Don’t be Fooled by All This Reunion

Don’t be fooled by the facade of your grand-aunt’s house, spick and span as it is, not so much a blemish on the wall. It wasn’t like this just four days ago. It was quiet, stale, mundane and everything this bustling house full of relatives clad in red tries to dissociate itself from. It runs from its horrid past, a quick sprint that happens once every year.

Don’t be fooled by your uncle asking you for your Major in University and your path in life, or telling you about the seeming madness of the working world he warns you against. He doesn’t care about any of it. He just wants to tide over the time, to perform a formality he has performed for over 50 years of his life and that you will too, for the next 50 of yours.

Don’t be fooled by your cousin who looks so good in his button on, who checks his Panerai every few minutes to make sure it’s still there. He has his insecurities too, and hopes that no one asks him too many questions. There are some cracks you can see appear; his willingness to dissolve into thin air and materialise somewhere else.

Don’t be fooled by the fun of Black-Jack. With every hand that you reveal, the excitement mounts and we seem closer than ever before. But in the end, all that holds us together is vice.

Don’t be fooled by the red packet that is presented to you over and over. But then again, if it isn’t meaningful conversations that unite us then maybe all this money can act as a viable substitute.

Don’t be fooled by the pineapple tarts and Bakkwa and Love letters that you shove into your mouth. They’re not good for health. But they’re good for giving you a break from the stifling small-talk.

Don’t be fooled by the Instagram pictures of families closer than ever before, clad in their best and giving the flashiest of smiles. Familial bonds often fall short of the precision of that tailored shirt.

Don’t be fooled by the two oranges you hold in your hand. If you look closely, they are neither perfectly round, nor smooth on the surface. They are in fact the definition of an imperfect whole.

Don’t be fooled by all this reunion. If you wanted reunion you would have done something about it in the 350 days you had before and after. You wouldn’t have waited for this particular time of year to practice this mere formality, to partake in this excruciating performance.

 

 

 

Being Alive Keeps Me Running

Three months ago early in November 2016, I felt like I was in the form of my athletic life. Make no mistake, I still feel that way now, but back then the feeling was novel to me. It was as if my legs could suddenly go faster and bring me further than they’ve ever had before. It was great.

I was excited for most runs. I was excited to see new sights, to feel my legs go when I told them to go, to feel my lungs burn but still manage. I laced up my shoes that Saturday afternoon and went off on that long run. 15 kilometres starts at my house, goes down Balestier, to Lornie road past Thomson and MacRitchie Reservoir, back down Bukit Timah Road, past Novena and back home.

But fitness, as good an ideal to strive towards, never constitutes a perfect journey. The run started to get tiring. The kind of tired where you’re not breathless, nor are your legs in pain, but somehow you’re just exhausted and don’t quite want to go on. It was only 7 kilometres in, but I told myself that I could manage. I’d gone longer feeling worst before. And so I went down, past the Adam road stretch after Lornie road. The sky was grey as usual, there was a slight drizzle halfway through but it abated. The sun never threatened. It was humid as ever. I grit my teeth, and tried desperately to keep my breath in check.

And so down Bukit Timah Road is when I decided to try go a little faster. Only six kilometres left, it wouldn’t be too hard. The tiredness went away a little bit. I was confident enough to go stride for stride with my imagined pace, before the pavement thinned a little. Vehicles of every size passed from behind, some closer than others, but that’s the danger of running with the flow of traffic: your back is to the cars so you can’t see them coming at you. I keep up a good tempo, passing Botanic Gardens and CCAB soon after. Ok, good. The pace is good. I keep check of the time and the forecast is that I’ll be back home in 25 minutes.

And then the pavement got even bumpier and I went with it, paying careful attention to my knees. And then it happens. I lose my footing when one foot hits a bump on the pavement and I stumble. I try to retrieve my footsteps but it was too late, my steps were impossibly synchronised before that and suddenly the tempo was shattered and I just fell forward.

There are two ways to fall; you either go face flat and get both your knees ruined or you do this break fall thing where you turn to your side and land on your knee, hip then shoulder. It spreads out the impact so your knees don’t have to bear the brunt of the fall. I didn’t expect myself to choose the better option, but I did. I cushioned the fall almost instinctively by turning and rolling over, landing on my side then rolling over on my back, sprawled out on the main road and facing the sky. I might have scraped the side of my knee, and my shoulder was screaming slightly, but I was alive.

I stood up and just continued running. I didn’t think about the pain so much, but just went on. The shoulder started to sting a little, and as the air brushed past my knee the wound would liven up. Eventually I slowed down a little in case of any injury (my knee did still hit the ground regardless), and made the rest of the distance home. I was exhausted.

I write this because upon reaching back I realised how lucky I was. As I rolled over I may have cushioned the blow, but what happened in the meantime was that my entire body went onto the road, and I was left staring at the sky, helpless. It occurs to me now with frightening clarity that there was really nothing stopping me from being hit by oncoming traffic had oncoming traffic been there to greet me from my tumble. All that happened, as I recall now, was me being sprawled out, and a silver van in the distance slowing down a little until I got up and running again. Life went on as usual after that five second incident. There just so happened that the road was empty, and it just so happened that I am alive right now.

I could argue for hours about how running on pavements is dangerous, that running is dangerous. That Singapore has narrow roads and reckless drivers. The possibilities are endless. But the fact is that I’ve always been running on pavements, and running, whether dangerous or not, is not something I’d be giving up anytime soon. All I can say is when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. A hefty probability to swallow, but probability nonetheless. Earlier last year, there was a woman who fell off her bicycle on the pavement and onto the road near my house. A heavy vehicle failed to notice her and crushed her under large wheels. What separates me from her is essentially timing. Any other time of the day could have seen this post never being typed and published.

So what is there to say? Of all our time on this earth maybe 99% of it is spent not thinking about its end. And that one percent happens mostly at times like these. That if things happened slightly different that you wouldn’t quite be the same anymore. Or that you wouldn’t even be alive.

Normally when I run I think of its pleasures, I think of the cool air that hits my face while meandering down damp MacRitchie paths and the thrill of the final bell, but on occasion running places me on a road sprawled out onto incoming traffic. I am cast into the dark realm of could-have-beens but fortunately did-not-happens. I learn that the hand that gives can as easily take away everything, all at once. And that helps me treasure every opportunity I have out there, every last breath I take while I’m still alive.

And that’s the whole point: running reminds me of the things we take for granted, from the simple things like breathing and moving my feet, to the larger issues of life and death, along with the fragility of it all. And that maybe if we considered the things we took for granted and placed just some importance upon them, that we can begin to slowly unravel what the world wants to tell us. That it’s pretty amazing to be alive, let alone sustain this alive-ness in any good measure.

So when I look at myself now, three months from that day I fell down at Bukit Timah, I see someone who is just grateful to be out there. And no matter how painful or demanding or disappointing running may turn out to be, this underlying contentment should always stay. Because as good as personal bests and individual achievements are, they’re not what keeps me running. Being alive and well is what keeps me running. The latter is what I should always strive for.

She Captured a Feeling, Sky Without Ceiling

I thought about what to write for a long time, and this is not usual for me. I usually just go with whatever comes to mind and it works out. Well, most of the time it does. Maybe everything I write now comes out strange, because a big part of me thinks that this is also for myself, for the road I want to embark on may turn out to be pretty similar to yours. Maybe we aren’t that different at all. But I oversimplify. And besides, this is hardly about me.

You’re going to New York. Make no mistake about it.  Most don’t go as far as this, because most don’t dream the way you dream. You dreamed of a vision where you conquer and attain. I think I’m oversimplifying again, but somehow I have the notion that most dreams are like that. You are up against seemingly insurmountable forces and so have to overcome in order to attain a goal you really want. I think you can fill in the blanks. And once you fill in those blanks it’s good to observe that not many people have these blanks to fill in. In other words, not many people have such dreams. In fact many people go through life not knowing what they’re good at, or are supposed to be good at. Most don’t find that one thing in life they’re willing to take a plane halfway around the world and fight for. And this makes your situation a precious one. That you even have a dream to hold on to in the first place is remarkable.

You can’t waste something like this. You can’t sit at home and think of ways to ‘be realistic’ with your life because what is deemed as realistic has long since vanished when you stepped on that plane. And when I say you can’t waste this, I don’t just mean this one opportunity. I’m talking about talent. I’m talking about dreams. I’m talking about how all these elements converge at a precise point which just so happens to be you; a convergence that skips generations and doesn’t come back if you hesitate just once.

Perhaps it’s easy to think of all this as a happy coincidence, but I see this as fate, or at least some variation of it. Not fate in the sense that things will work out for sure. In fact, things are anything but certain. What I mean is fate, in the path that you have been pushed towards steadily, whether by your own doing or by forces greater than yourself. Either way, this path is to be respected, and pursuing it is going to take everything you’ve got, every last ounce of energy and verve.

Anything I say beyond this point is going to sound more cliché and vague than it already is. I hope you encounter the best and worst of New York, and make brilliant of both. In the end my wishes, though long winded as they usually are, can be mercifully summarised: be brave.

This is a letter for a friend who’s leaving on exchange to study film. In many ways I hope I get to do the same with writing. Only time will tell. 

On Being Present

It’s the start of the semester and I am already a playlist on shuffle, with my heart not exactly in my schoolwork but my feet still constantly running, running, running. I’ve also been hell bent on spending more time with people if I can, having lengthy conversations if possible and striving to know just one more fact about someone while there’s still time. As silly as it sounds, I want to hinge much of my energy this semester on being present.

After a ferocious semester of overloading, the dust hasnt quite settled yet and I’m still somewhat ruffled, with the notion that hard work isnt everything. That I need some slack too. Again, there is a season for fighting, a season for putting your weapons down. I need more time to think about what I really want to do, and though I know that I’m saying this from a privileged position, I can’t help but find a simpler way to tide over my current semester. And so I’m on the brink of making some decisions, whether I should soldier on with the same old tough combinations in the new year, or make a few changes and suscribe to a less demanding module, or at least modules that train different faculties of thought (the politically correct definition of things can always be found if you try hard enough).

Running, yes! I’m excited to say that I’m the captain for my college’s Road Relay team. This is an exercise in baton passing where six runners run a couple of kilometres each before passing on to the next and it goes on until the last person runs in. Whatever strategy you choose to have, one thing is for certain: you have to be fast. I’ve been training a few runners who I’m eternally grateful for because just how many people are willing to come down to run rounds around a track at 7 am in the morning? (The answer is in fact seven people.) I have the highest hopes and if there’s any lesson that I hope they learn in the coming months it’s that  individual performance is important, but group consistency, more so. The same goes with time. One great workout is awesome, but a hundred good workouts are all the better. With some (and by some I mean a lot of) patience, compounding your gains is what gets you there.

My own cross country training is something I cannot omit as I think about the semester. But I can only summarise my feelings towards it in three words: it’s going well. The team is synchronised in cadence, passion and I’m becoming more attuned to life in Cross. I like it here. Not the over obsessive desire that overtakes and consumes, but the quiet contentment that I’m getting better with every training. Knowing the difference between the two is the key to not burning out. I hope I’ve got this for the semesters to come, and I hope I continue running with the same people by my side.

Balancing my studies and running is all good, but being there for people is essential. And it’s not even that difficult, plus at the core this is what we want for ourselves anyway. I’ve asked quite a few people if a successful career is more crucial to them than human relationships, and so far only a small handful has said yes. The vast majority believe in meaningful friendships over career success. And no wonder; because there’s a vast distinction between feeling fulfilled alone, and feeling fulfilled with others. The latter is where you want to be; whilst being mighty but estranged from all things intimate and familiar is a truly scary prospect. So this leads back to my first point; I need some time to reshuffle my priorities, spend time with people, find more meaning in the things we say to each other, the way we say these things. Study hard, yes. It’s important. I learned just how important it was last semester. But live harder and inch forth eager to be there when you’re there, not in some faraway land concerned with plucking new evidence for your essay off imaginary apple trees.

Spend your money on the things money can buy, and spend your time on the things money can’t buy. 

You belong to the real world, where hearts flutter and muscles need to move and work. So live up to that.

The Girl at the Corner of the Bus

The girl at the corner of the bus — what is she thinking about? She has long wavy black hair that streams down the front of her face; that she pushes back occasionally as it blocks the view of her phone screen. She wears a black tank top that accentuates the swell of her chest. Black-framed spectacles. From where I sit, this is all I can observe; that all she wears is black, and I wonder if this is random. Did she just so happen to pick put all these items from her wardrobe, or was this intentional? Is black a message, or is black a deliberate covering up? Covering up unpleasant curves, turning everything formless, more desirable? Was that the plan, or is black simply a statement? I am wearing black because I am sad. I am wearing black because I appear sad but am anything but. I am wearing black because I am on a way to a funeral at 10 AM. It could be any of these things, or none of them.

She must be about my age, if not just slightly younger.

Her face looks strangely content, as if her life up to this point has been smooth sailing. Her eyebrows are probably threaded, her nose long and sharp, eyes not too big or too small. Her lips aren’t what one would consider small. But it doesn’t make her look unattractive. In fact, it might even look good on her. Her skin looks yellow from where I sit, maybe it’s the reflection of light off the red seats that illuminate her, maybe her skin colour leans closer to white or beige. But for now, I’ll stick to yellow. Yes, she seems strangely yellow.

She looks down at her phone for what must be the 53rd time. I can guess what she’s looking at even without walking over and kicking up a fuss. Instagram, Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp, then Instagram again. She may be swiping through Tinder. It’s the sort of covertness the corner of the bus affords. She looks impatient suddenly. Perhaps the ride is stretching on too long. Maybe I’m projecting my own impatience on her.

She must be thinking of something right now. She has stopped looking through her phone but out of the window instead, at the streets of Little India. The colours and sights stream past like a blur shot in a Wong Kar Wai film. The people stand in the sun waiting; for traffic lights, for buses, for each other, but waiting. She sees it all and she must be thinking about how mundane it all is. That we get to see the same things over and over and still we look on.

Or maybe she’s thinking of how to escape it all, and that looking back down through her phone might just be the only way for now. Ok, now I’m definitely projecting.

But there she is. And she must be thinking, that out of all the streets that hold all their secrets, that sprawl outwards from where I sit, that of all the things in the world I could explore or be or feel or savour; that I am trapped in this bus, scrolling through my phone on my way to some forlorn destination. And a skinny boy is glancing at me once every few minutes, typing vigorously on his phone. He sits diagonal to me, sunlight splashing across the side of his body. Maybe she wonders what I’m typing away on my phone.

She’ll probably never guess.

Spotify ‘Your Top Songs 2016’ Playlist

If my life were a giant playlist I’d put on some earphones, have it on repeat and walk through some dark woods all day. I’d take deep breaths of clean, moist air and allow the music to dictate the pace of my steps, avoiding rotting logs and side-stepping large rocks that stick out of the damp soil.

But my life is hardly a playlist, though scrolling through Spotify today I noticed the closest thing to it: my top songs of 2016.

I clicked it absentmindedly, thinking that it would just be another one of those things you press on the Youtube sidebar and end up being thoroughly unimpressed by (most things on the internet are like that anyway) but it turned out to be very informative. 2016 seems to be compressed into a few thoughts by the end of December, but as the songs just kept coming, I realised just how much I had listened to over the year. Surely I couldn’t have had so much time. There were songs that I never knew I listened to so much, just the vague memory of it pings back like a distant light that you can barely make out. I sit there thinking about the year.

When we think back about time we look for firm anchors and incidences and then begin to explore how we felt about these events then, versus how we feel about them now. Listening to the playlist had an opposite effect, it brought back feelings, or the memory of feelings, from which I had to trace back to the events or the time period in which those feelings were attached to. The song doesn’t pause for you, but continues and gives you more clues. Suck it and See by the Arctic Monkeys played, and I thought about the times I would listen to AM on repeat as I studied, something I don’t quite do anymore. Then there was Petit Biscuit, which accompanied me through late nights, whether we were drinking or I was struggling to write something, anything. And so the playlist goes on. I don’t listen to those songs as much as I used to.

How nice would it be to live life like it were a playlist. Not just a static playlist, but one that keeps changing according to what you fancy, one that evolves constantly, kicking out the older songs and adding in new songs as you go. There’s no feeling like getting to know a song better. On the first listen you’re not so sure if you like it so much but as it goes along it gets better, you get more attuned to what it’s trying to say. And before long you get the song, and the song gets you. Even the self invented language of Sigur Ros has you closing your eyes and nodding along. And then it becomes a melody you hum in elevators or on the last kilometre of a run. It follows you. But then as soon as you begin to love the song something strange happens: the song starts to fade. That vehicle of emotion picks you up less and less, drops you off a few stops too early, sometimes a few stops too late. As time goes on the song ceases to be what it meant at the start. It loses its lustre, and even before you can begin to question why, you are transfixed on a different melody, one you’d swear to keep close to you. But the cycle, it repeats. You’ll lose your affinity with that song. And we’re okay with that.

We’re okay with that, which is the most remarkable thing. Songs come and go but do not break our heart. I wish we could be like this about the comings and goings in our lives as well.

But we can’t, which makes sense because songs are pure, but life experiences that they remind us of are not. Experiences taint if not anything, and as the playlist goes on, as you begin to link the songs to the emotions to the experience, you realise just how songs mean nothing if not for your experiences. Songs are like clothing, no? Synthetic and meaningless if not for the wearer under it. And they come and go like the seasons, just giving themselves the time to nestle on your chest and when it is their time to leave they leave, silently closing the door behind them.

Until the day you decide to put on some earphones and take a long walk through the woods. The sound of nature is cut out, only the sight of its shy demeanour exists alongside the sound of 2016, that cuts through the air like falling ice. And then you see him hiding behind a tree as you listen to his favourite song. And you suddenly wished he didn’t have to kill himself like that. And then as the song changes you see her sitting by the stream, and you regret not having talked to her about everything before it all went wrong. And at the end of the path you see him: yourself. He is looking up in the trees as if searching for a bird, with a little notebook in his hand. His posture is upright, full of hope. You walk up to him. You want to ask him just what it was that gave him so much to look forward to back then. That maybe, if I knew that one secret to my past happiness, that I could put my earphones away and step out of the woods.

But then the song switches, and when I look up again he is gone.