The Checklist Syndrome

 

I was on a bus in Europe with a friend that took me from the airport to his university apartment. It was 11pm and we were both pretty tired.

Before we talked about the general shape of our lives, he gave me an epic takedown of his time in Barcelona, where he had just flown in from. I told him a bit about Germany. We were 23, in the prime of our lives. Best friends on the road. An exciting 5 days awaited.

The bus continued meandering down Irish streets. I looked out of the bus and noticed that there were more bars than anything else. An impeccable gloom permeated. The conversation veered violently to the topic of travelling. It all started when I asked him if he was tired after 4 months of being in a foreign country.

“Sometimes lonely, yes. But tired? No. I think I’ve managed my travels well.”

“Is there a not managing well?”

He smirked at this point. The streetlights hit the raindrops on the window, forming ominous dotted shadows on his face.

“I’ve come up with this term called the Checklist Syndrome,” he said after some thought. “It refers to when people just travel to as many places and do as many things as they can in the span their exchange allows. I’ve seen a lot of it in my time here. A lot of my friends just hop week to week, country to country.”

I told him that this shouldn’t be surprising. That Singaporeans especially don’t have so many chances to go out there and see this part of the world because of the distance. “It’s like going to a buffet,” I said. “You save up for it with cheaper meals then you stuff yourself full.”

“But it gets pretty tiring, doesn’t it?”

The bus was on a highway now. Around us a perennial silence.

“I think it’s ok if you know why you’re doing it,” he said.

What did he mean by “know why you’re doing it”? I was about to go on my own exchange in the following semester to the East Coast of the United States. I felt like this was something I should listen closely to.

“You’d notice during your time in Singapore that your Instagram feed is flooded with photos of your friends on exchange.”

I nodded. I could already name quite a few.

“It all looks damn good right? The whole hopping from country to country thing.”

I had to admit that it did. Looking through the Instagram feeds of my friends was like stepping into a tourist brochure. Mountains of Germany, snow in Austria, Martian landscapes of Iceland, Mussels in Brussels, Canals of Amsterdam. I could see all that Europe had to offer from a classroom in Singapore and it all looked fantastic. More than just fantastic, it all looked flawless.

“The sights are amazing for sure, but the thing about Instagram is that it makes these sights seem like all there is to pursue in a foreign country.”

I asked him what he meant.

“As tourists I think it’s inevitable that we come to an unfamiliar place and pick out the highlights. But I think a lot of us forget that we aren’t exactly tourists but are here on a semester-long exchange. We have more time to just look around. There’s more to any place than good scenery.”

“So by knowing why you’re doing something it means…”

I thought about what I wanted from my own experiences. Something special to take home after it was all over. I wanted the scent on the place to linger on my sleeves. I wanted some inspiration that Singapore could not give. It was all so vague. I felt honestly disarmed at that point, unsure of why I really wanted to travel halfway around the world for. He looked at me and went on.

“To me it means that you settle down at where you’re living, and you really get to know the place. The history, the people, the culture. The sights look pretty, and anyone can see that. But not many people can tell you why a church was constructed the way it was, or what geographical phenomena created that sea cliff, why the people have certain accents or why a dynasty ended, what led to the end of it. An Instagram picture cannot help you understand these things. You need a keener eye in order to truly understand. You need patience, the ability to stay still. I’m talking about reading up, talking to locals, walking around places on your own and just putting your phone away when you can to just look.”

“So, stay put in a place is your solution?” Sounded a bit too extreme to me. When I think of staying still I often think of tunnel vision, something lacking entirely in spontaneity.

“No, I think for me, to be in a place and really understand it does not mean you forsake travelling around. To me, it’s all about pacing yourself and going where interests you. Aim to leave a place you’ve visited with a better grasp of it so when someone asks you in the future ‘what did you learn?’ that you can confidently tell them a good number of things about the place rather than, the sunsets are nice, or the glaciers are spacious, or that it snowed.”

Perhaps to him that was the spirit of travel and it has since rubbed off on me in little ways. To him travel was about knowing something and bringing that in depth knowledge home. It was about interacting with a place to the extent where that knowledge gained becomes imbedded, the way you cannot familiarise yourself with seeing as much as you can with doing. I think my philosophy slants a little away from this but leans towards the same sun. When I travel I want to keep an eye out for the insignificant, the often overlooked. I see a cobblestoned street and notice its pattern the same way I like it when snowflakes fall on my cotton gloves and struggle to stay solid. I think about the abandoned suitcases in Auschwitz labelled “Kafka” more than the Arbeit Macht Frei sign. I walk around alleyways because the dark and quiet is more conducive to thought. That’s just how I do things (but I try not to walk around dark alleyways anymore because I almost got robbed once). I look for little things because for some reason I still don’t fully understand, I want to grant these things a story. I want to find a way to weave these into a larger narrative and I do so in the only way I know how.

The bus jerked as it made another turn.

“The whole problem is not that people don’t have the right mindset when they travel for months on end,” he continued. “The problem is that with social media it all feels like an imitation game, everyone ticking one destination off their checklist and then another until they finally feel like they’ve been to all these places. I’m not saying that this process is meaningless for everyone but I wonder, really, just what everyone learns in the process. We focus on the exhibition rather than the experience.” (I do believe at times that the exhibition can be the experience but perhaps that’s for a different piece.)

The bus pulled up at the University, and we scrambled off. Outside the cold bit my ears. All around it was dark, and it was just my friend and I walking down a narrow path to his apartment. We walked up and down different paths, stone, pebbled, concrete. And then we arrived in a room smaller and cosier than I had ever known. There was nothing to tick off a checklist here. No marvellous sight. No Instagram post. He cooked instant spaghetti and terrible packet udon, the kind of food Gordon Ramsey has nightmares about. And yet. It was quite something to behold. Everything. The entire situation of us and the moment, and the time that stood still. If there was anything to understand about a moment like this, it’s to allow the moment to come and go. And reflect. And appreciate your being in that foreign place.

There is no checklist because in the moment, you do not chase. You know why you’re doing what you’re doing and the feeling remains.

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Wave after Wave

I walked past a beach today and as the waves pummelled the shore I noticed how persistent it was in the monotonous push and pull, always crashing, never ceasing in its mindless churn. There seemed that nothing governed this motion but something deep within the Earth, invisible to the eye.

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Something that kept all things grounded pulled the water to the Earth, and a floating object in the sky moved the water around. Something grounded, something drifting. The consistency of waves as the final result.

What I learned last year that I want to bring into this year is that life is all about this sort of balance. There will always be people telling you to be as grounded as you can be, to stay near family, to be in touch with yourself if you can. No reason to be floating around. Then there are those who’d say that discovery and being free of any chastening thoughts, spaces or cultures is the way to go about life, just figuring it out through being a free agent, unaccountable.

I think to achieve some harmony and consistency in your life requires a bit of both.

It’s important to be stable, to have a place to be, to come back to. I firmly believe in this because time and again when I’ve ventured out of my comfort zones a small part of me has gravitated to what I know constitutes my core, be it home, my close friends, my burgeoning interests etc. I come back to these things not stubbornly, as if holding on to something afraid of it disappearing but because I want to hold on, I cannot help but do so. These core aspects of myself are too deeply ingrained to surgically remove.

I think you can never be too grounded in anything that is wholesome and productive to your life. The problem is that it’s often difficult to see what’s good for us at the age we’re at. It’s easy to say that our feelings are correct at the moment but we never know what can change, and the thing that grounds us in the first place, be it a hobby, a job or a person, can also change as we do as well. It’s important to question the assumptions we have about these aspects of our lives by seeing them through different lenses. For example, as I leave on an exchange program this semester, I will question what home really means to me, and whether I can find another one halfway around the world. If the answer turns out to be no, then at least I know with more certainty where my heart lies.

We often fantasise about stability. For the most part, people want to be stable at the end of the day, not spending their whole lives looking over their shoulders and wondering what’s next. Career, family, home. A macro aim of sorts. At the same time, a lot of us in our twenties want to be surprised and enthralled in the current. We create micro aims to rock the boat now and then. We are the least tied down we’ll be in our lives and go looking for adventure, to get out there, to thrive in whatever environment we are put in. To be tired is something our youth can afford.

With a bit of perspective I don’t believe stability and excitement to be mutually exclusive. When we consider the wave, what we see is repetitive and deliberate yet in constant motion. It is this motion that physically defines the wave yet symbolically it is defined by its constance. To be out and about exploring the world constitutes this motion, but the spirit and mindset you take to your exploration should be the underlying constant. We bring on our adventures our own character that will always interact with the environment in a certain way and be shaped by it, and belying the aching need to be free should be a lighthouse in the distance that pulls you in steadily towards some future clarity, of who you want to be or what you want to do. In that way, we take ownership of our experiences.

As the waves crash on shore and fizzle out in silent whimpers just remember that it does so not in vain, but in worship of the larger forces that ensures its existence. As the wave withdraws from shore it has nowhere else to go but where it has come from. There’s something comforting about that.

Sitting on the Airport Floor

I’m sitting on the floor of an airport arrival gate using my phone as it charges and watching energy drip slowly into my phone exhausted from the day of travels, constantly lingering at the zero to 20-something percent range depending on how long I sit at each charging point.

The days exhaustion is no accident. I missed my initial bus stop to the airport I flew out from, and missed the connecting bus by seconds. I took another bus back and then a train and by then it was already pretty late. My mistake cost me 7 hours out of a nine hour transit time. In any other situation I would have missed my flight.

This is as much a reality of travel as is that picture perfect melbourne filtered post of the alps. No one is going to argue that travelling isn’t about pursuing these moments of magic, but travelling is also that mind numbing layover and the missed bus stop, money lost and leg hairs being tugged mercilessly by the heattech warmer and body screaming for sleep.

But no one wants to talk about these things because travelling should be all about self discovery and seeing the world. And that discovery seems to come without baggage, a carefree notion so divorced from toil.

But every vacation does come with baggage. I’d say a lot of how we choose to handle ourselves from our travels comes not from that amazing sight or insane experience but from the little setbacks that we face. That cancelled flight, the midnight drive to a car rental return at 6 am, the waiting, the yearning, the adventures turned into mishaps that became adventures anyway.

An amazing sight presents itself so readily; ever so bright and fuzzy with hashtags and geotags and likes and comments. A plane wreckage Iceland, a perfect triangle of a pyramid, a castle on a hill. However in the lonely moments sitting on the airport floor was where things really made sense to me; tired, lonely, not a single photogenic opportunity around me. And yet I knew then, exactly what I wanted.

I didn’t need to go so far after all.

Strong

Today’s workout was simple, yet gruelling, six repetitions of 1.6km, at 1 minute 28 seconds per round. That would be an 8:48 2.4km pace, with 1 minute and 28 seconds rest between each set.

The first set is always the easiest. Sure, you tend to go out too fast, but by the time it’s over there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank. the first set is always the easiest. Remember that.

The second set comes with it’s own challenges, but by and large it is still manageable. Four rounds around the track come and go. I feel a little breathless at the end of it but no alarm bells are ringing yet. Still, I can walk around without a grimace on my face. My eyes are on the ground but my spirits are slightly higher. I think I can do this.

My watch tells me it’s time to go again. Third set. No looking back. After this it’s the halfway point. I run but mid-set my legs feel heavier than I last remembered, and I feel like I’m pushing a bit harder to maintain the same pace which felt effortless in the first set. One round, two, three. I imagine the final bell ringing and maintain a good pace and finish the fourth round. I make it on time but I’m really feeling it now. I’m not sure if I can do three more sets. More often than not it’s at the halfway point that people begin to doubt.

But there’s no time to doubt because time seems to move faster the more tired you are. My watch shows that the rest is almost up. I try to catch my breath and just manage to get my heart rate low enough for yet another pounding.

the fourth set is the second toughest set of the workout. It’s when you’re too far from the finish to really appreciate your suffering, but yet not totally depleted yet so still have some energy. But make no mistake, that energy is running out. I try to maintain my form. I try focusing on my training buddy’s back. I try to look at the floor. I try to look at the sky. I try anything I can to make the time I spend exerting myself feel less than it actually is. But it seems to stretch on for eternity. If set three is about doubt, set four is about trying. When set four is over I try by best not to put my hands on my hips. I go to my bottle and take a small sip of water. This, too, is an act of trying. I prepare myself for the toughest set.

Set five. It’s everything you don’t want from a set. It’s like the problem child, the obligatory vegetable dish, the typo in a blog post. It’s too far from the end for you to hope for anything yet you’re already almost depleted and you just know that you’ll be dead by the end of it. I want to stop. My legs feel deliriously heavy and I’m not able to breathe comfortably by now. I’m almost gasping for air but surprisingly I still go on. I do all I can to put my fatigue on hold and just keep myself moving forward. I cannot stop. Once I stop then everything is ruined. My previous four sets would go to waste. By entire semester would come crashing down. Stop, and the entire world ends. No. Stopping is not an option. Stopping is for people who don’t become better. I need to be better. And so I continue. I continue not because I necessarily chose to or because I’m crazy. I continue because I’ve primed myself to believe that there simply is no other choice.

And so set five is over. Set six. I’m dead by now but set six is the most magical set of all. It’s the set that comes with the light at the end of it. It’s the set that comes with the promise of the end. It’s the set that you won’t stop even if you tried to. Because you’re there, and nothing can be in your way. I run the sixth set with confidence. It’s tiring as hell, but once you go through set five, you don’t think too much about that anymore.

I finish my workout five seconds ahead of schedule. I walk around and feel like a large heat pack has engulfed my body and it’s burning all around but I couldn’t care less because I had finished what I set out to do.

I am not a strong person. I get distracted very easily. I lose motivation here and there, and I don’t follow up with things as well as I’d like to. I’m terrible at doing things that can actually help my life. I procrastinate more than I should. I lose things easily and forget important dates and timings and am always five minutes late. I try to change but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

But when I run, I put all of that aside. I am as strong as I can be. I don’t give up just because things get a little tough. I don’t have very strong motivations, to be sure. I just like running, I guess. I don’t think I need any more reason than that to run. And so I keep it up. I go for every training. Sometimes I’m five minutes late. But I arrive. I keep going. Halfway through the set it feels like death but I keep going. I tell myself that it’s all for some imaginary greater good. I tell myself this strength is what makes the world go round. I also tell myself that if I conquer this then I can conquer anything.

And conquer everything in my own strength as well. I tell myself that I’m definitely enough on my own to just do something I can be proud of. That I’m better than reliance and all that dependency bullshit. That I’m really better than any uncertainty that is around me. Much better. Even if it’s just for one hour during a Thursday evening workout.

I tell myself that that is enough.

 

 

The Silence Between

The silence between two people is a space that is immune, meaning, that nothing can quite break the silence except action, and since we presume silence then there is no action anyway. So silence, though fragile, is also somewhat indestructible by the very virtue of being itself. In silence what develops and what is lost is what ever there is inherent already whilst there was action and interaction. In silence only lies potential. Distance itself is a great carrier of silence, though not unique as a place where silence may reside. Instead, silence plays to its own tune, and challenges one to sustain it. Do you have faith? In faith there can be that silence, a blissful one. From the lack of faith, a tumultuous silence, one filled with fearful thoughts, thoughts of lack, thoughts of failure. Silence uncovers all these things.

I think what silence uncovers as well is our will to grow. Our will to take a step out of ourselves now and then to ask questions. We see a lot of what is real when given some distance, when given that silence. The silence between close friends comfortable, the silence with a distant acquaintance or relative at times unbearably awkward. Physically both are the same, but implications wise, never more different. We need to grow out of these moments, find a will to want something more out of ourselves. I think that in such moments we have to think of ourselves first, ask if we are comfortable with the way things are and whether this silence, in what ever form it comes in, will be what defines your relationship with the person or what destroys it. We have to ascertain early on whether there will ever be the potential for growth, and if there is that in our silent shells we decide that we want to fight or not. There’s no point anymore, if say, the silence is one that swallows you whole and makes your heart sink. Then you have to reconsider the silence, maybe take some action. Fight or flight.

But also, silence teaches us patience. Silence can be blissful, but also a time when thoughts wander and you struggle to fill them with anything else but what you really want to fill them with. But you cannot. Silence teaches us that waiting isn’t just about letting time pass. It is an act of self improvement. As I said before, physically it seems simple, but in every other aspect it is an act of supreme endurance, a conscious act of trying, pulling the brakes, letting feelings come and go unattended. It’s all ok, in the sense that, it’s ok that there is a struggle. It is only to be expected. That’s what the silence is for. To grow.

The silence between two people then, is a gamble. Because as invulnerable as silence is, it makes its participants ever more vulnerable, the most vulnerable they can be. Once there is action again we do not know how the other has changed, or even how the interaction will change. Do you believe that two people have a specific essence? I do. I think that any interaction is its own self-contained universe. In the silence that universe is allowed to morph, but morph separately, apart, disjointed. It tends towards growth, or towards death. Something is bound to change. Put them back together and you get an essence that wasn’t what it was, something different. Not necessarily better or worst, but different. Silence is the slow preparation of what there is to mix, of thoughts, emotions, identities flailing, changing, ripening, decomposing. Everything. Silence is invulnerable because you do not know what the other person might change into. It is the impenetrable wall that you either grow stronger for or falter.

Silence between two people exists. And that’s all there is in between is faith, all sorts of faith; the good, the bad, the ugly. We don’t always conquer the silence, but we always learn something about ourselves in the process. If we see it that way, then any silence gives us something valuable. A part of ourselves, perhaps, that we hadn’t previously known.

Just to Set Things Straight

Interesting

Pink leaves falling off grey trees
A watch that announces the time rather than shows it
Having a fresh banana in your carry on
Eating a mudpie whilst unicycling across Times Square

Over-invested

Calling twice in an hour
Taking a taxi instead of a bus when there’s still time just so you can impress
Colouring your drawing when the teacher said at least black and white
Making someone’s day just in case their day isn’t already made

Unimpressive

Having no resume to show
Eating a burrito with a fork
Having a rickety shower head
A boat that has bullet holes in it

Trying

Taking a taxi instead of a bus when you know you might be late
Eating a burrito with a fork
Plugging the holes on a sinking ship
Calling to make sure they are safe

Knowing

The doctors face when he walks out of the operating theatre
The hangman as he measures the thickness of the noose
A gifted child in a first grade maths class
When she tells you ‘we need to talk’

Loving

Making someone’s day just in case their day isn’t already made
Plugging the holes in a sinking ship
Calling to make sure they are safe
When the tide turns but you don’t.

 

I Wore a White Shirt to Art Class

I wore a white oxford button on the first day of school because I wanted to look presentable.  People who wear such attires often look presentable. And so I wanted to be that guy and so I wore a white shirt to my first class.

It was an art class. I should have known.

Charcoal in hand and white sheet in front of me where all the charcoal should go. We go through lines, curves, values. We go through the history of art from then to now to God knows when. And I don’t know when either because art seems to stretch on to the future as well because as long as there are people in that future and there will be art. There will be chances for 23 year-old men to get their shirts dirtied should they wear light coloured shirts to art classes. I think about lines.

I think about how you can’t quite draw an object fully, to represent it fully because no matter how you try, the distance between you and the object is something that already distorts. Lines aren’t as straight or as crooked or sometimes you draw lines when there aren’t even any lines at all. The object exists outside of you and you can’t ever just conceptualise it with 100% accuracy and as long as you can’t you realise the error is already in the blueprint. I pull my hand back to reevaluate my attempt at drawing a cluster of objects and all I manage is a thin line of charcoal across my shirt.

Objects in your mind are conceptualised and bubbling around in that fun space but now comes the terrible part; you have to get it from head to hand and hand to pencil and pencil to paper. You go through these manifold translations, where some are better at representing than others. The pencil to the paper portion can simply be decided by the quality of the pencil and the paper. Some pencils have the sort of rough quality to it that renders things easy to rub and make faded and form more veritable impressions of shadow and darkness. Other pencils are just nicer to hold. But in the end it’s not the materials you have that really define your work. It’s the whole head to hand portion which messes people up.

Sometimes you’re good at it; and for good artists on good days the idea of the object flows sumptuously to the page and on the page the art flourishes. For some other artists it is the emotion that they capture very well and how it interacts with the conceived object and that flows around in their head for a while before it leaks out from their hands and you get a work that is not objective but tainted with some emotional valence and you’re suddenly taken to a different place in time when maybe you saw her standing there beside you at a museum or when you saw rabbits playing in their pens. The soft fur, the languid stares. The potential to feel something is always in the art. But the feelings you feel and the ideas conceptualised sometimes when flowing out of unskilled or unsure hands looks many shades away from the truth you hold in yourself. And it that sense art can serve to really disappoint. You try and you try but your heart, you realise, is a fortress that doesn’t let any of itself out by virtue of a poor slight of hand, of unavailable resource, or inability to garner enough faith in yourself. All this disallows that which you feel to be cast out into the open.

I scratch my ribs and leave another dark, less defined mark on my shirt.

I think again as I sit there looking at scenery with pencil in hand, thinking of how I’ll miss home even before I leave it. And then when I leave home I think of how I’ll hate the place I might go to and I think about it so much that I hate it already, even before I set foot. I think about how sometimes learning a new skill is like that process of leaving and hating. You discover yet you doubt and through that doubt you unearth what is really expected of you. You feel so exposed that it’s almost unfair. You try to hold on to anything that reminds you of what you are. I think of the stories to tell when I try to draw and I think of how much of me, if any of me at all, is in the end product.

I wonder if untrained hands possess any soul at all. Maybe they do, but maybe those souls are…how should I put it… Yes, tainted, in some way or another.

All I know is that when I wore a white shirt to art class, I left my class with that shirt in various shades, with some sort of tiredness registered on the collar along with a irritability on the sleeves. This shirt might not have emotions, but I feel for the shirt. It must miss its former self. To have some ‘character’ isn’t all there was to life, it seems.

I feel bad for my shirt, but I know that in time to come this shirt will go through the wash and it will be as if nothing happened. It will be absolved of all its past filth and find new meaning in whiter shores.

But for now, the shirt remains as it is, hanging in my closet, tainted.