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Reflection – Suy người ngẫm ta

Let us begin with the understatement that I am a romantic.

I have this borderline obsession with ideals–anything short of unique I declare as banal, and everything not forever lasting I consider pointless. I used to spend most of my hours daydreaming about true love, and the rest sneering at oh-so-lame couples that fail at that ideal. In that perfect world, a date would start not with calculated flirtation but random rendezvous at a river bank. It would sweeten not in a noisy night club but over a glass of wine amidst Chopin and candles. And its climax would mean not (heaven forbids) an orgasm, but parting lips and lingering eyes at the doorsteps underneath overflowing street light.

I like things as they are in (old) movies, so to speak. Hand-crafted presents, romantic scenery, public stunts–I relish them all.

So perhaps I am qualified to explain why romanticism is a mistake. A very grave one, indeed, but not in the way pragmatists often half pity, half ridicule us. Yes, like they say, life is just not rosy. But idealists know perfectly well how life is–we just do not let such pettiness weighs down how life should be. Yes, our idolization of ballades and roses is constructed. And perhaps gallantry or platonic love is not “real” in the biological and physical sense like sexual urge or self-interested instinct. But doesn’t that mean we need such illusions even more to cover our own shivering nakedness?

Indeed, if all love and life can ever be is like that–low, bare, and instinctual–then thank you, I would like to pass. After all, thà chết đói chứ không ăn mì gói is as much my bachelor’s credence as it is my gastronomical motto. There is no need to warn us that life would fail our high taste, for we know that already, and we are not scared.

And yet it is fair to say that we romantics tend to be unhappy. It is not so much because we fear the realist questioning, but because we are afraid of our own inconsistency. We reject their worldview so publicly, only to still find ourselves languishing  in a sort of private anxiety. Is it possible–apprehensively, we ask–that in a relentless pursuit of the true love ideal, of selflessness and sacrifice, of the forever and the unique, is it possible, um, that we end up being the most selfish and the least loving?

Sadly, yes, for there is the risk that we would fall in love with our own romantic ideals and not with our own beloved. We think so much about how our lovers should have been that we underappreciate how they are. We plan so much for how things could have been that we get upset often. In the name of true love we unlove our spouses for falling short of that ideal–we cannot forgive them for being unforgiving–we criticize them for being critical–and, at the slightest doubt that this thing may not last forever, we want to immediately abandon it.

This plague of romanticism inflicts variously, and I make it seem so grave only because I have been to the extreme of it. In real life, it is more subtle but no less common. Think about the last time you get upset with your girlfriend, the last time you are disappointed with your relationship, the last time you feel this isn’t worth it–aren’t they all because you held your conception of true love more dearly than love itself?

May I propose then, that we should fantasize a little less? Perhaps we should close that novel, switch off that drama, and turn to the ones we care to ask how their day was, even if they are most likely to wearily answer “nothing much,” even if they are most likely to look tired and annoyed, even if the relationship is most likely staying its mundane course and not taking a romantic turn.

Even if all of that can seem, um, so un-movie-like.

If men are allowed to admit their fear, then there are three things in movies that I most dread: blood, horror, and kisses. I have long ago abandoned the pretense of manly indifference to the first two– it’s just not worth the hovering eeriness that haunts the late night trip to the fridge downstairs. Who knows what is behind that unlit corner? What if it leap onto me– alas, what if I could not reach the light switch in time?

So I simply decided, or rather, pretended, that there is no shame about joining the kids and the chicks in their melodrama of covered face and muffled scream (a unsolicited sideshow for the fellow movie goers, indeed). But at least they often got someone to hold on to. The girl, especially, has at her disposal a battalion of eager shoulders and arms, her choice of which would send to many minds a message much more haunting than even the horror onscreen. But I– I got nothing, for my genuine need to clutch and hold would look scheming to the girls, and, well, creepy to the dudes. So I am left to fend for myself, to curl up, to bit my knuckles, and to defend against my own imagination too vivid. And against the memory of fainting from excessive blood loss, too.

But isn’t it weird– that last fear? For years I thought it was just the childish fear of the unknown, of the things that parents cryptically refuse to discuss. But it persisted until the point I could no longer explain as such. Until this day, the soon-to-be 20-year-old I still dread the moment when the camera glides into slow motion, when the music suddenly holds its breath– and when the actors stop mid-sentence and exchange that unmistakable look. “Nooooo, oh god, please,” I plead. But the rest of 20-year-olds would disagree, and the actors proceed while I casually divert my eye, lest anyone catch it and see through the guilt and embarrassment.

How can one not get embarrassed, I wonder, while watching an act so private? It is the gateway for two souls to enter their secret chamber– where they (the souls, not the persons) get naked and marry their nakedness, where the rest of the world is uninvited and undone. How can we be so shamelessly nosy? Watching kisses is like peeping through the key holes of that private world. And how can we be so shamelessly public? Kissing in front of probing eyes is like leaving open the door of that sacred room.

I may even have more tolerance towards sex in the open air. I don’t mean to belittle sex (too much), for it has its own urges and fantasies and, some would passionately claim, beauty. Hell, I crave sex myself. But it is not a craving that is much different from or more precious than the cravings I got at midnights when Duy and Tuan Ngoc, cruel bastards as they are, devour wet, voluptuous noodles right under my nose. (Seriously, that unhealthy, fat-loaded, and carb-filled thing Duy buys smells soooo ridiculously good, it’s bad.) Like food, or alcohol, or fun, sex is pleasurable– but that’s already the highest compliment I can afford. It is not about being emotional or spiritual; not always, at least.

But how can you ever kiss without emotions?

And that explains the puzzle: a grown boy that cringes at kisses yet snickers at sex scenes. In fact, if we ever watch such a scene together, and if (this is important) there is not a girl within the audible distance, you would get to see me cracking dirty jokes and faking orgasmic moans. (Yes, you read it right– I am that immature.)

But when the kissing comes, I would yet again casually ask for the popcorn, memorize my seat number, or bend down to untie and retie my tied shoelaces. So long as the rising chill and swollen sensation go by unnoticed. I wonder why I have not stopped pretending like I did with the two other fears.

A few years ago I gladly found someone who shared my thoughts– a prostitute, whose daily life was narrated in one among many forgettable and forgotten magazine articles I read online while procrastinating. Never, ever does she allow her customers to kiss her, even though they would invariably demand so, in search of, as they sickly call, “the girlfriend experience.” No evidence, no argument struck me as forcefully as that. This woman is already resigned to offer her body for service (as we all do in offices)– yet she does not abandon her last remnant of privacy, does not put up for sale the key to her soul.

Because she knows, that if it is lost, then all else, little that she has left, would be forever gone.

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If you are in the mood of procrastinating, here is the article that rekindles my simmering desire to write about this. “A Kiss is Still a Kiss,” by Edwin Dobb, Harper’s Magazine, Feb. 1996. A recent addition to my compilation of good reads, it is elegant in style, and personal in message. It talks about the mortality of love and life, too– and I dare you to lie that you don’t care about that.

Procrastinating still? Well, glad to have you with me. After limiting my youtube and teamliquid surfing to 45 minutes a day, I have to find something else, anything that is as far from school as possible. And here it is, “The Best Magazine Articles Ever.” What a gem. (Hint: Some require subscription to access. Fear not– use your school’s library online journal search. Yay universities!)

And bonus: How writing is like kissing, in “The Essay,” by Craig Soffer, my hilarious former teacher in Oxford UK. A man whom I would not regret growing up and becoming alike– all his poetic miseries included.

Ever since leaving the dark cinema room, my mind has been uncannily spinning like the proverbial top. Below are thoughts that are screaming, pounding on the door to be let out – and they are too unstable for me to will otherwise, lest my sense of reality keep wobbling. Anxiously wobbling. Deliriously wobbling. And wobbling some more with no end in sight.

**You need to watch the movie before reading this**

So here come the big questions:

Did the top keep spinning in the end?

Did Cobb end up in reality or in limbo?

My answer is: It doesn’t matter. Remember the river bank scene, when most of the team got the Kick and make it to the shore? Why does Ariadne say that “He [Cobb] will be alright”? Why does she think so? Is it simply just another faith-in-your-teammate line in action movies?

As we’ve all known by now that Inception isn’t just another action movie – the answer is No. She is so damned certain, because she knows that Cobb has finally shed all of his subconscious guilt (incarnated by Mal) and has come to be content with the state he is living within. Once that is done, whether the state is reality, dream, or limbo just doesn’t matter. Think about it – as long as you are happy, would you really care what state you are in? Would you take the leap of faith right now if I somehow convince you that this isn’t reality?

No you would not, and neither would I, because what we really seek is not reality, but happiness. (Who isn’t annoyed when waken up from a sweet dream?)

If you don’t agree with the statement above, please note that I have Mal on my side of argument (a pretty formidable ally to have, eh?) The limbo she built with Cobb for decades seems so comfortably real because it makes her so happy, while reality seems so disgustingly phony because it turns her distressed. The only option then left for her is to escape this world – “you knows where you want to go”, to a better place, “but you can’t be certain where the train will take you.”

And how do we know that Cobb finally achieves his bliss in the end? Remember how in the beginning he spun the top with one hand, holding the gun in the other?

Cobb would blow off his head as soon as he realized the top kept spinning - how paranoid and guilty he was about dreaming.

But in the end he doesn’t care anymore. He rushes to his kids without waiting for the top to topple. Because whether this is real doesn’t matter. Because, dare I say it again, we seek happiness, not reality.

So I think people should really stop saying “Get Real!” and start saying “Get Happy!” or “Get guilt-free!”

Because, you know, the reality is not necessarily a premium in and of itself. Just as the limbo is only scary if you are “filled with regrets, waiting to die alone.”

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Do you know that French song used to wake them up? Coincidentally (not), it is “Non, je ne regrette rien” – “No, I regret nothing” by Edith Pilaf. You don’t wake up to reality. You wake up to the guilt-free here and now.

(And that’s some good old Zen for your breakfast.)

Non, rien de rien – No, nothing
Non, je ne regrette rien – No, I regret nothing
Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait – Not the good they’ve done onto me
Ni le mal, tout ça m’est bien égal – Neither the bad, all are just the same to me
Non, rien de rien – No, nothing
Non, je ne regrette rien – No, I regret nothing
C’est payé, balayé, oublié – It’s paid, swept away, forgotten
Je me fous du passé – I don’t care about the past

Avec mes souvenirs, j’ai allumé le feu – With my memories, I lit up the fire
Mes chagrins, mes plaisirs, je n’ai plus besoin d’eux – My chagrin, my pleasures, I don’t need them anymore
Balayées les amours, avec leurs trémolos – Swept away the loves, with their trembling
Balayées pour toujours, je repars à zéro – Swept away for everyday, I start at zero

Non, rien de rien – No, nothing
Non, je ne regrette rien – No, I regret nothing
Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait – Not the good they’ve done onto me
Ni le mal, tout ça m’est bien égal – Neither the bad, all are just the same to me
Non, rien de rien – No, nothing
Non, je ne regrette rien – No, I regret nothing
Car ma vie car mes joies – Because my life and my joy
Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi – Today, everything begins with you

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Note how I said “My answer is…” and not “The answer is…”? For this whole discussion, and this whole world for that matter, functions like a dream – we share the same structure, yet we fill it differently with our different subconscious. This is the answer in my world – hence, my answer. How about yours?

“I grew up breathing the love of my mom, a love so tacit and sobering that to me, it was almost completely transparent. She never ran after and begged me not to touch the knife like others; she let me play with it, let me cut myself, and let the penetrating pain attest to her earnest warning. She never immediately responded to my shouting her name when I was lost in the mall; she let the rising fear (that quickly overflowed the eyes) teach me that I should have stayed beside her like she said. My mom – she let things happen.

Thus every time I felt like being on the childish verge of rushing to her arms, the ground would crack open a valley of doubt between us.  Only later could I decipher the muffled and bewildered voice gripping my heart back then – “Why, mom? Why?” – so I screamed, voicelessly, as if all the sound would fall right through the separating chasm.”

Now I know why – or so the rest of this essay used to go. This whole thing was meant to be an application essay, to be the freak show in which you distort your feelings, put a clown mask on your experiences, and pull out of the magic hat a self you don’t even know. All for the sake of being liked. My role in the freak show this time is that of a son, who, after all the years, realizes that the tough love is to allow him the freedom to make mistakes, that it prepares him for the unloving world, that he loves his mom so much – and a bunch of other bland, half-assed, popular philosophy of life.

No, I did not need to realize anything to always love my mom (and always not do so adequately.) Love that needs reason is a love conditional, hence a love that is destined to perish under certain circumstances. From the grossly, bluntly material reasons (like my parents are rich or my girlfriend pretty), to the more subtly spiritual ones (he understands me, she makes me smile), they are reasons after all, those that tempt you to abandon your current eternal love for someone else that either give you more cash or light up more smiles. I, honestly, cannot see the difference.

I can almost see your eyebrows frown and hear your voice protest: “No – what a gross comparison – a person that gives me money and one that makes me happy? The latter so much rarer, so much more precious – how dare you?” Yes, yes, the latter is so much rarer; yet that only guards you against the probability, not the possibility, of finding a love truer than your true love. (Your stomach should squash now.)

Some told me that is okay for them. That they can be happy with someone for the present all the while acknowledging that he or she may be gone any instant. Go grab a friend, then, people – why bother talking about love.

Because the love that cannot die is the love that does not need a reason to live. The love that cannot be overturned is a love built on uniqueness and exclusivity – for you can always be richer, prettier, more understanding, more tactful, more sophisticated, more of anything – but how can anything be more unique and exclusive? Just as I love my mom for she is my mom, and not because she has taught me more or less than other parents to their child. Those calculated feelings are strictly for essays.

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This entry was conceived when I realized that this blog has never been too personal – most of it would fall more comfortably under the social critic category, unlike my former blog, as my longtime readers would notice.  In fact, “realize” is a wrong word,  for I have been staying detached with full awareness and absolute deliberation.

The reason why this blog does not get personal, you ask? – Well, it’s too personal to disclose.

Being an introvert in American colleges is so tough, it’s like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.

What a hyperbole. Besides the faint hope of snatching your attention (something so deficit while internet browsing), the assertion has only a few micrograms of truth.

Let me now then tell you how things really are.

1. Is it tough to be a college introvert? It is, to a widely varying extent. The truth is that people are not going to recoil from you for not being a people person. But the damage is done indirectly, and perhaps unconsciously – no one declares the inferiority of introversion, of being a little too contemplative or reticent, but everyone extols the supremacy of extroversion, of being talkative and sociable. The reverberation hurts.

So the mainstream and you sing in dissonance. Yet this is not just another you-against-the-norm epic, because neither side truly understands what it is fighting for. The norm, whose anthropomorphic incarnation is your extrovert friends, is not fighting to make you annoyed or exhausted, but only to drag you out and have some fun. And you, being fed the unquestioned desirability of a social life, are confused over why you are fighting to be alone. You wonder whether that is okay. You question your sanity and your probability of success in life.

If you happen to live in the worst of all worlds, you will risk being shoved, by all that puzzlement, into a depression that used to be only imaginary in the mind of your solicitous friends in the first place.

But mark this: what is hurting you is not your friends, definitely not your self – but the puzzlement, the puzzlement that feasts on uncertainty and self-doubt. Hence, to be introvert and be content in college, you need not fight the world nor change yourself, but only put that puzzlement on a strict diet of self-understanding, and of full confidence in your way of life.

And I am here, with hope no more than to either kindle, reignite, or further inflame that confidence.

2. Would I miss out on things if I were not social? Yes, you would – the extroverts say – you would miss all the new people, all the parties, and all the chatting and screaming and drinking. All the socializing, in a word.

But I have no more to respond than this: if you know that you don’t want those things in the first place, wouldn’t they be not counted as missed?

Furthermore, don’t the people that spend away their lives in parties that are excessive of noise and deficit in depth realize that they are missing out on things too? Like a moment of quiet contemplation, a Friday night of being alone with the piano, or an hour of exhilarating good read? Oh, excuse me, I forgot – how can people that do not think realize all that. Good for them. They clearly have picked a lifestyle that suit them best.

3. But wouldn’t I be disadvantaged in “essential” to-dos, like job search? Yeah, you would be – and the introvert admit too. Networking seems like an indispensable part of finding a job, and of climbing the corporate ladder. Talent is absolutely valued – the only problem is that people in the business world all seem to have a life too busy and an attention span too short to notice a covered gem.

To this dilemma I have no satisfactory answer myself (I am a college junior, aren’t I?) My temporary solution is to get as many Ph.D as I can. Here people judge you not on the volubility of your talk, but on the content of your talk.

So yes, consider a Ph.D, will you? Because, honestly, why change yourself when you can change the world.

4. What fun I can have in college? A ton.

4.1. Learn to play an instrument: As I once said somewhere in this blog, music is a perfect complement to the futility of verbal communication. It expresses emotions that words can’t, and requires a level of sensitivity and sensibility that talking never quite dreams of. One thing that keeps amaze me is how the rests need to be played as carefully as the notes do – and right there we have an introvert motto.

If you already knew an instrument, preferably a string one, I would recommend joining the college orchestra

4.2. Go to a concert: Even if we aren’t in an orchestra, we can always experience that musical delight vicariously, can’t we?

4.3. Go to the gym: That sounds really counter-intuitive, for if I observe correctly, we introverts are not known for our athletic potency. One reason might be that we tend to look down on those activities as degradingly physical. So I thought, until I was dragged to the gym (by an extrovert, for the sake of irony) myself. It turns out to be very mentally demanding. It is just like this: if you visualize your lifting that weight, you will – and vice versa.

Furthermore, keeping yourself in good shape is like beating them outgoing extroverts at their own games. Oh man, what a great motivation.

4.4. Join a sport team: I am more ambivalent about other sports. Even though the in-game communication is by no means superficial, being in a team necessarily involves other social duties, like team dinners that drag out for hours. I have not been in a sport team since my high school senior year, so I will not try to establish an authority here.

4.5. Learn to cook: An activity that combines enjoyment and practical use, a process that involves so many variables (think ingredients, spices, condiments, slicing, boiling, frying, sauté-ing, time, heat, decorations) that the potentials are endless. An art so underrated as a means of getting by.

4.6. Read a non-academic book: Probably all of us have already done this – so I won’t jeopardize my introvert status by ranting trivialities. One thing to note though, in college you are bound to have a lot of reading already. So try something light and fun perhaps, by which I mean Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, or Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality.

Or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight will do.

4.7. Have a weekend movie night: An obvious choice indeed.

4.8. Start a blog: aha! Mystery solved for those who wonder how this blog came into being. And I do hope that this blog, with both its content and spirit, is already the loudest (figuratively, of course) proponent of why blogging is a natural option for those who love to mull over ideas and feelings.

The Internet, after all, is a perfect medium for us. Think about it: in no where else, can we have absolute control over the pace and the content of the other side’s talk, right?