Friday, December 23, 2016


Forcing myself to think of all the good things that have happened this year, I come up with New Year's Day, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Hierve el agua, the Santo Domingo bathed in the evening light, the tejate-mezcal cocktail with the poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the lucha libre in DF, visions of Roberto Bolano and Cohen's Marianne in Campeche and Tulum, visions of eternity and docking ships from the Marina Bay Sands with my mother (bless her), the books of John Holt and Seymour Papert, the dinners of December, a hundred days of mindfulness and a hundred days of excruciating pain (and yet what doesn't kill you....).

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The beauty of the husband

I read this section of an Anne Carson poem (from her book The Beauty Of The Husband) a few days ago.  It spoke to me about me.

What really connects words and things? 
Not much, decided my husband
and proceeded to use language
in the way that Homer says the gods do.
All human words are known to the gods but have for them
entirely other meanings
alongside our meanings.
They flip the switch at will. 
My husband lied about everything. 
Money, meetings, mistresses,
the birthplace of his parents,
the store where he bought shirts, the spelling of his own name.
He lied when it was not necessary to lie.
He lied when it wasn't even convenient.
He lied when he knew they knew he was lying.
He lied when it broke their hearts.
My brazen, compulsive lying really is not much different.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Home Sweet Home

One of my earliest childhood memories is of a creche called Home Sweet Home. An unbearably, monstrously ironic name. I was four, or perhaps five years old. A van would cart me there after school ended at noon, and I would spend the rest of the day in total isolation. My mother would pick me up at about 6 pm or so. This was a moment I would anticipate for hours everyday.

A few years later, we moved houses and I changed schools. We lived in a middle-income housing complex with a few hundred other families, the majority of whom sent their children to my new school. Every evening, the van would ferry all the kids home from school. Everyone, that is, except me. I would endure the daily ignominy of watching all the others be dropped off home, while I was carted to a new creche, the last stop on the van's route. I would stay there -- often in total isolation -- till my mother picked me up at about 7 pm or so. This continued for years.

I can see things more clearly today, but I remember my strong feelings of rejection and humiliation. I learned to suppress these feelings because I was a little boy who loved his mother and didn't want to hurt her or earn her disapproval. I learned to be alone, to wait, to not reveal my feelings to anyone, maybe to not feel at all. These traits have stayed with me.

Sometimes, these days, I feel like that little boy. All alone, unfeeling, waiting to be picked up by someone who can (or pretend to) love me. Remember Roland Barthes?

“Am I in love? --yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn't wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game. Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover's fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.”

Friday, November 25, 2016

The psychoanalyst writer

I love the work of the psychoanalyst & writer Adam Phillips, a master of the epigram (in the true, wry British fashion) and an acute observer of the depths of human pretension.

Last night, I was flipping through his book Monogamy, when I came across this passage:

We work hard to keep certain versions of ourselves in other people’s minds; and, of course, the less appealing ones out of their minds. And yet everyone we meet invents us, whether we like it or not. Indeed nothing convinces us more of the existence of other people, of just how different they are from us, than what they can make of what we say to them. Our stories often become unrecognisable as they go from mouth to mouth. 
Being misrepresented is simply being presented with a version of ourselves - an invention - that we cannot agree with. But we are daunted by other people making us up, by the number of people we seem to be. We become frantic trying to keep the numbers down, trying to keep the true story of who we really are in circulation. This, perhaps, more than anything else drives us into the arms of one special partner. Monogamy is a way of getting the versions of ourselves down to a minimum. And, of course, a way of convincing ourselves that some versions are truer than others - that some are special.
This is an almost perfect distillation of my thoughts at this point in my life.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Stop all the clocks

I keep my true self hidden away from others because its unpleasantness (and my sense of shame) is at odds with my need to be accepted by people around me. An unintended consequence is a loss of intimacy. People I have known for years often suddenly come to the realisation that they don't know who I "really" am. People with stronger intuition perceive this much earlier.

At that point, I usually have two choices: either reveal more of myself and risk purge, or make my superficial self more believable, more real.

Over the course of my life, I've usually chosen #2. It's easy, and I've developed my capacity for lying so adroitly that it's second nature. Occasionally, even I find it hard to distinguish my real and superficial selves. I've been reading Alice Miller's The Drama of The Gifted Child (a David Foster Wallace favourite, it turns out), and I'm understanding this reflex a little better.

This year in particular, I've tried #1. It's easy to be truly yourself with strangers, particularly those in a different country. I really felt like I effected a permanent shift sometime in the middle of the year, but I am regressing again. The problem with being oneself is that any kind of rejection is brutally devastating: it's easy to change one's superficial self and be a different person; how does one change one's true self when it's not good enough?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

An escape from the self

The great psychologist Roy Baumeister defined the six stages of suicidal ideation in a now-classic 1990 paper called "Suicide As An Escape From The Self."

  1. Falling short of standards: The pain of living a life that is below one's own expectations, or expectations that others have.
  2. Attribution of self: The recent realisation that one's difficulties are the result of one's own deficiencies
  3. High self-awareness: Suicide notes typically have a high usage of singular pronouns. Lots of "I", no "us" or "we". The psychology literature tells us that this is a high correlate with self-awareness, or at the very least, with the ability to take responsibility for oneself.
  4. Negative affect: Feeling acute negative emotions like anxiety and shame in sharp bursts 
  5. Cognitive deconstruction: Thinking is broken down into concrete thoughts about the immediate present - the past and the future bring too much anxiety. The first thing that dissolves is a sense of time. Interestingly (to me), there is often an significant increase in reading books, as this helps in efficiently replacing one's own real world with the author's.
  6. Disinhibition: The actual act requires a reduced sensitivity towards pain - both the physical pain one inflicts on oneself and the pain that loved ones (if any) will feel at one's loss.
When laid out so starkly, it is quite clear to me that I have point #6 to thank for my continuing existence. Thankfully, my own exposure to death and violence has been rather limited, and my fear of bodily injury is very high. I suppose there is an upside after all to fainting in the clinic during a routine blood test. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland

You may know already that the title of this blog is named after a line in Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl.

I read it yesterday after many years. It made me happy for a while: the sense of rhythm, the richness of the images, the heads crowned with laurel in oblivion.

I remembered memorising a part of the poem back in college, when I was still a young man, and reciting them when drunk. I used to love how "angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" rolled off my lips. I'd say it again and again, like it was the Diamond sutra.

It made me feel so alive.

Monday, November 21, 2016

It's all come back too clearly

Two things have been swirling in my mind the last couple of days.

First, the Joan Baez song Diamonds and Rust. I hadn't thought of it in years, and then, all of a sudden, it came back to me on Saturday night. I now marvel at "Now you're telling me / You're not nostalgic / Well give me another word for it / You were so good with words / And at keeping things vague." She was talking to me all along, and it took Saturday for me to realise it. I've always used my facility with words to keep things vague, to avoid responsibility, to be one thing and its opposite at the same time.

Second, the Kenneth Koch line, "You aren't just the age you are. You're all the ages you ever have been." Every time I try to run away from my past, to try to be a different person, it catches up with me. The fell clutch of circumstance ensures it. I'll never escape my past, my father, my chemistry, my melancholy, my selfishness, my sadness, my ability to inflict damage.

I'll never escape my nature -- just read posts on this blog from ages ago, and gawp at how I am exactly the same. If anything, I've lost the intellectual spark I once had.The sad truth is that the moral arc of my universe will never bend towards anything good. Every zig towards improvement is inevitably followed by a zag towards despair, and it's all my fault.

Thank you for listening.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Everytime I come back here, I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Out of place, out of time. Does the internet have a bridge under which rancid waters pass? I wonder.

I will not deny that this feels good, though.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Old people eat alone too. They wait for tables at classy restaurants, take their lonesome seats, place their orders to disbelieving waiters and stare into the distance.

On particularly busy days, the maƮtre d', always keen to maximize the turnover of his tables, pairs singles together and I find myself across Father Time himself, a wizened old man who solves the crossword in the local tabloid (that local tabloids carry crosswords is a discovery in itself; I imagine clues have answers like "boobs" and "sex-tape").

We eat quietly. Our silence is comfortable like the silence of old lovers. As he rises to leave, he looks at me and says with a mischievous glint in his eye, Your food was very colourful.

I grin and bid him farewell.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

picnic at hanging rock

You were the designated bar pimp, with a job description that entailed hollering at passers-by to enter your employer's shady haunt. You were Australian, as was most of the bar clientele, bored expats making eyes at other bored expats to the songs of Men at Work and INXS.

As I walked by, you began your pitch. The drinks were great, you said. Plus, there were plenty of girls. And karaoke, that princess of Japanese recreation. Would I care to have a look, sir?

Only if you give me the answer I want, I replied. Are you a Mark Waugh or a Steve Waugh man?

I look forward to meeting you again.

Monday, March 29, 2010


I was slumped over the sake when you waltzed in. You were American, a typically garrulous sort, and she was Japanese. You said she was your wife. I believed you. The fumes of my hot sake were getting to me. Hot sake is a different cup of tea from the cold variety. You trusted me on this, even though you did proceed to order the strawberry flavour. Come to think of it, this was probably what convinced me that she was your wife.

We spoke of Noh and Akihabara and Kyoto. And Kawabata and Yasujiro Ozu. Bartender-san flailed his arms wildly at this. No-no, it's Ozu Yasujiro, he said (and he was right, of course). You were sadly unaware of Setsuko Hara and Donald Ritchie and Pico-san, though. You had your limits, and I pointed this out.

Yet, you were kind to enough to warn me against Shinjuku (even if I ignored your warning). Before you left me to my inhalations, you handed me your copy of Fodor's Tokyo. It still stands today on my desk at home, you'll be glad to know, a symbol of everything I once had and everything I have lost.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

harold and maude

She loved watched them take-off and land at night. In her child-like wonder, they were always aeroplanes to her, never something pedestrian like planes or airplanes or flights.

Towards the very end, as she lay in a false convalescence on her second-class hospital bed by the window, she watched them wide-eyed with her daughter and reminisced about the good times. The aeroplanes made her spirit soar. After all, the astrologer had told her she would die at 67. She would be flying soon herself, window-shades up and seat-belt fastened, another receding light on the horizon.

This made her happy.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

buster keaton

In my dreams, I see them laughing. Not just polite peals of laughter with hands over mouths, but large, remarkable guffaws reminiscent of canned hyena laughter in some horrific silent movie.

I suppose the joke's on me.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

half life crisis (which doesn't augur well for my longevity)

one of the really key problems with being 24 is that suicide isn't really a very viable option. I feel much too old to suffer any sort of authentic existential angst that would lead to trying something ambitiously melodramatic, i.e., writing a hand-written note filled with words like "empathy" and then popping off with plenty of blood for maximal impact just doesn't appeal to me anymore the way it once did.

On the other hand, I also feel much too young to be weighed down by anything Really Serious. I have had no major addiction issues, messy break-ups(technically speaking), crushingly disappointing children, deaths in the family or been clinically depressed in the formal sense of the term. I do feel fat and ugly most of the time, but this does not appear to constitute - as yet, I hasten to add - a particularly weighty point in my life-taking considerations.

Granted, my work and career (and bank account) are disappointments, and are likely to remain largely inglorious even in the medium run. Finance theory would suggest, within a reasonable confidence interval, that going on like this could possibly be lower NPV (Net Present Value) compared to the expected value of pulling the plug and starting off afresh in the next life(ignoring, in the very best tradition of the greatest economists, any difficult questions regarding bounded rationality [how does one, for example, estimate the probabilities required to calculate aforementioned expected value without knowing one's actions in all of one's previous lives, assuming of course that Hindu philosophy and karma are largely correct], the time of occurence of the next rebirth, the nature of time itself, etc etc).

Clearly, I am losing my mind.

(Come to think of it, that last statement brings into the suicide equation a whole Catch-22 [you know, "mad" people, not wanting to fly and so on] dynamic that further complicates things and calls for mixed Nash equilibria that I just don't feel like estimating at the moment)

I hate this. Go away.

Monday, August 24, 2009

quo vadis

What happens to a squandered talent?

Does it return to the earth, a sickly-sweet flower on its own grave, its fragrance gradually, inexorably, inevitably overpowered by the putrid stench of a chance lost forever?

I wonder.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sayonara Japan

I have been putting this off for a while now. I suppose now is the appropriate time.

I could easily paraphrase Pico Iyer and tell you that never has more kindness been shown to someone as unkind and undeserving as I am. Never have I seen more people go out of their way to make me feel at home in their unarguably strange midst. Maybe I could tell you about the Shinsei bank account that still remains open in my name in Tokyo, with a few hundred yen, just in case. Or I could tell you about Roppongi Hills, and the nights that never ended, or the onsens, and the strange thrills they gave me.

Anyway, it is not something about I wish to talk about. I will be back someday. Especially to Kiyomizu-dera. Honeymoon, perhaps.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

musings from tokyo

The first thing that struck me about Tokyo is just how pretty everyone seems to be. From the carefully blown messy hairstyle to the umbrella that seems straight out of a Milanese designer catalog, the average Japanese certainly knows how to present a good first impression. It is, indeed, entirely possible that my observation is biased by the lens of the upscale neighbourhood where I live, but it still wouldn't explain how I've never come across any male on the subway without a suit on. Unless, of course, you count the goth teenager with two piercings and a snarl across his (her?) lips.

This is the thing. In almost every way possible, Japan is a country of remarkable extremes. Places of religion and sex clubs exist freely beside each other, for one. (Of course, some people would argue that they are the same thing. That is a topic for another day). And can any other country lose itself in baseball and sumo wrestling?

We went to Yokohama yesterday, to an amusement park - cum- aquarium. That is because the people I've come here with like amusement parks ( a lot ) and aquariums (a little lesser). One guy declared after riding the rollercoaster that he had just realized one of his greatest dreams. In all fairness, it was his first time on one. As it was, mine. The other "highlight" of the day was being thrown down a very, very, high phallus. (You can see it in the background of the picture) as part of a ride called the 'Blue Fall'. To cut a long story short, I'll say I'll never do such a thing again.

I have nothing against amusement parks, really. It's just that I'd much rather have gone to the Ramen museum or the cherry blossom gardens or even the Chinatown when in Yokohama. I really must find a way to do my own thing.

And they're going to Disneyland next week. God, no.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

For relaxing times, make it Suntory time

Nothing quite like Tokyo. So cold, and yet, so so warm. And don't even get me started on the subway. Never have I seen beauty and efficiency married in such harmony.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

behavioral economics

Amos Tversky, he of prospect theory fame, writes:

"Probably the most significant and pervasive characteristic of the human pleasure machine is that people are much more sensitive to negative than to positive stimuli ... Think about how well you feel today, and then try to imagine how much better you could feel ... There are a few things that would make you feel better, but the number of things that would make you feel worse is unbounded."

It amazes me how I have discovered so much more truth in sociology and economics than in the pure sciences. Physics was beautiful at times, and mathematics still is, but this is something bigger. This is my calling.

About Me

a recluse waiting for salvation