Singapore Civil Servant, Makerspace Guardian: Don’t Engage

I was waiting for my best friend Xuwen, a programmer, at one of the public libraries the other day. I discovered that on one of the floors there was a makerspace. “Cool,” I thought. “I’ll check it out.”

There was a woman manning the desk at the entrance.

“Can I come work in here?” I asked.

“Are you registered?”

I shook my head. “Can I register myself?”

“What are you working on?”

“I’m working on a science fiction novel.”

“Sorry, this space is for people using technology only.”

I look around. There are two people in a space that could accommodate forty.

“Come on, there’s almost nobody here. It’s SCIENCE fiction.”

She grows stiff. “I’d love to, but I’m sorry, you need to use the common spaces.”

“I could end up collaborating with people who are using technology. I’m writing ABOUT technology.”

“Sorry, you have to leave.”

Congratulations, Singapore, you have just achieved escape velocity in maximum irony. You just turned away a science fiction WRITER in an empty makerspace in a public library.

“Whatever,” I say and back out of the room.

This is why I just choose not to engage, really. What’s the point? I do so much better and it’s so much better for my sanity if I just “stick to the common areas”. Sigh.

Also, when in doubt, it’s better to laugh than to cry.

 

PS I hesitated to write this cos I don’t want to get anyone fired, but well. Sigh.

The argument from Beauty

I had a very good friend in college who used to be Christian. He was so Christian he was the head of the organization I wrote for. We prayed for each other for thirty days over the phone after we met.

He was also an organismic and evolutionary biologist and a philosopher, and in the closet.

Years later he told me he still found Christianity to be beautiful, but could no longer believe it was true.

I wrote before that I grew up as a young earth creationist. That fell by the wayside by senior year, but I was still confused about how a process that involved death and destruction could give rise to consciousness and a beautiful world.

What is beauty?

What is truth?

And are they related or interchangeable?

They are obviously not entirely the same thing.

The first time I realized that evolution could be beautiful was when I watched a 3D computer graphic simulation of evolution. A small cube developed a limb, which developed another branch, so it was paddling along. After a few thousand iterations, it was locomoting.

The video was beautiful.

I still took some convincing.

If we are merely wired to think what we see is beautiful, isn’t it a circular argument to say that a beautiful thing is a sign of a consciousness outside ourselves?

What is the evolutionary purpose of being able to perceive beauty?

How about beauty in abstract things, such as concepts? Symmetry? Language? Mathematics? Code?

The argument from beauty is not trivial, it is one of the most convincing because many of us are aesthetic creatures. We are enraptured by the senses, blinded by the thought of perfection.

The argument from beauty can silence all others.

How, then, can my friend find something beautiful but not be convinced it is true?

If he believes that beauty is a deception, I suppose. But even if it is a deception, doesn’t it point to something deeper, something beyond that could be even more perfect?

I have no answers to these questions.

 

Misquoted in the press: HCI

When I was 18 I was misquoted in the press.

This was when Hwachong was being renamed Hwa Chong Institution. There was an uproar amongst Hwa Chong Junior College alumni who felt this erased their inclusion in the alumni. The people from Chinese High were not too happy either. And nobody liked the word “Institution”.

I was quoted as saying “It looks like we’re trying to copy RI”

The worst possible thing anyone could be quoted as saying because RI is Raffles Institution, our rival high school.

But which is what everybody was thinking.

The next day I’m summoned to the principal’s office.

“Hello Judith,” says the principal.

“I was misquoted.”

“We know. I know our Judith wouldn’t say anything so stupid.”

“Well, thanks. But I want to help you. Give me two days and I’ll draft a petition.”

I go back and draft a petition suggesting that “Hwa Chong Institution” be an umbrella term for “Hwa Chong Junior College” and “The Chinese High School”, then I get my classmate, best friend and collaborator to translate it into excellent Chinese.

Then I get as many other students to sign the proposal as possible.

“You know he’s just using you, right?” asks my friend.

I shrug. “I know he’s using me. I’m using him too,” I say.

“OK just so you know.”

I present the bilingual edition of the proposal to the principal.

“This is interesting. What’s an umbrella term?”

“It means it’s an institution that incorporates two older institutions.”

“We’ll forward this to the board of directors,” says the principal.

“No problem.”

“Also, I didn’t know your Chinese was so good.”

I bite back the name of my collaborator. He didn’t want to sign the petition.

He doesn’t have any power. I don’t have any power, even less than he does. The only people with power are the board of directors. Maybe even only the Chairman of the board.

I never hear about this issue again, but sure enough, the next time they rename the gate, that’s what it says,

Hwa Chong Institution

Incorporating

Hwa Chong Junior College and The Chinese High School

Like most compromises, nobody is happy, nobody got exactly what they wanted, and nobody feels particularly satisfied.

It also didn’t last. The gate has since been changed again. It just says Hwa Chong Institution now.

But I do have this story.

So…. I’ve kind of built a university?

Inspired by a facebook post in which I asked a few friends what their major would be in Nsibidi Institute of Technology, the equivalent of MIT or Caltech in #Bythenose, my second novel, I have started a Discord Server to host this online university. It is a crowdsourced worldbuilding RPG. Pls feel free to join at

 

Variation on the Word Sleep by Margaret Atwood reformatted by Judith Huang

Variation on the Word Sleep

by Margaret Atwood

 

 

 

 

 

 

I                                        would like                       to watch                                         you   sleeping,

which may not happen.

I would like to watch you,                         I would like to sleep with you,

                                                     sleeping.

to enter your

                    sleep

as its smooth dark wave                                                                  slides over my head and walk with you through that lucent wavering forest of bluegreen leaves with its watery sun & three moons towards the cave

where you must

                                descend,

                                                    towards

                                                                             your

                                                                                             worst

fear

I would like to give you

                                                           the silver branch,

                                                                                                     the small white flower,

the one

word

that will protect you

                                            from the grief

at the                                center                         of                              your                  dream,

from the grief at the center.

I would like

to follow you

                           up

                                                                                                                    the long stairway again &

become the                                                  boat                                          that would row you

back

carefully,

a flame in two cupped hands

to where

your body                                                          lies                                                           beside me, and you                                                                                                    as easily as breathing in

                                 enter it

I would

like

to be

                                                                                                                                                           the air that inhabits

you

                                                                    for a moment only.

                                                                                                                                                                        I

would like to be that

unnoticed

& that necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Language Poem (1) by Robert Bringhurst reformatted by Judith Huang

Language Poem

ONE

The heron has practised his silence longer than time has been

time. When he rises and speaks, there is no one in the cove who doesn’t

listen, there is no one in the cove who couldn’t translate what he

says, and no one in the cove who wouldn’t realize the heron had been lost

in that translation. Everything speaks for itself in this world, and everything rests in what is unspoken.

Hairy woodpecker too, mystified, miffed, or exasperated or pleased, utters

his one word and jumps or hunkers down and squeezes hard: hanging on

for dear life to what is, or swimming right through it as if it were there. And it is. And it is.

How many more words would it take to make up a language? Does

language actually have to have words? What it must have are meanings—

and some way of saying, These and not those are the meanings that stand here uncovered—or covered.

The meanings a language must have are the meanings it lacks: located

outside it, like sunlight and grass. So together with meaning there has to

be pointing at meaning. A language, in other words, has to have

gestures and speakers. One each, let us say, for a start. With a little bit

more—

one speaker,                                                 two gestures;

one gesture, two speakers—

along with the requisite 

bedrock and fauna and flora of meanings— it might make the first blunt

lurch toward a life of its own.       The sounds of our speech are nothing

but gestures that reach around                                        corners and work in the dark,

the sounds of our footsteps                                                                   nothing but gestures out                                                                                                                      hunting for

 

meaning.

There are, as you know, languages spoken by millions of humans in

which there are syllables, gestures,                                                                with dozens

or hundreds of meanings.         Imagine                                                        a language

with only one

word

 

and five

hundred

meanings.

 

Imagine

 

one

finger and five hundred moons. You are not so far now from the

            woodpecker’s language,                                                                                                               and not so far now as you were from the shuddering throat of the great blue heron or the sandhill crane. If you tried, you might cling for a moment or two to those hollow-boned fingers of air in which five million years’ worth of watching and thinking are caught like a fossilized fish in one braided, eroded, unanalyzed word.

The invisible dictionary that sits on a rickety, tilted shelf of air there in the great blue heron’s study, open to the weather, perpetually shredded and reprinted by the wind, has only one entry, a thousand pages long.

What does it mean,

this evergreen book full of one-fingered meanings?

That words are like wind

in the leaves

and leaves

in the wind:

scraps of reality.                                                     And that we harness them

nevertheless,                 as the fishermen,               far up the river harness their cormorants, horsemen their horses, and as the go players harness their stones.

That gestures are gestures only because we employ them as gestures—and gestures, like other things, are what they are. They are not what they point at and not what we thought we would get them to say, in the same way that horses are not what they pull. That the journey will tell you, whenever it’s ready, where you were heading.         That meaning was here before you were, or they were, and will be long after.       That gestures, like horses, are part of it, yes, but gestures can never—no matter how beautiful they may be—create what they say. What gestures give life to, and birth to, are gestures, and that is their value—the same as with cormorants, humans, and horses.           And this: that what speaks from its heart is in that moment spoken—a form of the language, a part of the speech—swinging down and back up and back down on the dangling tongue in its mouth like a bell—sometimes moving toward singing, and sometimes toward walking and sometimes toward freezing and holding its breath in the presence of meaning.

God in the Dock: THBT Oedipus Rex Should not be let into Heaven

script by Judith Huang, 2001

Oedipus has died. But there are a number of angels who violently object to his presence in heaven. However, there is hope for Oedipus yet, for you and other like-minded angels are going to root for him.

 

Prepare a full argument that Oedipus’ greatest fault is not arrogance, nor is it incest or parricide, but only curiosity. Provide evidence from the heavenly transcripts of earthly conversations in Oedipus Rex, the text.

The Intro

 

Jieying (as Propangel): So, who’s next on our waiting list?

 

Judith (as Oppangel): I believe it’s Oedipus, a good and noble king of Thebes. Deceased at least 3 millenia ago.

 

Jieying (as Propangel): Oedipus…that human who – (eyes widen in horror) Didn’t he marry his mother, kill his father…?

 

Judith (as Oppangel): Er…yes…but…

 

Jieying (as Propangel): (growing more horrified by the second) That man has no place in Heaven, exclusive territory of the pure and virtuous!

 

Judith (as Oppangel): No…it was not like that at all! I MUST protest. Oedipus was an honourable man and I can’t allow you to ruin his chances in Heaven! (makes a very unangelic lunge for PA)

 

Jieying (as Propangel): HOLD it. I propose that we review this case in a more civilised manner.

 

Judith (as Oppangel): (a beat) I see. A debate.

 

Amanda hands Blin the first God paper.

 

The Heavenly Court Proceedings Entry #567812

 

Blin (as God): Good eternity, my subservient creations, and welcome to the Heavenly Court Debate, round #567812, also known as Blin’s Lit Lesson. The motion for today is “This house believes that Oedipus should not be allowed in heaven”.

 

Amanda (as Chairman): On the side of the proposition, we have the Propangel, and on the side of the opposition, we have the Oppangel. (Whatever position Blin is in, e.g. seated on the right), is the Judge, Blin, also known as God Almighty. I now invite the only speaker of the Proposition to present her case.

 

Jieying (as Propangel): Good eternity, God (bow to Blin) and fellow angels. As the only speaker of the proposition, I propose the motion, THBT Oedipus should not be allowed in Heaven.

 

What does this mean? Simply that Oedipus’ sins are too great to qualify him for eternal life in Heaven. What then, are these sins? The proposition divides them into two categories – action and attitude.

 

First of all, let us look at Oedipus’ sinful actions – incest and parricide. In killing his father and marrying his mother, he broke the most sacred taboos of his society. He killed his own father, and married his own mother. Let me stress to you, God and fellow angels, that this is no trivial matter. Oedipus’s marriage to the woman who gave birth to him is an act of gross unnaturalness. It is contrary to all common morality. It is an act of sexual perversity, and certainly has no place in Heaven.

 

Now, his second sin – parricide. Oedipus killed his own father, God and fellow angels! The taking of a life is already a terrible crime, but the murder of one’s own father is a thousand times worse! Murderers are routinely condemned to burn in Hell, as a matter of principle. What more could be said for father-killers?

 

Judith:             Point of information, ma’am

 

Jieying: Yes, ma’am

 

Judith: But he did that out of ignorance, and intention is…

 

Jieying: I am going to address that point. Perhaps, the opposition may argue, he didn’t really intend to commit incest or parricide, and this makes him innocent. But we in heaven firmly believe that it is the deed that matters. Intention does not change the facts! The fact remains that Laius was murdered by his own son. The fact remains that Jocasta was so shamed that she was driven to suicide. The fact remains that their tragic deaths were Oedipus’ fault. THE FACT REMAINS that he DID commit incest and parricide. Are you saying that just because Oedipus was ignorant, the blood on his hands can be washed away? No! He was no less guilty of his crimes, and must be punished accordingly.

 

Now, to my second point – Oedipus’ sinful attitude. Oedipus was sinfully arrogant. Although we recognise Oedipus as a man of many talents, his so-called superiority did not justify his blatant arrogance, which can easily be seen in the things he said: (remote)

 

Brenda (as Oedipus): I, Oedipus, whose name is known afar.

 

Jieying:(remote)This disgusting arrogance contributed to Oedipus’ downfall. It led to obstinacy. He refused to listen to anyone else, as can be seen in this earthly example: (remote)

 

Brenda (as Oedipus): I doubt your eloquence will teach me much. You are my bitterest enemy; that I know.

 

Zhenling (as Creon): First, let me tell you—

 

Brenda (as Oedipus): Tell me anything except that you’re honest.

Zhenling (as Creon): Can you believe this obstinacy does you any good?

 

Brenda and Zhenling freeze, Jieying gives an interesting comment.

 

Jieying: He was always so overconfident with his superiority, that he couldn’t accept the possibility of his being wrong.

Brenda (as Oedipus): I know I’m right.

 

Zhenling (as Creon): In your own eyes, not in mine.

 

Brenda: You are a knave.

 

Zhenling: And what if you are mistaken?

 

Brenda: Kings must rule.

 

Zhenling: Not when they rule unjustly.

 

Brenda: Hear him, Thebes! My city!

 

Jieying: (remote) An egomaniac’s cry! He was similarly rough with Teiresias, who actually knew the truth, and could have helped him, as can be seen here:

 

Brenda: Do you think you can say such things with impunity?

 

Amanda (as Teiresias): I do- if truth has any power to save.

 

Brenda: It has, but not for you, no, not for you Shameless and brainless, sightless, senseless sot!

 

Jieying: This proves that Oedipus wasn’t as noble as he was made out to be! After all…

 

Zhenling (as Chorus): Pride breeds the tyrant;…shall he escape his doomed pride’s punishment?

 

Jieying: Of course, the fact was that he was wrong. While he was busy slamming others, he was unaware of his own faults, which were far more serious than Creon’s or Teiresias’. This is blind arrogance, or hubris, and it was utterly unjustified.

 

In the end, his own stubbornness unmasked the truth, at his expense. Notice that despite various warnings by other people, he stubbornly continued to probe for evidence. If he had only listened, perhaps he wouldn’t have come to his ruin.

 

This is, on the other hand, proof that sin can never escape punishment, and justice will always be done. Why, then, should Oedipus be allowed into Heaven? It’s Heaven’s duty to set high standards of purity and virtue, and Oedipus has clearly sinned beyond redemption. Imagine allowing such a sinner into our midst! The credibility and image of Heaven will be stained for all eternity! Thus, I rest my case. The motion, THBT Oedipus should be allowed in Heaven, must stand. Thank you.

 

Amanda (as Chairman): The only speaker of the Proposition took __ min and __ sec. I now invite the only speaker of the Opposition to present her case.

 

Judith (as Oppangel):

Good eternity, God (bows to Blin), and fellow angels. As the only speaker of the Opposition in this heavenly debate, I must disagree with what the proposition has just said. Although I cannot disprove that Oedipus committed both incest and parricide, and was to a certain degree arrogant, he has made an admirable effort in redeeming himself, and does not deserve to be condemned.

 

First, I shall deal with the proposition’s points on incest and parricide. These actions were done in complete ignorance. He did not intend to sin. Oedipus did not know that he had married his mother and killed his father.

 

Oedipus won his bride while rescuing Thebes from the Sphinx. Can you say that he sinned because he had the compassion and courage to save Thebes? No. Can you say that he sinned because he killed in order to defend his pride? No. Perhaps, in this time and age, it would be considered rash and foolish of Oedipus to murder a man for so slight a cause, but remember, God and angels, that Oedipus lived three millennia ago. In any other situation, Greek legality would have allowed Oedipus to kill to defend his honour. His sin was not the murder of a man, but the murder of his father, which he did not recognise! Therefore, he committed parricide in utter innocence!

 

Surely acts committed in ignorance do not play a part in heaven’s condemnation!

 

Jieying: Point of Information, ma’am. The fact still remains that he has committed a terrible sin, ma’am.

 

Judith: Again I stress, it is the intention that determines sin! I shall now proceed with the proposition’s second point.

 

Yes, Oedipus was arrogant, as the proposition has presented evidence true to the heavenly transcripts on this point. However, he had other, greater qualities that redeemed his hubris. For example, Oedipus was a good man – he came to Thebes to save it from its suffering. His compassion in saving Thebes from the Sphinx earned him his place as the King of Thebes. Oedipus was a good King – he promised to do his best in hunting down Liaus’ murderer. He was the greatest of men. It is not arrogance for him to say so. Let us refer to the words of the Priest (picks up remote control)

 

Amanda (as Priest):    “If we come to you now, sir, as your suppliants,

“I and these children, it is not as holding you

The equal of gods, but as the first of men

 

Judith: These words show that the people held Oedipus as the first of men. Even the priest, who represented the gods, admitted so. Thus, Oedipus was justified in thinking of himself as a great man.

 

Now I shall move on to my substantive. I shall now prove that it was in fact curiosity that was Oedipus’ greatest failing, not the actions or attitudes pointed out by the proposition. Then, I shall further elaborate on how even this fault is negligible in the face of Oedipus’ redeeming virtues.

 

Curiosity, perhaps, may be named as Oedipus’ greatest fault; had he not been curious and found out more about the prophecy, he would never have left Corinth and caused himself all the trouble. Curiosity is innocent, my friends. In fact, it is almost noble – it is the pursuit of truth. If Oedipus’ only fault was curiosity, how could he be called sinful?

 

It is this relentless pursuit of the truth that caused Oedipus to discover the shame he committed. He did this even in the face of Jocasta’s repeated requests that he stop. (remote)

 

Enter Brenda (Oedipus) and Zhenling (Jocasta), Brenda in noble, uncompromising pose and Zhenling pleading.

 

Zhenling (as Jocasta): “No! In God’s name – if you want to live, this must not go on.” (freeze, unfreeze)       “I implore you, do not do it.”

(freeze, unfreeze)         “I know I am right. I am warning you for your good.”

 

Judith: On realising his so-called sins, Oedipus demonstrated his nobility in a great, unnecessary act of repentance.

 

Enter Brenda and Zhenling (as Jocasta) who act out what is read about them

 

Judith: What does he do? He reduces himself to a blind, humbled man, condemned to live as a pariah. He condemns himself to the full punishment he dictated, not even sparing himself. He was no coward, unlike Jocasta who committed suicide. (Zhenling hangs herself) He forced himself to go on living, my friends – blinded and stripped to a fragment of the proud man he was.

Clearly, that Oedipus was a noble man whose virtues far outweighed his failings. He more than redeemed himself with these virtues. His willingness to repent, his capacity for suffering, his sense of responsibility, his unshakeable principles. These virtues mark him as a man worthy of nothing less than heaven. He has repented. How can we deny him entry?

 

In conclusion, the opposition poses these questions: must a man be perfect before he can be considered ‘good’? Oedipus has repented his sins, if they can be considered sins. And that must be good enough, if not more than necessary. Lesser men have been considered good, and accepted into heaven. If even a man like Oedipus is refused, wouldn’t heaven be an echoingly empty place?

 

It is true that judgement means that every sin must be punished. But with justice there also comes mercy. For this has come down to a debate between fact and situation, between cold, hard evidence and Godly compassion. And it can only be solved with the application of Mercy to Justice.

 

And so on Oedipus’ behalf I implore, most honourable Judge, that on account of these things I have shown you, that you show mercy to this man.

 

Amanda (as Chairman): The only speaker on the side of the Opposition took __ minutes and __ seconds. The Judge will now be given a 0 minute recess to make his decision. Will both sides of the house please take note that the judge’s decision is final, since it’s already been written on this piece of paper he’s supposed to read out. ( Amanda hands Blin second slip of paper for God)

 

Blin (as God): Since the question I set was that the Angels of this house prepare a full argument that Oedipus’ greatest fault is neither arrogance, incest or parricide but mere curiosity, I hereby declare the Opposition the victor in this debate. Let Oedipus into heaven.

 

Jieying looks glum, goes over to shake hands with an ecstatic Judith

Brenda: But I’m Greek! I believe in reincarnation! I demand that I be banished from this place! I don’t want to go to heaven!

 

Blin (as God): That is of no consequence.

Anyway, this verdict is microscopic. To take a more macroscopic view of these proceedings, I also hereby declare that these Angels be awarded top marks and extra credit for their excruciating effort in 1) presenting both cases instead of just one, 2) making it amusing and educational at the same time, and 3) ingenuously putting words in God’s mouth.

 

Amanda (as Chairman): The next motion for the Heavenly Court Debates, which will be debated next millennium, is “This house believes that teachers are not gods”. Thank you.

 

Credit

Amanda (2)      Brenda (6)       Judith (7)         Zhenling (10)   Jieying (12)

Guest starring Blin (unregistered)

Utterly Unlike the Snow

So, when you say you’re going overseas to study, the first thing your Singaporean friends and relatives will say is, “Aiyoh, won’t it be cold?” Or, if they are of a slightly more optimistic bent, they will say, “So lucky! Will there be snow?” (Unless you’re going to China, in which case, the first thing they’ll say is, “Ee… But what about the toilets?” – Actually, I’ve been to China, and thanks to a possibly Singapore-inspired 5 star rating system, their toilets, at least in major attractions, are now pretty decent.) So when I landed in Boston, I was pretty scared. I didn’t check the weather, because in my imagination everywhere “overseas” was cold. So I got out of the plane wearing the family winter jacket. You know, the communal jacket that gets passed around and is too big for you because it is from your uncles and aunties and cousins who lend it to anyone going “to a cold country”. It hangs off me like an ugly oversized bag of polyester. Which is what it is. Anyway, I get out of the plane in my family winter jacket, and step into the blazing heat of 40-degree Boston summer.

But of course, this is September, the end of summer, and soon enough the leaves turn, and it is fall. Fall is nice enough, but winter here in Boston is hard and cold. It also seems to go on forever. My first winter here, I remember looking out onto Harvard Yard with my new roommates, and seeing the light, polite dusting of first snow softly covering everywhere – the grass, the branches, the paths, the people. It was exquisitely beautiful. But it was also really, really scary. Something in me panics. I’m a tropical person! I’m not adapted to this sort of thing! I have no evolutionary advantages in this environment whatsoever! I have very skinny legs. I have a lot of melanin. If you put me out in the sun every day I will get unflattering sock lines. I remember in secondary school I had my entire school uniform imprinted on my body: neck line, sleeve line, skirt line, sock line. I have big (for an ethnically Chinese person), wide eyes. My JC boyfriend had an epicanthic fold over each of his eyes – like Lenin – “to keep out the snow”, according to Wikipedia. It must have been some vestigial Northern Chinese trait, because as far as he knows he is Teochew. I was very envious. I could spend hours just looking at it; it was a source of endless fascination.

At Harvard, they call our first semester Fall term and the second semester Spring term. This is a blatant exercise in deception. What they really mean is Winter Part I and Winter Part II. Winter extends its lengthy limbs well into November sometimes, and, exasperatingly enough, it refuses to go away for sure until May. What I hate the most about winter is the slush and the snow. First snow is beautiful, but when it’s sat there for days, weeks, months, its whiteness gets lost in the dirt and smog from the car exhaust and pollution, and from the countless people stepping all over it. People slip and fall on it – there are always a few people hobbling around on crutches by mid-January.

By February, a thick crust of snow has covered all the ground. We let it stay there, just shoveling the minimum number of paths, but even those have slabs of ice and treacherous freezing puddles and slushy pools of water that feel like 7-11 Slushies but look far less appetizing. Every time a fresh coat of snow whitens the ground again, my heart lifts a little – new snow is easy to walk on, and crunches pleasingly underfoot like a million little bones. But in my mind I always know it’s only a matter of time before the white turns to grey and sooty black, and the walking gets treacherous again.

Anyway, sure enough, I wasn’t built for winter. After suffering from the harsh cold of three winters, when the loss of light from the short days and the difficulty of even getting from point A to point B became overwhelming, I capitulated. It turns out I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, the appropriately acronym-ed “SAD” (like Mutually Assured Destruction = MAD). Apparently, I need to stare into a little box of full-spectrum light for at least 20 minutes in the morning during the winter months to maintain my sanity. So when, this year, I returned to Harvard, and winter started creeping up on me again, I felt I had something to prove. I couldn’t let all that ice and snow and sleet and hail or the icy Atlantic gales stop me from going outside. I decided to run every morning, regardless of the temperature. Now, I’ve always been one of those extremely wimpy nerds with no ball sense whatsoever who enthusiastically follows the ball from one end of the netball court to the other, always sprinting but secretly dreading that the ball may come flying my way, because I knew that I would drop it, or freeze on the spot and not know what to do with it. Fortunately, all my classmates knew this, too, and never threw the ball at me, so, by this wonderful tacit agreement, my pretense of playing netball during PE was preserved, as was my personal dignity. So my point is, I am not by any measure athletic, nor have I ever been inclined to be. But as I said, this time I had something to prove.

The first day it dropped below -12 degrees Celsius, My skin felt like it was being burned off by the wind. I got myself one of those terrorist balaclava things. The first day the ice was thick on the ground, I slipped, and, Charlie-Chaplin-like, slid right onto my butt three steps in front of my door, after carefully picking my way over the ice for 40 minutes without a hitch. Soon it became a matter of honour. I started to keep score: Judith 1, Boston 0. Judith 2, Boston 0. Then it was Judith 130, Boston 0, and there was no going back. Because damn it, if I stopped now Boston would get ahead!

Most days, I run along the Charles River. It thrills me to bits that one of my favourite novelists, Haruki Murakami, ran along this same river the year he was at Harvard. He wrote in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, that the Harvard girls he saw running along the river were often confident, sporty and blonde. He never saw any “ethnic” runners. Well, I’m not blonde, I think to Murakami. (I often have these completely one-sided imaginary conversations.) Look, I’m pretty ethnic! And rather pudgy, too. (This was the semester after I gorged myself on Mexican hot chocolate for a couple of months.) I’m nothing like those girls!

Anyway, the Charles River doesn’t look like a river in winter. Like the huge crusts of hardened ice and snow that cover the ground, this river looks utterly dead. It looks like land. It gives off this cold, white look. It chases away the geese that used to feed by it. It was very sad, watching those geese go. I had developed feelings of kinship with those geese. It is difficult to imagine that anything is going on under that formidable sheet of ice. I could walk across it, and probably get safely to the other side.

And that’s the thing about winter that really gets to me. Soon, you cannot imagine things looking any different from how they look now. The Charles River is so solid, it looks so firm you cannot imagine how it could look any other way. The sheet upon sheet of snow, frozen as giant ice heaps on the ground, look so heavy, so huge, so difficult to move, you cannot imagine how anything beneath it could survive its crushing weight, or its formidable cold. That’s the funny thing about really huge heaps of ice and snow. There are only three ways to get rid of snow: heat, salt and friction. Harvard has giant machines that try to loosen bits of ice with salt and friction. However, there is only so much you can do with a giant machine. If you tried to do it with only your hands, you can barely break off little bits, and then the bits you chip off burn and freeze you if you hold them for too long.

You start to imagine that this state of affairs is permanent. You start to forget what the trees ever looked like with leaves on them, with birds in them. You start to forget the songs, the warbles, the squawks and quacks of the birds. You imagine that, because you feel so dead and tired inside, everything beneath all that heavy winter must be dead too, and what little surviving stirrings in you are completely and utterly alone. People walk differently in the winter. They bundle themselves up, tuck their chins down, their hands deep in their pockets, their backs hunched against the wind. They don’t look at you when they pass you by. In winter, everyone behaves as though they are under siege. Our bodies are so preoccupied with fighting off the cold that they have no time or energy for anything or anyone else. This is what they mean when they say, People in Boston are Cold. They just want to get to the next building, warm themselves up – then they can start noticing things around them again. Who has time to bother with what’s around when their eyes are tearing from the bitter wind?

So, the coming of spring is always miraculous. This is how it begins: the sun, even though it seems distant and small and cold, somehow provides the enormous nuclear power which warms the earth again. The earth warms up, the snowfall turns to rain. For several miserable days, you wade around in Wellingtons, shielding yourself from the cold, but the persistent little raindrops soak you through anyway. At the same time, the ice melts. Those formidable sheets of white slush, snow and ice mysteriously seem thinner, then more translucent, then more transparent. They begin to shrink, to pool into puddles with tiny particles floating around in them. As they recede, we are all in for a surprise, the oldest surprise in the world – beneath the snow is earth, covered with grass. It is so green it hurts the eyes. You would think the grass would be dead, or brown, or straggly, but in fact the nutrient-rich ice has been feeding it all along, even while it froze it, and locked it away from view.

The ice on the river Charles begins to crack – large holes begin to form little lakes, then streams free of ice appear beneath its receding borders. And underneath the ice is streaming, living water. Water – that’s what ice is, that’s all it is, and what a thing it is! Water is everything to us – it bubbles forth from the ground, it embraces the earth, it dwells deeply within us. We all thirst for water, the swift currents that make up more than half of us. I imagine what water is to cells, swelling, pushing, pushing against and past their little walls. Without water, the ground will die, the plants will die, the fish will die, the birds will die. That beloved thing, water, which brings us nutrition, which washes away our toxins, which oils the mysterious rivers of our machinery, has only been disguised as ice. It is no longer solid: it is fluid, flexible, adaptable. It moves. In our breath we hold its vapor. It rises, and it falls again as rain.

Imagine a baby born in the heart of winter. She has only known the blinding whiteness of the snow. She grows up in winter, and has never seen a leaf, a bird, a river. All these things, filled with life, are beyond her imagination. But somehow, she has some inkling, some idea of the rumour of spring, because she is herself a wonderful new life, a bursting forth of lips and limbs and fingers. She stretches them, testing them against the deep white silence. Months, years go by. And then suddenly, spring sweeps forth, touching its first flower, and all the life that had been dormant all along rushes up through the earth. To be that girl! Imagine knowing the world for the first time, and then seeing it rapidly, suddenly for a second time, more lively and mysterious, more abundant than the first!

The land we know is utterly unlike the snow. It is deep and rich, it is green and lush, it is uneven and dirty and filled with ants, it is soggy and fertile and laced with roots. Its thousand tongues are the leaves of thick, green cow grass, those rich, fat leaves have just the sticky, slightly itchy edge. All manner of insects wind their private ways between them, crawling up the legs of the unsuspecting human, attacking the sweet stickiness of the fruit in your hand. It used to make me think those British picnicking children in my storybooks were crazy. The land that we know gives us huge, beautiful trees: rain trees, rambutan trees, angsana trees, palm trees, the magnificent and majestic banyan tree. It gives us mangrove swamps, with their subtle flapping mudfish, their slopping stagnant water, their rich smell of gentle humid rot. Orioles and mynahs and yellow birds and crickets and grasshoppers and lizards and ants cry and scuttle and creek and whisper and rustle and sing – I can almost hear them in my mind. I can almost feel the thick blanket of water vapor, that warm, saturating blanket of humidity. In the island of my imagination, everything bursts with the knotted thickness of life. In the midst of winter, I long for the land of eternal summer.

Published in Lianhe Zaobao in Chinese. Click here for translation and link to PDF and online article

Oedipus’ Eyes

When I was about fifteen, I wrote an essay entitled “The gods are unjust” about Oedipus Rex, the ancient play by Sophocles – it is one of the great Greek Tragedies, replete with chorus and tragic hero. It was my first tragedy. Oedipus was condemned by Apollo’s prophecy, related by an oracle, to kill his father and marry his mother, and bring down the Kingdom of Thebes he ruled in so doing. This is, of course, the same Oedipus that Freud referred to when he describes the Oedipal Complex – that is, his observation that small boys want to marry their mother and usurp (kill) their father. It is one of Freud’s most controversial claims (in fact, he had based it on his observation of Hamlet’s behavior, but wanted something less silly sounding than “Hamletal Complex”, I suppose). In Greek Tragedy, the tragic hero brings about his own downfall due to a tragic flaw. A traditional tragic hero is a giant among men, upright, dignified and just, except for one aspect – the tragic flaw.Oedipus’ tragic flaw was the most fundamental one of all: Hubris – that is, pride, the willingness to defy the gods.

image from Wikipedia

He displayed this when he claimed that the prophecy concerning his birth would be unfulfilled. He declared this at the height of his powers: the man had, running from exile from Corinth (where he had been adopted as a little baby and brought up as a prince) in order to not fulfill the prophecy concerning the Corinthian king and queen, met with a strange man who challenged him. He had a duel with him and killed the man. Then he met a Sphinx along the way, and being a wise man he solved the Sphinx’s riddle, freeing the people of Thebes from its tyranny. He was given a beautiful bride, the Queen of Thebes, as a prize, and made King of Thebes. As King of Thebes he ruled wisely, excising the sinners from the land, bringing peace and prosperity to the citizens of Thebes. It was at this point that he said, Apollo’s oracle will fall! And of course, (anyone who has read any myth at all will know) this is when the metaphorical shit hits the metaphorical fan.

At the time I thought this a pagan play, with a skewed morality which I could hold at a critical distance. I would appreciate it aesthetically, I thought, but not morally. After all, I’m a Christian (I thought to myself). My God is not like Apollo at all – He would never hold me accountable for something he predestined me to do anyway, and in any case, He wouldn’t make me go through this kind of horror. My God also knows that I only have the best of intentions – he won’t hold me accountable for sins I commit unknowingly! So I reasoned: I will not be swayed by some silly Greek play. I had already decided ahead of time that the gods were unjust, when I wrote the essay. Now to list the evidence, I thought. You can read my argument, which I still think very reasonable, here.

Yesterday I realized I was wrong. I had been guilty myself of hubris – for putting the gods (yes, even pagan gods) in the dock, as such, along with Oedipus. If gods and men were equal – on a level moral playing field, as such – I would take the part of Oedipus in a heartbeat. After all, who’s the better man: an unknowing father-killer and mother-ravisher who did everything he did out of compassion for strangers, or Mr Zeus himself, who’s pretty much raped every pretty girl and goddess this side of Creation, smote people he didn’t like for no good reason, fathered a pantheon of illegitimate bastards and then been an absent father to them all, and pretty much (pardon my French) dicked around for all his everlasting life? I thought Oedipus the better man! But you see, gods and men are different. This is the lesson of humility.

Well, first of all, the Zeus that the ancient Greeks worshipped and theorized about, and probably the Zeus that the playwright Sophocles had in mind when he wrote this, is quite different from the Zeus of popular legend. People did not think of Zeus as my Mr. Zeus, as described in the above paragraph. Apparently the Greek and Roman myths about the gods being capricious and annoying – all those delightful stories – were as controversial as say, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, or, more to the point, Jesus Christ Superstar or even Madonna’s music or the Da Vinci Code are to Christians today. Perhaps the best analogy to how Sophocles’ play today would be Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ – reverent, controversial, with a moral god in the centre, not some capricious serial adulterer, written probably by a devout but flawed man. So I was wrong on that count – I brought a straw man of a god to the dock, when really I should have been considering Someone far more like my God.

If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph were the One who put Oedipus through this particular play, I realized, just yesterday, I would agree with Him. Here are several things I have learned in the last ten years, sometimes at great personal expense, which compel me say this:

1)   Direction, not intention, determines our final destination.

I have done terrible things out of good intentions, and I can honestly, having searched my heart, say that I did not mean to do them. Nevertheless, I did them, and the consequences of my actions were real. My experience of reality is subtly different from my friends’ and acquaintances’ and enemies’. They each have an interior world, with a personal narrative. Until I am in touch with this narrative, I can never know if the words I say, or the things I do towards them, are helping or hurting them. The road to hell truly is paved with good intentions – I’ve realized this because I have both tossed carelessly my friends into the flames, as well as been abandoned to the Pit by the best of people, all thanks to good intentions.

2)   Sin is not just personal – it is generational and collective.

This is a hard lesson to hear, particularly in America, or anywhere in the West where individualism is the dominant ideology. America tells you that “you can make it on your own”. So Americans make up stories (let’s take Disney films for example) in which the hero is largely orphaned (usually he or she has only one parent, and that single parent is pretty ineffectual), and the orphan makes it in the world anyway, within one generation, accomplishing what he sets out to do. Of course, the true nature of American success is very rarely like this. Michael Sandel, building on the work of John Rawls, has already begun arguing against individualism with communitarianism. In Political Science, Robert Putnam brought to our attention the consequences of the breakdown of community in America. Going back further, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government was written upon seeing early America, and the most salient difference he had seen between the New World and the Old was the American genius for organization – that is, of building community, of grassroots groups and movements. Given these roots, communitarianism may really be as American as individualism.

But back to my point about collective Sin. This is not to say that (as people in Jesus’ day argued) something such as blindness was an indication of parental sin. Nor should it ever give credence to such horrible thoughts such as that the melanin of those of African extraction is a symbol of the sins of their fathers, and therefore we should blithely exploit them as slave labor. No, this is not what I mean by collective Sin. I think that collective Sin is actually more of an accumulation of tiny individual sins. Let’s get back to Oedipus for an illustration. When the King and Queen of Thebes hear of Apollo’s oracle concerning their son Oedipus, (that he would kill his father and rape his mother), they are horrified and decide the only way to save themselves and Thebes is to kill their newborn son. However, love stops them. The baby is instead abandoned on a hillside. A shepherd sees the baby and is moved to compassion, and takes him in and raises him as a shepherd boy. Later he is brought into the King of Corinth’s palace and raised as a prince. A drunkard Oedipus meets one day tells him about the prophecy concerning him. Oedipus is horrified, and flees Corinth to save his adoptive parents. This is when he meets his actual father on the road, and commits parricide.

Truly, the road to hell was paved with good intentions! I do not have the heart to blame the King and Queen of Thebes for not killing their child. Nor do I have it in me to say the shepherd should have left well enough alone (if you ever find yourself ensnared in a myth, taking in a changeling child is always a bad idea). But perhaps we can definitely say that that man should not have been drunk, and gone around blabbing about ancient oracles while drunk. Who knows, if Oedipus had never talked to that drunkard, he could have ended life as a very satisfactory King of Corinth. In any case, all of these people broke the law. The law against a person who would kill the King and rape the Queen was death. Even though Oedipus was a newborn infant, he deserved death if the prophecy was true. The shepherd did not know the law (that the baby was condemned), but he should have known the law of myth (never pick up a changeling baby). However, out of compassion he thwarted the law. Defying the law leads to Death – this is the burden of all knowledge and Wisdom. I think if each of us knew what we were capable of, and the evil that we will in fact unleash in our lives, we would probably all quite impartially sentence ourselves to death. It is God’s grace that allows us to move through time like blind little minnows, not knowing what we do, and who we kill daily on the road. It was the accumulation of these tiny little transgressions – against laws of reason (logos), against laws of myth (mythos) – that added up to tragedy.

3)   Sin has eternal consequences because God does not work inside Time.

Albert Einstein divined that Time is merely one of many dimensions, although we tend to experience the world in three dimensions, traveling down the line of Time. God doesn’t (for obvious reasons) do this. He is able to see all of human history (as well as pre- and post-human history) as happening all at once. This solves the conundrum of free will vs. predestination. We are responsible for every single sin we commit, and if we imagine Christ eternally on the cross, being nailed by each sin as we commit it, perhaps we would be a little more hesitant in our words and actions. We are even more culpable for particular sins if directed by a particular prophecy not to do something. (Fortunately most of us do not find ourselves in this situation – although it does call for a careful, thorough examination of the prophecies of the Bible).

At one and the same time, everything has already happened in the sight of God. This is why God is able to deliver prophecy via his prophets. This is also why prophecy is useful – because the prophetic message has always included “repent!” as its basic, fundamental cry. If people hear the prophecy, and repent, judgment will be held back. Well, at least until the stench of sin reaches a certain noisome pitch, and when the cry of the poor and the widows becomes quite unbearable again, at which point the whole thing starts all over again. This makes every sin a lot more terrible, even the small ones, because each one echoes down the long reaches of history, geography, Eternity itself. Furthermore, it joins the sins of our fathers, the sins of our friends, and the sins of total strangers to form a stream of narrative: these various tributaries converge to form the River of Death: the Styx, that runs through Hell itself. The sins of the fathers are handed down to the next generation (via genes, via inherited patterns of behavior, via kinks or omissions in the moral code). So it really isn’t Apollo’s fault that Oedipus is predestined and free to commit sin. That is simply the human consequence of only living in three and a half dimensions.

So what is the whole point of Grace, anyway? What’s the point of compassion if it merely leads to hell, the same way cruelty leads to hell? What difference does it make whether you do unto others as you would have them do to you?

If I were God, I would never have put Oedipus through all that. I also would never have inflicted that horrible prophecy on him. However, if none of this had happened, we would lack one of the first and greatest heroes of the Western Canon: blind Oedipus, who put out his own eyes and exiled himself from his Kingdom the moment he realized what he had done. Why did Oedipus blind himself? I think I finally see why.

Oedipus wanted his outward self to be a reflection of his inward condition. “I was blind,” he says, as he stabs one eyeball after the other. “Therefore let me be blind.” It is an affront to the gods for him to have sight, because it creates a chasm between heaven and earth – between the spiritual world and the physical world. Blindness is what Oedipus longs for, after all: if he had never known any of the prophecy, if he had continued having fulfilled it, without knowing he had, he may have been a great king, (he already was). Cloaked by blindness, protected by wool pulled over his eyes, he could conceivably have been a good king of Thebes. But he would never have gained the stature of a tragic hero, whose name is uttered by mortals even today.

I wrote a little poem about blind Oedipus wandering in exile. If Oedipus had been Christian, I would have said to him, one day your Savior will come and redeem those eyes. You have repented more than an ordinary man can bear – you have repented in dust and ashes, and your crying eyes show me your nobility, your sincerity. One day when you are caught up in heaven you will lift up your sad face, and see. And He will restore your sight.

passing by Oedipus

I was walking by

the walls of a kingdom

flushed in the fading sun

and passed hardly a glance

at the cloak in the gutter –

the one with the noble heart

(the eyes were closed,

I could not see

if they were truly blind)

First published at the Harvard Ichthus