It’s been a while…

So the other day, a couple of days after my pal’s wedding, it occurred to me that Christmas was in a week’s time. Christmas hasn’t crept up on me like that in many years. I thought about why this year it did. And I think it was because the pace at work has been unrelenting – I have not had the space of mind to be more than who I am at work; have not had the space of mind to read like I used to; have not had the space of mind to write like this even – and because life has sucked, to use a technical term. And of course, skimming back, the sentence I just wrote appears to be nothing but excuses, even to me. I just got lazy. It happens.

Still, on my best days, I want the me who liked to write and to read back. Today happens to be one of those days, and I’ll start a streak with this first post in a while.

My pal’s wedding was last Saturday. There was a bit at the church, then a second bit at a lunch event at a hotel. The church bit was not far from what I had expected, which is to say that it was self-righteous and patriarchal, and very far from comfortable for a hardened atheist. And as I was sitting there thinking about whether the designers of this church had tried to achieve a stained-glass effect by having the church’s tall, narrow windows fitted with tessellated glass, and listening to the soothing hymns and some utterly sanctimonious preaching (to be fair, it was only from this one chap who should have kept his mouth fully shut), someone close to me who was having trouble buying an HDB flat because of who she loved and surgery she had started an angry SMS exchange with me. All in all, a surreal experience. And endurable, because my pal looked radiant in her wedding dress, and so happy.

The weekend before that, I attended the Tanya Chua concert with said pal and her beau. My conclusions: Tanya does not need bass-heavy accompaniment or light-shows which require epilepsy warnings, both of which were unfortunately present at the concert, to draw crowds; Tanya does a mean cover of Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be”, while Kit Chan – who made a mildly awkward guest appearance – probably has too high a voice to do it the same justice; that the light show was unnecessary does not mean it was crap – there was an effect which somehow created a tunnel to the audience, so that we could see Tanya at the end of said tunnel, and that was quite cool; Tanya can sing – that is all.

Two weekends before that, I attended the Emi Fujita concert. It did not take long for me to realise that, seated where I was, at a booth above and slightly behind the pianist, I could see his song-list. At first, it seemed as though I would not be able to make out the exact words, but it turned out that I did not need to – the length of the words in each song title and the look of the characters in the words told me enough. Every song was at least a minor classic and familiar, and Emi Fujita sang each in her slow, slightly mispronounced way, which unexpectedly got me to focus on the lyrics, many of which then struck me as absolutely brilliant. For example, Dan Fogelberg’s Longer has “Through the years, as the fire starts to mellow, burning lines in the book of our lives; though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow, I’ll be in love with you”; the entirety of Bette Midler’s The Rose; and Judy Garland’s First of May has “When I was small, and Christmas trees were tall, we used to love while others used to play; don’t ask me why, but time has passed us by, someone else moved in from far away”. Around the mid-point of the concert, Emi Fujita left the stage to her guitarist, a chap named Shun Komatsubara, who then played this tune, and opened my eyes to a different type of guitar-playing altogether – both hands close together, finer control than I thought possible. And so the concert went on, until I realised that even the songs for the encore were listed in the pianist’s song-list – which validated one of my long-time assumptions, that any pretense that encores were impromptu was mere stagecraft – and so I could leave early and beat the crowd knowing I wouldn’t be very keen on the last song.

Many months ago now, I dreamt that I swallowed a sparrow. For a long while I tried to cough it out, but it remained lodged, feathery but substantial fluttering buffeting the space between my throat and my chest. Then I woke up. Maybe I ate too much. (Story of my life.)

It’s been a while…

and I’m typing this on a new-ish Bluetooth keyboard which I’d bought after convincing myself that it would make me blog more. I have gotten to the point that I’m disgusted with myself for not writing, for not reading, for – in fact – spending any spare time racking up levels in an admittedly addictive video game while listening and re-listening to some favourite podcast episodes. The lack of meaningful interaction with words has finally gotten unbearable.

Pessimist: And this will be another blog post in a series of really infrequent blog posts.

Optimist: I will plan blog posts in advance! The next one will be about my favourite podcasts.

Realist who does not want to be a wet blanket: Let’s see how long this lasts.

Rummaging through my “to be blogged” list, I find

  • The first nightmare I have had in a while. Even one or two years back, I would still have occasional dreams in which I did not prepare for school. I can’t remember the details, but they were about not preparing for exams or some embarrassing situation that arose because I was not prepared, and often came during periods of stress at work. It amused me that I did not dream about the stressful work situations or something else at work instead, and I thought more than once that I just missed school, and my dreamer-self did not want to totally traumatise me by situating the dream in the scary scary work world, this after more than 10 years of work, which – come to think of it – is less than the 16 years I’ve spent in school. This most recent nightmare though was finally in the context of work. It was a major international event, something unexpected but which I was still expected to be prepared for happened, and I had to give a speech in front of a big audience which included my boss’s bosses. For some reason I had no draft for the speech, and for some other reason I was calm about it in the dream, as if I knew. The dream ended before I had to go on stage.
  • A stormy night. It was some weeks ago now, but I think this was on the first workday after the weekend, in the very early morning, when the skies crackled with lightning so bright I thought it was time to wake up, and the thunder which followed was so loud it could be felt in the bones, like jarring smashes on the walls of the house. The storm was over before long, but judging by the audio-visual display it was the most intense I’ve experienced in many years.
  • Something funny. I use my iPhone as a watch a lot of the time, and a lot of the time when I am using it – browsing the Internet or Twitter timeline etc. – I just look at the top of the phone for the time. So a few weeks back, while reading an honest-to-goodness book, I wanted to know how long I’d been doing that, and glanced at the top edge of the page I was reading. It took me several instants to figure out what had gone wrong / what I had expected to find there, but when I did, I couldn’t help chuckling and then marvelling at my thickheadedness.
  • My favourite episode of 99% Invisible. Ever since it came out, my favourite episode had been Higher and Higher, because the image of the two friends-turned-rivals competing to build the tallest structure in the world and one sneakily constructing a spire *within* his “growing” building that gave it the winning peak was just so compelling. But now it is my second favourite episode, after All in Your Head, which is about how horror movie music is made. So good.

9 thoughts I had while I was not blogging

1. [22 September] So today, in my fourth week in emy new department, which is one floor down on the sixth floor, I pressed 7 in the lift. Apparently a muscle memory built up over the last two years takes over when I’m in automaton mode.

2. [In a cab on the way to work, passing by Yishun Avenue 1 going towards the expressway, looking left] The clouds today are like fog-shrouded hilltops seen from a nearby peak. One can see which is nearer, and which further, and the nearest one actually looks approachable.

3. [About a coffee start-up near the workplace; I will call it X] The coffee in X really isn’t very good – this is after trying maybe 20-plus lattes from the place, generally around 8 in the morning, when sometimes I’d see my friend’s mum alight from her other daughter’s car – in particular compared to lattes from Symmetry (the only food I’ve tried from the place is the crispy baby squid – it looks cute written like that, not in the least edible – and it’s so good).

4. [About my normal day, and the song-list in my head) My alarm is set for 6.05am. I usually wake up a bit earlier than that. When I actually get off my bed and zombie-slouch-walk my way to wash up, there is usually a song in my head. For a few weeks it was the same 许茹芸 song. On 24 September, it was 那些年. The next day, the One Night in Beijing chorus caught me unawares. And on 26 September it was – I took a while to pin it down, my brain was playing only snatches – Pharrell Williams’ Happy. And today, it was the music accompanying this FANTASTIC and violent fight scene in 杀破狼.

5. [On my first MRT ride in some weeks] I had forgotten what it is like to ride the MRT as a routine – there are people you expect to see, and stories you begin to make up about them. The harried mum with two always sleepy, always not-quite-kempt children, the boy with a repaired cleft lip who is more tolerant than his older sister of his mother’s nudges to wake up when they reach Bishan. From this, my brother and I thought their family situation must be difficult. But I do not think of them during that MRT ride, because I see a motorcycle with lime-green spokes and it falls behind the MRT and I keep waiting for it to catch up.

6. [During a lull in a busy period in August] Huh – I haven’t changed the month on my calendar since May.

7. The nasi lemak from that corner stall at the Old People’s Park Food Centre is lousy.

8. But the nutella crepe – made by a lady from Saybons (I didn’t know they did catering) – is perfect.

9. A long time ago, I learnt about fastest plane in the world, faster than the F15 or the F16, with the highest cruising altitude: the Blackbird. And recently I came across this totally amazing story about someone who test-piloted this plane for a living.

Flex again, and stuff I want to remember

I have not written or read for myself for a long time, it seems. I think part of it is that I’ve become addicted to the sheer availability of reading material online – plain old books now seem too uncertain a proposition.

I did read Caroline Paul’s Lost Cat recently – it was short enough that after reading the blurb I was confident there would be no unpleasant surprises. It’s supposed to be a true story about what happened after the author got into a plane crash – she helpfully clarifies it was an experimental plane – and I read it in an hour and a bit, not including the time I used to make sure I was not going to the miss the lip of the escalator (I would have, by a couple of feet, if I hadn’t looked up), and the time I tried to prolong the book, after I realised it was ending in a few pages. I found it to be an interesting look into how pet-owners see their pets and how people come to terms with the life of their significant other. I also enjoyed the funny drawings which accompanied the story; I remember that I came to know about the book through Wendy MacNaughton’s blog, and her art was one of the reasons I looked forward to the book. One line early in the book stuck with me; it set a tone I could identify with: Every day I expected Wendy to lean in, whisper that she’d had enough, and walk out the door. And who would have blamed her? We hadn’t been together long enough to justify this kind of burden.

***

Some weeks ago, a few days after the first rain in a long spell and the inevitable flight of the large black winged ants, many of which got attracted to the lights in my kitchen, I heard a chorus of frog croaks. And as I think back on it now, it was a muted chorus, just a few frogs, and soft. There was a time when frogs and toads were not an uncommon sight in my garden on wet nights, and it’s a little strange, but I can’t remember if the chorus had been louder then.

***

In Ottawa, again relative yonks ago (August 2013), I saw a garishly lit-up stretch limo which had been converted into a roving casino. Think there was one person in there.

***

On 3 March this year I had my most vivid dream in a while. I was in a neat and pristine army bunk, a modern flat of a bunk, nothing like the poorly ventilated, poorly lit room I had lived in for a good portion of my life while I was doing national service, the sort of room that somehow stayed dirty and grimy no matter how one cleaned it. And an erstwhile bunkmate was there with me, and we were discussing how a big shot was going to inspect the place, and how the new four-to-a-bunk regime made it infinitely easier to prepare for the inspection than the old many-to-a-bunk arrangement. He was quiet, now that I think about it, but smiled more than when I last saw him, or remembered. And slowly with no warning I realised the room was too bright, and I never had a four-to-a-bunk sort of bunk, and he was smiling altogether too much, and I could see him too clearly – and then I woke up, unsure of what time of the day it was, half-remembering that it was evening, that I had just taken my customary weekend late afternoon nap, and then after an effort, and checking the time, I realised it was morning, and I had just awoken from a late night, having dreamt of a fellow Sim who had been dead for more than 17 years, and whom I never really knew that well.

***

Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the Men in Black movies, told a very funny story in the 1 March 2014 edition of the news game show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!. (I was going to transcribe it all, but it’s already all there at the link – you can listen, or you can read, or you can listen and read.)

***

I was in Salt Lake City not so recently (just checked – it’s amazingly almost half a year ago in November 2013). And while I was there I ordered these earphones. Because I couldn’t be sure they would reach my hotel before I left for Singapore, I paid the shipping fee. The merchant sent me an email with a link that allowed me to track the package on its way to Singapore. So I did. The first stop for the package was to Salt Lake City. Nice coincidence. Then, when I stopped in San Francisco for a couple of days and checked the link again, I found that the package had been sent to San Francisco. And from there of course it followed me to Singapore. Brilliant. What’s more brilliant: I came to learn that the same earphones, but without the mic I did not want, were available for way less on a special offer.

***

It was good to do some personal writing again. I can feel the atrophied muscles start to grudgingly slough off their stiffness as I flex just a little bit.

Salt Lake City and flakes of snow I did not see

In Salt Lake City, I saw no lakes, but I did see a gray day, mist descending upon the streets, and a bright day, with smears of clouds and sun-rays that made the cold crisp and clear, and the colder aftermath of a storm I’d slept through, stained sidewalks and puddles and gusts of condensed breaths, all from the inside of the hotel, the most luxurious I’ve ever stayed at, where my colleagues and I met with other folks and talked and talked.

***

These days I seem to only read proper books during my work trips. I finished two and a half of them this time round. One was Kathleen Jamie’s collection of essays, one of which was about a trip to see auroras and which I thought was a work of beauty, something I literally gasped at, and which was generous, because she described stuff in a way that made me think, she really wants you to see and feel what she does. I want you to read it and take it in in all its context and be happy, but I also want to share a bit of it with you, so here’s a bit of it:

Luminous green, teal green, the aurora borealis glows almost directly overhead. It intensifies against the starry night like breath on a mirror, and it moves. Across the whole sky from east to west, the green lights shift and alter. Now it’s an emerald veil, now with a surge it remakes itself into a swizzle which reach toward some far-away place in the east.

***

Apart from being a stunningly lyrical essayist, Kathleen Jamie is also a poet. And talking about poets, I found one, I can’t remember whom or where from, but I found a good one who writes about commonplace things and is supremely accessible. (This makes a difference to literalist me.) Check out Billy Collins, and his poem The Lanyard. I enjoyed how the poem sort of does a slow little pirouette to end off.

***

And this year, I also discovered Ken Liu and his stories which often mix in some aspect of Chinese typography or myth or history to poignant effect. How wonderful, that some of them are freely available. Like Mono no aware. (Gravity fans (i.e. those who like the movie starring Bullock and Clooney, not those who ensure the feel of weight) should especially enjoy it. I wouldn’t know – I haven’t watched Gravity yet.)

***

A couple of months back, I heard a song on the radio. It was a sad Chinese pop ballad, and at first I could not place the familiar voice. Then it hit a clear high note, and I realised it was 张信哲. When I got over the voice, these lyrics stayed with me.

飞机起飞之后 我的笑容永不再相同 (After the plane lifts off, my smile will no longer be the same)

Somehow, in Chinese, it’s more poetic.

***

This year, I discovered many many things about myself. One of these is that I always ruin my candles. You know, those that fill up jars? I always drop matches in them, or add in potpourri petals and bits to see how they would smell burnt, or the wick would shorten to an untenable length. Then, the candles get neglected and then the neglect becomes abandonment.

***

Also quite recently, I heard the first few piano plonks of Jewel’s Foolish Games, and immediately knew what song it was and remembered that I hadn’t heard it for many yonks, that it had been big when I was in my first year of university and that I had thought the world of its lyrics and her singing. Listening to it this time, Jewel sounded strident and pretentious, instead of raw and heartfelt. I don’t think the song has aged well.

Or maybe it’s my taste that hasn’t.

 

Leftovers from Peru and other miscellany

I had meant to gush about the dessert we had at Punto Azul too. After leaving the risotto plate spotless except for smudges of squid ink and the mixed fried combo plate smeared with some of the excellent salsa (excellent according to my colleagues; I tend not to dip), we ordered tres leche – meaning “three milk” – supposedly the quintessential Peruvian dessert: milk sponge cake, moist and fluffy (the first milk), with a layer of whipped cream on top (the second milk), half sunken in a pool of condensed milk (the third and most yummy leche). And that was a simple and slurp-worthy way to end that meal.

***

Most weekday mornings at about 7am, I am on the train I take to work. Lately I’ve been looking out through the windows on the right side of the train. Somewhere between Khatib and Yio Chu Kang – just after Khatib – there is a clearing in the middle of what looks like the beginnings of dense forest, and usually several people would gather there. These few weeks, when I’ve seen them, they’ve been doing yoga – just today they were all on all fours, butts up, heads down, looking very silly and regimented on their yoga mats. And even though I’ve seen this group of people several times over the past few weeks – I have always imagined they are middle-aged or older folk, but really they are too far away to tell, and I am sure I’ve seen both men and women, though more women, their rolled-up mats slung across their backs – it just struck me today that, not so long ago, this same group of people – I imagine they are the same group, since they appear in the same place – were doing taiqi.

***

Just the other day, I came across something online about toolboxes, and a vivid memory bobbed up from the depths of my brain, of little me staring at my dad’s toolbox with its one compartmentalised shelf which detached itself from the top of the box when the box was opened, to rest solidly on its articulated hinges, presenting all sorts of nails and screws and drill bits for his assessment and selection and perfect and dangerous use – dangerous because there were sharp points and electricity and heavy and hard metal surfaces involved, dangerous but then all the more of a thrill when my dad asked little me to fetch him a pithily described nail or tool.

I thought my dad was awesome then.

I haven’t felt that way in many years.

I think I miss that feeling.

In Lima, wreathed with mists

Before I left for Lima, a colleague informed us that those returning from Peru needed to be immunised for Yellow Fever. It was a busy period – which period isn’t? – and I put off taking the shot until the day on which I was to fly to Lima. (Also, I had heard that the injection would be done with a damned big needle.)

And so I found myself in the doctor’s office at lunchtime, 12 or so hours before my flight, a little apprehensive and put-upon. The doctor – a professional-mannered woman – started by asking why I was taking the shot, and when I told her it was for a work trip, she looked through some documents to confirm that yes, the Singapore customs does require people returning from Peru to take the shot. She then explained that she wanted to confirm that I needed to take the shot, because the vaccine was “live” and I had a (cheery) 1-in-200,000 chance of suffering serious side-effects – essentially contracting Yellow Fever.

Up to that point, I had not thought that my mortality might be affected by the injection, and I got more than a teensy bit worried. It must be showing, I thought, sitting beside the doctor’s desk – but the doctor’s expression remained bland as she pulled the content of the vaccine bottle into the syringe. (The needle did not look overly big, but I haven’t had an injection in a while.) She said I had folded back my sleeve enough, and asked if it would be my first time in Peru or something like that and then pushed the needle and then the vaccine into the flesh of my left upper arm and then put a plaster over the mark after she pulled out the needle.

The injection did not hurt.

***

I had planned to listen to podcasts on the flight to Lima – 12-plus hours to Amsterdam, 5-plus hours of layover, 12 hours to Lima, one way – but browsed at a bookstore on the long way to the gate and got tempted by a Donna Leon book. This was a heftily satisfying read.

The book was about the death of someone whom the protagonist’s wife had seen in the neighbourhood for many years, and there were descriptions in the book about how those in the neighbourhood had seen the person grow up and age.

I’ve lived in my neighbourhood for about 18 years, and most of the shops around our little estate have changed many times. Maybe some of the neighbours would know what I looked like 18 years ago, but even those would be few.

Donna Leon writes about Venice. I wonder if people live differently in Venice, if I would also be part of the neighbourhood scene if I live there – familiar and remembered.

***

One of the podcasts I listened to eventually, in my hotel room (small and functional, with pillows that make my neck ache), was episode 230 of Books on the Nightstand (a book-lover’s joy). This episode featured two author talks from Booktopia Vermont. The first talk was about a topic I know so little about that I was surprised at how interested I was in the talk; the second talk moved me, especially this part:

What was different for me and what proved to be the bigger challenge was separating the act of creation, creating fiction, something make-believe, from the thing that had inspired it, which was the loss of a friend in the September 11 attacks. And she was a young mother, a new mother, she was on the first plane that hit the twin towers, and it was her first business trip following her maternity leave. And she wasn’t my closest friend, she was the wife of my husband’s best friend, and I knew her moderately well, but not intensely well. But because I was a journalist her husband asked me if I would field the media phone-calls for him, so he wouldn’t have to explain over and over again who she had been, how they had been college sweethearts, and now how he was going to be the single father of a six-month-old daughter. And I spent about a week answering these phone-calls and creating the sound-bites that would go into these newspapers and magazines about my friend. And every time I said something, which was always with the blessing of the family, I couldn’t help but be the devil on my own shoulder yelling at me for reducing her life in that way, distilling someone down to sound-bites, which was a very unnerving thing. And then when I read her obituary, which I helped to work on, it occurred to me how little of a life actually appears in an obituary, cos it’s a compilation of what we are to other people and the things that we’ve accomplished, but it doesn’t have anything inside the words and the lines of what we ever hoped to accomplish, and what we tried to accomplish but didn’t, and all the hopes and dreams and aspirations that we have, and those were the thoughts that haunted me for about five years.

Death, YouTube meandering and not liking the part of me that looks down on dwarfs

Recently, a local TV star died. He was 60. I’ve stopped watching television for a while now, so I hadn’t seen him in anything recently, but to read that he is still best remembered for a role he played in a 1984 series struck me as sad – to have one’s life in the 30 years since that show reduced to unmentioned irrelevance – and then made me think about how there is no truly adequate way to memorialise any life, and surely no one same way all those who knew him would remember him.

His death was a reminder of mortality, like so many things are nowadays for me. To me, 60 is just about the age one could arguably say people start to die because they are old. As in, you wouldn’t be surprised if someone died, at 60. That was in my mind. And then I remembered that my parents were into their 60s. Of course I had known that before, even made a big do of their 60th birthdays. But the death of this actor – whose defining role was an experience my parents and I shared when I was still limited to a world they curated for me – was a more forceful reminder.

***

I went YouTube meandering again last night, and found a Wilson Phillips playlist with four songs that I hadn’t heard in a bit and that I realised I could sing to. The songs are oh, about 24 years old.

And I also saw the ending to the Japanese drama series Overtime, again, and enjoyed revisiting what the show made me feel.

And I came across this gem of a cover of Journey’s Faithfully. A lot of these acoustic covers are so brilliant. Boyce Avenue – worth checking out.

***

I started religiously following a podcast a while back – if you like tabletop role-playing, the sort of stuff where a “game-master” creates and manages a world for other players, you should really give Critical Hit a try – and recently I saw one of the folks on the podcast in a video and he appeared to me he might be a dwarf. That disturbed me. My instinct, I think (nice oxymoron sequence there), was a feeling of wrongness – he couldn’t be a dwarf, he’s part of this great podcast I enjoy so much! Then I thought, why can’t a dwarf be part of a great podcast? Anyway, I don’t like this part of me – the part that unthinkingly looks down on dwarfs.

Miscellany 15 April 2013

I am facing the very real possibility that all my freckles will turn into tags that need to be lasered or nitrogened off my face. There is already one, not yet fleshy, near my right ear.

Mortality is a theme today. A colleague that I have said hi to a few times, who was always friendly to me, passed away Saturday. I think he’s younger than me. It was cancer. He went through the remission-relapse whiplash, and I would imagine so did his parents and wife. Yes I found out he was married – one of the bosses said he had gone to this colleague’s wedding, and it had been less than two years ago. He looked genuinely shocked and yet accepting at the same time, and added: Life’s like that. Fate decides.

Today was a really hot day. I think I burnt up inside and couldn’t cool down, it was so hot. (Or maybe I am so fat.)

I was listening to Debbie Gibson’s We Could Be Together (Campfire Mix) – again – through some earphones, and got stunned by the little details that went into making such a terrific mood piece: simple guitar chords in the background; some nice percussive instruments; backup vocals playing all sorts of roles – giddy, supportive, grounding the song when her voice soars; and then her own voice when it counts. What a great voice she has. But even then, she couldn’t make the song herself.

I saw Mini Eggs in a tube today. And had to buy two.

I was on my way to sleep last night, and thought of getting one of the Rex Stout books that I used to read to sleep. When I realised that I wasn’t in the mood for any – any! – of them, I was quite surprised and then when I realised I was only a little disturbed, I was slightly more surprised. Someday I will find the Bear that used to enjoy reading any Rex Stout book and spending time with Archie and Wolfe and Saul. That Bear read and read and read. And probably learned too. I don’t really miss the Bear that enjoyed durians, but I would like to find out why he left. I think I liked the Bear that went up stairs two at a time the most right now – he’s definitely not coming back.

Today was also the day I found out when I’d be travelling for Peru. This will be my second visit there. I should be all prepared. And it’s a place I’d otherwise never get to go. But I only have to think about the flight – 12 hours in a big cylinder then a few hours in transit in Amsterdam then nearly 13 hours – to quail, and try hard not to think about it.

I’d never have heard Tara MacLean’s Settling if not for Meteor Garden. So. There is some redeeming feature in that series :)

Am I borrowed, am I blue. Is it just the dust of leaving you, settling.

Maybe I could just shave it off…