Complexity x Civility

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In recent times I began to wonder if it’d ever be possible to have a civil conversation again. Without getting swept away by one’s emotions and personal investment in a issue – to truly argue and reason your take on it without being presumptuous that your view is the only one that is right. So correct that even engaging is off the table.

Over the past week, I’ve become convinced that that it is not only possible but can certainly become the way of life if only we started by making a conscious effort to do so. In the discussions that I had, mostly at 4-5am in the morning, there was not a sniff of condescension or disregard for another person’s view and whenever things veered off discussion on the subject matter itself on hand, it would be quickly be brought back. And whenever someone wasn’t aware of the lowdown on certain topics, there were no remarks about someone’s ignorance. Instead, what followed was a genuine desire to explain things in the most factual manner possible that would allow one to form their own take. And best of all, people didn’t attempt to cover up what they didn’t know but honestly admitted that they didn’t and sought information to fill in the gaps.

I was stunned. But more than that, I was hopeful. That if we could do this on a small scale then just as it is in computing, we can scale it up.

More often than not, we see things from a very skewed perspective because it’s the exaggeration that drives people to consume media. If everything were objectively considered, that “excitement” wouldn’t be there. Stories of gridlock, apathy, ignorance – these aren’t the mainstream. A good part of us are willing to reach out and learn, and to find that middle ground. Now that does not mean to give up your views, but rather to subject it to moulding by subjecting it to alternate views and constructive debate instead. And is that possible? It sure is. It’s easy to go extreme, to let passion consume you, but it takes a lot more courage and tenacity to go for that tempered, more assured and united approach instead.

And in it, the complexity of humanity is revealed. It’s not binary. There’s infinite shades of grey in between that all of us fit into. It’s appreciation for that individuality, and collective whole that will make us who we are.

On resilience, representation and Hillary

“And if there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch, let me just say I may become the first woman President. But one of you is next.”

Clinton’s candidacy hasn’t made me as excited as Obama’s two campaigns did – after all, it’s not easy getting excited about a campaign that centers around realism and “getting things done” (as the narrative around Tim Kaine has been thus far) – a crux that, contrary to popular belief, is actually very crucial in these dynamic times. It pales in terms of hype when you compare it to something as sweeping as “Change We Can Believe In” or the energy that propels people who have been disappointed far too long (a la Bernie and Trump’s campaigns). I must give a shout-out to Bernie for his heartfelt and genuineness not just when he proposed the unanimous nomination but for his entire campaign. For a primary contest that often turned ugly toward the end (and at the start of the DNC) this was a smooth conclusion and allowed Bernie the chance to take in the number of voters he brought into the conversation and into the fold. Clinton and her team really could not have possibly asked for more from Sanders. He was immense and I can only imagine that his role in her team over the next few months is going to be very deep.

But back to Clinton. She has her fair share of flaws (honestly, who doesn’t) and shortcomings that she’ll have to address seriously to finish Trump off. But above all else, while watching that somewhat cheesy but well-made video of the glass ceiling cracking, I remembered just how darn historic that moment was – for the first time in US history would there be a female nominee for President of a major political party. A lady who has withstood shocking levels of sexism in the media and among her colleagues, personal attacks and so much more. You may not agree with her on every issue or or even like her but it takes a certain level of resilience to stay and serve despite all the things that are slung at you.

But above all else it was the line that I quoted that hit me the most. It was only then that I realized what representation could actually do to one’s image and self-confidence and motivation. Elderly ladies who know well of a time where there wasn’t even women’s suffrage probably could not believe what they were seeing. While young daughters around the country were indeed probably thinking or were told by their parents – “See, one day you could be there too.” – and boy what an immense difference that can make.

It’s strange to think that we still live in a time, despite all that we’ve been through, where violence is yet ever so prevalent, where misogyny and objectification (not just the ones I read but the ones I hear and see myself) still exists – a world where love and respect has not yet prevailed. At times it’s terribly disheartening. But then I look at Hillary and remind myself of what it means to keep hustling and to keep believing and to keep fighting no matter what. And if someone like who has faced so much more can do it then why not me, why not we?

Hardly an adult yet but if I were one in the US and I had a young daughter at home watching the TV at that time too, I’d be so proud to tell her that she too could one day be President and have someone real to exemplify that dream up. And if we can get to this, then I’m sure no matter where you are or who you are, you’d always live with the hope that yes, anything is possible. Just never give up.

(Okay long, winding reflection over, if you read to the end, thank you 🙂

On Different Roads and Privilege

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I’ve been in the army for slightly over a year now and while I was at first scared that it’ll be a challenging journey for me, someone who’s does not fit the common definition of masculinity very well, I’ve come to appreciate the journey for what it is the most – the chance to interact with people from all backgrounds, each with different goals and dreams, each with different stories to tell. And through that, find what bring us together, find what makes us, to use the cliched but evergreen phrase, one united people.

I enlisted 2 months earlier than the rest owing to my terrible lack of fitness (while not unfit, I was barely pushing my body to optimum, let alone the limits) and the only thought that was through my mind in those early stages was how I’d be missing out on a really kick-ass trip to Bali (which really saddened me a lot although I was super happy the rest were having a ball of a time) and essentially how I lost two months to myself to explore my passions and interests on my own. Even now, time is the only thing I think about when I find myself pondering about NS.

But life/God had another plan for me in those two months… and boy was it one that I needed, and actually one that I myself didn’t even know that I wanted. A chance for me to get out there and truly meet people, all sorts of people that I didn’t even know existed – people so colorful, writing stories that I didn’t know could be written, distinct new tales I never heard before that defined them. People nearly 7 years older than me to some who were in fact younger. Each brought something to the table that no one else could offer. And what a difference that made to those extra 8 weeks.

Whether it was the platoon mate who taught me the importance of living and appreciating the moment when he told me not to think about the next 15 weeks ahead but rather the long weekend to come for our first bookout, or hearing about the different struggles that people had in life: losing family members early in their childhood, being forced to take an extra semester solely because they failed one module for a reason that wasn’t even of their own doing, coming back mere weeks or days before enlisting and having to live away from family for extended periods of time and so much more. These were all stories that I would never have had the chance to hear had I gone in with the rest of my peers where the batch would be largely homogeneous…

And it’s only through these past 12 odd months (and in particular over the two days of duty during this CNY weekend, but I’ll get to that later) that I’ve realized what I missed out on over the years as I’ve walked down the path that I have after Primary School: I missed out on the chance to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, defined not based on a common set of 4 papers but rather on a variety of experiences and different standards which they hold themselves to.

NS has been thoroughly enlightening when it comes to meeting people outside my social circle of sorts, people so fundamentally different at the core of their being yet so beautiful in coming together to form the intricate social fabric that exists in Singapore. A social fabric which I experienced an increasingly shrinking part of as I grew up. NS has opened me up to the different realities facing different people and for that I’m deeply thankful, and is truly one of my greatest takeaways from Army once I come to the end of my two years service.

And that leads me onward to the connected issue of privilege… something that I have seen surface up even more recently not just in the news as a social issue but something that is closer to home, something very personal especially in the lead up to commissioning and in the mere 2 weeks of being an officer that followed.

This post may seem a bit out of the blue but I just felt that I had to write this in light of my duty over the past 2 of 4 days…

After spending those nights in camp and just interacting with people who spent it with me made me realize that when it comes to National Service, everyone really speaking just wants to do their best. Be it whichever role you serve in, or whatever vocation type or whether you are in frontline postings or more behind-the-scenes operations, everyone is trying to give their best and to say that someone has “given” more simply because they are an officer is reducing the contributions of everyone else to a mere footnote. It’s a hierarchy simply because that’s the way the system functions more efficiently… however take away any part of that hierarchy and the whole system falls on itself. Being in OCS and going through all that I did was nothing but a privilege and to be honest, there are so many other people out there who deserve to be in there too but for reasons unknown, or reasons that aren’t exactly justifiable, weren’t given the chance but they still choose to do the best they can and be the best that they can be.

I’m reminded of Angelina Jolie’s speech at The Academy’s 2013 Governors Awards:

I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I had, to have this path in life.

And why across the world there’s a woman just like me, with the same abilities and the same desires, same work ethic and love for her family, who would most likely make better films, and better speeches — only she sits in a refugee camp.

She has no voice.

She worries about what her children will eat, how to keep them safe, and if they’ll ever be allowed to return home.

I don’t know why this is my life and that’s hers.

I don’t understand that, but I will do as my mother asked, and I will do the best I can with this life to be of use.

I’m reminded to never take any of the things that I’ve experienced in life for granted. I’m reminded to always be thankful for what I have. And above all, I’m reminded of my obligation to make this reality of mine, a reality for others by living a life of use.

As I’m about to turn 20 this year, I don’t think this sobering reminder could have come at any more appropriate a time. I’ve a long way to go but I can make my life count. All I need to do is to live this life right, just the once.

As with love, as I saw on today’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat, it’s not always about the big gestures but the small things that add up to that something big.

And I pray that I will always keep these lessons in mind as I make my way through the 20s and beyond.

wild: a personal take

“What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was? I know only that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. That seeing the fish beneath the surface was enough. That it was everything. My life -like all lives- mysterious, irrevocable and sacred, so very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.” – Cheryl Strayed, Wild.

Just finished watching Wild and aside from the fact that it was thoroughly genuine and compelling film with a truly career-defining performance from Witherspoon and top notch directing from Vallee, the central premise of the movie was extremely thought-provoking and moving.

While Vallee (there’s supposed to be an accent on the first ‘e’) does a fine job relating the expansive nature of nature (lol) to Cheryl trying to find direction and meaning, he also did an even better job at fleshing out the whole theme of forgiveness. And it really raises the question, at what point does one just lets everything go – the guilt, the pain, the regret – and just forgives themselves in order to move on? At the end Strayed lets go of all her mistakes (pretty huge ones a la drugs and infidelity) and the effects it had on the people around her – but how does one reconcile with themselves after such actions? And what about the lasting damage it leaves on the other people involved? Can that ever be objectively forgiven?

But then again, if you don’t forgive yourself and accept it as an unchangeable fact of life, how do you move on? How do you continue to live?

I’m not sure what I believe in, or whether redemption is a journey or a process but I do know that all that matters is that one tries. As Strayed’s mother puts it the most important thing is (sic) “how to find your best self and when you do, hold on to it for dear life.” and even if one doesn’t reach their best self as Strayed’s mother never does, one must never stop trying. And that’s all that I hope I can continue to do: to never stop trying.

It’s about 2 years since the film just came out but it’s never too late to catch this gem if you haven’t; Wild is in a class of its own – moving and honest without ever feeling like Oscar-bait (though in all truth, Whiterspoon should have at least come in a close second to Moore last year) (and all the same Jones should have won) (okay off point now, bye).

Shame by Steve McQueen

(note sensitive issues follow and major plot spoilers if you haven’t seen the film)

Been meaning to this review/analysis thing for quite a while but I never got down to it partially cause life (always life zzz) swept away all the time and partially cause the subject matter is especially sensitive and mature to deal with I suppose.

Going into the movie I expected it to be graphic and bordering on disturbing but well… what I got was much worse. I think that’s the first thing I’ll tackle here and that’s whether such scenes needed to be film to bring the point of Brandon’s addiction back home. To be honest, I think it was thoroughly unnecessary – I found myself skipping large parts of those scenes because they were just intense and I just simply couldn’t handle it. I think, it’s fair enough to give McQueen and Fassbender the credit for being bold enough to carry something that jarring on screen – and it probably did emphasize the nature and extremity of Brandon’s addiction. But I think it would have probably been more challenging if McQueen chose to pull of the same intensity and display of such imagery without the same graphic levels that were portrayed. I think if he pulled that off, he’d have gained more adulation than he has already been given. McQueen is the most daring director of our times, 12 Years a Slave and Hunger clearly show that but maybe with Shame, it bordered (certainly exceeded) on excessive.

That aside, the subject matter itself is extremely sensitive and almost entirely avoided by media and well, just in general life. But McQueen handles it extremely well. And even that is an understatement. It doesn’t just focus on sex addiction (or rather simply addiction in the broad scheme of things), which obviously helps broaden McQueen’s scope to play around with, yet he doesn’t lose focus. By placing Sissy suddenly into Brandon’s life equation, we see very distinctly the conflict that exists in Brandon’s mind – the inability to handle proper relationships. He’s just too detached from anyone, too fleeting to be able to establish one that lasts. It’s especially evident when you see McQueen unable to form a proper way forward with his colleague but is able to participate in flings later on in the day. McQueen does a particular good job to highlight his drab and lacklustre life when it comes to his bleak house. It’s prime New York residential area but his life is isolated, meaningless and lonely. If there was one thing that I really had to nitpick it would be some of the long drawn scenes (especially those with the nudity), I couldn’t see the purpose behind to be really frank – it could very well be me but I’m not sure.

At the end of the film, we’re really left hoping that Brandon breaks out of his cycle (there’s a link to the opening scene) and McQueen does a fine job making us root for him there – for him to banish his demons and walk away. The only main point of conflict about this parting scene is that McQueen portrays his addiction to be one that is helpless, and if that is true then how much can we believe that Brandon would have truly walked out of that train in the end. I wish McQueen could have balanced out the display a little with more insight as to whether the addiction is truly one that can’t be helped or is it self-inflicted. Being uneducated on the matter, both perspectives would have probably helped a little in my understanding of the issue.

McQueen dives headfirst into a multitude of themes, many of which are hinted at (like when Sissy cuts and there’s a voiceover “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.”), it does make you wonder what else there is to their story: child abuse, bullying, low self-esteem, depression, etc. But McQueen keeps it a character study and to hunker down and to focus solely on that is a brave decision – certainly helped by tour de force acting by both Fassbender and Mulligan. They are fast establishing themselves as actors of our times and I only hope that they get their due recognition in the future. The McQueen-Fassbender combination in particular is extremely powerful and persuasive and I can’t wait to see what else they have under the wraps for the world to behold.

So yep, Shame is a pretty fine film of a character study and look into what it means to be a sex addict. Nitpicking, I’d say certain segments could have been handled better at some parts – which would definitely have helped to open up to a conservative market as well (these are universal issues so). Some scenes were truly unnecessary and trimming it down could have given it more time to maybe look at Sissy’s life (or with respect to) Brandon’s life. But the parts that it does stumble a little at, doesn’t take away anything from the sum of all its parts. It’s quite possibly a film you won’t “enjoy” watching, but is one that really enlighten you on the subject matter and where you’ll get to witness two of the greatest performances in 2011. But do be warned, that if you do not wish to get caught into NC-17 material (equivalent to R21 in Singapore), please do avoid this as the material is truly graphic and certainly won’t be of your taste.

And once you’re done, maybe you can read Jezebel’s analysis here.

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We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.

Picture credits to Tumblr user: thatdandyboy.

On Pop Culture

‘Applause’ is a very meaningful song to me, because it addresses what many think of ‘celebrities’ today, that we ‘do it’ for the attention. But some of us are ‘artists’ in this group called ‘celebrity,’ & what we create doesn’t live on unless there’s an audience to remember it. So I may need your attention at first, so I can sing you my song. But its the ‘Applause’ after that let me know if I’ve entertained you.

Entertainment makes people happy, I live for the ‘Applause,’ to know I’ve spread that. I live to hear you cheer, to just be a part of that. I believe in show business. The ‘Applause’ is what breeds that thing that I love. When I know I’ve made you happy. When I know it was good.

– Lady Gaga

As soon as I read the above quote from Gaga’s Facebook page, I was extremely inclined to write this post, because I feel that it’s been a while since anyone has actually harked back to the whole purpose of pop culture – entertainment. Applause may be a somewhat generic dance number, especially given Gaga’s notoriously wicked and shocking styles of music, but the core of the song and the meaning behind it is one that I appreciate.

Pop culture has been given a bad name recently, and I can’t deny why people would have such an opinion. Case in point being Miley Cyrus’ MTV VMA’s performance where she more than successfully shed her good Disney girl image and twerked it non-stop (pun intended) with Thicke performing simultaneously. And of course, Thicke, how I could I forget him! I for one never appreciated Blurred Lines for its beat or anything, and its video – both the explicit and censored ones – were downright distasteful. Say what you want about it being “tongue-in-cheek” or that he wrote it for Paula Patton, his wife, (read), he should know better than to compose such a song that is inherently misogynistic in nature. But. What do the two of them have in common? They have the attention of the world now, and that’s exactly what they wanted. Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, which came out mere hours after her VMA performance, sold like wildfire while Thicke’s viral marketing with the hashtag and the sheer shocking nature of the song that has propelled the previously obscured artist (really, how many of you knew who he was before Blurred Lines) to the front lines of the industry. The best part is that the VMA performance was not spontaneous but rather choreographed from the start (read).

And this is exactly what Gaga talks about in her post – how they do it for the attention, and therefore indirectly for the money too. Yet, you cant really blame them completely for this, that’s how what ‘entertainment’ industry is today, and that is the fast track to success. Note, it’s not the only way, there is never only one way, but when you’re struggling for a foothold in an already crowded place, you’ll do what it takes even if it means losing yourself. It’s human nature, I suppose, “survival instincts”. This reminds me of a quote, not entirely applicable, but serves as a good reminder all the same: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

And so finding true artists is indeed hard, but not impossible. The film industry is filled with them: from the top of my head some examples would include, Carey Mulligan (she’s a fantastic actress and is a role model in not making the institution of marriage a joke) and Jeff Bridges (he’s a multiple-time Oscar nominee and a philanthropist too). Back to the music industry, Jason Mraz would be a classic example of this. He literally sings about spreading love and being kind and actively supports charities as well. So there you have it, you can have entertainers who do their job well and manage to keep their moral compass (assuming that morality isn’t subjective, but that is for another day).

And that brings me to the last part of my post, and that would be the part on how artists are not always entertainers. These days, listening to independent (indie) music (or even watching indie films for that matter) is the norm among people and is commonly associated with the term hipster (though, I’m not really sure whether that is in a positive or negative connotation). Why do people enjoy listening to these artists? Very simply, because their music is generally pure and not tampered by the demands of studios and labels. It’s the heartfelt expression of what these artists feel and think about, without any constraints. I often wonder why cover artists on YouTube or certainly indie filmmakers never get the grand-scale opportunities that they deserve, and in my opinion I feel that that is because they don’t have what that ‘X Factor’ that would help them on the big stage to entertain their audience. It’s a point that Simon Cowell would commonly emphasize on American Idol and I would always feel that he was being unreasonable and that he should place more emphasis on their talents but in retrospect, I can see the point that he was trying to convey. This makes films like Gravity and Inception all the more attractive, because they manage to find that fine balance between art and entertainment.

The glitz and glamour side of pop culture is ingrained in it – literally inseparable – but it is up to artists to not get carried away and for audiences to be able to identify the true performers who entertain and have something to say, and to give them the ‘Applause’ they deserve.