What have I become?

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We all have a closet of jackets somewhere.

Each jacket is a representation of an identity you once wore. Fickle people have larger closets while grounded and square people have much tinier ones. There are also those of us with deep closets with pieces that are hard to reach, or buried.

The style of each jacket can range from the ridiculously flamboyant to the utterly dull for almost anyone. There are some you once wore with absolute swagger when you were a teen but would rather be clocked with a shotgun in the head than be caught wearing them today. There are some that used to fit you comfortably but these days they feel like they are trying to choke every breath out of you. Some have become too small for you, while others have become too large for your shrinking frame.

‘Musician’ is a one I’ve retired recently. It’s not hung deep, but I’ve shuffled it to the corner behind the closed door. It’s never been one I’ve worn comfortably anyway but a lot of people seem to like me in it so I used to wear it, somewhat begrudgingly. I’ve been slowly realizing that perhaps there are other ones that fit me a lot better. I still wear the ‘Writer’ one occasionally. It’s a little aged but it still fits and I’m comfortable enough in it. ‘Married’ is a brand new one that I would be adding into the closet this year. It’s one that I have perhaps been expecting to own for some time now but has always eluded me. The price, cut and fit have never really aligned, until now. Tomorrow, I retire the ’30s’ one. That ragged and torn one I’ve been wearing for exactly a decade now, and with it, goes supposedly any lingering shred of youth. Yet, I’ve never felt more alive.

I am expecting my closet to shrink dramatically in the coming years. There are those that would say nay, because it doesn’t have to be so. That’s true, but stability has never been something I had the pleasure of enjoying for a long time in my existence. I am going to enjoy kicking back a little and working with as little identities as possible for a while, to try and make the few I have stronger than any one’s I’ve had before.

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It’s my own cheating heart that makes me cry

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I watched a film recently that tricked me into thinking the misguided protagonist was just a story prose, destined to be stopped by the little heroine at the end, only to discover I was in actual fact watching the origin story of a villain. The tables were flipped in my head and I was both enraged at being played a fool but contented for witnessing a piece of cinematic brilliance.

We’ve heard the expression, ‘life imitates art’. There is a saying that is often linked to Oscar Wilde’s 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, “What is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art”. Lovely and all, but I seem to find myself grasping a little at straws when it comes to how ‘art’ has mostly represented heroism and villainy.

I won’t pretend to know the finest corners of the art world. Most of what enlightened society deems as art is unfortunately not very compelling to me. Art, to me, needs to have a moving narrative. Pictures and painting stay far too still for my liking. Perhaps because I have a stunted imagination. Writing and films, that’s where art mostly is to me. Writing requires some motion from my imagination but it’s hardly cartwheels, while films are well, constantly moving, in one way or the other.

‘Films’ have been educating me since I was five that there is often a fence between both heroism and villainy. Sure, we revel in art that attempts to blur that divide (art house films have made a calling card out of this prose), but for the most part, the classic sentiment is relevant – there is always a protagonist and an antagonist in most films. Perhaps it is what’s necessary for the art form to make sense, to be compelling. These two forces are often at opposite tangents, with markedly different agendas, who agree on little while confronting on a lot.

Yet I find myself being both the protagonist as well as the antagonist of my life. For as much time as I have apportioned in trying to secure an existence where I am happy, I also spend possibly equal amounts of time pissing over it by making illogical decisions to undo these plans. It’s like I am both the coyote and the quick bird, Tom and Jerry rolled into one. That for every effort spent on a good deed, effort is also spent on me doubling back and brutally power-drilling said deed in the skull. If I were a film, I would be an absolutely excruciating watch.

A lot of us would be quick to draw a line between us and people struggling with identity disorders but yet we often behave as if we are wrecked by the same disease. How would you explain people who rocket their good and stable marriage to smithereens over a senseless fizzy affair? Or people who in most cases would lambast a movie character for making that stupid decision but would in turn, make that same decision for themselves when confronted with the same dilemma in reality. Why? That well-aged head versus heart trope again?

I think we usually position ourselves as wanting what’s best for us. But history would fashion a retort. If this were true, we would spend far less moments grovelling in the language of regret. ‘If only’ is a mistress we make bed with far too willingly.

Perhaps we fundamentally love misery so much that we would gladly play the antagonist ourselves even there is no one that readily wants to be one for us.

Born under a bad sign

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We can’t give what we don’t have

I’ve been hearing this phrase a lot lately, mostly in relation to leadership and spirituality. The idea that you can’t draw from an empty pail to replenish a thirsty jar because you do not have what the other person needs. The phrase was obviously designed to elicit a reaction, specifically to load up so that when it was needed, we would not be in want.

Each of our existences paints a unique picture. Mine was essentially a genealogical recount of a life built on quicksand while people watched and laughed akin to those silly Japanese game shows where someone almost always gets wet or dunked into a vat of cream. My thoughts zip back to specific instances, my parents’ divorce, financial issues to the cusp of poverty, dysfunctional relationships, ageing and dependent parent to care for, etc.

I’ve felt like a bloated, overfilled flask for sometime now. And no, that’s not an examination of my increasingly portly physique (although that is also true). I do feel I have something to give. Nothing great or spectacular. I am not even sure if it’s really valuable. Namely, how I survived a bruised and tattered existence.

But in a world where disheveled candor has been replaced by carefully-posed ‘candor’, I find myself with something to give, but no one really to give it to. ‘Everybody goes through shit, they just don’t show it’, is the refrain fed to me constantly. I know that. But it’s awkward to serve a meal to someone who hasn’t walked into your restaurant. I sometimes feel I would’ve been better off being born in the 60s, slapped with the same narratives I’ve been slapped with and emerging with something to offer disillusioned youths by the time the cynical and broody 90s rolled around.

I feel like a soldier without a war sometimes. These days, it often seems like a person who largely cake-walked through teenhood with a few slips has more to give to the young and coming. Namely about living life to the fullest, and not just surviving it, like I have. I understand of course. I can’t expect a teenager to appreciate the importance of a sturdy mattress over a weekend night out. We want what we need, when we need it. There just doesn’t seem to be a need for me regaling tales of my war-mongering ways with life at the moment.

My tale is not one of triumph. It’s not a tale of charging neck first into a mastodon and ripping it to shreds. But it’s a tale of going up against challenging odds, being swung around like a ragged doll, tossed into the walls of life but yet finding enough resolve to not die. It’s not the kind tale that people would be accustomed to share these days. We love our underdog tales these days served with a large side of bravado and fearlessness. I was afraid and hopeless but I got out of it by weathering the onslaught.

But I do believe there are people out there who are being crushed against a wall like I was, no foreseeable cavalry in sight, sitting idly on a bench watching the world spinning wonderfully and beautifully around them without being included in its whirlwind. You know, when you sometimes feel like God skipped you when he was handing out rations or worst, forgotten that He ever made you (He has not). I’ve been there, hung on just tight enough and so I am here, ready to tell the tale. Unfortunately, not many people seem to want to hear it at the moment.

Perhaps when the channel switches to something a little more gnarly in the future.

Perhaps …

The never played symphonies

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Damien Chazelle’s La La Land

It’s not trying to say that life is a musical, quite the contrary.

At its core, it’s an exposition on mundane complexities that sometimes derail the more fantastical aspects of our existence. I got that from Stone prancing around in a cute one-piece? Not quite. Look behind those enchanting eyes, there is a lot of life hidden in there somewhere. Not life as a choral accompaniment, but life as we know it, a stubborn dirty fighter that never backs down.

Perhaps I’ve digressed. The reality is that life is not a regulated sport. It does not conform to agreed precepts and it isn’t always required to reimburse what it intentionally or unintentionally robbed you of. We sling around cliche proclamations like ‘life is unfair’ while thinking about that frail old lady down the street who got hurt simply because a pair of irresponsible youths decided she would be an easy target on an unassuming needy night.

But what about those abhorring decisions we have to make sometimes? The ones that eventually results in the death of something precious in your existence? What about those? The ones that punish you for doing what you have to do. Not quite so easy to wave those away with a lazy blanket statement.

I used to appeal figuratively to an ethics committee, demanding to know why I was penalised for essentially doing the right thing. Isn’t it supposed to be likened to a mathematical equation? That if I sum the right parts I would be guaranteed the intended eventuality. I was forcefully dealt those cards in some instances, not that I went looking for a poker table. The committee had a moral obligation to absolve me. Otherwise we would descent into absolute anarchy, right?

That’s before I realised that one of the biggest fundamental mistakes we make about life is that we often assume it plays on your team, albeit occasionally uncooperative and disruptive but a teammate nonetheless. The truth is, it does not. It doesn’t even play for the opposition. It just moves around with little consideration for you and whatever reward or destruction you reap is largely accidental.

The day I came to that realisation was a cold and lonely one …

 

 

The opposite of hallelujah

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Church of the Good Shepherd, NZ. Tourists just out of view.

If we deconstruct out existences down to a series of processes, then most of us would agree that some of ours are run with a great deal of inefficiency.

Better decisions could be made if we were afforded even a hint of what was down the road. Whether it’s that job loss a week after you bought a new car, that market crash in six month’s time, that lovely girl you are going to meet a year later and how you are shitting over that by chasing every skirt you see today, humans are really like rubber duckies dropped into a wild river, smashing uncontrollably against the banks, unable to hold on to anything and completely unaware of what fate is waiting at the end of the waters.

I’ve taken this issue with God more than once, demanding that He explain to me why He can’t just reach His whizz-like pinky down here and fix this bug. I’ve thrown tantrums over what I perceive to be just inefficient management on His part. That with a well-designed Excel sheet and a few clipboards, He could have my life purring like a vintage engine.

The truth is, most of us treat God like a consultant, someone whose agenda and objective is to achieve process nirvana, to poka-yoke-the heck out of the intricacies of our existences so that we slip not, waste not.

But God really does not behave like a consultant. His purpose isn’t for us to operate our lives flawlessly and with optimum efficiency. If that was really the purpose, then He could simply zap us with the ability of aforementioned foresight, boot temptations out the door and endow us with impeccably strategic minds before dusting His hands off and sitting down for a pina colada (virgin, of course).

Instead He really behaves more like a teacher, or at least the way teachers are supposed to. There is no intended end-product at the end of the production line, because it’s all about guiding you through a process. How much you get out of it depends on your willingness to listen and how intentionally you apply that knowledge to the process. What we want out of God is for Him to just hand us the exam questions because really, that is the most efficient way to get us where we need to be. But we would never stand for a teacher that did that, so perhaps we should start looking at God in the same way and not expect Him to play cheat.

I am cognisant about how this looks to skeptics, that a supposedly omnipotent God that seemingly allows you to barrel into any eventuality really sounds a lot like that God does not exist. But isn’t that the definition of what faith is, to swim into vicious waters instead of staying dry on the comforting shores of logical reasoning?

I chose faith a long time ago, and I really don’t quit easily.

Let your good heart lead you home

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Gritty but comforting …

I was trying to hail a cab. Traffic was blooming restlessly around me and luck was not being too magnanimous. Taxis were zipping by but none seemed too interested to stop. ‘You want taxi?’ It was the traffic warden from the swanky hotel situated on my foreground. Being bred on the occasionally unforgiving streets of the Klang Valley where hardly anything or anyone yields, I was naturally apprehensive. Does he want a fee for doing this, given I was clearly not a resident of the posh hotel that salaried him? I mean I was drenched in sweat, decked in dirt-soiled cargo shorts and I was obviously walking towards him from a direction that was away from the hotel. Nevertheless, I mentally waved a white flag at my ideals and nodded. He proceeded to use his hand-held ‘Taxi’ sign to hail down the first cab, had a furious discussion in Thai and frustratingly waved the taxi on. I was baffled. ‘No meter’, he said. He proceeded to wave down three more cabs before nodding to me to get into one. As I was preparing to board I turned to him, expecting him to collect his fee. He just smiled and gestured me into the cab. It was an unimaginable moment of grace from someone, in a buzzing city that was exploding with neon life. He did not have to, but he did. It was unexpected and frankly, as silly as it sounds, unbelievable. Such was the dizzy heights of my cynicism. For a moment, I reconnected with the human race. And I was glad to report that we were alright.

Bangkok, as a city, has always agreed with me as a person.

There are many obvious things to dislike about Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, from the  dangerously intimate proximity of its architectural structures doing its best impression of a pressure cooker, skylines littered with messy power lines that seek to charge its bustling heart and the unwholesome extensions of its maligned body providing sexual gratification for socially awkward patrons raised in lands with stronger currencies.

As someone who was born and raised in the city, I grew up with certain expectations on how a city is supposed to operate and how its inhabitants are supposed to behave. Every subsequent city, town or country you explore for the rest of your life is often measured against those initial set of expectations. From items you see on travels that you deem too expensive or unbelievably affordable, to people you meet who are almost uncomfortably friendly or unimaginably discourteous, everything is sized against those fundamental expectations we have built up during our lifetime. In most of my travels, rarely does a place hold up to those fundamental expectations.

Well, except Bangkok.

Each trip back opens up undiscovered facets of its multifarious personality that just makes me fall just a little more in love with it. This recent trip about a month ago, I discovered a sardonically hilarious tailor who makes lovely suits and shirts for decent prices that can be couriered back to you, an unadorned store in sec 16 of Chatuchak that sells brilliantly designed t-shirts of noteworthy indie bands and a tourist-light floating market that caters some of the most affordable and delectable food items to mostly locals. There’s a lot to both love and hate.

But like the one we start out with, we do not have the luxury of choosing what to call home. It just is, and this is

Your worst is your best

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The human condition

People are good in bad times

That statement zipped pass me so quickly during my routine listen-in on a football podcast that I almost missed it. The statement was made in relation to the recent Chapecoense tragedy or more specifically, the outpouring of goodwill following it from related quarters to the football club.

I nodded. It made a lot of sense, for a moment. People do generally know how to react accordingly during awful moments. One only needs to harken back to the airline disasters in these parts in recent memory. The most inspiring acts of humanity were done during some of the darkest moments of modern history. The accompanying thought that came racing up along the initial statement is – That means people are fundamentally good.

But yet, humans have traditionally set almost-delusional low standards for itself to achieve. As a species, in which one of its shiniest trophies is civilisation, humans are often far too quick to pat itself on its back for doing the minimum. Even elephants have been known to mourn the death of a herd member or rush to the aid of its young and helpless. Last I checked we weren’t exactly pitching our role models against Elephantidae standards.

People who are not bad during good times.

That’s what we should be striving towards really. If I were to diagnosed the human condition within this context I would say that we are fundamentally hedonistic in some way, with occasional blotches of convenient amnesia. In other words, we basically forget quick but more importantly, we forget quicker when we are happy. Perhaps misery is just a check and balance that’s been built into the ecosystem of civilisation to reboot our personalities to bearable levels every once in a while, less we end up butchering each other.