Tuesday, 24 July 2018

In Praise Of Procrastination

Andrew Santella builds a good case for killing time

first published in The Star, 24 July 2018

The inclination to delay or distract oneself from an immediate task is almost primaeval. When something needs to be done, whether you're a couch potato or an overthinking perfectionist, you will find some way to put it off, even if doing so will backfire on you.

Hence, procrastination is seen as a form of delusion or self-sabotage, a barrier to progress – criminal, indefensible. Scholars and the clergy have waged war on it, casting aspersions upon procrastinators.

So much so that, as writer Andrew Santella puts it in his book, Soon, "Even committed procrastinators can be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of not doing something, which is probably why our foot-dragging is sometimes called killing time."

When the to-do list starts feeling weighty, fire up the cat videos

However, one of Santella's aims with this book is to justify procrastination, his in particular. "I hoped that if I looked through enough history and enough scholarship I would be able to find some pretext or rationale for my habitual delay."

As a pro-time-wasting treatise, this book does the job beautifully. Among other things, Santella argues that procrastinators aren't necessarily unproductive, and these diversions may even be necessary. By the end, readers will feel a bit better about slacking off. Occasionally, of course.

In his efforts to unpack and rationalise the practice of killing time and to trace its history, the author delves into the time-wasting tendencies of English naturalist Charles Darwin, Florentine polymath Leonardo da Vinci, and German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, among others – including himself. In that sense, Soon is also the story of its own genesis.

The other reason I have never made a bucket list is that it requires acknowledging my mortality and I am resolutely not in favor of acknowledging my own mortality. To complete a task is to make it disappear, and in some way, to make ourselves disappear, too. ... I want the lists to go on forever–and me, too, if possible.

Santella's narrative starts with Darwin, who put off his work on evolution and spent two decades studying barnacles before finally publishing On The Origin Of Species in 1859. Then there's Da Vinci, who dabbled in many fields but didn't see a lot of his ideas through to the end, leaving behind nuggets of ideas, some of which would become reality long after his death.

This theme recurs throughout the book; the career paths of the featured luminaries seem to have been diverted by other pursuits that, in the end, enriched their work and their lives while also making them more relatable to us mortals.

"Darwin is remembered because he was brilliant and diligent and tireless," the author states. "But it is his delay that makes him so accessible to us, so human. ... We all have our list of things we should do, things we must do. And yet we find some reason to not do them. In this way, we can claim some kinship with Darwin. We all have our barnacles."

So one empathises with Santella's struggle to complete this book, especially if one is a fellow procrastinator. "...the more enthusiastic I got about the book, the more impossible the writing became," he admits. "I'm the kind of procrastinator who puts off longest that which most urgently needs to be done."

Considering his previous gigs for GQ, Slate and The New York Times Book Review, one would think he might have learnt how to roll with it.

Writers may be the world’s most persistent procrastinators, which is strange because they work in a trade in which the deadline is supposed to be sacrosanct. ... When [Douglas Adams] died in 2001, he was twelve years past the deadline for his last book.

In his journey of (not) writing his book, detours include meeting with Prof Joe Ferrari, who he considers the "most prolific writer and researcher on procrastination"; visiting a church in New Orleans while exploring the history of St Expedite (or Expeditus); going to Pennsylvania to see Fallingwater, the house designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright; and pursuing Lichtenberg's story in Göttingen, Germany.

Those detours seem to have paid off, resulting in a brilliant, candid and quotable meditation on the dangers and delights of procrastination. The at-times meandering narrative embodies the quality being espoused but you won't feel it much. At just under 200 pages, the book is easy to finish and just right for those looking for a diversion.

One comes away convinced that, besides being a human trait we shouldn't be ashamed of, procrastination could help us to cope with today's frenetic pace and give us space to relax, reflect and maybe consider other possibilities.

"Just like the urge to travel springs from the desire to see what is beyond the bend in the road, procrastination starts with the recognition that there might be something, anything, better to do than what we're supposed to do," Santella writes.

"It is comforting to think that there might be something else to do, something better to do, even when we have no idea what it might be. Especially when we have no idea what it might be."

My time with the Great Procrastinators had taught me that the ability to think of reasons not to do what we are supposed to do is one of the greatest gifts the mind has to offer. Our evasions, our small delusions and self-deceptions, these are what give life its flavor. They are what help us feel a little less at the mercy of our obligations and the systems of control that impose them.

If only the book's message didn't intrude during inopportune moments. Instead of meeting writing deadlines, for instance, one finds comfort in chores, the post-election news cycle, or the antics of a blind dwarf cat called Potato.

Then again, why spend much of your waking hours on work? Life is meant to be enjoyed as well; who knows how much time you have left? As Buddhist monk and author Ajahn Brahm would say: "Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow, because you might die tonight."

Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.

An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me

Andrew Santella
Dey St.
197 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-285110-9

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Haunting Tale Of A Concubine And Her Child

first published in Malay Mail, 10 July 2018

Much has been said of novels about Malaya written by foreigners, not all of which are good. So I warily picked up this one and ended up finishing it in one go.

Though Australian author Carol Jones has written many books, including many children's books and several young adult novels, she tapped into stories from her Malaysian Chinese in-laws and further research for her first adult novel. The Concubine's Child follows the story of a young girl who is sold to a wealthy family as a concubine — and the child she eventually bears — across two eras: 1930s Kuala Lumpur and the 21st century.

Lim Yu Lan, the daughter of an apothecary, draws the attention of Madam Chan, the wife of tin-mining tycoon Chan Boon Siew. The older woman sees Yu Lan as the solution to her husband's lack of heirs.

Unable to bear children of her own, she essentially buys Yu Lan from her father, an inveterate gambler, and sets the hapless girl up as her husband's secondary wife and baby-making machine.

Bullied by Madam Chan and subjected to Towkay Chan's advances, Yu Lan's life in the Chan household becomes a nightmare. The reluctant concubine's only ally is the amah, Ho Jie, who befriends Yu Lan and teaches her ways to make her new life more bearable.

At first it seems as if the amah, who is not fond of her mistress, is doing it to spice up the drama between the two wives. Over time, though, she warms up to the girl.

Men brought only trouble. And if trouble was coming, better if it came bearing gold.

But before we know it we find ourselves in England in 2015, watching a couple try to fix a flat tyre in the rain. Turns out the couple are Sarah and her husband, Nick, who happens to be Yu Lan's descendant. Later, Nick announces that he's going to Kuala Lumpur for work. The news unsettles his mum, perhaps for good reason.

In Malaysia, Nick starts delving into his family's history. As his quest continues, the story of Yu Lan and her child unfolds further, bringing the two arcs — past and present — into a complete circle. And Nick won't be prepared for what he will find.

As the story progresses, what strikes me is how Chinese it feels despite the presence of elements of other cultures, regardless of the timeline — though it seems odd that the Chans would employ a Malay midwife for Yu Lan. The dialogue is peppered primarily with Cantonese, but the author also uses a smattering of local Hokkien and Mandarin.

Tiny hiccups aside, it doesn't feel as if Jones has thrown all her research plus the kitchen sink into this novel. She weaves in just enough of the culture to make it believable, conjuring images of old and present-day KL and walks us through the characters' day-to-day.

We choke on the smoke from incense in prayer halls, try to identify the herbs in an apothecary by smell, and chuckle at Nick's frustration with Petaling Jaya's GPS-defeating road network.

She smoothed her hair back from his forehead. “Sometimes, when I walk into a room, it feels like someone has just left. Except there’s no one there. It’s not a sound or a scent, just...”

Kudos as well to the writing. We jump back and forth between two periods yet don't feel jet-lagged. And it's nicely plotted, too. The prologue describes an ill, ageing woman who's about to tell her son the truth — but is she who we think she is? At least I did, but I was proven wrong. Such twists happen several times more, and eventually, I gave up trying to solve the mystery and just go with the flow.

At some point, supernatural elements creep into both arcs. Characters start conversing with people who aren't there and begin seeing ghosts, but are they real or not? Is there a curse on Towkay Chan's household and bloodline? Is Nick's growing obsession with his ancestry being fed by more than the need to find himself? The reader is left guessing right until the end.

Overall, Yu Lan's is not a sunny story. One is reminded of the black-and-white Cantonese dramas of yore, complete with shrewish first wives, their "salty wet" husbands, and the endless tears and wails of "woe is me." Concubine-taking isn't common or as acceptable these days, but it seems as if little has changed for women over the decades — something made more disheartening in the #MeToo era.

Despite their flaws, we are reminded of and urged to acknowledge the humanity of the characters — particularly the Chans, Ho Jie and Yu Lan, even if we disagree with some of their beliefs and motives.

Some of them eventually redeem themselves (somewhat) — Madam Chan especially, who was cajoling and cursing whoever she was worshipping at an altar when she is first introduced — but only a few linger on long after the book closes.

...she didn’t want to endure. What joy was there in a life that must be endured? She once had a dream ... That dream had fooled her into thinking that if she worked hard she could make a life of her own choosing. But she had been wrong.

All this, plus the girl's plight and hints of the unearthly combine to engulf one in a pale sepulchral nimbus, like that which shrouds supposedly haunted houses (and gloomy novels), bringing down temperatures and chilling spines.

I regretted reading this at night with the air conditioning on. Even so, I pressed on — like Nick — compelled to find out what became of Yu Lan, her child, and the household that became their prison.

In the end, it was all worthwhile. I feel Jones has done a good job with this novel; her in-laws would be proud. Though the modern arc feels mundane when compared with the Malaya one, probably because of one's familiarity with the former, the way the two are entwined and resolved are satisfying and worth the risk of a sleepless night haunted by long-haired, white-robed apparitions.


Carol Jones held a meet-and-greet session on 16 June 2018 at Lit Books, Tropicana Avenue, highlights of which can be found here. She was also interviewed on Malaysian business radio station BFM89.9.

The Concubine’s Child
Carol Jones
Head of Zeus
373 pages
ISBN: 9781786699824