Saturday, July 12, 2003

Dreaming and Waking

I didn't sleep too well last night: I had accidentally fell asleep early - at 9 pm - after having a dinner of Chinese food with red wine with my colleagues at Jalan Batu Ceper; and then I woke up at 2.00 am in the morning. I could not sleep again after that. I had dreamt of meeting old friends and interesting strangers. My memory of it is vague but the overall feeling was pleasant.

We normally dream every night but forget about them when we wake up. Some people keep a dream diary, recording their dreams immediately upon waking. It is an interesting practice but I myself do not keep a "dreamblog" as such. There is a phase in our sleep called REM or Rapid Eye Movement when dreaming occurs. During this stage in our sleep, our eyelids remain shut but our eyeballs are somehow active and moving, as if we are seeing, responding and reacting in a waking state. If we are awakened during REM sleep, we would be able to recall our dreams quite well.

I have been reading a book by Steven Strogatz called Sync. In a chapter on our daily sleep cycle, he likened the REM dream state to a car parked in a garage, with the gears put to neutral and the accelerator pedal down. Our minds are actually at a very active state during REM sleep even though we do not twitch a single muscle during the entire sequence. Dreams have always been seen as windows into our subconscious. Sigmund Freud's book, The Interpretation of Dreams is considered a classic of psychology.

While I was lying restlessly awake in bed early this morning, I surfed the channels on my TV and immediately caught Jennifer Lopez's The Cell on HBO. I had seen this visually arresting movie when I was in Singapore maybe two years ago. The Cell is the first full feature work of video director Tarsem Singh who directed music videos for the the pop group R.E.M. before (Coincidence?). The movie is about plugging into the mind of a serial killer who is already in comatose to find out the whereabouts of one of his victims who is about to die. Jennifer Lopez plays a researcher who uses high-tech technology that allows someone to enter into the subconscious mind of another.

The Cell shows the subconscious as something out of Salvador Dali's paintings. We see luscious Jennifer Lopez, clad in dazzling opera-like costumes being propelled into the surrealistic settings of the killer's mind. Watching the movie on TV made me feel dreamy again. And as the hours progressed I was lost in the nether-land between dreaming and waking.

I woke up not feeling very well rested. Perhaps I'll catch a wink or two later. But I need to finish off some work today - I need to be fresh and alert. Dreams are achieved through hardwork......

Friday, July 11, 2003

Of Indomie Breakfast and Naked Apes

I ocassionally have Indomie with my colleagues at Watie's canteen, located at the basement of our office building. You can get a nice steaming bowl of instant Indomie noodles for breakfast for around 3,500 rupiahs, topped with an egg. This is one of the delights of living in Indonesia - that slow cup of kopi tubruk and Indomie with friends at local warung during breakfast or coffee break.

It is similar to the teh-tarik-and-nasi-lemak routine I used to have at the mamak stall outside the office in Malaysia. These are moments to look forward to in our daily office lives; a brief respite from the day's work, a time to catch up on the latest gossips and an opportunity to build camaraderie with office-mates.

Male smokers usually would have their usual bonding session at the emergency stairway. They will form an exclusive clique, shrouding themselves under a thick cover of cigarette smoke to exchange notes on the latest massage parlours in town in conspiratorial tones.

There is also another clique - usually formed by the female clerical staff - who will normally congregate together for lunch in one of the empty meeting rooms or cubicles. If during lunchtime, you smell wafts of mouth-watering nasi padang pervading the office air, you can be quite sure that it is coming from this group.

The techies in the office - the engineers - would also form their own lunch group. Their lunch excursions are normally executed with ruthless efficiency: They would go out at 11.30am (to avoid the lunchtime office crowd) and make a beeline to the cheapest foodcourt in the vicinity (where they can find what they call home-cooked food) and be done by 12 o'clock (so that they can surf the Net) when the rest of the people are just mulling over where to go for lunch.

There's another group who will always want to drive out for lunch. This is the group who can never decide where to eat. Sometimes the whole group would agree to set out to eat at Pluit and half-way they will change their minds and decide to eat at Mangga Besar instead. These are normally food snobs - always with a ready opinion on where you could find the best food.

Getting together for a smoke or a meal is are avenues for social bonding. Our bonding behaviour has deep evolutionary roots and our social instincts are still not very much different from those of the apes - as famed zoologist Desmond Morris would readily point out to you. His first book, The Naked Ape created quite a stir when it was published in the 60s because in the book he made objective but humorous observations about the human animal, pointing out how many of our so-called "human" behaviours are not very different from those found in our animal counterparts. His famous first lines from the book sum up his view:
There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens.

Apes bond through grooming (picking out lice from each other's body) and through the sharing of food. Bonding creates mutual-cooperation that enhances the group's overall survival. So much of our office politics and politics in general are just subtle reenactions of hierarchical instincts that are clearly observable in ape communities. Whenever I see cliques forming in the office or people jostling for position and power, I try to imagine ourselves as apes. It helps to put things into perspective.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Bernard Kok dances the Mambo

I have not seen my friend Bernard Kok for many years. We used to be colleagues while I was working as a rookie systems engineer in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. I remember him as a very good IT salesman: he had good people skills and he was always willing to go the extra mile to keep his customers happy.

He told me once that he simply loved dancing. With his old-fashioned plastic-rimmed spectacles and his skinny frame and flaying arms, I'd always thought that he looked rather comical on the dance-floor. We used to go out drinking and partying a lot. And whenever he was drunk, he became the life of the party, strutting around the dance-floor, showing-off his moves in front of the ladies. We appropriately nicknamed him Bernard the Cock.

Our drinking sessions used to be heavy: We would order tequilla pops by the dozen and forced it down on everyone. We also used to order Guinness stout by the pitcher. I remember when Bernard decided to leave the company, we gave him a massive farewell party at the old Betelnut pub in Jalan Pinang. He got so drunk that night until he vomitted right into a half-full pitcher of stout. He was completely gone after that. We simply left him sleeping in the car and continued partying.

I also remember Bernard because he still owes me a book that he borrowed from me back in 1992: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love - that emotionally evocative Pullitzer Prize-winning book by Oscar Hijuelos. The book was made into a rather entertaining movie starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante. The soundtrack of the movie was especially good, featuring Mambo legends like Tito Puente. It also made a hit out of the song Beautiful Maria of My Soul; the Spanish version was sung surprisingly well by Antonio Banderas himself.

Now everytime I hear that song, I remember the book and I remember Bernard Kok and I remember that pitcher filled with puke. I have never seen Bernard dance the Mambo. Perhaps one of these days when we do get to meet again, we'll ask him to demonstrate some of his moves. And just in case, we'll have an empty pitcher ready.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Paradise is filled with Books

Yesterday evening I stepped into QB World at Jalan Sunda and came out with three books. The only way I can prevent myself from buying more books is to refrain from stepping into a bookstore at all. I am such a hopeless bibliophile that I'd buy books just for the sake of keeping them, even books that I know I'll never read - not in the foreseable future anyway - but are good acquisitions for my library. Some women can't stop buying shoes, I can't stop buying books.

These days I'd rather call myself a book collector rather than a reader because the rate of my reading cannot catch up with the rate at which my library is growing. Just here in my hotel room, at last count, there are about 47 books stacked on my desk: They range from Modern Sundanese Poetry to The Guru Guide to the Knowledge Economy by Joseph and Jimmie Boyet.

Some people treat books as disposables - worthless after you have read them. Good books - and that covers a major portion of the books that I own - are not merely a medium for the conveyance of information like newspapers, but are capsules of experience. I've never believed in renting or borrowing books from the library. Books that I have read, I must own. They become a part of my life - my extended memory.

I take comfort in the fact that at least I'm not as crazy a bibliophile as people who collect first editions, book jackets or annotated copies by the authors themselves. A Pound of Paper by John Baxter which I've read earlier this year, gives an interesting glimpse into the crazy world of real bibliophiles.

In Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, monks in a Benedictine monastery were willing to kill because of a book. In the movie adaptation of the book by director Jean-Jacques Annaud, the medieval monk-detective, Brother William, played by Sean Connery was portrayed to be a lover of books. In the climatic scene when the monastery is burning, he emerges from the fire clutching, not his fellow monks but books he had managed to save from the monastery's secret library. In another movie, The Ninth Gate, directed by Roman Polanski, which was also based on a book The Club Domas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, John Depp plays an unscrupulous book detective, hired by book collectors to trace rare and priceless books. Nothing beats a movie based on a book, about books.

There is also a scene at the end of of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report which lingers in my mind. The three clairvoyant characters, called Pre-Cogs, who in the movie are used like laboratory rats by a futuristic society to predict crimes before they happen, were in the end freed to lead a normal life. They were shown living in a country house, filled with books, happily spending the rest of their lives reading. That scene to me, is how I would imagine paradise to be like.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

The Deadliest Sin

Eating is many people's favourite pastime. One hour before lunchtime approaches, the girls in my office would already be mulling over where they should be having their afternoon meal. Let's go for Tim Sum today. Another would interject: No! let's go for Manado food. A third one would say: But we haven't gone to the Batak restaurant for a long time! ....No, I have a better suggestion, let's go for noodles, at Bakmi GM...... The debate continues until 20 minutes before twelve when everyone starts rushing for the door like a pack of hungry wolves. The scene repeats itself everyday.

I believe many people are mildly acquainted with the so-called Seven Deadly Sins defined by the early Church, thanks to the hit thriller Se7en, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt. Of the seven sins, to me the deadliest of them is Gluttony. Why? Because it is often brushed aside as being rather harmless.

Let's face it: we, the fortunate modern middleclass folks eat a lot more than we should. Probably the root cause of many of our sicknesses are due to overeating and over-indulgence in tasty but unhealthy food. Our eating habits border on gluttony itself. And yet we treat eating so casually, and consider every opportunity or excuse to eat as something to cheer for. It's so-and-so's birthday and he's buying us lunch! And off we go stuffing ourselves silly with greasy dim sum. This casual acceptance of an unfettered appetite for food spells enormous danger for us. Chiefly because we don't see it as danger. Clinically, compulsive overeating is recognized as a serious medical disorder.

I have nothing against the enjoyment of good food. I myself fall victim to cravings for certain types of delicacies at times. But this habit of being overtly obsessed with food and eating plainly for the sake of eating is one that I think is accepted with impunity. We rightly condemn people who drink or smoke. But what about overeating - eating way beyond our daily energy requirements? Why shouldn't there be an abhorrence for unnecessary eating just like how we abhor smokers and drinkers?

Over-indulgence in any of our human desires or impulses becomes a sin. Lust, greed and anger are all sins of extremes. In controllable doses, they are considered healthy, and even necessary. But why are we letting our basic need for food set loose like a lion in the fields? There is a reason why Dante placed Gluttony on the second lowest level in Hell next to Lust in his Purgatory. Gluttony is as primal a sin as lust. Better watch your eating habits: it could be the Devil's backdoor to the corruption of your soul.

By the way, where are we going for lunch?

Monday, July 07, 2003

Watching Citizen Kane

The QB World bookstore screens art-house movies every weekend at their Pondok Indah and Kemang stores. And yesterday I saw the promotional poster at their Jalan Sunda branch announcing that Citizen Kane would be the selection for Sunday night. Not wanting to miss this rare opportunity, I decided to drop by in Kemang for the screening.

Citizen Kane, directed and acted by Orson Welles and released in 1941, is considered one of the greatest movies ever made. It is also perhaps one of the most analyzed film in cinema history. What are the reasons for its greatness? As a movie, it can be viewed from two aspects: one as a technically innovative film that breaks new grounds in cinematography, editing and directing; the other as a very engrossing human story about the rise and fall of a charismatic man named Charles Foster Kane, told in a masterful manner using all the film-making techniques at the disposal of director Orson Welles.

One might think that to the average modern audience, a black-and-white movie like Citizen Kane will be quite difficult to sit through. Having so many accolades already heaped upon it, the audience could also be led to believe that this is one of those ponderous art-house films made to show off the director's technical mastery of the medium, only suitable as a laboratory specimen to be dissected by film students.

But once the movie began, I was completely drawn into its story. At its core, the movie is a mystery story about the last word uttered by the fictitious media baron on his deathbed: Rosebud. Who or what is Rosebud? As his life is slowly revealed through mock newsreels, flashbacks and newspaper headlines, we are drawn into the mystery and enigma of this multidimensional character called Kane who chose to take over a crumbling newspaper and vowed to transform it into an honest, fearless and unbiased press, albeit one defined in his own terms. With the mystery of Rosebud as the propelling force, we are led on a journey of the man's life; through his successes and failures in friendship, business, politics and love.

The use of deep-focus, the innovative camera angles and the effective use of flashbacks all contributed to a movie that does not have a single dull moment. Using a vast array of cinematic story-telling devices, Welles provided the audience with revealing glimpses of the personality and character of this man Kane; every sequence, every shot and every introduction of character building up to the drama of his inevitably lonely death - which we were shown at the very beginning of the film. And then only in the final lingering scene, the answer to the mystery of his last word is revealed to the audience.

I left QB World with a very satisfied feeling. I have always wanted to watch Citizen Kane after reading so much about it during my teenage years as an avid film buff. As I rode a cab home to the hotel, I smiled at the thought of how I finally managed to catch Citizen Kane after a wait of almost two decades, and in the most pleasantly unexpected places: at the cafe of QB World in Kemang, Jakarta, while eating spaghetti with Bintang beer on a quiet Sunday night.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Normal Nomads

Normal Nomads

Today as I was dressing up in the morning, I realised how bare and limited my wardrobe is. It has been so because I have always made a conscious effort not to acquire and accumulate too many things; it makes packing and moving difficult. It is a habit I've acquired in these past 7 years of constant travelling, leading almost a "nomadic" lifestyle.

Nowadays the word "nomadic" has become a geek term. Google the word "nomad", you'll end up with links to the latest MP3 player from Creative Technologies. Being nomadic to IT-savvy people conjures images of someone with a laptop, connecting to the Net from a wireless hotspot or dialing up from a hotel room. We have forgotten the real meaning of being nomadic.

Since the beginning of history, human beings have been living a nomadic way of life. It is initially driven by seasonal survival needs; tribes have to move from place to place in search of food, water and trading opportunities. The livelihood of people are tied to the land; and landscapes change with the seasons. Animals migrate in search of grazing pastures and water. Man and Nature are bound by an interlocked cycle of mutual embrace. As the earth revolves round the Sun, the seasons come and go, drought, floods and other cosmic calamities shape the distribution and destinies of all living creatures. We move in Space based on the dictates of Time. The nomadic way of life is in essence a normal and natural one. We move because Earth is itself a nomad in space.

The gypsies, the Bedouins and tribes and the Penans in Sarawak are still leading a nomadic life even until today. Eric Hansen's book Stranger in the Forest, which describes his years of living and hiking with the Penans in the jungles of Borneo is a highly recommended read. In some countries, the right to live the nomadic life is protected by the law, even in an urban environment. Safe camping grounds are provided for modern day gypsies and other travellers and is considered part of good urban planning.

Being nomadic drives us to be constantly on the alert for new opportunities and experiences. Every new place, like the start of a new day, is a new beginning. We are constantly refreshed by new people and places that we encounter. Like it or not, we are all travellers of Time. The minutes and the hours drive us on inevitably to our old age and death. Nothing in Nature remains static. The question we should ask ourselves is: Why shouldn't we be constant travellers of Space too - like the nomads?