Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Folktale told in the Winter Solstice

Photo by Charel Klein
The story goes that there were three gods: The first ruled the sky, the second ruled the earth, the third ruled the universe. Each god was unshakably convinced that he himself was the greatest of all the gods, and no day passed without the three gods boasting quarrelsomely about their own greatness. Eventually they became tired of convincing the others by words alone. They agreed to hold a contest, so that each can take turns to reveal themselves to the people and then find out which one among them was the greatest, once and for all.

The god of the sky mustered all his strength, then with a flourish of his left hand he whipped up the fiercest storm that the world has seen of this age. Forceful gales blew over the ocean in to the land from the furthest north, sweeping people off their feet, and carrying their homes away in mudslide and deluge. With the snap of his finger he created the lightning, and anything or anyone who crossed the path of thunder were burned to a crisp. With his right hand he shook the land and a great wave passed over the ocean, and soon a thousand fishing towns nestled by the western shores of the ocean were soon carried away by the raging waters: women in the homes, children in the homesteads, and men in fishing boats. And the Barentines and the people of Tunu and Iceland fell prostrate before him in terror and said: enough, we shall worship you; hereafter take our sacrifice. 

The god of earth mustered all his wit, and with the sweetest singing tone began to sing to the people. The wealth of your masters are ripe for the taking, as are the bounty of all the earth. Rise up against your oppressors, take what is rightfully yours. Hold on to no scruples, as I who wield the wheel of history is by your side. With his left hand he set the houses of the wealthy aflame, and with the right hand he uprooted the trees of the forest, and turned the skies grey with soot. The enlightened masses of the eastern lands fell upon their enemies with gleeful pillage, even turning on their own tribesmen in their fervour for progress. But after this unfortunate time of bloodshed and rapacity had passed, peace once again returned, and the people who remained saw all these and were happy. We shall worship you, you who have created our new world, chorused the prosperous Lenese and the well-fed Chukchi, hereafter take our sacrifice.

The god of the universe mustered all his power, then became a small child, a helpless and minuscule homunculus who grew in the womb of a woman, who bore him in the stables and brought him up until he became a man: a man of genuine human likeness and appearance, who walked among the people. He spoke in a humanly tongue of love, mercy, and the unity of mankind. Men and women of all trades were drawn to him; those who believed his words became as newborns, coming to be again in haloes of water and fire: new men of shrewdness and wisdom, incapable of deceit, yet as innocent as the buntings in the snow. With his power he forgave people of their wrongdoings, healed the incurable, and raised the dead. The rich and the powerful resented his ways, but when they tried to kill him, he tore down their place of worship and built another in its place within three days. And the Rumelians and Taimirians fell prostrate before him in the new temple day after day, proclaiming his name above that of every other god.

And this is why the Barentines live in perpetual fear of the elements, why the Lenese live in absolute confidence in their industriousness and scientific knowledge, and why when you ask a Rumelian about the god whom they worship, they could speak of him for days and days without ever stopping for breath.

References: Psalm 82:1, Philippians 2:6-11, John 3:5, John 1:47, Matthew 10:16, Mark 14:58

Photo of Snow Bunting by: Charel Klein (

Thursday, November 26, 2015

You have never left my side

You have never left my side.
You were there in my darkest hours,
When the Tornado-demon hovered by my ears,
Convincing me that I have been left utterly alone.
That I was worthless dust, left by the wayside,
That my friends have fallen away
And all that I can look forward to is for the next storm to pick me up
And scatter me into the cornfields of Nebraska.
But I know that not all my friends have fallen away
Because the ones that remain have become my support.
In my heart I know, though my emotions had withered to the bone,
And consigned themselves to the realms of the Damned,
That you are present in every Tabernacle;
That in every feast I taste the fruit of your goodness
And work of your hands;
That whenever the demon should incite me
To close my doors from my brothers and sisters,
I should throw them wide open.
And so let this worthless dust be scattered into the prairies
Let it tell of your succour and help.
As my feeble senses fail, so shall your glory fill the lands
Down to every canyon and dank alleyway;
Lasting joy in the face of grief.
Ach, let it be so.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Postgraduate Journal 3.12.6

Faithside: This semester has actually been pretty good on my side, despite the emotional low point miasma that stuck around when the semester started and I hauled ass right back to the school residence. Part of this is because I resumed my old practice of joining daily mass in the church across the road from my residence hall. I first joined (and committed to) daily mass in a panic during a particulary severe depression pang when I was working in Nebraska, whereafter the affliction was cured within two weeks. For this I credit the very reassuring presence of Jesus in the tabernacles and also the connections that I have built with members of the Nebraskan and Singaporean faithful who have stayed by my side and have been real champs. In November the church remembers the faithful departed and I have found joy in telling people the story of Tina and keeping her in the realms of the remembered. I am also especially grateful to Amanda and co. and their newly-fromed Ubi Caritas group in Yale-NUS College, a place where the spirit of rigorous enquiry and willingness to tackle big scary questions of faith has been nurtured and maintained. Guys, if you are reading this, I heart you all; this semester is gone too soon!

In other news, (1) daily Rosary was instated on the NUSCSS side, to the point that a small group of us, myself included, are doing it out of sheer force of habit. October was the month of the Rosary, not November, but it does not seem to matter any more to the diehards. (2) I have started a three-year programme of marking daily readings in the bible, because I heard an extraordinary claim that church readings cover the entire bible in three years, and I just have to see if that is really the case.

Scienceside: I have now a co-supervisor from Physics, a very kind and agreeable old professor dude, and am now caught in the thickets of computational physics. I actually prefer being snagged in the brambles of calculation than sucked into the quicksands of experimentation. One reason for this was that experimental people I have had to work with seemed to have scant interest in finding out how things actually work, and seemed to be bent on making things work by sheer power of will and by working themselves into a state of delirium (in which case anything at all can be thought plausible). The more important reason was that I sucked at experimental work while at the same time was passably good at calculation, having dabbled in computational techniques since my undergrad days. But even then, calculations sometimes don't work, and in fact at this moment none of my projects are working, and I have increasingly found myself compelled to cram undergraduate theoretical physics in order to understand the inner workings of my software, with its myriad weird error messages, (contra)indications, and acrobatic tricks.

I have been taking a course where I have learned to do computational physics from scratch. It started with some simple linear algebra and then swiftly degenerated into a mad scramble to write a working program with C that does high-powered stuff like Quantum Monte Carlo and the Metropolis Algorithm on Ising models and Schrodinger Equation solvers. Sad to admit but sometimes I fail to produce a working code (the Hydrogen molecule project has been especially disastrous), and the physics students are all pwning my arse at every turn. But I am positive, because my stated mission for this PhD adventure is to punch way above my weight, and this semester shall be no exception.

My first attempt at Monte-Carlo

Thursday, October 08, 2015

A visit to an old friend, the park official

Don't look so alarmed, Park Official Du. I know you're expecting me. You're not? Well then, please don't mind me having taken your seat while you were away for the day. It's just my little joke. Do you remember me? We met in college, during millitary training. Wasn't it fun? I have noticed your new pet project in the park has just been completed. My word, how the media loved it. I must congratulate you for having made it so well. It's not easy these days in this society, and you know that.

Don't look so glum, Park Official Du, managing the park is hard work, but I'm sure it (wink) pays off. Will you be so kind to help out an old friend? You know the economy these days, people burning out their cash on Shanxi coal mines and now grounding themselves like ships on coral in the stock market. You know it's tough surviving in society nowadays. Nice to have someone you can trust, eh? It's my nephew, they still aren't releasing him for the hit-and-run case, which you must have heard by now. I would have made them see reason, but they're already eyeing my own books. Some foolhardy cretins must have been trying to frame me again; I suppose they are about to use my good-for-nothing nephew as an excuse! Maybe I can't take care of the police very well now, but I'm sure they'll still listen to you, Park Official Du.

The past ten years have been a dream, but on the whole my family has never been very wealthy people. All we have, you might know, are each other, and a set of stainless steel cups which is our heirloom. It pains me but I must part with it, in gratefulness of having ever known you. No, please don't refuse it, I have made my decision to give it. I insist.

Besides, we still have a lot of these cups back home. You can have more of it if you'd like; yes, yes, you really can. It's been sitting idly with us all these years, and it will be such a shame if someone else got hold of it and accidentally... dropped it... on a glass bridge, for example. Yes, like the one that you built. It just wouldn't look very nice, don't you agree? (laugh) Oh, don't mind me, Park Official Du, it's my strange sense of humour again. It's a joke, as always. I'll leave you now, and hope to be seeing you around again.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Misa de Cristo Rey (Working Title)

A sneak peek of Sanctus

I composed a mass setting after being seized by the Muse for a few times over the months. I would like to dedicate it to the Parish of Christ the King in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I got the first brainwave. The name "Mass of Christ the King" seems to be taken, though. Should I find a new one?

Will anyone be using it? Will all this effort end up in something again? It's hard to tell, as always. But I have to start moving before I can find out at all.

Thursday, September 03, 2015


When you hear my petitions, Bubska,
Dance our dance, that no man will ever see
Sing my song, which only Eternity shall heed

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Postgraduate Journal 3.2.4

A moonlight picture of the "America" taken Christmas night, 1901, Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition
(Semester 3, week 2, Thursday)
It is my style now to write about things from which I have been a bit detached, be they things that had happened in the past, ephemeral thoughts, or other things not concerning myself. I was mainly worried about appearing egotic on the internet. However, the need arose for me to put them in order when depression cycles happen too often to be amusing anymore, so a friend has recommended that I start writing again.

My life is a mystery to people now.

I have to clarify that I am now working towards a PhD. I have had to repeatedly explain that I didn't go through a Masters course. Sometimes I suspect that the same people come back to ask me the same questions again, and that even so they leave with a vague incomprehension.

The undergrads do not know. My family does not know. Doctoral students not from my lab do not know. Groupmates probably know, but they don't know anything else about my life. Not one person would know enough. And then I fade into the background of every setting.

A big gathering of my undergrad friends happens. It is in the daytime. I have lab.
A big gathering of my working friends takes place. It is on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday night. I have night lessons.
It happens on Sunday. I am at church or refusing to do anything if not with my family.

The fact is that my acquaintances are becoming strangers, deep friendships are becoming superficial, and that I am shedding my circles. It is like being in a room with walls that are closing in, like a ship sailing in a sea that is freezing over. It always feels like my schedule is to blame, or the inability of others to accommodate it, or that no one would bother to do so.

Me: Aren't you free at all?
Them: We are undergrads. We have classes, we have work.
Me: So do I, but I have decided to put them aside, if only for two hours.
They recede. They disappear. The echoes of their revelry fade away.
I go back to work.

What is the meaning in what I do?

So now I have work instead of a whole bunch of acquaintances. The work is usually something the prof has thought up.

But why? I always ask! Why this in particular?
The prof says: read these papers.
The prof says: it can be applied to such-and-such.
The papers make: no sense
The applications are: castles in hot air

Is there a meaning? How does one get about business? I ask my senior, who have been through more and therefore should know better.

The senior says: just do whatever boss tells you.
And I leave this husk of a human being alone, feeling none the wiser. I have no desire to get chewed up in this system and get spat out as a cynic.
The meaning must be arrived at through work, it must come with pain. Those do not matter, but there has to be a meaning.

Can I quit and do something else?

I can, and then I pay back a year's worth of stipends, and then try to find some job. I have no idea what.
I still feel that doing science is my life's calling.
I can quit next year, and then pay back two year's worth of stipends. It will be as if I had never lived in these two years.

A certain Dr. R. came to talk to us youngsters this Monday. He had found a way around this whole depression brouhaha while he was a student himself. The message is this: light, light is at the end of this tunnel, seek and you shall find! Glumness and despondency seem to be a common affliction across the board for those who have decided to trod this path. I had scoffed at this thought in the beginning, but I think the gravity of the situation is pretty clear to me now.

I stay at an apartment in school. I am dismayed to learn that some of my roommates have been positively antisocial. I have no desire to get chewed up in this system and get spat out as a psychopath.

Can I reach out to anyone?

I reach, but they are elusive. They fly away to fairyland with sunshine and flowers. They have no capacity to understand sadness. They yawn at my morosity.

I reach, but they have very important business to attend to. They go, they get married, they travel. They forget.

After a few tries, I give up.

I sometimes pray to Bubska who is lost at sea. I have no way of telling if she hears me or if she is passing it on. I can only hope.

A treasury of stories and memories are bottled up inside of my mind. They have to be told to listening ears, or they may wilt in this tight, crowded space. I write, but even this blog may be an echo chamber.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Short Stories from the Czech Republic

During the Ascension long weekend in May 2013, I went to Kraków to visit classmates and passed by Prague and Ostrava in the Czech lands. Two years have passed and the memories of the two days that I spent in the country have been distilled to two short stories. Maybe, it's better this way.

1. Prague
The highlight of Prague was the Hare Krishna Parade that came out of flipping nowhere and tore through the Old Town like a tornado.

The procession was heralded by very loud music, which is followed by the peculiar sight of a bunch of people sporting tiny ponytails and looks of profound peace and tolerance on their faces. They waved their hands in the air and danced in sprightly footsteps, as a megachurch member might do. It was a refreshing contrast to the dreariness of travelling alone in the day, so I stalked them as they went on their way, from Wenceslas Square to the Astronomical Clock, always keeping several paces behind them.

A granny was among their ranks, and she was in charge of dancing particularly vigorously and handing out promotional flyers to hapless people who got in the way. As it happened, Prague had a not trivial population of destitute people, and one of them had planted himself in Kožná, prostrating himself at the side of the alley behind his upturned hat. Emanating an air of overwhelming benevolence and compassion, the granny let drop a flyer into the man's hat and rejoined the parade. But the beggar, philistine as he is in matters of spirituality, only gave it a dismayed glance and then cast it contemptuously aside.

2. Ostrava
The highlight of my stopover at Ostrava was this meal, which was quaint as balls:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

From the Coffee Table at Siem Reap

It just so happened that I am now in Cambodia to join Dad for a few days. I am pleased to report the existence of St. John's Church, but probably won't be able to make any of their mass/rosary timings. The church is rather understated in stark contrast to the insane fixation that people have on Angkor Wat, which is not even currently used as a house of worship. In other news, we biked out of town to visit some farmers in the morning. The highlight was trying salak, which is a fruit imported from Thailand. The Australians saw those things for the first time today and they (the fruits) were much better-tasting than their Indonesian counterparts.

UPDATE: Turns out people worship at A.W., and I stand corrected

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Sound of Trees

The Hispanics threw a big party at Lancaster event center a month ago. I wore the Friar's Brew t-shirt to the party and the people there loved it. I explained that my late ex-girlfriend had bought it for me and I now keep it as something to remember her by. It read "Friar's Brew / St. Mary of the Angels" and it had a small stylised figure of a very fat friar above the words, much wider than he is tall. According to Tina, this little friar "looks like he makes a sound", and she would make a sound like a rubber sheet stretching.

Everything makes a sound in Tina's universe. One day we had to walk down Jubilee Road, which was lined with some trees, and Tina told me that each of these trees made a sound. The sounds were similar to the the wordless babblings of very young children. If a tree had drooping foliage, it made a sound of a bummed-out youngster; if it had lively, upwards-pointing leaves, then the sound was gleeful; if it leant, it was a sound of the child falling asleep in his mother's bosom. In this way she called each tree along Jubilee Road by its name.

At the heart of this person who fill the very rational roles of girlfriend, daughter, sister, or teacher to those around her, lies a universe where everything has a name and a life of its own.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Story of Lincoln

I am back from the work trip. It was not too bad as work trips go, and I got quite a lot of stuff done and learned, so there's that. On the other hand I had been quite hesitant and wary of documenting my emotional state for this stretch of time. As a result, people back home probably thought of what I went through in the States as a vague and murky cloud of ideas such as "experiences" or "time of your life".

Maybe it's time that I told a better story.

Long story short: I was scared of death all of the time.
Long story slightly less short: I experienced the worst feeling of abandonment by friends and family back home during this period, even though the whole time I was aware in my mind that it was an illusion. I had to do all I can to resist slipping into disrepair and dissolution. I changed my habits and my disposition to keep this spiritual death at bay. Everything I did, I did out of fear of death.

Death loomed above in the spring thunderstorm that brought tornadoes to the county. Death hissed menacingly in the roaring north winds that came and froze the town in May. Death taunted me in my hours before and after work, whenever I was alone, and tried to convinced me that no one would be bothered if I plain disappeared one day.

Culture shock? Not much at all. Singaporeans are no stranger to all-engulfing American cultural exports, but Lincoln has been more pleasant than I had expected, anyway. Travel opportunities? When you are under the thrall of the Gloom, travel for leisure goes to the bottom of your list of priorities.

Instead, I tried to make every moment at work count. I started an exercise regime, and set for myself repetition quotas that increased every now and then. I started going for daily mass. I met the priests. I started going to the weekly market. I started conversations with anyone I met or anyone who did so much as look at me funny. I gave to the homeless and heard their stories. I got wind and kept track of local events. My list of things to do in Lincoln grew and kept growing as my feelings of despair diminished. I still had things left undone when I flew off.

What does this small city on the prairies mean to the world?

It doesn't have many attractions for the casual traveller. It doesn't have upscale shopping areas or breathtaking scenery. It's just a place where people lived. In such a trip, I am thankful enough to wake up every day and find myself still breathing. What do I care for the myriad distractions of tourism? The town and her people have given me all I need to stay alive.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Language of Love

Sometimes you can tell how much someone liked something by the way they pronounce the word for it. Podcast DJ Roman Mars loved flags, and gave a TED talk one day which was all about flags. During the speech he repeatedly said the word "flag", and basically would not shut up about flags for more than a few moments. He also pronounced the word "flag" in a way that made it sound as if he had glazed it over with dollops of honey, or as if the word "flag" was a very soft bed, and he was lying right in it. I had an English teacher in high school who loved cats. She had a way of saying the word "cat" that just makes your insides light up. It's nice to have people around who like things and spread that like around.

The Story of Jane

Jane comes in front of Newman Center every Tuesday, after afternoon mass, to hand out some flyers. This time she was decked out in an immaculate white dress, a white headscarf and white socks and shoes. She wore three strings of rosary beads around her neck, had cross earrings and wore a cross on the forehead where Hindu folk would wear a bindi. She had a sweet smile and had a distant look in her eyes, because her eyesight was failing. People who come out of church after mass generally gave her a wide berth, but I decided to get a flyer from her to find out what it was about.

Curiously enough, the first thing Jane noticed about me was that I was wearing the Iceland shirt. "You've been to Iceland!" she exclaimed, "how was it there?" Jane was curious about what it was like in that country and whether it was cold, like how you would think about a country that was named Iceland. I explained that I went in the summer, and it wasn't that cold at all. Next she asked if I was from Wenzhou. I wasn't, but I've met people who come from there and were Catholic, and so has Jane. Jane recounted some of the Asians whom she had met. She taught art in the capital to Asian kids, mostly South Korean children who she found so intelligent and charming.

Jane stopped teaching art because of eye problems, and an accident far back left her with foot problems, so she couldn't stand for too long, so I suggested that she should rest. But she looked determined to persevere.

The Story of Iceland

I was in Iceland from 6 to 10 June 2013 with some of the other Singaporean exchange students at EPFL. It was a large island for three hundred thousand people and looked empty much everywhere except in Reykjavik.

This is basically how it looks like in the summer. Also depicted above is a silly habit which we developed along the way, namely trying to stack cairns as high as we possibly could.
Iceland was awesome. I should go to more detail about it in a future entry.

The Story of Wenzhou Catholics

Photo: Ke Yichen
The Chinese RCIA in my parish, Holy Cross, had a visitor in February. His name is Chen Xu, and his trade was physics. He was on a visit to my school to do as much research as he could for (two months?). One of the parishoners gave him lodging and he came for class on Wednesday nights, which was where the rest of us met him. He had been baptised with the name Peter. He might have been baptised also on a few other occasions, but the circumstances of those baptisms were extremely murky. He came from the country around Wenzhou, where the Catholic tradition had its stronghold. In the city where he went to school, however, there's hardly a church to be seen. Such is life in China, I guess.

He joined us for a retreat and then had to leave us for home too soon. He is a nice guy. Such is life.

The Story of Jane's Pamphlet

The stuff that Jane is dishing out to unsuspecting passers-by is quite interesting, even a little unhinged. Here's what it says near the end:

"Wear a rosary for best influences so you won't be effected by subliminals or nano/stemcells. Put honey on face with oil so others think you are sweet. So you don't masturbate and self inflict or form a child wear garlic in pockets or rosary in undies with cross outside waist band. Because of cussing on TV throw out TV, flag poles & put white crosses on entry ways, on top of page, on windows so you don't get gasses, on ground and head of bed for better care. Lick clay for any disease, drug or tainting. Get a log lock on door & rosary for door knob. Don't eat beef or lamb: prion detector machine was taken down."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

About the Berries

On Sunday I plucked and ate a berry from the tree at the wetlands. I was reminded of all sorts of stories about berries. In Finland you could taste any sort of berry that you liked; most can be eaten, and the ones that can't won't kill you. People in that country were crazy about berries and I could not forget the sight of the lady at Lautasaari squatting in the trailside, making short work of the berry bush and eating the berries as soon as she had plucked them. She looked as happy as a lark because at that moment her life is all about the berries. I remembered hearing about Thai people ferried to Finland just to go to the forests to pick berries, which was why we went hiking in the forest and scarcely saw any berries. I saw cloudberries by a railroad near Vaasa, but did not dare to touch them; I only realised they were edible afterwards. People like us grew up eating supermarket stuff and have always been cautious about wild berries. On Sunday I was not so sure about that berry, but decided to eat it anyway. Today I am still alive, so that probably means it worked out well.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Lincoln Parish Visits

On a day when the Gloom was on its way out, I spent Pentecost with the Vietnamese. Khiết Tâm Mẹ, or Immaculate Heart of Mary, served the Vietnamese Catholics in the north of Lincoln, while St. Andrew Dũng-Lạc took care of those living in the south. I arrived by bicycle and by flailing my way through the suburban maze. It was a foggy morning and everything in the outdoors became coated in a fine veil of mist droplets, myself especially.

Whole families arrived to the church compound by car, the women decked out in yellow áo dàis for the occasion. The readings were Vietnamese, but obviously they were about that time in the Acts of the Apostles when the Jesus folk were gathered in a house, and the Holy Spirit descended upon everyone in tongues of fire, and they began to preach to the befuddled foreigners, who understood them perfectly. And I understood what the priest said perfectly.

But most of all, the children... Since I was late, and the church was already overflowing, I took a chair and settled at the rear, outside the prayer hall and where kids with no chair to sit down on were allowed to run around and annoy people and make as ghastly a din as they liked. And they bawled in a tongue that I understood perfectly. They assured me that the church is alive, and has a future. And they left hope in my basket of sorrows.

Also, no one seemed to have realised, or seemed to mind, that I wasn't Vietnamese, nor spoke a word of the language.

A week after the Gloom was on its way out, I spent Trinity Day with the Hispanics at Cristo Rey, or Christ the King. This time I was early, and sat at the front. One or two people might have thrown me suspicious looks: it is strange, after all, to see an Asian guy at Spanish mass, but I speak Spanish now and Chinese Latin Americans exist and people just have to be used to it.

I blended right in. It seemed much easier to do so here than in any other Catholic Church in town. I don't know if it's the warm sunshine that shone on us from the window, or the mariachi guitarist choir, or the warm glow seeping out from people around me. The annoying kids are around again, and would not keep still. The mother of three who found a place to sit beside me struck the very image of indomitablility; with her left hand she held one wild goat of a son, by her left hand the other, and  with her right foot she rocked her infant daughter's cradle on the aisle. And the baby drifted to sleep ever so unhurriedly.

After scrawling the blessed red crayon all over the hallowed pages of the colouring book, the son turned to his sainted mother and beamed: ¡Mom, look at what I coloured! And of course the sainted mother let out a sigh of resignation and told him to please put that away for now. And Our Lady of Guadelupe watched over each parishoner from up above.

I had planned to go home and prepare my own lunch after mass. The church offered me to join a food fair instead, so naturally I agreed, and bought some tickets to exchange for some unhealthy Mexican cuisine. I met the vicar, Padre Craig, a young pastor with an indestructible accent, and envied him for his time serving among this jolly bunch. I thought again of the people at Tagaytay whom I went to stay with on this very day last year.

After I went home, I played the Mariachi Kyrie on the guitar from memory, and my parents loved it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Newman Parishoners

Today Father Benjamin Holdren invited the people who came for Saturday mass, including his parents, for doughnuts and coffee, and I have to write that down as a big plus.

I've had lots of beans to spill these days. It actually seemed less like me spilling beans at people than it is like picking up my friends by the belt and then hurl them bodily into a ten-storey tall grain silo, filled with beans. I am just thankful for all who have sifted through my irrational thoughts, or laughed at my laughable thoughts, or even chastened me for the wrongheaded ones.

Maybe I have not been mindful of the people who have gone through what I am going through now. I pray now that I can recover and then do the due recompense. When the World takes its leave on the Happy Boat, Lord, just let me know I'm not left alone on shore. Send me, wherever you need me to go.

UPDATE: PTL back in commission from this depressive episode and back to petty acts of mischief in this wonderful new place and PTL it's officially summer

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fighting the Bummer Week

Gentle readers, all you need to know is that something happened on 10 May that got me feel a tad down. Here's the story of myself getting back into commission, if anyone who is going through something similar might find it instructive.

Day 0. News received. Override circuits kicked in and I went for Sunday mass, then biked for 30 kilometers around the town. Really, anything but keeping myself idle! This coping mechanism worked insofar as I was churching/biking, not so much while doing the falling asleep stuff.

Day 1 to 2. Unfortunately, Day 1 is Monday.
I called my fairy godsister, who asked, "why didn't you call earlier? I knew something would happen on your side." We talked for 3 hours till my lunchtime and way past her bedtime. For (the rest of) Monday and Tuesday I worked as hard as I could.

Day 3. I had completed everything on Tuesday and had nothing left to do. I sat in my chair and felt sorry for myself for the entire day, then went to Walmart in the evening with Shijie.
Friends checked up on me later in the night, and I on them.

Day 4. Still goofing out of work, I went to a mall to check the price of a phone, then detoured to the music store and bought a guitar. The storekeeper was called Rob, and he had been to Singapore for a work trip once upon a distant past, three billion years ago, when World Trade Center still existed (it's VivoCity now). I decided to also buy the mandolin in my second trip.

Day 5. Made new friend in a Vietnamese restaurant who will be out of town in the rest of the summer to make a living selling bible study stuff.

Day 6. By this day, she had known how I was feeling.
Long chat with Jeremy.

Day 7. With Shijie in the zoo at Omaha to watch some freaking animals.
The jellyfish exhibit proved to be extremely therapeutic.
Opened one more can of worms.

Day 8. Monday Confession with Fr. Holdren.
Met a guy outside the house who came from Saigon in 1976 to look for his American father, is down and out and now wants Home. Met 3 other homeless folks. Gave him ten bucks shamelessly.
Professor is back from Beijing, so crashed his office to ask some silly questions.
Ran 3km.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Things to get used to in Nebraska

1. Calculating with Quantum ESPRESSO
2. Getting on and off the bike gracefully
3. Converting Fahrenheit to Celsius
4. Crumpling (as opposed to folding) toilet paper
5. ~20 degrees C diurnal temperature variations
6. Paying by credit all the time
7. Daily Rosary (Thanks EWTN)
8. Wide, sprawling buildings
9. Time difference (-13 hours)
10. Local wildlife
11. Unholy opening hours of services
12. Thrift store shopping
13. Random acts of kindness

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The curious notion that one should not discover a dead thing and then leave without doing it some small service

Lehtisaari, 2013
In Halldór Laxness's 1935 novel Independent People, Guðbjartur Jónsson discovers the body of his son Helgi in the thawing snow. As the corpse is already in an advanced stage of decay, he could not recognise him. Out of a curious notion that one should not discover a dead thing and then leave without doing it some small service, Bjartur removes his right glove and throws it onto his son's body. Afterwards, he goes to his mother-in-law and asks her to knit a new one, and no more needs to be asked.

The idea of honouring the anonymous dead in this way came to mind again when I wandered the Helsinki suburbs one Summer afternoon. It was in the middle of the bike path at Lehtisaari where there lay a formless mass of bones and feathers. On the top of the pile lay a flower stalk. This arrangement had most likely not arisen by chance; I like to think that a passerby had placed the flowers over what was left of the bird, simply so that they would not be forgotten.

At the same time, in another forsaken corner of the world, Bjartur chances upon the faceless, nameless remains of a young man, and pay his homage with his right glove.

And since that time I have noticed the same practice repeated again for many of the times when I chance upon the carcases of a certain dead animal, in my own country no less. Only two weeks ago in school, at Mochtar Riady, I found what until recently used to be a bird with a very handsome green plumage. It lay, motionlessly and unobtrusively, at the base of the hedge. Here again someone had picked a handful of ixoras and scattered it over the creature. I picked a modest trumpetflower and added it to the shrine, and there these would stay until the rain or the janitors arrive.

Written 14 April 2015

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sobre mí barrio ideal

Näsåker, 2012
Mí barrio ideal es un pueblo en el norte de Sueca. Este pueblo está en un valle muy grande y muy precioso, y debajo hay un río realmente limpio. En este pueblo hay solo quiniento habitantes, porque en el norte no hay muchos gentes. Los habitantes son a menudo granjeros o pastores. Los casas son pequeños y algunos tienen techos de cespéd. Extrañamente, no hay caminos entre los casas. Quizás salen raramente.

A través del pueblo hay solo un calle, y le llamamos El Storgatan. Al lado del Storgatan hay un supermercado, un ayuntamiento, y una parada de autobús. El pueblo no está muy bien communicado, pero el autobús viene aquí todos los sábados, por llevar unos gentes al mundo.

Cada agosto, los habitantes del pueblo hacen un festival de música. Ahora, el pueblo tranquillo se hace mucho mas ruidoso. Los gentes llegan de Stockholm, de Sundsvall, de los otros ciudades del sur, y de los otros países también. No hay suficientes hoteles aquí, así que cada visitante tiene que levantar una tienda en alguna parte, pero en el bosque construyen tres etapas, un patio, y algunos puestos de comida.

De viernes a domingo, todos en el bosque bailan al ritmo de la música, se atiborran de comidas extrañas (par ejemplo: el pad thai sueco y el pad thai tailandés no son los mismos), o salen al lado del río. Nadie duerme por la noche, porque es demasiado frío.

[El lugar real en Google Maps]

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Valerio Learns Chinese: Part 2 - Grammar and Vocabulary

So it happens that 3 lessons and 1 holiday have passed since our last update and I am way overdue in writing Part 2. Issues regarding phonetics are largely settled, as there does not seem to be any more new thing that I have forgotten to mention. For lessons 2 to 4, Valerio learns some basic grammar and vocabulary.

A First Note
Foreign-language classes face a perennial dilemma in the sense that one can prioritise
1) Learning how to say or write anything in a language, or
2) Learning specific stock phrases for practical situations such as ordering dishes, shouting for help in emergencies, explaining yourself to the police, or flirting.

It is usual, at least in the courses that I have attended, to juggle both of these priorities according to the needs of each student. However, I am going to place some more weight on the former focus because
1) Valerio asked for it,
2) Grammar allows for a more flexible and therefore more formidable command of a language, and
3) If you rely on a phrasebook to flirt (for example) and then the conversation moves on to more specific things, then it becomes very awkward very quickly.

If unprepared, native speakers of Mandarin are in for a hard slog when they pick up a language such as French, German or Spanish, all of which are rich in grammatical artifacts like gender, declension of nouns according to case, conjugation of verbs according to pronoun, and tenses for actions that happened in the past, in the present, in the future, in the future but before an earlier-mentioned future event, a hypothetical past event after another hypothetical event further in the past, or suchlike. In contrast, Mandarin Chinese is blessedly free of such rules, and it becomes easy to write the language off as something grammarless. That said, I shall prove this wrong shortly.

Scope of Grammar: Copula, simple verbs, phrasal verbs, negation, tenses, imperative voice, passive voice, questions, conjunctions, sentence structure, subordinate clauses

The idea of lessons 2 to 5 two was to teach the bare skeleton of the language in the hope that it becomes something like a form into which you can just fill in the blanks to suit any purpose, which is fine if you don't try to be too adventurous. Let's try an example:

我是人 - I am a human being
This is a copula sentence. We learn here that 是 is the Mandarin from of "=".
Now for the case that I = cat, we say: 我是猫 - I am a cat
Or for the case that I = police officer: 我是警察 - I am a police officer

Suppose you are neither a cat nor a police officer. In this case we use the character 不 for negation:

There is a second noun that means "to be" in Mandarin. This could be a problem for English, French or German native speakers, who can then go and run to the Swedish and Spanish speakers for help, because both of the latter also have two such nouns roughly corresponding to the Chinese:
是 (to be a thing, to be equivalent to) ≈ Ser ≈ Vara
在 (to be somewhere, to be doing something) ≈ Estar ≈ Finnas

The negation for "to have" is trickier because it uses a different character, 没. For example:
有钱 - I don't have money; not *我不有钱

The negation of an imperative verb is also different:
走开!不要走开/走开! - Go away! Don't go away! not *不走开

On top of these, we seem to run into a special class of verbs whose negations go in the middle:
上去! - Go up! (Go-up away)
我上去。 - I can go up. (I go-up ~DE away)
我上去。 - I can't go up. (I go-up not away)

As a student of Spanish I am extremely grateful that the language has a single word "no" that can negate anything. For a person without that special sixth sense that Mandarin speakers possess by virtue of having grown up speaking the language, it probably has to be taught case by painstaking case.

I forgot to mention that despite not having tenses, Mandarin has a way of dealing with time:
我以前  来这里。 - I've been here before (I in-the-past come ~GUO here)
我以后去  那里。 - I will go there in the future (I in-the-future ~HUI go there)

The way one asks a yes/no question is also unique, but this is a less surprising thing for Mandarin as many languages seem to do so each in their own way.
English: You are a cat. Are you a cat? (Word order change)
French: Tu es un chat. Est-ce que tu es un chat? / Es-tu un chat? (Added phrase "est-ce que" in front to indicate a yes/no question. Alternatively, a word order change can also be used)
Spanish: Eres un gato. ¿Eres un gato? (Inflection change)
Finnish: Olet kissa. Oletko kissa? (Suffix -ko on verb to indicate yes/no question)
Mandarin: 你是猫。你是猫?/你是不是猫?(Literally: You are cat ~MA? You are are-not cat? The first one uses a particle, the second presents both yes and no options)

Scope of vocabulary: Basic action verbs, modals, positions, words specific to (Valerio's) everyday life, time (days of the week, months, date, time of day, relative time), numbers and quantifiers

Here, we treat knowledge of vocabulary as a repository of words to fill in the blanks in a grammatical scaffold. Here, some sense of priority is needed. One of the first verbs that I learned while learning French was "pendre la crémaillère", which means to throw a housewarming party. Having no occasion to ever pendre la crémaillère or to see someone else do it afterwards, this figure of speech fell into disuse. For want of efficiency, the most commonly-used and relevant vocabulary should be taught first.

I relate to my first attempt to learn Indonesian six years ago, when my army unit held an exchange with the Indonesians. We were given a crash course of two to three weeks in the language, and then sent into the country to talk to the locals. Our Indonesian buddies were supposedly also trained in English to prepare for our visit, but they gave up the moment we tried our Indonesian on them. The period of the exercise was slightly over one week, so we had to learn the language in a hurry. How I eventually did it was:

1. Go out and talk
2. Find something which I don't know the word for (e.g. I need the word for "sometimes")
3. Ask the Indonesians for the word (they say "kadang-kadang")
4. During rest time, read up on and learn all related terms (jarang = seldom; selalu = always; sering = often)

In this way, acquiring vocabulary became intimately coupled with what I needed in my day-to-day doings. Much of the vocabulary taught in Lesson 4 relied on the experience of trying to answer questions like these in small talk:
- Where are you going now? - - We are going outside (keluar) -
- What time is it? - - It is now 1 p.m. (jam satu) -
- When will you be going home? - - Next Tuesday (selasa depan) -

In the lesson notes, the diagrams that I used in the joint exercise were duly and accordingly revised to teach the Mandarin equivalents of the vocabulary.

As anyone who is learning a new language would know, learning words for communicating politeness and good intentions is a key component of not getting murdered by a mob in a foreign land. I think Valerio knows most of it already, but maybe he can learn them again in a future lesson. Meanwhile, I had better sign off before I get too carried away and try to write down every single topic in this update.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Sobre mi habitación

Tengo un dormitorio en la escuela. Está en el séptimo piso de la Torre Norte. Dentro de mi habitación hay una mesa bastante desordenada, con un ordenador, una lámpara, unos libros, una maqueta de un ángel con la Sagrada Familia, y muchos otros objetos. A la izquierda de mi mesa está mi estanteria con veintiun libros. Mi armario está al lado. Enfrente del armario hay un tablón de anuncios. La puerta está entre el armario y el tablón de anuncios, y mi cama está enfrente de la puerta y debajo de la ventana. Mi dormitorio es muy ruidosa cada miércoles por la noche, porque hay muchas estudiantes de intercambio que van a los clubs. Además, da a los otros dormitorios de la Torre Sur; Esto es bastante extraños y las cortinas están a menudo bajadas.

Tengo también cuatro compañeros en mi apartamento. Son bastante amables pero los veo raramente.

[Corrections received from Miguel Angel 7 Apr 2015]

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Valerio Learns Chinese: Part 1 - Pinyin, Tone and Springtime

Valerio has been saying nīhàomá and other things at innocent bystanders for a few years now. Now, he has decided to learn the language once and for all, and has enlisted my help for this purpose. This is a summary of our lessons and some reflections about finding the best way to teach Chinese to a serious learner.

Lesson 1 Topics:
1.1 The Hanyu Pinyin Alphabet and pronunciation
1.2 A Spring Morning by Meng Haoran 唐·孟浩然《春晓》

A Note About Phonology:
It seems a common complaint among casual learners (and casual teachers) of Chinese that it is hard to get the pronunciation across and that it is hard to make the tones sound right. The root of the problem are compound: one of it lies in the unreliability of most phonetic spelling methods, the other in the inability of both the learner and the teacher to recognise the numerous differences between the phonetic inventories of their respective native tongues. Let's have a look on how these two add up by considering the syllable

知 (zhī) - to know

For readers who are new, the nice-looking symbol up there is called a character, the basic unit of the written Chinese language. A character functions either as a word or as part of a word. "Zhī" is how you pronounce it, as dictated by the Pinyin alphabet. But how do you say "zhī"? What is "zh", and what is "ī", or do you say "zed-high"? A new learner who reads "zhī" and then starts making some guesses could come up with, for example: [ʒi˥˩] (4th tone).

It's good for a first try, but not perfect. No, the teacher says. Say [ʈʂɨ˥] (1st tone). The student tries again. He combines the visual and audial cues and says [dʒə˥˩], a little closer again to the teacher's pronounciation. Getting it completely right will take a few more tries, but by now it should already have become clear that learning the new language brings you to this perilous and absurd place where not even the alphabet can be trusted, however phonetic it claims to be. Hence:
Item 1: Don't trust the alphabet.

The idea is that an alphabet can be made to represent sound perfectly, or it can be made to be easy to use. Real written languages tend to follow the latter strategy. However, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is designed to encode the widest variety of human utterances in all languages worldwide, and so I use it in the notes for the first class.

The Results: The IPA seemed to bring the point across that certain sounds in Chinese simply don't exist in one's particular native tongue, and have to be learned from scratch. Additionally, it also served as an initial guideline on how exactly to pronounce the new sounds. From the example above, by referring to the IPA consonant table, one could find that the consonant [ʈʂ] is retroflex, and learn to pronounce [ʈʂ] curling the tongue against the hard palate by practice. However, the learner will still have to become used to the new sounds by exposure and listening.

The idea of new sounds also brings us to the next part of the problem: The teacher and learner from the earlier scenario are suffering a communication breakdown. The teacher cannot understand why the learner still says "jerh" despite hearing "zhī" so many times. The learner is frustrated because he hears the teacher saying "jerh", he says "jerh", but somehow is still wrong. This reflects an earlier result in psycholinguistics (see e.g. Trehub, 1975), in which toddlers of six months are found to be able to distinguish pairs of sounds that are "different" in both native and foreign tongues, but lose the ability to distinguish the foreign pairs by the time they hit twelve months. Long story short: You Can't Hear Foreign Sounds!
Hence Item 2: Don't trust playing by ear.

To get around this problem in an ideal world, the teacher should be able to stick his hand into the learner's mouth and move the tongue to right where it needs to be. In reality, he will have to be content to try to understand what exact mistake is being made and to verbally coax the learner to make the sounds the intended way. A less experienced teacher might attribute the inability to make the correct sounds to the learner being "deprived of culture", "of the wrong stock", or that the physiology of the learner's mouth is unsuited to Chinese, and therefore requires surgery. These notions are lamentably false, and since the nature of the problem is psychological, teaching Chinese should also become a test of character for the teacher and an exercise in his ability to empathise.

Specific Hanyu Pinyin Oddities to Take Note of:
The letters b, d and g in Hanyu Pinyin do not denote the same sounds as they do in the English alphabet. Rather, they are unaspirated versions of p, t and k. To make sense of what I just said, consider these three examples:

port [pʰɔːɹt] - sport [spɔːɹt] - 班 bān [pã˥]

In standard English, the p in port is aspirated and the one in sport is unaspirated. If you held your hand to your mouth, you could feel a puff of air at port but none at sport. The b in bān is more similar to the p in sport than the b in, say, big bad wolf. However, an expection can be made if you are singing Mandarin pop-songs, and have to sound like a dimwit in order to make the sound flow more nicely.

a means [a], because each time I hear someone mention yin and y[æ]ng, I die a little inside.

e can mean [ɤ], [e] or [ɛ] depending on where you put it (complicated).

i is pronounced [ɨ] in zhi, chi, shi, ri, zi, ci, si, but [i] everywhere else.

j, q, and x are pronounced [tɕ], [tɕʰ] and [ɕ] respectively. These are alveopalatal fricatives and affricates with no exact analogue in English, but you can pronounce them by arching the tongue close to the hard palate, and then invoking the power of "chee".

zh, ch, sh and r are pronounced [ʈʂ], [ʈʂʰ], [ʂ] and [ɻ]. These are retroflex consonants, meaning that the tongue is curled back on the palate when these sounds are made. PRO TIP: not that I recommend it, but it is possible to survive in Singapore without using (or thinking about) retroflex consonants.

The n at the end of the syllable is not pronounced directly by many speakers of Mandarin. Instead, it turns the preceding vowel into a nasal vowel. E.g. 元 yuán is pronounced [ɥyã˧˥] rather than [ɥyan˧˥]. PRO TIP: It is possible to survive accidentally pronouncing the [n].

Tones are the perpetual bane for learners whose first languages are non-tonal. However, I believe that whatever can be explained in words about tones has been explained as well as one could elsewhere, and it is more practical simply to stop a Mandarin speaker on the streets and then ask him or her what the tones are, if they are cooperative.

Why there is a Poem in the First Lesson:
Long ago, in a high school far away, I was taught that to compose a classical poem, one had to juxtapose characters of different tones in the poem in a way that two corresponding lines can mirror each other, and suchlike. Exactly how I don't know, but it is enough of an inspiration to know that in a poem, the tones make extra sense. What better way can there be to initiate a new learner to a tonal language than this one?

This time, the choice of poem is 《春晓》 A Spring Morning (Chunxiao) by Meng Haoran 孟浩然. I chose it because it is currently springtime in the northern hemisphere and because it is a well-known piece; in fact, it is one of the first to be taught to children during their late infancy. A Tang Dynasty period composition is chosen because of its characteristic simplicity with four lines of five or seven characters each. This places it at an advantage over earlier Classical Age anthologies like Shijing 《诗经》 (too many funky obsolete characters) and later Song Dynasty poetry (too irregular and wordy).

The meaning of the poem is less important; the objective is to train listening and hearing, and the language of classical poems is not Mandarin but Classical Chinese, which is a radically different language (or languages) again with a distinct grammar, vocabulary, etc. Children are usually coerced to memorise classical poems with the hope that the meaning of the contents will automatically be clear to them as they age. Rightly or wrongly, I have decided to go down that path again.

In any case, I present the best translation that I can find here:

春眠不觉晓,Chūn mián bù jué xiǎo,
处处闻啼鸟。Chù chù wén tí niǎo.
夜来风雨声,Yè lái fēng yǔ shēng,
花落知多少。Huā luò zhī duō shǎo.

Sleeping in spring, I hardly know day breaks.
Everywhere I can hear birds singing.
At night I heard the sound of wind and rain.
Next morning, who knows how many flowers had fallen?

Links and Resources for the Intrepid Learner of Mandarin:

1. PDF to the Psycholinguistics paper (Trehub, 1975)

2. For those who would like to know how the funny little IPA symbols sound like in speech:

IPA chart for vowels with sound guide
IPA chart for consonants with sound guide

3. For those who would like to learn Chunxiao:

A Video
Source of the above translation
For comparison, a poem about springtime by a modern American poet

4. For those who want to know about the other kinds of classical poems that I have described above:

Video of Guanju 《诗经·周南·关雎》 from Shijing, a collection of poems traditionally attributed to Confucius
This version is recited in reconstructed Old Chinese, an educated guess on how people could have sounded like during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). Warning: It doesn't sound very pretty

The Song Dynasty poem Shuidiao Getou 《水调歌头》 by Su Shi 苏轼, composed in AD 1076, often sung to this day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Нандын жыты | Nandın cıtı

Жаңы бышкан нандын жыты,
Күндүн жайкы ысыгы.
Нан көп болсо үйдүн куту,
Эки беттин кызылы.
Cangı bışkan nandın cıtı
Kündün caykı ısıgı
Nan köp bolso üydün kutu
Eki bettin kızılı
Жаңы бышкан нандын даамы,
Жалпы дыйкан эмгеги.
Бүткүл элдин жүрөк каны,
Кен байлыгы жердеги.
Cangı bışkan nandın daamı
Calpı dıykan emgegi
Bütkül eldin cürök kanı
Ken baylıgı cerdegi
Жаңы бышкан нандын жыты,
Жазган ыры акындын.
Көзгө сүйкүм тынчтык кушу,
Күч-кубаты баатырдын.
Cangı bışkan nandın cıtı
Cazgan ırı akındın
Közgö süyküm tınçtık kuşu
Küç-kubatı baatırdın
Жаңы бышкан нандын даамы,
Ата-Журттун дымагы.
Ошондуктан элдин нугу,
Эзелтеден тынбады.
Cangı bışkan nandın daamı
Ata-Curttun dımagı
Oşonduktan eldin nugu
Ezelteden tınbadı

Singer: Gülnur Satylganova (Kyrgyzstan)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Human Places

Lausanne, 2013
Saturday 2 March 2013: Switzerland. Lausanne Metro, Montelly en route to Vigie. I was on exchange to EPFL and was on the way to town to see a snowboarding contest. A guy who was drinking a can of beer was on the same train. We had a disagreement on whether the window should be opened or closed. He opened the window. The middle and ring fingers on my right hand were on the hinge, and were trapped. I tried to pull them out. He closed the window. I stared at him. The train pulled up at Vigie. I got off the train muttering incomprehensibly - c'est bien... c'est tout bien... - but the fingers were flattened and the blood was dripping out from the cuts on each finger and made a mess of the platform. I went up the steps to street level, but felt faint and sat down. The blood dripped and made a mess of the steps. The other passengers also went up the steps at this time, passing me by. One person, two persons... I looked up and saw a granny. She looked at me with fear in her eyes. She went on her way.

I was alone in the metro station. I did not know what to do. I went back down to the platform. I sucked on my fingers. The next train arrived shortly after at Vigie, and out came Vincent, who was on exchange from NTU and knew me. I asked him for help and he agreed. He brought me to a place nearby where a bunch of Taiwanese folk were selling bubble tea. We asked them for help and they agreed, pointing us towards the nearest pharmacy in Flon. The pharmacists sold me antiseptic and plasters. I patched up and we went to the snowboarding contest. We linked up with three other exchange students at Place Riponne, where a huge crowd had already gathered. I felt tired and asked to leave. The others knew of what had happened earlier, but did not seem to understand why I would want to give up the chance of seeing some random snowboarders. I insisted to leave anyway.

The cuts took some weeks to heal. It's not clear if this sort of thing happens to every other shithead who throw themselves into this country for half a year and for no good reason, but it felt like I had a bone to pick with everyone for a good time after that day. It seemed to be that no one in the country can be expected to show kindness, and no one can be trusted to understand. If you wanted to be here to overeat, get smashed and forget about tomorrow, it was completely acceptable; but at the moment you were hurt and needed help, you were swept under the rug: silly foreigner, you were never meant to be here, go home.

I looked for human places wherever I went: I wanted simply to live and I wanted to be with people where they lived. I wanted to get to business as a person and not as a somewhat lucrative intrusion into the local economy. I found human places in many more places in Switzerland, notwithstanding that earlier mishap. In the woods near my home (Bois-Gondou) was a place where two strangers meeting on a path could greet each other warmly, unlike in the city. In the underpass at Renens station a young Chinese girl helped me with carrying my luggage when I moved out, then a young man who lived at Brugg helped me with navigating the town and gave good conversation during the bus trip. It seemed that such generosity became more frequent and more dominant of the social order the further one travelled from the megalopolises.

I am always dismayed to hear of tourists visiting Singapore and returning only to report that my country is a "shopping mall with an airstrip" or "Disneyland with the Death Penalty". Maybe they judged our country by the extremely attention-grabbing and glamorous Central District, but this judgment is unfair because they have not seen the truly human places in Singapore, the places where things like tourist revenue and national reputation are irrelevant and human decency retains some currency. I looked out of the 33rd storey of the Marina Financial Centre into Downtown and thought despondently: This is not Singapore, this is Legoland! How I wished I was looking at Pulau Ubin instead, or the Central Catchment forests, or the towns where I grew up in! And how I wished to point out to my visiting friends the routes and byways that traced the stories of my childhood, and the charms of the people who simply lived and were happy.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Demon of Hunga Ha'apai

"A curse be upon you, people of Heimaey!
Woe befall you, citizens of Nuku'alofa!
I have spread burning rock over your lands,
Your seas I will boil dry!"

The Volcano-Demon rejoices at the sight of an eruption.
He rubs his hands with glee as he sees the pastures in flames.
He yelps in joy as the lava tumbles into the waters,
And luscious reefs disappear into balls of steam.

A great monolith of dark, loose ash rises in the ocean.
The waves mobilise themselves to wear it away, but they fail.
The Volcano-Demon plants his heels at the caldera triumphantly.
With his left hand he spreads ejecta over the sea,
With his right hand he casts plumes of ash to mock the heavens.

But when the Demon turns his back, the birds arrive to rest,
They have brought with them seeds from faraway lands.
In the rich dark earth born of fire, the seeds sprout greedily;
In the shallow seas around the island, the reefs revive.
And the Almighty has crowned his newest land with life again.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Adventures of Péter Bartók's Father

Book Review: My Father by Péter Bartók
Dedication: To Hope (Hope Kellman, who did the final editing)

The son of Bartók, the great Hungarian composer and scientist, remembers his father almost sixty years after his (the father's) passing. He tells of the adventures of a sympathetic person, not at all larger-than-life, nor too small, but at about the right size for life. Péter Bartók's father is of a scientific mind. Péter Bartók's father loves hiking, and loves the songs that the peasants sing wherever he travels. He has a messy table but is fussy at work. He tells silly jokes about National Socialists. And then etc., etc., etc.

I only wonder how Péter feels inside when he goes back through all the letters that his father has written for him in life, especially this second one (translated from the Magyar):

Amsterdam, 9 Nov. 1928

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A Shortened Testimony

In the morning (7 a.m.) of the last day of the previous year, I woke up to a great view. The weather was clear and Gunung Arjuna was visible on the horizon to the south. Later in the day, according to the routine dictates of the local climate, the white clouds would roll in and obscure the mountain again.

This is Surabaya, a city as beautiful as her name.

Tina, who I had been with for some years, is lost at sea. I had come with the gentle prompting of my parents, who did so out of empathy for hers. I gathered prayer intentions and well-wishes from those who knew her and some who did not. By noontime all the preparations were complete; by evening I had arrived.

Who have I seen there? No, I did not find sobbing wrecks and people who have taken leave of their senses. I met people who were strong in the Lord, people who were filled with grace and compassion for those around us. Love, peace and joy in the air, in defiance of every dismal piece of news. Each sheds their fair share of tears; such a gesture was not out of the question, and even I was not spared, but the mood has been largely calm.

We listened to and trusted the facts. We did not heed rumours and baseless speculation. Probabilities were meaningless to us; the media, who do not try very hard to appear sympathetic, are shut out of the door. We prayed. Day and night, alone or with the company of family and friends, in any number of languages.

We prayed for the Lord's mercy and protection, and he has heeded us. We prayed for strength and grace, and he has heeded us. We prayed for progress in the search and rescue, and he has heeded us. We prayed for hope, and he has given us reasons for hope. The Lord is good and he has answered these prayers of ours. We send in petitions for the safe return of his beloved daughter Tina. We enlist the help of Mother Mary, St Jude, St Florentinus and many others.

If she is in God's hands now, as I have thus submitted, then that is where I shall put myself as well. And why not? It is a good place to be in.

People who do not know us have sought to take our story and then to lace it with melodramatic embellishments. I only wonder what they will say when they open the box of my thoughts, expecting to find grief and hurt and regret, but instead find praises sung to the Lord's glory and goodness. I only pray that this box never be closed again.

Lord, have mercy on us; shower us with abundant grace, lead us to salvation; let all our lives be lived in your praise; with your helping hand we shall brave all difficulties. Amen, Alleluia.