The never played symphonies

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Damien Chazelle’s La La Land

It’s not trying to say that life is a musical, quite the contrary.

At its core, it’s an exposition on mundane complexities that sometimes derail the more fantastical aspects of our existence. I got that from Stone prancing around in a cute one-piece? Not quite. Look behind those enchanting eyes, there is a lot of life hidden in there somewhere. Not life as a choral accompaniment, but life as we know it, a stubborn dirty fighter that never backs down.

Perhaps I’ve digressed. The reality is that life is not a regulated sport. It does not conform to agreed precepts and it isn’t always required to reimburse what it intentionally or unintentionally robbed you of. We sling around cliche proclamations like ‘life is unfair’ while thinking about that frail old lady down the street who got hurt simply because a pair of irresponsible youths decided she would be an easy target on an unassuming needy night.

But what about those abhorring decisions we have to make sometimes? The ones that eventually results in the death of something precious in your existence? What about those? The ones that punish you for doing what you have to do. Not quite so easy to wave those away with a lazy blanket statement.

I used to appeal figuratively to an ethics committee, demanding to know why I was penalised for essentially doing the right thing. Isn’t it supposed to be likened to a mathematical equation? That if I sum the right parts I would be guaranteed the intended eventuality. I was forcefully dealt those cards in some instances, not that I went looking for a poker table. The committee had a moral obligation to absolve me. Otherwise we would descent into absolute anarchy, right?

That’s before I realised that one of the biggest fundamental mistakes we make about life is that we often assume it plays on your team, albeit occasionally uncooperative and disruptive but a teammate nonetheless. The truth is, it does not. It doesn’t even play for the opposition. It just moves around with little consideration for you and whatever reward or destruction you reap is largely accidental.

The day I came to that realisation was a cold and lonely one …

 

 

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The opposite of hallelujah

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Church of the Good Shepherd, NZ. Tourists just out of view.

If we deconstruct out existences down to a series of processes, then most of us would agree that some of ours are run with a great deal of inefficiency.

Better decisions could be made if we were afforded even a hint of what was down the road. Whether it’s that job loss a week after you bought a new car, that market crash in six month’s time, that lovely girl you are going to meet a year later and how you are shitting over that by chasing every skirt you see today, humans are really like rubber duckies dropped into a wild river, smashing uncontrollably against the banks, unable to hold on to anything and completely unaware of what fate is waiting at the end of the waters.

I’ve taken this issue with God more than once, demanding that He explain to me why He can’t just reach His whizz-like pinky down here and fix this bug. I’ve thrown tantrums over what I perceive to be just inefficient management on His part. That with a well-designed Excel sheet and a few clipboards, He could have my life purring like a vintage engine.

The truth is, most of us treat God like a consultant, someone whose agenda and objective is to achieve process nirvana, to poka-yoke-the heck out of the intricacies of our existences so that we slip not, waste not.

But God really does not behave like a consultant. His purpose isn’t for us to operate our lives flawlessly and with optimum efficiency. If that was really the purpose, then He could simply zap us with the ability of aforementioned foresight, boot temptations out the door and endow us with impeccably strategic minds before dusting His hands off and sitting down for a pina colada (virgin, of course).

Instead He really behaves more like a teacher, or at least the way teachers are supposed to. There is no intended end-product at the end of the production line, because it’s all about guiding you through a process. How much you get out of it depends on your willingness to listen and how intentionally you apply that knowledge to the process. What we want out of God is for Him to just hand us the exam questions because really, that is the most efficient way to get us where we need to be. But we would never stand for a teacher that did that, so perhaps we should start looking at God in the same way and not expect Him to play cheat.

I am cognisant about how this looks to skeptics, that a supposedly omnipotent God that seemingly allows you to barrel into any eventuality really sounds a lot like that God does not exist. But isn’t that the definition of what faith is, to swim into vicious waters instead of staying dry on the comforting shores of logical reasoning?

I chose faith a long time ago, and I really don’t quit easily.

Let your good heart lead you home

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Gritty but comforting …

I was trying to hail a cab. Traffic was blooming restlessly around me and luck was not being too magnanimous. Taxis were zipping by but none seemed too interested to stop. ‘You want taxi?’ It was the traffic warden from the swanky hotel situated on my foreground. Being bred on the occasionally unforgiving streets of the Klang Valley where hardly anything or anyone yields, I was naturally apprehensive. Does he want a fee for doing this, given I was clearly not a resident of the posh hotel that salaried him? I mean I was drenched in sweat, decked in dirt-soiled cargo shorts and I was obviously walking towards him from a direction that was away from the hotel. Nevertheless, I mentally waved a white flag at my ideals and nodded. He proceeded to use his hand-held ‘Taxi’ sign to hail down the first cab, had a furious discussion in Thai and frustratingly waved the taxi on. I was baffled. ‘No meter’, he said. He proceeded to wave down three more cabs before nodding to me to get into one. As I was preparing to board I turned to him, expecting him to collect his fee. He just smiled and gestured me into the cab. It was an unimaginable moment of grace from someone, in a buzzing city that was exploding with neon life. He did not have to, but he did. It was unexpected and frankly, as silly as it sounds, unbelievable. Such was the dizzy heights of my cynicism. For a moment, I reconnected with the human race. And I was glad to report that we were alright.

Bangkok, as a city, has always agreed with me as a person.

There are many obvious things to dislike about Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, from the  dangerously intimate proximity of its architectural structures doing its best impression of a pressure cooker, skylines littered with messy power lines that seek to charge its bustling heart and the unwholesome extensions of its maligned body providing sexual gratification for socially awkward patrons raised in lands with stronger currencies.

As someone who was born and raised in the city, I grew up with certain expectations on how a city is supposed to operate and how its inhabitants are supposed to behave. Every subsequent city, town or country you explore for the rest of your life is often measured against those initial set of expectations. From items you see on travels that you deem too expensive or unbelievably affordable, to people you meet who are almost uncomfortably friendly or unimaginably discourteous, everything is sized against those fundamental expectations we have built up during our lifetime. In most of my travels, rarely does a place hold up to those fundamental expectations.

Well, except Bangkok.

Each trip back opens up undiscovered facets of its multifarious personality that just makes me fall just a little more in love with it. This recent trip about a month ago, I discovered a sardonically hilarious tailor who makes lovely suits and shirts for decent prices that can be couriered back to you, an unadorned store in sec 16 of Chatuchak that sells brilliantly designed t-shirts of noteworthy indie bands and a tourist-light floating market that caters some of the most affordable and delectable food items to mostly locals. There’s a lot to both love and hate.

But like the one we start out with, we do not have the luxury of choosing what to call home. It just is, and this is

Your worst is your best

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The human condition

People are good in bad times

That statement zipped pass me so quickly during my routine listen-in on a football podcast that I almost missed it. The statement was made in relation to the recent Chapecoense tragedy or more specifically, the outpouring of goodwill following it from related quarters to the football club.

I nodded. It made a lot of sense, for a moment. People do generally know how to react accordingly during awful moments. One only needs to harken back to the airline disasters in these parts in recent memory. The most inspiring acts of humanity were done during some of the darkest moments of modern history. The accompanying thought that came racing up along the initial statement is – That means people are fundamentally good.

But yet, humans have traditionally set almost-delusional low standards for itself to achieve. As a species, in which one of its shiniest trophies is civilisation, humans are often far too quick to pat itself on its back for doing the minimum. Even elephants have been known to mourn the death of a herd member or rush to the aid of its young and helpless. Last I checked we weren’t exactly pitching our role models against Elephantidae standards.

People who are not bad during good times.

That’s what we should be striving towards really. If I were to diagnosed the human condition within this context I would say that we are fundamentally hedonistic in some way, with occasional blotches of convenient amnesia. In other words, we basically forget quick but more importantly, we forget quicker when we are happy. Perhaps misery is just a check and balance that’s been built into the ecosystem of civilisation to reboot our personalities to bearable levels every once in a while, less we end up butchering each other.

The great unwanted

Your problem is that you’re not happy being sad.  But that’s what love is – happy sad … Sing Street, 2016

I see a lot of Conor ‘Cosmo’ Lalor in me. Well, I did not form a band to impress a girl, not really at least, although that would be an apt piece to complete the jigsaw of tragedy that my teenage life sometimes was. But I most certainly would’ve entertained the thought that being in a band would help me meet more girls. Nothing of the sort happened of course.

Music, or more specifically being in a band, empowered me with a purpose that was far more relevant than anything I saw around or more importantly, in me, at the time. I was an awkward unpopular boy navigating through the treacherous den of fundamentally insecure bullies and sub-temperature test scores. I was basically a teenage vagabond, a flag without a country.

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Whenever the valleys of teenhood purposed to drown me in its intent, I found solace in the redeeming embrace of power chords and rickety practice studios that smell of stale saliva and day-old cigarette buds. It felt like I was an unnoticed trespasser in an adults-only club while the antagonists of my existence were caught up playing seesaw at the playground. They could no longer touch me. They could no longer hurt me.

But more than the band camaraderie, I see a lot of myself in his frantic and cumbersome search for identity that was filled with blots and embarrassing trips. I see a lot of myself in his foolish candor concerning love and life, how he always seems to be the one pining for someone to walk through the door, or for someone to tell him what to do. I see a lot of myself in his naivety and how he always seems to be the last one in a room who would stop believing in something. Those initial steps towards adulthood are often clunky, and very few of us have escaped those painfully mortifying falls along the way.

Most people my age can offer a warm smile at a movie like this. I did. It reminded me of a time when I was able to draw silly conclusions from things that would not make sense to me now. That sense of wonder about a life ahead of you and just how unafraid you are of the coming consequences.

We were, in a way, immortal …

 

After all that, it’s come to this

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The world stands bewildered by the events that unfolded on Nov 8. But really, it shouldn’t be.

We wrap ourselves up in these social cocoons where we are often vindicated, encouraged and supported by people who share the same world views as us. Some of us have immersed ourselves so much into these cocoons that we have convinced ourselves that this is the world and that there is no reality outside this. That a reality where someone would be insane enough to think that an obviously misogynistic/Islamophobic glam-loving raging bull would be a good fit to be the leader of the free world cannot possibly exist.

But it clearly does. As such, the unthinkable has happened. Well, it’s only ‘unthinkable’ to people who are exactly like ‘you’ really. At some point the Democrats’ campaign got so entrenched in their own reality, one that clearly shone so brightly on social media, that it forgot that there was a huge world out there that was never going to appear on your daily media feed. The reality they chose to invest in probably formed a large portion of 46.9% of eligible voters who decided not to vote, waving off the remaining demographics who sat outside of their reality, leaving them to just basically ‘do the right thing’. They did. Well, for them at least, and we have what we have today.

We publicly post our discontentment for subcultures we abhor, people we dislike or a situation at the parking lot in the morning and await justification from our rabid followers about just how right you were to do/say what you did and how wrong the other person was for doing what they did, even though in some cases it may be completely unjustified. We then gorge on these comments like little hungry despots until we’re obese from haughtiness.  This has become most of ‘our’ reality. It’s mob mentality, but all worked through a stained qwerty keyboard.

The irony is staggering. That a platform that really has enabled us to acquaint ourselves so much more with diverse communities around the world has instead made us a lot more boxed-in. But that’s human nature. We always have a knack of finding the weakest joints in every perfect machine to send it crashing into insignificant useless pieces.

I find discussions on morality without the presence of an immovable, incorruptible good, pointless. We can all agree that not many of us and the systems we govern would dare stand on that unblemished morality line given our track record as a species. So that leaves us with what exactly? Common sense? Well that obviously did not work out so well on Nov 8.

There is really no good or evil in this world, not in the truest definition of those words. What we often have are differing opinions between parties and how strongly one party can convince the rest that it understands the plight of all but that its stand is still the right one. It’s the basis of politics, really.

Beyond this world however, that’s another matter altogether …

 

No shade in the shadow of the cross

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The withering trees at Glenorchy

It struck me over the weekend as I was sitting on a rigid and stained plastic chair, with lunch properly passed and the afternoon lull setting in with a roar, which is to say it struck me on the head like a frisbee tossed from my blind spot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of motivation in recent weeks, about just how powerful it really is and how much more effective the human race would be if it came packaged with an on/off switch and a joystick to point it towards where you want it to go. But alas, motivation behaves more like a herd of wild horses – unsaddled, uncontrollable with the unbridled power to clear new paths or destroy strong existing structures.

Secular dogma would state that the lucky among us are the ones whom our motivation and ambition have decided to flirt with each other. Oh, to feel like you are barrelling towards your desires like the Falcon in lightspeed. The rest of us mortals have to contend instead with an existence where our ambition is more likened to an unloved and underappreciated wife who is trying mostly in vain to rouse her sluggish couch potato husband, motivation, on to his feet.

The intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy is the popular discussion when it comes to motivation. As card-carrying citizens of the human race, we have always been sold the spiel that while we need both to an extent, intrinsic motivation is probably the more stable, mature and balanced brother of the two. In more recent times, as we move excitedly towards increasing individualism, we have all but damned extrinsic motivation to hell as the horned and tailed sibling who is looking to strike you when you are at your weakest.

But yet the basis of most religion is quite the opposite. The concept of an all-knowing, all powerful God has always represented an anti-thesis against our conclusions regarding the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy. If anything, religion encourages us to be more extrinsic with our motivation, by trusting God, because intrinsically we are flawed beings. It probably makes sense that people should make themselves the central protagonist of their philosophical short films, while religion would seek to put God as theirs.

But I realised over the weekend that logic dictates that our motivation to do something has to be anchored towards the most unshakable thing in our universe, because that’s the only way to ensure the sustainability of our efforts in reaching our goals. Man believes itself to be the most unshakable thing, therefore it suggests that motivation should come from within. Perhaps that’s why no matter what culture or ethnicity, there always seems to be a quest to find God. That immovable standard of morality that anchors our beliefs and motivates us towards goodness. Because deep, deep down inside we know that if we anchored it on ourselves, it would be led to ruins by the fickleness and weak-mindedness of men.