role in the creation of laughter, irony is about surfaces being made to dissolve at the touch, gestures that misdirect, meaning given inappropriate substance.

Often irony has more than one level, which makes it all the more difficult to unravel, and all the more surprising in what it lays bare when the unravelling is done, once and again. The sad clown – a perfect embodiment of the notion itself – can often make us laugh, and in doing so elicits an ironic response to the initial irony (where confusion would be more appropriate, as it often is in kids faced with such a figure), although on reflection the whole scenario is, well, a little gaudy. Another misdirection; more dissembling.

So what moves my thoughts this way as the year fades, as Christmas nears and most people who care for it tend to be a little light of thought?  Oh the irony, it’s superb – it makes me chuckle then reflect on meaning turned back and forth against itself, again, once more and again. Given insistent clients in other areas entirely, I’ll be working through the Christmas holiday, at home, writing a tourism magazine.

It is, as I often like to say, a puzzling world.


3 December 2008

A Family – Now, Then and Again

Generations, by a4gpa, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Generations are markers in time, points at which one group of people can reasonably be said to have different experiences from another. But it doesn’t always quite work out that way. When I was a teenager my mother commented that my sister, who is ten years young than me and 12 years younger than my brother, was effectively of another generation. It certainly seemed that way until she was into her twenties – our perceptions of the same things differed not only in personal predilections, but also along broader social and age lines. Now that she’s thirty those distinctions have blurred a great deal and our experience is similar even though we live in different hemispheres and have very different expectations of life.

My eldest son, who turned 21 today, tells me this sort of thing happens when you get old. In a long, long distance call between a residential district in Hong Kong and an industrial suburb in Townsville, northern Australia, his voice almost sang with mirth. Old, for him, is something he’s only slowly approaching, and it might yet remain out of reach. But compared to many of his friend’s parents, I’m probably a little young to be his father – I was 19 when he was born. In a sense, the generational lines blur a little between us, and more so because we’ve spent most of our lives apart, to my great shame. We’re just trying to be friends if we can, and that breaks down expectations that either of us should act in any precise way simply because we belong to different generations.

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Cunningly Deceptive

27 November 2008

The Careful Art of the Con

Exhalation provides a division of selves, by Dead Air, with Creative Commons licenceDeception is the playmate of credulity, the firm friend of that innocence which lingers long after experience should have held lone sway. We tend to dismiss those who are deceived as implicitly naïve, not really of this trying world. There is often an element of disparagement against the victim of a con, but no-one should really be so quick to judge. Deception isn’t easy – it’s often carefully planned – and the moral clarity that comes with not having been diddled evaporates as soon as the haunting fact that you’ve been had shuffles across your startled mind.

The fundamental element of deception is the willingness to believe the deceiver precisely because the situation is credible, from a certain point of view. That’s how simple lies work, although body language often gives away a liar in person. The witness who shifts in a seat and answers questions in a raised voice, the child who won’t look at your face, these people are not difficult to detect. It’s often harder to believe some-one in your family might have lied to you, and long term friend should usually have deserved your trust. The more transactions that you’ve entered into with them – whether short conversations, the exchange of gifts or even business dealings – the less likely you are to suspect their motives.

But that’s when deception can strike the hardest.

Earlier this week my wife and I were surprised to hear that a friend had been conned out of the best part of a year’s salary. She seems like such a rational woman, brought up in the harsh reality of kampongs in Indonesia, not willing to accept flights of fancy as fact in Hong Kong. At first we began to disparage, but quickly realised that she had been set up by an ersatz friend for quite a while. Sometimes the con is concentrated on the creation of sneaking, guileful, almost unnoticed obligation.

The ruse worked like this: our friend had needed a loan to help tide her over difficulties. But she didn’t have a credit rating or any collateral. She’s a domestic helper in Hong Kong, most of whom have little more than their Funny Money, by Material Boy, with Creative Commons licenceclothes and a few knick-knacks with them. So she asked a friend, whom she spoke to often and saw regularly, to take out a loan for her, which she duly paid back at the prescribed intervals. So far so good.

But, as it turned out, this woman had spotted an opportunity even before the contract had been signed, and used the loan to build our friend’s trust. There was, of course, a chance that our friend wouldn’t repay the loan, but all enterprise is uncertain and worth the ultimate reward. When our friend handed over the final instalment something had been created, something more than mere friendship. She felt gratitude. And gratitude is always a debt in itself.

Recently, after much more conviviality had passed between the two women, our friend agreed to repay the kindness she had received by signing a loan agreement for her friend, who had fallen on hard times. How could she not agree, now that she had a little collateral and generous spirit to spare? But when it had gone past time for the first loan instalment to be paid, our friend received an aggressive phone call from the credit agency, demanding the payment and a late fee. Taken aback only a little, our friend reached for her phone to warn the debtor of trouble brewing.

No answer – number disconnected.

After checking with others who know the woman, our friend discovered that she was moving in different circles now and hadn’t been sighted for a while. Trust had brought our friend this far, only to dump her on the dung pile of indebtedness. Each month for the next ten she’ll have to pay two thirds of her salary for a bitter lesson in life.

Illumination - Erleuchtung, by alles-schlumpf, with Creative Commons licenceOf course we’re helping our friend get by as best we can, but there was a second lesson in the situation that we too have had to learn. In being deceived there’s something more than naivety at work, something less than wilfulness. On that shaky middle ground dwell the risks we all take – of judgment misdirected, of familiarity rendered strange, of disappointment piled upon loss. But we take those risks in any case, aware at some level that failure patiently waits. Regardless of how hard it bites, deception is one of life’s dirty little inevitabilities. And if we thought we could avoid it, we’d only be conning ourselves.

Cup O’Kava

9 November 2008

Ruminations on a Social Ritual

The kava bowl, by Stüssi, with Creative Commons licenceProximity is rarely a good measure of learning. We might spend countless days surrounded by those more knowledgeable than us, but never know what they’ve learned. I spent most of my life living on the eastern coast of Australia without the slightest hint that the social rituals of the Pacific islands, geographically my near neighbours, could teach me something I needed to know. But yesterday in distant Hong Kong I learned a thing or two, over a bowl of Kava.

For those of you who don’t know much about the subject, Kava is a plant in the pepper family, and its roots are ground, mixed with water and drunk as a slight soporific. In other words, it makes you a little sleepy, but it mainly works as a muscle relaxant. Unlike alcohol or other drugs, it doesn’t interfere with perceptions and doesn’t promote aggression. Introduced to indigenous communities in Australia’s Northern Territory over the last decade or so, the local government has created a good deal of noise about Kava’s supposed dangers, but the arguments are more steeped in anecdotes than scientific evidence.

The point about Kava really isn’t its use as a drug – you could get more stimulation smoking a cigarette. And unlike drinking alcohol with friends, drinking Kava doesn’t split everyone off into isolated worlds with their attendant delusions. Kava isn’t about the individual – it’s about sharing something as part of a ritual.

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The Knowing Narrative

1 November 2008

What Literature Says About Life

Literature reveals a good deal about life. Even the most fantastic of narratives offers an understandable structure, breaks complex sequences down into something the reader can follow. As John Irving once wrote, you can’t get away with the sorts of things in novels that happen in life. A father can’t just die suddenly for no apparent reason, a mother can’t walk out to do the shopping and never return. Literature offers a way of seeing the world in a sort of prospective hindsight – you might be reading about a situation for the first time, but much of the action is most probably distilled from life’s randomness, explained in such and such a way, and set out as progress towards some sort of climax.

Through literature our lives make a rudimentary sort of sense, once removed.

Not, I should add, that it really matters what sort of literature it is. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that my concept of literature passes through comics, science fiction, the classics and much else besides. I don’t have the sort of bookshop literature- section snootiness in mind, just the telling of a tale, and telling it well. If a narrative explains something of the human condition it fulfils the requirement for literature.

Yet narrative doesn’t always work in the ways you might imagine. During the late 1990s I spent a good deal of time researching and pondering the Vietnamese tale “Tam and Cam”, an equivalent of what to many people will be the familiar “Cinderella”. As it turns out, the Vietnamese version of the tale could well be the original – the lines of transmission being long, defused and sometimes confused. But from the 1860s the two tales clashed, dragging literature and life together.

In 1866 French Marines went ashore at My Tho in what we would now call southern Vietnam, determined to place what they knew as Annam, particularly the Mekong Delta, under imperial control. It sounds a little distant now, but imagine the grief and sacrilege in the hearts and minds of Annamite villagers, the death and destruction that came with the stealing of another person’s plot of earth, the conquest of another land.

But amidst the confusion and dismay was the curious figure of Gustave Janneau, just out of his teens and within a year of abandoning the Marines for a distinguished career in colonial linguistics. As his compatriots did their best to destroy any sign of resistance, he was in My Tho collecting traditional tales, including the “Cinderella” analogue “Tam and Cam”.

Like “Cinderella”, “Tam and Cam” tells the tale of a downtrodden girl who finds her prince with the aid of a supernatural helper. Janneau’s translation was by no means as derogatory as those later produced by colonists, including the Governor-General of French Indochina, but he did accentuate something of the ‘confusion’ with which Annamese were said to regard their spiritual world. The supernatural helper – we know her as the fairy-godmother – is alternatively a spirit and a genie, depending on the translator’s whim.

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Certifying the Curmudgeon

23 September 2008

Or, You Can’t Always Frame the Feeling

Certificates are a lot like currency – their value ebbs gently through the years until they’re little more than paper, slightly spotted and out of date. The inflation of our expectations drags us away from the places, moments and feelings that once meant a great deal, leaving a residue of pride or satisfaction half remembered. In 40 years I’ve collected a few certificates, for Australian rules football, running, school, university, even interior decoration. They’re the detritus of life, jammed into mainly forgotten places, carried across continents because they mark stages of my life so I only have to remember those days when I discover that tattered piece of paper in a box behind the bookcase, almost out of sight.

I do keep two in frames – my honours degree and PhD testamurs – because I still value the effort and dedication with which I gained them. In a way they define me more than all the previous certificates because I worked towards them, I spent almost 9 years of my life edging ever closer to holding them in my hand. Through sickness, health, delight and disappointment I made it. But I didn’t bother attending the graduation ceremonies because the achievement was internal, something I couldn’t share. Perhaps that’s why the frames are now receding beyond the clutter behind me as I type.

It’s hard to stay focused on yourself for too long.

I arrived in Hong Kong a few months ahead of my PhD testamur, single and somewhat singular. But things have changed as time has passed. I’m married to a woman at once honourable and mischievous, feisty and calm. I have two small kids and a step daughter now. They came with certificates too – well, all but my step daughter. In any case, I love them all fiercely and through them I’ve learned the value of helping others, the importance of change in an unjust world, the significance of rights defended each day, every hour. The world is a bigger place.

But I only realised the most telling change two days ago. On Saturday we spent time amongst friends; some we’ve known for years, others for months, a few for hours. The gathering had a purpose, to raise funds for Bethune House, a shelter for abused domestic helpers over on Kowloon side, here in Hong Kong. I’ve written about some of these women before – the beaten and repressed, those stolen from and stabbed, abused and raped. They’re the dust of life, or they would be if they just settled, stopped agitating.

The day culminated in a charity auction preceded by a few formalities. A speech or two, some cultural presentations, a break for snacks. So it goes when people gather according to schedule – the prelude to the main event settles them down, prepares them for the action. Suitably prepared I was listening to a string of names called out, waiting for people to receive certificates acknowledging their efforts in making the day possible, and in allowing Bethune House to continue giving shelter when few other people care.

I was also thinking about my wife, crouched down on the floor in the dark two days after our wedding, crying because she had to be back at work in another, richer district by 6:00 am, would have to work until midnight or more, would have to endure three more months of domestic servitude and the aches and pains and demands. The perversity of it all is that she was lucky; her daily struggles against unreason inflicted no physical pain, no mental abuse.

And then I heard her name.

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