Reflections on Siem Reap

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Over the weekend, I went on a trip to Siem Reap. This post documents some of my thoughts, observations and reflections from the trip.

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Anxiety and introspection

This trip marked my first time flying, transporting myself to and fro airports, and spending a day/night alone in a foreign country by myself. For most of my peers, they would say that it’s no big deal – especially for people who have gone on exchange. I’ve also been told that it is liberating to be able to wander as you please, but for someone like me who has been plagued by anxiety problems over the years, unfamiliar environments are generally far from liberating.

I am someone who mentally rehearses a food order while waiting in line and I get nervous when I have to talk to strangers for an extended period of time, so you can imagine that this trip was a real step for me.

The anxious individual is always a crucible for worry, with thoughts situated in events of the past and scenarios of the future. Unfamiliarity of the territory makes every dark alley more sinister and every stranger more scheming. It amplifies the need for well-thought exit plans and contingencies. The dangers need not be an objective reality, but a subjective one clouded by our fears and clinging to attachments e.g. wealth and health etc. Despite taking precautions, there is that big ‘what if’ lurking in the background.

Even when I was wandering alone, I still texted some friends and kept in touch with my family along the way. I think this connectivity was really helpful in alleviating my anxiety. Yet, why do we turn to the external in the face of anxiety? So that we feel less alone? What’s wrong with being alone?

When you fully immerse yourself in the present moment and the impermanence of what we perceive as our reality, it brings comfort. Yet, it is so much more difficult to practice this than to simply revert to the tried and tested habit of finding comfort in other things and other people. Instinctively, we turn to the flicker of our devices by scrolling our Instagram feed or typing a text to a family member.

Why do we struggle to find comfort and contentment introspectively?

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Restlessness

This trip has also revealed the true restlessness of human nature. We crave travel, we thirst for adventure. But even when we are on an adventure, we still derive instant gratification that comes with the flickering screen of our devices, a symbol for connectivity. We are restless souls that cannot be in the present. We consume endlessly and forget how to be alone with ourselves in the present moment.

When HC left for Phnom Penh, I wandered the streets alone – ate my meals alone and did not attempt to make conversation with lone travellers. I was made aware of what it truly means to be comfortable with being alone. It is not just surviving (physically) by yourself, but also being at peace when you let go of all the tethers to your social networks.

When you are on holiday, everything you do is outside of your regular routine. Flux and changes in stimuli from moment to moment become dizzying. Michael Brendan Doughtery asks us to recall the last time “there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysterious sympathy of existence itself.” Can you enjoy a sight without immediately whipping out your phone to post it on Instagram? Can you savour a meal without having to document it on Snapchat? Can you people-watch without texting a friend? Basically, can you focus on one damn thing at a time?

No, you cannot.

I too, cannot, but I will try harder.

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Transience and beauty

During this time, I also observed the transient nature of tourists.

I was at the Night Market/Pub Street area and it was filled with tourists. They are a collective of individual lives and stories but together, they form the body of people that is indifferent to the specificities of each human life. In the crowd of both locals and tourists, I blend in, and yet I do not belong. Who truly belongs in that space? Who gets to decide the criteria for belonging? There is something humbling about being by yourself in a place that is not truly your own; where your presence/disappearance is insignificant.

These tourists stream in after dark. Like what Kazuo Ishiguro writes in Artist of the floating world and its pleasure quarters, “the best things… are put together of a night and vanish with the morning.” The transitory nature of the night has bittersweet nodes – beauty can be captured in particular time-slices, but it is also ever-drifting. It is the same with sightseeing spots. People desperately try to immortalise their memories using cameras and paintings, but perhaps that misses the point of its beauty. Can beauty ever be eternal? In these spaces, we are all pretenders – pretending that the beauty is indeed eternal when it is in fact fleeting and fragile.

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It was a really short trip, but it gave me much loads of food for thought and inspiration. I think I have raised more questions than arrived at conclusions, but if anything, it has shown me that there is still much self-improvement to work on.

The rage room is in our heads

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Image credit: Jin Xing Ye via The Artidote

Today, I was alerted to an actual business enterprise called The Fragment Room where people can ‘wreck and throw stuff for cathartic effect’. I feel very disappointed by this development and am compelled to write a short opinion piece on it. In this piece I will touch on two broad points: Why this enterprise seems beneficial, and what (I think) is wrong with it.

Firstly, complex emotions are part of the human condition. Rage is one of them, and we are no stranger to the blind fury that consumes us. It inspires violence and force, but does not necessarily result in such. That is because every individual processes anger in different ways. This is influenced by different life experiences as well as cultivated habits and responses to situations. For instance, Person A might react to anger by hitting another person. In another case, Person B does not hit the person – he has conditioned himself into restraint because he does not want to go to jail. The Fragment Room offers Person A a serious alternative that does not hurt other people (i.e. he does not hit the person), and also guarantees Person B an outlet for violence without the threat of legal prosecution. It appears to be beneficial for people dealing with anger and are in need of an ‘outlet’.

The Fragment Room encourages the expression of anger in a particular form that has been suppressed by the state in the form of legal prosecution. Basically, it operates on the premise that violence in itself is not harmful –it is only harmful insofar as other people get hurt/ it goes against state laws. Here, I contest that assumption by positing that allowing for that expression of violence is harmful in itself even if nobody is physically hurt.

Earlier on I mentioned the differences between the reactions of Persons A and B. Both have an instinct to react violently and negatively, but one controls its manifestation out of fear. I suggest that Person B is actually similar to Person A because he/she still forms that desire to react negatively. It may not manifest in terms of violence, but mentally, Person B is still affected by the violence enacted in his mind.

By removing the threat of legal prosecution and potential of hurting others, The Fragment Room still does not tackle the root problem of how people can deal with strong emotions like rage without turning to violence, whether or not it manifests as action. In my view, the rage room is not a physical place where one can go to ‘vent’, but it exists in our heads and that is equally dangerous. I suggest that harm should not only be conceived in material terms, but also mental. This is a strong and controversial claim. It means that restraint of physical/manifest action is insufficient, but one must also learn to develop healthy mental practices as an internal reaction to anger.

Summed in a diagram:

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To me, The Fragment Room is a misinformed enterprise that does not have a clear grasp of what truly benefits people, especially those who are trying to break out of cycles of blind habitual, and violent reactions. Even for people like Person B, these rooms give people the space to affirm their destructive behaviour, feed their violent reactions and reproduce cycles of negativity.

I have included Person C to suggest what I think is the correct way of processing anger. It is unrealistic to expect that the feeling of anger does not arise at all, and also unrealistic to think that humans can stop violent/negative thoughts from arising. However, what we can do is to form the mental practice of understanding that emotions are part of being human, and realising that reacting negatively (internally) can also be very harmful. It also involves understanding the subtle ramifications on our environment and the people around us when we react in ways which are not physically violent but violent in other senses (e.g. harsh words and angered tones). This does not mean that we should be suppressing anger or negative thoughts. Instead, we should acknowledge that it is part of what it means to be human, and respond to it in non-negative ways internally and externally.

These mental habits take long years of work and practice. But through it, we develop an awareness of what it means to be at peace. It does not mean that we no longer experience chaotic, complex emotions. It simply means we are no longer afflicted. We also learn that it is not the external circumstances which cause us to react in certain ways, but our habitual responses to particular feelings that create and reproduce negativity.

Bourdieu’s ‘On Television’ and its relevance to Singapore in 2017

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Image credit: Culture on the edge

[This essay is based off my interpretations of Priscilla Ferguson’s translations of Bourdieu’s lectures on journalism and television. I have spent a few days studying the text to the best of my ability but apologise in advance for any potential misinterpretations I may have made.]

This short essay will reference Pierre Bourdieu’s (1998) On Television, involving his lectures on journalism and specifically, television. I will summarise some of his points before offering my thoughts on it. In response, I will pose some general questions and further thoughts on the text. I will also question if his ideas are still relevant today in 2017, and situate it in the Singapore context – Does it support what he’s saying? How relevant are his ideas?

On Television suggests that the role of journalism (and television) imposes lower levels of social and political discourse on the citizen. He reveals the irony of democratic legitimacy derived from audience ratings (i.e. media for the people, defending their interests and functioning as a watchdog of power) by illuminating the structural constraints embedded in the world of journalism.

TV hides by showing – it can show something else, or show something in a particular way. The news has become a banal stream of images, and events are reduced to mere anecdote or spectacle –sex, blood and scandal. As a stream of unrelated images on separate issues, events become depoliticised. They seem detached from the individual – constructing the perception that politics is inaccessible. Bourdieu chooses to focus on TV because of its huge role in news dissemination but I believe that his points can be generalised to journalism as a whole.

Bourdieu’s concern is with the structural constraints and pressures: Journalism is situated in structures of competition (between agencies), market forces and market share over information dissemination. These are interrelated factors. Who is saying what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is influenced by what others are reporting (‘the circular circulation of information’) and their individual context in the world of journalism. As such, reports have nothing to do with an enlightened mass opinion or public rationality. What drives and constrains are these structures, and such is the irony of democratic legitimacy of the Fourth Estate. Where do The People reside in this picture?

When a broadcast agency circulates its information on topics that interest ‘everybody’, they get the views and boost their audience ratings. As Bourdieu pointed out, the news is reduced to political rituals, descriptions and things that the viewer already knows. It is constructed in accordance with the same mental categories of the receiver – It does not disrupt, inspire, nor raise problems. He cautions us that simplistic analyses that upset nothing result in lenses that see the world divided up in simplistic categories e.g. xenophobia, ethnic tension or religious divides. This is precisely because the news fails to unravel mental categories, properly educate the democratic citizen and inspire action. In his words, it inspires “vague humanitarian interest at best”.

What Bourdieu suggests as a remedy (but does not get into at length) is a form of collaborative journalism. It is a kind of journalism that does away with ratings and sensational-isations to work towards productive discourse. For instance, he gives the example of collaboration instead of a race for the scoop, and contesting the ratings system in the name of democracy. Therefore, what is emphasised is the importance for fighting for optimum conditions of diffusion where individuals can be educated. He is aware that this is utopian, but claims that morality works insofar as its structures support it and there are mechanisms which give people interest in that particular kind of morality. He then tells us that awareness of the mechanisms at work provides a measure of freedom to those manipulated by mechanisms (either journalist or viewer). One can be mindful of social demands and actively contest structural pressures.

Firstly, Bourdieu tells us that the news is reduced to simplistic criticisms that offer no analysis. How much analysis and nuance can we realistically have in the coverage of every event? Or rather, a more pertinent question is: How much is enough? Enough to educate the citizen? Often, people reject the unfamiliar and different. In that case, how do we go about educating an uninformed viewer who has no interest in ‘undoing’ their mental categories? More importantly to the journalistic body, how are they supposed to reconcile the need to satisfy these (market?) demands with these loftier goals of democratic or even moral education? Perhaps I am giving Bourdieu insufficient credit and we can attribute the vagueness of his solutions to the fact that it was outside of his purview to discuss them in detail. However, if Bourdieu is right, these questions are still important ones.

Bourdieu briefly discusses the banality and frivolity of news as spectacle. We may examine this point with other forms of journalism, including citizen journalism in the twenty first century. One might respond to this objection by saying: If no one heard you say it, did you really say it at all? Hence, one must first capture market share by attracting a wide audience first and get heard. Once they have a voice and presence, they can work to contest the system. The point is one needs to first understand and play the game before one can change its rules. This operates on the premise that there is great difficulty in contesting the journalistic milieu from the outside. This premise is a defensible one, but leads us back to the question of how we can reconcile market pressures with contesting the ratings system and aspiring toward education.

Back to the case of Singapore in 2017 – television and journalism is always inextricably tied to government control and censorship. While various online news sources have proliferated (and are fast gaining traction), SPH and Mediacorp still has a monopoly over information dissemination. In Singapore, the press is a means for the government to communicate certain kinds of information and perspectives. Whether or not this degree of control and censorship is desirable is not what I am concerned with in this essay. More importantly, news agencies in Singapore do not purport to espouse democratic values or legitimacy unlike in Western countries. Bourdieu reveals the irony of ‘free press’ not really being free. ‘Free press’ depends on your definition – what are you free from? There are degrees of freedom from government interests, but more importantly, Bourdieu’s lectures point out structural constraints (e.g. market forces and advertisements, internal pressures etc.)

On that note, the Singapore case is completely different from the context that Bourdieu himself was situated in. Singapore, unlike France, is not a liberal democracy and has never been steeped in a liberal tradition. Hence, news agencies in Singapore cannot and does not claim democratic legitimacy. Bourdieu’s lecture shows the irony of the press’s democratic legitimacy in France, but this irony is not relevant to Singapore. However, I would argue that the Singapore case is still subject to structural pressures. They face pragmatic concerns such as pressures from audience ratings and market forces.

Bourdieu writes that the news should contribute to educating a citizen of his/her rights and how one may flourish in a democratic society. Looking at the Singapore case, how else might we justify the importance of education of citizens without invoking any notion of democratic legitimacy? What would be the role of the media for Singapore? Perhaps we may find our answer in some kind of morality and value system, but that is a subject for another essay.

In conclusion, I have attempted to draw links between Bourdieu’s arguments and the Singapore context. Bourdieu’s diagnosis and of the problem (banality and depoliticisation of the news) is very real in Singapore, but his arguments are illuminating insofar as we consider market forces as structural pressures rather than the irony of the press’s democratic legitimacy. His lecture also opens up more difficult questions about what should be done and how media should be used more responsibly to play an active role in education.

 

References:
Pierre Bourdieu. On Television. Translated by Priscilla Ferguson. New York: New Press. 1998.

Dumplings

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Image credit: Clemens Krauss via Berlinartparasites

It killed my grandmother.

That morning, my grandmother woke up early as usual. She made breakfast for the family and brewed some coffee. She put two sugars in my father’s, and that was when I realised something was wrong.

“Ah ma, this kopi is for Pa?”

“Yes dear, bring it to him.”

 “Ah ma, daddy doesn’t take sugar in his coffee.”

My grandmother did not move. She froze with the cup of coffee still in her hands, and slowly, she smiled back at me, showing her yellowed teeth. Something was very wrong. This woman looked the same –kind brown eyes, thin lips, and curly white hair. She had the same wrinkled hands that had time etched on them. The same slight limp in her walk. But I knew she was not my grandmother.

“Ah ma is getting old. I forget some things.” She took the cup back into the kitchen as she poured its contents into the sink. After a brief pause, she said, “You were always the smart one, Grace.”

I whispered softly, “No, you never forget,” as I ran to my grandmother’s room.

I opened the door and on the bed was the mangled body of my grandmother. She lay skinless on the bed – pure muscle, flesh and bone. All the skin had gone and her eyeballs were exposed. I stared in mute horror as her dead eyes peered back at me.

That day, my father chased it out of the house. The Creature hid in the stairwell, but my father tracked it down. Using a special knife, my father killed it. It shrieked as he drove the knife through its heart. The Creature’s black mass shot out of the eye sockets and slithered away. My grandmother’s skin collapsed to a pile on the steps.

I hugged my dad and we sobbed violently.

That was half a year ago.

We sat at the dining table – Pa, Anna, and I, wrapping dumplings diligently. I taught them how to roll the skin to the perfect thickness, the amount of filling to use, and how to fold the sides. “The skin of the dumpling is very important,” I said. “If it’s too thin, it disintegrates easily after boiling. If it’s too thick, the dumpling becomes floury.”

I paused thoughtfully before saying, “Delicious fillings are nothing without well-crafted skin.”

Anna said, “This skin is perfect, Grace.”

Pa said, “Ah ma would have been so proud to see you make them.”

I didn’t respond.

My hands worked diligently, wrapping each dumpling meticulously. When the last of the fillings had been wrapped, I admired the rows of dumplings on the tray. They would turn out to be the most beautiful creations, I told myself.

I belong to a race that can never walk the earth in our natural form. We were genetically coded to loathe our fluid, black exterior. If the world was a vast blue ocean, we were a massive oil spill. We craved a body that did not resemble our own. Discrete boundaries with limbs, unlike the formless dark slime that we were. Beautiful velvety skin, unlike our wet oily texture.

Do we have to kill them? I asked. I was taught that there is no other way. We were wired with the DNA of hate and born innately despising our skin.

Those that could not bring themselves to kill or could not find hosts perished. For the sake of self-preservation, my people encouraged me to find a stable host and blend in. Stealing their identities was the only way we could live. And so we lived on borrowed skin, slithering from body to body, building our homes using other people’s faces.

The old woman was my first. And then her granddaughter, my second. They call me The Creature, but I have no name. I take the name of the person I kill.

Her name was Grace.

Right before her father stabbed me, I escaped out of the woman’s skin. I hid and I waited. And then I killed the daughter. I was more careful with the body this time.

I tapped into her memory to teach her family how to wrap dumplings. My new family.

I made a mistake once with the sugar. Now I have learnt. I am careful with memories and details. I adapt with time. I fit in.

Anna tells me that the skin is perfect. I don’t disagree.

Marine terrace

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Image credit: Instagram post by @hueyxhuey 


NEIGHBOURHOOD OF THE LONELY.

Leong sat at the kopitiam and sipped on the piping hot black coffee. It was thick, exactly how Lily would have liked it.

During the weekends, Leong and Lily would go for coffee in the afternoon together. Kopi-c for Leong, kopi-o for his wife. They would sit at the kopitiam for an hour or two, talking about anything under the sun.

That was before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Multiple chemotherapy sessions and medications drained Lily of her strength. The kopitiam sessions became increasingly infrequent. Leong would reassure her, “You’ll be back home in no time and we can go for kopi together in the afternoons, just like we used to!”

One morning, she was rushed to the hospital and never returned home for good.

It had been a month since her passing and Leong sat at the same kopitiam for the first time since she was gone. They had always been inseparable but today, he was alone. He could picture her sitting next to him, smiling. Leong could almost feel the wisps of her hair against his cheek – She would sometimes rest her head on his shoulder as they people-watched… But Lily was gone, and the vacant seat next to him was a painful reminder of his loss. Waves of grief and loneliness crashed against him. Leong would no longer order kopi-c. It would forever be kopi-o, in loving memory of his wife.

There was a hole in his heart in the shape of Lily, and Leong desperately tried to fill it with the shape of kopi-o.

Christine greeted her neighbour.

“Eh, did you see Leong at the kopitiam last weekend? I see him sitting by himself and I feel so sad. He must be so lonely without his wife – did you know she passed away?”

Christine was not one for frivolous small talk. She nodded politely, and hurried home. Her neighbour was always eager to engage in trivial conversations, passing on gossip about others that Christine had no wish to know about.

She opened her front gate and was greeted by the sight of her fifteen year old son lying on the sofa, his eyes glued to the screen of his iPad. “Is daddy back yet?” Christine asked.

He did not respond. As her son played his game, the only noise that filled the living room was the sound of the laser beams shooting at zombies on his screen. Pew pew pew pew.

“Alex Lim, I’m talking to you. Did daddy come home?”

Without looking up, he said, “He went out.”

“Did he say when he will be back?” Christine asked.

“No, but he said he didn’t want to see your jibai face.”

Christine did not flinch at her son’s use of a Hokkien expletive. She calmly set the food down on the table that she had bought from the kopitiam downstairs. It was her son’s favourite Hokkien mee, with extra pork lard. “Come eat dinner.”

“I eat already.” He said, and went to his room, slamming the door behind him.

Christine sat down, opened up her packet of noodles, and began to eat. With every mouthful of food that she shovelled into her mouth, she became increasingly aware that the emptiness within her was not something that could be filled by food.

Lonely because his wife died? She thought to herself, recalling what her neighbour told her. She wished that her husband was dead. That way, neither of them could have him. If he could not be hers, then at least he wouldn’t be the Other Woman’s. She trembled with anger. She couldn’t understand why her son blamed her. I’m not the one who’s tearing us apart. She wished that the laser beams from her son’s iPad game would slice her into a thousand pieces. Pew pew pew pew.

Christine sat alone at the dining table made for four and sobbed quietly. Each empty seat served as a stark reminder of her family that could never exist in the same physical space simultaneously.

Claudia tugged at the leash. “Time to go, Toby.”

Toby licked Alex’s face and jumped around him excitedly. “Bye Toby.” Alex petted the Japanese spitz’s white fur for one final time before he got up to leave. The fifteen year old boy was Toby’s favourite person to meet while on his walk because Alex would give him a few dog treats from his backpack. “Bye Auntie Claudia, thanks for stopping.”

“No problem, you can come visit Toby anytime.”

Toby was an energetic dog with soft, white fur. He was easily excited – he would dash to the corners of the room whenever he wanted to play. Toby adored Claudia, and he would experience separation anxiety when they were apart. He would follow her around the house. When she showered, he would wait outside the bathroom. When she slept, he would curl up at the foot of her bed.

The story of Claudia and Toby began when Claudia’s daughter went to a pet store and bought her a dog.

Claudia was divorced, and her only child was a successful lawyer who married an equally successful lawyer. Once, Claudia had casually asked if they were intending to have children. I could take care of them for you, she offered. The next week, a Japanese spitz showed up at her flat. “Now you have something to keep you company.” She told her mother.

She would tell relatives proudly, “You know my gal – she’s a lawyer at Baker & Mackenzie now.” When they asked about why she wasn’t at the family gathering, Claudia would tell him, “She’s busy working so she can’t come. But she’s a very good girl, you know. Pays for everything for me.”

Claudia made a large pot of lotus root soup and gave a pork rib bone to Toby. She waited for her daughter to call. When are you coming to drink soup and visit me? Wednesday, ma. I’ll call when I’m coming over.

It was already ten. She dialled her daughter’s personal mobile number, but no one picked up. She tried her son-in-law. “Mother? What’s wrong?”

Oh nothing, just wondering if you all ended work yet? It’s Wednesday. I made soup. I’m sorry, I have a big case tomorrow to prepare for so I can’t come over. Did Rachel call you? No, she didn’t. It’s OK. I understand. She’s busy.

Claudia hung up.

Toby lay stretched out on her lap. She hugged him and he licked her face enthusiastically.

The deep end


Source: Pinterest

The tropical heat made the swimming pool a favourite spot for many during the summer holiday. Every weekend, Mei would go swimming with a good friend.

It was a particularly warm day and Mei slathered sunscreen on her arms and shoulders. She noticed a man in his sixties watching her. Mei self-consciously tugged at her new bright orange swimming costume, trying to avoid the man’s gaze. He did not look away. Instead, with his gaze fixed on Mei, his eyes began to water.

“Ignore him. Sometimes there are crazy people here.” Her friend warned her as she pulled Mei away. “Come on!” She said, diving in to the pool.

Mei stood at the edge of the water as it lapped at her toes.

Her friend started to talk about some boy she had just met. “And then he told me about-”

Mei took a deep breath, and plunged in. The water rushed against her body and greeted her skin with its cool temperature. The world around her was silent for a few seconds. Tentatively, Mei surfaced.

She smiled. The pool was no longer the same. The old tiles were in place, and the Jacuzzi at the edge of the main pool was gone.

“Mei!”

She recognised the voice.

Five weeks ago, Mei realised that she would be transported back in time if she dived into the water head-first at the pool. The first time it happened, she met Hock. He found her, confused, crying and crouched at the corner.

She learnt that it was 1982, and the deep end of the pool was a portal where she could travel between two points in time. For every weekend after that, she would go swimming and take a trip back in time to meet Hock. Yet, she never knew how to tell him about her secret.

“I’ve not seen you wear this before.” He said with some surprise.

“Is it nice?” Mei asked. “Too orange perhaps?” She felt her cheeks growing red.

He paused, and then he laughed. “You look great.”

They swam for the whole afternoon and the sun was beginning to set. At the edge of the pool, they kicked the water lazily. Hock leaned in closer to Mei.

“Can I …” Hock began nervously. “Can I call you after this?”

Reality hit Mei in the face as soon as those words left his mouth. There was no way he could contact her as long as they existed on different timelines.

She turned away. “Hock, I… I can’t. I have to go.” She got out of the water, and Hock panicked. “Mei, did I do something wrong? I’m sorry.”

“No. You did nothing wrong.”

She waited until she was safely out of sight before she plunged back in to the deep end, returning to 2017. Five hours had passed with Hock, but time froze in 2017 for as long as she was in 1982. The sun was still burning in the 2pm sky, and she could hear her friend’s voice as she surfaced.

“–that time he went to climb a mountain, he’s so cool!”

——

The next weekend, Hock was waiting for her.  “I didn’t know if you were even coming today – I…”

Mei threw her arms around him and caught him by surprise. “Hock, I’m sorry about last week,” She said softly.

She was afraid that he would disintegrate if she touched him. What if he was a distant dream tucked away in Mei’s mind, ready to evaporate like the beads of water on her skin? But Hock did not disappear. Instead, Mei felt his arms wrap around her tightly. He was warm, solid, and she could feel his heart beat against her chest.

Hock felt real. Hock was real.

Mei was the first to break the embrace. “I have something to tell you, but you have to promise to believe me.”

He promised, and she told him about the first time she discovered 1982. When Hock recovered from his initial shock, he said, “Mei, stay here with me.”

Mei did not know how the portal worked. Currently, she could move freely between the two years, but what if she found herself somehow trapped in 1982? What would happen in 2017 if she stayed in 1982? Would her body sink to the bottom of the swimming pool? Would she disappear without a trace underwater? More importantly, was she prepared to leave everything behind for Hock?

Mei told Hock that it was something that she had to think about, and he promised to wait.

“I’ll wait for you on Saturdays until you no longer wish to see me.” Hock promised.

—-

The next week, there was a problem with the drainage system and the pool was closed for repairs. Mei had to wait another week for the pool to reopen.

She had made her decision. A weekend later, she plunged in to the deep end. She stayed underwater for a while, and when she was ready for her new life, Mei surfaced for air.

Children were running toward the Jacuzzi. There were no metal ladders by the pool.  Mei blinked and looked at the tiles she was standing on.

It was still 2017.

During the repairs, something had changed. The portal no longer worked.

Her heart shattered as she remembered Hock’s voice, “I’ll wait for you here on Saturdays.” She thought about Hock spending his subsequent weekends waiting for a girl who would never show up. Tears began to well up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.

Suddenly, a recent memory came to mind – Mei recalled seeing a man tearing up by the pool a few weeks ago. It was the day when she wore her orange swimsuit for the first time. Could it be -?

—-

Initially, Hock would go to the pool every weekend, hoping that Mei would come. As the years wore on, the frequency of his visits also declined. At the end of 35 long years, Hock was no longer waiting for Mei, but found comfort in clinging to the memory of a place. On balmy afternoons, he would find himself sitting by the pool for old times’ sake.

And then it happened.

Mei finally showed up, albeit in a way he did not expect. Hock looked on as the girl in the orange swimsuit plunged into the deep end of the water. He watched as his past flooded the present. Yet, a gulf of years still separated them – Hock was no longer a young man.

He wiped the tears from his face. It was time to stop chasing the past.

He was ready to never return to the pool again.

—–

Mei scanned the pool area for the mysterious man, but she was four weeks (35 years) too late.

Leisure and laziness


Image credit: Nu au divan, Gustave Caillebotte, 1880-82. 

What is leisure? Leisure is meaningful activity that we enjoy. Leisure is not work because work has a purpose in mind. Work is a means to an end e.g. money, opportunities, etc. People have elaborated on the great benefits of leisure – it is a means of unwinding, contemplation, reflection, and renewal. But it is not to be treated as merely a means to an end (refreshment or otherwise). It is an end in itself.

We are made to feel like we don’t deserve leisure if we have not worked. We work so we earn the play – but these are never in equal ratios. I quote Maria Popova: “I often find myself saddened when people talk of “work-life balance” — a notion that implies we need to counter the unpleasantness we endure in order to make a living with the pleasurable activities we long to do in order to feel alive.”[1] The two poles of activity in life are leisure and work and they come together. If you have leisure without work, you are lazy/a burden. If you have work without leisure, you are not alive.

Some people might hold the view that work is a meaningful activity that they enjoy. In my opinion, this is the best synthesis of work and leisure. It is the equilibrium of working and leisure not found by balancing the ratio of work/play, but rather, dissolving the clear boundaries between the two.

However, not everyone is so fortunate to meld work and leisure so nicely together. In my view, the toxicity stems not from being unable to find that synthesis of work and leisure. Rather, it stems from the meaning of ‘leisure’ being tagged to notions of idleness, as well as prestige being attached to the label of a ‘modern workaholic’.

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Image credit: @laurieliptondrawings via @illustrarts, instagram post.

Capitalist modes of order and output push us to equate purpose with productivity. It has become a modern sin to be unproductive (doing little), let alone doing nothing. Even within ‘leisure’, certain modes of leisure are seen as more acceptable uses of our time. Respectable forms of leisure are when we do things attached to certain notions of benefit, other forms get tagged with negative connotations like ‘lazy’ or ‘guilty pleasure’. We do sports, read, go out, and attend parties. We live a life constantly on the move, shuffling from one activity to another. Why is playing football looked upon more favourably than sitting on your sofa staring into space as a warm body of pure awareness? Why are we made to feel guilty and ashamed for certain forms of leisure? To sit and to simply be is to yield concern – “Why are you just sitting here like that?” or “Can’t you put your time to better use?”

Consider Pieper’s definition of leisure—leisure is non-activity not in the absence of physical action, but rather, “an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, [and] an ability to let things go, to be quiet.” If this is true, “leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like ‘breaks,’ ‘time off,’ ‘weekend,’ ‘vacation,’ and so on — it is a condition of the soul.[2] This means that leisure can be action-based – You can play football and Frisbee and spend your entire weekend on the dance-floor… but action for action’s sake is obscuring the true meaning of ‘leisure’.

It has come to a point where leisure has become part of our to-do list. We are vehicles for action and our identity as an individual revolves around a collection of these actions. Have we lost our way because we no longer know how to be with ourselvesWhen did the meaning of (non-active, non-productive) leisure become conflated with lazy, and when did work (in copious doses) become seen as worth celebrating?

Above all, as a condition for the soul, leisure is non-compulsive.

 

[1] Maria Popova, “Why we lost leisure: David Steindl-Rast on purposeful work, play, and how to find meaning in the magnificent superfluities of life”, https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/22/david-steindl-rast-leisure-gratefulness/.

[2] Josef Pieper quoted in Popova, “Why we lost leisure: David Steindl-Rast on purposeful work, play, and how to find meaning in the magnificent superfluities of life”