Habit #1: daily summary of famous literature

Like most people on the Internet, I’m looking for better habits. The Scroll of Facebook and Twitter with its plethora of information and disinformation is an assault on the mind and eats up our time. Binging Netflix can be fun and is really effective to take your mind off of something, but it also messes up your daily rhythm. Watching random YouTube talking heads engaging in a heated debate can be informative and pleasurable (if said talking heads are gifted with rhetorical talent) but it isn’t really constructive.

So whenever I come across something and think “that’s a cool habit” I’ll jot down a quick note here. Because I’m against the culture of commercialism, I will not create a list of “23 habits you should learn now” or “75 habits that will earn you money” or “she tried these 7 habits and you will never guess what happened next…”

I hate that. I hate that so much that I refuse to use it as an instrument on my way to world fame. Here is the little habit that I like today.

It’s a clear and simple ten minute narration of a work of literature. Our Tube is full of them. I listen to it during my first coffee break of the day. It’s relaxing, solidifies my knowledge about these books (so I can refer to them or quote from them in my articles), and it inspires my own writing.

Habit #1: daily summary of famous literature was originally published on Meandering home

Bilingual child’s creative translation

Today, like most days, my four years old daughter Miru sang a song in kindergarten. When I asked her to sing it to me after I picked her up and she was enjoying an ice slushy that colored her tongue orange, she rendered a perfect translation in Dutch.

Good, the song consisted of three distinct words (‘Car, car, car. Let’s go’ in Korean) but her translation took me by surprise because it was creative: ‘Auto, auto, auto. Even weg’.

This comes so naturally to her that I begin to understand how multilingual children are hard-wired differently from the rest of us. According to a Russian-Italian I once asked about it, they think ‘in images and concepts’ rather than in words. The above translation would be a perfect example of it. Miru had sung the song in Korean, but probably remembered Dutch TV animations about cars that she had watched at home. The idiom “even weg” might have come from an animation or TV show she is watching, or she might have heard the expression while visiting her paternal grandfather in the Low Countries. Either way, instead of looking up the term for ‘let’s go’ in some sort of internal dictionary, her mind had browsed all ‘car’ situations and concepts and selected one labeled ‘Dutch’. And that concept happened to be accompanied with the phrase ‘even weg’.

Bilingual child’s creative translation was originally published on Meandering home

On people who live on in our dreams

I dreamt that the late British American public intellectual Christopher Hitchens was walking next to me. He was bald, like in the last months of his life when he underwent chemotherapy, but appeared in excellent health and was obviously not aware of his impending death. The image was so vivid that I could see the pores of the man’s skin and the gentle swaying of his untrimmed nasal fur. In my dream, I had recreated him in my image, that is my interpretation of the fragments I have read and listened to. But there he was, as real as any other human primate, as sharp and witty as ever, bounded only by the limitations of my own brain, that staged this exclusive (I am not saying solipsist) show. It was awe-inspiring.

“You know dear Christopher”, I told him. “When I speak in English there is some compelling force within me that makes me mimic your rhythm, your accent and your choice of words.”
“That’s the power of rhetoric” he smiled. “It is in the ardor – I should not say fanatiticism – with which we rationally defend our innermost ethical convictions that we are at our best – that we are most alive. And I think we wouldn’t be too far off when I say that where we feel most alive, we leave the most lasting impression on our fellow man.”
“You are spot-on” I replied. At that point I felt deep empathy for my imaginary friend, being painfully aware that his quest, his life’s work had been about freeing humanity from the the shackles that had hold it back for so long, namely religion, yet here he stood next to me, arguably the greatest master of eloquence of our time, and I was his puppet master. Full disclosure was out of the question, because it could have hurt him too much. I was overcome by a numbing feeling of embarrassment and so we continued walking in silence, me thinking how I would brag about our brief exchange of words to all of my friends and some of my enemies.

We were crossing a street. I remembered that what brought me into the reality of this dream had been several hours of televised debate in which Christopher demonstrated his brilliancy in polite yet devastating rebuttals. I wondered, walking there, in that very moment, next to the man who ironically had become a demigod to many, what would his reaction be when I would break the news that I made his acquaintance vicariously, through his written words and the video recordings of his addresses and debates – that I read after he died?

Perhaps he would not feel offended but look curiously at the man from the future, and muster his verbal strength to tell me that Cassandra should never have access to a time travel machine. I would nod, hoping he wouldn’t notice the tears flowing down my cheek. I decide there and then that I will not tell Christopher about cancer of the esophagus, the horrible death sentence that will kill him in December 2011. I will not tell him about the brilliant final tribute to life and language entitled ‘Mortality’ that he would write ‘from the country of the ill’. Silently we continued walking; he was going back to his hotel to prepare for yet another round of defense of humanism, freedom and rationality against the dangers of dogmatism. Soon, his contours were swallowed by the thick shadows cast by the tall buildings.

I woke up bathing in sweat and intrigued by what my brain had just done. The Seneca of our century had been so alive, so present. Living on in other people’s minds, my friends, is more than a commonplace consolation in the face of the horror that is death. It is a very real thing if you will accept the idea that these arguments, these endlessly expressive phrases are not a bulwark protecting an innermost ‘you’ against infidel invaders, but constitutes itself your innermost being. To these specific – not to all – intents and purposes, Christopher is alive and will remain so for years to come.

On people who live on in our dreams was originally published on Meandering home


In foreign places I become a mere observer of life, a smile suspended in between the heavens of my imagination and the flat earth of the toiling people. I look out of the window, squint my dry eyes and gaze in the wild distance. The people on the marketplace this morning, I was not part of their story, yet my story revolves around them.

When I travel, I belong to this world. She becomes almost an extension of my senses. Yet, I don’t belong to any particular place. I am aloof, watching the world go by. A fragile coral of happiness gently sways under the tide of my experience – if you want total kitsch.

Trips abroad, to places of unusual climes where I don’t speak the language, never fail to inspire me. I have a bucket list full of promising and safe destinations, places like Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Tazjikistan, Kyrgystan, Kazachstan, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Iran, Oman, Madagascar, Namibia, Mauritius, Maldives, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Tunesia, Algeria, Malawi, Zambia, Swasiland, Ghana, Togo, Guinee, Cameroon, Canada, Iceland, Venezuela, Surinam, Belize, Haïti, Jamaica.

Of course, it is common wisdom that international travel is just escapism, doesn’t provide sustainable happiness, always generates more lack and aching desire than it can fulfill, destroys the environment, dodges responsibility, and turns us into capricious wimps.

Still, airlift me into strange territories and I’ll have forgotten such wisdom in a heartbeat.

Traveler was originally published on Meandering home