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…

Awakening

Today, for the first time in a long time, I watched something with someone I hadn’t watched anything with before. The “something” was 贾宝玉 aka Awakening, a stage re-framing of 红楼梦 in which 贾宝玉 returns to re-live his travails in a modern-day 贾 household. It was entertaining and innovative in parts (especially the portions re-telling the key plot points in 红楼梦, which was useful for folks who haven’t read the Chinese classic e.g. me), but ultimately I found that it was uneven, with melodrama competing with near-evangelising of Buddhist concepts such as the cycle of secular suffering.

Still, I was moved by the sort-of twist near the end, when 贾宝玉 finds that his bride is 林黛玉 in this reality (in the original story, 林黛玉 was 贾宝玉’s true love, but, believing that 贾宝玉 and 薛宝钗 were the perfect match instead, 贾宝玉’s family tricks him into marrying her by switching brides, meaning the bride he eventually wed was 薛宝钗), which was well-resolved. (It was in fact so good that I would not be surprised that the play crystallised with this gem at its core.)

One line in particular in the play stayed with me: “We come into this world alone and we leave this world alone.” (That’s paraphrased/translated from Chinese.) To live with a real appreciation of this is to live in a non-secular world. Sometimes I find myself veering into this territory, not caring to care, though more from a laziness of the heart than from an understanding that caring is suffering, and a while ago I tried to put this uncaring into words, and I realised that I do not want to be dependent on one person for an overly significant part of my happiness.

The other thing that stuck with me is a song from the play – you can view the music video here. (I wonder what the song would be like sung by someone with greater range than 何韵诗.)

Congratulations? Congratulations!

Last Friday, I learnt that a colleague had adopted a child. When I next saw her, I congratulated her. That immediately felt very strange – were congratulations as suitable for an adoptive mother as a pregnant one? I brushed the strangeness aside then, but it’s continued to bob up and down in my thoughts. The adoptive mother hadn’t looked unhappy at my congratulations (and why would she?). Still the feeling of strangeness remained.

It will subside slowly, I expect. I probably felt strange because, for the first time in my life, I was congratulating an adoptive mother. And one who, I understand, had wanted a child for a while. So certainly some rejoicing was appropriate.

I had even asked for the child’s name, and it had even stuck for a moment, before quickly being smudged away from the surface of my Teflon brain. Shall ask Reb her child’s name again.

A couple of things about London

I was in London in June, transiting on the way to Geneva and then spending a few days there on vacation on the way back to Singapore. One conclusion: The Chinese food in London is not bad.

And since June I’ve been meaning to write about a couple of things. (Been lazy, yes.)

The first thing, and to be honest I’m not sure if this should be first or second, as I can’t remember now whether it was during the transit leg or the return leg – I think now it had to have been the transit leg, so it’s correct that this is the first thing – but anyway, the landing – on a Singapore Airlines Airbus 380 – was butter-smooth. So smooth in fact that I had thought the landing was the plane bouncing on a large air pocket.

The second thing happened on my way back to Singapore. I was at a Starbucks with as eclectic a collection of seating as I’ve ever seen outside of Ikea (maybe even including Ikea): plastic chairs like those at a tentage affair around generic oblong collapsible tables, bar stools around high counters, living room sofas and couches with small square coffee tables, armchairs. I had a good double latte, and while I savoured that, I finished Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. Good read.

Thoughts on a trip to San Diego

San Diego this time of year is typically colder, the driver says. The driver drives a van that bears me toward the airport, where I’ll take a flight to Los Angeles, then Tokyo, then home. A few turns into what he promises would be a short drive, he notices someone on the pavement – a flustered woman lugging along a check-in bag and a carry-on – and exchanges some short quick gestures with her. Having determined something from this wordless back and forth, he stops the van – he knows her, he says by way of explanation – and leaves his seat to help her with her bags. I do my bit, sliding open the door. She gets on and settles beside me, grateful to the driver, but not overly so – his does not seem to have been a totally unexpected act of kindness. I learn that she had headed out to the airport via public transport, but her train had been delayed, and she had missed a bus, and was looking for a cab when we pulled up.

A couple of hours later, in LA, I have some time to daydream, and I come to wonder if a driver with the same job in Singapore – sending a hotel guest to the airport – would stop to pick up someone like this, as a kindness. My instinct tells me no, because the traffic in Singapore is too dense and hectic, and everyone wishes to get to some place quick, and there isn’t the space for you to safely stop and not obstruct the traffic behind you. Or at least that is what you would tell yourself, in Singapore, I think.

And I come to think, as I have thought a few times on and off since I’ve had the opportunity to travel to other cities around the world over the last couple of years, that space is an essential part of what makes a city liveable.

The tremendously agreeable weather – a blue sky; smears of cloud like white from a minimalist painter’s palette; a crisp coolness that makes sunshine a tangible, almost benedictory thing – that San Diego has had for the past week would help too.

***

A couple of days before my trip to the San Diego airport, I am in Phoenix visiting a friend. We get along well, but are not close, so the visit is slightly awkward the way something not altogether laid down in the bounds of social norms can sometimes be for me. I bring gifts for her, one from a mutual friend, so that lubricates things. She is touched by the mutual friend’s gift: a piece of wood which is shaped not unlike a snow-globe with an elongated base and which opens up to reveal carvings of the buddha.

We talk a lot. She talks about her research into spirituality and materialism and how the two intertwine. She is doing her PhD. For a while, I had thought about academia as a career too, and now I feel a pang of jealousy, but it is distant, buried deep under current comforts and indolence and inertia; I know too much now about my disinclination to withstand discomfort and homesickness to be genuinely envious. I think.

She warns me about the leeching dryness of the desert, tells me that drinking water is important, and that if I have a headache, it is probably caused by dehydration. An image of my brain squelching to a stop from lack of water makes me laugh.

We talk about companionship for the long term. She had recently parted ways with a long-time boyfriend. I mention how I am lazy to do things that I like when I am on vacation because there is no one to share the joy with – as my tongue rolled to form the words, I am a bit surprised; I had not known I thought this – and she says she understands.

***

She says that this process towards a doctorate, including the research into the intertwining of spiritualism and materialism, is part of her self actualisation.

My self actualisation mainly takes the form of satisfying my appetites for food and goods, I say as a glib half-joke, then as a realisation. Compared to my haphazard and aimless daily meanderings, her introspective and purposeful search for who she is, in itself a process of self definition, is a worthy pursuit.

What is self actualisation to you, she asks.

I think about it. How do I actualise me, maximise me, bring out the potential in me, express the desires in me to be… a me I am happy with.

Hm…

***

She brings me around to places she frequents, to supermarkets and food places, to where she works. I meet her advisor, the professor for whom she decided to come to Arizona and who now supervises her work towards a doctorate. I shake the professor’s hand; she holds a chihuahua in her other hand, maternally cradling the dog to her chest with her arm.

***

Days before I go to Phoenix, I am at work meetings and staying in a La Jolla resort alongside a beautiful bay scooped into the side of California, with the calm Pacific waters lapping and mildly frothing at its edge.

The road leading to the resort is lined with palm trees, ridiculously tall and straight, and understandably so, given the abundance of sunshine. Ducks and geese roam the resort, and one of the sights of the trip was a small flock of ducks silently and suddenly bursting into the air, then turning left, becoming a different entity as the rays of light catch their feathers in a different slant, heading off to another part of the resort to enjoy the afternoon.

On the last day of the meetings, I am told that “La Jolla” means “the jewel”. Quite right.

Later in the trip, the flight to Phoenix brings me out over the waters off La Jolla. At that height, the deep blue is stippled by waves and the glint of sunlight, and looks like a luxuriant swathe of leather.

Since Bali

So, I haven’t blogged since that last past about Bali.  That’s a gap of more than eight months.

I’ve wondered why.  Simple laziness is the tempting and probably substantially correct answer, but I feel there’s more.  Maybe part of that is busy-ness, though goodness knows I haven’t been too busy to eat a lot and sleep a lot and read a bit and cruise the Web in near-obsessive, increasingly desperate hunts for pointless utterly pointless sports news.  Maybe part of it is the sort of busy-ness that squeezes mental stamina out of you, the sort of mental stamina that then has to be replenished by idly allowing your face to be tanned by the light from your desktop LCD screen over the weekend.  Maybe part of it is just lack of inspiration, or the self-perceived version of same (but when is something not self-perceived anyway?).  And maybe part of it was the (self-perceived) meaningless-ness of whatever I would have written.  Or maybe, the question is the wrong one: I wondered why I haven’t blogged; maybe it’s more apt to ask why I should have.

Hmm.  Well.  I should have, because I thought I liked to blog.  I think I like to blog.  It’s troubling that there was that long period of time during which I apparently did not want to blog.  *thinking thinking thinking* Blogging is writing, yes?  So, maybe I wasn’t writing well at work.  Or was writing too much.

(Heh, funny how I came to “work” as a reason for not blogging.  But maybe it’s not so funny – “funny” as in “strange” – maybe it’s not so funny, since we work for so much of our lives.  If there is a reason I haven’t blogged, it’s probably linked to my work, just based on the universe of reasons in my life it can possibly be linked to.)*

###

Anyway, while I have not been blogging, I’ve collected some thoughts to blog about.  A lot of these surfaced during my various work trips.  I was in Brussels earlier this year, and when I came back home and cleared out my suitcase, I found a red-tipped matchstick, nestled amongst my clothes.  I don’t smoke, the hotel room I was in was a non-smoking one, there was no sign that anyone had tampered with my suitcase, so it was a complete mystery how a red-tipped matchstick ended up in my suitcase.  But maybe what happened was, the lady who cleaned out my room smoked and carried around loose matchsticks and inadvertently dropped one in my open suitcase.  Something innocuous and non-esoteric like that.  Maybe.

###

I think it was during the second-leg flight to Santiago.  I ran through the in-flight entertainment system’s various contents, and there were two Jason Mraz albums, a studio album and a one with songs he performed “live”.  Both had the song “I’m Yours”.  I’d of course heard the song several times over the radio by this time, but listening to the “live” version in a artificially closed personal space – with the crowd going wild after the first two notes of guitar twang and Jason Mraz’s free-wheeling slightly raw style – was a more moving, more buoying experience, and something I credit for keeping me sane during that flight.  (I then listened to it on repeat nearly the entire way back to Singapore.)

I saw a few sides of Chile.  Santiago looked a little unmaintained, but walk-able and open, with wide wide streets.  Wine tasting at the Concha y Toro vineyard was an… experience, with the sommelier brandishing his classic sommelier’s nose and the likeably pretentious sommelier’s jargon, and truly in my view enriching our enjoyment of the bottles of red and white on show.  Valparaiso looked in many ways like a modern European seaside town, with posh developments all around.  We had lunch at a restaurant along the Valparaiso coast, and the appetiser of lightly blanched white fish, clams, crab meat, prawns and squid, fresh from the sea and drizzled with lemon juice, hit the spot!

###

Long-haul flights offer one time alone, to be introspective.  I think that’s the only enjoyable bit about them.**

###

I spent many hours with my bosses during these work trips.  One of them, retiring soon, is a generous, opinionated man who’s been doing his job for longer than I’ve known about Transformers.  Recently, back in Singapore, he was in a meeting, at which several briefings had been scheduled for very important and busy people who’d just joined the ministry.  The briefings were overrunning, as they do, and near the end of the day, even though it wasn’t his turn, my boss gave his briefing.  What he did not know was, there were some colleagues from another department outside the meeting room, who had been waiting and waiting for their turn to brief, and that in fact they had been scheduled ahead of my boss.  When it turned out that my boss’s briefing would be the last one these very important and busy personages would be around for that day, the colleagues from this other department were understandably quite upset.

This department is located on the same floor as ours, and, once he’d settled some matters in his office, my boss walked over to this other department to apologise to each and every colleague who had waited for their turn which never came partly because my boss took up some time to do his own briefing.  His was the good-natured sort of apology, “sorry about it”, with a smile, unreserved, un-phony.

I gave my boss a hard time about skipping the other department’s turn (well, as hard a time as I could – I know my station in life) – how could you!, I said to him.  When I heard about his apology afterwards, I really had to shake my head, in admiration.  Will miss him.

###

The influence I wield over the lives of colleagues that I supervise/manage/lead is unexpectedly heavy.  This struck home when a conscientious new (well, sort of new) colleague called me on the phone to tell me, in between choking sobs, that her dad had been diagnosed with cancer and the doctor had given him only six months to live.  As I held the phone to my ear and listened to her crying, I could only cast about for something to say, something comforting and decent and supportive and helpful and which did not betray the fact that one of my first thoughts in the mess of things, as I remember it, right alongside “what must she be feeling now?”, was “how about her work?”.

###

A couple of things I have enjoyed these months, that I’d like to share:

1. Theme song from “Cheers” – Over the years, I think I’ve enjoyed other sitcoms more.  But not other theme songs.  Poignant and meaningful and true.

2. 戒不了 – I enjoy this Malaysian writer’s little pieces of whimsy and philosophy.  (They are in Chinese, which in my opinion can carry boundless nuance in a small space in a way that makes one marvel at the human capacity for creating meaning.)  Try these two: http://kitcheah.blogspot.com/2011/09/blog-post.html (title loosely translated as “Only for a little heartbeat”, about why one writes) and http://kitcheah.blogspot.com/2008/05/blog-post.html (“Reason for being happy”, about how one is no longer another’s reason for being happy)

*There have been some changes at work – five new colleagues since March.  And more changes to come.  Big, scary monster-type ones.

**On one of these flights, I saw a flight attendant who behaved in the same way I’m sure a colleague would have if this colleague had been one.  (It’s times like this when I think there may well just be a finite number of types of people in the world.)

Letter to next occupant of Villa No. 10, Villa Bali Asri

Hi there.

You probably don’t know me, and that’s okay. I just want to tell you a little bit about the time I spent at this villa – I’ve just come back to Singapore after a week-long stay here with my family.

Things to know:

1. The villa’s amenities include wireless broadband. The password can be found in the brown information binder you’ll probably find on the dining table or coffee table at the sofa.

2. Prepare for surprise visits by critters. We saw leeches – my brother pried a fat one off his foot, and there were a couple of rather more slender ones looping around – as well as a titanic gecko that, amazingly, moved along the walls as agilely as its smaller brethren. It looked as if it should plod rather than skitter. There were crabs scuttling all over the place – some like to play dead, and then once you seem to have lost interest they would skedaddle away – and many frogs and toads “serenaded” us every night.

3. Prepare for mosquitoes. I don’t quite know how – I just treated mosquito bites and itches as a matter of course – but maybe a malaria jab may be useful?

4. The locals were friendly and helpful. I never once felt in danger from them as I walked along the streets and paths at night. If anything, the condition of the streets and paths and the fact they were typically poorly lit were more dangerous – so bring a torch.

Things to try:

1. The villa’s very own barbecue dinner is worth it at around 60 USD for our family of five. Try the seafood one (there’s also a just-palatable beef option which my non-seafood-eating sis had) which for us came with king prawns, red snapper and squid (oh the squid!! *drool*), as well as steamed rice, stir-fried veggies and sauteed potatoes. Worth trying just for the squid, which was grilled to mouthwatering just-rightness :)

2. There is an Italian restaurant called Ultimo’s that opens at 5pm. It’s about a 30-minute slow walk from the villa, along Laksmana. Try it. The spaghetti vongolle (with other seafood – when I was there, it turned out they didn’t have vongolle and substituted with squid *grin*) came in a generous portion with many whole (small, but whole ;p) scallops and freshwater shrimp and diced capsicum, and was very yummy. The almond parfait was perfect the first time we were there, but was a bit soft when we next went, likely because it was a busy night and the fridge the parfait was kept in was opened too frequently :p

3. Tanah Lot is worth visiting. Great views. Pity about the tourists and their littering.

4. And one thing to not try. The babi guling (roast pig) at Ubud is overrated, and not worth the aggravation of queuing for and the poor service, in my humble opinion :)

That’s about it I guess. All the best for your stay :)

P/S. I would likely not have written this if my sister had not written an actual letter to the next occupant of the villa and left it in the bedside drawer of her room.

 

Aggregated Facebook updates

If I were a compulsive updater of my Facebook status, here are some of what you might have seen over the last few days.

Sim Li Chuan likes his colleague’s new haircut!

Sim Li Chuan is on a one-Haruki-Murakami-short-story-a-night-before-bed diet.

Sim Li Chuan will remember to prepare for meetings in future.

Sim Li Chuan just had extremely shiok! bak kut teh – soup was hot and peppery; tenderloin was tender; kidney was cooked just right; salted veges absolutely hit the spot – and the kungfu tea was… extremely skilled :p

Sim Li Chuan is happily catching up – hang on, need to talk to colleague I haven’t seen in a while – with a colleague he hasn’t seen in a while.

Sim Li Chuan is enjoying a roadshow by some colleagues and admiring their presentations and poise.

Sim Li Chuan will absolutely remember to prepare for meetings in future.  Goodness!  *Angry at himself*

Sim Li Chuan is looking forward to late night coffee/dessert with his pal.

Sim Li Chuan is disappointed.

Sim Li Chuan appreciates the talks he has most nights with a too-generous-and-good-natured-for-his-own-good colleague.

Sim Li Chuan is opening an ill-deserved gift.

Sim Li Chuan makes a resolution.

Sim Li Chuan is impressed with himself.  He remembers who Dan Roam is.

Sim Li Chuan is enjoying talking to a colleague and relating the time Calvin said, “By my troth, I’m off!” and his mother said, “Whither goest thou, young rogue?”.*

Sim Li Chuan and his colleague agree that it would have been even more surreal if Hobbes were the one speaking in Shakespearean with Calvin.**

Sim Li Chuan just had a quite satisfying prawn bee hoon-mee dinner, and is trying not to have some more food before bed.

Sim Li Chuan is mulling over something his boss told him.

Sim Li Chuan just had more food.

Sim Li Chuan marvels at his former colleague’s ability to wrap a gift.

Sim Li Chuan wonders how to end this post.

* Here‘s that strip.

** And if you like Calvin and Hobbes, this is a great link :)

Dreams

I’ve been having some vivid dreams lately.

In one memorable one, I am coming near the edge a grass verge leading down to a windswept pier, looking out at the sparkling sea and the curve of coast a little further beyond, all draped in a light dusting of mist, and I feel a bit lost – I’m not sure what I am doing here, in my dream; it looks a little like Cape Cod, only utterly deserted, and I feel vaguely marooned – when I see a familiar figure walk up the shore, to a boathouse I did not know was there.  It is a colleague and friend I know well, and as I wave and smile at her, the relief I feel wakes me up and makes me long to find out what we would have talked about.

In another, I am in a hammocky contraption in a deep doze late at night, when the treehouse I am in shivers, and my eyes open to slits and I look about expecting a vague but very real threat – I would open my eyes further and get up and look around but I cannot I am so tired – and the threat is real and urgent, so I desperately keep my eyes open as long as I can, and I see a pug dog, in the traditional pug pose, sitting up, head tilted, questioning and solemn – as if it is saying, hey, it’s ok, I’m here – and reassured I close my eyes and settle back to sleep.

Later, I’m not sure how long later, it’s about 5.30am, and I wake up to a loud storm, pelts and lashes and waves of rain mixed with crashes of thunder and lightning so bright it leaks past the sides of my curtains.