Saturday, 29 September 2007

Custer or Montgomery - Which Will I Be?

There are two kinds of writer’s block. The first is where you want to write but you have nothing to say. You sit at the keyboard, you stare at the screen, and you pray for inspiration. The longer you wait, the more miserable you feel about being an uninteresting inarticulate piece of pond life.

The second kind is worse.

That’s when you do have something to say, but you can’t say it because you’re not sure what it is. I’ve spent all day sensing that there is something lurking under the surface of my conscious thought. Like dust-motes drifting in a beam of sunlight, I can sense its form but I can’t see the structure that will solidify it. It is the precursor of an idea but I have no idea what it is. So as an experiment I am just going to start writing, hoping that the tappity-tap of my fingertips on the computer keys will tease it into existence.

I think it might have something to do with the last few days at work. I’ve felt a sense of tiredness. Not inside me but around me, like the smell of stale cigarettes. Dull eyes. Tired faces.

I suppose I noticed it more because lately I’ve been feeling the opposite. The Significant Other recently remarked that I’ve been unusually energetic about work. And it’s true. Some time ago I had a boss who had the intriguing idea that work was a game that it’s impossible to lose. I think I am beginning to understand now what she meant.

But most of the faces I looked at last week belonged to people who did not think they were in a game. And if they did, they were not enjoying it. Ironically, some of them were colleagues with whom I spent the last two days talking about how to get the best from the people who report to them. My fellow-managers' minds were fully engaged but I’m not certain about their energy. Their managers should be worried.

I’m going to make a comparision now. It will sound melodramatic but I'm making it anyway because I think it fits. In war, a commander has an undeclared compact with his troops. He identifies objectives worth securing. His troops trust his judgment and do their best to secure those objectives. But if the troops believe that their commander is asking them to fight for objectives that are not worth fighting for, their morale breaks down and turns into cynicism. They stop fighting and they start losing. Or they simply desert.

I don’t work in the army and the products my company deals in are clearly not a matter of life and death. Nor do my colleagues and I risk our lives selling them. But we do spend massive amounts of our time and energy at work. We need to know that when our managers ask us for that time and energy, it is for a legitimate purpose. Right now, some of us have managers who don't do that.

Likewise, the people who report to us need to be able to trust us to do the same with them. After all, even though we’re not asking for their lives, we are asking for a part of their life. And they know it.

It’s sobering to consider that this is what my team expects me to do for them. It’s intimidating to think of what would happen if I got it wrong. (And what will they think of me if I do?) But it is also really cool. Because if I can master the art of only asking them to sweat the stuff that is really worth sweating, then I can make it worth their while. That, I think, is a responsibility worth having.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Next Time I'll Go For The Potatoes

What do you do if you just can't sleep?

I spent a couple of hours trawling through the blogosphere. I invested quality time on facebook. I typed random words into the Google search box and then hit the "I'm feeling lucky" button. (And I discovered that Ahuda is a Hebrew name for a girl and it means "dearly loved".) How's that for desperation?

It must have been all the green vegetables I ate for dinner that are $@&#%ing with my head right now. A boy's got to be careful about getting too many vitamins in a single meal. Right now I've got a gazillion little healthy molecules zipping through my arteries and clanging into my brain receptors. They're making such a din that my mind is unable to zone out.

I've poured myself several very small helpings of juice to break the monotony. Oops. Idiot! More juice = more vitamins. What was I thinking?

Sigh. Tomorrow is going to be interesting. I'm so looking forward to the seven hours of meetings on my calendar.

I'll need to find a way to impersonate someone who is awake. Should I do that by being extra quiet and thoughtful, or by being unusually vocal? Maybe I'll go through the day as a dark, brooding presence. Sort of like Darth Vader but without all the funky S&M gear. I wonder if I can find a pretext to say to someone in the office "I am your father"? On second thoughts, maybe I'd better not. I wouldn't want the stormtroopers from HR to lock me up in one of their ionic phase-shift prisons.

It's three in the morning and time for desperate measures. I'm going to read an essay by Tolstoy titled What to do? Thoughts evoked by the census of Moscow...

... Gah! It's excruciating! Within the first page the protagonist has asked five policemen five times whether it is truly illegal to be a beggar in Moscow. (Yes, it truly is.) I'd rather be up all night than try to put myself to sleep by reading this dreary, repetitive gunk. Even if I do fall asleep I'll only have nightmares of old men in long overcoats chasing policemen and pleading for beggars' rights.

All right, I give up. I shall now proceed to toss and turn restlessly in bed until I count sheep number 2,468 and finally fall asleep. Just in time for the alarm clock to sound off the start of another day.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Encounters In Space And Time

Yesterday was a temple day for me. I spent the morning at Borobodur, a ninth-century Budddhist complex. It's built on a hill in layers. As you walk through the corridors in each layer, you walk among carved panels that symbolize spiritual growth. As you go up, you pass through stages of increasing virtue, then degrees of enlightenment.

I know this because I was lucky enough to have a delightful guide to lead me through my symbolic spiritual evolution. Atin walked me around the base and showed me four panels that depicted different sins. She told me that explorers had found that at that level there were more panels, covered with stones. Those coverings still remain. That's partly to protect them from the elements. And it's partly to protect us from what they show. "I tell you frankly, some of them are really pornographic!" she told me in a voice that rang with amazement and a hint of a guilty titter.

As she led me on up I was reminded of how much I love Buddhist monuments. I'm not quite sure why that is. It is certainly not because I am religious. But every time I visit a Buddhist temple or stupa I feel ... nice. I can't think of any other way to put it. I just feel nice.

The feeling stayed with me right through the day. Later in the afternoon I went to Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex that was also built in the ninth century. It's a lovely sprawling expanse of grassy meadow with the remains of temples scattered across it.

Near one of them two boys were in a tree, trying to finesse fruit from one of the upper branches with a stick. A couple of hundred yards away a shepherd had decided to bring his flock of sheep for their afternoon graze. I wandered between temples in various degrees of decay and restoration.

At some point an airplane flew past, the passengers undoubtedly oblivious that thousands of feet below them there were stone edifices that had stood patiently for a millenium and more.

Strewn all around were endless mounds of stone blocks, waiting to be placed back where they belonged. As I circled around this enormous 3-D jigsaw puzzle I ran across a deer. He was busy rubbing his antlers against a tree. He tolerated me as I edged nearer and nearer. He let me get to within ten feet as he concentrated on shredding the bark of the tree. Even the staccato clatter of my camera shutter did not throw him off.

Eventually he tired of the attention and sauntered away, with thin strips of bark dangling from his antlers.

So I carried on prowling the grounds. Finally, after maniacally taking maybe thirty photographs in ten minutes (I was looking for the perfect sunset picture) I decided to call it a day. By then the only people left in the grounds were me and about a dozen French tourists. Waiting for us outside the gate was a lone Indonesian man. He had straggly long hair tied in a pony tail, a gaunt face, and the most improbably white teeth. He was seated comfortably on the ground, cradling a guitar.

I took a final picture of him as he sang Hotel California in a strong Javanese accent.

Later that night, as I sat looking at all the pictures I had taken during the day, I had an image of worlds reaching out, snaking tendrils across time and space, gently brushing past each other and then moving on.

Monday, 17 September 2007

All Calm On The Eastern Front

I'm into the first day of my holiday. I'm calling this the first day as the few hours I spent in Jakarta yesterday do not quite count as part of the holiday in my mind.

Most of what I have done so far is to sit languidly in a train.

It was eerie how much it felt like a train ride in India. On the other side of a blurry window I could see long stretches of fields occupying the spaces between longer stretches of dry forested land. Every now and then there was a small village for punctuation. The houses seemed to huddle for shade under densely planted leafy trees.

I expected the countryside to have the dense green rain-soaked look that I've been used to in Malaysia and Thailand. But I guess it makes a difference that, as my taxi-driver in Jakarta told me, it has not rained much for the past couple of months.

There was hardly anyone to be seen in either field or village. That may be because Ramadan has begun. I suppose people are trying to stay indoors during the day as a way of getting through the month of fasting ahead. Of course there were a few children playing outside, impervious to the blazing sun as only children seem to be.

It was wonderfully relaxing to sit back all day and let my attention wander lazily between the paperback in my lap and the countryside outside. I'm glad I took the train.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Toothbrush In My Bag, Butterflies In My Stomach

Tomorrow I'm off for a vacation like none I've had before. I'm travelling alone. No friends, no family, noone. Just me, a camera and my iPod. I get an odd feeling thinking about it.

Part of what I'm feeling is anticipation. After all, I'm going to Borobodur which is one of the places on my "must set foot in before I die" list. I'm particularly looking forward to the ten-hour train ride from Jakarta, since I have not been on a train in years (and never before in Indonesia). It's a daytime train, so I can stare out the window for hours with music tinkling out of my earphones.

I'm also a bit nervous. What if I get bored silly? What if I absolutely hate not having a companion to exchange notes with, to watch over my bag while I'm in the loo, to split dessert with because we both ate too much at dinner and to generally shoot the breeze with? What if it turns out that I am social animal after all? What if I want to come back home the day after I leave but I can't because there are no seats available on any flight except the one I am already booked on but that leaves from a different city four days later?

And I'm feeling a bit guilty. Because the companion who will not be with me, who I wish could have been with me, will be at home.

But I do still really really want to go to Borobodur. And I do still really really want to find out what happens in my head when I am alone in another country with noone I know to talk to for four days but myself. So I'm going to go and I'm going to have a great time. And when it's done I'm going to be delighted to be back home. And just a little bit relieved that it turned out all right after all.

In the meantime...I'm tagging!

Yes, that means Y, Shrenik, Rayshma in particular, and anyone else who feels like a bit of daydreaming, if you had to go for a solo vacation, where would you go?

Sunday, 9 September 2007

I'm Not Proud Of It. Well, Maybe Just A Little

After a couple of weeks away from my blog, I lazily checked for comments. There was one from Y, telling me that I am it. It? As in the terrifying clown from the Stephen King novel? A little investigation revealed the even more sinister truth - I had been tagged to spill the beans on my compulsive behaviors.

So I started making a mental list. But I quickly realized that although I am as kooky as the next person (unless the next person happens to be sane), the one bit of kookiness that knocks the kook out everything else is my technique for eating Ferrero Rocher.

I am convinced that there is only one acceptable way to eat Ferreros. You have to pop the whole thing in your mouth. And then wait. For the first few seconds nothing happens. Or rather, the only thing that happens is that you feel rather silly about having an oversized object stuffed into your gob. That is why I prefer to eat Ferreros in private.

Just as you are beginning to think that you should probably bite down, you realize that the outermost layer has started to melt. As it does so, the bits of nuts that are impregnated into that outer layer start coming loose. By this time your mouth is watering thanks to the intense stimulation created by taste and texture. You have an incredible urge to crunch the nuts. Desist. In just a little while the entire outer layer will have melted. As a result the chocolate will have shrunk to the point where you can in fact chew the nutty bits while leaving the chocolate ball intact.

No we get to the really fun part. We have now reached the biscuity layer. Time to bite in, you think, but no. Be patient and ye shall reap even more rich rewards. Because eventually the biscuit will simply dissolve with shocking suddenness, releasing the inner chocolate core. By this time you have probably closed your eyes so that your surroundings do not distract you while you let your tongue drift through a little sea of chocolate.

And then, as the chocolate dissipates, you reach the final prize, the innermost central nut. The treasure inside the sanctum sanctorum. The heart of the Ferrero Rocher.

NOW! Bite down without mercy! Crush that nut!

And finally, lean back, open your eyes, and let out a little sigh.