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.