Friday, January 29, 2010

OMG! My home is really featured on a website!!



I can't believe this really happened!

A couple of weeks ago I got a Flickrmail from someone - the lovely Elka - asking me if I would be interested to have my home featured on a house tour on the interiors website Casasugar. I thought she was joking! I checked out the website -- in fact, I studied all the house tour links I could find -- and couldn't believe that they thought my home is worthy of being featured. But of course I said yes eagerly!

I answered her few queries about my so-called décor style and some details about my apartment over Flickrmail. And because I also had updated my flat a little bit since I last uploaded home pics on my Flickr account, I suggested that I would take some new photos as well. Which I did last weekend and early this week when the sun was finally out. Elka made her selection from these new and old photos, kindly promised to keep my name anonymous and used only my Flickr username in the house tour, and thanked me again for agreeing to share my home pictures on Casasugar.

And that was a few days ago... then earlier this evening, I just got a Flickr mail from her to say that my house tour is up!!!! I can't believe it! I clicked on the link, and oh my! My flat actually looks not half-bad!! Phew!!!!!! (I had been mentally preparing for how bad my house tour would look compared to all the other fabulous apartments featured on Casasugar).

Even more than that, Elka wrote such lovely comments beside each of the photos she selected from my home set, which is sooooo unexpected. And even more of a miracle, somebody already commented on the house tour, and not only that, s/he proclaimed it "Beautiful!"

Ohhhhhh, I'm so very happy :D

Thank you soooo much Elka, you REALLY made my day :D!!!!!!!!!






(And just to say, I must have somehow got a lucky charm on me or something, because I've been extremely extremely lucky in the last while, as one of my blog-posts has also been honoured by a recommend by none other than Mad Dog!! Not only was it a surprise to learn that she reads my blog -- honestly most of the views I got tend to be people stumbling upon my old post while googling for Monica and Chandler -- but it was a total surprise to me that she actually thought my scribbling was good enough to be on her shared items and even deserved a recommend!! Thank you so much Mad Dog, both you and Elka made me feel so encouraged -- your kind recommendations really mean a lot, and it's rather lovely to learn that my little creative/artistic endeavours are enjoyed by others... Thank you sooooo very much!!)

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why I do what I do...

Years ago at an international conference, when I was still a rookie postgrad, I was advised by two kindly and experienced academics (one from Singapore, one from Australia) over some badly-cooked Chinese dishes (I shall never forget how we happened to trudge for miles chatting away in search of a decent restaurant in a foreign town that none of us knew our way around, and in the end settled for one of the worst dives in the local Chinatown, for by then we were completely lost and had succumbed to the twin fears of potential mugging at night fall and not having the energy to make it back to our hotels alive) that I should stay in academia. At the time I was all idealistic and wanted my research to have "real world impact" and didn't want to remain in the ivory tower, and said that my plan (how naively optimistic I was that I believe in plans for the future) was to go for a policy research position in government, and that it was in fact seeing such advertisements in the papers that instigated my wish to give up my corporate job and opt to do doctoral work.

But those kindly academics smiled at me, and said that I was being too naive about the role that I could play if I were to work in government. That I have totally underestimated how public policy agenda is very much influenced by the vagaries of political expediency and that, as a researcher working inside government, I will no longer have the freedom to set my own research agenda and have to work to politicians' whimsy and whatever media-generated crisis of the day. Moreover, there is no guarantee that even a meaningful piece of research will be used to formulate relevant policies, as much of the latter is driven by soundbite political rhetorics with little to no relation to the actual evidence-base. Instead, I was told that only in academia, protected by the walls of ivory tower, would I have a modicum of freedom to pursue research for research's sake without undue influence from politicians and their ilk.

It was certainly a dinner that was memorable not because of the sub-standard food, but for the amiable and easy-going company of my betters and the invaluable advice I have been kindly given by them. Their words stay with me to this day and offer me encouragement whenever I feel disillusioned by the politics of academe.

I still want my research to have "real world impact", but I have indeed come to realise that this is much easier done when one is positioned within academia and working directly with organisations and societal stakeholders than as a lowly researcher within the ranks of the civil service with questionable objectivity and indeed, credibility. Yes, one would have to chase for research funding, of course, but that helps rather than hinders the goal of achieving real world impact, for the chances of succeeding in these grant applications depend on both intellectual rigour (through the international peer review process) as well as demonstrable social gain, at least in my particular field of applied research. (Of course, the same mechanism of research support has detrimental effects where pure research is concerned, but that is another post for another day).

As the climate for university funding becomes increasingly unfavourable as a result of severe government budgetary constraints, commissioned research through the private and non-profit sectors, as well as self-financing programmes that sustain lecturers' salaries, are becoming comparatively important. Relations with existing funders and links with industry and civil society organisations, many of which stem from one's lecturing career (whether it was from having members of these organisations in one's class, or because of sector initiatives that were off-shoots of one's academic role), are just as crucial for furthering one's academic career as one's own research track record, although the bar for the latter has also consistently been raised as well over the past number of years. Aligning oneself with one's peers in other disciplines and other institutions in pursuit of interdisciplinary research, an objective that I have fought for since the very beginning of my academic career (I was the "test case" for inter-departmental supervisory support), is finally being recognised not as empty words in a strategy document but as actual programmes tied with real grant money. I am extremely grateful for the fact that, just as the funding environment turns increasingly hostile, the kind of projects that still stands a chance of being considered for funding is the kind that I have been doing for the last number of years -- in fact, I was one of the first in Ireland to do so. I need to believe in myself and conclude this work in order that I could finally position myself to take advantage of all these encouraging signs and move on to the next stage of work -- not only to contribute knowledge to society, but hopefully in the process bring on board other researchers, regardless of vintage or discipline, to take advantage of the immense intellectual opportunities offered in a field that is quietly but rapidly converging but few have yet recognised the trend for what it is.

So help me God.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Reminder...

It's good to remind myself of what I wrote a year and a half ago...

* * * * *

So what is Love? To me?

First of all: drop. the. cap. like e.e. cummings. there is no need to aggrandize love. the greatest love story of mankind is the kind told by elderly couples quietly holding hands.

love is not a grandiose thing, filled with heroics, drama and hubris. love is humble and mundane, filled with unspoken sacrifices and indeed, compromises. love is day-to-day, surviving the rough and tumble of the living, together.

Second of all: love is a constant that expresses itself as a variable. there is no such thing as an unchanging, pure love. love that doesn't include drama stagnates and dies; but love that can't survive drama is ultimately not love.

love is being emotionally close to someone and appreciating their point of view even if, and especially if, the person is being irrational or unreasonable. to love is to understand. to understand is to forgive.

to love is therefore to forgive. or, to quote Erich Segal (glib as this may sound): "love means never having to say you're sorry".

but love is no martyrdom.

Third of all: "true love" is a state of relationship, not a person. contrary to Haruki Murakami who laments that he might not have recognised his one. true. love. - his "100% girl" - true love to me is something that needs to be nurtured over time, like caring for a plant, and doesn't come in a ready-made package in the form of this or that particular person. the trick is to find someone with whom you are both willing and able to turn passion and romance into true love.

but precisely because true love is arrived at through the action of both parties, there are no guarantees in love, for actions carry both intended and unintended consequences.

Fourth of all: like happiness, true love can only be pursued. the minute you stop pursuing and start taking love for granted, the minute love starts to atrophy.

love is nothing without action. yearning is not an action, and a crush is not love. to quote a Chinese saying: 敢愛敢恨

to love takes guts. but this is not empty bravado, not about hanging on to someone through sheer force of will. at the most basic level, to love requires the guts to weather disappointment, to pick yourself up after failing, and to move on.

Fifth of all: best summed up by another quote from Desiderata, a prose poem from Max Ehrmann which has been a crucial source of spiritual sustenance to me at times of need since I first came across it when I was twelve:

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

My dear little...

...poor abused blog, so sorry you've been the receptacle of all my negativities in the last while... the sad thing is, I can't even promise you I would change...

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Orchids... and in defence of poetry lovers...


Orchids..., originally uploaded by Snowdrops in Spring..

There is sweet music here that softer falls,
than petals from blown roses on the grass...
Music that gentlier* on the spirit lies,
than tired eyelids upon tired eyes.
Music that brings sweet sleep down
from the blissful skies...

--- Lord Tennyson, "The Lotus Eaters"

*Originally I had "softlier" in place of "gentlier" as I typed the above simply from memory, until a quick double-check tells me that it was indeed the latter. Still, I always thought that "softlier on the spirit lies" works better as a line because of alliteration, but that's my humble prejudice and The Lotus Eaters remains one of my favourite poems of all time.

Edited to add (from the late hours of the 17th to the wee hours of the 18th January)(although I did promise myself to not rise to the bait, but feck it, it feels good to vent)(those of a sensitive disposition, look away now):


Noticed recently a blogger's gripes about how those who professed to love poetry and literature are often pretentious snobs who lack the quality of what makes a true intellectual (I paraphrase and exaggerate, of course). Methinks she doth protest too much. Anyway, I think it is weird that there is a certain ingrained Chinese mentality (can we blame Confucius for this? I think so) which holds that reading, even (or especially) of fiction and poetry, is not an end in itself but a means to an end -- whether it was the means to become one of those mandarin-bureaucrats in ancient China through passing scholars' exams; or as a conversational prop to serve the self-aggrandising function of modern-day snobs, who name-check the usual suspects from the literary canon to cover up the fact that they are mere philistines in reality.

Not only do such thinking conveniently glosses over the fact that millions of people around the world genuinely enjoy poetry and can recall their favourite poems not out of ego-driven affectation, but because poetry speaks to them on a personal level; but the people with such a mentality also rather self-servingly forget that poets (as well as poet-wannabes, comme moi) and other intellectuals have never professed themselves to be above the average person.

Intellectuals, whether in the East or the West, including those who are greatly acclaimed, are human beings at the end of the day, the size of their intellects granting them no more immunization against human foibles than others who are less cerebrally-inclined, and they hate and they despair and they get jealous and they get angry and they get bored and they get lonely and they get frightened and they get frustrated just like any other ordinary joe out there who wields not a pen but a shovel or a spanner or a spatula. They never profess to be saints, just humble scholars, and often times not even that. It wouldn't have been possible for poets to produce any work of value, work that has resonance and meanings for others, if their own emotions are on an even keel all the time and if they don't feel the things that mere mortals like you and I feel, warts and all. The only difference between them and the masses is that poets and other intellectuals happen to have the rare gift of being articulate enough to express their thoughts and feelings and ideas and visions in words that constitute sheer evocative poetry, whether those words happen to form lines of brilliant reflective verse or pages of elegant, eloquent prose. (Of course, their other ability is to transmute ordinary everyday experiences into something approaching art, which is the point that Woolf made about Austen's writing as discussed in my other blog-post.) One can get jealous of the poets' ability to do this, but to label people as pretentious and self-regarding those who profess that they are in awe of such amazing talent really boggles the mind.

I mean, so what if ordinary folks decide that they like the sound of some of the poems they hear and memorise one or two lines and incorporate them into their everyday rhetorical repertoire? Is this really so bad? Why should they be deemed pretentious just because they don't happen to be professional intellectuals? What's wrong with, for example, football managers quoting Kipling's "If" as a way of motivating their teams? Why is there a problem if engineers cite examples of Tang poetry as inspirations behind their technical creations? Or an abstract artist who paints to express the insights she gleans from Rumi's poetry? Or a teenager who peppers her conversations with favourite lines from Emily Dickinson? Who are you to call these people pretentious? Wouldn't it be actually worse if poetry and all the big books of the world are left only to the elitist few who proclaimed that only they have the "right qualification" (invariably Oxbridge) and the "right attitude" to study these with any so-called "intellectual rigour"? That only when one has chowed through enough big books of the world in the right institutions and being conferred with the right certification could one dare claim to aspire to any sort of intellectual empowerment and enlightenment?

It begs the question, just who is being a right pretentious knob/bitch here? The person citing lines of his/her favourite poetry or the person who automatically deems those who do so as pretentious snobs and bores? How interesting that the most judgemental people in this world are often those who protest loudest at others' seeming pretensions. They forget the old adage: it takes one to know one. Like in the (decidedly low-brow) movie There's Something about Mary -- it takes a phoney to spot a phoney. So for a blogger to haughtily disparage the presumed pretentiousness of other people for simply sharing their enjoyment of a particular subject that she personally happens to find difficult, perhaps she needs to take a wee look in the mirror herself.

Actually, I just realise that the people who hold such snobby attitudes about those who profess their love for poems probably have never read any Irish "outsider" poetry by Thomas Kinsella et al, and so they cling to the false belief that poetry is only written by and for members of the aristocratic class rather than the common man, and thus can only countenance having poetry as a past-time enjoyed solely by those of so-called "noble breed". Hah! As if! These people also fail miserably to realise that, since poets never proclaim sainthood for themselves, it is inherently illogical (not to mention downright unfair) that lovers of poetry must be seen to be morally upright and saintly or else they'd be condemned as frauds, their taste for poetry sneeringly portrayed as a pretentious fig-leaf to hide their innate uncouthness. These self-righteous critics have probably forgotten how Du Fu wrote social commentary into his poetry to give voice to the dispossessed and the powerless (and indeed, Chinese poetry has continued to serve that function in the modern-day proletarian struggle against exploitation by the rich and the powerful); and they probably couldn't remember that a central appeal of Li Bai as a poet stemmed precisely from his non-conformity towards the straitjacket conventions of polite society in his time. Did Li Bai, a self-professed (and widely acknowledged) raging alcoholic, care for a second whether he's held up as a paragon of virtue for the masses? Most likely he'd have laughed heartily in the face of those who proffer such a silly notion and tell them to get a life!

Knowledge is power and I can understand why some self-styled elites of this world would feel an instinctive need to protect their so-called cachet against mere plebs and scoff at the latter's enjoyment of anything intellectual. You know, that "others must only be pretending to like this stuff if I don't happen to like it and in fact find it such a hard slog" attitude; or even worse, that idea of "how dare others with apparently lesser claim to intelligence than I declare themselves to enjoy poetry if a towering intellect such as mine don't friggin' get it!", leading them to conclude that "these poetry lovers are such friggin' show-offs and liars!" without pausing to reflect that perhaps this projection was merely a psychological defense against a perceived threat to their ego, which induced an almost Pavlovian "I must be ultra sarcastic towards these presumably self-regarding egotistic pretentious pseudo-intellectual (add a thousand elegantly concealed expletives) SNOBS as otherwise I can't face the fact that I'm not nearly half as clever as I once made myself out to be" reaction.

Oh, the irony. It's almost enough to make me pity the poor dears. Except...

If you're suggesting even for one second that plebeians can't do poetry precisely because we are plebs and if we so much as admit that we have indeed read the odd poem or two, or use a line of poetry to pepper our speech (or our wee blogs!) or even, God forbid, dare claim that we like poetry and blatantly share our favourite poems online, that to you we must then by definition be pseudo-intellectual snobs pretending to be someone that we are not and having notions above our stations, all I can say is you can take your elitist attitude and shove it right up your behind.

Don't you dare try to drive an artificial wedge between people on false intellectual grounds, dividing the population into unhelpful and frankly offensive categories according to their perceived intelligence or lack thereof (that in essence according to your worldview we're all either snobs or morons and those who disagree are at best not being realistic and at worst fail to admit to our deep-seated pretensions, while you and your "truly intellectual" friends are the few rare exceptions that prove the rule -- a funnier thing I haven't read in a long time if only it isn't also so sad), and in the process roll back decades' if not centuries' worth of progress in democratising knowledge and expertise and learning (if even Confucius himself was open-minded enough to claim that education is for all -- albeit only for men, but we shan't quibble over this -- and is never wasted on anyone, surely you can do it?).

Perhaps you didn't realise that the spectre of the pseudo-intellectual that you so caustically castigated in your blog-post is actually your own shadow, hard though this observation may be for you to swallow. Just don't malign the rest of us intellectuals (sorry love, but such is the complexity of life and the real world that we fail to fall into your neatly dichotomous rhetorical categories between plebs and intellectuals, for we are often one and the same as we'd never be so foolish as to put ourselves up on a pedestal, unlike those hankering after the image of a smarter-and-holier-than-thou false ideal) simply because you're suffering from a bad case of sour grapes (not that I'm saying you're necessarily jealous over the size of others' intellects, merely that you feel threatened by them for some reason; and more precisely there is an unmistakable sense of sourness over the fact that you can't for the life of you relax and enjoy poetry for its own sake and can't fathom how others do it without affectation just because you yourself are incapable of doing same).

Perhaps when you realise that enjoyment of poetry has nothing whatsoever to do with one's intellectual prowess -- whether self-assumed or perceived by others -- then maybe you would one day loosen up enough to get past your self-inflicted bogeyman (not to mention an overly inflated ego) and can stop insulting those of us who do enjoy poetry as mere pretentious snobs.

Ta.

(Wow that feels good!)

(But yeah as usual I didn't link to the offending blog. Well, I don't have time to get properly into an online row with someone so it is just as well that I just said my piece here and leave it at that).

(Oh not forgetting to plug the fact that I already blogged about how anyone can become a poet as long as one has the power of speech two Christmases ago)

(Finally, an anecdote about intellectual snobbery. When I was studying in NYC I was once introduced to a friend who graduated cum laude from Harvard, but who wouldn't tell people in social functions where she'd studied, just deprecatingly explained that it was "just somewhere in Boston", preferring instead to talk more about the books and the shows that she was interested in as a way of getting to know people in parties. When I got to know her better and asked why she did this she said she didn't want to give people certain expectations just because of where she studied. When I heard that my first reaction was like, Are you mad? Shouldn't you be broadcasting to all and sundry you studied at an Ivy-league institution and with such good grades too? But that was precisely why hers was such a refreshing attitude, especially in the context of the usual NY schmooze-fests that characterised many of the parties and receptions at the time (which was almost a decade ago, or maybe it was only the ones I'd been to which were like that). I thought this girl had real class compared to all the other "blue-blood wannabes" keen to compare ostentatious notes about which schools they'd been to at every opportunity as a way of establishing one's class provenance and thus social value (note I deliberately did not write "intellectual provenance" and "societal value"). What these people didn't realise is how sad they actually looked to others. Or maybe that's just me.)

(One last thing - really! - I do understand how incongruous my rant above is with the serene and calm picture of the white orchids at the top of this post. It is a bit of a shame that I saw fit to sully this otherwise lovely post with my rant, but then, on second thought, it was all done in defense of a gentle breed of people who'd normally not answer back quite so heatedly and so I guess the spirit of this post is noble enough to merit being accompanied by such a soul-cleansing image of white orchids.)

(I must confess I kept tinkering with this post over the course of today (the 18th), cleaning up and adding to my sentences and in the end turning what was originally a relatively short and bitter rant into a rather long -- but hopefully less bitter -- rebuttal against intellectual snobbery. Perhaps it was I who doth protest too much after all. Anyway am going to stop now. Time is 00:46, 19th Jan 2010).

(Oops, spoke too soon. Fixed several lines again at 09: 10 on 19th Jan 2010)

(Saturday, 30th Jan, 2010: Added link to modern day use of Chinese poetry by Hong Kong construction workers to boost morale in their demonstration against exploitation by their powerful employers)

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Why Google is pronounced GOOgle...

Because it managed to actually grow a pair (whilst Yahoo remains exactly that... a YAHoo).

Sergei Brin, what a giant pair of cojones man! RESPECT!!

And please stay firm on your principle. Progressive Chinese the world over within and outside of the Great Firewall are right behind you on this.

(And as much as the CCP wanted to de-emphasize and deny its sponsorship of cyber-hacking of human rights activists' Gmail accounts, choosing only to mention through its state organ the fact that Google no longer wants to acquiesce with its censorship policy, thus trying to cover its blatant crime of infringement of user privacy (a crime according to their own laws) while harping on about how internet businesses have to operate according to its "law" on censorship, i.e. trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Sorry CCP, but we are on to your usual dirty tricks and spin tactics.)

Related reading:

Google prompts soul-searching in China - by Xiao Qiang [the Guardian]

(I know this post is coming a little late, but didn't have time to blog yesterday and indeed for much of today - by that I mean the 14th - even though it's now the wee hours of the 15th by the time I actually wrote this).

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

One of the loveliest comments (and best career advice) online...

Instead of ranting about annoying blog-posts like I did at the crack of dawn this morning, which is a rather lousy way of recording (and indeed starting) the day, I would like instead to showcase some of the loveliest words I've read on the Internet for a long while:

"我相信每個人有自己的路, 其實沒有人可以指點迷津的呢 ^_^

而你不用心急, 唸你喜歡的科目就可以了, 未必一定要和將來的工作有關, 因為其實世上的所有事情也有共通的地方, 所以你從不會走錯方向的.

你慢慢會確定你期望想成為一個怎樣的人, 待你年長, 便會自然碰到氣質相同的志同道合, 去建立自己的路向和人際網絡.

努力, 加油啊 ^_^"

As the saying goes, truer words than these are ne'er spoken, and never in a manner as sincerely as this... They were addressed by a blogger to a commenter when the latter asked for some career advice. Not only did the blogger give concrete information about how she came into her current job, but she rounded off her advice with the above gentle reminder, which is one of the most heart-warming things I've read online for a good while... The blogger is very young, but she definitely has an old head on her shoulders.

I only came across her blog very recently but am looking forward to reading more of her words this year :)

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Early morning rant to get it out of my system...

... I'm only jotting this down to clear my rambling and jumbled thoughts so bear with me...

Why do certain people always feel a need to "big" themselves up? Apparently there is no possibility of any relationship among equals between men and women in the so-called "real world", only "big man"/"little woman" or "big woman"/"little man" matches are possible according to this narrow and frankly misogynistic worldview. Very misguided reading of feminism if all it means to these people is that strong women are merely the exceptions that prove their self-serving rule (that women are and must be weak by definition).

And they said that such observations are based on their personal experiences... Hmm... never mind the validity of their convenience samples, I'm just glad that my personal experience of relationships and my knowledge of other couples are a far cry from these tired old clichés...

Not to mention my own relationship, just among my immediate acquaintances, there are husbands who schedule their work days to share in childcare responsibilities with their working wives; there is a couple who takes turns to support the career needs of both individuals by each making use of extended leave/job-sharing arrangements at their workplaces; and three friends (two in academia, one in government) who are at key turning points in their careers right now are working with their partners (in finance, accounting, and IT) to map out where as a couple they would both like to be geographically and professionally so that they could pursue their mutual career goals while staying living together in these uncertain times. And last I checked, these are happily married/partnered people, who never felt the need to theorise their happiness as predicating on some form of gender inequality.

Maybe in certain areas the employment laws or the employers concerned are not as enlightened to allow the kind of flexible working arrangements mentioned above, but it would be illogical in the extreme to posit what in essence is an effect of gender inequality to be the rationale for gender inequality, and we should certainly not try to justify gender inequality simply because of the facile argument that "these are the way things are and always will be."

I'm frankly amazed that in this day and age some people still haven't gotten the memo that we're all just human beings with different strengths and weaknesses, but with the same kind of needs and desires, as well as hopes and fears, regardless of our gender. Feminists want women to be treated as equals, not as dominatrixes, however convenient the latter stereotype may serve as fantasy fodder for modern-day Neanderthals.

(but yeah, one less blogger whose blog I'd follow rather fits in with the decluttering goal of this time of the year)

(edited to amend all my embarrassing grammar mistakes :P I'm gonna blame it on the lack of tea when I first wrote this post)

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Me, winter Olympian? Yes it's true...

Just want to record here quickly that, due to heavy snowfall in the afternoon, all bus services were cancelled during the evening office rush hours. Thousands of people leaving work found themselves without any means of public transport, as what few taxis there were left on the road were not taking passengers. Unless you happen to live near a Luas or a Dart station (applicable to a rather insignificant minority of Dubliners, to be honest), you were well and truly stuck.

That included me, of course. I was at the office around half seven this morning, and left just before five in the evening, when I was told by colleagues that all the bus services were cancelled. I was actually pretty gungho about being able to get a taxi, until I saw the length of the queue at the taxi rank outside our building. I waited there for about 25 minutes, turning from cautious optimism to impotent rage at the empty but not stopping taxis, to finally, stoic resignation about my fate. There was no point in trying to get help from loved ones either -- not only was I far away from their workplaces, but a friend who lives in a town near me told me that it took her an hour and five minutes to just "drive" down a stretch of a key road near my estate. Moreover, my trusted cab company whose operator knows me by voice told me that it was absolutely impossible to send any cabs near the direction of the city centre as all the roads were blocked (as in being extremely severely congested, not as in being banned for use, though it might well have been the latter for the almost stationery nature of the vehicles on these roads).

So even though by 5:30pm I was within the top 15 of the queue (the result of people wiser than I who left the hopeless queue much earlier than I did rather than because taxis were actually picking up passengers), I decided to cut my losses and started walking in the general direction of my home, a mere 7.7 kilometres away (this I only found out by just checking on Google Earth. Am amazed by the fact that it even gives you walking directions, warns you about missing pedestrian paths, and gives a rather pretty accurate estimate of the amount of time it will take to make the journey on foot, as you shall see later. Genius!). Not that I knew any of this of course when I set off, as I could only base my route on the shortest taxi journey it usually takes me to commute to work. I reckon it was just about doable, and my legs were frozen and thus urging me to move rather than stand (they were clad only in black tights and ankle boots, however the latter turned out to be a saving grace as they were extremely comfy, had good grip and quite water-proof -- had I chosen my knee-high boots with 2.5 inch heels, which I did seriously consider wearing this morning, I wouldn't have survived to tell the story) .

Anyway, chatting to friends and family on the mobile gathering ongoing traffic intelligence (all news were dismal), I went down the direction of O'Connell street, and when I saw Eddie Rockets my legs just carried me towards it and for once I had the good sense to simply follow my gut. I ordered cheese fries and tea, which came really fast and were every bit as tasty as I remember them (I haven't had cheese fries for ages). Thus sated and feeling warm and toasty, I ventured out again to begin my epic journey. It was just about five minutes to six. I was one of many, many, many office joes and janes and even shoppers trying to make our way home.

My plan actually was just to keep walking until I could pick up a taxi. But very quickly I realise that walking was a far more efficient means of transport than the cars, which could do little but sit in barely moving traffic on poorly gritted roads for hours on end. To my surprise and delight, I was actually enjoying this walk through snow and slush -- not only did it feel good physically, but I heartily congratulated myself on my wise decision because I knew I would have been fuming if I were sat in a taxi despairing at the meter amidst the unmoving traffic.

So in spite of the dire conditions that I was in, I was feeling pretty empowered and, it has to be said, rather smug about the fact that (a) I was travelling much, much faster than those poor saps stuck behind the wheel; (b) I was relying on my own two feet and to my pleasant surprise, they performed rather well; (c) I was not contributing to climate change by sitting in a car for hours on end.

I walked, and walked, and walked, learning to negotiate the slippery ice surrounding the pedestrian crossings with ease (I nearly slipped about five times, but managed to regain my balance pretty snappily, adding to my sense of well-being about my hitherto-unknown high level of fitness) and feeling warmer as I went as my body got used to this novel form of exercise. I walked through entire towns and didn't feel one bit fatiqued or frightened -- not only were there lots of fellow travellers, but I was blessed by providence because my quickest route home turned out to involve going through the main village of Dublin suburbs and so I was reassured by the fact that, should I become tired and in need of sustenance or toilet facilities at any point in my journey, I could simply nip into one of the many restaurants, pubs and takeaways lining the route.

So I trudged on, amazed that I wasn't feeling tired at all yet covering incredible distances -- distances which I have never imagined before that I could actually cover on foot. I walked for an hour in the snow, and by the time I came upon the last hotel and restaurant complex en route to my home, my legs decided once again to carry me to the restaurant and again I dutifully followed. At first I thought I would just borrow the toilet facilities before setting off again to negotiate the final third of the route, but once I entered the premises and heard the maitre d' taking food orders on the phone, I decided to stay and eat. This was a Tex-Mex/American grill type place, which again was rather fortunate as it was exactly the type of cuisine that a traveller slightly worse for wear from the cold would welcome. By the time I sat down, it was just about five past seven.

I ordered chicken creole and another steaming pot of tea in the half-empty restaurant (the clientele consisted of a couple of couples, a family, two groups of friends and another woman by herself). The chicken creole took a long time to arrive, but I was comforted by cup after cup of hot tea and just marvelled at the snow outside the windows as well as the snowy scenes on display on Sky News on the big TV screen above the fireplace. I talked to my mum again on the phone to reassure her that I wasn't dead yet -- she could not believe I walked all the way from the city to the 'burbs, and was about to give out about where I bought my apartment etc. etc., but was conveniently shushed when I told her that my phone battery was about to run out (which was true).

(But I do thank my mum from the bottom of my heart because I was only able to make the journey in fairness because I was nicely wrapped up in a very warm down jacket with fur-trimmed hat that she gave me a few years ago, and I was even more fortunate because I happened to wear this same coat when I spent Christmas at home and she forced me to take a pair of black mittens with me even though I initially refused. Little did I know that less than a fortnight later I would be extremely grateful to put my hands into my pockets and found these warm woollen mittens nicely tucked inside just when I needed them the most).

Anyway, my food finally arrived, and although I didn't think I was that hungry given that I just had the cheese fries not that long ago, my body welcomed the additional high-energy fuel. I didn't finish the plate nor the second pot of tea, but I was re-energised to tackle the last and most difficult leg of my journey -- a 2 kilometre stretch of the motorway where there are indeed, as Google told me just now, no pedestrian footpaths.

(Before I paid the bill, I asked the waitress whether it was okay for me to pour the remainder of the tea into my thermos. I felt like a complete wino for asking, but I was really afraid of what might happen to me during my attempt to negotiate the grass verge of the motorway, and decided that I would rather be safe than be respectable. In fact, I was feeling that God had been looking after me because my decision to bring my thermos with me to work this morning was completely spur-of-the-moment, due solely to the fact that I didn't have time to get tea before I had to leave the flat.)

As I was leaving the restaurant, the manager asked me where I had parked my car -- he was going to give me a token for free parking as entitled by patrons of the restaurant -- and was surprised when I told him that I walked all the way to his establishment from city centre. He asked me if I live in the vicinity and then insisted that I should come back again, saying God bless as I left -- a warm farewell (albeit standard proprietor speak) that was appreciated as I was about to head out into the cold again.

To my surprise however, this time my legs nearly buckled under me. Turns out they had grown rather accustomed to sitting down during the dinner and complained about being put to work again. I walked very slowly this time, almost at the speed of an old lady. In fact, I actually passed by an old lady trying to catch a taxi by waiting at a bus-stop. I was going to do the same, but decided to just walk on and take my chances.

Just as I passed the last pedestrian crossing before the motorway began, a miracle happened. An empty cab was just turning around the corner. I put up my hand, not really expecting it to stop for me. To my absolute surprise, the driver flashed the light to show he'd seen me and pulled up -- I couldn't believe my luck! I got in and thanked him profusely for stopping.

Thus through this divine intervention I was actually spared from having to walk through the motorway itself to get home. The driver and I traded weather stories and listened to the radio about how all the Dublin buses were still not running and how severe delays were expected on all road networks in and around Dublin. This is how I realised how lucky I was for getting the cab only for the final and most difficult stretch of the route. And thanks to a short detour the driver took, the traffic was moving along at a nice pace (cars were travelling slowly anyway due to the icy road conditions but we weren't stuck in traffic per se).

In the end, I was home in ten minutes, and paid only 10 euros for the driver's trouble (the fare was actually just 9 euros), as opposed to the hundreds of euros I would have to pay if I had actually managed to get a cab from city centre to begin with. Even more miraculous was the fact that I managed to catch a cab at all -- the driver said I was to be his last customer this evening as he himself was also heading home.

Gosh, I feel so, so blessed! It is almost like an invisible hand has been carefully guiding me home during today's freak weather event. Thank you God.

And just for the record, I got home at 8:47pm. In total I had walked about an hour and a quarter (broken by the hour-long restaurant meal after the hour mark). If I hadn't taken a taxi for the final leg of the journey, I think I would have walked for about an hour and three quarters, which is pretty damn close to the 1-hour-and-38-minutes estimate of foot journey time Google Earth come up with. Either Google is ingeniously accurate about measuring the walking speed of an unfit girl trudging through snow-compacted roads, or that, unbeknownst to myself, I am actually freakishly fit and could easily manage the normal walking speed of a normal person while walking through icy treacherous road conditions.

And you know what, I think it might really be the latter :o)

Goodnight! (And hoping for no bus services at all tomorrow so could legitimately stay at home all day... after all, I am not quite sure if a miracle could happen twice in a roll to allow me to repeat my superhuman walking feat again tomorrow)

Further reading: Arctic weather conditions in Dublin and a "national weather emergency" being called for (Irish Times, uploaded just after midnight, Thursday, January 7, 2010)

Weather Update:
The freezing weather is set to continue for another 10 days, we are told. Even just looking outside my windows at home I could see the thick freezing fog that makes travelling by car extra dangerous due to impaired visibility, not to mention the icing of the roads. Dublin Bus only operated a limited service this morning which didn't include my route, so did stay at home (they cancelled their service again at 8pm, which was far saner than doing it just before the rush hour as they did yesterday). I may still have to head in tomorrow though. Hmmmmm....

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Friday, January 01, 2010

20 publications that left their indelible mark on me during the Noughties...

(Have meant to make this list for quite some time now. Will update with proper details and pictures later (some notes are left in re: other books to refer to). But allow me to just get this down for the time being...)

This list is meant to be about books that have most influenced me over the Noughties (2000-2009)*. It is not meant to be a definitive list of the "best" books of the last decade, however one may define "best". Indeed, some of the publications I have selected are not what one would normally think of as "proper books" at all, but nevertheless they influenced me deeply at different points in my life over the past ten years, and so they serve as a bibliographic record of sorts of one of the most important decades of my life (not that I have had that many decades under my belt so far!).

Because I'm only selecting on the basis of the titles' influence on me rather than their publication dates, some of these works are published before 2000 (in fact, some were originally published loooong before that), which is another reason not to see this list as some kind of "best of noughties" list. (I would be especially embarrassed if people thought that I believe Bridget Jones's Diary to be one of the decade's finest!!)

The above being said, I would also argue that many of the books on my list are real gems that should be read by many more people than they seem to be at present. I know that some of these titles may not be familiar or easily available to everyone, but I hope that some of you may be tempted by the descriptions here to seek out these works, as they are all worthy publications in their own right (yes, even the home catalogue!).

As should be obvious from the list also, these are all publications I read strictly for leisure rather than for work, as it seems much more appropriate to have the latter as the subject for a whole other separate list called "academic texts that influenced me the most over the past decade" (which is perhaps not an appropriate subject for here as I'm resolving to cut down on work-related posts on my blog in future).

And of course, I picked Top 20 rather than Top 10 as it is impossible for me to reduce my list down to just 10, there were simply too many wonderful books that I have had the great good fortune to read in the last decade. (And I shall confess also that I allow myself even more wriggle room to expand the list by offering substitution choices for those works that are not considered "proper books" in my initial list).

Finally, this list is confined to English titles. I find it extremely difficult as it is to narrow the list down to 20 in English; it would have been impossible if works in Chinese are also included. More importantly, English was the predominant language in which I have been reading for the last ten years, including leisure reading. Now that I have managed to amass a whole tranche of Chinese books last summer by those authors whom I have always wanted to read, my leisure reading for the new decade should see a much more significant representation of Chinese titles, and it may be appropriate then in 2020 to do a Chinese titles list when it comes to reviewing this decade.

Without further ado therefore, here's my list of 20 publications that have left their indelible mark on me in the Noughties (in no particular order, but they are numbered just to ensure that I counted them properly):

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1. The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse (1969)

One of the my favourite novels of all time. It is a book that I will take with me to a desert island if I am only allowed one book (actually, either this or "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth, but then I read the latter in the 90's and so does not qualify for a formal place on this list). This is truly a masterpiece. I was also extremely fortunate in my timing of coming upon this book: I was just starting my PhD career, and was not quite sure if I had really made the right decision to give up my professional job and go into academia. This book -- written by Hesse who in real life dropped out of formal academic studies in his twenties but who nevertheless rigorously persevered with his intellectual pursuits until old age and ultimate death -- convinced me that it is the life of the mind that I most want to pursue for the rest of my days. Its description of an ideal academic world -- Castellia, an intellectual utopia peopled by earnest scholars carefully guided and supported by wise mentors -- may not be realistic and a far cry from the actual academic environment that I inhabited then and still inhabiting now. Nevertheless, it is a compelling vision that sustains me in continuing my work in my darkest hours. The struggle between the Castellian and the material worlds as vividly imagined in the novel also reflects the unrelenting and unhealthy marketisation of ideas witnessed in higher seats of learning around the world today, and reading an author who accurately and eloquently described your own frustrations and worries on the written page was a great catharsis. It is what makes this book a genuine source of comfort to me over the past years.

But it is Hesse's vision of how the arts and the sciences could be seamlessly joined together into a common scholarly pursuit (the titular "Glass Bead Game") played by scholars well-versed across both realms of intellectual endeavours that I most hanker after. It is what I hope to be able to work towards in my own academic career, step by tiny step. The book does not have a good ending for the protagonist Magister Ludi, but this is known from the outset, and it is from following his intellectual journey through the novel despite this knowledge that makes the experience of reading this engrossing tome similar to embarking on a vocation -- a pursuit taken for its own sake rather than as a means to an end -- which mirrors what scholarly life is all about.

2. A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf (1929)

As any Tom, Dick or Harry (or shall I say, Mary, Jane or Alice) would know, Virginia Woolf is famous for her dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write" (often the quote includes the word "fiction" at the end of the sentence, but those who read her seminal work of literary criticism as listed here, from which the quote was originated, would realise that her injunction is not restricted to fiction but applies to all literary forms, including poetry and critical essays).

Perhaps what is generally lesser known about Woolf, but is amply evident in this famous work of hers, is just how much a consummate literary critic she really was. Her writing had that sharp, unflinching and unerring confidence that immediately put readers at ease and made them trust her judgement implicitly, without reservation or prejudice, even when she was making claims that were wildly contradictory to the accepted wisdom of her time, and even though she was a woman who was clearly not of her time.

A Room of One's Own was an eye-opener to me because finally here was a woman who could articulate all the niggling worries and heart-felt frustrations a female writer feels while struggling against the sheer (dead)weight of a literary canon hitherto defined exclusively by white, middle-aged males of privilege, but she did so with the kind of steely coolness and a lightness of touch that made the rage on behalf of her gender all the more perceptive and all the more justified. She built her case regarding the necessities of money and a private situation for women writers by looking at historical examples of women's writing, and none more devastating an example as that of Lady Winchilsea, a poet born in 1666, of whom Woolf commented thus:
... she wrote poetry, and one has only to open her poetry to find her bursting out in indignation against the position of women:

How we are fallen! fallen by mistaken rules,
And Education's more than Nature's fools;
Debarred from all improvements of the mind,
And to be dulled, expected and designed;
And if someone would soar above the rest,
With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,
So strong the opposition faction still appears.
The hopes to thrive can ne'er outweigh the fears.

Clearly her mind has by no means "consumed all impediments and become incandescent". On the contrary, it is harassed and distracted with hates and grievances... Yet it is clear that could she have freed her mind from hate and fear and not heaped it with bitterness and resentment, the fire was hot within her. Now and again words issue of pure poetry:

Nor will in fading silks compose,
Faintly the inimitable rose.

... It was a thousand pities that the woman who could write like that, whose mind was tuned to nature and reflection, should have been forced to anger and bitterness. But how could she have helped herself? I asked, imagining the sneers and the laughter, the adulation of the toadies, the scepticism of the professional poet. She must have shut herself up in the country to write, and been torn asunder by bitterness and scruples perhaps, though her husband was of the kindest, and their married life perfection... Her gift was all grown about with weeds and bound with briars. It had no chance of showing itself for the fine distinguished gift it was... one can measure the opposition that was in the air to a woman writing when one finds that even a woman with a great turn for writing has brought herself to believe that to write a book was to be ridiculous, even to show oneself distracted.

... [Comparing Lady Winchilsea to Aphra Behn] Mrs. Behn was a middle-class woman... She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote... for here begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes... The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth-century among women... was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.

... Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue. For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. (Emphases added)

Woolf was also one of those rare critics whose criticisms added immensely to the appreciation of original authors' works. I am especially grateful for her take on Jane Austen, that most misunderstood of popular 19th century English female authors precisely because she is so famous. Woolf wrote of Austen's literary achievement as consisting not merely in her razor-sharp observations of the social relations and mores of 19th century upper-class Britain in her novels; and not only in her ability to construct a sentence (though Woolf gave extremely instructive examples of these); but in her being a totally unaffected writer free from the poison of tortuous emotions that commonly afflicted lesser writers of her time, including the Bronte sisters:
... I could not find any signs that her [Austen's] circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest. That, perhaps, was the chief miracle about it. Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at Anthony and Cleopatra, and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare. (Emphasis added).
Oh, I could go on quoting page after page of Virginia Woolf and would never get to fully express just how brilliant she was as a writer and how inspirational a thinker she is to me. When I got my hands on her Selected Essays (2008) recently, which I read on my flight to Hong Kong last summer, I couldn't help dog-earring almost every page of my copy (until I realised how futile an exercise that was and stopped destroying my book). Her words and her views on literary craftsmanship and the position of women in society and as writers heavily informed -- nay, actually moulded -- my perspectives on same. She, more than any other writer, is the reason I am a feminist.

3. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith (2000)

4. No Logo, by Naomi Klein (2000)

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007)

5. Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell (1999)

number9dream (2001), Cloud Atlas (2004), Black Swan Green (2006)

6. Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (2005)

Wild Swans (1991)

7. Granta 105: Lost and Found, Granta Magazine (Spring, 2009)












8. The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson (1998)

9. The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, Selected and Arranged with Notes by Francis Turner Palgrave (aka "Palgrave's Golden Treasury")(1875)

Soundings: Leaving Certificate Poetry / Interim Antology, ed. by Augustine Martin (1969)

10. Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006, by Wendy Cope (2008)

Poetry Book: English in Units, ed. by John G. Faby (1991)

The Mist over Clonaghadoo, by Maureen Lowndes (2001)

11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script, by Charles Kaufman and Michel Gondry (2004)

The Sixth Sense, by M. Night Shyamalan (1999)

12. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2002)

13. An Inconvenient Truth, by Al Gore (2006)

14. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, by Margaret Atwood (2003)

15. Speaking with an Angel: An Anthology, ed. by Nick Hornby (2000)

16. Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding (2001)

17. Nigella Express, by Nigella Lawson (2007)

18. Laura Ashley Home Catalogue, by Laura Ashley Holdings, Plc. (Spring, 2007)

19. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (2003)

20. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (2008)

A Chance of Sunshine (aka Turn Left, Turn Right), by Jimmy Liao (2000)

* * *

And if one leaves out the cookbook, the catalogue, the literary magazine, the graphic novel and the shooting script from my list above, there are five more slots for me to include honorary mentions for the below:

21. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

22. The Kindness of Strangers: The Autobiography, by Kate Adie (2003)

23. Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes (2005)

24. Youth, by J.M. Coetzee (2002)

25. The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry (2005)

The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth (1986)

*Yes, contrary to much online confusion caused by misguided pedants, the Noughties (2000-2009) IS a proper decade. Other alternatives I have seen promulgated online include 1999-2009, but this is laughably inaccurate as it would result in counting 11 years rather than 10 years for the first decade of the millenium. Another suggestion I have seen is to count the decade from 2001-2010, which not only would mean that 2000 was not included as part of the new decade of the new millenium, but it would also have contravened the standard convention of counting the decades, whereby the first year always ends with the digit 0 and the last year always ends with the digit 9 (e.g. the 90's being 1990-1999, the 60's being 1960-1969, and so on). Anyway, after the Noughties, the present new decade (2010-2019) would probably be called the Teenies, as the proper term the Teens doesn't gel with the usual "-ies" ending of decade names. Whatever its name, I do hope that the new decade would be much less "interesting" a time than the one we just survived by the skin of our teeth.

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