Saturday, March 13, 2004

Made in Heaven

Made in Heaven

Being single, I am often intrigued by married couples: I admire successful ones and I empathize with those who are trapped in unhappy relationships. Since most of my friends are already married, I am never short of lab specimens to make my observations.

When two people get married, they participate in a soul pact: their souls make a conscious decision to evolve together. A good couple is one that absorbs each other's karma, making each other stronger as a result.

I've likened a good couple to a well-balanced pair of binary star before. A couple who builds a relationship out of love, understanding and selflessness glows with a certain celestial brightness. There's an aura of joy and happiness about them which one can sense even from afar. But such made-in-heaven marriages are rare indeed.

Living together with someone for the rest of one's life can be a difficult thing to do. There will surely be ups and downs along the way. Marriage is a delicate act of merging two complex systems of energies. Each individual brings with them the influence and expectations of their respective families and friends. It is not something that two individuals can work out in isolation. Any act of selfishness on either party would often warp the relationship and cause instability to the system.

In solving engineering problems, we often make simplications; we assume there's no noise in the background; we assume that materials behave linearly. But real-life situations are more complex: we simply cannot predict every possible permutation and combination. Slight imperfections of design would bring about cumulative failures which ultimately could prove catastrophic, such as the case of the Columbia space shuttle.

Sometimes friendship last longer than marriages because friends always maintain a certain amount of respect for each other. We care for our friends but we do not impose our will on them. We help friends whenever we are called upon to do so but we accept the fact that we do not have a right to dictate their lives.

The problem is, many married couples forget to respect each another. Any displeasure is voiced out immediately without considering its hurtful consequences. It is indeed strange that we sometimes treat friends better than how we treat our life partners.

But then again, we all have our pet theories about what makes a successful relationship. Every newly-wed couple starts their journey in a blaze of optimism and bliss. In the end, all of us will still have to learn on the job.

Horizontal Lift

Horizontal Lift

Some taxi drivers were amused when I told them to take me to the Mona Lisa Massage Parlour located at the New Phetchaburi Street early in the morning, dressed in my shirt and tie. Unfortunately It was the only way I could indicate my intended destination to them--my customer's office is located directly opposite the place. It works everytime.

It can be difficult communicating with taxi drivers here because most of them hardly speak any English. Morover Thai street names are often not pronounced the way they are spelt and the way they are spelt are also inconsistent. I have to resort to asking my Thai friends to write down addresses in Thai, accompanied by map sketches of the location.

Today I had my first taste of a Bangkok motorcyle taxi --or what they call ojek in Indonesia. We got stuck in a massive jam after lunch and decided to alight from our taxi ("Taxi-Meter") to hop onto a motorcycle taxi back to the office. It is a cheap and efficient way to beat the Bangkok jam. But riding pillion on these vehicles as they weave dangerously in and out of traffic can be quite a hair-raising experience.

All tourists are familiar with the tuk-tuk in Thailand. These noisy three-wheeled taxicabs are the equivalent of Jakarta's bajaj. It looks like every Third World country evolves its own kind of cheap public transportation. In the Philippines, the colourful Jeepney--which are modified jeeps capable of taking up to 25 people--is the popular form of transportation for the masses. I haven't been to Manila for many years but I remember getting a taxi there during rush hour can be quite a challenge.

With the subway opening next month to complement the super-efficient Skytrain, Bangkok residents are far more fortunate than their Jarkatan counterparts. I'm not sure how successful the recently launched Busway project is but it looks like it has caused drivers more frustration with the extension of the three-in-one hours. Somehow I feel Jakartans prefer to go by car if they can choose to do so. Moreover if you can afford a good car, you can easily afford a supir to chauffeur you around in style.

I dream of the day when we all do not need to drive anymore. To move between different floors in a building, we take the lift. To move between different locations within the city, it is only natural and logical that we take the equivalent of a horizontal lift--or what we would normally call a train. Trains are still the best way to move people around. Need a lift? Take a train.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Sleep Talk

Sleep Talk

I envy people who can do with less than eight hours of sleep. I can't. Bu for the past three weeks here in Bangkok, I've been managing with around five to six hours of sleep everyday, waking up early so that I can avoid the jam. Being able to arrive early in the office makes my day a lot more productive.

It will be good if I can maintain this habit when I'm back in KL. But it is going to be very tough. Sleep can be a pleasurable thing. Biologists are still baffled as to why living creatures spend a third of their lifetimes sleeping. That's a lot of productive time wasted.

If what occultists and theosophists say is true--that our astral bodies travel around when we are asleep--then at least our slumber time is being put to good use. I sure wish my astral body could keep a travelogue of my experiences in dreamland. Who knows, maybe there's a version of K'scope somewhere in astral-space.

There have been many studies too about sleep-learning. It is said to be especially effective for learning languages. Switch on a language cassette when you go to bed--your subconscious mind will dilligently take lecture notes while you snore yourself into slumberland.

I don't know for sure if it really works but I do have the occasional habit of listening to audiobooks during bedtime. It's often too tiring to read a book at the end of the day. So I just listen to one. Don't all children like bedtime stories to lull themselves to sleep? Hey, adults can enjoy that privilege too with the help of audiobooks.

I have a few favourite bedtime stories: George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, Karen Armstrong's Jerusalem and Vivekananda's Raja Yoga. Ocassionally I would listen to some poetry too. Poetry is especially a pleasure for it is definitely meant to be enjoyed aurally.

A lot of people have problems sleeping. Sometimes it is because they try too hard: they go to bed early (because they have to wake up early the next day and hence will have to ensure that they get a good night's rest) but end up shuffling in bed all night.

Insomnia is a terrible thing to endure. Edward Norton sums up the feeling precisely in Fight Club: "When you have insomnia, you're never really asleep... and you're never really awake."

Sometimes the solution to insomnia is to use some reverse psychology: try not to sleep. Switch on all the lights and make yourself belief that you have to finish studying for your exams tomorrow. That's when audiobooks can be put to good use, for nothing beats a dull lecture to put oneself to sleep.

And worry not, for sleep like death, is an inevitability. Sooner or later, it will overcome us. And we will not know the difference between the two.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Songs of Innocence

Songs of Innocence

Classical music always reminds me of my childhood. I wrote about how I used to listen to Konsert Klasik and Musik Klasik programmes on radio during those early years of FM broadcast in our country. Even though I seldom buy classical music these days, I still own a good collection of them, which includes the complete symphonies of Beethoven, the sonatas of Mozart and the pianoforte works of Chopin.

My years of growing up were filled with the sound of the piano: There were at least two next-door families in my neighbourhood who had children practising the piano day and night. Even now whenever I hear the distant tinkle of piano of some poor child struggling with a Mozart minuet, my mind rushes back to those carefree days of yore.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to pick up a bit of the piano when I was a teenager. Mostly self-taught, I often struggled with pieces more difficult than what my fingers could manage. I didn't play very well at all, but I did spent happy hours labouring through many Beethoven sonatas.

The good thing about classical music is that anyone can play and enjoy the work of the masters. There's only one copy of Leonardo's Mona Lisa and one has to be at the Louvre to really appreciate its beauty; but with the masterpieces of classical music, any four-year-old kid can attempt the dainty minuets of Mozart, the romantic nocturnes of Chopin or even the rousing rhapsodies of Liszt. Music is really for the masses.

But alas, the only keyboard I touch these days is the one I'm using to type these words now. Whenever I hear piano music on the radio or TV, my fingers would wander to caress some imaginary set of ivory keys.

Yes, my piano is there still, back in my hometown, silent and unattended, inconsolable in its gloom. One day--I don't know when--we'll be together again. And I know I will touch her, perhaps with some initial hesitation, mingled with the shy tenderness of lovers reunited. Slowly but surely, we'll warm to each other's familiar embrace. And soon, without doubt, those old sweet songs of childhood would be sung again.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Why Do Birds Sing?

Why Do Birds Sing?

Johannes Kepler wrote:
"We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarily, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens...The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment"
I remember fragments of that quote from the last episode of the science documentary series, Cosmos, hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, entitled "Who Speaks for Earth?" Thanks to Google, I found the exact quote again, at an unlikely site about birds.

The Cosmos series was shown on RTM eons ago, when I was still studying in Form 4. That series inspired me a lot as a kid and stirred my interest in science, which lasted until today. Carl Sagan was a charismatic narrator and a lucid writer. To this day, I still consider his Pullitzer Prize winning work, The Dragons of Eden, one of the best popular science books I've ever read.

All my life I've envied scientists and see the job they do as being one the noblest undertaking one could perform. What could be grander than the study of Nature itself? The laws of Nature are the laws of God: to understand Nature is to fathom the mind of God Himself.

At its core, the pursuit of science is a spiritual quest for meaning and understanding. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?

As human beings, we delight in understanding. When Nature reveals glimpses of its glory to us, we burst into raptures of intellectual ecstasy. Nature baffles and teases us with its myriad mysteries. It challenges us and forces us to abandon our fondest beliefs.

For a long time we believed electrons were particles. And suddenly we found that it exhibits wave properties too. Now, is the electron a wave or a particle? Nature tells us it is both. Why should an electron be a particle OR a wave? Why can't it be both? In accepting this truth, we ascend one more step up the spiritual ladder--we understand God a little bit more.

Any attempt to describe or explain Nature will always fall short. We have to invent concepts like waves or particles. These are merely models--stepping stones--for the human mind to comprehend Nature in a very limited way. Nature is just what it is.

Why do we want to understand Nature? The same reason why birds sing:

For the sheer pleasure of it.

That Dangerous Place

That Dangerous Place

Most people have the impression that Indonesia is a dangerous place. But during my two years in Jakarta, the only danger I faced was being a bit too comfortable living there.

My job in Jakarta was relatively easy; my customers were a joy to work with; I got along very well with the locals and I never had to worry about money. Soon I was having visions of myself settling down permanently in Indonesia.

Those two years of self-imposed exile were an absolute bliss. But unfortunately it was premature for me to be contemplating retirement, seductive though the thought was. I had to yank myself away to pursue a brand new adventure elsewhere...

Let others flock to the promised lands of Australia or Canada, I know I'll return to Indonesia someday:

Yes, I'll find a quaint little place, a haunted old Dutch villa perhaps, nestled somewhere in the cool mountains of Parahyangan. And in that abode of the Gods, I'll lull myself with the poetry of Chairil Anwar and spend my waking hours deciphering the oracles of Ronggowarsito; I'll trace the wonderful journeys of Alfred Russel Wallace across those spice-scented islands, home to the elusive birds of paradise, and marvel at the fearsome glories of its slumbering volcanoes; I'll traverse the archipelago from Sabang to Merauke, that vast exalted realm that Sukarno dreamt of, and pay homage to the great man at his grave in Blitar; I'll rumble across Java on rail from Merak to Banyuwangi, stopping overnight at Brebes to seek out my dear old friend there, and listen all night to her tales of toil and hardship, in those blistering fields of onion.

Yes, Indonesia is indeed a dangerous place for me--I could end up there forever.

Sunday, March 07, 2004



Vicomte de Valmont (played by John Malkovich): Why do you suppose we only feel compelled to chase the ones who run away?

Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close): Immaturity?

-Dangerous Liaisons (one of my all-time favourite movies)
Children often disobey their parents' wishes because they seek what's instantly pleasurable to them. Their limited experience in life prevents them from seeing the consequences of their actions. They want to eat as much ice-cream as possible, watch TV all day and never go to school. We as responsible adults would discipline them. And we forgive them because they are only children; they are still immature.

But do we, as adults behave in a mature manner all the time? I don't think so. Our immaturity is even worse for often we choose to do what we clearly know is not right.

The cheating husband, the drunkard and the gambler, are all examples of adults who behave immaturely. And being adults, we have the privilege of being free from the chastisement of elders; we are also slick in coming up with excuses for our wanton acts of recklessness.

We all make mistakes for we are not perfect. Our judgement could be wrong. To err is human, we say. But isn't that a convenient excuse for behaving immaturely?

Perhaps we should all acknowledge the fact that maturity is something we will never achieve in our lives. As I've mentioned in a previous entry, we are all forever children. Knowing that we are prone to behave worse than children, shouldn't we impose a harsher discipline on ourselves than what we subject our children to?

But then again, are we mature enough to act as our own disciplinarians?