The distance between armchairs at lunch and scenes from Before Midnight
A few days ago I had lunch with a colleague. This was again at the TCC at Central, with the mini armchairs that always make me wish I could settle more deeply into one but that would end up with me too far from the table and the meal and definitely too far for conversation. Come to think of it, this is also the issue in the typical Starbucks store – hm… “store” seems not particularly suitable for a Starbucks place; let’s use “location”, which is antiseptically neutral but accurate enough – this is also the issue in the typical Starbucks location in Singapore, which nowadays feels packed and spacious at the same time and is sprinkled with comfy yet low-maintenance sofas and armchairs and a place to feel like you want to feel comfortable in, but it’s tough because the instinct is to sit opposite each other, which places you too far apart, and sitting next to each other results in the sort of dynamic that also happens when two people watch a movie, which is similarly side-by-side self-directed focused enjoyment of the scenes unfolding before you, which only occasionally merit staccato bursts of mutual sideways looks and exchanges for the purpose of ascertaining that the other person feels the same way about the scene that you do. (There were lots of these when my pal and I watched Before Midnight, whose script I found topnotch and intensely engrossing. There is the opening scene where Jesse sends off his son with entirely and understandably too many promises. And then there is the scene in which Jesse and Celine drive back to their Greek holiday villa and quarrel the way significant others who can plot out the meanders of each other’s lines of argument quarrel, during which Jesse eats a half-eaten green apple which one of his twin daughters have yet to finish and said daughter wakes up and blearily asks for said half-eaten green apple and in so doing keeps the quarrel from boiling over. Then come the scenes of Greek meal preparation in which Celine helps her hosts stuff peppers with stuff that made me hungry, interspersed with scenes of Jesse testing the (pretentious) concepts for his next novel with an old fellow writer and a couple of fans, and then the dinner scene in which various models of love (including the model in which both parties know break-up is certain at some point in time, being young and independent and having no need for the sort of committed companionship and partnership that marriage is) and couplehood (including the model in which the party who dies second continues to think of what the party who dies first would say if he is still around) are discussed and bickered over and there is the continuation of the couple’s quarrel in the car, leading to a sharp rise in temperature then a very welcome drop in same as those around the table deftly conduct some reconciliation and set up the finale (Celine’s and Jesse’s hosts insisting on taking care of the twins while the couple enjoy a night at this hotel). Then there are the long takes where Celine and Jesse just walk and talk and walk and talk as if we are not there (in a way that movies, which by definition presuppose an audience, are usually too self-aware to show), and the scene in which Celine and Jesse check into the hotel and Jesse is asked to autograph some books by a fan and Celine too and Jesse obliges and Celine doesn’t want to until Jesse says out loud that yes Celine would be happy to and she does so in a way that hides her true fury from the fan and sends a clear message to her husband. Then comes the climax-which-felt-like-it-lasted-half-the-movie, in which the quarrel escalates into an emotionally violent argument with its own rhythm and plot about sex and gender roles and one partner’s success and guilt which is absurd yet raw and real, and lastly the scene in which there is some much longed-for time travel. There were points where my pal and I laughed together, and winced and cringed and flinched together, and after it ended, I felt – in no particular order – deeply relieved, tired and satisfied yet determined not to put myself through this movie again, solidly impressed with the chemistry and generosity of the actors in working out the script and then in acting out the script, and oddly optimistic about the future of Celine and Jesse as a couple.)
Crime book dichotomies
And I had thought that we discussed it during the lunch, but now I remember that the colleague and I had discussed books on the way to lunch. She asked what I was doing that long weekend – I said reading and spring cleaning, the latter of which I haven’t done, at all – and she then asked what books I liked to read and mentioned she liked crime books by James Patterson and Jeffrey Deaver and I replied I read crime books too but preferred PD James and Ruth Rendell and stumbled over myself trying to articulate the differences I saw in the crime books she liked and the ones I liked and, after dropping the too easy and slightly inaccurate action vs. procedural dichotomy, arrived at the international/cosmopolitan vs. little town/village dichotomy. (And after reading Ruth Rendell’s dense and quite brilliant Harm Done, whose commentary on a vulnerable class (battered women, and women in general to a lesser extent) reminded me of Donna Leon’s The Golden Egg (which focused on one horrendously treated child), I find I have to consider also the popcorn plot vs. social commentary dichotomy.)
Love = capable of causing pain
Before Midnight came up again in a discussion with another colleague – we had exchanged books (Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl for me and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for her) – who, after I mentioned the movie required a lot of emotional investment and was raw and not something I’d want to watch again, said it sounded so sad. I thought about that a bit, and concluded that for me the movie is not sad overall, but certainly the parts where Celine and Jesse show that each knows exactly where the other has poorly healed wounds to messily and thoroughly unscab – those parts are sad in the sense people who love each other so deeply are in the best position to cause that commensurate pain and sometimes fully aware they do just that, harshly jerking away the scabs and precisely salting the exposed parts.
This year, 7 Aug came with some warning – in that it was the day before a four-day weekend and therefore had stuck in my mind for other reasons than the usual, which I have more or less forgotten – and perhaps leading up to the day I had thought however fleetingly about what that date used to mean to me, so on the day itself I found myself humming 优客李林’s 输了你，赢了世界又如何, which had come out around the time the date meant the most.
A three-inch diameter ear-stud
Recently I got a seat on the MRT on the way to work. And while listening to my favourite podcast on my ear-buds (which by the way is an activity I seem to have become addicted to; I think the fundamental attraction to me is the ability to choose the world I alone want to experience), I saw this chap – possibly from Anderson Junior College; he looked the right age and had on trousers of the right colour and possibly the appropriate insignia – with what I thought were clear plastic headphones which turned out to be a gigantic hoop ear-stud (I only saw/paid attention to his left ear). Yup, it looked like he had on a ear-stud – which I always thought was some inconspicuous mini-thing to keep one’s earring-hole open – that was essentially a three-inch diameter hoop, I kid you not. It was surreal looking through the ear-hoop and seeing clear through to where his neck connected to his collar. I thought that was quite bizarre, and could his school condone it, but maybe he liked it.
Some much-needed self-bashing
I have become less and less appreciative of my folks, I’m afraid – plain choosy about my dinner, for example, asking Mum to cook me some noodles when she’d already painstakingly prepared rice and perfectly adequate dishes to go along with it. So the other day I came home, and she showed me that she had fried some rice, and I stared at it, reflexively thinking up reasons to reject it in favour of some noodles – I love noodles – including, I remember, complaining in my mind that the egg in the fried rice was too clumpy and not scrambled enough. I went to take a shower without either committing to the rice or saying I’d like some noodles, please, and after some well-deserved self-bashing came out and ate up two bowls of the rice, which was not the best but yummy enough. I need to be more self-bashing in this aspect of my life :)
Few people I know are totally without airs – I’ve met a President’s scholar a few years younger than me who was, and there is this high-ranking civil servant and former boss who is – and the other day I bumped into the latter at a stairs landing in Hong Lim Food Centre after I had bought my breakfast, and he seemed genuinely pleased to see me and spend those next few minutes with me to find out how I was doing, to the extent that, although people using the landing had to go around us, it felt as if he was perfectly focused on talking with me. That was a great start to the day.
Dear cab-driver, I wish you well…
I was going to work on a cab the other day. (Yes, this peasant princeling enjoys such uneconomical luxuries.) At around the same time I was thinking how new the cab was, the driver said that I was his first customer for this cab, and that he’d gotten it only the day before, after which he had driven his wife and two children (I think it’s two) around in the cab. He had only been driving a cab for a few months, and he was previously with TransCab (he was now driving a ComfortDelGro Hyundai Sonata), and his was among the last batch of Sonatas and the next batches would be i40s, he said. He said he did not like driving a cab – it was a lot of pressure, having to deal with different customers and not knowing which kind he was going to get next. A couple of his friends had gotten into trouble because of customer complaints already. He much preferred his previous job as a container truck-driver, which he felt he and other Singaporeans had been pushed out of because of PRC drivers, which he said he perfectly understood because that’s what someone else would do if he was in the boss’s position, and because the job paid by the trip and more and more the PRC drivers were getting the trips because they were cheaper, he could see how the inevitable would happen and had decided to quit, and his friend and fellow container truck-driver had talked it out with the boss but to no avail. He said that was why he asked his daughters (I think) to study hard and to his understated pride it was clear that they were doing well in school. I noted that his boss should be finding it harder to get good container truck-drivers and he said yes in fact his boss had called him to ask him to go back, but he had asked if his friends and former colleagues had been asked to as well and the boss had said no, and therefore he had decided not to go back, even though his friends had told him he should, because – he explained – he was the sort of person who didn’t like others to think that he had made some side arrangement with his former boss. I’m afraid I hounded him on this – perhaps you need not be so focused on what others think or say, I said; this is a job you like, I said; and which pays better etc. etc., I could have said – but he was adamant and appeared totally at peace with his decision and keen to continue on his current path to the best of his ability. Then we arrived at my destination, and I paid him and wished him well, and he wished me well, and said he hoped his other customers would be like me, and I slid over to the curbside and stepped out and closed the door and he drove off.
I hope he is doing well, this cab-driver.
One day, on my way to work…
Outside the MRT gates, I saw a man casually dressed in jeans and a light-coloured shirt at the side of the gates watching someone go up the escalator to the MRT platform. In Chinese, this would be described as 目送, literally “eye send” – as in using one’s eyes to send someone off. He watched and watched, and then finally turned away and, I think, caught me watching him and smiled a little smile.