Monday, November 10, 2014

Diary of an Insomniac

Last night, I slept at 11:30 pm. This is unusual for a night owl like me. My typical bedtime is 2 am, at the earliest. But I was tired from not sleeping the night before. And from a weekend of drinking. And from my general terrible sleep schedule last week. So yea, I went to sleep at 11:30 pm.

I woke up in the middle of the night. After resisting checking the time for a good while and trying to coax myself back to bed, I gave up and just peeked at my cell. It was 3:30 am.

Anyone who knows a thing or two about my sleep habits know that I barely sleep 4 hours a night. Friends always say, "Maybe you should sleep earlier." Or they give well-meaning advice like, "Don't check your computer/cell before you go to sleep." But what they don't understand is that I do lie in bed for approximately eight to nine hours each night, yet only about 3 to 4 of that allotted time is spent sleeping. I shut my eyes and my mind just turns on. I make lists, I make plans, I think of story ideas that I forget once dawn comes, probably because I'm so tired, and my mind just does. Not. Stop.

3:30 am last night, I was lying awake, contemplating what I should wear the next day, what I need to get before my trip back to the US, how I'm gonna juggle work, boyfriend, and friends before I leave.

And you know what? When my friends tell me not to check my phone or turn on the computer, I swear I'm resisting the urge to do so. I am hoping against hope that my brain will switch off soon and I will just fall the fuck asleep. But it doesn't, and I don't, and by hour two, I'm bored shitless. So I check random shit on Buzzfeed or Instagram, and then after a while, I try a different sleeping position.

This usually does not work. Sometimes it does, but most of the time, no.

At 6:30 am, I gave up. I went to take a shower, stepped out to buy some eggs, and made myself an omelette. I've already spent most of the night planning the ingredients in my omelette, so I might as well do it even if I wasn't hungry.

You know what the best case scenario is? It's when I fall asleep without realizing it, and morning comes, light streams in, and I wake up, surprised that I've been aroused from slumber. I want to find the formula to that, please. Seriously. And I want it without taking any sleeping pills or any "natural remedy."

My friends make fun of my sleep schedule, sometimes marvelling at my ability to function on so little hours of shut-eye. I marvel at their ability to fall asleep from midnight to 8 am, without interruptions. What they don't know is that I'm chronically tired, everyday, every week, every month -- which is all fun and games, until I fuck up at work, or I allow my personal relationships to deteriorate because I'm too exhausted to think rationally. I fucking love to sleep, but as I grow older, it's feeling more and more like work.

It's 8:30 am now, and I have a full day ahead of me. I'm already exhausted.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

CBR6 #12: Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

I loved Scoop. LOVED IT. I'm also slightly miffed that I never read it until this year. How could it be that this awesomely biting satire on journalism was not in my life before?

Ew no. Not that Scoop.

Wanna kill some brain cells? Google "Daily Mail"
under images, and some of the most infuriating
front pagers will appear. 
As we know, British and American journalism is a bit shit nowadays. Save for a few publications, a lot of what's reported is noise and lacking in substance. Apparently, this mediocrity was evident to Evelyn Waugh -- who Wikipedia tells me he worked briefly at The Daily Mail, today the pinnacle of shit journalism -- and Scoop is essentially a farcical glimpse into the profession of being a foreign correspondent.

What starts out as a case of mistaken identity secures a foreign correspondent gig for the reluctant William Boot, a hapless columnist for the gardening section of the Beast. He is sent to the fictional African country of Ismaelia, where he is told to report the war between the good vs. the bad (though it's unclear to him which side is the "hero") and to find (or create, whatever) news that is favorable to England.

There's so many things I recognized here from my working experience, and then there were some things that were just absurd. Things that I'm sure any media worker would recognize is the publisher, who is portrayed as a know-it-all who in fact knows very little, but cannot be directly disputed. The editor-in-chief of The Beast is unable to say no to the incorrect things that the publisher utters, so he substitutes yes for "Definitely" and no for "To a point." There's also the hilarious scene of William Boot trying to prepare for his trip abroad and he just brings a shit ton of unnecessary baggage -- like a canoe!!! -- and charges it on the Beast's expense account.

Then there are moments that are more painfully recognizable, like how journalists abroad often work in a pack mentality in gathering news (see Boys on the Bus for how that works during political campaigns), or how everyone is willing to provide information to each other if it helps each their cause, but will burn as deemed necessary for a scoop. There is a disturbing free flow of information, but only up to a point. What I thought was also accurate was that journalists often choose not to pursue what's obviously a story or a hole if it doesn't fulfil their preconceived narrative (see Nicholas Kristof and his "shock" at disgraced sex-trafficking symbol, Somaly Mam... or really, most of what Kristof has done, really) -- that was painfully true and hilarious to see in Scoop.

Finally, the idea of a parachute journalist, a term used to describe reporters who are shipped into a country with no real knowledge of historical or political context, is literally portrayed by a journalist parachuting into Ismaelia. That's essentially what all the reporters in Ismaelia are, and Waugh's eye for harpooning the media's penchant for employing these types is very on-point.

Tin Tin is definitely a parachute journalist. And also, barely a journalist since he's never
written anything while "on assignment."

Read this if you work in media, read this if you've never worked in media and want to laugh at us media folks, and read this anyway no matter what your profession is because it's wickedly funny.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review appears on their website. 

CBR6 #11: Welcome to Burma and Enjoy the Totalitarian Experience by Timothy Syrota

This book was a random acquisition and comes with a bit of backstory. I was reporting in Mandalay, central Burma, on a number of stories, and one of them required me to interview a comedy troupe that is known for staging vaudevillian shows that harpoons the country's authoritarian regime. Now that Burma is considered a democracy, this comedy troupe is still putting up nightly shows for tourists, making fun of the fact that the current government is really a puppet for the military. One of the comedians passed me Timothy Syrota's book, and told me that him and his family members were mentioned in it. He said that it was "banned in Burma." I brought it back to my hotel to read those chapters, but ended up just finishing it in one night.

Nowadays, Burma -- also known as Myanmar -- is lauded in the international press as a country that is embracing democratic change and openness. These developments came with the most recent administration of President Thein Sein, which the local press usually affixes the words "nominally civilian." However, before 2010, Burma was under one of the most restrictive military regime in the world for about five decades, and has a particularly bloody history when it comes to stamping down political challengers. (I highlighted some of that in my third CBR book.)

Published in 2001, Syrota's book is an account of his travels in Burma in the late 1990s (I think 1999) as a backpacker. Though Syrota claims to be a "writer" living in Bangkok, it's not clear in what capacity -- but it is certainly not as a journalist. I say this because there are many points throughout the book where he displays sheer naiveté and ignorance. For example, I find it extremely difficult to believe that he has never heard of Aung San Suu Kyi before he arrived in Burma, especially if he's done cursory research into traveling around the country.

That being said, there is some attraction in his "bumbly backpacker" act, mostly because so little is known about the places that he's traveled to. Even today in its new shiny clothes, large parts of Burma is cut off from tourists: besides Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan, much of Burma remains either closed to tourists or just extremely difficult to get to, and Syrota is able to arrive at some of the cities that are really still considered off-the-beaten-path. That, in my opinion, is where most of the interesting stuff happens, such as the government spies checking up on him, or him being forbidden to travel outside the town he is in.

Rice fields in central Burma
And despite the crappy writing -- he's not a good writer, sorry -- I was really taken by the sense of growing paranoia that Syrota had as he traveled further away from towns that were popular with tourists. He started noticing secret police watching him everywhere he went, and was extremely nervous about endangering civilians he spoke with as they were later questioned by the secret police. Syrota was so gripped with fear about what might happen if government officials found his notes that he started sewing pages of it into his clothes, an act I found both incredulous and also understandable.

Why incredulous? Because I tend to eschew the idea that most tourists have -- that they are being "targeted" for whatever (crime or deportation or whatever). I also dislike thinking that as a foreign reporter, because it is just another way of expressing our overbearing profession-driven egotism ("This story/book/film is the most important thing ever, and that's why the government is targeting me" syndrome. Yea, right.)

And why understandable, you may ask? Because before I picked up the book, I found myself in similar situations as well. Reporting in rural areas of central Burma (not Mandalay, which I believe is the second most populated city in Burma, but don't quote me on that) earlier that week had left me a little shell-shocked. It's not just the feeling that you're being watched, as a foreign reporter, or that every single local who sees you wants to take a photo of you -- a prospect that makes me really uneasy because I never know how these photos would be used to target me. (And lest you think I sound paranoid, this bait-and-switch has happened to a colleague of mine.) It's also because every single person whom you speak to will absolutely mention it. "Be careful of that lawyer; I think he is a spy." "The government knows everyone that comes to this town." "Those farmers who are collecting 'toll' money so that you can drive through their land also inform the government that you are here." "He's secret police. Over there is also another secret police." Paranoia is a state of mind that is normal for everyone in Burma -- not just backpackers in the 90s or foreign reporters -- and I think Syrota's book captures that very well.

Whether or not these suspicions are warranted by me, a foreigner, is unclear. But for the locals, it is absolutely something they subscribe to, because they have been living under a hyper-secretive military regime for five decades, a regime that is incredibly smart and have proven to be adaptive and manipulative in the past in order to maintain its stronghold on power.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book to Burma newbies, because it barely skims the surface of political, social and historical issues. However, I believe it is a good supplement to a growing body of literature about Burma. Syrota doesn't really analyze the events he goes through or the things people tell him, but the matter-of-fact tone in which he presents many of Burma's idiosyncrasies is a window into what the government was/is like. Yes, I know that 1999 was a different time, and yes, it's now a different government. But, as I said, there is a reason why most local reporters use the term, "the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein." It's because no one is sure whether if the changes instated are really changes, or if they are chess moves for a larger purpose that is, for now, lost on us.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, and a part of this review appears on their website. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

CBR6 #10: Wool by Hugh Howey

It's been a long time since I was so thoroughly sucked into a fictional universe of a book as I was with Wool. Honestly, that's what I miss about fantasy, historical fiction and sci-fi books -- while the writing may be good, it is rare that I would feel totally enfolded into the history, the context and the world that an author creates. I think the last time that happened was with the first book of the Chaos Trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Hugh Howey does this for me again with Wool, which chronicles an unraveling mystery in post-apocalyptic Earth where the surviving humanity are housed in a silo -- an underground city that extends more than a hundred levels beneath the Earth's surface. He kicks off the book from the perspective of Holston, the sheriff of the silo, who is tortured by the mystery of why his wife decided to kill herself. In this world, uttering the words "I want to go out" is considered so taboo, so treasonous, that a citizen will immediately be exiled according to his wish -- and that is just what Holston's wife did three years prior, leaving her beloved husband in the wake of her death to try and understand the reasons behind her "madness."

And how will they be exiled, you ask? They will sent out of the silo in a space suit, armed only with a piece of wool and a bucket. Their sole punishment is to clean the wide gleaming windows of the silo, the only way the residents, cramped in this subterranean hell, are able to see out into the world. After they are done cleaning, the condemned would go off into the uninhabitable world, now made up of an environment that kills them after a short period of walking. Residents of the silo are able to see the small pile of suits and bodies that make up all the people who have ever been executed.

Holston, as Allison did before him, always wondered why these people, who was treated so poorly and tossed out by their community, would decide to give this gift back to them. Investigating this mystery is what drove Allison mad, and since her exile, Holston has driven himself crazy trying to figure it out.

That's kind of the best part of Wool. It may be a brand new world, it may be post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but we are immediately thrown into the mysteries of how humans work and what makes them tick. Why did my wife kill herself? Why does the condemned, who are essentially dead men walking the minute they are suited out to go Outside, still perform this thankless task for us? Why is Outside such a taboo concept?

And seriously, that's only the first chapter. Holston's investigation of his wife's death sets up the entire book, which is seriously an insane maze of human nature, of how societies function, of historical repeats. The silo is a fascinating place, and I wanted Howey to explore the different levels as much as possible so I really feel like I live there. (Also, I was perplexed as to how they have all this insane technology but couldn't figure out how to create elevators for this place, having to instead resort to physically climbing up and down the steps to get to different levels within the silo. I have an idea why the Powers That Be in the silo relied on a stairs system but it seems absurd to me that nobody else would go, "Yo, I leg 20 flights of stairs a day -- can we get some mechanical systems up in here man?") There is a part of Wool that feels a bit like the movie Snowpiercer, but whatever the comparisons, it really is in a league of its own, and very much Howey's creation.

Go read it. Go. It's on Kindle. It's amazing. I fucking loved it and now that I am finally reviewing it three months after I've read it (*guilty look*) I want to go re-read it.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review also appears on their website.