Dark Room

“How do you play this game again?”

“You type.”

“There’s a keyboard and a screen. I get it. But what do I type?”

“Anything.”

“This would be so much simpler with a game controller, even a gaming mouse.”

“That kind of defeats the whole set-up. ‘Interactive fiction’—a story you engage with.”

“It sounds cool but when it comes down to looking at that blinking cursor and the two lines of introductory text, it’s…discouraging.”

“Since when were you someone to be discouraged by words?”

“I have no idea what words have been programmed into this game.”

“That’s the whole point. Play. Discover. Win!”

“Really? There’s such a thing as winning in this game? I thought we just had to complete it.”

“Enough talking. More typing.”

“But—”

“Type!”

“Alright, alright…”

A finger raised above the keyboard. Hovering above one letter, then the other. Finally descending upon one key.

[enter]

You are in a dark room. The words appear underneath the introductory text.

“Now what?”

“Try another key.”

This time the finger selects the key instantly.

[spacebar]

Your head hits the ceiling.

“Oops.”

[spacebar]

Your head hits the ceiling.

“Is that all?”

[spacebar]

Do you want to knock yourself out?

“Yes! Go unconscious, finish this game.”

“It can’t hear you.”

“It should be able to. Voice recognition. I should be able to talk and walk my way through this game.”

“Yeah, then it wouldn’t be a ‘text’-based game, then, would it?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Enough sarcasm. More typing.”

“Alright.”

[up arrow]

The ceiling is hard.

“I know that, smartypants game.”

[down arrow]

Watch where you’re going!

[left arrow] [right arrow] [up arrow]

“What are you pressing the arrow keys for?”

“I’m moving my player!”

“You have no idea what to do!”

“Well then, give me a hint!”

“You need to see.”

“Very funny.”

“No, you need to light up the room so it’s no longer dark. The game won’t respond otherwise.”

“And how am I going to do that?”

“That’s the whole point!”

“That’s it.” Chair pushed backwards, away from the computer table. “I could write a better game then this.”

“OK, then. Go ahead. Write the game and I’ll play it!”

“Fine.”

********

“So, when do I get to play your game?”

“It’s finished.”

“Let me play it, then.”

“Here you go.”

[enter]

No response.

“Going straight for the enter key. Nice move.”

“Be quiet. Let me see.”

[spacebar]

No response.

[arrow keys]

Which way do you want to go?

“That’s it?”

“That’s how I code! Do you want to play or not?”

“OK. I want to go straight.”

“Er—perhaps you are mistaking me for voice recognition software?”

“Oh, let me play.”

[up arrow]

You can’t go up.

[down arrow]

You have nothing to dig with.

[right arrow]

You take a step to the right.

[right arrow]

You are out of moves.

[right arrow]

You can’t move.

“What are you up to with this game? You should have told me there were a limited number of moves.”

“And you should have told me some of the basics of the first game.”

“OK. I was being smart with you. You’re so good at games, I wanted to frustrate you. But only because you beat me every time.”

“It’s not always about winning.”

“Yeah, sometimes it’s about making a point.”

“Point taken.”

“Friends?”

“Friends.”

A pause.

“Now let’s go code that assignment for class. We’re on the same team, after all.”

***

This was originally published in Us Magazine for the youth, The News International, on June 1, 2018: https://www.thenews.com.pk/magazine/us/323839-dark-room

Book Tales: Living the American book lover’s dream

I finally returned to reading this year. As someone who is known as a reader, it is strange for me to say this, but there was a long stretch of time when I didn’t pick up a book. Before that, I tried a few books, but it has been a while since books were a proper part of my daily routine. Now, thanks to Austin Public Library, I have access to more titles than I can possibly read.

It took me some switching around of ebooks, swapping them back and forth in the online library catalog before I finally settled on books that interested me enough to finish reading them. Once I had stopped returning my library ebooks unfinished, I progressed to checking out physical copies of the books I wanted to read. That was when the real fun began. I started reading books regularly before going to sleep. It was the best time of day for me to pull out a library hardcover and get lost in the pages. I reserved the contemporary books for bedtime reading and the fantasy books for daytime reading, mainly because I didn’t want fantasy creatures chasing me around in my dreams.

I used to suffer from emotional hangups where I judged myself for reading girly books and fantasy, but then I got over it. I was no longer an impressionable teen, after all. I wasn’t even a young adult anymore, as my brother pointed out on my birthday. I was a proper adult, and that meant I was going to read young adult books without guilt. (Do you see the irony?) Back in my teens and early twenties, I used to filter books in the quest to find ones that were squeaky clean. Now I know from experience to avoid books in which the author’s name is printed larger than the title of the book itself. As for the rest of it, I read through the lovey-dovey scenes and get on with the story without pausing to judge myself. It’s the violent and gory scenes that I try to filter out beforehand now.

Visiting the library is one of the highlights of the week. I got two book totes to carry the books back and forth. (They aren’t new. I just unearthed an old one I had from before and convinced my father to give me a sturdier one which was in his possession.)  I like putting books on hold beforehand and just sweeping in to collect them. Sometimes I wander through the young adult section to see if anything catches my eye and add it to the pile before checking out.

As for my TBR, don’t even ask. The list of books I want to read keeps growing and I keep falling behind. There are series that have been on my radar over the years, standalone books and series I hear about on Booktube, and random books that grab my attention while browsing the shelves.

I still buy books from Amazon. They are mostly non-fiction titles that I want to keep and refer to over the years. The bulk of my fiction reading comes from the library. As a book lover, I am in book heaven. There are a few books I want to read that the library doesn’t have, but there are so many that they do have that I am well occupied for now.

2017 was slow to start, reading-wise, but I have a good foundation for 2018 to be a great reading year. Most of my TBR will spill over to 2018 and once I’m done reading those books, the list will have expanded. That way, I hope to be happily engaged in book reading throughout the year.

When I look back at my reading goals (even as I previously described them on this blog), I think I held myself back by limiting myself to very serious non-fiction. Allowing myself to enjoy fiction is one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s like having a part of my childhood back. The wonder of reading and the thrill of discovering a story, but without homework and school projects lurking in the background. There was a phase when I wanted to revisit my childhood favorites, but now I want to explore young adult and contemporary fiction. I even read a book from the adult age category without knowing it. I only discovered afterward that it wasn’t YA, though I had a sneaking suspicion while reading because the main characters went into their thirties by the time the story wound up. It’s not that I don’t read adult books in general. It’s just that I used to find them a bit dull. I suppose a few years makes a lot of difference in perspective as a reader. This side of twenty holds a lot less patience about stories dealing with teen angst and a lot more openness towards main characters who have to pay rent.

As for which book tricked me into thinking it was YA, that’s a story for another time. Right now, I have to get back to reading the book on my bedside table.

 

Book Tales: A Pakistani book lover’s experience with libraries

Back in Pakistan, my experience with libraries was limited to my school library, then my college library. I had a lot of fun with my school library. I borrowed new books from the library every week. In this way, I got my hands on series like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Baby-Sitters Club. I read these series primarily from my school library, as the books my parents got me at that stage were mostly Enid Blyton books and classics. I also had the experience of picking up To Kill a Mockingbird many times from the shelf, reading and stumbling through the opening paragraphs, and putting it back on the shelf, until the day came when I pushed past the beginning and got into the main flow of the story, which was much more readable. I might not have given the book these many chances if I had not walked past it so many times at school.

I discovered some children’s authors through the school library that I didn’t encounter during my trips to the bookstore. Tanith Lee’s “The Castle of Dark” drew me in with its immersive storytelling, Jacqueline Wilson’s “The Lottie Project” and “Double Act” took me on fun-filled journeys, and Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” enchanted me by reminding me of Alice in Wonderland. There were books I still remember fondly, quick reads I’ve forgotten and long reads that were forgettable, books I recommended to all my friends to read, and books I told them to ignore in favor of better reads. I still remember picking up “How to write really badly” by Anne Fine, loving it and popularizing it among my friends. One of them went on to mention the book in her autograph to me at the end of school. In short, the school library was a world of wonder for me.

Not so the college library. While the Pakistani system of having “intermediate” education places you beyond school but before undergraduate studies, choosing the pre-medical major also places you firmly in the science bracket. This meant that I couldn’t borrow art books from the library, something that came as an unpleasant discovery when I took an art book to the library desk. While I realize now that this was just the librarian making a poor excuse to protect her expensive art book from being checked out from the library (what good it would be for it to spend its life collecting dust on the shelf, nobody knows), at the time I didn’t challenge it. I cried angry tears and moved on. Needless to say, I didn’t have anywhere near a fulfilling experience with that library as I did with my school one.

My undergraduate college library held textbooks and only textbooks. No novels, leisure reading or anything of the sort. I only visited it to get access to reference books, most of which could only be read in the library itself. My library-less years extended from college life to a few years beyond it. When I moved to America, land of the public libraries, my reading life was on the brink of a great change. Little did I know this, until one day someone told me a captivating nugget of information that transformed my reading life: you could borrow ebooks through an app by using your library card. The full story is chronicled in the next Book Tales. Until then, happy reading, and wherever you are, I hope you have access to a library of books, whether public or your own.

Revisiting childhood: surfing high on a wave of nostalgia

I am going through a nostalgic phase nowadays. That means that I am digging up books I used to read as a child, spending time reconnecting to those childhood experiences that seem almost magical when viewed across the expanse of the intervening years. The good thing is that these old things are as enjoyable as they were back when I was a child, if not more. The bad part is that it puts me even further from getting into contemporary stuff, but there’s no rush to do that, so I can take my time on the nostalgia train and get to contemporary station eventually.

I read a lot of children’s classics back in the day, so revisiting my childhood reads means rereading The Secret Garden, Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess and The Jungle Book. Most of these I got as ebooks, with the exception of The Jungle Book, which I got as a hardcover at the beginning of my nostalgic journey. With my recent discovery of classics being available as free audiobooks, I went and downloaded a bunch of them and started listening to A Little Princess. I have reached the most heartbreaking part of the book, which is somehow even more heartbreaking in audio form, with the reader voicing the characters’ emotions with a different voice for each one. Having these books in audio form means that I experience them differently enough for them to feel new but the story is still familiar, so it still counts as a nostalgic trip.

Another story that thrilled me as a child was The Lord of the Rings. I have reread the Harry Potter series more frequently than The Lord of the Rings, which is why I can safely put off rereading Harry Potter and focus on getting my hands on a copy of The Lord of the Rings. I have still to decide whether to get a hard copy, an ebook or an audiobook. I am so used to reading the tiny, tiny text of my old and worn paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings that any other format is going to change the experience considerably.

I am not going to go so far as to dive into the Enid Blyton books again. For one thing, there are so many that it would take me a lot of time to revisit them all. Yes, I did read a lot of her books as a child. Even typing this tempts me to see how I can get my hands on the Twins at St Clare’s series again. It would also prompt my mother to hypothetically throw me out of the house for going back to Enid Blyton at this age. I could probably get away with listening to them in audiobook form. You can tell I am totally going to go in that direction. As long as I’m going down memory lane, why not go all the way? Let me just stop short of digging up Dr. Seuss books. I actually reread them before giving them to my little cousins to read, so in a way, I have already revisited them as well as my “Peter and Jane” picture books.

As an avid reader, I have a rich history of books I have read. As a rereader, potentially all those books are up for revisiting. I will come around to reading contemporary books and recent releases, but for now, let me try to catch the wonder of a child reader’s joy in the well-loved pages of a familiar story. Once I am done with that, I can start making memories for my future self to return to at a later date. That’s just how nostalgia works, right?

 

 

Preparing to write and actually writing: a comparison

The single most useful piece of writing advice I have gathered from reading books, blog posts and articles on the subject is: use bum glue. To be specific, that means glue yourself to your seat and stay there. You can fiddle about with fancy word processing software, gimmicky grammar tools, and writing websites, but in the end, it’s just you and your willpower.

I don’t mean to say that you can force words out of your brain from sheer force of will. What I mean is that once you sit down and commit to sitting there for a specified period of time, you will eventually put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper) and get work done. Maybe you need a cup of your caffeinated beverage of choice to activate your mind. Maybe you need an arrangement of cushions and footstools to get comfortable enough for the words to flow. Once your writing environment is in place, all that is left is to stop messing with it and just write.

I spent a long time in this space where I would just read about writing and not actually write. Sure, I picked up on the finer points of putting together a manuscript, but the writing process itself was quite neglected. The fact of the matter is that you learn by doing. You can choose to spend all your life making one piece of art or spend your time making different things and improving along the way.

Most things worth knowing are simple. It is when our natural resistance to making effort comes into play that things get complicated. You can choose either to “keep it simple, stupid” or make life unnecessarily tangled for yourself. It’s your choice.

Finding my way back home

“Home” for me is writing. I have never suffered as much as I do when, for whatever reason, I give it up for a period of time. Whenever I turn back to it, it welcomes me back with open arms. I lose myself in it. It is my personal process of healing. If I don’t write, my unspent creative energy builds up into a big block of worry, and that is unhealthy.

In my autograph diary in which I got autographs from my teachers and schoolmates back in high school, one of my teachers told me to keep a hold onto writing, as she herself regretted letting go of it. Whenever I experience the peaceful bubble I can cocoon myself into when I write after a break from it, I recall this piece of advice from her and doubly appreciate it. I would be a fool to give up writing permanently. It is just hard-wired into my brain.

My brother is my personal cheerleader as far as writing goes. He is responsible for getting me to set up a “writing tracker”, which is basically a notebook in which I chart my writing progress. As usual, I either have several works in progress at one time, or none at all. I suppose it’s “all or nothing” for me.

My latest return to writing has been a happy one. I finally started writing my book, for real this time. I started a serial story for one of the magazines I write for. Both projects are enough to keep me on my toes. I aim to see both projects through to completion. That would be a serious achievement for me as a writer.

So, here goes nothing. I’m all set to continue my writing journey. I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes!

 

Love, a four-letter word?

It’s that time of the year again, when the noblest of actions is reduced to a love-themed merchandising day. I am talking, of course, about love. Love is something that we as a nation must understand completely before we can accomplish anything worthwhile. If we keep misunderstanding love, we keep wasting our precious time and energy in chasing a lie.

Defining love

Love is a verb. This means that love is an act between two people. Love, the feeling, is a product of love, the verb, plain and simple. If you do actions of love for someone, it will result in creating a space for that person in your heart, and a space for you in that person’s heart.

What, then, is an action of love? Let’s stick to the basics. The most basic action of love is the way in which you look at a person, the way you use your eyes in his or her presence. If you look at the wording of our traditional poems and songs, you will find that they are filled with description of the language of the eyes. The poet talks about sitting in wait so that he may gaze upon the beloved, the singer sings about that one glance he is dying for, and we everyday people are stuck scratching our heads and wondering whether Cupid ran out of arrows when it was our turn. The reality, dear readers, is simple: whether or not you believe in your life partner being determined by fate, finding that life partner is hard work, arranging to be married to them is harder work, and keeping a marriage alive and working is the hardest job of all. Love is work, and work is effort. The concept of love being something that happens all by itself due to the beauty of a random person’s body and mind catching your attention, is a nice little story to tell by the fireside, but it is not a law of life to believe in.

The effects of “crush culture”

When young people decide to spend their free time admiring celebrities, the girl next door and the cousin from abroad, a “crush culture” is established that results in heartbreak. By “crush culture” I mean the time and energy spent in watching the crush, thinking about the crush and obsessively discussing the crush with friends. Schoolgirls are notorious for this–they do not even spare the teachers who they see all year round or the invigilators who they see during their annual exams. Any and every pretty person they see is a target for their whims.

What is frustrating about this is that this heartbreak is completely avoidable. It is simply a matter of how much you value your own heart and your own ability to love. Are you going to throw away your heart after every pretty face on the TV screen, or that cute boy or girl in the tuition centre? Yes, it is completely normal to be attracted to what appears beautiful to you. What I am asking you to consider is: is it worthwhile to fill your mind and heart with every person who attracts your attention? What do you get in the end, from all the hours you spend fascinated by that personality? The answer is that you get nothing at all. You, your mind, your heart and your time are worth more than that.

The myth of “the one”

This problem begins when we take our different forms of entertainment too seriously. The media sells the lie that there is only one perfect match available for you in the world, and that you have to be very high up in the social rat race in order to find that one match, and you will never have “chemistry” with anyone else. The reality is that there is a range of compatibility we have with many people, and out of them we can choose the one who appears to suit us the best. For a man, that would probably be the best-looking woman out of all the women of similar personality that he can approach for marriage. For a woman, that would probably be the most “well-settled” man out of all the men she finds to be compatible with her own self. The thing is, in real life, suitable matches do not line up for selection in this manner. Life is not a reality TV show. Really finding and choosing someone for marriage involves considerable patience, prayer, planning and preparation, and how can we grow all these qualities and techniques in ourselves when we are young, if we are impressed by fictional stories?

Love conquers all

In our experience of life, we come across many different people. There are people we like, people we dislike, and people who don’t matter to us. Out of all the people we like, we spend more time with a select few. The others are just there to pass the time with when our close friends aren’t around. The way we approach people in general has a big effect on our effectiveness as an individual member of society. The human heart has an incredible capacity to love, if only we understand this. If you consider love simply as a positive force that you use to brighten up your little corner of the world, starting with loving your own self, then the time passes more pleasantly. Don’t get me wrong: approaching every aspect of life with love is not easy, and discussing how to do it is beyond the scope of a single article, but it is possible. I will go beyond even the word “possible” and say that love is the purpose of existence–just don’t get stuck on the romantic version.

The importance of self-love

By self-love I mean regarding your own self in a positive way. A lot of us are caught up in self hate simply because of negative body image, peer pressure, family problems or some other reason. Call it self-esteem, call it self-care, whatever you call it, stop right where you are and take a deep breath. We are all human and certainly, desiring marriage to a suitable life partner is perfectly acceptable. It just doesn’t make any sense to waste our mental, emotional and spiritual energy on “time-pass” connections and end up neglecting our own poor hearts that need our urgent attention. Like they say, “bloom where you are planted”–easy to say but hard to do, certainly, which is why actually doing it takes a lifetime.


This article originally appeared in Us Magazine for the youth, The News International:

https://www.thenews.com.pk/magazine/us/185111-Love-a-four-letter-word

Life of a bookworm (Opening up my cabinet of curiosities # 3)

Austin Kleon‘s book “Show Your Work” has a list of questions that bring out the creative mind in you. I decided to answer all the questions, one by one, in order to express my creative side in a personal way. Today’s question is:

What do you read?

What I choose to read has certainly changed with every change in circumstance as I grow older. When I was younger, novels predominated. Now that I am looking to root myself in the real world and shut off the dreamland that preoccupied my waking hours since I was eight years old, I choose biographies, memoirs, humorous books and non fiction. I still sneak a novel or two in sometimes, for old time’s sake, but novel-reading is no longer the intense activity it was, the way it used to be when I was a child/teenager. Somehow, the novel addiction has weakened. I suppose that’s called growing out of something.

Non fiction is something I am definitely growing into. During a book fair last year, I picked up basic books by heavy-duty names like Ghazali, Rumi and Iqbal. One book was actually about how Rumi inspired Iqbal, so it was about both of them at once–I really enjoyed that.

Now that I am past the grueling college years of student life, and have some time unburdened by academics, I am looking forward to sinking my teeth into some good non fiction reading, with the topics of interest being the history and lives of Muslims in South Asia. I also want to place particular emphasis on an introductory study of Quran and Hadith. For Quran, I would be following my online “Quran Program” classes at Zaynab Academy Online, as well as reading up on the sections taught in class by looking them up in reference books, namely Maariful Quran and Tafseer Ahsanul Bayan. For Hadith, just to get started, I will be reading and reflecting upon Riyadh us Saliheen. May Allah accept my intention and increase me in all that is good.

I have always been an ambitious reader. Every book has somewhere to take you and something to teach you. I aspire to go somewhere and learn something every day of my life, and books make it possible for me. Here’s to another year of happy reading. See you at the bookstore!

 

 

 

My Interview In Us Magazine

Waqas Hassan's WebPress!

Tea with Us!

It is a law of nature. The sun will rise. The tides will flow. Fans want to know more about their stars. Where celebrities are concerned, the tabloids fulfill this demand, but what about the fans of Us? Something had to be done.

And done it was. It took some doing, but I managed to book Café Online. I sent out the invites and got my notebook and pen ready. I didn’t know any shorthand, but I was going to get those interviews!

Us is made of regular sections and contributions. I couldn’t invite everyone who’d ever contributed, but I invited those who had carved their own niche in Us and earned appreciation from the readers in doing so, both senior and relatively new writers.

And not only this; for today…

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Tell me what name to call you by

Tell me what name to call you by
I’ve exhausted my dictionaries, trying to find that one letter
I’ve burned my thesaurus
onto a CD
and I sent it to you, asking to know your name.
I scaled the mountains and plumbed the seas looking for you,
Yet you dismissed me with every step you took
Away
from
me.
I learned to stop chasing you,
For you have no time, to lead me on a wild goose chase
You did it for her, you did it for her. You led her on a chase through the plateau of your dreams. I didn’t even get a spark,
from the fire that you kindled.
It was all for her,
your soulmate
Yet, haven’t you heard of kindred spirits?
Did not anyone ever tell you the story,
All the stories, so many stories.
You are a born storyteller,
and so am I.
You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth,
Mine was platinum,
Hers was gold.
I never asked you for the answers, I didn’t question you after your dismissal of me,
I went on my own goose chase,
running after the white stag into the depths of the green wood. I came out on the other side, and saw a new horizon.
Was it the same one she saw, when she found you and you found her? Don’t tell me, that’s personal,
and for me,
personal information is sacred.
I return to my books,
I forgot
I can’t remember,
which ones I sent you. I feel the absence of carelessly donated volumes,
volumes upon volumes of books that were pieces of my soul.
I searched for your name in parables and riddles,
but you led me to believe that you are not a puzzle to solve. Well, neither am I.
I am not a nut to crack,
yet
you cut me open
with. every. word. you. spoke.
I tried dismissing you,
I learned,
I thought I knew how to do that
But then you returned with another face,
and I struggled all over again.
This time, I knew better than to mess with letters. I turned to numbers.
In you and I, there is a dance of numbers, and everyone wants to know the equation.
E=mc squared,
yet I found you at the end of the horizon
at the bottom of the well
at the edge of the rainbow
I jumped off a waterfall
and found a soft landing.
How many paths did you take to avoid me? I find your footprints everywhere I go.
I burned new paths into my own consciousness.
But I exhausted numbers, too.
Funny, they say numbers are infinite,
yet mix infinity with zero and you get an atomic reaction.
I stretched myself like a piece of elastic,
and found your footprint at the edge of the world.
I finally abandoned equations,
I reduced myself to a dot
a speck
I became the baby universe enclosed in a nutshell, waiting for its big bang. But this time,
instead of expanding
instead of collapsing
a wormhole opened and sucked me through to the other side.
There is light here
and open space
and birds chirping.
I never thought I would ask this question again,
but you stripped yourself of your titles,
and I discarded all frameworks that shaped my thoughts,
you are but a concept
my spirit guide running ahead of me into the woods.
I’ve been here before
but this time there are no steps
not even yours.