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

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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.

The great unwanted

Your problem is that you’re not happy being sad.  But that’s what love is – happy sad … Sing Street, 2016

I see a lot of Conor ‘Cosmo’ Lalor in me. Well, I did not form a band to impress a girl, not really at least, although that would be an apt piece to complete the jigsaw of tragedy that my teenage life sometimes was. But I most certainly would’ve entertained the thought that being in a band would help me meet more girls. Nothing of the sort happened of course.

Music, or more specifically being in a band, empowered me with a purpose that was far more relevant than anything I saw around or more importantly, in me, at the time. I was an awkward unpopular boy navigating through the treacherous den of fundamentally insecure bullies and sub-temperature test scores. I was basically a teenage vagabond, a flag without a country.

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Whenever the valleys of teenhood purposed to drown me in its intent, I found solace in the redeeming embrace of power chords and rickety practice studios that smell of stale saliva and day-old cigarette buds. It felt like I was an unnoticed trespasser in an adults-only club while the antagonists of my existence were caught up playing seesaw at the playground. They could no longer touch me. They could no longer hurt me.

But more than the band camaraderie, I see a lot of myself in his frantic and cumbersome search for identity that was filled with blots and embarrassing trips. I see a lot of myself in his foolish candor concerning love and life, how he always seems to be the one pining for someone to walk through the door, or for someone to tell him what to do. I see a lot of myself in his naivety and how he always seems to be the last one in a room who would stop believing in something. Those initial steps towards adulthood are often clunky, and very few of us have escaped those painfully mortifying falls along the way.

Most people my age can offer a warm smile at a movie like this. I did. It reminded me of a time when I was able to draw silly conclusions from things that would not make sense to me now. That sense of wonder about a life ahead of you and just how unafraid you are of the coming consequences.

We were, in a way, immortal …

 

After all that, it’s come to this

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The world stands bewildered by the events that unfolded on Nov 8. But really, it shouldn’t be.

We wrap ourselves up in these social cocoons where we are often vindicated, encouraged and supported by people who share the same world views as us. Some of us have immersed ourselves so much into these cocoons that we have convinced ourselves that this is the world and that there is no reality outside this. That a reality where someone would be insane enough to think that an obviously misogynistic/Islamophobic glam-loving raging bull would be a good fit to be the leader of the free world cannot possibly exist.

But it clearly does. As such, the unthinkable has happened. Well, it’s only ‘unthinkable’ to people who are exactly like ‘you’ really. At some point the Democrats’ campaign got so entrenched in their own reality, one that clearly shone so brightly on social media, that it forgot that there was a huge world out there that was never going to appear on your daily media feed. The reality they chose to invest in probably formed a large portion of 46.9% of eligible voters who decided not to vote, waving off the remaining demographics who sat outside of their reality, leaving them to just basically ‘do the right thing’. They did. Well, for them at least, and we have what we have today.

We publicly post our discontentment for subcultures we abhor, people we dislike or a situation at the parking lot in the morning and await justification from our rabid followers about just how right you were to do/say what you did and how wrong the other person was for doing what they did, even though in some cases it may be completely unjustified. We then gorge on these comments like little hungry despots until we’re obese from haughtiness.  This has become most of ‘our’ reality. It’s mob mentality, but all worked through a stained qwerty keyboard.

The irony is staggering. That a platform that really has enabled us to acquaint ourselves so much more with diverse communities around the world has instead made us a lot more boxed-in. But that’s human nature. We always have a knack of finding the weakest joints in every perfect machine to send it crashing into insignificant useless pieces.

I find discussions on morality without the presence of an immovable, incorruptible good, pointless. We can all agree that not many of us and the systems we govern would dare stand on that unblemished morality line given our track record as a species. So that leaves us with what exactly? Common sense? Well that obviously did not work out so well on Nov 8.

There is really no good or evil in this world, not in the truest definition of those words. What we often have are differing opinions between parties and how strongly one party can convince the rest that it understands the plight of all but that its stand is still the right one. It’s the basis of politics, really.

Beyond this world however, that’s another matter altogether …

 

No shade in the shadow of the cross

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The withering trees at Glenorchy

It struck me over the weekend as I was sitting on a rigid and stained plastic chair, with lunch properly passed and the afternoon lull setting in with a roar, which is to say it struck me on the head like a frisbee tossed from my blind spot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of motivation in recent weeks, about just how powerful it really is and how much more effective the human race would be if it came packaged with an on/off switch and a joystick to point it towards where you want it to go. But alas, motivation behaves more like a herd of wild horses – unsaddled, uncontrollable with the unbridled power to clear new paths or destroy strong existing structures.

Secular dogma would state that the lucky among us are the ones whom our motivation and ambition have decided to flirt with each other. Oh, to feel like you are barrelling towards your desires like the Falcon in lightspeed. The rest of us mortals have to contend instead with an existence where our ambition is more likened to an unloved and underappreciated wife who is trying mostly in vain to rouse her sluggish couch potato husband, motivation, on to his feet.

The intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy is the popular discussion when it comes to motivation. As card-carrying citizens of the human race, we have always been sold the spiel that while we need both to an extent, intrinsic motivation is probably the more stable, mature and balanced brother of the two. In more recent times, as we move excitedly towards increasing individualism, we have all but damned extrinsic motivation to hell as the horned and tailed sibling who is looking to strike you when you are at your weakest.

But yet the basis of most religion is quite the opposite. The concept of an all-knowing, all powerful God has always represented an anti-thesis against our conclusions regarding the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy. If anything, religion encourages us to be more extrinsic with our motivation, by trusting God, because intrinsically we are flawed beings. It probably makes sense that people should make themselves the central protagonist of their philosophical short films, while religion would seek to put God as theirs.

But I realised over the weekend that logic dictates that our motivation to do something has to be anchored towards the most unshakable thing in our universe, because that’s the only way to ensure the sustainability of our efforts in reaching our goals. Man believes itself to be the most unshakable thing, therefore it suggests that motivation should come from within. Perhaps that’s why no matter what culture or ethnicity, there always seems to be a quest to find God. That immovable standard of morality that anchors our beliefs and motivates us towards goodness. Because deep, deep down inside we know that if we anchored it on ourselves, it would be led to ruins by the fickleness and weak-mindedness of men.

 

You know what I mean

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I slotted Springsteen’s 2010 Darkness outtake set The Promise just behind Born to Run on my CD shelf. I had taken it out for a spin over the weekend.

The mistake is understandable given the context, and I realised it as soon as as the flap side  nestled into the back board of the shelf. For a brief fraction of a second there, I keyed in control + z in my head.

The option to ‘undo your last action’ can be a faithful companion when you are threading uncertainly through the treacherous fields of spreadsheet formulas. It’s the bonanza ‘get out of jail’ card that enables you to exist within the space just slightly behind an actual decision. The breath just before you place your money where your words comfortably reside.

For that moment I did not require a clunky time machine to undo my very recent error. It would be far too much fanfare for something relatively insignificant. What I needed was a quick shortcut, one that wouldn’t rouse too much attention. A two-step fix that would undo what was obviously a silly mistake.

But of course there was no such cockadoodle. No technological fairy dust to whisk me out of my predicament. So I dragged it out like a big boy and slotted it near the back of my Springsteen section.

We enjoy dealing in broad strokes when it comes to sifting through ideals. After all, why settle for a star when you can have galaxies? I can understand the sentiment.  The attraction of a time machine to the average person is not simply that it offers the ability for one to explore the past, but the opportunity for one to alter the past so that it improves our present and consequentially, our future. After all, the benefit of hindsight can be tragic and there are many sins of the distant past that many of us would love nothing better than to right, if we had the ability to travel back in time. On a fundamental level, it’s just geeky lingo for ‘not having to deal with consequences’.

But I have no such grand desires. I have formed an uneasy partnership with my past, in that I don’t knowingly rouse it and it basically just leaves me alone. I can rest comfortably with that idea for probably the rest of my days. So no, I do not need a grand piece of imaginary technology like a time machine. Instead what I really want is the simple ability to undo my last action. Just two keys, not the whole keyboard. To undo that slip of a hand that resulted in a bag of broken eggs, that last piece of fritter I should not have eaten or that white lie that I know I should not have told the moment it left my mouth. Nothing premeditated, just those almost-involuntary muscle slips that you want to quickly mop up and pretend like it never occurred in the first place.

Yeah just that. I’ve never been comfortable about dreaming ‘too big’ anyway …

   

Small children in the background

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The town of Mossburn

Our rickety-sounding campervan barrelled down clear windy roads, gorging on kilometers as we made haste. Around us, nature was constantly purring an aria, primary blue skies venturing uncharacteristically downwards to meet frosty snowcapped mountains standing on the shoulders of spring-bloomed green fields. At times, it felt like the weather controls were left to the whims and fancies of a five-year old. I could be in a t-shirt standing next to someone in a down. Everything appeared possible and permissible.

It’s very easy to get lost in the gorgeousness of Te Waipounamu. To be literally transported to a place where industrial progress skipped a turn, where nature picked up arms and fought back. It’s a place that defies and denies the more capitalistic tenets of civilization. As our reliable bacon-odored transport continued to gorge on the open road barrelling from one holiday park to the next, we found ourselves zipping pass quaint little towns with pretty names, Geraldine, Fairlie and others with more cumbersome ones (Twizel). Some of these towns offer barely anything by way of township, a church that sits about 50, a garage that tends to only trucks and tractors, a snugged convenience store, a school if you’re lucky, etc.

As we zipped pass more and more towns, I find myself being increasingly fascinated by the seemingly randomness of thought that went to designing some of these towns. Some had fishing tackle shops but no signs of a petrol kiosk. Others had art galleries that also offered a cup of espresso and free range eggs but with no school in sight. My thoughts race back and forth, unable to satisfyingly resolve this conundrum of haphazardness. Perhaps each township is formed out of the chosen vocation of its inhabitants. Yeah, that must be it.

But that can’t be it, can it? Doesn’t the need of the many outweigh the desires of the few. Surely the community would benefit more from a small grocery store than an art gallery. Are businesses assigned based on needs? Are they legislated, and more importantly, how are they managed from a community level? I was drawn in, and fascinated with the nuts and bolts. Not just the political process of it, but also how it relates to ‘me and my neighbor living next to me’?

The obvious questions to ask are ‘why questions’ – Why can’t we carve out simpler existences like that for ourselves? Why was I born into a community that encourages the rat race? Why wasn’t I born in say, Mossburn, where the hills whistle choruses around me?

But yet, I find myself drawn towards the ‘hows’. How does one eke out an existence in a town like that? Where ‘choices’, something we demand unconsciously in cosmopolitan cities, are rendered meaningless by the fact that there is only one convenience store to buy your milk from, one school to send your kids to and one church to say your weekend prayers to God in. Does the 20-something manning the gas station on a chilly and lonely Saturday evening lock up at midnight, walk back to his home behind the station and repeats the same routine the next day? The things I have come to expect in my often bustling surroundings such as variety and diversity were turned on their collective heads. Perhaps it is just a case of wanting something I never had.

Perhaps.

I had a short conversation with the caretaker for the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo. She lives about an hour’s drive up the main road. Every morning she wakes up, dresses and makes that scenic hour-long drive to the church, where she tends to tourists decked in bright fluorescent jackets, looking to take the perfect selfie with one of God’s more lovely homes in the background. She does it with a patient smile and informs each of them that ‘service is at 4pm later today’. At the end of the day, she packs up and makes that same drive back to her home where she probably would make her family a warm dinner as they look to fend off the chilly spring night winds before resuming the same routine the next day, “Oh you’re looking to climb Mt Cook. I would suggest you give that a skip today cause it should be raining up there.” Oh, how … “I did not see it this morning.”

For just a moment there, I greatly, greatly desired what she had.