Stress and Work

4 March 2016 Leave a comment

One of the perversities of my nature is that I can draw the energy to focus on a difficult task from the tension of unresolved hostility with people around me. How it works is that, because the tension is frustratingly irresolvable at some point in time, the frustration drives me to focus on the work that is actually under my control. Conversely (and perversely), when everything is peachy with everybody, social interaction becomes so much more enjoyable and stimulating in comparison to work.

When did this happen? I have some idea; recently, I’ve come to realize how a few of my ideas about myself have grown quite far off the mark.

Categories: Reflection

On Performing Social Identity

2 February 2016 3 comments

In a moment of winded loopiness, after a hard run, I thought to myself: “Who is —?”

The next thought that came to mind: “Who are —’s friends?”

The idea that identity is performed, perhaps out of a library of mini-scripts, is one I find useful. We take our cues from our environment (the physical situation, the social situation), and select our scripts accordingly1.

Turning back the clock about five years, I think I had developed some idea about what my peer group was, who I wanted to be friends with, &c. Time, naturally, changes things, and people drift together or apart. I’ve seen and done quite a bit in five years, and I think the rate at which I’ve made acquaintances has only increased.

Which brings us back to the questions above. As much as identity is something we think about in our moments alone, with our selected mental audience, identity is equally something we play out in front of other people. In fact, for most (if not all) of us, we often re-create Other People as members of our mental audience.

It is true that not all of these Other People are friends, necessarily, and depending on your temperament or where you are in life, friends may be more or less important an audience than other possible groups.


For me the question reduces to (a) whose opinions I am prepared to regard seriously, and (b) who I interact with meaningfully or regularly. In the past year or two I’ve narrowed down (a), while (b) has narrowed itself down.

Common cultural references are a contributing factor, but I’d add that (1) this will be true for many people, (2) the choice of cultural references will powerfully influence your results, and that therefore, employing a range of references well is the meta-heuristic.

General intelligence (is there a non-general kind?) is also a contributing factor, but for both this factor and for common cultural references, it’s not a strictly applied rule. I guess this would be some basis for saying that the heuristic for determining membership is multi-dimensional, a result which I would be quite pleased with – the caveat being that I’m probably blind to the action of some factors as well.

Moving on from thinking about common factors to changes over time, recent trends indicate that more weight is given to philosophy and social orientation, than factors like intelligence or achievement in given areas. This sometimes leads me to judge harshly people who’ve suspended reflection on these things for more-or-less legitimate reasons like the stress of great demands on energy and time. Another reason I think I might be being harsh is that, I believe maintaining a particular philosophy or social orientation is a conscious act, one we’re not always able to perform.

Another thing that comes to mind: manipulation is not something I necessarily view negatively; I tend to judge the outlook or goals of the manipulator more than the act of manipulating. The impact on people still matters to me, however.

Social media and other forms of technologically facilitated communication are media I frequently use to perform identity. Here my instinct has been towards a kind of catholicism, though the caveat I applied above about blindness would also apply here. There is an instinct towards the outré, but it’s very selectively applied; there might even be the opposite tendency, to find things with unexpectedly broad acceptance.

That’s all I’ll set down for now.

1. And sometimes we don’t.

Categories: Reflection, Vagaries

Building Around Language, Ideology and Power

20 January 2016 Leave a comment

When did I start thinking about the nature of identity and the social world? The first answer that comes to mind is literature classes, which started in secondary school. These were things I didn’t have any difficulty seeing the importance of and the interest in, which I suppose I should count as fortune.

To have had the opportunity is something I also count as fortune. From what gets put about in the news etc., it would appear the trend is that fewer and fewer are allowed the same.

On my mind tonight were some of the things Singaporeans have made of which I’m fiercely proud, as well as a really quite good (if not exactly comforting; really the opposite) speech from K. Shanmugam. Perhaps some of his points about the really quite rare kind of society Singapore has become resonated a bit more against the background of the other things I was thinking about – but, actually, I’m generally quite appreciative of the marvels large and small that have been achieved here.

The meat of the discourse, however, was about the larger currents and more immediate management issues that exert considerable influence on the shape of that society. (Smallness again raises its head.) I was quite impressed with how he drew the link through discourse (‘how public discourse [was] conducted’), ideology, and the basic conditions constraining human agency (economic situation, social context, technology, etc.).

I’d definitely recommend reading it, say from about paragraph 10 to 42 (the before and after being the usual-serious-polite stuff). One of the things it made me think about was what I mentioned at the start of the post. What that course of thought suggested was that it would be a good thing for us – perhaps even a modestly marvellous thing – to make the genuine attempt to engage as many as possible in that reflection. I think literature is an exceptionally engaging, rich, and profitable medium for that project.

Categories: Perspective Tags:

Northfield to Manchester (Day 1): Field Trip

22 December 2015 1 comment

(A post about the start of summer break in 2014, after my final term at Carleton.)

I remember the last day and night of term being a crazy rush to finish up my assignments, pack or discard all the things I’d brought and accumulated over the year, and to say goodbye to the friends I’d made.

After all that, I slept only about an hour, since I had a 7:20 a.m. bus to catch. The eventual destination? Manchester, Tennessee, for the Bonnaroo music festival.


(With stops in Minneapolis, Chicago, Bloomington, and Nashville.)


In total, I was on buses or in transit for about two solid days. I don’t remember it being particularly painful, actually; owing to my lack of sleep, I was able to spend much of the time snoozing.

Another impression people seem to have of cross-country bus-rides in America is that things tend to be at least somewhat dodgy, if not dangerous – menacing strangers on the bus, illicit activities at bus stations, etc. I fancy that, like ghosts on Pulau Tekong, not looking out for these things was easily enough to steer clear. (We did, however, have our bags searched at Nashville for drugs: cops savvy to the crowd heading to the music festival.)

More generally, I think people increasingly rely on bus lines as a low-cost and efficient mode of transport; AMTRAK is honestly inefficient, and air travel is not exactly fuss-free (and how much faster becomes less significant over a moderate distances). As fellow travellers on a long road, for the most part, I actually found it quite easy to be friendly with people I met on the journey.


This picture was taken in a sports bar at the bus station in Chicago. You can see LeBron’s face on the screen. I was watching the NBA playoffs with somebody I met at Minneapolis.

Later, while in the line for the bus to Nashville, I met two men from Madison, WI, who were also on the way to the festival – veteran Bonnaroovians, it turns out, whose paths would run with mine for the next few days…


For food and other reliefs, other than bus stations in the big cities, we had truck-stops; the memories are of fast-food breakfasts (mm, McGriddles), brushing my teeth, bottled water, and a few minutes to walk around and look up at the sky.


This was lunch on Day One: bottled coffee and PB&J sandwiches I’d packed from the dining hall from the previous day.

Inside Out

27 September 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve been going through an extended period of despondency (about a few months long). More immediately recently, I’ve had to accept a significant failure, which was difficult.

Of this period, I feel some things bear recording, if only because it would be a pity and a waste to forget them.

Something someone close to me told me that I took to heart was that I was very hard to help. I think it was true that, as I was going through things, I didn’t think anyone could help me very much. At the same time, I reasoned to myself that it seemed most of the people I might have potentially asked for help seemed busy enough dealing with their own business to try and understand mine – hell, I thought, even attempting to make sense of my own feelings to myself was making me perpetually sick, so how could I expect anyone to bother? Instances of partial understanding and misunderstanding, moreover, made me feel frustrated and, on some buried level, irrationally angry. Overall it seemed better not to try at all, mostly.

So I do think I might have given people around me too little credit. Moreover, there were a few people who were so persistently great that I felt I couldn’t not open up, at least a little. (I feel so grateful for them.)

But to some extent, I stand by my decision. I didn’t understand everything I was going through, and only understood more over time. I also think some experiences are just inherently hard to understand, and, so, tough luck if the resources and opportunity to render them understandable happen to be in short supply. Survive and do your best.

But, on reflection, I realize that feeling like I’d tried hard enough (well, thought hard enough) about reaching out, was unproductive (and emotionally corrosive). Something I realized later was that this was partly attributable to a tendency I’ve developed over many years, of responding to situations I found difficult by trying as hard as possible to contain and resolve them on my own, and of judging my own success by whether or not I would trouble other people. I still think it’s mostly not a bad approach, except for the times you will fail (if you just don’t have the space to deal with things, for instance); in those situations I guess another strategy might be superior, but I’m not as familiar with it.

So overall, I think a lot of how I dealt with things (or didn’t deal with some things) was down to my personality and values. (Some of that was under threat for a while, but, I think, less so, for now.) I don’t think those have changed very much, but I think I understand their downsides a little better – and I hope I will be able to say that I understand myself a little better.

I’m not out of the woods yet, and I’m not yet A-OK, but I feel like I’ve worked out enough to continue moving forward. I’ve learned other things about myself, too, like what I can keep doing even when I’m down, the kinds of things I care too much about to let go of, traps I fall into easily, etc. I think that will be useful. Wish me well.

Categories: Reflection

End of the Day

2 April 2015 Leave a comment

End of the day: Physically exhausted. Emotionally incapacitated.

Accomplishments: Met some deadlines. Meditated on the character of hope, staved off hopelessness. Remained objectively happy.

In receipt: Well-wishes from friends. Enjoyed dinner with friends. Pretty much all I could have accepted in good strength and spirit.

Desires: Oblivion, because there’s not been much heart available to hope for better.

Reflection: I am still the boy from 2007, perhaps knowing more, though also suffering more, and probably wasting more.

Categories: Reflection

Père nationale

23 March 2015 Leave a comment

(Having spent a good portion of the day reading around about our Great Man again, this being true also for many other people today no doubt.)



A case of sombre skies prompting gloomy forecasts, perhaps:

‘However, the most important reason for Singapore’s singular experience is Mr Lee himself […] Even in Singapore the model may not outlast its creator for long.’ – in The Economist.

‘The discontent has raised questions about the sustainability of the system put in place by Mr. Lee.’ – in WSJ.

‘Lee bequeathed to Singapore prosperity and order, but the durability of his legacy is in question.’ – in Forbes; headline: ‘Singapore After Lee Kuan Yew: Future Is Uncertain For The Utilitarian Paradise He Created’

Against pronouncements like these, I believe he would have most loved1 for us to just keep carrying on.


The rather more bullish piece in FP would have us enshrine ‘Lee Kuan Yew-ism’ (roughly, institutional values) as the monument to the man himself, as the more fitting act of remembrance. I’m not sure this is much better. I think he would have wanted more for us than an ideological inheritance – not that we don’t have ideology, but better to build for the living than build up from leavings, I say2. Though we’ve done that too, with a different kind of pride.


That perfect quote that’s been coming up all day:

‘At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.’ – in Today, and many places elsewhere.

Quiet sunset, I thought. Maybe with a distant black-and-white echo of blood-sacrifice, though probably no more than would have been asked of anyone else living through the times they did, with him.


1. Or relished; as quoted in NYT, he once said, ‘To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist.’
2. I like to think, He might have said.

Categories: Reflection Tags: ,