BLOG ENTRIES

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I’m now writing a blog post in Japanese every week from now on. It’s part of my (self-imposed) homework for a tutor that I got through italki. Every week I meet Kimie-san on Skype and she corrects my essays and we talk for about an hour. So far I’ve done one proper lesson (and a trial lesson before that), and she has exceeded my expectations in being a responsive and caring tutor who takes down my questions during class and sends me extensive answers through Skype afterwards even when it’s not on paid time.

When the teacher is good I get super motivated to work harder, and that seems to motivate them to teach better as well – so it’s a virtuous cycle right there. Anyways here is my first (corrected) Japanese blog post and a translation of it beneath.

絵を描くことについての感想

最近絵を描くことにハマっている。多分いい美術の先生を見つけたから、頑張れる気がする。子供の時は絵を描くのが大好きだったが、大人になってからほとんど描いていません。なぜでしょう?自信がなくなったとか、時間がなくなったとか、いろいろな理由があるかもしれません。

久しぶりに鉛筆を手に取って紙で線を描くのは、気持ちいいです。先生は美術は言語だと言っていました。線は言葉です。もし言葉の使い方がうまくなかったら、伝えたいことも通じない。だから、線の描き方をマスターすることはとても重要です。次に、色の観察です。光はどこから?影はどこまで?色は冷たいか、温かいか?それらを表現できれば、画家の気持ちを観る人の心まで届けられる。

名作を観る時、絵の構成や色の使い方や筆の動かし方を、丁寧に観察するべきです。その後、学んだことは紙で試して、よく練習します。こうすることによって、テクニックとセンスがよくなります。

Translated:

My thoughts about drawing

Recently, I have been into drawing. It is probably because I found a good art teacher, which has encouraged me to work harder. I used to love drawing when I was a child, but after I grew up I didn’t do it much anymore. Why is that? Maybe I lost my confidence, maybe I didn’t have time anymore… I suppose there are many reasons.

After a long hiatus, it feels good to be holding a pencil, and drawing a line on paper. Art is a language, said my teacher. Lines are the words. If you do not use words well, you will not be able to communicate what you want to say. Therefore, it is very important to master the use of lines. After that, it is the observation of colours. Where does the light come from? Where do the shadows end? Are the colours cool or warm? Through expressing these well, the artist’s feelings can be transmitted to the hearts of the viewers.

When we look at a masterpiece, we should carefully observe the painting’s composition, its use of colours, and the master’s brush strokes. After that, we try out on paper what we have learnt, and practise it over and over again. If you do this, your techniques and artistic sense will get better over time.

—-

I drew the featured image based on a photo from NatGeo. See more at @juneysketches.

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I found out something curious today.

I was cleaning up my LinkedIn profile and relooking into my Instagram account – basically doing some social media housekeeping that I had not had time nor motivation to do, for years – when I realised that in my six years of absence from Instagram, someone had been using my account as a phantom follower to other Instagram accounts! *jeng jeng jeng*

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I’m going to be peppering this post with completely unrelated pictures from my old Instagram account. We were watching some cows humping in this picture.

Let’s establish some basic background. I started using Instagram around 2010, for about two years, mainly for its filter functions, which resulted in a lot of random photos in my profile which I applied the filters on. Earlier on I had already set the profile up as private because of how I was using it (i.e. as a quick photo editing tool and not a sharing platform). Around 2012, around when I was finishing up my PhD, I stopped using the app. Possibly because Facebook had acquired Instagram, or maybe I got tired of it, I don’t remember.

Today I revisited my profile and reset the password because I had forgotten it. I started looking through the pictures, of which I had 270 – a number which I was genuinely surprised by, as I thought I had twenty pictures tops. But then I noticed something funny. I had the grand total of one follower, but over 300 profiles that I was following. My feed was full of unfamiliar profiles, some of them in Arabic, some in Russian, some in Spanish.

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This was taken in some French town. The busker had left for lunch, or skipped town – we will never find out.

And then it dawned on me that quite possibly my account had somehow been taken over – hacked? – and all these profiles that I was following probably bought their likes. And that I now have a list of over 300 profiles which are like-buyers and fraudster influencers.

I clicked randomly through the list, and these are what I found:

  • Lots of legitimately cute chicks. There’s even a really beautiful female body builder in there with an intimidating silhouette. A Korean singer/song-writer. Many different personalities – Chinese, Japanese, Spanish-speaking, tudung-wearing, globe-trotting… but ultimately quite boring profiles. If you’ve seen one selfie, you’ve seen them all.
  • There are also guys of course. There’s a guy in there who collects expensive branded bags. An Italian actor/producer who has 1.5mil likes. An old dude who seems to be living the life, photographed with many expensive cars and at many travel destinations. A young dude who has many artistic shots of himself (probably can’t afford cars and trips). Some American guy who has a PhD, is a producer, a pilot, and works in law enforcement – if he didn’t buy my like I might have trusted his long list of achievements a little more.
  • Businesses, as well. Someone who sells Legos in Indonesia. A slimming/wellness service provider from the Philippines which was apparently founded by a former beauty queen (I arrived at their website and dug deeper). An Australian shopping centre showing pictures of all their vendors. A bank from India. An art gallery from somewhere that speaks Arabic, which actually looks like a profile that I wouldn’t mind following – one of its pictures are of a group of women with headscarves sitting together, drawing.
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Drinking from some random stream somewhere. There’s probably a healthy colony of parasites in my gut now.

  • Most of these accounts have an upwards of 10,000 likes. The highest that I’ve seen so far is 3.9 million likes, and the lowest at 1600+ likes. Wonder how much of that is actually real.
  • There are profiles which seem to have quite a lot of actual engagement, like comments. But of course many are not very engaging, so they look quite obviously fake, with the disproportionate like/comment ratio. A small number (let’s say 10%) of these profiles are verified accounts.
  • These people put real effort into their content (of course they do), resulting in a really long list of insta stories that I do not have the time nor energy to go through. However I saw at least one profile which has only 31 posts, basically a collection of some random videos and pictures that he finds funny, with no perceivable profit motive or “influencer ego” that I can see… yet he has 14k likes and obviously cared enough about likes to buy mine. I am confused.
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Drunken crayoning reveals angst. I don’t think I was in a relationship at that time though.

For some reason Instagram doesn’t let me open too many profiles/tabs at the same time (gives me errors) and I found myself having to refresh some pages repeatedly to get through. So I got tired of doing that and stopped my profile surfing.

What are the takeaways from this experience? On the digital security front, it is fortunate that my privacy settings are still set as private. That had not changed even though the hackers would have had ample opportunity to change it, or to hijack my account completely. I have also not observed any evidence of myself doing much else besides following profiles that I don’t know. I’m guessing (and hoping) that with my changing of the password, all this hanky panky will stop. I’m still maintaining this private account because I don’t want to lose the pictures inside, but I have built an active one linked to a new email account to post my sketches and drawings (it’s @juneysketches). I’ve also been using KeePass for managing my passwords nowadays, so the new passwords will be much harder to crack.

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Eva radiating joy in her Same Same (But Different) t-shirt, accompanied by our Wall of Awesome. Those were good days!

The other thought that I have is a little harder to pin down. I am fascinated, if a little repulsed, by the idea of being so desperate for likes that one has to buy them. This brings me back to a book that I read last year, I think it was the one by Douglas Rushkoff that talks about how all the value has been extracted out of the economy and people turn to virtual currency such as “likes”, which can then be converted back to real money through their influencer status. I suppose money begets money? If you invest real money in virtual likes, you may get the returns in real money as well. But then, these are the people who actually understand the rules of the game and are playing to win.

What about those who are actually relying on likes as a status symbol? Competing with their peers on virtual popularity, at the same time knowing that their own follower base is actually hollow and meaningless? How many layers of sad is that? So many layers. :(((

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My house mate had bought a twenty kilo jackfruit. We had jackfruit for a LONG time and I think the fridge never got over the smell.

In any case, I’m constantly reviewing my stance on social media. From being pretty careless about it to completely adverse, I have traversed the entire spectrum and am currently trying to strike a balance on having some sort of presence but curating and sharing mindfully. I think that the Indieweb concept is pretty good – basically you have all your content on your own website and syndicate them out to the platforms, so that you always own your content, and interactions on the SNSs come back to your website so that you don’t lose anything. The implementation is in the pipeline but I need to wait till Leo helps me to revamp this website to be compatible with Indieweb.

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Here’s a piece I was doing, drawing Leo’s mate with its metal straw (and look at the two stick figures perched on top, so cheesy hahah)

For the time being, it seems to be a matter of getting used to connecting with people online again, and enjoying the process of writing and drawing without being distracted by social media. A battle against the attention economy at large. Maybe it’s a muscle that one has to flex. Better start earlier than later.

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For some reason I made a filter of this screenshot of a chat I was having with XC, circa 2012. I still find it hilarious HAHAHA

Unrelated, one day later, when I pressed publish: Just found out that GE is now set on 9th May. Wednesday. ARGH fuck this shit.

I have finally finished the proposal for NGO workers! You can download it here. It explains the importance of the research and also how I plan to collect data and conduct the study. It’s not set in stone – I intend to incorporate any useful feedback that I get – but so far I’m happy with it.

I am reaching out to my networks to see if anyone might know of anyone who might want to fund it. It’s a long shot, but it was an issue that I had to get out of my system anyway. So let’s see what might happen. Feel free to send it around, let me know if you have any feedback/questions on the content of the proposal, or if you have any inkling of who I should talk to.

In general I’m looking for research-related jobs and work. While I have enough of reserves to keep me going for some time yet, I can feel the weight of my entire bloodline of Chinese forefathers nagging at me for not having a retirement plan (nor a stable income). The Tans do not sit around and wait for things to happen, they sigh disapprovingly, when I attempt to do so.

So, what to do. Find work loh. ^^ Preferably on an issue that I care about, but let’s see.

“Smell it, smell it!” He urged, while thrusting the stick of crayon in my face. “Doesn’t it smell like childhood?”

I’ve been attending art classes for a month now. I highly appreciate my teacher, K, even if he has crayon-smelling quirks. And I have to admit, they do smell like childhood.

Before K I actually tested out the neighbourhood art class, which seemed to be more daycare than art centre. I was almost ready to sign up to something, anything, that would make me start drawing again, but decided to try K’s class out before I executed the decision. K’s class is literally on the other side of KL, and it takes me a little more than an hour with public transport to get there. I was dubious that I would actually make that sort of commitment weekly – I’m not such a huge fan of commuting and my idea of accessible is ten minutes’ walk. (Daycare Art Class was a five minutes’ walk from my home. I was ready to sign on the dotted line.)

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon that I reluctantly dragged my ass out to Ampang. I arrived with very low expectations as Daycare Art Class with its shrill kids and tiny chairs did not have me aiming high. K was alone – his other students arrived late – and I had him to myself for twenty minutes.

“Everything starts with drawing. Even if you paint, if you don’t know the basics of drawing, you cannot paint properly. Learning art is like learning a language. Lines are the alphabet. You need to first master the lines, so that others will be able to understand what you are seeing.” He began, in the way of an introduction. I love languages. I was sold.

Here’s my first drawing – K had asked me to draw something, anything that I wanted. Because I have no imagination I chose to draw the table that was next to ours. He said that it was courageous to take on the first thing that I saw. I said nothing about my imagination. This was a good start.

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First drawing at art class, March 4, 2018. Previously all photos of my sketches had a blue tint to them, but then Andrew waved a magic wand and restored them so they now look tons better 😀 Thanks Andrew!

And so I started by practising lines. Then circles and ellipses. Then proportions. I realised that I am not half bad at proportions. It took a while to make bolder lines, but I realised that I more often than not found them visually (“hunt the lines down!” said K), even if my hands weren’t skilful enough at translating them to confident lines on the paper. But everything is about practice. K was always spot on in pointing out exactly where the problems were, so I could quickly improve it on the next piece of paper.

I sketched these two teapots in class. The first one is the first attempt, much more careful than the second one. But K liked the second one better because of the lines that are quicker and more confident. It takes all of my resolve to swallow my control freakiness and trust every stroke that goes down, even if they end up to be misplaced and I have to correct them later. The result may be less accurate, but with more character. A life lesson right there.

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Teapot, pointing to the left.

 

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Teapot, pointing to the right. Some strokes that don’t belong to the sketch were added when K was explaining how the line strokes should look and feel like. He also did the spout which kind of stands out if you look at it.

 

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Chair with bag hung on it, March 18 2018.

The two-hour lessons fly by like nothing. I started practising at home.

Here’s my cat series. I think sleeping Suki and Spot look fine but Uno looks like a devil-cat. This was before we learnt values and shadows so there’s not much going on in shading and contrasts except for the minimum.

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Sleeping Suki

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Sleeping Spot

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Uno, wide awake, probably on drugs with those eyes (Sorry little one!)

And here are some colour pieces that I did last week, in anticipation of this week’s foray into colour.

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Attempt at “Fulfilment by Gustav Klimt”. With colour markers.

I chose this because it is basically a colouring project, once the lines are down. Here’s the original. Google Arts and Culture is a treasure trove of masterpieces of the ages, if you want to dive in and imitate any master. You get to zoom in and see all the details up to the brush strokes.

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Tribute to Naomi Watanabe, also named Fuck You to Those Who Have Wronged Me. With colour markers.

Naomi has got such good energy, I couldn’t resist drawing this one. Besides the energy bit, I chose it because it was so colourful and is basically, again, a colouring project, since I don’t know how to mix colours yet.

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Original picture of Naomi Watanabe

This is a sketch that I did to try out the one point perspective technique.

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Inside the ambulance

There is a vanishing point, and a horizon, and all those architectural lines. I had no idea what I was doing at all – check out the dwarfy little paramedic on the bottom. K said that it is because of the values (shading) that he looks so weird. And the story of how I chose this one is that I was constantly thinking about perspective after reading a book on sketching, and when I was watching this Japanese drama with this ambulance scene, it struck me immediately that here’s a perspective! So I made a screenshot and sketched it. Here’s the screenshot.

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Ambulance scene in Japanese Drama “Final Cut”

And this is what I did today.

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Still Life – That’s a Cricket Ball, Not An Apple. With wax crayons.

This is the first time that I’ve done still life with colour, I think. I must say that it was rather enjoyable, even though I’ve never been confident in using colour. But, as with many things in life, a good teacher is essential in pointing out the right way. I’ve realised that once I understand the concepts and ideas, it becomes much easier. Never use black or grey (they kill the painting) but instead mix different colours to end up with a black with life. Use a limited palette – mix the colours chosen to arrive at secondary colours so that the piece doesn’t look chaotic, but harmonious instead. I’m still trying to “feel” the colours – so that I can interpret what’s in front of me, into what will go onto the paper.

And what I like about K is that he gives memorable quotes from artists that he admires – he’s so in love with art and the masters that it is infectious. Said Vincent van Gogh, brush strokes should be executed like how an experienced lion strikes, placed at the exact position so that the prey is killed with one stroke. And said someone else important, art does not have to imitate reality, but the intensity should be the same. (I looked it up, this seems to be the actual quote, by Alberto Giacometti: “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.”)

Suddenly, with K’s guidance, I have started to see. See, like never before. First it was the lines – I’m constantly molesting things with the imaginary pen that is my eyes, trying to measure one line against another. Then came the values – where is the light? Where are the shadows? Do they come from many sides? After that, perspectives. Where’s the vanishing point? Where are the invisible lines? (I cannot tell yet.) Then now, the colours. The blues in the greens, the contrasting colours in the shadows, the tones, the blends.

What’s the purpose of art? I haven’t quite found the answer – but – looking around – isn’t the world we live in truly wonderful?

Lately I’ve been writing research proposals to propose studies on issues that I care about. One of the research areas that I’ve listed down is the one in the title: working conditions within the NGO sector in Southeast Asia.

Within the past few years of working and volunteering with NGOs (in Malaysia and regionally), I have had recurring observations of sub-par labour/working conditions that NGO workers are exposed to. While one would assume that we operate with values and principles that are compatible with decent work, it is not uncommon to observe workplaces in the field that fall short of what ILO lists as the criteria for decent work: “work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”

My observations are mainly anecdotal. Here are some stories that I remember from conversations with fellow activists and NGO workers:

  • Friend A has been working in his human rights organisation based on some sort of imaginary contract, since months ago. The original, legitimate contract had come to a natural end and there was no move from the organisation to arrange a new one. This puts him in a precarious situation, since they could kick him out without notice and pay, and he would have no legal recourse.
  • Friend B reflected that top management within his NGO implied that younger employees should harden up and not demand for work-life balance, since there was no such thing when they fought for the revolution. Attempts to improve working conditions were repeatedly ridiculed, and he got extremely demoralised in the process.
  • Friend C was close to a burnout because of the mental demands of his NGO work (he works with high risk populations and is constantly exposed to second degree trauma). On top of that, his work pays him so little that he holds a second job, leaving him no time to rest and recover. There is very little access to mental healthcare within the field, even if it is recognised that workers are vulnerable to psychological and emotional damage. Low pay is also not uncommon.
  • Friend D drifts from one informal job to another, as a short term contractor for NGOs within her field. There is no income certainty, and no long term career prospects. While she gets reimbursed for work-related travel, often she is not paid for her time working for various events and workshops. Organisations that she works with have also cheekily asked her to contribute free work because there is no budget item for her role. Constantly working for free has led her to question the value of her work and herself.

These are not isolated incidents. I’ve seen and heard different versions of the same stories over and over again. In general, it is quite regular for NGO workers to receive work-related text messages on personal phones at all hours of the day, weekends, and even vacation time. Oftentimes, workload does not reflect a 40-hour work week, and it is rare to hear of overtime pay. Indeed, a lot of work is offloaded to unpaid interns and lowly paid short term contractors to cut cost. I know of some NGOs that do not cover work-related accidents, and do not provide social security (for example employee provident fund contributions), citing the lack of funding.

Through looking for literature and similar experiences in other parts of the world (since I’ve not found much at the Southeast Asian level), I found this article describing the Lebanese situation: “NGOs in Lebanon: Abusing Their Workers in the Name of Human Rights”. The title expresses the outrage clearly, and this quote from within exemplifies the irony of the situation: “How did we have the nerve to work for women’s social security at a time when the organization consisted mostly of women who lacked social security?”

The Lebanese report interviews NGO workers and mentions many of the labour rights violations that I listed above, leading me to believe that our experiences in the NGO sector have large overlaps. It’s a long read, but worthwhile. What I would like to focus on here are the analyses that it puts forth, which I think are useful in the Southeast Asian context.

Firstly, there is an unclear line between volunteering and work within the NGO sector, which legitimises many violations at work, including low pay, long hours with no compensation, and even dodgy manoeuvres around legal contracts where the employee is paid a lower amount than what is stated to subsidise the organisation’s operational expenses. As explained by an interviewee in the article, “One cannot ask for a raise or adhere to certain working hours or calculate overtime… because one’s work is divided between the job and volunteering.” In other words, the worker’s goodwill and sense of righteousness are exploited to yield more work and fewer benefits than was promised, in the name of working for a higher purpose.

Secondly, the precarious working conditions stem from the structure of the triangular employment relationship that is commonly seen within NGOs. There is the employee, the management, and the funder. While the funder is often absent from the picture, there are a number of things that they do/do not do that lead to exploitative work conditions. Often, they pay based on tasks performed, not the hours of work. Funders often include tasks, duration of contract and salary in model contracts for employees, while other elements such as hours of work, social security, end of service indemnity and mechanisms for complaints are not included. The management of the NGO competes for funding with other NGOs for its own survival, and forgoes its responsibility to ensure good working conditions for the employees – the first thing to be pruned off in cost-cutting measures. In short,

“If exploitation of workers in the private sector involves reducing their share of added value for the benefit of increasing the corporation’s capital and the investors’ profits, exploitation in civil society organizations consists of reducing labour costs (wages and social security) to invest in projects and activities in order to compete with other organizations and attract more funding.”

Thirdly, there is the NGO culture that reinforces the rights violations, since the mindset of self-sacrificing for the cause perpetrates the message horizontally (worker to worker, as opposed to management to worker), that the higher purpose trumps the individual rights of NGO workers. Organising for worker’s rights within the sector is therefore uncommon.

It is dispiriting to be in a disempowered position where the only way to work for the cause that you care about is to sacrifice your own well-being. There has been a lot of talk surrounding “self-care” to avoid burnouts in the sector. I believe in the importance of that. However, more important is the idea that change needs to happen at the organisational level, without putting the burden of caring for oneself solely on the individual. For where is the room for self-care, when the working conditions themselves do not permit rest and recovery? Where decent work seems to be theoretical at best, and mythical at worst?

Surely it is in our best interest to protect those who are protecting the world, so that they can sustain their good work for the long term. I would say that it is a priority of the highest order to respect and dignify our NGO workers with proper working conditions, so that the sector can lead by example when it is championing for rights of any kind. Anything less would be tantamount to hypocrisy.

Approximately three months ago I found myself in a work party in Bangkok, feeling vaguely out of place as I do, when I was accosted by a guy with a disarming smile.

“Do you want to play games?” He asked.

Trying not to lift my eyebrow and probably succeeding, I smiled back and nodded. Why not.

We found a corner in the party, sat down, and arranged our beers. With no further small talk, he whipped out a colourful little contraption. It was a 3×3 Rubik’s Cube, which not only had the colours, but also bits of Thai characters in every segment. Party Guy flashed me another grin. And proceeded to teach me, in basic English, the principles of the Rubik’s Cube, and how I might eventually solve it.

This would turn out to be one of the most educational parties that I’ve been to. After I was satisfactorily equipped with the basic foundations of solving the Rubik’s Cube, we moved on to teaching me Go. Party Guy was a willing teacher to a willing student, and eventually we attracted a table of geekier ones and our table became the soul of the party. Ahem. (Ok fine it didn’t. The cool kids continued to be cool, and our Go table continued playing Go.)

I got myself a Cube a couple of weeks later. Tinkering with it, I quickly realised that while Party Guy had taught me some basics, those basics were not enough for me to actually solve the puzzle with mine own brains. A little disappointed, I decided to look for answers on the Internet.

The Internet informed me that it is possible to solve the Cube with a universal solution – with a set number of stages, one after another. According to the official Rubik’s Cube website,

Getting help with solving the Rubik’s Cube is not cheating. There are 42 Quintillion possibilities, but only one correct solution. Hence without knowing how to solve a Rubik’s Cube it is nearly impossible.

How much is a quintillion? You might think that it is a straightforward answer, but it isn’t. According to Dictionary.com, the Americans and Canadians take a quintillion to be 1 followed with 18 zeroes, while in Europe (including the UK) it is 1 followed by 30 zeroes. I’m not sure where Malaysia stands on this. Anyway, the exact number of possibilities is actually 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 – so I guess we’re on American count here – slightly disappointing, until you see a visualisation of a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 pennies:

And here’s a PPT of the math behind the Rubik’s Cube if anyone’s interested, and the solution itself.

Anyway, I digress. The point is, I found the universal solution, and started working on it. There are six stages, and at every stage you aim to accomplish a certain goal (for instance, making a white cross on one of the surfaces is the second stage.) It is simple enough to solve the problem with the manual, since anyone can just follow the set of instructions carefully, and complete it step by step. Right layer clockwise, left counterclockwise, upper clockwise, that sort of thing. The larger challenge (which also anyone can do, with a sufficient amount of stubbornness), is to internalise and memorise the patterns, to do it without referring to the manual.

Let it be known, that March 6, 2018 is the day that I was able to solve the Rubik’s Cube, reliably, without referring to the manual.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you, thank you 😀 It took me three months, but it was all worthwhile.

Actually I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile. The solution of the Rubik’s Cube, the one relying on the universal method anyway, is really not so much about creative brain work than rote memorisation; and as it turns out, it’s more about doing the same thing over and over again than anything else. (And I suppose, recognising certain recurring patterns, but I don’t think that’s the main thing.) The thing is, you practise the first few stages much more since you have to keep doing it every time you start over or mess up, and oftentimes, you don’t get far enough to finish everything. And since I rarely got up to the point where I could continue to the next stage, I just got stuck at Stage 4 for the longest time, and beyond that I would have to refer to the instructions.

Until yesterday, when I finally decided to sit down, use a pencil to break down the moves on paper in a way that I could memorise it properly, that I graduated. Meaning to say, if I had done that a month ago, I probably would have tried to write this post then and it would have been buried under a pile of broken drafts in my state of writer’s block. So I guess everything happens in due time, for a reason.

And if I can’t claim to be smarter after the whole process, at least I can claim to have had the perseverance to finish it. Maybe after a certain point I might try to dream up my own algorithm to make it more efficient (Google’s supercomputer has concluded that you only need a maximum of 20 moves to solve any combination, and that is known as God’s Number)… but as of now, I’m happy where I am, playing with the cube whenever I feel fidgety, with the knowledge that I can see it through from beginning till the end without relying on instructions.

I still don’t know why Party Guy chose me to impart his Rubik skills, as we didn’t talk much before or after the party. I don’t even remember his name, except that it starts with an S. It’s like he came into my life, dropped a combination bomb of the Cube and Go (which I’m also learning now), and left.

I’m glad.

So, as I was saying. There was a sudden windfall of time and a suffocating obligation to use it wisely. There was an urge to be creative yet coherent, but the deluge of ideas and possibilities were paralysing. At the same time I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole of existential doubt, which shook the foundations of my free-spirited learning approach, which if you remember, was never about productivity or efficiency. In fact, now that I think about it, it is really mostly about self-indulgence.

The question is, if something is done purely for fun, is there meaning in it? If it doesn’t lead anywhere?

I had a skarty (Skype Party) with dear Robert yesterday and we discussed it. As usual, he knocked some sense into me in the gentlest, Robertest way ever. He gave me a Dutch proverb. “It doesn’t go forward, it doesn’t go backwards, it just goes.” And then he backed it up by saying, “I’ve picked up tennis lately. Do you think that there’s any meaning in hitting a ball to and fro repeatedly except that it’s fun?”

The conversation really was pretty full of Roberty wisdom but, as how skarties go, an hour and a half in I had had enough of wine to not remember very much of what we discussed. Except that I was nodding my head, thinking, “This makes so much sense, I have to remember it!” I should start taking notes of drunken conversations discussing the purpose of life. Who knows how many revelations I’ve had and forgotten.

Anyway, going back to before Robert’s intervention, I was in the midst of going through the ten thousand things that I was doing and reading to see if I could derive any inspiration for writing. As it turns out, Elizabeth Gilbert with her book Big Magic may have given me the breakthrough that I needed.

So Gilbert’s book addresses many points and is one of the best pep talks in book form you’ll ever get as a creative person – so hurry out and get yourself hooked up with it. But it is her central idea about “Big Magic” that gave me a way (or two) to think about my problem of having a finger in every pie. First, is the pretext, on ideas as “disembodied, energetic life-forms”.

I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.

Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners. (I’m talking about all ideas here – artistic, scientific, industrial, commercial, ethical, religious, political.) When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration. You might miss the signal because you’re watching TV, or shopping, or brooding over how angry you are at somebody, or pondering your failures and mistakes, or generally really busy. The idea will try to wave you down (perhaps for a few moments; perhaps for a few months; perhaps even for a few years), but when it finally realises that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else.

But sometimes – rarely, but magnificently – there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something. Your defenses may slacken and your anxieties may ease, and then magic can slip through. The idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work on you. It will send the universal physical and emotional signals of inspiration (the chills up the arms, the hair standing up on the back of the neck, the nervous stomach, the buzzy thoughts, that feeling of falling into love or obsession). The idea will organise coincidences and portents to tumble across your path, to keep your interest keen. You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you toward the idea. Everything you see and touch and do will remind you of the idea. The idea will wake you up in the middle of the night and distract you from your everyday routine. The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.

And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, “Do you want to work with me?”

Outlandish, but I love the thought of it. Ideas flitting around like elves, prodding people with their fairy-dusty little fingers, “Do you want to work with me? Do you? Do you?”

So, there are two ways to think about this. One is that my confusion is created by too many idea fairies buzzing around me,  jostling each other trying to get my attention, and it all becomes a big confusing mess of prodding fingers and squealing voices. I can’t separate the signal from the noise. I should be thankful that they looked me up and knocked on my door, but I also have to figure out how to find enough of chairs so that every fairy gets a seat. Or, given that my figurative house has only a finite number of seats (like 8), I have to figure out which ideas I should collaborate with and which I should let go respectfully, so that they can go find another better human collaborator.

Now the other possibility, based on the same assumption that ideas are fairies, is that there is one particular idea fairy that I’m waiting for, who hasn’t arrived yet. While all my interests and projects do not seem coherent or lead anywhere in particular, it is possible that I’m just creating the conditions for the Fairy to come, so that one day there will be something that only an academic mutt and hobby philanderer such as myself, with the exact mix of interests and knowledge that I’ve accumulated, can create. In the meantime I just have to be patient and trust that the little fella will find his way – and when he finally arrives, we will co-create something that the world has never seen before.

Which one is it? Does it matter, if both are based on imaginary fairies that happen to be idea-bearing little worker bees?

It’s raining outside, and I sense that I’ve come to an end to this two-part series. I’m again staring at my empty coffee cup (wistfully – it was a really good one), but this time I feel lighter. Sign of better times to come?

***

I’ll leave you with this piece of music which tune and lyrics gave me goosebumps. I had it in the background a lot when I was writing. Ignore the exaggerated closeups of the audience, focus on the music.

鳳凰於飛
舊夢依稀,往事迷離,春花秋月裡。
如霧裡看花,水中望月,飄來又浮去。
君來有聲,君去無語,翻雲覆雨裡。
雖兩情相惜,兩心相儀,得來復失去。

有詩待和,有歌待應,有心待相繫。
望長相思,望長相守,卻空留琴與笛。
以情相約,以心相許,以身相偎依。
願勿相忘,願勿相負,又奈何恨與欺。

得非所願,願非所得,看命運嘲弄, 造化遊戲。
真情諾諾,終於隨亂紅飛花去。

有詩待和,有歌待應,有心待相繫。
望長相思,望長相守,卻空留琴與笛。
以情相約,以心相許,以身相偎依。
願勿相忘,願勿相負,又奈何恨與欺。

期盼明月,期盼朝陽,期盼春風雨。
可逆風不解,挾雨伴雪,摧梅折枝去。
鳳凰于飛,翽翽其羽,遠去無痕跡。
聽梧桐細雨,瑟瑟其葉,隨風搖記憶。

得非所願,願非所得,看命運嘲弄, 造化遊戲。
真情諾諾,終於隨亂紅飛花去。

期盼明月,期盼朝陽,期盼春風雨。
可逆風不解,挾雨伴雪,摧梅折枝去。
鳳凰于飛,翽翽其羽,遠去無痕跡。
聽梧桐細雨,瑟瑟其葉,隨風搖記憶。

梧桐細雨,瑟瑟其葉,隨風搖記憶。