Sunday, September 25, 2011

Keeping Your Willpower Level High

The recent Canadian Business has an article about willpower, a review on a new book called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Happily, this book review is loaded with takeaways, so I want to share them here, adding some thoughts of mine.

1. Making commitment

Perhaps the most heard-of recommendation: you make a commitment about what you want to achieve, so that you lose face big time if you don’t do it. (And that in front of a person important to you.) Quote from the book runs like this: “Our willpower is rooted in our desire to avoid public disgrace rather than by any zeal to achieve human perfection.”

This is critical, I believe, in achieving what you really want to achieve. The caveat is, often we are afraid of talking about what we want to achieve, even to our loved ones, because we are afraid of losing face already. It’s a chicken and egg situation even before we embark on the journey: you are afraid of failing a task that you didn’t even start. Think twice: if you are afraid of the possible failure in the future, you cannot commit yourself to anything. So, make a commitment, and begin doing it right now.

2. Sugar for your brain, esp. the importance of breakfast

This one is subtle. The authors say that willpower is draining energy like anything else you do with your brain or brawn. In this regard, you are most energetic and most productive in the morning, because your gauge is high due to last night’s sound sleep. The same goes for the breakfast. Without it, your energy level would be one notch lower.

I’ve been thinking about this, to some extent, all my life. Morning rush is always a big pain. If you had that 20 minute for breakfast, you would have taken more sleep. :) And then, they say human species have been eating breakfast all the historic and prehistoric time except a few recent decades. Then again, the nature of job most of us do, is different from the ones in the those times yonder: Our ancestors plowed through the earth, from the sunrise!

I have hit upon my personal conclusion about this dilemma a few years ago. A Japanese author whose name I do not remember said that morning is more related with “pushing out” instead of “taking in,” by the Order of Nature. This means morning is more for the bowel movement than stuffing our body with even more food. Not breaking the “fast,” (i.e. by not having breakfast), we can effectively fast for long time everyday, from the dinnertime last night till today’s lunch. Since I do not feel like “going out for food” until about 10AM or so, I am just following his advice and do not eat breakfast. (At 10, when it’s feasible, of course I eat a portion equivalent to everybody else’s breakfast. If not, some coffee and a bun.)

3. Depletion of willpower

This point is great. We all know that, but never heard of this assertion in words. Like anything else, willpower is depleted by use and natural drain. So, you must have the courage to acknowledge that your willpower level is low, when it is low.

Also from this hypithesis, you get other conclusions such as 1) focus on one thing rather than many, 2) do important things in the morning, and 3) use break and nibbles to replenish your willpower.

4. One thing at a time

Natural advice from point 3. Focus on just one thing at a time. Do not make your mind to quit smoking and to go on a diet at the same time. You drain your willpower twice as fast and will give in to your instinct.

5. Get busy

This one’s also great. Keep yourself busy, and you don’t have the time to succumb to petty desires like going choco-holic. The caveat here is, getting busy by yourself is really difficult and drains a lot of willpower, I believe. The flip side is, naturally, if someone gets you busy, you thank for her/him.

6. The real reward is the achievement itself, not some cookie treat

The ending-credit remark in the review, also sounds like music. There are a whole lot of suggestions about so-called gamification. Making a game out of what you must do is great, but always there is the danger of putting the cart in front of the horse. Means and ends must be kept separate: you are not making the wonderful endeavor of yours for the cookie jar.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" by Murakami Haruki

On The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami Haruki

1. About the title

The title is good enough to catch readers’ eyes. But it is about all that is good about it. The title is so irrelevant that it is not even well connected to the contents of the book. At the beginning, the wind-up bird is introduced, and perhaps this part is the only place where the wind-up bird actually means something. May Kasahara calls the protagonist “Mr. Wind-Up Bird,” Cinnamon’s document shares its title with the novel itself, and indeed there was another wind-up bird in Manchuria when Nutmeg was there, but these three “connectors” are neither persuasive nor effective in delivering the writer’s message, if there’s any.

At first, the introduction of the wind-up bird was quite fresh. Okada is staying home without a job: he does routine house chores, in an orderly fashion, about the same pattern everyday, and another day passes by. The wind-up bird is doing the same thing. Perhaps its chore is of a much greater importance, but what it does is a routine task, exactly the same as Okada’s daily routine. And the plot develops building up curiosity and suspense, much like as other novels of Murakami. However, this novel fails miserably in accomplishing anything: it does not build up enough momentum, nor does it bring everything down to some very tangible conclusion, as Murakami did in such novels as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, or Kafka on the Shore.

I am not saying that I do not get the “intentional mysticism” planted in other novels of Murakami. Kafka on the Shore is, I would argue, perhaps the best of Murakami’s novels in its skillful use of intentional mysticism. Even Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a novel that clarifies everything under a much brighter light than other works, has much of the mysticism. However, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle miserably fails at achieving this fine balance between subtle mysteriousness and “irresponsible design failure”. In writing this novel, Murakami might have succeeded in gathering pieces of stories and metaphors, but failed miserably in arranging them in a harmonious whole, unlike in his other novels I mentioned above.

The well could have been the centerpiece of all the stories, if Murakami could afford just a little more diligence and shed some snobbism. Noboru Wataya could also be the centerpiece of the novel if Murakami could afford more affection for this yucky creation of  his own. But he did, or could, not do that. And The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle became a book that I wanted to throw away in the middle of reading, when I had already read more than half of it.

2. Problem of the Centerpiece

The jury is still out, but tentatively I can say Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the one I like best among Murakami’s novels. The most important reason is the existence of the centerpiece that unveils all the hidden connections in the black box and brings all those seemingly chaotic puzzle pieces together into a wholeness. In this sense, Murakami reads much like a detective novel, especially when he runs a dual plot as he did in novels such as Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The centerpiece in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is, the unicorn. Put in a more down-to-reality hard-boiled fact-based scientific fashion, the centerpiece is the circuit connector to the 3rd world that the professor planted in the protagonist’s brain. This is revealed at about the 80% progress point of the novel. The “cha-ching” of this revelation causes an automatical “ah-ha” from the readers, and practically saves the day, sort of delivering a long-waited reward to the readers. What I like even more about the cha-ching of this novel is that, with the magical unlocking of the secret by the centerpiece, the focus of the novel is taken from the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” to the “End of the World.” Up to that point, the focus is more on what is happening. Then, after the revelation, the focus is more on the meaning of what happens.

Back to The WInd-Up Bird Chronicle, sadly, there is no centerpiece that can be said to bring such joy. The most close proxy of a centerpiece is the well, apparently. However, the connection between the well in Mongol and the well in the vacant house is so weak that they do not share anything important at all. The well for Lieutenant Mamiya is primarily metaphorical in that it signifies the deepest pit his life will ever touch in the overt part of his life. (At the same time, it signifies perhaps the brightest glory in his life in the covert part of his life, i.e. his inner life, because the few seconds of sunlight full in the well was the manifestation of his life force, what he was most after when he was there, which he achieve after all.)

By contrast, the well for Okada is a container of a metaphor, rather than the metaphor itself. To borrow expressions from Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Lieutenant Mamiya’s well is the unicorns, while Okada’s well is the circuit in the brain of the protagonist. In other words, one is the word itself, a combination of alphabets, while the other is the meaning of the word. To put them side by side is only confusing at the best.

In conclusion, Lieutenant Miyama’s well is more like a dream, a metaphor, or a vision, while Okada’s well is a place where he goes when he wants to think.

3. Other Pieces of the Puzzle

I am now extending the reach of my patience to think most favorably of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This means I will think of the novel as still a valid puzzle. Even though I suspect the probability of their being matched well enough to make the whole, indeed there are many pieces: Noboru Wataya, the Kano sisters (Creta being more important), the singer, the blue mark, the cat, the duck people... Actually, simply enumerating them gives me a confirmation that Murakami was not thinking seriously about what he was writing.

To start with the Kanos, they suddenly disappear from the stage at the latter part of the story. Kumiko was introduced to Malta Kano by Noboru Wataya, whom she hates so much from the depth of her existence. Creta Kano seems to replace Kumiko as the plot develops, then she suddenly disappears. Take out the connection with Noboru Wataya, Creta suddenly becomes a tiny fraction of a meaningless sub-plot.

The singer shares the trait of being mysterious with the successful characters of Murakami’s, but, to be frank, totally vague. Perhaps, he is one of the prototypes of Nakata in Kafka on the Shore, everyone’s fondly favorite character from the Murakami world. Yet, the singer is far from a marketable product.

Another thing that I really want to point out is the renaming of the cat. When Okada first meets May, he says the cat’s name is Noboru Wataya, a very peculiar name for a cat, and succeeds in easing the girl’s natural defense stance against a stranger. Later, however, when the cat comes into a real existence in the novel, by returning home at last, Okada (Murakami) suddenly does not want to associate the cat with the public enemy of the novel, and renames him for no apparent reason. Even worse, Murakami suddenly feels that he does no more want to use the cat in any serious manner in the latter part of the novel and practically throws him away from the boundary of the plot. In the end, the cat is totally meaningless except that he was once called Noboru Wataya. As a serious writer, Murakami should have re-written the novel without the cat, or at least should have not called the cat with the name in the first place. (This could have been difficult for the writer, in part because the novel was originally published in three parts, and mostly because his novel sells well anyway.)

Then I must think hard about Noboru Wataya, finally. Except Lieutenant Mamiya, almost all minor characters in the novel are worthless except their relation with Noboru Wataya. He is the killer of Kumiko’s elder sister. He is the one who almost killed Creta Kano. His name was once the name of the cat.

In the simplest thinking, he is the king of all evil in this novel. Then again, we must ask: do we really need a villain in this novel? Actually, Noboru Wataya is much stronger than other evil characters found in novels. He can ruin (to the verge of killing) other people’s soul. At the same time, he is such a charismatic political figure, whom people support blindly. Extending this thought can lead to the conclusion that he could have ruined souls of millions if he had gone on playing politics and found some way to do the defiling in a massive way. (This reminds me of Riddler’s super TV device.)

But, let’s stop there and think of this character in a rational manner. His unique skill, so to say, psychic corruption, is hard to believe to exist. (Yes, it could be another fantasy device of Murakami’s. But, it serves no purpose at all, unlike other valid fantasy devices such as Nakata’s supernatural skills.) He might have done something vile to Kumiko’s sister, to Creta Kano, and then to Kumiko. But he did nothing but some bad-mouthing with regard to Okada. Is that a reason enough to wish a death upon a person? It was not just an evil wish, but Okada actually dreamt of killing him. If Noboru Wataya should have some symbolic connotation, what is it? To be frank, reading the novel for two weeks did not give me any clear impression of this very important persona. He looks like a commonplace asshole, nothing more.

The only thing I can mention in a favorable mood is the duck people. This overlaps with Lieutenant Mamiya’s life itself. But, for one thing, they are out too late in the novel, thus do not make too much noise, and secondly, this book is not The Skin of Our Teeth. If Murakami wanted to write some life force epic, he should have known that Thornton Wilder, again a writer very long time before him, did that in a much more stellar fashion. In addition, he’s wasting too much of his own resources as well as of readers’ time doing small things here and there that are not worth the effort, considering the overall effect, if The Skin of Our Teeth was what he aimed at.

If Murakami simply wanted to be funny, well, at least I was not entertained.