Ottawa Marathon 2019

At the starting pen, the first thing I notice is that the runners here don’t really do the annoying thing they do in Singapore where they squeeze together to the point where no one can breathe properly. I am able to have space for myself, and space around me to stretch a bit, do some arm rotations. Szu was standing by the side of the start pen, so I felt slightly less nervous. I had already done my warm up and stretches up to this point, taken the pre-race dump, and so all there was to do was to just go. I took out my first gel and ate it right before the runners all crowded to the start line.

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At the start line!

When the starting gun fired, I could only think of one thing: don’t go out too fast. My plan was to run the first km in 4:20, so I scanned the crowd for the 3-hour pacer, and just ran beside him. He was of African descent (though I never got to find out exactly from where, I am aware that Africa is a continent made up of many countries, each with her individual identity) and looked like he was just jogging, graceful as can be as if he were running at 5 min pace. And so I felt assured that we weren’t going that fast, and for the first km I felt smooth, really smooth, and felt like 4:20 was probably the pace I was going at. But at the kilometre marker, the watch showed that I was running at an astonishing 4:04 per km.

I was worried, but everything just felt so smooth. I decided to have faith and continue following the pacer. Things evened out eventually. The first 5km goes along the river, a pleasant scenery to my left, so I just cruised along beside the pacer, and enjoyed myself. Though 2km was still at 4:07, he ran 3, 4, 5 km at 4:13, 4:13, 4:13. To add to that, my GPS watch tended to overmeasure the distance, so the km markers on the route got further and further ahead from when my GPS watch made the km splits. Still, I passed through 5km in 20:56, 19 seconds faster than my goal pace of 21:15, or 4:15 per km (which translates to a barely sub-3 hour marathon).

At 6km, the route makes a turn away from the river and into a neighbourhood of houses and shops that winds through west Ottawa (or Westboro, as they call it). This is the part of the race I enjoyed the most. There were people who came out of their houses to cheer the runners on, and I still had a lot of energy left in me to appreciate these cheers, and really take in the race atmosphere. They called the pacer a rabbit, and when he passed by there were cheers of “THE THREE HOUR RABBIT!!” which made the sub-3 dream seem suddenly very real, although I was only in the 8th km of the run.

It was at this juncture that I felt incredibly blessed that I was even running at all. Just a week before, I came down with a terrible bout of stomach flu while I was travelling with Szu in London (of all places in the world to get stomach flu). I could hardly eat properly, and could only do soupy foods and water. There was no carb loading to be entertained, and there was one day that I could hardly walk, with buy-two-get-one-free stomach cramps hitting me like I was a punching bag. I doubted if I could even be at the start line of the marathon, which made me angry at first. But I decided that there was nothing I could do but to hope for the best. And sure enough, with just three days to go before the race, the sickness cleared, and I could (most importantly) eat as much pasta as my heart desired without fearing that it would all be expelled in explosive diarrhoea.

So the sub-3 dream aside, I was thankful to be running down the streets of Westboro, cheered on by an insane number of spectators and race volunteers. I was running with a group of like-minded runners who had trained hard and we were all following the 3 hour pacer, having formed a large pack and were just cruising along with him, all gunning for that Boston qualifier. At that moment, it felt really good to be running, the activity that made the most sense to me, and it felt even better that I was smooth and able to enjoy this spring day.

10km passed in 42:04, 26 seconds faster than my goal pace. I kept calm and told myself again to trust in the pacer, that he would bring us through in good time. Everytime I would speed up a bit, I would force myself to slow down and be “eaten up” by the pack again.  At 12km, however, the plan changed. While taking in a gel and running to the side to get water, I unintentionally sped up. I opened a 10 meter gap ahead of the pacer, and was suddenly running with a different pack of runners that was just slightly faster. I made a gamble, and decided to follow this pack. I was feeling good, but more than that, this decision was based on a book that I had read about marathon tactics, about how runners at the amateur level should be running the first half slightly faster than the second due to glycogen depletion. And so, to run a sub 3-hour marathon, I had to run a considerably faster than 1:30 for the half marathon. It was a gamble for sure, and at a bad timing: just as I made this move, we turned away from Westboro at 14km, and onto a desolate highway with almost no supporters, and just a strong, cold headwind.

It was on this highway that a runner that was in the pack I was following spat on the floor, and narrowly missed me, at which he offered an apology. With this opening, I asked him for his goal time (so as to gauge if it was a good idea to follow him), and he said that he had just run a 2:56 seven weeks prior, so he was aiming for the same time (turns out this 2:56 was run at Boston!). But, he told me, that he didn’t do well in heat, and so might need to adjust his goal later in the run. I would understand why he would say that, today was slightly warmer than the previous two days I had been in Ottawa, with the temperature lingering between 16-18 degrees through the duration of the race. Having been through a harsh Canadian Winter, 17 degrees might be warm, but to me it was a slice of heaven, having trained exclusively in the high twenties with roaring humidity back in Singapore. But I wasn’t about to belittle the heat soon, because at this point, just 16km into the race, there was no telling what might be a factor in the later stages in the race, of which I had no idea about.

I told the runner (I later found out that his name was also Justin) that it was my first marathon and he looked at me and said “you’re doing good, you look really smooth”. I told him that I came from a middle distance background, and had no idea what happens after 30 km, and he responded with some advice. “You want to go through the first half feeling totally fine. 20-30km you have to work a bit to keep your pace, and then at 30 – 40 km it gets really hard. the last two km is just about making it to the finish line.” I hoped that I could still be in a position to push towards the finish line, because all that lay ahead was indeed dark and murky; my longest training run was only 36km, and so there was no telling what would happen after that.

After taking another gel, Justin and I ran across the bridge towards Gatineau, towards 20km. Things were still feeling smooth, my legs were moving fine, and my breathing was well regulated. It felt like only a stray car coming to run me over could stop me at this point. I passed the halfway point (21.1km) in 1:28:43, which was an optimal amount of time under 1:30 to positive split. In the short distance between 20km and the half, there was a slight uphill, and in that time somehow Justin had forged a 20m gap in front of me while I was zoning out and trying to maintain a constant effort. 

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The view of Ottawa from Gatineau

I was running alone now, not really wanting to chase Justin because he was aiming for a 2:56 which was way too fast to strive for. The next few kilometres I could not help but think to myself that by 30km I had to feel good, I had to feel good, I had to feel good. I repeated this in my head with every km that passed, making sure that I still felt good. I took a gel at 24km, and kept telling myself even up to this point that though I had a lot of energy left I had to conserve all the energy I had for the assault coming up past 30km.

The 20-28km section of the course was a lonely one, not only was I running on my own, it was also through a neighbourhood where not many came out to support. It was also a decidedly hillier neighbourhood, and I suddenly recalled from all the race reviews that I read that the second half of this race was generally hillier. I wasn’t so worried, because I had done a few 6am long runs up and down the hills of rifle range road, all for the purpose of preparing for this part of the marathon. I also remembered this piece of advice I’d heard, to not go too fast uphill but maintain the same effort so as to not build up lactic. There was also no sense in sprinting the downhills, because it might result in calf cramps, and so I took that slightly quicker but not too fast. I had to keep thinking about these things, measure every step, and so in a sense I never got bored when I was running, there was always something new to see around me and always something to think about.

At 27 km we crossed another bridge back to Ottawa, and it was here that I began to overtake a few runners who had been overzealous from the start. I tried to sit behind a small group of runners at about 28km, but realising that they were too slow, elected to speed up and just overtake them. I was still feeling good up to this point, which honestly does not make for a good story, and so far you might notice that this whole time has just been me asking myself if I feel good and me actually feeling good. Well, that’s all about to change. I passed the 30km mark at 2:06:45, 45 seconds faster than goal pace. I took another gel, and at this point I must admit, I still felt good. I overtook a few more runners, saw a few who had walked and tried cheer them on but saw that it was as good as reviving ashes, with their faces of defeat looking resigned to the wall.

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The Giant Spider that greeted us as we crossed the bridge back to Ottawa. Hitting the wall is still scarier though.

The 30-35km section winded through Rockcliffe park, and as the name suggests, to was quite a bit hillier, but I already knew what was ahead for I did a practice jog around this segment two days before to get used to the hills. I knew every uphill and downhill of this section and so I was never caught off guard by the course. What I was caught off guard by, however, was a sudden twitch in my hamstring at 33km. I had just passed by a sponge station and had cold water stream down my face, when the first hint of possible cramps came about. And I had 9km left to run. I was still ahead of pace, but I had read up a lot on how people could slow to a 5 minute pace within a short span of a km despite feeling perfectly fine the km before. I told myself again not to panic, that all my training had led up to this moment and that I was well prepared to forge ahead without incident. I couldn’t slow down to a 4:40 pace to accommodate these doubts, and so had no choice but to keep up 4:15 per km and just hope that these cramps didn’t knock on the door again.

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The hills of Rockcliffe Park

I passed 35km, and began to understand why this was the worst part of the marathon. My breathing became heavier all of a sudden, and I started to adopt a slight grimace. The neighbourhood I was running through was lively, and that helped tremendously. A woman cheered me on from the sidelines, and upon reading my name on my race tag, said “come on Justin”, which was a simple cheer but it helped a lot to keep me focused. “Come on, Justin” was exactly what I needed to tell myself as well.

With 7.2km left in the race (which feels like an eternity after you’ve run 35), I began to carry out a visualisation technique that I had read up on, where you imagine that you’re running a short loop that you’re familiar with, so that seven km can seem more bite-sized and manageable. My mind wandered back to the 7.2km route that I would run around my neighbourhood, the route that introduced me to running proper, and a route that I had found myself through exploring the neighbourhood. I had run this route countless times from when I was younger, sometimes I failed, but eventually I conquered the route and could do a sub 30 minutes easily on it. I looked at my watch and saw that I just had to run under 32 minutes to break 3 hours, and so I just kept thinking of myself as that kid again, trying his best to conquer this 7.2 km run, trying again and again and loving running more and more as I did.

As soon as I began this visualisation, my left calf began to twitch, and a full blown cramp threatened to hit me. I quickly took my last gel and drank an electrolyte drink they offered at the next station to battle the cramps. At 37km, the twitch in my calf became more pronounced, and I thought about stopping to stretch my calf at the side, thinking if that would be a good idea to help assuage the cramping. I then thought back at my various attempts at the half marathon, and how stretching at the side did me no favours, not only did it slow me down, but it also made other parts of my legs cramp up from stopping and starting again. I had to keep my body in fight mode all the way or it would crumple and give in altogether, there would be no in between. And so I decided to continue. Every time I cramped up, I would transfer by body weight to the other leg, and try to shake up the cramp in my calf. There would be a few hundred meter stretches that it wouldn’t be a problem at all, and I could run smoothly, and then it would hit me again as if reminding me that it won’t be so easy to run that sub-3, that a huge cramp could reduce me to a walk at any time it fancied, and crush all my hopes. I kept thinking about my running form, and kept telling myself to maintain good form and to not let bad biomechanics get in the way and induce more cramps in other parts of my leg. The 38km split was the slowest thus far: 4:27 per km. I didn’t panic or try to increase my pace, I remembered that I had already given myself some leeway from the first half by running more than 1 minute faster than the target split, and so had all that time to spare.

Not that I could go much faster; at 38km I was already in a full on grimace. I passed by Justin, who was reduced to a short walk to take in a gel, the weather probably getting the better of him. He looked over and told me “good job”, which helped a little. With 4km left, I thought about another run I always did, which was my 4km warm up. I thought about how easy it was to run 4km, and how I did it before and after most workout sessions. With only 4km left, it seemed silly to slow down now. The crowd around this part of the route, known as Sussex drive, was teeming with what seemed like the entire town. There was a wedding going on at a church and some of the guests came out to cheer. There female students with banners around their necks saying “You can have a piece of this after  you’re finished” (which was of no motivation to me because my allegiance is only to Szu) and even little kids and old ladies cheering on. The atmosphere was immense, something you’d never find in Singapore for numerous reasons.

The pain at 39km

My calf threatened to cramp a few more times; but I limped it off, let out a silent scream, or ignored it altogether. At 39km, we were back at the canal again. We were to run down the canal, and then turn back via Pretoria bridge and to the finish line. I had this all in my head, having done another practice jog here the day before. However, I had done that little recce on fresh legs, and so it was particularly torturous to see the same sights that I saw but in such an excruciating filter. This part of the race was strange, there were a couple of people who tried to overtake, but they too seemed to succumb to cramps and I was overtaking them again within a few hundred meters. We were all trying to claw our way to the finish line; everyone that was around me all had the same dream, to break 3 and get that Boston qualifier.

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The finishing stretch.

At 40km, I felt a different sensation, my legs felt like they were on fire, so numb and stinging with exhaustion as they were. Forget calf cramps, my entire lower half was threatening to give way and reduce me to a heap on the ground. Every muscle involved in running was burning. I was at 2:49:59 at 40km, which gave me a grand total of 10 minutes to run 2.2km. It would have been easy in any other circumstance, but running 40km prior did not happen to be one of them. I had faith though, that I wasn’t entirely out of it, for I had run a 4:18 min 40th km, and so just kept my head down and told myself that I had the mettle to finish this off. I told myself that I had to give this everything. I thought about all the kilometres I had put in to make these last 2 km survivable. I limped when my calf threatened to cramp up, and tried to actually run when there were windows of respite. I crossed Pretoria bridge, and turned around where there was 1km left. In that last km, I thought about every last km I had ever done in my life and decided that none were as painful as this one. I probably looked like I was running to the toilet, or that I had just survived a bomb blast and was jog limping away from the blast. I tried to follow this guy who was also finishing, then decided that i would just run my own pace. I looked at my watch and saw that I had a little less than 5 minutes to run the last km, so I looked down and took it one step at a time.

And then, I saw it. The finish line. It was 400m in front of me, yes, but there it was. There was no indication prior to this that the finish line was anywhere within reach, but there it was, in all its glory on a sunny Sunday morning. I had about 2 minutes left to run 400m, and so I just opened up my stride. I felt like I was stepping on coals, every impact of my leg on the ground felt like I was punching myself, but it didn’t matter anymore. I was at once the heaviest and lightest I’d ever felt, as if all the weight of the past 4 months of training, the last 1660 km I had run, was lifted off me. I ran past all the spectators, past a screaming Szu, and onto the carpet that led to the end. I looked at the clock as I neared the end, and it read 2:59:30 as I was running the last 20 meters or so. I clenched my fists and pumped them into the air, and crossed the finish at 2:59:34.

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Typing this exactly 24 hours after I crossed the finish line, it still feels like a dream. I still don’t know how I did it. I remember the last two workouts I tried to do involved trying to hold 4:15 pace and I could not even complete them both, stopping approximately 15km into both. How I could maintain that pace for 42 km will always be a mystery to me. I shook hands with some people, and then with an exhausted Justin who finished just behind me (I had beaten a 2:56 marathoner!) and he told me “you did it”. At this, I began to tear. I was embarrassed at first and tried to hold it back. I walked on and composed myself, took some water, walked to collect the medal. It was the most ceremonious medal collection ever; there were a large group handing out medals that cheered loudly as I arrived. I thought there was someone behind me that was being cheered for, but I looked behind and it was just me. I hobbled over to receive the medal, and finally began to cry when I walked past them.

I thought about all the sacrifices, and the distant belief that I had in myself from the start that given the perfect conditions, that this feat would just have been possible. I thought about all the 4:30 am alarms I had to set every Saturday, the 30 plus km runs I did with Yik Siong at East Coast park, at West Coast Park, at Punggol. I thought about how I trained 6 times a week, hardly had rest days. I thought about all the sacrifices I had to make, the times I had to say no to drinking sessions, that I had to have late dinners with a super understanding Szu whom I could not feel more grateful for, who came all the way down with me to obscure Ottawa to support me. I thought about the group of people I trained with: Yik Siong, Josh, Wen Sheng, who were all stronger that me in various ways and had pushed me beyond my limits, my training buddy in y1 -y3 Philip who had always shown me what running was all about. I thought about my parents who supported me all the way, providing me the resources and space to succeed, who would never stop me from achieving this crazy dream though it was precisely the kind of activity that I knew would worry them.

Last of all, I thought about my love for running. It all began when I was 13, progressed till I was 17 and then it became murkier during army when I had an injury, and then even murkier coming into uni when I could not get my priorities right. After failing to make the Sunig team for the 3rd time, I sat myself down last August and decided that I wanted to achieve something amazing in my last year of university. It was with this renewed focus and planning that I began to enjoy every workout I did, qualified and did well for my 1500 IVP and then decided foolhardily to go for the marathon because i wanted to feel like I did everything I could in running before I graduated. I followed a strict training plan, and loved every minute of the journey. The joy of running never left me, but had stayed dormant for a few years before erupting in its full glory. I could not stop thinking about running, about what I needed to do to rest, to fuel up for the next workout, to be my best at every run I did in any small way possible. I made no excuses. I constantly reflected on the journey, read up about the marathon and watched a lot of races. This sub-3 journey, in a way, isn’t just about running, it was pretty much about a lifestyle that I consciously chose to keep up despite every temptation to just take my final year easy and not dream such big dreams.

I cried maybe because it hurts to love something so much only to finally be validated in some form or another.

I soon discovered that I could not really walk, and so hobbled my way to the meet up point where Szu was waiting for me with open arms. I raised up my hands with a medal in one and a banana in another, and she walked towards me with a big smile on her face, the smile of someone who had never doubted me for a second even though I had doubted myself a thousand times over.

“I did it,” was all I could manage.

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I DID IT! 

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The best part: the beer after the race

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This is the Fire of Leaving Pain

Time passes. Collect a scroll and kingfisher plush toy when you pass go. Roll the die. Pick up the community chest card. Pay rent. Collect wealth.

As much as we like to see transitions as emotional farewells, they too, are transactional. After all, a transition is a transaction, you exchange your time in college for a place in another firm, another company, another higher institution of learning. The time here is but wind that billows up our sails, that pushes us along to the next destination, the next port of calling. Our time was a transaction from the start; we pay school bills to get food and housing and education, we talk in class to engage our ideas with others, to better learn, to get that better grade. We get that better grade to attain a number on a transcript, to show our future bosses that we know what we are talking about and aren’t just filling pillows with fluff. We send emails that start with “I hope you’ve been well” to professors we might not even want to know anything more about other than how much they’re going to care if we submitted an assignment 2 hours late, or if the final exam would be testing so and so topic. Our time here, if put bluntly, is a transaction. Four years of accruing knowledge, forming relationships that will bolster us into the future. We work hard and play hard in order to say that we gained something when we finally put on our robes and walk onto the stage sheepish and awkward, in front of some people who matter and many who don’t. We shake hands, we receive a scroll not even real.

What a waste it would be to think of everything as transactional, to think of everything as just passing through and so not worth holding on to. Looking at the line of students walking forward to collect their scrolls, one might think of this entire endeavour as that of a production line, producing fresh graduates to churn out into society. Cliche, but many cliches turn out to be true.

The only way to burn down this notion of transaction is by using fire. This is not your primary 5 camp campfire, but the fire of leaving pain. It is what burns and cooks you from the inside as you walk out of a place you thought you could never get used to. It is the warmth of conversations with one another late into the night. It is the first conversation to the last, every one of them leading to this final reckoning like breadcrumbs that form a beautiful trail. This fire is the sting of absinthe that made us honest. It is our acts of kindness that touch us and made us cry, of coming together in times unimaginably tough as we held candles in Elm and remembered. It is every argument we had, drunk punch we flailed, heartbreak we experienced, people we swore never to talk to again, people we swore to fight for till the very end until we cannot fight any longer and our muscles all ache with trying.

Have you ever stayed up with someone till 3am? Talked to them about nothing at all yet everything? Held each other’s emotions on the edge of a knife? It appears that graduating from a place like this is precisely like a 3am talk, where time flows slow to the point of almost-stillness. Both of you still know that the inevitable morning will come, but the magic of 3am keeps our reservations suspended, we believe that we are, for lack of all better expression, eternally bound in the moment. What is it about transitions that prompts us as such?

Suspension is just the word for the occasion. We are indeed suspended, within our own thoughts, with the place we inhabited, with each other. It is a stubborn suspension that refuses to let go just yet, that still believes, like a 3am conversationalist, that there will be time yet. As I walked up the stage, received the scroll, I looked to the crowd and felt suspended, felt very light as if something was carrying me somewhere which I had no knowledge of.

Notions of suspension aside, I want to ping back to the notion of fire. The fire of leaving pain, that burns and swallows, that stays in our minds longer than the duration of the carnage, which sometimes is only for a short while, that last all of a few seconds when your chest constricts when you realise that this may actually be the last time, that this conversation, this drinking session, this confession, this farewell glance, is all that this school could offer until security stands at the door and asks you to leave. This is the fire that burns and warms, it is the fire that destroys all notions of transaction.

Because, put simply, what transaction can there be that places this burning sensation in our chests? We transact to feel secure, to feel like we have garnered enough resources to live a good life. The fire of leaving does the opposite, it makes us do stupid things that may potentially hijack our well being. It makes us stay up too late, drink too much, talk too much, feel too much. The burning sensation in your chest, the warm afterglow we feel as we walk off the stage and say goodbye to all our friends, is entirely counterproductive to what a transaction aims to achieve.

And for that, may we forever have a part of ourselves suspended. May we never let this fire burn out.

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.

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.

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.

Wave after Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting on the Airport Floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t need to go so far after all.

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.

Stuck on the Puzzle

Having lugged a lacklustre attitude around for the entire semester, it’s almost laughable that I’m typing this as the plane inches across the sky, leaving bits of blue and white flashing past the window.

As the opportunity for rest comes around I find myself springing to action and typing all this out. This is probably foolish. Strangely, I never had that motivation as the semester drew to a close. I left all my assignments to the last minute and started studying the entire syllabus a couple of days before some of my exams. Sometimes I have the right motivations, but never the right timing.

I compartmentalised all my thoughts this semester and kept them largely to myself, failing to write much at the side. Maybe my fiction class was responsible for this; I had to churn out two 5000-word stories and with that very focused avenue to write and imagine I left it all on those foreign pages, sunk in the commitment to academia. I wrote with intensity for 2 days at a time, and there they were, two stories I could call my own. I’m never a fan of writing slowly and steadily, only quickly and furiously, like ripping off a band-aid along with leg hair and dead skin and all that. I received comments for these stories, some good; others less so. I learned. I edited. And I have to admit, though writing is a joy, editing isn’t. It’s almost painful, like disciplining your child. You want to assume your child is perfect but that probably isn’t the case, so sometimes you hit your child. You do it out of love, but it hurts you to do it nevertheless. This metaphor is not a 1:1 fit but I hope you get the gist. In any case, all that focused writing must have come at a cost. My mind was exhausted and there was less writing I could accomplish at the side. Strange, isn’t it? I got what I most wanted, only to tire of it.

Or maybe the sluggishness came from an over-investment of energy into cross-country trainings, that graduated in intensity and peaked somewhere in the middle of March. As fun as running can be, it teaches you to go with the flow, the flow, the flow. And after months of running you sometimes wonder where all that time went. You’re sometimes tired in classes, sometimes nodding off in meetings. In that way I think writing and running are often in fierce competition for the raw physical energy that my body can generate. It probably doesn’t help that I write better after 1 am, where I’m fighting to keep awake and clawing at the walls of my mind to keep my thoughts together. Maybe that’s because I write the best when I frame the ‘writing experience’ as a struggle. I try to constrain myself in some way to give myself a firm direction to run towards (or away). When I find a comfortable time and space, nothing flows. It’s a highly metaphysical concept. Again, there’s something paradoxical about all this. But in any case, when two or more tiring experiences compete, something has to give.

That being said, I don’t think I ever stopped imagining. I only grew more suspicious of my ability to harness all that imagination. By no means was this a top-down degeneration. I thought it might have been a subtle changing of ideals, a shift in the clouds. That had me feeling panicked for a while. But now that I look back, it was definitely borne out of circumstance, and tiredness, maybe laziness, of things that happened over the semester that made me doubt if good writing was possible even if I wasn’t a good person. That sort of silly insecurity.

But I figured that even if I’ll never be a good person, I want to at least be a decent writer. Reflecting on this over the past week of travelling, I know for sure that the desire to continue on this path is still there (thankfully) and I don’t have any evidence to show except for what the summer will bring. Like I said, the way I frame the experience of writing is that of a struggle. And within any struggle there exists stages of self-doubt and existential questioning. This is how we make the leap between what we think we love and what we actually love. Rarely is a life lived without buts, but being stuck on the puzzle doesn’t mean you give up on it.

Again, I don’t have the answers. I wish I did, and I wish after I write these words I will straighten my life with a shot of adrenaline in the backside. I wish that my writing will show some sense of order but as you can see from this post, order is still far down the road. Maybe summer will be fulfilling, maybe it won’t. I don’t know. Most of it is up to me, though maybe some of it is not. In any case, it’s time to labour and learn, and forgive myself for the past semester of neglect.