Go set a watchman

Disappointment is a result of expectation.

If you expect nothing, you’ll never be disappointed. But then, if you don’t expect something from an experience, it means you’re not invested in it. That you’re indifferent and neutral. At that point, is that experience even worth your time?

When I first heard Harper Lee had released a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, I was thrilled. I’d read that book a few months ago at the time, and snatches of Atticus and Scout and Jem were etched in my memory. That was 2017-ish. I’d stepped into my twenties, bright young thing, and had dutifully posted a photo of my reading journey on Instagram.

Go Set a Watchman would be a lovely way to relive those characters in a different, more mature light, I thought.

Life happened. So many other books took precedence over Lee’s second masterpiece. Indeed, it took a global pandemic and a second lockdown for me to get my hands on it. A lot had changed since Mockingbird, and far too much time between then and now.

However, my thrill remained unchanged. I still remembered Scout (although I might’ve accidentally said Scott in a few real-life conversations with friends), and I still loved the relationship between the old lawyer and his children, a reflection of my own relationship with my father, even though it was starkly different.

I had a lot to look forward to. Which is why the disappointment was enormous.

As readers, we last saw Scout as a pre-teen tomboy. When we see her again in the sequel, she’s 26 and a lady, more lady-like than I ever imagined she could be. Clearly, people are never who they were when they were adolescents. Disappointment 1. But it’s the reality. Harsh, but acceptable.

We then learn that she’s got a boyfriend now. Of course, she’s a straight woman of marriageable age. Why wouldn’t she have a boyfriend? But did it have to be her best friend, the one she grew up with? Cliché. Disappointment 2.

Still, it’s the ’50s, and the story’s set in small-town Maycomb. Having lived there all his life, Henry knows little of the life outside of his town. It’s probably not too surprising that he falls in love with what seems like the only girl in town. Speaking of which, where are all the other girls? Aside from showing up to a gossip party with stories of husbands and children, there aren’t many young women in town. Again, I tell myself, it’s a small town. Justifiable, to some extent.

We move on. Curiously, Jean Louise doesn’t know how to get into a car without hitting her head. She can drive, though. Sure, she lives in New York, where you don’t need a vehicle to commute, but come on, I’m 26 and can’t drive, but I still watch my head when I get into a car. Common sense.

Sure, Jean Louise’s character arc is to have her grow as a person. But there’s a difference between immature and nonsense.

If she’s mature enough to discard the name Scout and have people call her by her real name, Jean Louise (not Jean or Louise), then she’s mature enough to know how a car works, surely?

So disappointment 3: Jean Louise gives us a lot of mixed messages about who she is as a person.

Disappointment 4: “He poured himself a man-sized drink.”

Jem’s dead. And the only explanation we get is that he dropped dead on the street one day. He’d inherited his weak heart from their mother. Now I know that Jean Louise is the protagonist, and we’re interested in her personal growth. But I have a brother, and if he dropped dead suddenly, it’ll gnaw at my head and heart for as long as I live. Even if I recover from the initial shock, I’d still be unable to talk casually about wearing a hat to my brother’s funeral, with ‘he would’ve laughed at me’ as an afterthought. The absolute lack of acknowledgment for Jem’s death is alarming. Sure, there are a few mentions of it, but none seem enough. Disappointment 5.

It’s not all bad, though. Jean Louise lives in New York, and from the beginning, she’s doubtful whether she wants to marry Henry. Identity crisis, nicely done. Although, not. Fan of her leading him on to believe she’ll eventually say yes. Seems terrible, especially because he’s her best friend. Does she wonder if this would affect their friendship in the future? No, she doesn’t.

Jean Louise visits Calpurnia. Shows there’s still some love there. There’re a few pleasant moments for a while. Flashbacks to how Cal took care of the Finches are all good additions. Again, there’s one random instance of Jean Louise recollecting how Jem was Cal’s precious little Jem. It makes you wonder, as a reader, and want more, but the train of thought ends abruptly, leaving you wondering why she brings Jem up in the first place.

Childhood memories. I enjoyed these anecdotes, even though some were a bit drab. There’s some mild emotion as Jean Louise speaks about how Jem’s good friend, who went to Europe in the army, is the only one they hadn’t personally told about Jem’s death. Found out about it from the paper. That’s a grim way to hear your best bud passed away prematurely. It’s a helpful detail in the overall narrative. Even though it doesn’t do much to move Jean Louise’s story forward, it’s one of the more solid acknowledgments to Jem’s death.

Dr. Finch. No one can hate an eccentric old doctor. He’s exactly what Jean Louise needs—someone who’d tell her to shut up and listen, and when she doesn’t, slap hard enough to make her pause and reflect. I don’t support violence as punishment, especially for children, which is why I like that it comes from her uncle and not her father. From his interactions with Jean Louise throughout the story, we see that, like Atticus, he takes things in his stride, but he’s also a strong guardian and a second parent who watches her back. Every kid needs that—someone they can talk to other than their parents. The relationship dynamic between the two is interesting—unlike with Atticus, Jean Louise is far more direct and curt with her uncle without having worrying about hurting him or how he’d perceive her. In many ways, he’s helping her figure herself out. I also find it quite amusing that Jean Louise thinks of him as bat shit crazy when he’s probably the sanest person in the story.

Of course, all of these are small things that cumulate into my big fat opinion. But there’s also one big fat thing that takes my opinion from fat to dangerously obese.

Jean Louise is a 26-year-old independent woman who lives in New York among, possibly, a myriad of people from all ways of life. We see some reference to black people being a part of her everyday life, which is why she’s so indignant when her townsfolk look down on them. We see her as a modern-ish, socially aware young person. All that’s brilliant.

But she doesn’t understand human nature.

She can’t process the fact that her father is an ordinary man with complex emotions. That he has his own opinions and that he doesn’t have to embody her beliefs.

Of course, she’s disappointed in her father. She has expectations of him, as we all do of people we admire and look up to, and when Atticus doesn’t live up to those expectations, she’s upset. Just like I was with this book. That’s understandable.

But her reaction to all this is bizarre. She responds as if she’s never been disappointed in her life before. To me, that signals a bigger problem. She’s either never had people oppose her views or never had a genuine relationship with anyone else. The foundation of any relationship is trust, knowing you’ll still get hurt along the way. Even long-lasting couples would have conflicting opinions and disappointments. 26 years is a long time not to have known that.

Dr. Finch explains to Jean Louise that she’s so upset with Atticus because she regarded him as god. As someone who can never make a mistake. Now, we’ve all done this. We place our heroes (actors, musicians, writers, politicians, even) on high pedestals, thinking they’re perfect and incapable of anything less than godliness. That’s how humans work—we stupidly seek idols all the time. But we don’t do that with people closest to us, regardless of how much we adore them. If you’re close to someone, you’ll notice their flaws. That’s why it’s easier to set the god status to people we can’t reach—the distance enables our blindness.

That’s not the case with Jean Louise. She loves her dad dearly and grew up with him around. Even if she hadn’t realised his humanity then, she should’ve when she left home. Coming back every year should’ve opened her eyes little by little.

There’s a lot of psychological complexity to unpack in this story. Strangely, that’s also good—it’s made me mull it over, and that’s always a positive thing in book marketing.

In the middle of the book, we hear Jean Louise was born colour blind—a fact she doesn’t know (how?!). An odd detail to throw in at mid-point. However, towards the end, we go back to it, as Dr. Finch informs her she’s colour blind, referencing that to their conversation about black and white people. I’m not a fan of using “colour blind” in that context for many reasons. Disappointment 6.

The racism in this book is brazen, and coming from educated adults, it’s… ignorant. That does feel real.

I’ve learnt from various online reviews and commentary that this book was supposedly a ‘crappy initial draft’ never meant to be published. It’s also not a sequel. Makes sense. There’s just too much going on for it to be one complete piece of work. Apparently, this was the original, which Harper Lee then upgraded and published as the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird. That does make me feel better—if Lee had indeed turned Watchman into Mockingbird, then damn, she’s one good writer, with a kickass editor.

Patience

Volunteer photographer at the National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020
Volunteer photographer, National Multicultural Festival, Canberra, 2020

Photo bug sees all,
seizes opportunity—
spider in waiting

Old habits die hard

That’s such a popular saying. It means that it’s hard to change habits you’ve had for a long time. And it makes sense too if you think about it—skills we learn as children make up who we are as adults.

One such skill I acquired, quite early on in life, was swimming. My mother, like most over-zealous parents, hoping I’d become a smart athletic one day, signed me up for a swimming club. I was perhaps five or six.

The poor instructor spent many an hour in the water, trying hard to get me to co-operate with him. I wouldn’t. About four years later, I still hadn’t learnt anything except that the canteen had delectable fish pastry and ice-cold chocolate milk.

Undeterred, my mother signed me up for the school swimming classes. It was a free service offered by a school-sponsored instructor, and it completely eliminated my potential plea about wasted fees.

I had no way out.

So I learnt to swim. The instructor was exceptionally skilled, and started us off on the baby pool. Because it was so shallow, it was so easy to wade in the water and get accustomed to kicking and arm strokes.

I even began enjoy swimming.

The school instructor had managed to achieve what the paid instructor couldn’t for years.

Not long afterwards, life happened and I had to give up swimming.

Fifteen years later, I signed up for a different swimming club. Yesterday. In Canberra.

That’s when I realised: old practices don’t just come back after all those years. I spent almost 30 minutes in the pool, too scared to swim. Memories from my old swimming club rushed into my head, swelling into my chest, reminding me of that paid instructor who never succeeded.

Today I went back. This time, I headed to the wading pool—the shallow one, equivalent to the baby pool. I practiced on my own. Replaying the old instructions in my head—powerful arm strokes, kicking, breathing in while my face is out of the water and blowing out bubbles when in. It took me about 20 minutes, but by the end of it, I’d done it. I’d recalled a large portion of my swimming lessons.

I’m not finished yet. I still have at least a few more self-learning sessions in the wading pool before I can go back to swimming properly again.

So yes, old habits do die hard. But once they die, it can be quite challenging to revive them too.

Chasing trail

I recently discovered the joy of trail running. Although, to be honest, I only started running for pleasure in November. Which, now that I think about it, could’ve been a way to procrastinate. 

You see, I write for pleasure. Opinions, short stories, challenging flash fiction with stringent word limits, and lots of haiku. I’ve also somehow managed to draft a mini novel of about 30 something thousand words. Now I wonder if running was my way to run away from editing the damn thing.

It may have been one of the reasons. The other is, of course, people telling me it’s too hard and I couldn’t do it.

Well, I can. Charged by my inner egomaniac and a metaphoric hair flip, I now run every day to prove to myself that I indeed can. And it was on one of those days, that I realised I like running on a hard hiking trail more than on a sheen of supposedly-seamless foot path. 

It was a fine day in the height of summer—about two or three weeks ago—when hundreds of volunteers were still battling raging bushfires in every corner of the country. I’d woken up late. So when I stepped onto my usual route, the foot path, it was so hot I couldn’t stand the heat. (I know, how ironic that I can’t tolerate 26 degrees when I grew up in a 30-degree country. Celsius.) That’s when I noticed that the mildly-raggedy trail that ran parallel to the foot path, flooded with the shade of gum and other trees I’ll never remember the names of.

So I took to that instead. As I started off, much slower than my regular pace, I felt the obvious difference. The ground didn’t throw back the stubborn resistance of the concrete-laden foot path I’d become accustomed to. It was more giving, in a sense, and forgiving as I lurched myself on to it. I felt the gravel and sand flex underneath my feet, and even though I was often stepping on uneven surfaces, I soon learnt to navigate through it.

Now I enjoy every moment of the experience. 

Of course, I’m no expert. I’ve only run on two different trails so far, but I’ve been doing it enough of times to know I wouldn’t give it up.

The reason?

Trails are amazing personalities. Not only does a trail pave an albeit challenging way, for the runner, but it’s also a constant reminder of how entwined we are with nature. 

When I run on the foot path, I run over well-laid tar and concrete that’s meshed and designed to satisfy humans. It’s such an engineered path that we take it for granted—it has to be perfect and entirely accommodating to our needs. 

The trail, however, is wild. We’re not the master there—the roots of a hundred-year old tree is. In the trail, you don’t kick aside a twig or cut down a tree so you can have your own  way. Instead, nature forces you to swivel and adjust and hope that the harsh realities of the terrain don’t give you sore feet or a broken ankle. When you’re on a trail, you have to respect nature. 

Even the little things, like Sweetgum nuts can roll underneath your shoe and prick their way in to your sole. Or a broken piece of branch that looks deceptively frail can twist your ankle harder than you can imagine. 

On the flip side, on a trail you are slow. Like an overweight dog, as you waddle your way through the wilderness, you notice… everything. Flowers smell more sweeter than before, ants strut ahead of you, and screeching galas crowd overhead clouding your vision of the clear blue sky for just one moment. It’s pristine, and you have an unmatched sense of engaging with nature.

That’s why trail running is so appealing. On my now usual route, I run over the roots of a few ancient trees. They pop out of the ground, like an angry, pulsing vein, with space enough only for four-five toes between them. As I gingerly tip toe over the roots as thick as my fingers, a rush of affection to nature engulfs me—how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things! 

That’s enough to squash any egoistical maniac.