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.