This blue world

Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.’ – From ‘Walking’ by Henry David Thoreau

I’ve just finished Frank McCourt’s wonderfully snarky ‘Teacher Man’ In it, he referenced a lecture by American poet. philosopher and tax resister, Henry David Thoreau concerning the idea of just continually walking the earth, experiencing nature, without the need to double back to the start. The thought immediately intrigued me.

The thought that intrigued me was not about retreating back into nature, which forms a large portion of what he was trying to say. Not that I don’t like nature. I just like it with a little air-condition. Make what you wish of that statement. The thought that interested me was the idea of allowing ourselves so much freedom that we would not need to double back to anything. It’s never occurred to me until now that an important tenet of civilization is the need to close the loop. Exploration is encouraged but not unconditionally. Otherwise you’re just a vagabond. It would seem the term ‘explorer’ may be either somewhat elusive or entirely conditional (explore, but you have to return) in this modern age.

My wife’s dog comes to mind. How he is more often than not, intent on zipping out of the gate when it is opened. When he has intention to do so, he is completely single-minded and driven to accomplish his mission. He truly believes in that moment that freedom and doggie heaven awaits him beyond those steel bars. But yet when he does get out, he often never allows himself to get very far, or at least, far from the ‘familiar’. Namely, us. The trick to lure him back in is not to chase after him, because that just encourages him to run farther because the ‘familiar’ is just a few steps behind him as he makes haste. The trick to getting him back is to close the gate and to head back into the house. Counter-intuitive I know, but works like a charm every time. Because as he plays temporary explorer and glances back towards the porch, he sees no one familiar. No one beckoning him to return. It would seem freedom then quickly becomes overrated when weighed against the prospect of having nowhere to call home. Pretty soon he is at the gate, beckoning to be let back in.

I’ve never entertained the thought of just walking out and never doubling back. I’ve loved the thought of it, of not being bound by the expectations of society and my social connections. When I decided against the concept of God years back, I inserted myself unknowingly into a vast plot of free land. I have up to that point labored under the expectations of religion, family and relationships and have mostly reciprocated accordingly to all of them. But suddenly I found myself completely free of all those expectations. Barring disease and social norms, I could’ve booked myself an escort for a good night and it would’ve fit somewhere within my acceptable moral compass at the time. I could’ve gone out and drunk myself into a fool and come home to my bed, without much condemnation from myself, and little from the people around me. But yet I did none of those things. I continued to go about my life like I still had those initial expectations placed upon me. Why?

Perhaps like my wife’s dog, I have grown accustomed so much to the familiar that absolute freedom no longer seems as appealing. I no longer need actual freedom, but just a notion of it, a whiff of it once in a while, and I can be contented. Perhaps I am indeed wedded to the breast of society. But just entertaining the thought of dropping all my routines, lifestyles and expectations, opening the door, heading out and never coming back still causes my heart to do a little skip. I don’t know where that skip comes from. Perhaps it’s the little explorer in all of us. The based nature that civilization has gradually built on and snuffed out. Perhaps it is a thought that appeals to all of us at a very, very fundamental level.

But if personal history has told me anything, it is that if I was indeed offered an opportunity to walk, I would most probably chicken out anyway.

I see a darkness

“So yeah, singing as a way of expressing or escaping or expelling unbearable events: if you have a thinking brain, which some of us are cursed with, you have to have something, and it could be singing and it could be alcohol, but it’s progressive rather than regressive—you don’t get better by drinking.”

Will Oldham, from Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

In my head, I possess an instrument that is able to construct full-formed worlds within seconds, sweep them aside in a torrential tempest of despair before putting myself as the protagonist in a tragic comedy that involves the end of the world, morality and probably, a girl. Yes, I am cursed with a thinking brain, and no, I am not patting myself on the back. To have something within you that is integral to you functioning at your best but having to also constantly wrestle with its basic urge to stage a coup d’état every couple of seconds to entice you to being at your worst is really not something that’s worth fawning about. The bible offers a draconian way of settling wandering eyes and itchy hands but last I checked, it did not suggest us cutting out our brain and casting it into the fire.

Instead it offers us the suggested solution of taking ‘captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’. Which conjures a mental picture of me trying to get a fidgety and rebellious child to sit still and quiet in the chair in front of me when he/she is in absolutely no mood to. I am not a parent, but I can imagine that is often much easier said than done.  

To be fair, I have over the years, gotten better at taming this wild beast. In my 20s, I used to be able to think myself from fluffy clouds to the sixth dungeon of hell within minutes, without much prodding or encouragement. I could simply think myself into a lonely and dark place without a trigger. Which is probably why it would be peculiar if a review of me as a person in that period did not contain the word ‘moody’. That’s just a polite way of saying I was mentally self-destructive or at the very least, emotionally distracted.

Writing used to be the outlet, the expression I needed to funnel all the thoughts I had into a constructive medium. But over the years, that’s lost a lot of its luster. I still write because I feel compelled to express, but it’s no longer an adequate coping mechanism for the things that are happening in my head. So like a drug-dependent patient with a chronic disease, I’ve given up trying to permanently solve my ailment. I no longer have a creative or feasible means of banishing it from my existence nor am I able to get it to sit down obediently.

So I’ve instead opted to ignore it when it’s quietly perched in a corner. I don’t rouse it and I no longer make any grand overtures to remove it from the room. It has its side of the room, and I have mine. Sure, it occasionally still feels compelled to invade my space and trouble me, but the instances have decreased tremendously over time and I’ve stopped looking for a fight with it. I take any peace I can get and at the moment, it’s rather peaceful.

Perhaps one day I may be inspired to pick up a spear and attempt to bring it into captivity again, but today is not that day.    

Past lives

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

George Orwell, ‘1984’

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot more.

It feels strange to me, this business of thinking ahead. Mostly because I’ve never done a lot of it before but also because it’s an activity that stems from the idea that you trust in possibilities.

I suppose the reason why I have spent a lot of my existence merely trying to manage through the present is because I have always been a huge believer of the philosophy of shooting oneself before someone shoots you. That way you can ensure it only hurts as much as it needs to and you can keep a backdoor ajar for the possibility that you can go, ‘yup, I was right with you all the way on that one.’

But if there’s one thing I’ve come to learn is that to properly live, we are sometimes required to put ourselves in situations where we risk becoming great clowns. No living can ever be done without some risk.

So here I am casting my lots into the future, hoping for the best and expecting no dystopian boot to my face because I don’t deserve that shit anymore. And if it happens that I end next year wearing a size nine mug, I shall comfort myself with the notion that I at least tried to live a little.

The choir of the mind

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The picture I have is of guitar cables.

I never did learn how to coil and uncoil them properly during my years as a band boy. Purists would bark psycho at me turning them in a lazy circular motion until everything is coiled and I stuff it into the narrow pocket of my guitar case. The price I pay for being unlearned about the art of coiling a guitar cable is that I have to spend more time untangling them and lifting portions of it so that gravity will help me uncoil them to an extent. They never do get properly untangled though, because I was careless when I coiled them to begin with.

That’s pretty much a fairly accurate analogy of what happens to my mind sometimes.

I imagine for some people, a more accurate analogy on what happens to their mind sometimes is of a sheet of pristine paper that’s been crumpled. Undoing it merely involves flattening the paper out. It’s never going to be pristine again sure, but it’s a lot easier to bring it back to it’s rough original shape.

Actually what I do with my mind and thoughts sometimes is like coiling a lengthy guitar cable carelessly before stuffing it into a narrow pocket of a guitar case, yes. Except I then coil another lengthy cable and repeat that process and stuff it into the same pocket. I pretty much do this for about four lengthy cables before stuffing my hand into the packed pocket and start mingling the cables around inside. What I am left with is a mess of tangled thoughts, feeling and emotions that I wouldn’t even know how to start untangling.

As such I often sit there, with my tangled mess, surrendered to the notion that I would never be able to uncoil it and start planning on how I should learn to live with it. So I am grateful for friends who can come along and get their fingers in and start figuring out how to start untangling my mess from the base cause. People who are willing to process things with me patiently at a psychologically conceptual and almost incomprehensible level to help me figure out how to start untangling the mess I’ve gotten myself into. I am aware portions of my mind may never be completely the same again but at least I can start uncoiling them to an extent where they can become useful to someone again.

To them I raise a glass today. I am grateful for you because you keep me sane by being just a little insane, at times.

 

 

 

 

November starlings

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We all have ‘relationship gut’. That unsightly bit that hangs out a little when we are giddily existing in a loving relationship. It often manifests itself through a series of habitual behaviors. Naturally, the intensity varies from person to person. Some people express it by being a little more confident than they usually in person, others express it through detonating a thousand heart emojis on your screen. But if we are honest with ourselves, all of us have relationship guts.

I confess that over the years, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that I am someone that does better when I am in a relationship. I know the world informs me that I shouldn’t be like that. That the utopia is always to develop strength as an autonomous entity first because being emotionally dependent on another person is well, a little weak. I agree wholeheartedly to these points of course. Which is why I have never dived into a relationship purely as a survival mechanism. But on the occasion where I have found a relationship worth pursuing or in my current state, a compatible partner for life, I am not ashamed to admit that it has, in those moments, made me a better version of the person I am.

I don’t know why that is. I supposed the answer I like was that I was made this way. Some people hate the cold, some people love licorice, some people prefer chicken breast, I just prefer to be in a relationship rather than not. Sure, I am conscious enough to know that preferences are often informed by personal experiences. I do not know what is informing this preference of mine. I mean, I have some ideas and theories but none I like enough to express here. But I do like the stability that comes from being a part of a unit. It often feels like it forms the base by which I build most extensions of my existence from.

My ‘gut’ is that I am a calmer, more clearer-headed individual when I am in a relationship. I make better decisions and I seem more focused on what I aim to achieve in life. Okay perhaps that’s not an entirely accurate statement. I do also have a propensity to make above-average amount of references to my partner in most conversations as well. That’s the proper love handle there.

Some people find purposes in a variety of things, their career, politics, a cause, etc. Perhaps I am someone who finds purpose in being a partner to someone. As much as the world and probably most of my community has a condescending view on this, and in many ways if I had a choice, I wish I was not naturally like this, perhaps it is time I accept the reality that maybe this is in fact, who I am.

There are probably worst things in the world to aspire to.

Terrible love

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When a relationship ends, it’s never neat.

I think for those of us standing around and observing the demise of a relationship, we often treat it like a linear narrative of an anti-romantic comedy. You have the protagonists, their respective friends, the detractors of their union, the third parties and every unimportant character they encounter on the way to the end credits. Everybody has a role to play, nobody deviates from their function and the narrative plays out as predictably and as cleanly as a children’s alphabet block game. If we were to envisage an adequate analogy for the ‘break’, it would be likened to taking a very sharp knife and slicing through a cucumber (pardon the phallic pun). Sure, there are some residual moisture but the cut is often clean. Black and white, so to speak.

But really, the end of a relationship is more akin to trying to tear a large piece of really dry and stale bread into two. There’s a separation, but its lines are never that refined and clear. There are residual crumbs spilling all over the place, some at his end and some at hers. And the two pieces that are separated, in some ways, will no longer ever be as pristine as before. There’s obviously been a break, it obviously hurt and there’s clearly been pain all around.

We can sometimes be perplexed when looking back in hindsight, how it’s possible that during the tumultuous weeks of a breakup, that you find a conversational exchange between both parties on menial things like what gift to buy for a mutual friend’s birthday or a seemingly innocuous comment on a social platform. That’s because the narrative of a breakup is never linear, and if faithfully translated to film, would make for an extremely tedious, confusing and frustrating watch. The residual crumbs of the break requires time and effort to be properly swept away cleanly.

We sometimes forget the amount of force that’s required to bring two people together. The years of having your character and physical appearance molded by happiness, tragedy, social connections and experiencing life, so that you can be attractive to the other party. The serendipitous circumstance that may have brought your paths to intersect, at times with the pathways shaped and altered years in the making, so that you can end up at that party of your friend who also happens to know her. Fate? I call it force.

When so much force is required for two people to find and choose each other, it seems almost foolhardy to think that by nature’s law, it would be simple to separate them, or that it would be possible to separate them cleanly into autonomous entities again.

A means to an end

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It’s been about two weeks since I picked up Peter Hook’s book Unknown Pleasures and I’m already done. This is quite possibly the fastest I’ve ever gone through a book. I’ve always read books with shorter chapters quicker. That has to do with my compulsion to only end my reading at the end of a chapter. If I had ten-minutes to go before the end of lunch hour and I have the prospect of a 20-page chapter in front me, I usually never take the shot. But with ‘Hooky’, you’re usually only about five-pages out from finishing another chapter. Plus he’s got a sardonic writing style that just greases things over easy, even during lunch hour on a workday.

But perhaps it also has to do with what he’s largely writing about. The start of his aspirations of being in a band, the eventual formation of Joy Division and the fun and travails from trying to make music with three other people who are not really like you at all. A lot of what he said just rewound me back 20-years. The endless hours of practicing and hammering out song ideas, traveling to shows, playing in shitty venues, the constant waiting for shows to start, playing to empty venues, getting stiffed on payment, the joys of hearing your music being recorded for the first time, disagreements with other bands, etc. I guess it’s comforting to know that even a seminal band like Joy Division labored in the same salt mines as I did.

I found music as a time when I was desperate to carve an identity for myself. I was a recluse in secondary school. I was not good at sports, I had no affinity for studying and I did not have the balls to be a delinquent as well. I was basically not orientated to be ‘someone’ in school. So I was searching for something outside of it, so I could in a way, win by not playing the game of school popularity at all. So I could scoff at everyone by being out of the system. I was looking for a way to express what I was feeling and finally finding it at the low-end of an open E note.

I remember the days when I breathed playing music. The silliness of discovering a three-chord progression and writing a hundred songs based around it. Detailing out concepts for songs before a note’s been written (‘Okay, let’s write a six-minute-long ballad’). Scribbling every interesting word or phrase you’ve heard in a notebook because it could be used for a song. Spending Saturday mornings with the boys, in someone’s room, just exploring song ideas. Spending all the money we had on jamming studio sessions that were tucked beyond smoky corridors, to play through dusty Peavey amps and sing through smelly microphones.

But we felt absolutely unstoppable. In the book, Hook recounted a theory Pete Saville had (this would be the same Peter Saville involved in the recent Burberry logo redesign shenanigans) that musicians stop writing great music when they learn about the formal process of making music. Because it means they stop taking chances and start adhering to the ‘rules’ of writing and playing music. It ultimately throttles the creativity out of the process. We certainly did not know the formal rules of writing music in a band when we started out. We were just feeling things out in front of us and taking things a step at a time.

But whenever we juiced up those awful amps, cranked up the volume and got into the groove, it felt like life was barreling forward at light speed and we were all struggling to just hang on. It’s hard to describe that feeling. The feeling of creating something collectively that was solely your own. That buzz, I don’t think I’ve experienced it since. The lack of knowledge of how things are meant to unfold and that we were just discovering things about ourselves and music as every week passed. That exciting sojourn into the unknown – it’s a kind of high, for sure.

There’s a line in Mad Men, when protagonist Don Draper was accused for being someone who ‘only likes the beginning of things’. There’s some credence for saying that is not too dissimilar from me and the bands I’ve been in over the years. If I were to offer myself just a superfluous review of my memories of being in them, the initial months and years of them tend to pop up in the highlight reel. For each of them, I eventually found a way to become disconnected from them emotionally. I suppose you could accuse me of being someone that didn’t fundamentally really loved playing music and I may not find the strength to offer you a convicted retort.

Perhaps music to me was a crutch I used during my teenage years to offer myself a convenient excuse to not belong to anything, but at the same time to also belong to something. And once I discovered something which could offer me that without having to lug a guitar to an obscure drinking hole, I dropped it. I don’t know. I am not sure if that’s true but perhaps there is some truth in that.

I’ve often been asked if I miss playing music. My answer will often jump immediately to a specific moment in my life. It was a weekday night. My church was located at a once-popular corner of SS2, PJ, just above a Shakey’s Pizza and opposite the popular pisang goreng truck. We had the lights mostly off at the church, but we had the amps cranked up and the PA was hissing. We had asked for permission to have a jam session and the pastor was okay with it. There were five, maybe six of us. We had been given an old, scratched cassette of a Pure Metal compilation. There was a track on it called ‘Warrior of Light’ by a band called Force 3. We were trying to play that song. ‘Trying’ being the operative word. I had a mic and I remember screaming into it. Yeah screaming, not singing. I had not learned to play the bass yet then so all I could offer to proceedings was my complete lack of singing ability.

Yet, I felt powerful at that moment, like my soul was finally afforded proper release from its shackles. Like I had been searching for something unknown all my existence and at that moment, I found it. Like I was struck by lightning and given divine powers. I was lost, but now I was found. It probably sounded like an otter being waterboarded with acid for people walking the street sidewalks below but to us, we felt like the greatest band in the world.

I miss that feeling. Does that count?