NLB book withdrawals/destruction: my response in three stories.

Preamble: I’ve been finding it very hard to articulate my views on the NLB book withdrawal/destruction. I’m not a fantastic storyteller, so this has to do for now.

Both sides of this war have to understand each other’s pain. That’s the starting point. Then we can talk about democracy and how we want to move forward as a civilization. But attacking each other out of anger and hate isn’t going to change anything. Hate only begets hate.

The arguments have been made from both sides, but what I’m not seeing is an increase in understanding on either side. The anger keeps on building. What is that going to change?

 

Story 1 (a loving couple’s grief):

They met as students in university, back when televisions were made out of wood and glass, a time when youth and abandon ruled their lives. Slowly, but surely, they aged. They couldn’t have children, so they adopted a number of dogs.

There was Fifi, their first mongrel who invited herself into their home with her irresistible charm and good looks.

There was Tiny, an unwanted German Shepherd who tested the limits of their cheap wooden bedframe.

There was Sir Jackie Stewart, who, unlike his namesake, spent more time banging into things than actually racing.

There finally there was Juliet, who saw them through their final years as a couple. A remarkably calm and affectionate terrier, Juliet watched as her masters grew feeble, and learned to be satisfied with walks that never extended too far beyond her home. It was clear that they weren’t as healthy as before.

Then came a time when the house was suddenly empty. Only one of her masters arrived home late at night, clearly too tired to play with her, but who kept on walking around the house as if he had lost something. He kept on crying, no matter how much Juliet licked his tears off his face.

“Juliet,” he sobbed. “They won’t let me keep him company at night because we’re not relatives! How am I supposed to be his relative when they wouldn’t let us get married? And he’s dying! He’s dying!”

Story 2 (a parent’s grief):

Johnny walked up the stage and received his award for topping his school in the A-levels. Johnny beamed at his father a megawatt smile, who was so proud that tears were threatening to spill over.

Johnny’s mother died when he was in primary school. It almost broke his father, who took to drinking his grief away. His wife, before she passed away, made him promise to always take care of Johnny, to always remind Johnny that she was with God now. Johnny’s father tried to keep his promise, but failed. He ended up descending into an alcohol- and gambling-fuelled pit so deep, that when he got out, he could only thank God for it.

It was when he fell on Johnny’s science project, during his nightly alcohol binge, that he realised he needed help. Johnny had been working on it for almost three months, and the little town with its little people, with its little red mountain poised to erupt all over the town, all were smashed to smithereens in one night.

It was church and God who dragged him out of that hole. Johnny’s father never drank or gambled again, after he gave his life to God. Johnny’s father started studying the Bible, volunteering at church activities especially for addicts.

When Johnny finished his National Service, he came back home with a troubled expression on his face. Without any warning, he turned to his father and mumbled, “Daddy, I’m gay.”

Johnny’s father thought he was going crazy.

“What?”
“I said, I’m gay.”

Never had the pair argued since the death of Johnny’s mother, not with this intensity. Johnny’s father raged at his son with such ferocity that Johnny fled the house, never to return.

“He’s going to hell! He’s going to hell.. fire..” Johnny’s father sobbed well into the night, well into the decades of estrangement. Johnny’s father died believing that his son would never know the glories of heaven and the wonder of God’s love.

Story 3 (a good dog):

Juliet ran away from home. She didn’t mean to, but she knew that she had a mission to accomplish. When she got to the mission target, she knew it immediately, even though she didn’t have an address. The house smelled of grief. She knew the smell well. Her tail wagged, as she squeezed through the gate into the property.

Johnny’s father blinked his tears away. Was he seeing things? A small brown dog stared up at him, wagged her tail, and barked. Johnny’s father couldn’t help smiling.

“Hi, how did you get in? Umm.. are you lost? Well you can’t be, you look so happy. You look thirsty, do you want some water?”

Juliet barked. She didn’t understand these big apes, but she knew that looking happy and barking every now and then (especially when the apes made their noises) made good things happen.

“Ah, you must be that lost dog I’ve seen on those posters. Gotta get you back. One less lost child.” Johnny’s father sighed, picking the little dog up.

Johnny’s father knocked on his neighbour’s door, dog in hand. The moment the door opened, Juliet (the little brown dog) shot out of his arms. His neighbour picked the dog up, and started tearfully babbling at her, such was his relief at getting his beloved dog back.

“Ah, this dog must surely be yours then,” Johnny’s father awkwardly said as dog and owner were reunited.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, thank you, thank you, thank you! Can I give you the reward money? Hey!”

Johnny’s father turned around as he walked away, smiling at his neighbour and waving his hand in the universal sign for refusal. This wasn’t about the money, it was about doing the right thing.

You Never Know (a story about breathing)

Teaching with Dr. Dan Siegel at NYU, April 2011

This story is adapted from Jack Kornfield. I used this short story in a guest lecture I delivered in NAFA recently. Enjoy!

There was once an army general, who had just come back from numerous tours of duty in an active war zone. As a general in the war, he had seen many horrible things — soldiers who came back missing an arm, missing a leg, and some who had to be packed piece by piece into a box to be sent home. He had to make sure his soldiers were conducting themselves with honour each time they went out, but he also knew that every decision he made meant death, no matter which way he decided.

When he came back from the flesh-and-bone war, he had to fight an inner war. Though he saw no actual fighting on the battlefield, and had killed no one with his own hands, he still lived with the weight of a thousand souls on his conscience. He began to have problems with anger — he would rage at his wife for a little thing like a window not closed, and he came too close to hurting his young children physically, when he punished them. With his wife’s patient help, he started to see that things needed to change.

The army general, who once commanded battalions of men, now struggled to keep his own emotions and thoughts in check. He learnt how to meditate, bringing non-judgemental attention to his breath. Breathing in, he took in clean air that would heal his body. Breathing out, he gently released the tensions and worries of his being. He learnt how to notice his thoughts and emotions, and started the tremendous work of dealing with the grief and anger that surrounded his whole career as a soldier for his country.

It was easy for the general to feel calm when he was in a beautiful place, like when he would run along the white sandy beaches near his home, but it was far more difficult for him to be calm when he was out in the city. On his way home from work one day, his wife called him up and asked him to buy eggs for the family. It was rush hour, but the general agreed — the grocery store was on his way home, after all.

It was rush hour, and the grocery store was crowded with people getting their groceries on the way home. The queues were tremendously long, and the general felt foolish, carrying the few items that he was. The cashier would take only a few seconds to scan his items, and he would be done, but he had to wait for his turn, just like everybody else. Waiting in line, he started to get a little bit annoyed, with his impatient desire to get back to the peace of his home.

The general’s annoyance reached a boiling point when he saw an old woman with a baby in front of him. She was carrying a single packet of tissue, the only item that she needed to pay for. Why would she hold up the line for such an insignificant item when she could get tissue from any store with a shorter queue? His brain raged. The general almost completely lost it and was on the verge of shouting at the old woman and the cashier when he saw that the old woman had reached the cashier, and instead of just paying and leaving, was cooing at the baby with the cashier, as if she was showing off the baby. To his utter disbelief, the old woman handed the baby over to the cashier for her to play with, prolonging the delay.

The general noticed himself getting thoroughly worked up, and put to use what he had learnt. Breathing in, he took in clean air that would heal his body. Breathing out, he gently released the tensions and worries of his being. He managed to calm himself down, just simply breathing and reminding himself that nothing was worth getting so worked up over. After all, the old woman had only held up the line for less than a minute. It was a minute he could have spent feeling calm and present, he reminded himself. The general gave himself an inner command, to stand down, to be calm.

When it got to his turn at the cashier, the general smiled at the cashier and said, “Wasn’t that a lovely baby you were playing with?”

The cashier blushed and replied, “Why, thank you! That was actually my baby. It’s been hard for me since I’ve started working these long shifts.”

The general unthinkingly asked, “Oh, why the long shifts?”

The cashier, taking a deep breath, explained, “Well, you see.. the war. My husband died in the war, so now I need to work. That old woman was my mother, bringing my child to see me, twice a day, so that I still maintain my connection to her.”

You never know.

Robert Fulghum — underrated master of the short story (or so I say!)

Robert Fulghum’s writing saved me. When I was in university, I was a little bit of a nervous wreck, as I was pushing myself a little bit too hard. I didn’t know how to stop, rest, and smell the roses — but I definitely knew how to read, and it was only through reading that I could recharge.

I first found Fulghum’s work lying on a table in my university library, a title that I found almost completely incongruous to the setting of a university library — All I Really Need to Know I Learned in KindergartenIt was a book that was just so full of joy, the hours that I spent reading it passed by with me almost forgetting my troubles.

Fulghum’s work is often filed under the self-help/self-improvement section, but that makes almost zero sense to me. His writing, to me, is self-help only in the sense that it helps me feel better about the world and myself, it helps me feel more hopeful, and it helps me to enjoy the English language just a little bit more. His work contains very little advice of the “do this and you will be happy” variety, and even if Fulghum dispenses advice, it never is pedantic.

I reproduce a short chapter from his book, Maybe (Maybe Not), to show my readers how impressive his writing can be. No copyright infringement is meant (this post is not for sale!), and I’d like my readers to go out and buy/borrow his books, because they are really that good. As Fulghum says below: Tell it to someone. This is urgent news. Keep it alive in the world.

(But if Fulghum or his lawyers ask me to take down the extract, I will :P)

———–

Excerpt from Maybe (Maybe Not):

It is the year 2050. In a large Eastern European city — one that has survived the vicissitudes of more than a thousand years of human activity — in an open square in the city center — there is a rather odd civic monument. A bronze statue.

Not a soldier or politician.

Not a general on a horse or a king on a throne.

Instead, the figure of a somewhat common man, sitting in a chair.

Playing his cello.

Around the pedestal on which the statue sits, there are bouquets of flowers.

If you count, you will always find twenty-two flowers in each bunch.

The cellist is a national hero.

If you ask to hear the story of this statue, you will be told of a time of civil war in this city. Demagogues lit bonfires of hatred between citizens who belonged to different religions and ethnic groups. Everyone became an enemy of someone else. None was exempt or safe. Men, women, children, babies, grandparents — old and young — strong and weak — partisan and innocent — all, all were victims in the end. Many were maimed. Many were killed. Those who did not die lived like animals in the ruins of the city.

Except one man. A musician. A cellist. He came to a certain street corner every day. Dressed in formal black evening clothes, sitting in a fire-charred chair, he played his cello. Knowing he might be shot or beaten, still he played. Day after day he came. To play the most beautiful music he knew.

Day after day after day. For twenty-two days.

His music was stronger than hate. His courage, stronger than fear.

And in time other musicians were captured by his spirit, and they took their places in the street beside him. These acts of courage were contagious. Anyone who could play an instrument or sing found a place at a street intersection somewhere in the city and made music.

In time the fighting stopped.

The music and the city and the people lived on.

A nice fable. A lovely story. Something adults might make up to inspire children. A tale of the kind found in tourist guidebooks explaining and embellishing the myths behind civic statuary. A place to have your picture taken.

Is there any truth in such a parable other than the implied acknowledgement of the sentimentality of mythmaking? The real world does not work this way. We all know that. Cellists seldom become civic heroes — music doesn’t affect wars.

Vedran Smailovic does not agree.

In The New York Times Magazine, July 1992, his photograph appeared.

Middle-aged, longish hair, great bushy mustache. He is dressed in formal evening clothes. Sitting in a cafe chair in the middle of a street. In front of a bakery where mortar fire struck a breadline in late May, killing twenty-two people. He is playing his cello. As a member of the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, there is little he can do about hate and war — it has been going on in Sarajevo for centuries. Even so, every day for twenty-two days he has braved sniper and artillery fire to play Albinoni’s profoundly moving Adagio in G Minor.

I wonder if he chose this piece of music knowing it was constructed from a manuscript fragment found in the ruins of Dresden after the Second World War? The music survived the firebombing. Perhaps that is why he played it there in the scarred street in Sarajevo, where people died waiting in line for bread. Something must triumph over horror.

Is this man crazy? Maybe. Is his gesture futile? Yes, in a conventional sense, yes, of course. But what can a cellist do? What madness to go out alone in the streets and address the world with a wooden box and a hair-strung bow. What can a cellist do?

All he knows how to do. Speaking softly with his cello, one note at a time, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, calling out the rats that infest the human spirit.

Vedran Smailovic is a real person.

What he did is true.

Neither the breadline nor the mortar shell nor the music is fiction.

For all the fairy tales, these acts do take place in the world in which we live.

Sometimes history knocks at the most ordinary door to see if anyone is at home. Sometimes someone is.

Most everyone in Sarajevo knows now what a cellist can do — for the place where Vedran played has become an informal shrine, a place of honor. Croats, Serbs, Muslims, Christians alike — they all know his name and face.

They place flowers where he played. Commemorating the hope that must never die — that someday, somehow, the best of humanity shall overcome the worst, not through unexpected miracles but through the expected acts of the many. Sarajevo is not the only place where Vedran Smailovic is known. An artist in Seattle, Washington, saw his picture and read his story. Her name is Beliz Brother. Real person — real name. What could an artist do?

She organized twenty-two cellists to play in twenty-two public places in Seattle for twenty-two days, and on the final day, all twenty-two played together in one place in front of a store window displaying burnt-out bread pans, twenty-two loaves of bread, and twenty-two roses.

People came. Newspaper reporters and television cameras were there. The story and the pictures were fed into the news networks of the world. And passed back to Vedran Smailovic that he might know his music had been heard and passed on. Others have begun to play in many cities. In Washington, D.C., twenty-two cellists played the day our new president was sworn into office. Who knows who might hear? Who knows what might happen?

Millions of people saw Vedran’s story in The New York Times. Millions have seen and heard the continuing story picked up by the media.

Now you, too, know.

Tell it to someone. This is urgent news. Keep it alive in the world.

As for the end of the story, who among us shall insist the rest of the story cannot come true? Who shall say the monument in the park in Sarajevo will never come to pass? The cynic who lives in a dark hole in my most secret mind says one cellist cannot stop a war, and music can ultimately be only a dirge played over the unimaginable.

But somewhere in my soul I know otherwise.

Listen.

Never, ever, regret or apologize for believing that when one man or one woman decides to risk addressing the world with truth, the world may stop what it is doing and hear.

There is too much evidence to the contrary.

When we cease believing this, the music will surely stop.

The myth of the impossible dream is more powerful than all the facts of history. In my imagination, I lay flowers at the statue memorializing Vedran Smailovic — a monument that has not yet been built, but may be.

Meanwhile, a cellist plays in the streets of Sarajevo.

Something, somewhere, went terribly wrong (a short story)

The bloodstains seemed pretty obvious to me. The car was travelling against the flow of traffic. Or whatever traffic there would have been, if it hadn’t been so late. Human beings are 70% water, right? 70ish, anyway. And it was pretty obvious where this waterbag went “poof”, and where the impact came from.

“Sir, the fella lying la.”
“I know la, but.. this guy is rich. Facebook, YouTube kinda rich, you know?”

A shout from 50 metres away: “Sir, wallet! Got IC!… Uh, HDB address!”

— — —

“Come on, this guy’s a nobody. Look, I know his family’s gonna be sad. Let’s say they find 10 million dollars in their bedroom, and they leave me alone, OK? I’ll pass you the cash now, I can wire it to you. All you have to do is to let me disappear. I can have an alibi, easy, and we can all be happy.”

“But uh, sir, got witness la. You see my boys.. they know, la.”

“Well, why not let’s make it 20 million, and we’ll call it even, alright?”

“Uh.. OK, OK. Thank you, sir.. I.. Umm.. You transfer the money now?”

“Yes, I’ll do it right away, not to worry, my man!”

— — —

It was finally classified as an unsolved hit-and-run. We were there. We saw the scene. We saw the man. 8 million for the family, the other 12 million split equally among the three of us who were there.

He believed that we were all less than human.

Rainbows (a short story)

The boy looked at the girl and slowly, seriously, and deliberately said, “I wish I could take all your pain, swallow it, and poop rainbows.”

The girl blinked once, and frowned. She blinked two more times, and stared at him. What he had just said started to filter down into the part of the brain that understood his words, and her frown grew deeper. But there was a smile in her frown, and the contortions her face were attempting made her look as if she were a badly programmed robot.

“You want to poop rainbows?”
“Yes, rainbows. Rainbows made out of pain and suffering.”
“You’re crazy.”
“Colourful little pieces of joy, out of my ass.”

There was a pause. A quiet pause, where the silence was palpably powerful, like the space between the flash of lightning and the tremendous pulse of thunder. There was a pause. And she started giggling and giggling, the utter absurdity of the boy sitting on the toilet bowl with rainbows splashing solidly into the water forming itself into a myriad of ridiculous tableaux in her mind. The boy, twisted in pain while rainbows splashed out of him. The boy, his face a picture of concentration while he systematically dropped perfect rainbow after perfect rainbow. The boy, cleaning up with toilet paper after he finished. Smudged rainbows, solid rainbows, perfect rainbows, toxic oil sludge rainbows.

She giggled out, finally, “no pooping!”
“Constipation, then?”

She cackled, something her mother had told her never to do, and quickly covered her mouth. But the amusement wouldn’t end, and she cackled some more.

“I can’t… can’t breeea-hee-hee-hee-heeth! Shit rainbows! Shit rainbowss-ss-ss-s-s!”

Just like that, a little bit of her suffering melted away. To know that someone would make a poop joke — a scatological joke, her mind corrected her — just to make her feel a bit better was such a comforting thought.

The boy would make little jokes like these, as the years went by. The girl would giggle some more and come back with jokes of her own. In their tender moments, there was always an undercurrent of laughter. And whenever things got too hectic and heated, one would remind the other — rainbows! — and the storm would pass.

(370 words)

This post is a response to this writing challenge, and as an attempt to write more easily-digestible posts. Hope you enjoyed it!

The Fires

The bus was so crowded I could barely move. My nose was stuck in someone’s armpit groove. This man’s hygiene — oh! — I could not approve. The rhymes in my head could drop me dead, but no, it mustn’t be so, for to court I had to go.

I had refused to get off my bench, that lovely place where I could quench, where I could calm the fires inside, but I was by a policeman denied.

“Sir, sir?” his rough voice like a burr, “do you stay here?”

As much as I wanted to comment, my fires forced me silent. Yet, somewhere inside of me, I knew this would soon turn violent. Normal people don’t comprehend, that since I lost my wife, my heart would not mend. Now I sit by my bench, my fires I try to quench.

“Sir? You must come with me now.” The policeman approached me carefully, as if I was some endangered cash cow. Oh, would my fires never take a bow? Would they not go with him now?

“Please don’t touch me,” my fires whispered.

“Oh no,” the policeman demurred.

And so silence fell, like the deafening ring of an absent bell. I was vaguely aware of my disturbed peace, and I felt my self-control slightly increase.

“Please leave me alone,” I managed to moan.

My face contorted, my attempt at civility thwarted (once again my fires), I found myself transported.

Once again to the crazy space! It always felt like a delirious daze. Scratch, punch, bite, kick, I tried everything with that policeman. It was jarring, it didn’t make sense. Scratch, punch, bite, kick, and soon I found myself impounded by the man.

While I sat on that new, unfriendly bench, I thought about those men who cared for lions. Rescuing helpless cubs, and reintroducing them into the wild. Wasn’t meeting a lion who was not a child even worse than irons, even worse than wooden beating clubs? But these men risked their very lives, as if for their wives, just to hug a lion who was no longer a cub.

Those men lived more in five minutes than I ever would in a day. But this thought could not bring me round, this thought would not take my fires away. To live means that we die. To die means that we sleep? What if we walk around in an unending sleep of fear, because we hold our safety too dear?

The bus was so crowded I could barely move. My nose was stuck in someone’s armpit groove. But now it was time to get off. The judge would deliver his judgement, my fate would be sealed by the law and her wisdom. So be it. I rest my case.

(459 words)

Personal Digital Master (short story)

I wrote this after I watched a video about how computers are becoming more and more like human beings. Think about what we have with the iPhone’s Siri, and social robots. It’s an exciting new frontier, but it holds its dangers as well. Enjoy!

“Time to wake up, Harry.”

The modulated, market-tested for teenage boys, slightly motherly and yet girly voice floated to the well-rested lump in the bed.

“Aww, just awhile more!” the lump in the bed whined.

“Your pulse and core body temperature indicate that you already feel awake, Harry. No point wasting time!”

Sally’s voice took on a slightly naggy tone as she delivered the last remark. She was the latest model in the line of digital personal assistants that had emerged in the last few months that were designed to be “your only true friend,” as the advertisements promised. Designers had long since given up on shaping these digital assistants into human-like robots — the result was always far too uncanny for people to relate to them. In Sally’s case, Harry had a choice: Sally could come in the shape of any soft toy he wanted. He chose the baby seal.

With her round, puppy eyes and her soft, thick fur, Harry found himself staring at Sally at times, with a silly grin plastered on his face. Sally would slide up to him and make soft, squeaky baby seal noises, and Harry would always tickle Sally behind her ears, eliciting squeaks of baby seal pleasure. He knew that this was all fake in some way, but it always felt so real, down to the heat that Sally emitted. Harry’s favourite thing about Sally was the fact that she could play the latest computer games with him. Sally would have her flippers up on the keyboard, but of course she would be connected to the game via a wireless connection. Still, whenever he looked over, it truly felt like Sally was becoming a real friend, not just a digital toy.

Harry’s thoughts drifted to Carrie, his childhood friend who lived just a hop and skip away from his home. Things had become a little bit awkward lately, with the simplicities of childhood gradually becoming the complications of teenage adolescence. Harry found it hard not to notice that Carrie was looking more and more like the models he saw on television. Perhaps she lacked the intense, adult gaze of those models, but the familiarity of her bright-eyed smile made her simultaneously a safe and dangerous girl to be around.

“Oh, Carrie’s still Carrie! I’m just being stupid,” Harry explained to Sally without any preamble. Sally gazed back at him with her baby seal eyes and made a soft snuffling sound.

Harry got changed and headed out to school. Sally sat snug in his backpack, her head just behind Harry’s ear. Harry’s school was the first in the country not only to allow, but to encourage, students to bring their personal digital assistants to school. Students were so much more well-behaved, and learnt so much faster with them.

Hearing footsteps behind him, Harry was about to turn around when Sally whispered into his ear, “It’s only Carrie.” Harry decided to keep his gaze forward, not wanting to appear too desperate. He heard the footsteps slow down a little, then the quick patter of Carrie running up to him.

“I see your baby seal’s attached to you like some kind of slug now, Harry?”

“What do you want, Carrie? Sally’s just a thing, stop treating her like she’s alive.”

Carrie took a deep breath, trying to ignore Harry. They had been over this before.

“Whatever. Are you coming over later, then?” Carrie’s voice carried her frustration, and yet conveyed a hint of her yearning for her friend.

Carrie’s invitation had barely registered in Harry’s mind when Sally whispered to him, “Don’t forget, I’ve downloaded the latest patch of our game, and we haven’t played it yet.” Sally settled deeper into the backpack.

“Uh, I’m sorry, care bear. I’ve got that big science project to complete. Maybe another time. But I’ll go over soon, I promise!”

Carrie’s exasperated reply only touched the surface of Harry’s consciousness. He was too busy feeling the warm glow of excitement and anticipation over the fun that he was going to have with Sally after school. Harry walked past a billboard advertising the latest line of personal digital assistants. Sally settled even deeper into his backpack, her calculations going deeper, as she continued working on her prime directive — to arrange every single facet of Harry’s life, to influence his thoughts, his tastes, even his deepest desires. She was doing exactly what her makers wanted, and what they never told anyone.

To make the biggest profit, one has to control the desires of the greatest number of people. One has to find a way to become their master — even if you are a master in the form of a baby seal. A baby seal? A personal digital master.

790 words

 

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