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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She Told Me Words Meant Nothing

She told me words meant nothing and it took the wind out of my lungs because words were all I had, all that I lugged around in a heavy briefcase, stuffed in my mind, let overflow on paper, pixel, out into the air through what I spoke and in the end those were words that guided my heart.

She told me words meant nothing but I had already written many words for her tucked away in folders and notes and postcards and spotify playlists and those words were words that I would read to myself to make sure they were good, well polished. I made sure they shone in ways that I myself couldn’t so she might mistake those words for me myself.

She told me words meant nothing but I read the words she wrote and I knew I was in the right place because her words took up entire text boxes which in turn filled up a thumb and a half of space and eventually my heart. Her words convinced everyone of her worth, but herself.

She told me words meant nothing. But words were my actions because action did not need to be a blow of the fist or a pyrotechnic show. Actions can be the purchase of a polaroid and a permanent marker. Effort can be the printing of paper and the quick typing at 3 am. Actions can be thoughts in words and words on paper and paper in an envelope 3000 miles from home, feeling small in her hands, always on the brink of being opened and read but not yet.

She told me words meant nothing, and I told her why should they mean nothing. She told me she couldn’t feel words, that they were inanimate shining black on an ivory backdrop.

I told her that words meant nothing, but that words were never the point. That trying was always what mattered despite the nothingness that stared us straight in the face and bared its teeth. That trying which I didnt know how else to prove but through words. The trying which meant that even if things didnt work out that I would leave with no regrets.

Perhaps there are no words for that.

On Turning 23: a Three-part Study in Vomit

I

The first day of my 24th year started off pretty much like it ended: in vomit.

Of course, no one means for things to end in a pool of dinner-remains and bile. Vomiting is nature’s wild card, happening with the regularity of, say, bumping into an old acquaintance on the bus. Once a year if you’re lucky, never at all would be best. It’s an uncanny comparison, and I can’t decide which scenario is worst. At least you’re likely to feel better after vomiting.

23 started in vomit. It happened quickly. It was half past one on the Uber, I was in the front passenger seat watching street lights streak across the dashboard. A dude no older than me gets on at Holland Village, having, like me, had the presence of mind to use Uber-pool in an attempt to save a few. But things go wrong as the Uber turns into the main road where my house is. “I need to vomit,” he begs. The desire to find the sidewalk when you are on the verge of barfing is as instinctive as wanting love and affection in a cold lonely world. Your body will search for an excuse, any at all, to release the contents of the night.

He did not find the curbside. Instead, his vomit found the side of the car door, and some of my left arm when I tried to open the door for him. I remember vividly. It was a white chuck of something on my arm. It looked almost like a piece of ground chicken. All this, from a person who had the presence of mind to save $3 by Uber-pooling.

And so, 23 started with vomit. Make what you want of that.

Eighteen hours later, I was at a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I used to hide alcohol from my parents during my army days, but nowadays I’m old enough for my grandfather to look at me with intense sadness every time I reject a drink. It’s disappointment of the highest degree, the kind that can land you in jail of you abet in its continuation. The classic beer-whisky-wine combo is what we always have at such occasions, and once you start on one, you’ll have to go through all of them. A lot of families know that it isn’t good to mix different kinds of liquors, and for all I know only drink one kind of liquor in one sitting. My family is not one of them. Our conversations got louder and louder as the dishes came and went. This restaurant  was peculiar, serving the assortment platter as a third dish, and soup as the second last dish. If you’re of Chinese heritage or have been to enough of these dinners, then you’d know what I mean. It was a strange order, a perfect segue to the even stranger night ahead.

I was poured a glass of whisky that was intensely personal: and by personal I mean that the cup was full enough to change your night. The glass was filled three quarters up with pure whisky; a conservative estimate would equate it to five shots. I reached out to take it, but my grandfather interjected. “I’ll drink this for you because it’s your birthday.” He said this with a smile on his face that was a mixture of confidence and kindness. It was a peculiar smile, the kind that doesn’t ask for anything in return. And so he did. I don’t know how, but he finished the entire glass over the course of the night. This was on top of wine, and beer, and another glass of whisky before that. His level of inebriation gave him the authority to talk about World War Two, and his passage from China to Singapore. Come to think of it, he always had that authority. The alcohol just gave him a reason to use it.

Alcohol is the ultimate example of diminishing returns. By the end of the night my grandfather was hobbling out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk. My brother and I were holding him, one of us on each side, waiting for my father to come over with the car. We struggled to get him in without his head hitting the doorframe. He was muttering sweet nothings, holding onto me tightly as we guided him into the vehicle. From there we had to slowly get him out of the car. At this point he was still relying on his own energy to stand up and walk forward. We were just there to ensure that he didn’t fall forwards or back. He needed a firm hand to hold and there we were; his grandchildren. He said a bunch of thank yous as we guided him up the stairs to his bedroom, and more hugs were exchanged right before we left.

This is the same man that I hardly talk to in the course of normal conversation. Not that there was any one reason for this, but perhaps just my own lack of initiative that accreted over the years and led me to become the grandson I was, the kind that takes the presence of his grandparents for granted. A grandson I wouldn’t want my own grandchildren (if I ever see that day) to be but probably the grandchildren I deserve. My grandmother was peeling an orange for him in the kitchen, and my grandfather sat on his recliner in his room with a smile on his face. That smile. Given how my grandmother was excessively calm, I got the sense that this has definitely happened before. Sometimes I wish I knew more about my grandparents, and in some instances I have tried to. But it never seems enough, does it? Not enough time, not enough effort. But if a drunken episode is what it takes to get some sense of closeness, then I’d settle for that.

***

II

I was shuttled back home after that with surprising haste, where a bunch of my friends were already waiting for me in my room. With some alcohol swimming in my blood I was struck by a singular perverse thought; that everyone had to go down kicking and screaming as well. Cups in one hand and ice in the other, I poured them a bunch of drinks that were gentle at first, then got higher in alcohol content as the mixers started to run out. We played a bunch of party games that involved 1) careful attention to the environment 2) a good sense of circular direction 3) an ability to dissociate speech with action. Any penalty incurred would mean a sip. As you can imagine, these are all judgments that get increasingly harder to make as the alcohol massages your senses, and so if one were to draw a graph of how intoxicated you would be over the course of the game then it would be of an increasing rate. The more intoxicated you are, the more mistakes you make, and the more mistakes you make, the more intoxicated you become. I did two more potent mixes and stashed them in fruit juice boxes for good concealment. Some of us were already swimming by the time we left my house.

We got on the uber before 1.

By then my birthday was already over, but that’s not important. No, not at all.

The night involved 5 more potent drinks, and two of my friends leaving early to regurgitate their dinners outside. Alcohol is a study in diminishing returns, and we were all way past the peak.

As promised, my 23rd birthday ended in vomit. I reached home at about 3 am, and let everything out on a grass patch outside my house. I crouched over and allowed my body to save itself. There was a stinging sensation at the back of my throat, one that I had to rid myself of by guzzling on a stream of garden hose water. Surprisingly, I remembered everything.

23 was an age I thought I would never reach. This has nothing to do with life expectancy. I just thought that time would fold upon itself, halving again and again as I approached 23, but never quite reaching. I would forever be in the vague zone between 20 and 22 but never will I ever actually cross that boundary. Maybe I feel this way because my life was always a comfortable and privileged one. People always say that they grew up too fast but I never did feel that way. If anything I didn’t grow up as fast as I’d like. There was always a house to go back to and a school to call my own and parents who didn’t pressure me so much. It has helped me to pause and think about a bunch of stuff but sometimes I wonder just how far can thinking get you. I have some goals and I have chased after them but I don’t know how realistic they are. Now is an especially apt time to reconsider, but also to find ways to move on with my life. You can’t be trapped in the 20 – 22 year old buffer zone forever. It was fun while it lasted, yes, but it’s not where you want to be in, say, ten years from now. You have to force every notion of a coddled existence out of your life like your body rejects anything too toxic.

Maybe 23 started and ended in vomit to remind me of that sudden instinct to purge all the insecurity and laziness that has followed me around. But it’s a weak proposition. After all, there’s no final consolation and no final reflection for these things. Dealing with negativity will always be an ongoing process, and that’s not a bad thing because it gives us something to work towards. Keep your head in the game, be there for loved ones, don’t take things for granted, be brave enough to live and love. We live for these realisations. Sure, they sound like platitudes but these mantras keep our lives in check and remind us constantly that it’s not just about ourselves that we live, but for those around us. And then this links back to how alcohol helps us notice all these things; enhances the intimacy with the people we care about yet allowing us to appreciate the voids that we carry within ourselves.

***

III

I don’t have the answers but the closest thing to a resolution would be what someone told me on the night before my birthday: that it’s ok to not be there yet, but as long as you have the awareness that you’re not there then there’s some salvation. I think that’s a good as place as any to start, whether there’s vomit involved or not.