Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Eulogy

"I never thought I'd die alone
Another six months I'll be unknown
Give all my things to all my friends
You'll never set foot in my room again"

Adam's Song (1999) by Blink-182

Have you ever thought of killing yourself? Like seriously consider it, get torn up inside about it and weigh it against your life on a scale of depressive bias? I believe that everyone has, at some point of their lives. I have. I was staring at a pit of pitch black nothing so vast, so deep it doesn't even echo. That's a figure of speech. What I really stared at was this hook in the ceiling of my room in Manipal that's just there for some reason. Something heavy used to hang from it, I think - possibly a ceiling fan. I know it was sturdy enough for all intents and most purposes. It's cold, unfeeling and metallic. It's dependable, and won't give way at the very last beat. I know because I tested it. I looped my belt from it and lifted myself up with my arms, holding as long as I could. It gave no chance of turning back, no chance of reprieve.

The first thing I'll have you know about standing at the edge of that pit is that it is frightening beyond all reason. Have you stood there? Have you stood there, stared as far down as you could, and told yourself that that's where you are going? If you have, you'd know just how scary it was. It's scarier if you don't believe in an afterlife - if you don't buy into the whole heaven and hell deal - because what you're staring at is utter oblivion. You know you can't come back from there. You know that you're never ever going to feel anything anymore. Curtains. The End. But that's why you want to go there in the first place, isn't it? To not feel anything anymore. It's only when you think that life is at its nadir, when living comes in only one bitter flavour, that you'd even think of walking out of it. It might be your a last desperate claw at dignity. It might be you want to lash out at everyone who backed you into that corner, to crush them with the weight of the guilt they have yet to realise - a big fuck you to the world before you take the plunge.

Or maybe, you just want everyone to know that they love you after all. Throw that last question to the wind,

"Will you cry if I'm gone?"

And leave without knowing the answer.

The first thing I'll have you know about standing at the edge of that pit is that it is frightening beyond all reason. I remember standing at the edge with finality screaming in my ears, staring at that pit of pitch black nothing - and it stared me down. My nerve died in a heartbeat. My resolve crumbled like a flimsy sandcastle back into the sand as if it had never existed at all. My knees went weak and I dropped onto the floor, and I scrambled frantically from the edge back into the sunlight, blubbering like a pansy. It's only in the face of death that you find out what you're made of. I realised that I didn't want to die, that there is so many things I want to live for. There is so many books I still want to read, so many places I still want to see. I've never eaten foie gras or fugu, or Thai bamboo worms, for that matter. I want my house in the countryside and a beautiful library with a sofa set, a chaise lounge and a bean bag in its middle. And I want to write that novel I always wanted to. I want life. I want all of it - the happiness, the possibilities, and even the frustration, the anger, the pain of sorrow in life. I want them all more than I want that pit I can never come back from.

I chose and I think everyone can agree that I chose right, but that doesn't change that one simple truth; I was afraid of dying. I was a coward. They always say that Death is easy and that Life is hard. They say it to comfort themselves when they chickened out from dying. They say it to convince other people from doing themselves in. Death is easy. Life is hard. Suicide is the easy way out. Bullshit aphorisms.

Dying is hard. It's ineffable, irreversible, and stretches endlessly in all directions. I remember when my sister was much younger, a kindergartener still sleeping with my parents on their bed. She suddenly woke up from sleep one night, sobbing uncontrollably and repeating "I don't want to die! I don't want to die!" over and over again. That's what death is. It's an eldritch horror. It's. Fucking. Scary.

And I don't want to die before I'm ready.

"I wish you would step back from that ledge, my friend"

Jumper (1997) by Third Eye Blind

An old friend of mine killed himself last week, and unlike everyone else, I can't say I'm surprised. It's not like I expected it but, for some reason, I felt that I ought to know. The last time I talked to him was two years ago, before I went to India. It was difficult to get him to come out and have lunch with me, but I managed eventually. I can't really recall what we talked about that afternoon now, but what I do remember is that I kept asking him, "Why are you acting so strange? Why are you acting so different?"

And I was not asking about why he became reclusive after the fifth form, after the SPM. I was not asking why he never tried to meet up with the rest of us old High School boys, or bothered to keep in contact either. I was merely wondering at his behaviour, the way he talked, the way he moved, the way he smiled. Know a guy for five years in secondary school and you'd know a lot about that person. But he laughed it off, assuring me that nothing's changed, that I was imagining things. It really struck me how hollow, how joyless, how fake his laugh was then.

I sat beside him in class in the Second and Third Form, and in that two old years, he was my best friend - and I was his, for what it's worth. I realise now that he never really shared his mind with me. I found out that he went on a date with a girl I knew years after it happened, and I had to learn it from a friend of that girl he dated. He hoarded every thought, every feeling to himself - and behind that joking, laughing goofball front he put up for me, for everyone else, there's probably a lot of hidden things we never suspected or bothered to ask about.

The last time I saw my friend was a few days before the Incident, and that probably made me the last person from the old crowd to see him alive. I saw him exiting his house and getting into his father's car as I drove by. In fact, I pass his house, which is about a minute's walk from mine, everyday on my way to college. Everytime I did, I found myself wondering if I should call him out for lunch again someday. I could have done that last weekend, in fact. I would have too, since I was having a bit of a holiday from school for Christmas. Heck, why did I have to wait till then? I could have done it anytime since early September when I've came back from India for good. Maybe if I did, the last time I talked to him wouldn't be two fucking gone years ago.

I learnt about it on Sunday morning, from my next door neighbour, who didn't knew my friend that well either - but knew him from an English tuition class and from living in the same neighbourhood. I have since talked to many more old friends about this. There's a few half-assed conjectures being thrown around, theories pieced together from odds and ends of rumours and fish-talk. I will not repeat them here because I don't want to mar the memory of his passing by misconstrueing his purpose for passing. But that's what everyone wants to know. The Why - and not, it gladdens me to say, the How. When someone off himself, there's that macabre interest everyone shows in knowing every grotesque detail of his method, like it fucking matters. Say one thing; say it takes a true friend to want to know your reasons above everything else.

Yesterday, I went alone to the Buddhist temple where my friend's ashes was put to rest. It was strange seeing his urn with his picture (smiling there) and name on it on a shelf stuck behind a pane of glass, surrounded by dusty old people. There were several pairs of crescent shaped pieces of wood lying about - you know, the ones which are flat on one side and convex on the other. You ask the dead a question and drop a pair. If they land the same way up - both concave or flat - it means "No". If one is concave side up and the other's flat, it means "Yes". Or at least, that's what my great grandmother taught me.

"Hey, don't you wish we could have gone out one last time?" I asked his urn and dropped the bits.


I don't believe we can talk to the dead. I don't believe there's an afterlife they can talk to us from. But it felt good anyway.

I wish I know what his last thoughts are, in that room where he did himself in. I want to know if he was afraid like I did - and why he didn't step back from that damn pit. Maybe he just couldn't see the reasons I saw for living anymore. Maybe he's simply not a coward. Perhaps, if I have seen him in his last days or in his last hours, I could have asked him out that one last time. We could go for lunch and a drink in this cafe by the river I have heard good things about and always wanted to check out, but couldn't find anyone to go with. After that, we could take in a movie, throw stones at the sea or go crash visit one of our old classmates. Along the day, we can even make plans for a proper reunion with the old crowd - we hadn't have one in ages. Then maybe, just maybe, it needn't be the last time I asked him out after all.

I am not conceited enough to think that I could have made much of a difference, though I'd like a chance to try anyway. At least he would have went knowing that, yes, I cared, and everyone cared. Sometimes, that might just be reason enough to live, reason enough to be afraid of dying.

The first thing I'll have you know is that standing at the edge of that pit is frightening beyond all reason.

The last thing I'll have you know is, my friend was the bravest person I ever knew.

"Everyone's got to face down the demons
Maybe today,
You could put the past away"

Jumper (1997) by Third Eye Blind

k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On Being Right

I was fourteen at the time, a weedy nobody second-former in a secondary school with a student population 2000 strong, and I was in the Red Crescent Society, an Islamised version of the Red Cross. I remember sitting in a classroom during one society meeting - it was a Friday - and was listening to a lecture given by the society's President on AIDS. He's a bespectacled, goofy, nerdy type who was doing accounts, economy or something similarly money-oriented in the sixth form. My point being; he's not a science student. But hey, any old idiot can give a lecture to a bunch of impressionable barely-teens from a book of instructions. Our country's education system thrive on this belief.

Then he got about asking us to tell him how the human immunodeficiency virus is transmitted, to check on what we already know. 'Unprotected sex', some one said. Alright. What else? Sharing needles, you say? Good, good...

It wasn't hard. Our government is pretty anal about health education, and those AIDS ads on the telly certainly helped. Those are stuff everyone knows.

"Breastfeeding. A baby can get AIDS from breastfeeding," I volunteered and the President looked right at me, a little taken back. Then he grinned, seemingly pleased that someone has gotten something wrong at last.

"Breastfeeding arh?" he said, making a big show of humouring me, "Maybe if the baby bite too hard and the nipple bleed."

He laughed at his own stupid little joke. Everyone laughed at his stupid little joke. I didn't, of course, but that's because I was busy feeling incensed and embarrassed at the time. But I know I was right. I read that from a directory of medical conditions which for whatever bizarre reason unknown, was sitting in the same cupboard as my encyclopedias and storybooks. It just appeared there one day. I got to ask my dad about it someday. But fact being, I was ridiculed for being right, by a classful of idiots led by an authority figure who refuse to entertain the possibility that, by Jove, some 14-year-old might know a little more about fucking AIDS than he does! He did not ask me where I came by that bit of information. He did not even had the decency to admit that he didn't know for sure, and that he would look it up.

A few weeks after that incident, I found myself in an English class. My English teacher was this tall Chinese guy who enjoys spending entire periods telling stories from his supposedly vast store of general knowledge, and only setting us a bit of homework in the last five minutes. So, you can imagine that he's quite popular amongst the students. That day, everyone was listening in rapt attention as he was telling us the origin story of Coca-Cola - citing a certain Dr. Pembrooke as its inventor. I know differently, of course. I once read in a trivia book I found lying around that it was a John Pemberton who did the inventing. Besides that, I also realised that he got a whole other sundry of details wrong, leading me to suspect that he fabricated a lot of the stuff he couldn't remember.

This time, however, I knew better than to speak out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Disgusting Hypocrisy of Medical Students

"Mmm, what you say?
Mm, that you only meant well?
Well, of course you did.
Mmm, what you say?
Mm, that it's all for the best?
Ah, of course it is.
Mmm, what you say?
Mm, that it's just what we need?
And you decided this.
Mmm what you say?
What did she say?"

Hide and Seek (2005) by Imogen Head

So accusatory. I like.

I am aware of just how little I am updating my journal these days. A haze of complacency and listlessness seemed to have settled over these days. I feel unmotivated to do anything at all. The only thing I feel like doing is just lie around and read myself to oblivion, and on the occasions I managed to gather a bit of drive, I would simply spend it plotting. Plotting, as in thinking-up-a-storyline plotting. Yes, I have rebooted my on-and-off intention to write a novel and I'm pretty pleased with how far along I am now - though I'm pretty sure that I'll just bin the whole manuscript again in a month (like I did with all my previous efforts) because I always end up thinking that everything I write is crap. Which they are, by the way. Crap, the lot of 'em. I seriously need to get tonnes better at this whole writing business. Anyone else writing a novel too? Anyone who ever thought about it?

Alright, this was suppose to be last week's post (before I got sidelined completely) and it's about a very particular problem I have with a number of medical students in my college. If you actually bothered to read the title, it's about their hypocrisy; a subject with a terrifyingly wide scope on its own but here in this post, I'll stick to just one standalone issue.

Cue exhibit #A,

This picture does not require a caption.

That's just one of the parking lots belonging to the Malaccan General Hospital which is perpetually filled up with cars. I took this picture at a somewhat morning-ish time, so the double parkers and space vultures have yet to start clogging the place up. My point being; parking spaces are seriously scarce here, just like food in Ethiopia and penguins in the North Pole.

More of the same.

This one is a shot of one of the roads within the hospital grounds and playing Captain Obvious here; that's a whole bunch of parked cars taking up a full lane. The tiny blue signboard in this picture reads;

"Para Pelanggan Yang Dihormati,
Kurangnya tempat letak kereta kami fahami,
Tindakan diambil untuk mengatasi,
Segala kesulitan amatlah dikesali."

It's a pantun, or a traditional abab (or in this case, an aaaa) Malay poem which apologises for the lack of parking spaces on the premises and that actions are being taken to remedy that. I like to think that it does a good job defusing a lot of people's annoyance and frustration at the parking problem by making people wonder why on earth it was written as a poem in the first place. I also can't decide whether this bit of Malaysiana is fresh and clever, or is irredeemably lame - but moving along now.

Critical vehicular overload.

And these are the cars which spilled out from the inside, lining the streets outside the hospital premises. Depending on their luck, an MBMB officer drops by occasionally to dole out tickets for illegal parking. That seems sort of cruel to me actually, seeing that most of these cars belong to sick people, or to the people who brought their sick relatives or friends here - and they simply do not have a choice.

Alright, they do kinda have a choice. There's an empty dirt lot right across the road charging RM2 a pop, though it really used to be free.

"Okay, so there's not enough parking spaces - we get it already!" says you. Where am I going with this?

Well, at any given time, hundreds of medical students from my college are posted in the Malacca General for clinical training and a good fraction of that number drive their own cars there, shunning the college shuttle bus which departs from campus at 7:45 am every morning. These individuals, sitting in their solitary cars would appear in the hospital on their own and collectively take up a good number of the parking spaces there, occupying them for the entire duration of their posting hours which stretched from morning till noon.

To be fair, I too drive to the Malacca General Hospital on my lonesome but that's because the distance between my house to the campus is almost the same as the length of the route I take to the hospital - and not living in the hostel makes carpooling a tad too much trouble for its worth. The difference is, I have never once - read: NOT ONCE - parked in the parking spaces reserved for the general public within the hospital. I often arrive early enough to get a place in the corner lot of the hospital reserved for my college's students and lecturers and on the occasions I didn't, I joined the illegally parked horde in picture number 3, or leave my car in the housing estate neighbouring the hospital and foot the half kilometre to whichever department I was suppose to appear in that day. This is because I'm aligned with the forces of light and good, a fact which I cannot assert enough.

This contrast me with the dickwad medical students who insist on taking up patients' parking spaces on the inside - in spite having been cautioned from doing just that by my college's admins at the start of their semester in Malacca. You can recognise them by this identifying sticker,


So, with this bit of info in mind, I urge everyone to do their civic duties - and scratch the shit out of cars sporting this sticker with your keys or coins if you see them parked anywhere in the hospital outside of the designated college student and lecturer parking. That's right, that's what I'm telling you to do. Forget that "turn the other cheek" jazz that Jesus spoke so highly of. Jesus never had to fucking circle the Malacca General Hospital's parking lot a million times in his Godmobile looking from a spot while suffering from a bad case of gastritis. Remember what he did to the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14 and 19-24)?

Remember. Stickers. In the hospital. Break out your keys.

These asshole medical students are hypocrites because they are medical students, i.e. potential doctors in the near future. These are people who are suppose to be committed to a life alleviating people's pain and suffering, and they cannot do something as simple as understanding that there are a lot of people who need those damn parking space a great deal more urgently than they do. And trust me, none of the students currently training at the Malacca General Hospital is doing anything to help any sick people at all. What they are doing - and will do till the day they graduate - is take advantage of sick people. That's putting it as bluntly as I can. They are disturbing patients' rest to ask questions, to examine and ultimately, to learn from them. Medical students often forget that the most significant part of our curriculum depends solely on the goodwill, generousity and sufferance of patients. Eat humble pie, bastards.

I have a cousin who suffers from Thalassaemia B Major and the short of it is that she requires regular blood transfusion, all her life to keep her alive (unless she receives a bone marrow transplant, but let's not go there). She goes to the Malacca General Hospital monthly for that and had, at times, forced to miss her appointment because she could not get a parking place. Maybe it's hard for the high and aloof, upper-class medical student types to know just how selfish their actions really are. Maybe, just maybe, they aren't really cut out for this job seeing that they have so much trouble connecting with the needs of patients on a human level. That's how some of my colleagues make me feel - they seem to view patients as simply objects, rather than real, living people.

But I like to give them more credit. I want to think that they don't need a sick cousin to learn that bit of humility and humanity. Maybe they just need a little more time to do that.

In the meantime, people, scratch the shit out of their cars.

Aligned with the Forces of Light and Good,
k0k s3n w4i

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

That Incident Last Thursday

"Now dance, fucker, dance!"

You're Gonna Go Far Kid (2008) by The Offspring

Okay, I've been away for more than a week and before I go on, there are some things I need to clarify first, seeing that I have received tons of question from a lot of people about it. Last Thursday, when I was sent out by the ENT lecturer for talking during lecture, I WASN'T talking. The catalyst was a slide he projected on screen which described the use of the chemical compound capsaicin as a treatment for some neuralgia or other and I was sort of surprised because I didn't know that particular use of that drug (the use of capsaicin I'm most familiar with is food flavouring - it's what make chilis hot). So, I did what I do when I am surprised; I mouthed the word capsaicin to myself.

He saw me did that, stopped his lecture midway and told me to get the fuck out of class - for talking. For a bit of background info on this lecturer bloke, he's so anal that his butthole can probably sever the finger of some guy giving him a digital rectal exam. There has to be zero conversation during his class - he's one of those paranoid crazies who thinks that anyone talking in his vicinity has to be making fun of him. We have a term for that in psychiatry; it's called the delusion of reference. Oh, and he told a student to stand up in class once and berated him for leaning a bit to the right while sitting. Yeah, that sort of crazy.

I actually argued because I was wrongly accused and that I was only mouthing a word, and he retorted by saying some shit about him being older, that he knew what he saw and that I disrupted the class and should not debate with him on it. I was teetering on the edge of a full blown explosion - it's one of those rare times in my life when I completely lost my mind (only happened 3 times ever). In all the previous instances I was caught sleeping or talking in class, I have accepted any punishment or scolding meekly and apologetically. Righteous anger tends to rise to the surface when I got framed.

What I wanted to say, and still hope that I have said, was;

"With all due respect, sir, you were lying. You could not have seen me talking because I didn't. I was mouthing a word projected on the slide to myself because I was surprised it's there, and I don't think you ever forbade us from soundlessly mouthing words to ourselves during lectures before. And you kept feeding us bullshit about how talking disrupts the class and whatnot, while every time you are the one disrupting the class the most with your childish outbursts. You think that by just exercising command, you will get the students to fear you - even respect you - but no, sir. No one is afraid or you. No one respects you. Everyone finds you pathetic and annoying and that's what everyone says about you after each lecture of yours. You abuse authority. You are just a bully."

Given his paranoia and severe neurosis, had I been allowed to shoot my mouth off, I'm quite confident that he would just walk right out of class. He always seem to be on the verge of tears and hysteria anyway. Thankfully, I had the wits about me to stop myself. I slammed my notebook shut with a satisfying smack - an act of futile rebellion - packed up my shit and stormed out. I wanted lodge a complaint against his royal anal-ness but I realised that I did not know his name (I still don't). So I drove home. I asked a lot of my colleagues for his name afterwards (ostensibly with the goal of reporting him still in mind) but as it turned out, no one bothered to remember or even learn his name. Now, that's a whole new level of pathetic altogether. And since I still received a mark of attendance for that lecture, I decided to drop it with my usual wad of phlegm (not that phlegm - words have many meanings, you know, so look it up).

I learnt that he was reiterating the case against me after I left, embellishing it by saying that he had had his eyes on me the entire lecture and that I have been conversing with the girl sitting beside me. All bullshit. If that was true, he would have sent the girl out as well. Besides, that girl was Jae Mie, and anyone who knows Jae Mie knows how hard it is to even try to talk to her in class considering how doggedly she writes her notes.

I received an SMS from Shaki afterwards, saying that a girl was sent out after me. Her story was that her friend sitting beside her did not manage to write down what's on the slide quickly enough before it changed, and had asked her to repeat the last two words of the previous slide. She obliged, and got kicked out for it.

Oh, and if anyone still has any doubt that I was not talking last Thursday when I got sent out, here's the my best defense;

I wasn't sitting beside Shaki. Case closed.

P.S. That ENT lecturer is currently learning how to swim. I saw him occasionally in the pool in the evenings trying to learn how to float and kick water while our college's gym instructor shout instructions to him from the poolside. I'll go one of these days to just stand there and watch. Knowing how neurotic and insecure he is, it'll probably irk him like heck.

P.P.S. This entire post was supposed to be just the preamble of the post I wanted to write today, but since it had autonomously grew to this length, I just changed the post's title and run it on its own.

Was not talking,
k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Silver Lined

"And everyday I wake,
I tell myself a little harmless lie,
The whole wide world is mine."

Rites of Spring (2008) by Angels And Airwaves

I can't sleep. I think I caught something sometime yesterday while watching Bolt with Shaki, Inn Shan and co and it kicked off with a sore throat - one which I attributed to the large cup of Coke I inadvisably downed during the movie but hey, it made sense at the time. Right after dinner, the sore throat turned into a raging classic spectrum of symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection; fever, headache, sinus tenderness, nasal congestion and an uncommon hatred of one's miserable self. By 11:00 pm, my head was trying to explode and I had to fly the white flag. I pride myself on being able to weather most simple illnesses, eschewing any kind of medical consultation or medication for the past 4 years - excepting one memorable occasion when I self-medicated using opium for a bad case of headache and sore throat (warning: opium is not FDA approved for treating the flu). I have always favoured outliving any damn virus using sheer grit and determination. You know it has to be pretty serious when I abandon my standard operating procedure.

I downed a cocktail of paracetamol (with a bit of codeine mixed in), loratadine and pseudoephedrine sulphate before I went to bed - the last of which, a decongestant, has the unfortunate side-effects of insomnia. It figures, since pseudoephedrine related to methamphetamine (or Speeeeed - say it this way, kids) and it had been used in the illicit drug trade to cook the latter. I was so wired that I've been tossing and turning the entire night before finally deciding to get my ass up at 5:00 am to blog. Anyway, one of the reason I started this journal was to deal with my insomnia back when I was in India. Maybe that's why I am posting so much less these days; I'm sleeping too well.

I've started walking to and from campus recently, after my car had a breakdown of sorts. It's just 5 minutes of footwork from where I live, and it's one of the prime reasons I chose MMMC over IMU, aside the whole get-to-go-India angle of it. I drive there most of the time though to avoid sweating up my shirt, but the weather is pretty genial these days (with the odd rain or two).

Last Thursday, on my usual route, I saw a cat in the distance heading my way and as I got closer to it, it didn't veer off or try to hide out of the usual instinctive cowardice of its kind. A housecat, I thought, or almost one. Quite unabashed, it trotted past me - looking up at me as it did in what I can only call that feline expression. Locke Lamora, the anti-hero of Scott Lynch's Red Seas Under Red Skies said it best when he was shocked into awakening from sleep by a kitten sleeping on the back of his neck,

'Mew' the kitten retorted, locking gazes with him. It had the expression common to all kittens, that of a tyrant in the becoming. I was comfortable, and you dared to move, those jade eyes said. For that you must die.

As I looked back at it, the cat stopped walking. When I held a hand out, it turned right around and started homing in on me, eager for the prospect of a little petting,

"I feel joo, brotha."

I spent teatime with it, sitting outside a vacant house and playing with the cat for the next half an hour. It's very therapeutic, I think, to have a cat rubbing itself all around your legs and purring as you scratch behind its ears and neck. On some basic level, I believe people need to physically connect with someone else on a regular basis, if only to reaffirm that there's still some sort of bond existing between them and the living world at large. If you have kissed or hugged someone, or held someone's hand, or pet a dog or stroked a cat, you'd understand what I mean. It says to you, "I'm here. I'm alive. I feel."

I like that little myth about how animals can tell good people from bad. It makes me feel good about myself every time I win a stray's confidence - to make some creature trust me not to hurt or harm it. Have you experienced slowly lowering your hand onto a dog which is suspicious of you - which is shrinking reflexively in fear even as you reach out - but uncertain enough not to bolt and run away? It's like every doggy sense inside its little doggy mind is telling it to scamper - save one. It's that one doggy sense which tells it to stay put in hope of a friendly, loving touch from you. And then, there's that moment when you finally rest your hand on its head. Every fear and suspicion, every last shred of mistrust and uncertainty simply melts away. The tenseness of its every muscle evaporated right that very instance of contact, and its tail comes out from between its legs and starts to wag. All from a simple touch. Magic.

It feels kind of like when you kiss someone new, really.

That day, I went home feeling like my day turned around. It wasn't a bad day to begin with but it had been rather flat and grey - no real highs or lows. It would have been just "last thursday" for about a week before my mind finally consign it to utter oblivion, another lost day in immemorium. But something almost trivial happened, and it became different. I guess this is what people talking about when they say that something made their day. That cat was certainly something. I'm sure that all the other things that happened to me that day - going to class, attending my clinical posting, trying to get by in med school - are much more important than meeting and playing with a stray cat. I'm sure everyone will think the same.

And yet, I have this nagging feeling that we are all missing the point about Life somewhere.

P.S. Now, I don't want anyone to start abusing pseudoephedrine to study for exam or anything. Wait, I didn't just give you the idea, did I?

Had an awesome last Thursday,
k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Malaccans Drive Nice Unlike Everyone Else

"Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you and scorn in the one ahead."

Mac McCleary

Firstly, I have not abandoned my blog. There’s a whole syndrome of reasons why I have not written here lately and chief of them is that my broadband connection has been erratic. It’s been disengaging from the net unpredictably for the entire past week, delaying my downloads and hacking my MSN conversations short. Two days ago, I was completely cut off – the "Remote Computer" refuses to answer my calls at all – and I’m pretty sure it’s not my modem being an arse here. However, I can still surf on dial-up, which I am doing at the moment. Note to self: sic my Dad on the problem.

Secondly, my attention was held captive recently by China Miéville’s The Scar – a speculative fiction masterpiece (it is!) in the "New Weird" sub-genre – and I have been investing every spare moment in it. Miéville is one of those authors who write what folks in the reading circle like me refer to as "bricks" or "doorstoppers". I pride myself on being able to read pretty quickly but the book is so rich that I simply cannot gorge myself too much in every sitting (people who don’t like words a whole lot; stand back and stay away). Anyway, expect a review of Miéville’s Bas-Lag books from me soon, right after I finish the third book in the canon.

And thirdly, my psychiatry posting – in spite of its leisurely nature – is proving to be a big drain on me. I personally enjoy the subject (and I am seriously thinking of specialising in it) but I can’t deny that the posting’s hours are a bit trying.

So, hello people (whoever are still here anyway)! I’m back for today – and today, I want to talk about… driving. And drivers. Oh, and the sort of people who drives.

You know back in high school and driving school, they always talked about this vague human value called "courtesy on the road"? If you’re a non-Muslim Malaysian student, I bet you’ve had it repeated ad nauseam to you in the ridiculous compulsory subject of Moral Education (what? Non-muslims’ religions don’t teach morality?). Well, "courtesy on the road" is a vast code of unspoken ethics for drivers which basically and summarily says "don’t be an asshole while driving" – I’ll illustrate my point later – and before I truck on, let me first say that Malaccan drivers are amongst the most courteous motorists in the country. Yeah, it’s a shout-out; let’s hear some whoops here!

Not Malaccans.

Every time a car stops too closely behind me, jumps a queue or bullishly tries to insinuate itself into a line when it does not have the right of way, that car always carries an outstation number plate – usually starting with W (KL), B (Selangor), or J (Johor Bahru). INVARIABLY. In fact, it’s such a constant that in every single instance of such assholery, I’d say "That’s definitely a KL or Johor car," to whoever’s riding with me without even looking at the number plate. I was right EVERY TIME. My colleagues from other states agreed with me on this, by the way. And to any dissenters here – you can’t cause accidents by driving slowly (anyone who says otherwise fails logic forever). Accidents are generally caused by people getting impatient with people driving slowly. "Slow" is sometimes known as "careful", by the way.

I get it that some breaches of etiquette are simply survival tactics for driving in their own states, and I become pretty assertive myself in the times I drove in KL as well (though I have always stopped short of being a jerk). The prevailing attitude on that city’s roads is one of selfishness – it’s every man for himself there, all cars clawing for every inch they can steal. I’ve seen drivers switching lane in a deadlock jam, trying to score a few seconds of advantage. I’ve seen other drivers stopping less than a foot away from the car in front to prevent anyone from trying to wedge in into the place in front of them. Why can’t everyone just work the fuck together, and only make moves that are absolutely necessary? I’m convinced that traffic would run so much more smoothly there if everyone can be just a little bit more patient and accommodating - but nooooo, everyone has to be an asshole.

I think one of the reasons why people can be so rude when they are driving is because of the relative anonymity of hiding in a car. It’s just like on the internet. Just read any message boards, online fora or the comment boxes in popular blogs – you hardly see people talk or act that way at all in real life. Everyone thinks that being anonymous means that they are not culpable for their breach of societal politesse.

I was in a colleague’s car just the other day when another car tried to overtake us. My colleague, who came from KL, instantly accelerated and the other car, failing to overtake, drove back in line. I was completely flabbergasted. "Why the fuck did you do that for?" I blurted "We’re not in a rush to go anywhere – you could have maintained your speed and let the other car pass! You lose nothing!" My colleague seemed stunned for a moment, as if what I just said simply never occurred to him before.

"It was a kneejerk reaction. I did it without thinking," he replied sheepishly. I wanted to point out that the jerk part was right, but I thought better of it.

That was an instance of road rudeness which serves no practical purpose at all. It’s acts like these which makes me think that humans are inherently rotten inside.

A couple of days ago, I was returning from supper in my own car. From quite a distant away, I could see that the traffic light at a certain junction just turned red and I simply took my foot off the accelerator, to allow my momentum to run out on its own. I like easing to a standstill that way because I don’t see the point in racing to the line when I have to stop and wait anyhow (a senseless waste of petrol, in my opinion). I was nearly there when suddenly, a grey car overtook me from behind at the very last moment just so it can come to hard stop in front of me. What the fuck? Why the fuck?

Sure enough, it was a W plate. I would have been surprised if it wasn’t,

Not Malaccan (and I always stop this far behind any car, by the way).

The road was practically empty. In fact, the lane beside me was completely unoccupied. Also, if you remember, the damn light was RED. Is it because he can’t bear watching me go so slowly and wanted to show me how to drive like him – how to screech to halt in front of a red light?
If I am an asshole like him, I’d probably be incensed enough to try to overtake him when the light turns green, to beat him to the next intersection. But I wasn’t, so I let him zoomed away while I just continued driving at my own languid speed. The grey car soon sped out of sight, overtaking a few more cars as he did.

And as I eased to a halt at the next junction, I stopped right behind…

"Didn’t make such good time after all eh, asshole?"

So he did a completely pointless act of overtaking a few feet before a red light and pointlessly wasted a lot of petrol for absolutely nothing. Gosh, I’m sure glad that I have the foresight and temperance to avoid performing completely useless actions like that.

What I want to say is; we Malaccans have a stronger sense of propriety on the road than all you other idiots from elsewhere. I believe I’m speaking for all my hometownies when I say that we simply do not welcome your type of drivers flooding into our nice, peaceful city in the weekends and holidays, causing unnecessary jams and being jerks to us on our own turf (outstation cars seem to outnumber Malaccan ones these days, for some reason). If you want to drive in Malacca, be courteous and patient. If you’re on vacation here, there’s even less reason for you to be rushing about. Also, while I’m at it, doing things like taking advantage of an empty lane beside a long line of cars just to cut the queue always disgusts us. Do you do that when you’re queuing in person at a ticket counter or supermarket checkout? It’s just as awful. Stop doing that, fucktards. Get the fuck out of town if you can’t play by our rules.

P.S. The next (or the next next) post will be somewhat related to this one (car and driver related), about how selfish some medical students are in my college. I meant to write about it as a second-parter of this piece but I suddenly felt an urge to go out to a café to read and have a cup of coffee. So next time then.

Malaccan driver,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Tranny at the Checkout and the Phone in the Pool

"Don’t do drugs because if you do drugs you’ll go to prison, and drugs are really expensive in prison."

John Hardwick

Last month, I realised that I'm sitting on a big pile of tea leaves I bought from India and I have yet to start drinking any of them. One reason was that I did not own a proper mug big enough for my appetite, and brewing teensy cuppas are not at all labour effective (and I consider any labour from my part to be too valuable to squander so unproductively). I needed one of those big ass bowl mugs that people sometimes eat instant noodles from. D-cups, at the very least.

So, to cut pointless story short, there I was at the checkout counter in the Parkson Grand in Mahkota paying for this nice bowl glazed-ceramic mug I chose and there was this short Malay girl behind the till (who is not the titular tranny, be patient). After handing me my change, she wrapped up my mug with some paper. And then, just as she was reaching for a plastic bag, I remembered just in time to stop her.

"Tak nak plastik," I said. No plastic, please. That's me; responsible citizen of Planet Earth who gives a fuck enough to say three words. Plus, I think I could definitely handle a bit of ceramic walking between the checkout and my car.

She instantly glazed over, and stared confusedly back at me. It's like she's on the verge of spouting some computerised error message; "Does not compute, critical system failure." Shit, I thought I was going to be the first guy ever to get a Microsoft Blue Screen of Death out of a human being.

"Huh," she finally managed.

"Tak nak beg plastik," I repeated and gestured for my paper-wrapped mug. Gimme. I want it to go. I'll eat it while I walk. Chop chop, lady. Ain't got all day.

"Tak boleh!" She was clearly horrified at the thought of me walking out of the store holding my mug in my hand. I don't know - was it one of the signs of Apocalypse? People walking out of stores taking their purchases without their plastic bags? "Store policy," she added triumphantly, as if she just threw a glassful of holy water in my face. She seemed almost disappointed that I did not turn into a screaming cloud of evil and brimstone.

With the air of someone who would not negotiate with terrorists, she dropped my mug into a plastic bag and thrust it at my nose. I gave in, of course. What can a mere customer like me do against the holy commandments of "store policy".

Oh wait, I can stop shopping at the Parkson Grand store - which I did. Suck on my policy, evil corporate entity.

Just yesterday, after realising that soggy tea leaves don't in fact taste very good, I dropped by the Carrefour hypermarket in Pahlawan Megamall for some sort of strainer thingy which I can use to brew tea I can drink without getting mouthfuls tasseographical portents with every sip. In spite being such a big fan of tea, I never have had much hands on experience making the stuff myself so I haven't the slightest idea what I was going to buy. A mini-sieve? A specialised tea funnel with some of those filter paper we use in Chem labs? Empty teabags? Gosh, everyday's an adventure to me!

What I found was this device called a teaball,

"A teaball, you say? Tell me more."

Cutting to the chase, I found myself at a different checkout counter this time which was manned either by two guys, one-and-a-half guys, or just one guy depending on your definition of the word 'guy'. Okay, there were two cashiers at the counter and one of them is a tranny. I wanted to say "tranny who wasn't in character" but I just remembered that the Carrefour crew uniform is unisex. He was, however, wearing more makeup than a Chinese opera trouper at the time. Surprisingly, I do not dislike trannies at all in spite of how much girly lala boys disgust me. Maybe I just don't like half-assed effort.

So as I was saying, the tranny person was doing the bagging while instructing the unambiguously-male cashier on the operation of the cash register. Before I cound even tell, er, her to skip the bagging bit, she actually asked me that on her own volition. Wow, full of surprises in so many ways.

"Nak plastik?" She looked straight at me, waiting for my answer. I admit I was a little taken back - that was the first time any cashier or bagger in Malaysia asked me that. Then again, maybe it was just the intensity of her "don't judge me" stare - or at least, what I imagined to be a "don't judge me stare." If I'm a tranny, that's probably how I'll look at everyone. With poisonous daggers of hurt from a lifetime of prosecution out of my eyeballs, yo.

"Tak nak," I answered, and she handed me my tea ball, my packet of Ricola and my receipt. I walked away feeling cheerful for some reason. I mean, I don't know whether she was really thinking for the environment or merely has a dislike of wastage (I'm not discounting the possibility of an enlightened store policy here), but it made me feel good thinking that there is at least one cashier out there who would regularly give customers a chance to reject the use of plastic bags. Our society is horribly backwards when it comes to environmental issues. I had a friend who was behind me at a checkout line once in the Jusco supermarket who praised me for my initiative in rejecting plastic usage, but accepted a plastic bag regardless when his turn came (he only bought like some candies, by the way). We need all the training wheels we can get.

Oh, and regarding the other half of the title of this post,

I went swimming with Sanjeev last week at my college's pool (yes, we got a pool - and a sauna too!) and I dove right into the water with my cellphone still in the pocket of my shorts. Also, I swam an entire lap before realising it. Who da man? I da man!

Right before I start my second lap, my gut instinct kicked in. Quite calmly, as if this has happened to me a million times before, I reached into my pocket and pulled my phone out of the water. The LCD screen light was flickering and a spluttering static noise was clearly audible. I deftly popped the back and snapped the battery out onto the poolside. Then, I disassembled the whole thing and left the pieces there to dry - but to be honest, my heart wasn't really in it. It wasn't like a dunk and pull, you know. I swam a fucking lap with it. RIP, phone. It's been swell and all.

I did bring the bits back with me though. Sanjeev told me to try airing it with a hairdryer but again, I didn't think it was worth the bother - false hopes, disappointments and whatnot. I left it on my dresser and went to bed.

And the next morning, my cellphone came back to life - with absolutely no loss of function or memory to boot!

"Noli me tangere."

How's that for a ringing endorsement for Nokia? They built these babies like rocks. I dropped this one nonchalantly like all the time and every single time I did, people around me gasped in horror. Then, I'd hear regretful mutterings from them like "Gone" or "Finish" from them. It's like a gavel rap of a confirmed death sentence or something. It's broken for good. Kaput. Kerplunk. But each time, I'd just pick up my phone and put it back in my pocket without even bothering to check if it's still working. I never felt the need to because it's always still working no matter how many times I dropped it.

Of course, this just shows how flimsy everyone else's phones really are.

Considering how confident I am about the sturdiness of Nokia phones, it's amazing that mine can still surprise me. I still remember when I bought it in India,

"Give me the cheapest, most durable Nokia you got," I said.

The dealer put this pathetic, toy-like phone on the counter.

"Okay, give me something slightly more expensive."

The dealer took out something less tacky.

"Now, a little bit more expensive..."

The dealer then took out this baby and I bought it on the spot, without even bothering to check what functions it has. What? Don't everyone buy phones this way?

I'm not crazy about those hybrid phones that has a high end digital camera, an MP3 player, GPS and a lightsaber beam emitter built into them. To me, hybrids are like these pampered quasi-adults who keep changing college, totally unsure of what they want to do in life - trying a bit of everything without being really good at any of them. What I need is a cellphone, and I need my cellphone to be really good at being one - none of that namby-pamby bullshit about malfunctioning after just one drop, especially when I really need to make a call.

And when I first saw the Apple iPhone, the first thing which came to my mind was
"One-drop-insta-kill". Plus, I wouldn't know what to do with a touchscreen. I can see myself compulsively wiping it every second, and agonising over every hairline scratch. That's not for me - I don't want to be my phone's bitch. I want my phone to be my bitch, just like how God intends.

I shall henceforth call my phone 'Lazarus', y'know, to commemorate its ressurection. It's not my first pick, but I think people might just get a wee bit touchy if I call it 'Jesus'. Can you imagine me going, "Wait, Jesus is ringing!" or "Whoops, I dropped Jesus down the stairs!" No sirree, I'll stick to Lazarus.

"I put Lazarus on snooze, LOL."

P.S. Hey, hey, what's in a name, eh? Like half the blokes in Mexico are named Jesus anyway.

Owner of Lazarus,
k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

These Books, By Their Covers

"It is only when the mind and character slumber that the dress can be seen."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let me just say first that this post is in fact a reactionary one of a fellow blogger's - one about the hypocrisy of a health professional who indulges in the habit of smoking, and her abhorrence of the practice. I will address this (and by association, the issue of drinking as well), and broadly, on the human practice of giving values to things which are intrinsically worthless.

We humans are pattern-seeking creatures, constantly trying to make sense of this world and to decode the causality laws which govern our society - or as I often call it, the illusion of causality laws. And let's face it; we have been horrible at it. There was a time when we thought epileptics were recipients of divine possession (and we still do the same thing with the people who are essentially pretending to be epileptics i.e people who allegedly spoke in tongues).There was a time when mishaps and calamities in a close community was associated with the presence of a witch (which many villages in India still do, by the way). There was a time when we have tortured and put to death innocent women who were thought to be the witches perpetrating those mishaps and calamities through black magic. In the same way these days, though in a more low-key and politer fashion, we draw such erroneous conclusions from the behaviour and personal life of doctors; a class of people as mystical and unfathomable as epileptics and witches in the eye of modern society.

So, you may claim that a physician who smokes and drinks are in no moral position to advise a patient to stay away from the same vices. You can draw general arguments from idioms about leading from example or practicing what one preaches. All words, all philosophy. Not that I have anything against philosophy (which I have a pedestrian interest in by the way), but I'd prefer a more realistic approach to the question. And I will in turn deal with that with these questions of my own; what is a doctor, and how stupid are people, really?

A doctor is basically a fixer-upper you see whenever you are sick and needs fixing up. In the same way, you'd see a mechanic if your car's acting up and you'd call a plumber if your pipes are leaking. A doctor is service provider just like them. The big difference is, you respect and trust a doctor more than you trust the others because you are actually putting your life into his or her hand. Whether doctors, mechanics or plumbers smoke or drink, it does not in any way affect their ability to do their jobs (I'm not talking about drinking and being drunk at work here, of course - I'm merely referring to the habit). It was never in a doctor's job description to be the model of perfect health. Doctors are just human too like the rest of us. They can fall sick. They can get cancer. And they sure as heck can enjoy a good fag and nice cocktail if they want to in their free time after spending a whole day attending to your needs. Do you mistrust an oncologist who was diagnosed with cancer to effectively treat yours? Are the medications prescribed to you by a physician for your sore throat ineffective just because he or she had a sore throat before? Yes? No? No. Now tell me, why on earth a doctor who smokes or drinks can't advise you to quit the habits if it's in your best interest? Are you so stupid that you can't see a good advice when it's given, regardless of whether the person who gave it practices it or not? What if a murderer advices you not to commit murder?

Maybe, just maybe, people stupid enough to be confused by a good advice and a bad example should be allowed to do whatever they want to shorten their own lifespans. Their removal from the human gene pool cannot come fast enough, and will benefit our species in the long run.

I believe that the general public are not quite retarded enough to be misled into disregarding a medical advice just because the doctor who gave that advice does not adhere to it. It might be that the doctor in question aren't suffering from any underlying conditions which precludes his indulgence of cigarettes or alcohol. It might be because he just don't give a fuck. Patients are allowed the same freedom and autonomy over their own bodies - they can put whatever shit they feel like into themselves so long as they aren't breaking any laws. And just because a doctor doesn't smoke or drink is no guarantee that a patient will sheepfully follow suit. Likewise, when a patient has a mind to stick to his vices, he doesn't need a doctor who smokes and drinks - but who gave him the advice to quit them - to enable him. Substance addiction needs no excuses beyond itself.

"Well, so long he's not Cthulhu."

If I am undergoing a surgery of some sort, I might even prefer my surgeon to take a puff from a cigarette before he or she starts cutting into me. It's a widely-known medical fact that smoking increases a person's ability to concentrate. Heck, a doctor might even give better diagnoses after taking a drag from a fag, being able to focus better. If it can be conclusively and statistically proven that smoking doctors are better than non-smoking doctors, everyone will only want to be treated by doctors who smoke - role model and exemplary behaviour bullshit be damned.

Also, (I'm just speaking broadly here) a doctor who smokes and drinks would probably have better insight into the psyche of a patient who indulges in the same.

There are doctors and medical students sitting on their moral high horses who condemn other members of their fraternity for smoking and drinking, as though they are in some way better or that they have, through much difficulty, avoided or kicked the habits themselves. Balderdash. I'd wager that most, if not all of the people in this camp, have no personal inclination to smoke or drink to begin with. They are essentially denying other people what they themselves do not want. This is true hypocrisy. Being a doctor who smokes or drinks isn't.

I think that I have made my point pretty clear; the conjecture that a smoking, drinking doctor being a bad example to patients is utterly bogus. It's just something some people feel to be proper - much like how people feel that little girls should wear pink, chopsticks should be held on the right hand and Long Island Ice Tea should be served in a highball glass. That's right. It's simply a misplaced sense of propriety, and anyone deigning to impose a groundless practice of so-called medical etiquette grown from certain people's subjective opinion - mere feeling - about how doctors shouldn't smoke or drink onto others is a fascist. Don't be fascists, people. We medical students and doctors should practice more of that famous empathy we often boast so proudly about (not to mention that you'd be left feeling pret-ty stupid if a colleague of yours who smokes and drinks turns out to be a much better doctor than you'll ever be).

Before I conclude this, I just want to say that I personally abstain from smoking and think that no one should smoke either. And I seriously detest people who smokes in front of people who don't and gassing everyone with their second hand smoke - though I am too polite to point that out to some of my friends who did that. I do drink on occasion but never nearly enough to get intoxicated - I have a penchant for cocktails because I only drink for the taste, not for the high. I agree that doctors and medical students ought to know better than to smoke or overindulge in alcohol (the keyword here is "overindulge"; I researched a little bit into the health benefits of drinking moderately for a debate I participated in in a Community Medicine posting) but it's not our place to question their personal choices if those choices do not affect their ability to perform their duties. In fact, since doctors know best the myriad of diseases they are exposing themselves to by smoking or drinking, we should respect their decision to do so anyway, even if we cannot respect their judgment.

After all, they are making an informed decision, unlike everyone else.

P.S. And wearing a necktie won't make a doctor better at doing his job either. Like I said, we're too fond of giving values to things which are intrinsically worthless.

Knows what really matters,
k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Defence of Fantasy

"Distant flickering, greener scenery.
This weather's bringing it all back again.
Great adventures, faces and condensation.
I'm going outside to take it all in."

"You say too late to start, got your heart in a headlock,
I don't believe any of it.
You say too late to start, with your heart in a headlock,
You know you're better than this.

Headlock (2006) by Imogen Heap

I'm writing this post in reaction to a great number of people who opined that my love of the genre of speculative fiction - particularly fantasy and science fiction - is, how do you say, misplaced? I am tired of people ridiculing me for it. I am sick of people looking at me like I'm some immature moron yet to outgrow his fairytales. I am disgusted with how some people can declare in a sneering and arrogant tone about how they "don't have time for fantasy" or "too old for such nonsense" right after they ask me about the sort of books I read. I have had intentions, in the past, of participating in a few reading circles only to find out that they are too sophisticated for fantasy and science fiction, and that they only read serious and starkly realistic fictions that make them feel smart. Right here and now, I intend to change that. I intend to defend my favourite pastime as intelligently as I'm able to and to show everyone just how wrong these people really are.

My interest in speculative fiction and all its associated genres in literature came up lately in a conversation I had with a friend of mine and we had a polite disagreement over it, specifically over its relevance to our lives on a practical level. I can't remember what she said verbatim but the gist of it is this,

"I prefer reading things which helps me understand this world. Fantasy has no relevance to our daily lives."

My reply went something like this,

"It depends on the quality of the author's work. I agree that there are a lot of rubbish in the genre but there are many great books which relates very well to our real world, our ethics, morals and philosophies. They aren't always apparent, but they are certainly worth the dig - and they can certainly be applied to the real world."

To which she answered,

"I don't see any elves running around in the real world - do you?"

That about sums up the entire problem here - a superficial stance on a medium thought to be superficial itself. A great number of people (fantasy fans, non-fans and anti-fans included) shows a dismissive reluctance in examining the themes making up the core of a fantasy or science fiction novel, mostly due to the perceived frivolity of these books. I mean, if it doesn't take itself seriously, why should we, right? There can't possibly be anything important or meaningful behind all those magic, dragons and bullshit, right?

If that's what you've been thinking all this while, you are about to be proven wrong. By me.

Take for example Madam Ursula K. LeGuin, one of my favourite authors, who has written many of the most well-known fantasy and science fiction novels since the 1960's, and have practically won every single speculative fiction award there is to be won. What elevates her work from the rest of the rabbles are her sly explorations of sociological and anthropological ideas through her writings, cleverly disguising scholarly ideas in flashy fantastic elements. Take a look at her short science fiction story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas which tells of a utopian city and society which is learned, cultured and durably happy - perfect in every way except for the secret of the city. The good fortune of the city of Omelas depends on the suffering of one child kept in filth, darkness and misery. It discusses the ethical issue of the many directly reaping the benefits from the suffering of just one person, more concisely known as scapegoating. Another high fantasy book also speaks of the same psychomyth; The Holy Bible. Yes, from a wholly secular viewpoint, the Bible is undoubtedly a work of speculative fiction (albeit one which is very dry and unreadable, in my opinion). In fact, I put my copy of the Bible on the same shelf as my fantasy books.

A factual and "serious" literary example of the same would be pioneering American philosopher and psychologist James Wilson's article, A Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, which sounds about as interesting as toenail clippings.

Here's where fantasy - or even fiction in general - really beats non-fiction. When you read from a non-fiction work, you will often fall into the trap of assured acceptance of whatever you're reading is authoritative; the proverbial last word on the subject. It tells you stuff and you either agree with it or you don't (often the former if you're the impressionable type). Very passive style of reading, I think. Good fantasy or science fiction novels present you with idealogies and dilemmas set in motion in a hypothetical world, and they are almost always presented in an indirect, non-authoritative fashion - allowing the readers room to wrap their minds around the concepts and to draw their own conclusions from what they read. The difference is a bit like telling a child that stealing is wrong versus asking a child whether stealing is wrong or not. Faux-objectivity versus practical subjectivity, and I'm a proponent of the latter because I believe that nothing is free from context. Non-fiction and realistic fiction works deaden creativity. Speculative fiction fosters creativity and adaptivity. Another good example by LeGuin (I'll talk about other authors soon, I promise) is The Dispossessed, which is set in two contrasting worlds a colony on the moon called Anarres, and its neighboring planet Urras. The colony is an experiment in total socialization, with no private property, no class or rank, with even names of the new-born chosen by computer. This experiment in idealistic anarchy contrasts with the capitalistic older society of Urras, which is based on wealth and class. LeGuin did not, to her credit, show her preference for either world but instead, gave us an impartial comparison of the two.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin.

I'm not saying that there are no fantasy or science fiction novel which shows obvious author bias towards a particular ideal. I'm just saying that the apparent puerility of the genre is more conducive to a reader to question the represented ideals, eschewing thoughtless and blind acceptance we often employ in the face of purported "facts". The polar attitudes towards religious texts such as the Bible is evidential of that. It's either the Word of God (in which case a reader dares not question its contents) or a Work of Literature (thus inviting readers to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions about it). I myself often liken the Serpent in the Garden of Eden to Prometheus of Greek mythology who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to men, and thus, deserves reverence. Likewise, I also often look at the Old Testament God as the archetypal Dark Lord found in most fantasy novels. Hey, the shoe fits...

Speaking of religion, the topic frequently emerge in speculative fiction due in part to its inherent sensitive nature. Fantasy and science fiction is often used as a proxy in debating religious opinions to distance the sensibilities of those involved from criticism or perceived attacks. The Narnia novels by C. S. Lewis, renowned Christian apologist and writer, are basically children stories with an overt Christian flavour starring talking animals and God Himself in the guise of a huge lion called Aslan. In the last book of the series, The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis even criticised a controversial element of the religion in writing. He openly supports soteriological incluvism in that book over the widely accepted exclusivism nature of Christianity. I'm with Lewis on this.

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis.

The Screwtape Letters (also by Lewis) is also another good fantasy satire with a religious subject matter. It details a series of letters written by Screwtape, a senior demon in a bureaucratic position in Satan's service writing to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter, on the foibles of humans and the weaknesses by which they can be led astray onto the path of damnation. I really enjoyed the thoughtful witticism of Screwtape as he describes the many failings of mankind with frightful accuracy, many of which I found myself in complete agreement with.

A bit of a trivia this; The Screwtape Letters is dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien, the undisputed father of modern fantasy an author of the celebrated Lord of the Rings trilogy which originated (read; gave birth to) many of the contemporary cliches and character templates found in third rate fantasy novels which, I feel, bogged down the genre as a whole and created the reputation that fantasy is derivative, unimaginative and childish. Tolkien was also the guy who converted C. S. Lewis to Christianity, if you don't already know that.

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.

Lest it be said that I'm under-representing other authors who also writes about religion in fantasy, I also recommend the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, a staunch detractor of C. S. Lewis and organised religions. In his books, he cleverly subverted the Christian mythology, indirectly portraying Lucifer (or his surrogate in the books, Lord Asriel) as a revolutionary trying to overthrow a tyrant with the intentions of turning the Kingdom of Heaven into a Republic of Heaven, while at the same time, implying something about victors *coughGodcough* writing the history books. The central themes are about Free Will, and Freedom Through Knowledge. The third and last book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, dealt amply with these themes, particularly the latter. Pullman, as reflected in his writings, believes that the Fall of Man - after disobeying God and eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil - is one of the best things to happen to mankind (I believe the same, by the way). Pullman also drew a beautiful allegory of the Fall, likening it to a child growing out of infantile obeisance into a thinking, rational adult.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman.

Even R. A. Salvatore's pulpy sword-and-sorcery Dark Elf Trilogy (arguably the best of the mostly crappy Drizzt Do'Urden books), had something to say about God(s) Without versus God(s) Within, and about how Religion Should Agree with Man instead of Man Having to Agree with Religion. For example, I call myself a Buddhist because many of my personal beliefs are coincidentally similar to Buddhist teachings - not because I do what is dictated by Buddhist teachings. This one's for my friend and everybody who thinks that elves has no relevance to real life. Take that, hah!

Moving on from religion and religiousity, I like to share with you my favourite speculative fiction novel from the classic canon, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, a story about a handsome young man lamenting that he will one day grow old and that his physical beauty will fade with age - who wishes that his portrait would age instead of him. Miraculously, he got what he wished for and he plunged into a series of debauched acts. His portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin being displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging. The premise on its own is intriguing enough, even without the sly commentary of late Victorian societal hypocrisy, and the themes of homoeroticism and of sensual gratification (or as Lord Henry Wotton, one of my favourite characters in fiction, put it; "a new kind of hedonism").

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

And while you're at it, check out also Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter - a darkly beautiful fantasy/steampunk hybrid novel which subverted popular fantasy tropes and archetypes (dragons, for example, are giant mechanical, part-cybernetic monsters built in factories and are used as jet fighters). The book simultaneously criticises the commercial exploitation of Tolkien's legacy by shitty fantasy writer wannabes while exploring an amalgam of themes as diverse as Child Slavery, Adolescence, Nihilism and (my personal favourite) Existence Without Ultimate Destiny. Reading this book was a life-changing experience for me, though I may just be in a receptive frame of mind when I read it - so I don't guarantee the same for everyone else who picks it up.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick.

There is no shortage of truly original fantasy novels that discusses important themes, issues and philosophical ideas beneath the gilding of fantasy and whimsy and if I have to go on describing such books in length, I'm afraid that I will never finish this article. But now, just let me point out to everyone that of all the titles I have mentioned so far, only ONE contains the Tolkienesque elves which my friend chided me about at the start of this essay. I meant you to know that the genre of speculative fiction is a genuinely inventive one if you look in the right places, and that the greatest specimens which belong to it reflects this in both form and substance. That's why I always enjoyed hunting for good fantasy novels - it's gives me a real high every time I lucked out and managed to dust off a volume of pure gold from the speculative fiction shelves.

It really ticks me off when people make unfounded assumptions of fantasy without actually giving it a try. It's these people who are shallow, not the genre of books they so wrongly accuse of shallowness. Their ability to think is so severely myopic that they find it quite impossible to see past the obvious. Maybe that's why non-fiction or factual books are more suitable for them - their thought processes are simply too primitive to handle complex metaphors.

I often explain my abhorrence of non-fiction and realistic fiction works like so,

"We already live in the real world - why do we have to read about it?"

Fantasy and science fiction novels are the raw imagination and creativity of the human mind made ink and paper. Whole worlds, the natural laws governing them and the societies which they are home for are pieced together whole cloth using nothing but artistic brainpower. Reading them is escapism, yes, but why must it be such an embarrassing thing to indulge in, really? The telling of a great story lies at the core of human civilisation and we had, for ages and ages past in great Homeric fashion, used Lies to tell the Truth. Speculative fiction is part of that legacy, a contemporary manifestation of that glorious tradition which I believe and feel, is very worthy of celebration.

And it's just an added bonus that they are such rip-roaring fun to read.

Addendum: If you're interested in more original speculative fiction novels with an intellectual turn, you might want to check out these other titles I couldn't find the time to include in this post,
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore. I know this is a graphic novel (i.e. comic book) but I find this a better read than a lot of books I know. It deconstructs the superhero concept, examining what costume vigilantes would be like in a credible, real world, and asks a very important question, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" Who watches the watchmen? You might want to look into it, seeing that the movie's coming out soon.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert. This celebrated science fiction novel explores the themes of Religion in Politics, the Meaning of Humanity, Manipulation of Religion to Secure Power and Human Control over Ecology. In the Dune universe, there is also a resource found only on the planet Dune, the spice melange, on which the economy and power structure of the entire interstellar empire is dependent on (essentially a galactic analogue to our petroleum). It also offers an interesting take of the concepts of ancestral memory passed on through genetic memory, and of prescience.
  • The Earthsea Cycle of novels by Ursula K. LeGuin follows the story of Ged, a young wizard's journey and growth to greatness. Sounds contrived, eh? What set it apart from its contemporaries is that the protagonist has red-brown skin, a pioneering breakaway from the white hero stereotype of the genre. From even its superficial characterisation, LeGuin have managed to make firm statements about Racial Stereotypy through the books. Before the series ended, she tore through the themes of Reincarnation versus Afterlife, Gender Differences, and Being versus Doing, amongst a sundry of other topics through 5 books. Ged is also suppose to be a deconstructionistic take of the ancient and wise wizard archetype; LeGuin herself said that she often wondered how such Gandalf-esque characters come to attain their status. Of course LeGuin being LeGuin, she went one step further and explore the subsequent loss of Ged's magical abilities at the height of his power. The Earthsea books are, in my opinion, some of the finest reads in the fantasy genre.
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke answers the important question which have baffled historians for decades; "How would the Napoleanic War be fought if England had magicians on her side?"

P.S. If anyone wants more literary recommendations from me, you can ask me in the comments section below this post. Give me your preferences and I will try to prescribe suitable titles for you to the best of my knowledge. Also, if you know any good fantasy books, let me know, okay?

P.P.S. This post took me almost two whole weeks to write - mainly because I needed to finish reading a couple of the works I mentioned here. That and all the looking up I had to do through my library.

Defender of fantasy,
k0k s3n w4i