The Thrill of the Chase

With the starting command I ran forth and tried to stay with the pack. It was smooth at first, the entire group going at close to 4 minute pace, which was actually quite manageable. I stuck close to them, and we wove through west coast park, down the underpass out to the other side. And then I started to lose contact. There wasn’t much of an increase in their pace at first, but a slow, sudden realisation that I just wasn’t that fit. It was like, watching a cup fall off a table from a distance, and not being able to do anything about it. The rest of the run was abysmal. With the entire lead group out of sight, there was really no need to fight for anything anymore. Whatever dignity that I thought I could preserve was inconsequential. It was my third and last try and I canned it.

After the time trial I was quite broken but tried not to show it. I acted as if this was precisely what I was expecting of myself. The past few months leading up to August had been turbulent in terms of training. I hadn’t had a consistent pattern of workouts; my internship was hectic, as were intermittent meet ups with friends, drinks, parties and what not. There was no winning formula amidst all that mess. I gave everything during the workouts, but the truth was there was no consistency, and so all that effort was for nothing. Sometimes I would fall sick, sometimes I would let excuses get in the way and skip trainings. It was very unlike myself.

I also lacked a lot of focus. I wasn’t even sure which distance I wanted to really do. It was supposed to be 5.8km, to prepare for SuniG cross country which i failed utterly to qualify for anyway.

After the entire disappointing period was over I gave myself a week off serious running. I went to Hong Kong for a vacation, and did a few easy runs in Singapore. And in that time, I developed a training plan from a Jack Daniel’s (a sports science expert, not the alcohol brand) training guide that meticulously highlighted what each and every training should serve to do.

With that I started to train. The training was divided into phases, with phase one being base building, which I took 3 weeks to accomplish. These three weeks were by far the most relaxed; just easy runs, 3 times a week, and nothing more. At first I trained 4 times a week without fail, 3 easy runs and one moderate run. I was always raring to go faster but I knew that I had to pay for my past foolishness with patience. I churned out the long, slow miles around the NUS soccer field, running 30, 40, 50 rounds each time. Sometimes people joined, sometimes I did this alone.

I started the training thinking that I would be training for 10,000m at first, but halfway through I decided to switch over to 1500m training. This was because I felt a sense of incompletion from my previous season training as a 1500m runner. I had gotten injured mid-way through the season and never reached full potential. This was my last chance to seal the deal.

But first, there had to be some lifestyle changes. I drank substantially less. I was lucky because this training phase coincided with when work started to pile up over the semester, so many of my friends had to sense to tuck away the bottles and bring out their books. I rode this wave of self-discipline and replaced the whisky with 100-plus and coconut water. I also ate more carbs to supplement the long distances and generally didn’t stay up till too late (and of course, replaced suppers with breakfasts).

Phase 2 came along and the workouts at first looked really easy on the program. They consisted of 8 x 200m at 36-37s, with 200m jogs in between. It looked a far cry from the gruelling 14 x 500m I did when I was training for SuniG. But when I did the workout, it took the air out of me. Who knew that just doing such short repeats could have me huffing and puffing at the end? And then I referred to the program, and saw that in another week would be the 400 repeats at 74. I was in for a treat.

It got better after a few workouts; I figured out how to properly jog-rest to give myself the most efficient rest, and also found some of my middle-distance kick back.

After 3 weeks of this, I realised that Inter-club was around the corner, and that I was going to do the 1500m very underprepared; having only done 200 and 400m intervals.

I was a ball of nerves before the race, having gone to the toilet twice before to ease my bowel movements before stepping up to the start line. When the race started I decided to keep the pace conservative, letting myself fall back at first before catching up nearer to the end. It was gruelling. During the second last lap, doubts rang in my head; and I wondered what all that training, planning and time spent away from friends and work was for. But then when the final lap came along I told myself that I’d done so many 400m intervals at this pace, and even more 200m intervals. There was no stopping me from this point on, and I found myself, surprisingly, within the same straight as some of the faster runners whom I thought would be much further ahead. I finished 6th in 4:29, and it was a much better result that I expected given that I only had six weeks of training.

When I finished the run I could only feel lactic and pain in my quads, calves and glutes. But those sensations brought me the greatest happiness. Right after the race I was already looking forward to the next few weeks of training.

I write this into the 9th week of training and finally getting a taste of longer intervals, and feeling more pain, more misery and more trepidation than ever. It makes me happy to know that this is still nowhere near what I might be capable of, and that a lot more tough trainings lie ahead.

It would be nice to finally run a great timing, but I think these past few weeks have been invaluable to my understanding of the sport. I’ve progressed from running 4 times a week to 6, and from long easy runs to soul sucking intervals in the rain, the sun, under floodlights. The process isn’t all fun and games, but it has brought me some of the greatest satisfaction that will be difficult to replicate during a race. I enjoy this because I know this is something that I will always have for myself; that I spent this amount of my time of my youth trying to push my body to the fullest. When I’m older and have less time to myself, more things to think about, I will look back at this short period of time and not have any regrets.

Phase 3 of training is coming up, and it’s another 5-6 weeks to time trials, and there’s everything to run for and I can’t wait to run every last mile to get there.

Spring Came and Went in a Week

Spring came and went in a week. In the middle of April the weather was still a chilly 5-10 degrees celsius but when it turned to May saw a shooting up to the twenties. I took my coat off, the trees wore their leaves and endowed themselves with flowers and the birds called out unafraid.

I believed that as long as winter stayed that I would as well, that I’d stay here in my room forever wrapped in woolly warmth and hearing the cold wind pound the side of the building. But spring came and went in a week and by the week after, I had already packed my bags and was gone.

It all feels very fast.

I thought that I’d always be suspended in this space that I had slowly started to call home. Not that it was spectacular, or much of a home. I didn’t make many friends, and many nights felt like they could have been potentially lonely. Not like I was savouring every moment and writing about my day to day like I wanted to at the start (didn’t really get to it in the end, did I?) At the start I would take pictures of dining halls and lecture theatres, frame a bare tree onto the backdrop of blue sky. I would step on snow and feel it crunch under my feet as if trying to warm it up. Everything was beautiful back then, but so so cold. So cold that water on the ground turned solid black. So cold I would look into cameras and force a smile. But that changed soon enough because the story was never so rosy.

Soon I fell into a routine. I felt like a body at the mercy of some tide that swept me along and I went with it. For the first time in a long time I had a chance to hit the refresh button and be in a place with people I didn’t know so well at first, in a place that was so far from home that soon any thought of it faded away, though slowly at first. I wasn’t fighting anything anymore. It is incredibly selfish to say this, but it was just me out here and I let myself be. I just let myself float. Where I was floating to or how long I could stay in this position didn’t quite cross my mind. I lost the sense that duty and accountability (remnants of back home in Singapore) and I felt the damning need to put myself first in a country where everyone seemed to be doing just that.

I quit Instagram, and didn’t really update this blog. I did this partially because I did not want to see the world through a screen, but now that I look back, it was really because all these platforms would invariably remind me of home. And home came with its burdens. Manifold burdens. It came with feeling too much and wanting to be somewhere else when you’re at home, and home when you’re somewhere else. I didn’t know a lot of things, but I knew that I didn’t want to be somewhere else, even if that somewhere else was home. I knew deep down that I was not made to always miss, or always chase, or always feel lacking. I wanted to just focus on things that were in front of me and feel that those were enough and in turn feel that I was enough.

The only way to feel that way was to be in those experiences the best way I knew how. Winter was so cold and dry that I forgot what the wet and humid Singapore eternity felt like. It probably feels like this: when walking two blocks resulted in a patch of sweat on your back, or when your hair would stick to your forehead (I know now since I’m editing this back home). The sticky sensation that often prompts a shower. I forgot about these minute sensations almost entirely. And if I could forget something as simple as that, what could be said about other memories of home? Sure enough, I could no longer imagine how food back home tasted like, or how exactly the streets smelled of damp soil after the rain. I forgot how my dog would curl up beside me when I was back home and lying in bed. I forgot about how it felt to run in the warmth. I let routine wash over me in the cold and the darkness. It chiselled me into something different.

They say that every single cell in your body is replaced such that your physical body seven years ago is entirely different from your current body. The replication is immaculate, with the old cells passing down their information to the new cells (this is definitely not how this works, but for the sake of allegory please grant me this) and one seems like the same person with the same features and much of the same memories. And with that, you appear like you are you. I wonder if the same can be said for a table or a chair. If you take one screw out of it today, an armrest the next day, and replace every part of the chair over a sustained period of time; would we still say that it’s the same chair? Does the chair retain its essence and remain as the chair at the start?

As I spent 4 months in Yale I ate the food from here, talked to the people here and ran down roads dry and cold. One thing that remains certain is that parts of me, like the chair, were constantly being replaced. My cells were dying and replacing themselves with the nutrients from food made far from Singapore, my brain cells encapsulating new memories made oceans away and my lungs taking in air that didn’t come with the weight of humidity and growing used to it in ways too subtle for me to understand.

And in that way I feel that the person I could confidently say I would always be in December is not the same person who writes this in May. In December I was wary, unable to think of any new experience as being intrinsically valuable, I was always finding a way that an experience could be better, more precious. I was trying to settle but could not. When I travelled I couldn’t sleep well. I was restless to no end. I was always conscious of how I wanted to protray my life. I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t the person that I wanted to be at all. As the months went by, from January to April I learned to settle. The world turned on its axis as cells replaced themselves. Yale, as big as it was, was my teacher. Buildings that looked like heritage sites at first began to look less spectacular as time went by. What seemed extravagant began to take a practical foothold. The cold became less of a novelty and more of an accepted fact.

Maybe it’s good that things live and die, and that our bodies replace themselves every seven years. I let conversations flow and drinking sessions show me the way. I talked to many people and then just a few. I didn’t talk to myself but there were many hours in my room alone, so I might as well have. I travelled to a few places and loved every moment so much because I let myself just not care so much about the experience. I let it hit me but, but wasn’t bothered if it didn’t. Time gives us all the chance for growth and reevaluation and the fabled letting go. I found all that in the cold of winter, and realised that I had found it when Spring hit like a car against a concrete wall.

I didn’t find myself, that would be too cliché and frankly arrogant. And also a little millenial. But I’d like to think I made some progress. I wrote a few articles. Made a few good friends (never write anyone off because of what you think they’d be like, and always try to understand people with all your heart because everyone has a story to tell). I seriously felt like writing was not something that I was looking forward to as much as the days went by so I dug something out from the past, polished it and posted it online and its reception was encouraging (I believe that Singaporeans have a heart, and it is this heart I write for). I wrote a long manuscript that I am still embarrassed by but will whip up to perfection. But am glad I stuck to writing, even at the lowest points where I severly interrogated my passions. (I also ran a lot. It was cold and my ears almost fell off but I got used to it.)

The lesson from this time abroad if there ever was one? 6 months ago I almost didn’t apply for this. I was stuck in a metaphysical winter in my mind that just wouldn’t thaw, and wouldn’t budge and if not for Zhi Hao telling me to do it I might not have. Have I not done so I would have been in Singapore the entire semester and not have had this chance to know how much more I could have become in those months. Entering this country in the middle of one of its harshest winters felt like the blooming of another sort of spring. The lesson is perhaps, to slap that voice in your head now and then.

Winter lasted for 3 and a half months before spring came around in less than a week. Jackets came off, smiles returned to faces. By May it already felt like summer. In the heat that I dreamed of for months is where I find myself again but in between then and now a lot had changed.

A Town Called Jejune

Deep into the night. 2 am. An email comes in.

Something about rejection.

My heart sinks to unimaginable depths but almost immediately rights itself. I don’t think I gave my best, and that is the single most frustrating thing I have to work on. I felt in the past few months there was a blockage in a pipe somewhere and the pipe wouldn’t flow. Perhaps think of an artery that has been blocked by fat. Something like this happened to my grandfather before. Why do old men always enter my consciousness? Why are they always magical and have powers? Whatever it was I was stuck and didn’t write a word of fiction for many months on end. It was as if an entire world inside of me had moved out for the winter and left me slightly empty.

The inhabitants only moved in recently, just over a month ago. I’ll call this town Jejune. The Jejunians were a group of soldiers, two old men (one on a wheelchair and another a cookhouse uncle), a young couple and a group of three friends who met in the army. They lived and talked to each other, loved, lost and hurt. As did I. And I gave them what I could every now and then so they had just enough to survive. I didn’t let them die; not on my watch. And I’m proud of that.

In any case the rejection was for a submission I made with a collection of short stories. It could have been worst. It always can be worst.

But at 3 am as I write this I feel a keen sense of revival. I will continue building up this home. I’ll build a wheelchair ramp for the old man on the wheelchair, I’ll take very careful notice of the way it whirrs as it ascends. I will give all the soldiers a face and a house to go back to with parents who miss them. I will make lovers fall in love again and books fall out of shelves. I will plant the trees on that island one by one until from a birds eye view everything looks green. I will imagine children, cats, dogs, pineapples and old hamburgers left to rot and maggots that turn not into flies but grasshoppers and a tombstone of a friend long gone but someone still loves very much.

I will write because, let’s say I didn’t write. It would be imaginable, that’s what it would be.

When a Son does not Return Home: Deaths in the SAF

A full-time national serviceman died on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, while taking part in a military exercise in Australia’s Central East Coast.

3rd Sergeant Gavin Chan was guiding an armoured military vehicle out of rocky terrain when it turned over on its side, striking him unconscious. He was evacuated by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead that evening at 10:36pm. He had just turned 21.

Described by his friends as someone who was friendly and cheerful, Gavin performed his tasks diligently.

His photo was splashed across news websites and on Facebook shares; a young man wearing a well-ironed parade attire, donning a black beret with a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) emblem shining on it. He was smiling at the camera, a state flag behind him to his left.

Almost every Singaporean who was registered as male took such a photo, the kind where you wore your military best and stood in front of the camera and smiled, or at least pretended to. And then they’d give you a certificate that came with the picture, the symbol of the country’s pride in your service.

This was a photo that I had to take as well. When I smiled, I didn’t expect to die in the next few months, and I’m guessing the same for Gavin. Like the rest of us who served, our smiles were the smiles of optimism, of better days to come.

I am not intimately familiar with this particular case. I have left the SAF for more than three years at the time of writing this, and it’s a part of my life that is largely behind me. Some of my training was dangerous. I had to trudge through dense jungle traversing ridges where two steps to the left or right would result in a headlong tumble into the unknown depths. I had to endure thirst and hunger because our food had to be rationed properly when we were on weeklong missions in the tropics. I had to throw a grenade with my trembling master hand. However, not once did I feel like my life was in any real danger.

The assumption that our sons come back home safe is part and parcel of national service. In peacetime Singapore, anything less would be a tragedy.

Gavin’s parents told the media at the wake of their son, that they had no more tears left to cry. They were both wearing white, and both looked like they hadn’t managed to catch any sleep in days. “He wanted to do social work,” said Mdm. Lim, Gavin’s mother. Gavin had planned on applying to study overseas, as he could not get into a local course. On weekends when he booked out from camp, he would come home to wash and iron his own clothes. “He was a responsible man,” said his father, Mr. Chan. “He knew what he was supposed to do.”

Gavin’s parents eventually thanked the SAF for its assistance rendered to them in such a difficult time. They also thanked the organization for flying their daughter from Wellington where she was studying, to Queensland to retrieve Gavin’s body.

Not every parent who loses their son in the time of duty is grateful to the state.

Private Dominique Sarron Lee died on April 17th 2012, after succumbing to an allergic reaction to smoke grenades during an army exercise. The combat medic attached to the platoon did not have enough experience dealing with allergic reactions of this nature, and by the time he was transported to the National University Hospital he was pronounced dead. It was only one and a half hours after the incident.

Like Gavin, Dominique was only 21 years of age and died days after his birthday. His mother wailed uncontrollably during the funeral service, and his father spoke some quiet words over the grave. His younger brother, Daryl, played an acoustic rendition of Mr. Big’s “To Be with You” during the service. It was one of Dominique’s favourite songs. Posted on a Facebook page set up in the memory of Dominique was a picture of him and his younger brother when they were just toddlers. “It was from you that I first learned to think, to feel, to imagine, to believe,” read the caption posted by one of his friends.

It was later uncovered that the then platoon commander, Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal, had thrown six smoke grenades instead of the stipulated two. This was due to unfavourable wind conditions which made smoke cover for the troops particularly difficult to achieve. The excess smoke, however, might have contributed to the severity of the allergic reaction. The lapses in training protocol was what prompted Dominique’s mother, Madam Felicia Seah, to find answers.

Her attempts at justice would later captivate an entire nation, as she attempted to sue one of Singapore’s most powerful organisations for negligence. She would eventually fail. The Singapore high court struck out the lawsuit filed by Madam Seah in 2014 under the Government Proceedings Act, stating that any member of the armed forces cannot be held civilly liable for causing the death of another while on duty. Both Captain Najib and Captain Chia Thye Siong, the safety officer at that time were protected under this law. They were only punished with fines and delays in promotions, and were charged under military instead of criminal law.

“How do you expect me to move on? I’ve tried, but still cannot,” said Dominique’s mother during a news interview in 2013, one year after his death. She visits him every day at his grave at Lim Chu Kang Christian Cemetery, spending an hour cleaning his grave and talking to him. His grave is black and shiny, with an electric guitar at the side of the tombstone and a large speaker on top of it. Placed on and around the grave are various memorembilia, toy cars and miniature jukeboxes, a small vase of flowers and a Hoegarden beer placed at an inconspicuous corner. On the roadside of his grave, the grass is specially mown to form the words “SUPERFLYDOM”, which was what his close friends referred to him as. Madam Seah told reporters that she still cries herself to sleep every night.

Until today, many of her questions remain unanswered.

In a Facebook post early in 2016 that was shared more than 13,000 times, she apologised to her eldest son. “My dearest Dom, my heart continues to bleed for you. It has been 3 years and 10 months since you were taken from me and still, I haven’t been able to get any closure.” In the post, Madam Seah mentions the two officers who were granted statutory immunity despite failing to follow the standard operating procedures. She also had to pay for their legal costs, or in her words, “pay[ing] them for taking away your life.” She continued, “In the past 3 years, I have been worn down, beaten and defeated by the very government I taught you to trust; worn-down, beaten and defeated by the very system I counselled you to have faith in; worn-down, beaten and defeated by the very people I advised you to respect and honour. Dom, forgive me. I taught you wrong.”

The SAF eventually waived the legal costs of the lawsuit. This was after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen urged the courts to do so, stating in a Facebook post that the legal system “need not add to the pain and anguish of the family of the late [Private] Lee.”

2012, which was the year before I enlisted, saw the death of five men during their service for the army. Dominique Sarron Lee was amongst the five, and by far the most high profile case. It was five cases where a mother’s fear was realised. When sons did not return home.

When I enlisted in 2013, I hugged my mother before walking off with the other enlistees. As I walked off my mother shed a tear, and I remember thinking that she was silly for doing so. I was going to be ok. We were young men who had to serve whether we liked it or not.

I told my parents over late night phone calls that the deaths from the previous year’s incidents had resulted in safer trainings due to reactionary measures put in place. We were not allowed to walk under the rain in case of lightning. We could only wear one layer of clothing so as to prevent heat injury. Anyone with allergic reactions or a complicated medical history had to wear a yellow wristband and be closely observed by instructors.

I could tell that what my parents wanted above anything else was to have me home safe every weekend.

Love is sometimes an act of following a simple routine, to have your loved ones do the same things again and again. Gavin’s parents recalled his simple wish for a chocolate cake on his 21st Birthday. “A 21st birthday to a boy or girl – at that age – is an important day. I wanted to buy him a good dinner but he refused to accept it,” said Mr. Chan. “He just wanted to have a chocolate cake, that’s all.” “Every birthday… always the same chocolate cake,” echoed Mdm. Lim.

In a Facebook post, Dominique’s close friend Timmy Low wrote about their correspondence and friendship. They made plans to go out for drinks the night before he passed away.

“Take care bro, I’ll see you then”
“Will do bud, be safe”

The meet up never materialised.

Perhaps this was why I was determined to keep to my routines when I was enlisted, or even beyond that. I would have at least one meal with my parents upon every book out. I would sleep on my own bed no matter which friend asked if I wanted to stay out late or sleepover. I would not miss any birthdays if I could help it. I would not get into trouble in camp so I could book out on time.

My parents kept up the same end of the deal, fetching me to and from camp without fail. Once on a rainy Sunday evening my family car was knocked from the back, and my parents had to pull over and settle the damages privately. My father got back as soon as he could so he could drive me to camp on time. I could tell that the incident put him a foul mood but he didn’t let it show. They wished me well as I trudged off to camp later, umbrella in hand. Another time my expected bookout time was delayed by two hours. I had already told my dad in advance to drive over, and so he did. He waited two hours in his car outside the gates. He didn’t complain when I got in, but drove me for supper instead. Driving home without me was out of the question. Routine was routine and we stuck to is as a family.

You take whatever time you have with the people that matter because you never know what might happen in the months after, or even the next day.

When Gavin’s parents were asked how they were coping, both broke down in tears. “To lose a son, it’s very painful,” began Mr. Chan. “To lose a good son, I can’t swallow that.” There were a half dozen voice recorders pointed at the parents, forming a neat semi-circle on the white table. Cameras were snapping away.

It is easy to think of death and the nation as abstract notions, forces greater than us that we find difficult to fight. But in the fight lies all the meaning in the world. It is because of the fight that Dominique’s mother had established a new routine, a new way of loving, one that she pursued fiercely to honour her son.

In the years that followed Dominique’s death the nation watched as his mother was pushed to a corner, resigned and defeated, her quest for justice unsuccessful, culminating in an emotional plea. “What we want is justice, what we want is closure,” an exasperated Madam Seah told the media. “After [all these years,] we cannot get any closure.”

Gavin’s parents could only find the strength to thank an organisation that indirectly caused the death of their son.

Perhaps our undoing lies not in the large forces of death and society but in the disemboweled routines and emptiness of the everyday.

Defeat lies in the bed untouched, the slice of chocolate cake left in the fridge for no one to eat. Grief comes in imaginary laundry cycles and clothes never to be washed again, never to be ironed again, never to be placed in cupboards too high for a mother to reach. Bereavement is a father having two glasses of beer to himself, leaving one untouched, listening to his child’s favourite song in the background and for the rest of his life because his child cannot.

All they can do is continue loving.

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References:

  1. Maniar, J., Chander, C., & Neo, S. (n.d.). Facebook. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.facebook.com/DomSarronLee/
  2. Ong, J. (2017, September 27). Hundreds turn out at military funeral for NSF soldier Gavin Chan who died in Australia. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/hundreds-turn-out-at-military-funeral-for-nsf-soldier-gavin-chan-9243622
  3. Officers in Dominique Lee case were punished: SAF. (n.d.). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/saf-responds-online-debate-death-private-dominique-sarron-lee
  4. ‘To lose a good son, I can’t swallow that’: Parents of NSF who died in training mishap in Australia. (2017, September 20). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/to-lose-a-good-son-i-can-t-swallow-that-parents-of-nsf-who-died-9233792
  5. Chow, J. (2016, January 19). NSF’s death: Mum still trying to come to terms with loss. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/nsfs-death-mum-still-trying-to-come-to-terms-with-loss
  6. “where’s the justice in that?”, asks friend of Dominique Sarron Lee. (2016, March 07). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2016/03/07/wheres-the-justice-in-that-asks-friend-of-dominique-sarron-lee/
  7. Lum, S. (2016, March 20). Court rejects suit over smoke-grenade death in training. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/court-rejects-suit-over-smoke-grenade-death-in-training
  8. Chelvan, V. P. (2017, March 13). SAF officers in NSF death have ‘statutory immunity’: Judicial Commissioner. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/saf-officers-in-nsf-death-have-statutory-immunity-judicial-commi-7994804
  9. (2016, March 17). Mindef explains stance on NSF Dominique Sarron Lee’s death. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mindef-explains-stance-on-nsf-dominique-sarron-lees-death
  10. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/22000-legal-bill-fully-waived-family-dead-nsf
  11. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/death-nsf-dominique-sarron-lee-officers-punished-fines-delays-promotions

A Dream is a Soft Place to Land: Waitress Review

The story of Waitress is a familiar one: a marriage of convenience, a woman who doesn’t want to get pregnant, an affair with the gynaecologist, and finally a choice: baby or husband. But wow, what a choice.

The lead Jenna (played at that time by the wonderful Sara Bareilles) is, on paper, an average waitress at an average diner trapped in a painfully loveless and low-key abusive marriage.

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Sara Bareilles as Jenna Hunterson

Pie making for her is both nostalgia and prospect. It pulls her back into a time when her mother was still there to guide her through pie making, and then pushes her forward to aspire for more. Pies don’t just make Jenna a living, but narrate her life, with flavour and quality waxing and waning, carefully calibrating yet wildly spectacular according to her moods and fancies. There are pies named after moods, situations, predicaments (most memorable was the banged-up pie). But misfortune aside, Pie making is overall a prospect, the grand tale of the what ifs; but it could very soon become much more than a dream if Jenna is given the right conditions to excel. The ‘right condition’ seems to arrive with a pie making contest that careens around the corner, and she knows, can feel, that this might just be what her life has been setting her up for. Such is the power of pies.

Jenna’s loveless husband Earl sets up a different question; that is, whether commitment is worth being upheld for the sake of it. Being in an abusive relationship, Earl constantly demands money from Jenna to keep up his life of vice. It’s the kind of abuse that you can’t rise above by simply belting out “Gravity”, so what Sara does is that she does (I say Sara instead of Jenna for good reason) the most beautiful and soul churning rendition of “She used to be mine” while half baked from stage pregnancy and sitting on a dirty couch she uses to hide money from her husband. This has the entire row in front of me crying (and not just wipe-a-tear-from-the-side-of-your-cheek-crying but all out bawling). “Leave him” seems to be an acute summary of what the other waitresses tell her, and I can tell that the audience seems to want this as well, the buzz of a pre-riot crowd is always there when Earl is there. And yet she can’t. Earl is obligation personified, something you invest in for years and so holds you hostage for years to come. Something you cannot just quit under normal circumstances, under the monotonous gaze of living. But Jenna is about to have a baby and these are not normal circumstances. The story has a spark.

Dr Pomatter enters as Jenna’s gynaecologist and I die a little because he’s played by Jason Mraz. I am still trying to think of a better actor for the role (there are probably many) but Jason brings a feeling onto stage that is a dollop of happy go lucky with a tinge of outright complexity behind those blue eyes.

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Jason Mraz as Dr. Pomatter.

He speaks with smooth clarity, the kind you hear in his songs and then before you know it (and no one is surprised), the pies that Jenna brings for Dr. Pomatter has him thinking about Jenna all day. And Dr. Pomatter is an avid health freak as well, having never eaten pies for ten years or something to that effect. The moment he eats a pie for someone (in this case our ever growing Jenna) is when a spell is broken. He falls for her. Or actually on her, when the door is locked. And they go at it like teenagers, breaching all protocols both professionally biologically and what not. Dr. Pomatter presents Jenna a choice. Continue with infidelity, or stop. She continues not purely out of lust, I suspect, but because the choice to continue in the throes of passion wasn’t a choice granted to her for as long as she can remember. Their passion on stage isn’t merely a cheeseball cheating session but a way for Jenna to say that she has lived beyond the claustrophobic walls of Earl and the incoming baby .

The character that almost doesn’t get any credit for me is the baby. The baby is largely a concept through the play, becoming a bump and then a plastic doll (I don’t think it’s legal to use a real baby for plays) when she is finally born. As something that spends most of her time as an idea, there’s pretty strong Juno-esque feelings of hate turning into slowly-nurtured love. It is right at the start when Earl finds out about her pregnancy that she asks Jenna: who are you going to love more, me or the baby? And Jena reluctantly replies: You. But then gravity sets in. Life grows within. There is the pie contest that cannot be entered if her savings are used on a crib. Yet there is Earl who doesn’t get any less abusive in a time when she needs him the most. Pommater continues to be her gynaecologist through it all, inspecting her before eating her pies.

The baby is at the centre of it all, and urgency grows as she grows. And then with childbirth comes clarity. The waxing and waning welcomes another life to this earth that emerges slowly, then all at once. It is the kind of clarity that renders a spoiler alert necessary at the start of this article which I have not done. But all I can say is, with childbirth comes a reorganisation of priority: sentiments are split over many issues: Me or him? Baby or self? Stay or go? Give up or fight on?

Crib or pie contest? Which dreams to you withhold for the realisation of others?

I was out of words at the end, the way people probably feel after a stellar massage or when news that their loved ones are safe comes through the line. That’s the kind of being that Waitress casts you into. Forget about emotions, think a mosaic of those emotions forming a larger pattern and perhaps you’ll know what I mean.

The play succeeds due to the many elements of it coming together swimmingly at the end, as if all heading down a single stream of newfound consciousness. We have this consciousness with the creation of life, steaming, crying life in the hands of Jenna. Any play that can arrive at a singularity without seeming contrived has done its job, giving the audience a soft place to land, rest their heads, weep, and then ultimately: feel a bit better.

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.