Sunday, November 16, 2008

Real Life Penalties for Virtual Life Sins

Last night, we caught a documentary on the telly about Bill Gates' role in revolutionizing the world of personal computers.

Ironically, the same apparatus that gave Microsoft its success - people connected via their PCs - is now making its continued domination close impossible. Once a titan in determining people's computer habits via the MS compatible software they sold, MS now has to fight with free Internet download-able software and the Google generation.

What a different world we're in now, compared to a lifetime ago of all of ... 10 years ago.

10 years ago, I was a uni student, scrambling past fat bums in swivel chairs, through narrow aisles in the com labs at school, trying to look for the one PC which had the quickest connection, could send files reliably to the printer, and wouldn't hang.

There, I was introduced to the IRC - Internet Relay Chat. The ancient forefather of Facebook and social networking sites like Second Life.

There was something just so alluring about connecting with someone whom you've never met, and in all practicality, you never will. A stranger in the night, and all you know of him or her are the text in sans serif font appearing on the screen in front of you.

We exchanged mutual sob stories, secret wishes and hopes, these strangers and I. It made me think I wasn't all alone in the world.

Best part was, there were no strings attached. We didn't really have a relationship, so accordingly there were no consequences to hold us back.

But I also realized quickly how a simple, true, description of myself would draw instant interest:

Stranger: So tell me about yourself.

Me: I'm 19, studying Lit at uni now. Female. Used to play competitive tennis in school.

Stranger: Wow. What do you look like?

Suddenly the urge to search for words to represent myself in the best possible terms. Self-flattery. Euphemisms.

My first fantasy me. My first avatar.

Later on, in my early twenties, I joined an Internet dating service out of a random curiosity that allowed me to create a profile of myself, and there I posted a random pic of myself. Again, a flurry of emails arrived in my inbox. To which I could never truly respond to, so unsure I was that even if we did meet face to face if they responded to my persona or the real me.

Then there was Friendster.

Now, there is Second Life - a fully fledged virtual alternate reality in which your personal avatar can be anyone you want him or her to be, and where there is no sickness or death.

So when this piece of news caught my eye - of how a man's avatar was caught having an affair in Second Life and it led to his real life divorce - I think we need to take a look again at where we are going as a human race.

We've been led off the precipice, I think.

Never before has the line between our real lives and make-believe lives been more blurred.

Never before have people been so addicted to wanting a version of themselves to be so out there, so over to top, in expressing all the facets of themselves that are repressed in real life: hence the accountant with a hooker avatar, the teacher whose avatar opens an adult shop earning Linden dollars that can be exchanged for real U.S. dollars.

And never before, have people so earnestly regarded this fantasy self to be more authentic than the ones whose bodies they inhabit.

Second life has become a frankenstein of people's sick self-reinventions stitched together and stuck to each other in a gooey mess known as "social networking". It's rank. It's a Bronte desire gone haywire, a scary woman in the attic escaping her place in the mind of her human creator into the real world, and leaving a path of self-destruction behind her.

And as a mother, it worries me that not enough is being done to educate children about Internet safety.

Children need to learn how to represent themselves on social networking sites, how to safeguard their identities, and seek the truth about who they are not from the words and images they stitch together in these fantasy make-believe situations which abound in these places, but from what the Bible says about who they can be in Christ.

I was once tempted to join Second Life, to create an avatar for myself, and see what the big deal is about. But I think life - our real, disease- and struggles-stricken lives - truly is too short.

Who's going to solve the real problems in the world?

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Origin of Childhood Faith

Today is the first day E goes back to school for another semester at the MGMS.

Like all young toddlers, Dylan’s been trying to cope with the many changes in his life including getting used to sleeping in his new big boy’s bed, and last night was the second time he has been waking up at 5 kicking and screaming, soothed only by his milk bottle and even after then he’d stay awake. I’m not sure if we are doing the right thing by still giving him a feed so early in the morning, but I tell myself at least he is drinking something nutritious.

Anyway, the point is Daddy’s left for school since 8, and within 15 minutes the exhausted little boy fell right to sleep again.

As much as I’d like to grab the chance to catch up on lost sleep, I find myself here, sitting up in bed with my good ol’ Macbook on my lap, compelled to write about something else.

In this entry, I’m going to pause for a little while from the usual rambling about motherhood, and about our move over to Australia.

About 5 years ago, I started this blog because I needed to space to get all these thoughts out, thoughts and questions about my life, and how it relates to my understanding of faith and God and such.

Since then, life pretty much took over, and aside from the irregular outbursts in these pages I find myself having less and less time to just stop and think.

But some weeks ago something happened that brought me back to this place. Facing this need once again to get these thoughts out before I forget and these musings also forget me.

My brother, CS, had sent an email link to a Google book preview on Einstein and Religion. Basically a scholarly book documenting how Einstein is far from the atheist that many modern atheists look up to as the face of Reason against blind dogmatic religion.

So I clicked on the link and proceeded to find out about Einstein’s formative years, his thoughts of divinity and how it relates to his life’s work, especially with his General Relativity of Time theory.

As a Jewish scientist, Einstein was under incredible pressure from the intellectual circle to write about the utter lack of rationality concerning religious dogma. Yet, the book records that he and his wife regularly attended Bible study within their circle of friends – moreover he relates his knowledge about the General Theory to be something which was divinely inspired as he started playing on the piano.

I learnt that later, Einstein was greatly influenced by Spinoza’s philosophy that God has to be utterly immutable. Yet, Spinoza has been claimed by many agnostics/atheists as their own, as his philosophy that if there is a God he is not only impersonal unlike the Judeo-Christian God, he is also unknowable.

It made me reflect a lot of my interactions with S, a dear friend whom I’ve gotten to know recently. I think it would be fair to say that S. is my first atheist friend, a choice she made in her twenties despite growing up in a country with very strong Catholic traditions. As a professor in developmental psychology, in fact her research revolves, interestingly, around how children place their trust in adult testimony. So for example, how do children grow to believe that there are such things as germs and viruses, since these entities are not visible, and cannot be sensed by our five senses?

Because every time they pick food off the floor to pop into their mouths, you can hear an adult scream “Don’t do that, it’s dirty!” or “There are germs on the floor and they will make you sick!” From a psychological viewpoint, you can see that it is the testimony of a close adult – a parent, a caregiver, whose input is trusted and that adopted as truths by the child. Yes, germs exist because my mommy says that is what makes me sick.

For that reason, S. hypothesized that children’s belief in a supernatural entity, such as God, is also a product of two things: first, a developmental need to explain things (this comes much later into their childhood/adolescence), and second, adult input. Without the latter, an cross-sectional study (Harris) in the US had found that as children grew older, their belief in God also faded.

I’m not sure if God brought S. to my life for a reason, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Did I do enough to persuade her to reexamine her faith, or lack of? I know we had many many interesting discussions about this topic, as it is so close to our hearts for different reasons, but they were all intellectual and I wondered if I could have engaged her more deeply as to how it might apply in other ways.

Finding out about S’s work started me thinking about my own beliefs in how children grow, and whether it is really true that “God” is a construct children and trusted adults jointly create.

I looked at my own childhood, and tried to remember how I began wondering about God, and found myself coming to a different conclusion.

At around ages 5, in the average human development, children reach a stage of development that psychologists term as having “Theory of Mind”. That is, the child begins to realize that other people’s mental states may be different from their own. Simply put, they begin to be able to “put themselves in other people’s shoes”.

I remember being either 7 or 8, at an age when I indulged in many childish cruelties such as chasing after lizards and grabbing their tails just so that I could see the tails come off, or just crushing the ants running across the table.

One day, as I was fooling around with one such poor ant, I suddenly had that “Theory of Mind” moment. This poor ant, I suddenly thought. If I were the ant, I really would not realize that these probably were the last few minutes of my life. And then, I looked up at the sky, and thought – I wonder if I really am just an ant to something far greater than I am?

That thought troubled me so greatly it made me think about other things: the end of life being death, when did I begin existing and how is it I can’t remember what it was like to be born? It wasn’t long before I felt certain that there was Being who has knowledge and control over all of my fears and questions, although at that point I wasn’t sure who this God was. At the same time, in that small moment of epiphany, I felt this Being watching over me, and being personally interested in all these thoughts that were passing through my mind.

To make my story complete, I need to explain that my parents never pressured me one way or the other, and I can’t recall for the life of me if I had received the “close adult’s testimony” that S. talks about. But I felt certain that the only way I could cope with thinking about death, and not existing anymore one day, was to believe.

I didn’t come to the faith until I was 14, but looking back, I think the journey began in childhood. To say that children are more naturally inclined towards agnosticism, if left to their own devices, ignores their crucial and very much intrinsic need for children to understand where they began, and how their lives are finite, and what that means.

But then again, in a family that never talks about such questions, would these questions naturally arise? I think so. I’m not sure. There is a limit to how much rational talk is needed to make sense of things that surpass the mundane.

What I am certain of, is that although Dylan will need to make up his own mind about whether he wants Jesus in his heart, as his parents E. and I have the responsibility to allow these questions to arise, and to allow God’s holy spirit to answer the deepest of these questions – who he is in God’s eyes, the destiny that is uniquely created for him if he accepts his identity in Christ.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


A confession - It's been difficult living under the same roof as the inlaws. And to some degree, coming back here to Cambridge and having a room to call my own is liberating.

To be fair to them, Dylan's grandparents are completely loving to me, always asking if I've eaten and offering to buy food or take me out. I reciprocate by ensuring that I keep the mess in the house to a minimum, and don't object when Grandma comes around, takes Dylan away from my arms, and says "Come, come, mommy is busy." On the whole, a third party will characterize our relationship as being warm and closely-knit, even.

So why is it that I do not feel at peace with them?

I can execute all the right moves as daughter-in-law, saying and doing what is right, but until I surrender my guilt at leaving Dylan behind, and the seething resentment and envy at the time they will be enjoying with what is rightfully my own, the relationship just can't be set right.

I am conflicted, between wanting to love them and honour them, and resenting myself for not being able to do it honestly, and openly express my feelings about this whole situation to them. I am upset with myself, and see that the evil in my life comes from inside in spite of my best efforts.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, says that in the christian walk, every decision that we make changes us ever so slightly, into something either more heaven-like, or hellish. In the past week, I wonder if I've become a more hellish-like creature than heavenly.

(I have to qualify that C.S. Lewis was writing in context of being in or out of a relationship with God, and our abiding in him. So our steps towards being heavenly or hellish creature should not be simplistically misunderstood that you do good to enter heaven and if you behave badly, you end up in hell.)

Often, evil is thought of and portrayed in horror and thrillers as something outside of us - an alien or a spirit with malicious intent. I watched two movies on the flight here that did this - Invasion and 1408. Nicole Kidman plays a mother who is fighting against an insidious alien invasion of human bodies that take over their souls and leave them without morality, emotions, and loyalties to family - hallmarks of what makes us all human. In 1408, John Cussack checks into a haunted hotel room in which nobody has ever emerged alive or unscathed.

Both movies depict evil as something that happens to people - a force originating from outside forcing its way into the human body and psyche and doing irreparable damage in the process.

But the truth is that evil is also very much in us and part of us, and the cause of many destroyed relationships. What has made my last week almost intolerable for me was having to deal with my own seething resentments, envy, guilt and even hatred, even though they were not apparent through any visible reactions on my part.

Some may say that if I didn't choose to repress them I'd feel better, but just let it out at them - including saying directly to Grandma, please keep your hands off my son and just let us be together in peace! But the result would have been unthinkable, and I know this from seeing it happen with my own parents.


Talking about sexual morality, C.S. Lewis in the same book says that people misunderstand that our bodies don't matter, just our spirits do. God loves matter - that's why our sacraments include very physical acts of eating the bread and drinking the wine, and being doused in water. That is why God will eventually replace our bodies with permanent ones - ones that will reflect who we truly are - either heavenly creatures or hellish ones.

One day, when God gives me my new body, I wonder if my friends will be surprised by my appearance. I pray that I don't end up looking like the monster in Alien vs. Predator - though it bears remarkable resemblance to how I feel on the inside.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Turning 30.

So I turned 30 two Sundays ago.

I joked with my eldest brother that now I'm in my thirties, just like him, so he can't just think of me as a baby anymore. But honestly, it feels a lot more complicated than that.

In the past year, I've felt more inadequate about myself, especially my ability to be mother and take care of someone else other than me, than I ever was as a 19-year-old, cocksure and footloose in London.

On the bright side, the anxieties and fears are now not a result of teenage insecurity, but a deeper understanding of who I am rather than what I wish I was - including my own strengths and limitations. I guess what bothers me is knowing my limitations.

A casual remark my mom made kinda hurt: she said I wasn't ready for a second kid, implying that I wasn't able to handle 1 kid well, not to mention two. I found myself totally unable to rebut her, unable to vehemently disagree even though I should and wanted to.

Thinking about it now I reckon its realising that it is a fact that we're relying so much on our parents to give the kind of care that Dylan needs. And a frustration that there is ABSOLUTELY nothing I can do about it. We have NO options.

Lots of people have been asking me how I was feeling about the husband going down under for med school and me leaving Dylan behind this coming Thursday for 4 months while I complete my program at Cambridge.

My reply is pretty standard: this is the best arrangement for Dylan, he's getting the best care possible from very loving and doting grandparents, the weather here is more conducive, there are more things to do like bringing him to swim at Keppel, going to the beach, playing at the gigantic playground at West Coast Park etc etc.

But I search myself and realise that I can never truly be at peace with this arrangement, not without that pang of guilt that I'm not somehow short-changing Dylan of time with his mother. Sure, we've prayed about this, our cell group has also upheld Dylan and all of us including his grandparents in prayer.

But there is no denying that we are driven by necessity rather than choice. And necessity really doesn't make bearing it any easier, that's the truth.

The great thing this past week is finding out that my bosses are supportive of my application to spend a year with my family. This is truly answered prayer!!!

The not so great thing is that in the process, they've also asked questions about our plans to complete the family. Something about wanting to keep things transparent, and needing to make sure that vacancies in the branch are filled up.

So I guess part of being in the 30s, is realizing that even in our private decisions, of when to have kids, we're really accountable to a much broader network than the two of us plus Dylan. I need to consider the needs of the organization who has paid for my studies. I need to consider whether my inlaws would WANT a second grandchild - in their old age and with them being so very contented just with Dylan. After all, in the end, we depend on them to provide care while I work. And not least, I need to consider the needs of my own husband, who will be missing out on the early years of BOTH his children if we went ahead with a second one soon.

I tell myself that the consolation for holding back on number 2 is that I'll have more years to give exclusively to Dylan. And even though it may mean that the option of having number 3 may be non-existent seeing as I'd be past 35 by then, E tells me 2 is good enough.

So, in the end, how does it feel to be 30 for me?

I see God's timing in stretching each of our faiths.

I see His provision in giving E. his medical school.

In giving me my scholarship and a career that makes a difference.

In giving my inlaws a beautiful grandson in their old age.

And in giving Dylan loving and doting grandparents who don't mind looking after him all day and all night. So many couples and families do not have this kind of home support that we do. So far be it that I should complain, weep, and pull my hair out over the limitations that rule our lives.

But I also see times of testing ahead. Severe testing. Not made any easier by the distance between us.

May I truly see the grace that pervades our lives, in spite of our separation as a family, and of my frustrations as a mother who cannot due to necessity give her child her all.

birthday girl
Got a dress for the occassion - a classic black halter neck, knee-length dress picked up from a shop at Parkway Parade, and my xmas wish-gift from e-bay.

dinner at morton'sComplimentary birthday cake at Morton's - oh sweet sensation of warm gooey chocolate sliding down the tongue!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Who do we write for? Facets of me.

I realise, now, after two and a half years, that I am how I choose to portray myself.

That's the beauty of language - the ability to reflect using orthography (printed letters), at the same time, re-defining and re-creating the selfhood through this. And through that show the different facets that altogether show a patchy picture of who we are.

Now, as a mother, time and priorities constrain my ramblings to the most immediate and obvious. Things, memories, emotions that used to haunt me now take a backseat to the joys and immediate challenges of caring for the little one.

This week, I'm joyous to read, once again, the words of a friend . This is someone who kinda forms part of my past - it's really about 7 years that I'm talking about.

But I also realise that we have to change to way we relate ourselves through our blogs.

So I'll still post here, in this blog, once in a while.

But by and large, I am who the mother you see is in the other one.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Remembering Villa.

Villa. A name that conjures images of serenity - an italian countryside, vineyards and cottages covered in creepers, bathing in the temperate summer sun. Women in thick frocks and aprons, bare-footed and laughing, crushing grapes underfoot.

Villa is the name a small village - big for Atauro standards notwithstanding - at the south eastern bend of Atauro island, Timor Leste. Hardly the idyllic European respite, but breath-taking in its own way. The place is hot and dry for nine months of the year, and only has electricity running through its cables from six in the evening to midnight.

Villa has a community hall situated just less than a hundred meters from the beach. That was where thirteen of us - a motley crew comprising people from all walks of life - slept, ate, laughed, fell ill, recovered and played for 13 days from 13 to 25 November 2004.

We were there as a marine expedition team, to conduct benthic surveys of their coral reefs, and take down scientific data on the health of the corals, fish and inverterbrate life there.

Save our expedition leader and scientific officer, 11 of us were just ordinary divers with a passion for the underwater world, but went through entry-level training on how to tell one fish from another, and identify the growth forms of different types of corals. Sufficient enough to allow us take down scientific data which our Scientific Officer would compile. With the data, she would make an assessment of the reefs of Atauro. Further down the road, when two more assessments are conducted, a report will be crafted and filed with our local NGO - Timor Aid, for future management policies of the island.

In particular, Timor Aid has its eye on developing a marine park for eco-tourism, the first form of which is already developing a repute of its own in Tua Koin, a village 5km north of Villa. Eventually, in the world's newest nation, a budgeoning eco-tourism industry will develop. The children will have more options when they step out other than fishing, agriculture and making baskets, wooden goggles and woodcraft. Let's just cross our fingers that the womenfolk will not develop the other side - the ugly one - of the tourist trade.

Our job is now done, and most of us are back in the swing of urban life in Singapore - Mei returning to her architect job, Bee to her Sports Consultation position, me to my civil service one.

I write this now so that I do not forget.

With the ochre of this virtual ink, and the pictures I post, I hope the memory will linger longer for me. And for the passer-by to catch a glimpse of that world which will be very quickly transformed with the onset of tourism.

Monday, December 27, 2004

SIX months in Virtual Comatose

Six months. That's how long the online silence has lasted. The brainjuice persona lives, yes, but she's in a comatose state right now, and I'm trying hard to resuscitate her. Trying.

Wasn't till now, when the year starts winding down and people around me start valuing friends over work a bit more that I, too, am forcing myself to sit down and write.

In the meantime, what's happened?
- Lee Hsien Loong becomes Prime Minister of Singapore.
- Read and hear about the review of Chinese Language teaching over and over and over again
- Get myself married
- Get a haircut
- Have ourselves a wonderful honeymoon in Bali, while George Bush gets re-elected much to everyone's surprise, and many a consternation
- Watch Yasser Arafat die, and then not, and then die again on TV.
- Write a good 16 speeches for the political heads.
- Learn how to call another set of parents "Mom" and "Dad".
- Spend three weeks in Timor Leste, sleeping on the floor, diving, eating, reading, thinking, watching innocence and poverty
- Experience my first tremor after earthquake strikes Alor, just 100km east of Atauro island
- Wake up to a beautiful sunrise at 5.30 every morning and have dolphins swim next to us.
- Learn not to miss my pill (still learning)
- Almost get swept away by the current
- Pray for a friend seriously injured in a car crash
- Hear about the Tidal Wave post-West Sumatra quake that measured 8.9 on the Richter Scale

So six month's later, my identity undergoes a change, at least in nomenclature, and I'm a Mrs instead of a Miss.
And we're busy planning and saving for the home. Cursing and swearing as the developers take their time to complete rectification works because we can't start furnishing it and moving in proper until they do. I'm still getting used to the idea that I no longer attend the same church, see my parents every night. And the idea that I will need extra effort and good reasons to go home just to see my parents age.

I wonder what the new year will bring with it too.

We're both attending a Financial Planning course now. W realised that we had better start saving and investing and building a nice little nest egg for ourselves NOW, if we don't want to die poor and hungry, because somebody did a study and said that our generation cannot expect our kids to feed us. We're also planning for Hubby to go off to do an MBA in 2006, and pondering over whether I should stay and work and pay for the home or go with him.

Yup... life as a married woman is a sure change from being just by myself. To be perfectly honest, it's all a little daunting too.

Most of all, it's realising that as the year comes and goes and another year draws near and knowing that it too will be over. It's the way TIME just inexorably goes on and on, as Sylvia Plath metaphorised, like a runaway train unable to control its momentum nor put a brake on itself.... and dragging us all - its passengers - into oblivion. That's what frightens me most.

It's strangely ironic that in the week after we begin the course on Financial Planning, a friend would linger close at death's door, a mere 34 year-old, her life hanging in the balance after a horrific crash that we only heard about in the papers because someone famous died in it.

I will always remember her saying that whenever someone asks her why she's never sad, always gregarious, always full of life - her answer would be "Because Life's too short".

Which begs the question - why save? why plan? why go through the painful process of stingeing on our PRESENT just so we can have a secure FUTURE? When we don't know when we'll pop off the surface of the earth?

Strange that I should entertain such questions at the cusp of my new life as a MRS too. But I guess where I am, at my vantage point, where with a sweep of my eyes I so easily behold the greatest of joys and sweetest of experiences, is also the place where there is so much to lose, and consequently so much to fear for.