34. Time and Distance

“Forever” is such a terrifying word.

Granted, it’s not immediately as scary-sounding as things like, say, flesh-eating bacteria. But just imagine for a moment with me the sheer enormity that is encapsulated in those 7 letters. To illustrate this, I will borrow the words of Hendrik Willem Van Loon:

“High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.”

Eternity. It’s a bloody long time.

This is one of the reasons I am such a non-committal person. I cannot, with a straight face, promise to be someone’s best friend forever. I find myself unable to give guarantees. And to the annoyance of many who knows me in person, I am very reluctant to make promises, or to give my word to something.

I guess you could call it a fear of commitment – but honestly, what is there to fear from commitment? The thing is, I don’t dread the thought of attaching myself to someone or something for long periods of time. I do, however, dread the thought of failing to meet that expectation.

The simple fact about life is, as you all know, that things just happen. Who’s to say for certain what is going to happen after I have published this post? You could say that I’ll go to bed and wake up in the morning. But how certain can you be that it will happen? I don’t think anyone who died suddenly in their sleep ever saw death coming.

But that’s too somber an example – take, for instance, an agreement to be at a certain place at a certain time. Sure, you’d give your word, and you’d do what you have to in order to honor that word – but things just happen. The tire goes flat. A police roadblock appears. The traffic light stops working. A car crash slowed traffic to a crawl.

(I usually add “if all goes well” whenever I make a promise to be anywhere at a certain time as a disclaimer)

Things happen. And if you’re talking about something that extends over months and years, things also change. The tide of time pulls things apart, brings things together, and everything gets thrown around in its currents.

Recently, a friend of mine expressed his disappointment at how we’re not as close as we used to be. “Things are just not the same like before,” he was heard saying.

I could not help but feel a slight annoyance at this – of course things are not the same now, compared to when we were 17 or 18 years old. In between, we have made new friends, found other interests, experienced different things – how can any of us, really, expect anything at all to stay the same? The air that you breathe is not the same air you were breathing in a second ago. In the space of you reading that last sentence, cells in your body have died, and new cells have grown to take their place. Your hair is that nanometer longer. You have grown that many seconds older.

Everything changes. Everyone changes.

The best we can do for the people who are worth it, I think, is to change according to how they are changing.

33. The Clown Murdered At Midnight

The detective looked even larger in person. He barely fit through the doorframe as Dr. Susan ushered him in. If he hadn’t fit, I suspect he would have simply plowed through the wall, bricks and all. He didn’t look like the sort to accommodate to situations and things.

The rainwater puddled around the spot where he stood. He didn’t seem to notice this. Actually, he didn’t seem to notice much. It was like his mind was distant, or elevated beyond these petty things.

“What happened?” He growled, like a wild animal, I thought. Dr. Susan looked at me, and I cleared my throat before explaining the situation to the detective.

An inmate had been murdered, slashed clean across the throat. The inmate we had taken to call ‘the clown”, due to his lack of identification. He didn’t seem to mind us calling him that. He had been in here for much longer than I have, and I do not doubt that the grotesque image will forever haunt my dreams: the chemical-bleached skin, the bloodshot eyes, the yellowed teeth attached to bleeding, rotting gums in his mouth that was always wide open. In a laugh? A sneer? Maybe both. Maybe neither one of those.

I had tried once, to pull my smile as wide as it would go, and try and see how long I could hold it. I had managed only thirty seconds before my facial muscles began to spasm uncontrollably, and a cramping pain began to twist its way across my cheeks. Yet the clown held that maddening smile every waking hour, and it would only fade as he slipped into dreams. Even then, his cheeks remained taut, as though he had immediately transited into a wonderful dream.

We locked him in an isolated, soundproofed cell; but I swear by god, that if one listened closely enough, or if it was quiet enough, one could still hear his shrieking laughter rattling up and down the walls of the asylum. Dear god, that laughter! I imagine that was the laughter of Lucifer as Cain struck his brother dead in the fields, or the legions of demons in hell as Christ was flogged and nailed to the cross by his executioners. The sound could drive a man mad just for hearing it; and I hear that prior to the clown’s isolation, inmates have stuck their fingers, among other things, so deep into their ears to block out the sound, that they had began to bleed.

We had his body transported up into the morgue on the second floor. Tomorrow, we intend to cut out his brain for preservation, in hopes that future technology may be able to fully understand the nature of his psychosis; but the warden had insisted that we allow the detective to have a look, before anything else.

The detective listened to all of this with a grimace upon his face. The shadows that fell over his features made it impossible to tell what went through his mind, though I think that without the shadows, it would be equally impossible to look into his thoughts.

“What do you think?” The detective referred the question to Dr. Susan, who had her arms folded across her chest. Her shift had ended three hours ago, and she was clearly at the end of her patience.

“I don’t know what you expect to find in there,” she said simply. “The murderer? The truth? This is an insane asylum. A funhouse. People die in here, whether by their own hands or by someone else’s, and it never makes any goddamned sense.”

Dr. Susan only paused to move her hands to her hips. She cocked her head to one side as she regarded the detective. “And as far as I’m concerned, Mr. Detective; I think they’re better off dead.”

The detective nodded his acknowledgement, and turned his hawk-like gaze upon me. “And you?”

“Me?”

“What do you think?”

“I… I don’t know about what Dr. Susan says,” I glanced over at where she stood, more to break eye contact than anything else. “But if it were up to me… I’d want to get to the bottom of this.”

The detective made his way to the door leading into the lobby. “Come,” he said.

“Actually, that’s an electronic door. You’ll need one of our fingerprints to open-“

The doors slid open with a hiss as he approached it, and the detective stepped out into the brightly-lit lobby. I stood, mouth open, and looked at Dr. Susan, who did not seem to share my astonishment.

“You heard him,” she said, shrugging the white coat off her shoulders. “As for me, I’m heading home for a hot shower, a warm dinner, and a soft bed.”

I said my goodbyes and followed the detective out. The doors slid shut behind me.

32. Deadlines

(I am sleep deprived as I write this. Yes, AGAIN. I was up until 4A.M. adding stuff into my entry to the Manchester Fiction Prize, and spent the next hour or so reading a rather exciting segment of Wolves of the Calla. I never seem to learn)

(don’t judge me)

The worst thing you can do to the both of us is to get me to do something “in my own time”.

Deadlines – can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Part of me really resents that I have an obligation to actually do something; but the rational part of me knows that without it, I’ll be as productive as Chris Colfer is straight.

(translation: nope)

I apparently strive when working under pressure. Give me the whole weekend to come up with a copy, I’ll have one over on Monday evening. Give me a whole day to come up with some lines, I’ll get some out at about 5P.M. But make me – demand me to write something within 10 minutes, I’ll work wonders.

Maybe there’s just a secret reservoir of creative energy in my brain that is only tapped into when faced with stressful situations. This probably isn’t true, but it would make so much sense, would it not? How else can you explain the inverse relationship between time allowance and actual output?

Most times when I say that I am stressing over an assignment, I am not actually stressing over the fact that I cannot do it – I am more stressing, lamenting over the fact that I have to do it to begin with. But when the deadline draws closer than ever – I’m not talking about your amateur 3-days-more-and-I’m-screwed kind of close calls. I’m talking about I-have-to-hand-this-in-by-5P.M.-and-it’s-already-4.45P.M.-and-I’ve-done-nothing kind of close calls. When the deadlines draw close, and the pressure is, without a shadow of a doubt, fully and completely on; I am suddenly able to churn out within the next 10 minutes what I had been given 3 weeks to complete.

It’s a trend of mine, really, and an unhealthy one at that – to put things off until the very last minute, and then rely on the adrenaline rush to actually begin creating content. I have lost count of the number of times I swore to myself that I will make the day count, and end up only doing my work at 11.20P.M. – and then finishing it all by 11.40P.M., and wonder what the hell was I waiting all day for.

I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Really, though, there is some scientific truth to this. And for this, I must direct your attentions to one of the most intelligent blogs I’ve ever read:

http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/10/27/procrastination/

On a side note, I have agreed to – no, more like volunteered myself to fetch a nigh-total stranger from the airport this coming Sunday. Because life is meant to be lived excitingly that way.

Enjoy yourselves, and I’ll see you all again when I am less sleep deprived.

31. BROKE

It’s nearing the end of the month, and I’m more than broke. My net worth has dug its way to rock bottom, and kept on going.

This seems to be a common occurrence for me, being broke. And yes, I’ve been through the drill before – I need to manage my money better, I need to spend less, I need to stop splurging on food, et cetera. But really though, does anyone seriously expect me to do everything I need to do (most of which involves paying for petrol, food, and buying gifts) on a budget of RM500 a month?

(paying bills hasn’t been added to that list of things to do, thankfully)

I’ve done my calculations. Let’s say every day, it’s inevitable that I eat at least one meal on my own, since no one’s around for most of the morning and early afternoon, so let’s call that amount for brunch at RM6 per day. (It’s really more than that, especially on weekends, but let’s work with this amount for now). Rm6 per day, 30 days in a month – that’s RM180 spent on food alone. That’s alright – still RM320 to go.

Now, petrol. Malaysia has some of the cheapest petrol in the world, at RM1.90 per liter, but I travel to freakin’ Kota Damansara every other day, which is 30km per trip. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just set the daily petrol usage to RM10 per day – some days I travel more, some days I travel less, but that’s about right. So RM10 per day, 30 days in a month – that’s RM300 spent on petrol.

Before you ask, no, it is not any more economical for me to take the public bus/train. A single trip to Kota Damansara involves buying a ticket into the city, which costs RM2; and then from the city, it costs another RM2.50 to board either Bus 98 or Bus 99 to get into Kota Damansara. Multiply that by 2 trips to get there and back again, I’m already spending RM9 per day. The public bus, on average, takes an extra 90 minutes to get me to where I need to be – 180 minutes wasted, in total. So no; no public transportation for me.

Now, with petrol out of the way – I have a grand total of RM20 left to spend! At the end of the month, I could totally go and get something nice for myself- oh, wait. That’s right. I’ve forgotten to deduct 10% from the RM500 at the beginning of the month for my tithe. So let’s take RM50 from that amount and – there we go! I’m left with nothing – less than nothing, really, because I’ll be owing someone somewhere some 30 ringgit.

(not that I begrudge paying my tithe, mind – I’m just proving, mathematically, how impossible it is to be left with anything more than nothing at the end of the month)

It’s a most fortunate thing that I am able to write to some degree. I can at least get something on the side doing copywriting, and every once in a while, a major scriptwriting job comes along and I’m paid enough to last me for another 2 months or so. But these things come by only occasionally, at best; and soon I find myself having to look for some way to get by comfortably.

But I should really learn to be more thankful. Most people support entire families on RM500 a month – who am I to diss the amount? I just think that considering the life that I live, the kind of expenditures I have to make, the real thing I have to do isn’t to spend less. What I really need to do is to earn more.

Which is exactly why I just cannot wait to get out of university – firstly, to have that freedom to create awesome stuff for the world to see; and secondly, but by no means any less important than the first, to be able to receive a full-timer’s wage on the work that I produce.

So hire me. Someone. Anyone.

Please?

30. Stories and Dreams

Some of my trippiest story ideas come to me in dreams.

Before you ask – no, the story about the musician in “The Thirteenth Note” did not come to me in a dream. The idea of a thirteenth note – an auditory experience that was beyond our current comprehension – while very Lovecraftian in nature, was something I had thought about before having the opportunity to experience any of Mr. Lovecraft’s work. And of course, the idea of holding a lead weight in one’s hand as they fell asleep so that the resulting jolt would shake them awake really had its roots in reality – legend has it that Sir Isaac Newton would fall asleep like that so that he could get new ideas

(or was it Thomas Edison?)

But while the basis of the story did not come from a dream, one crucial element of it did – in my dreaming experiences, I have heard many an unfathomably beautiful melodies, all usually in that murky, half-awakedness state just before one wakes up. Except in the dream that became the basis of the story, it wasn’t the sound of a thousand stringed instruments or the sound of distant, enchanting chimes, but the sound of a solo electric guitar being played in perfect harmony to a song I learned from church.

(the song was The Heart of Worship, by Grammy Award winner Matt Redman, if you must know)

I’d say that 1 out of 20 story ideas that I end up developing have their roots in dreams that I’ve had. “Cloud Memory“, for example, was written on a whim, right after an afternoon nap that had me dreaming about a shell shocked war veteran who had seen countless horrors in his experiences in the army, and is trying to find escape from those memories in a normal life, and then finally finding a girl who would be his salvation.

Still another story (that I have yet to develop to this day) is titled “Masterclass”, concerning the most powerful psychic in the world on the run from the government in a cyberpunk future. This one came from a nightmare I had where I was taking a casual stroll in the streets at night, when an earthquake suddenly struck, and sent condominium blocks collapsing onto each other like dominoes. Then came blaring sirens, blinding floodlights, and just before I woke from the dream, a voice was calling out: “Attention all citizens: the Masterclass has escaped custody. Repeat: the Masterclass has escaped custody.” And for some reason, I instinctively knew that “the Masterclass” was an extremely powerful and extremely dangerous psychic.

I can’t even begin to understand how this brain works, but it works – so I’ll be happy with that for now.

As I laid asleep earlier, sometime between 5.30P.M. and 8.30P.M., this title came to mind: The Clown Murdered At Midnight, a classic whodunnit murder mystery set in an insane asylum, where large shadows are cast over the white walls that stinks of industrial-strength bleaching agents, and where it’s always night and the moon is always full, but obscured by dark clouds. It’s as creepy as it sounds.

Perhaps you’ll be hearing about this soon.

29. Sleeping At 1P.M. (and Concerning Mrs. Lim)

Okay, guys. Guys. You need to believe me when I say that I fully, completely, honestly intended to go for my 4th Year briefing in university at 2P.M., and then attend lecture at 3.30P.M. Honest! In fact, at 1.10P.M. I was already all dressed in my jeans and clean white socks, ready to seize the day!

But that was exactly when I was stricken with a terrible itch in my eye. And then when I tried rubbing it, the skin of my right eyelid got chaffed and the terrible itch evolved like the denizens of Australia into a terrible, burning pain, which rendered me incapacitated and unable to do anything but lie down with a cold towel over my face and groaning in pain.

So there I laid, from 1.15P.M. until 5.30P.M. in the evening, which was when I was finally recovered enough to resume my daily activities. Unfortunately, I have already completely missed my lecture by 30 minutes by that time.

I’ll readily admit that I’m one of the worst students anyone has ever heard of.

(but you have heard of me)

I arrive at class late, and sometimes I don’t arrive at class at all; I do my assignments at the last minute; I prepare excessively verbose reports in order to obscure my lack of actual content; I hardly study for my exams; and perhaps the worst of all, I am totally unapologetic for all of the above.

I wonder how my teachers ever put up with me.

Mrs. Lim, my class teacher in primary school (or that’s what I think her name was), currently holds the title for longest sufferer of my antics. She was my class teacher in Standard 4 up until Standard 6, and being a class teacher in a Chinese primary school meant that she not only taught me the Chinese language (8 hours of class a week), she also taught me maths (5 hours/week), physical education (1 hour/week), and literature appreciation (0.5 hours/week). And then in the months preceding UPSR, she was also responsible for teaching after-school classes for up to 4 hours/week.

All in all, she had to suffer my presence for 18.5 hours every single week (minus 10 weeks for semester breaks), meaning that in a typical year, she had spent 777 hours with me. Multiply that by 3 years of being my class teacher, she has seen my face for at least 2331 hours.

Goodness, even I wouldn’t want to spend that much time with myself.

And by the looks of it, she probably thought the same – and for most of my upper primary school education, I thought the hate was mutual between us. I hated her for giving me enough homework to break my fingers off the joints; she hated me for not doing the homework she gave; I hated her for caning me for not doing my homework; she hated me for asking my sister to do my replacement homework. It was like a ping pong match, the both of us waiting to see which one would give in to our hate and finally explode.

(fine, it wasn’t at all that poetic – I just hated her, plain and simple)

I thought that, but on Parents-Teachers Day every middle of the year, when my dad would inevitably show up at school (because my mom would be at her school for the same reason, but on the other end of the Parent-Teacher relationship), and has a little palaver with Mrs. Lim concerning my performance at school, a completely different picture was painted.

Instead of the demon-infested, rage-filled teacher with crazy eyes who would cane me up to 20 times for not doing my weekly homework, the Mrs. Lim who sat and talked with my father was just another 50-something lady, who was trying her best to instill good values into a generation of young, impressionable students. This transformation, however, did nothing to convince me that Mrs. Lim was here for my betterment. All I could think was “HYPOCRITE! HYPOCRITE!”

(not that I knew the word back when I was 10. My actual thoughts were probably “FAKE! FAKE!”)

And for a long time, I thought that was what she did – every once a year, for 15 minutes, she’d put on a mask and play the role of the good teacher, and then revert back to her raging-demon-crazy-teacher mode the very next day, blowing my head off for not doing my homework.

I hated her so much, that on the day I completed my primary education and was to step out of school for the last time, my final thoughts towards the place (and towards Mrs. Lim, by extension) was “Good riddance”.

It took me another 4 years to truly appreciate the effort that she had put in to educate me, and the wisdom that she had shared – I’m talking about things that were not included in the official syllabus, but the myths, legends, and lore that are so ingrained into the Chinese culture that no one could sufficiently explain it all to anyone. Still, she tried; and to the best of her abilities, she spoke of these things to us 10-year olds, believing us to be intelligent enough to understand it, to take it in.

That in itself would have been a source of pride for any educator, but more than that, I remember her for those 15-minute talks with my dad on Parent-Teachers Day, between 2001 and 2003. Again and again, year after year, she’d say:

“Joseph is an extremely smart student. If he did his homework, he could be the top of the class.”

And this was no small thing to say. If you have seen the script I wrote titled “The F Word“, and you thought that I was joking when I was talking about Asian standards, I was not.

Every “standard”, as we could call it, (called “grade” in the U.S.) had a total of 7 classes, from A to G, and these classes were determined at the beginning of every school year, depending on the grade we have obtained through the final examinations in the year before. Naturally, the best and brightest went into class A, and the rest were sorted accordingly into the other classes.

Now in class A, competition was intense. I still remember that either in 2001 or 2002, the top student in class A had an average score of 99.5% for his final examinations. I kid you not – assuming we had 10 subjects being graded in our final examinations, he would have had to score 100% on half of them, and 99% on the other half – and that’s probably what he did.

And Mrs. Lim thought that I could beat him, if I tried.

I guess I had never properly appreciated the weight of her compliment at that time, and even in the years that followed after I had left my primary school, and was busy wrecking havoc in my secondary school instead. Looking back today, I realize I’ve got it the other way round: the 50-something lady who sat and talked with my dad every middle of the year was as close to the real Mrs. Lim as anything could get – and the demonic, raging, crazy teacher was something that I, in my insufferability, had inspired.

(“insufferability”. If that’s not already a word, it should be)

Seriously, how did any of my teachers every put up with me?

We had a class reunion in 2004, the first and last one that I had ever went to. It was held in the KFC branch in Carrefour, in Sri Petaling; and throughout the 2 hours that we were there, I honestly had no idea what was I supposed to do with myself. People came, words were exchanged among them, and people left. Mrs. Lim was there, too, and we exchanged glances – but never spoke.

Today it’s about 10 years since I had last seen Mrs. Lim, with her skinny frame, her short-cropped hair, her old, stern, and weathered face – God only knows where the last 10 years has taken her to. It’s a little bit late, and she probably will never see this, but I’ll put it out there anyway:

Thank you Mrs. Lim. You were the best teacher I’ve ever had.

(EDIT: Her name was Mrs. Tan)

28. 5 Words To Help Anyone Sound Smart

Some time ago, Stephen – a friend of mine – shared a theory with me. For the ease of reference, I will call this theory The Inverse Law of Vocabulary Sophistication and Language Command, where it is hypothesized that the more sophisticated one’s choice of words are, the less likely that person is to actually have a good command of the language.

Simply put: people who are not good at a language are more likely to use unnecessarily complicated words at any given opportunity.

As Stephen told me that, he noted that it was especially a Chinese thing. Not an Asian thing, but a Chinese thing, specifically. The theory came from a friend of his, who was an examiner (let’s call him Samuel) – and legend has it that Samuel could tell a Chinese student’s paper apart from any other student’s paper just by looking the choice of words used. Apparently, Chinese students were far more susceptible to The Inverse Law of Vocabulary Sophistication and Language Command. If his description was anything to go by, the “average” Chinese student’s paper starts off like this:

“It was a glorious, magnificent morning when Johnny journeyed to the residence of his acquaintance in order to procure an item of his longing.”

Samuel likes to have a good laugh as he reads the entire paper, and then proceed to fail them immediately.

But wait – that sounds exactly like that I do! I like to use words like “romantic”, “figuratively”, “verbose”, and “juxtaposition”. Nevermind that I don’t actually know what 2 of those 4 words really mean – it just helps me to feel and sound so smart when I use them! So today, as a Chinese writer, I consider myself perfectly qualified to share with all of you: 5 words that will help absolutely anyone to sound smart – especially when applied liberally.

Here we go:

1. Frivolous

This really just means “silly” – but we’re trying to sound smart here, remember? Simply replace every instance of “silly” with “frivolous”, and watch in amazement as your work suddenly sound so clever!

Besides, calling something “silly” in an intelligent work just sounds so frivolous.

2. Decorum

This one means “orderly behavior”, which already sounds smart enough as it is; and not only that, it’s two words long – perfect for that 6,000 word  paper you need to send in by Monday afternoon! So why use “decorum” instead of “orderly behavior”? Allow me to explain:

No one needs a dictionary to understand what “orderly behavior” means.

3. Dichotomy

There is a proper, complicated definition to this word – but who has time for that, right? The main thing you need to understand about this word is that it means a complete separation of two things: God and devil; man and woman; Superman and Batman. Just replace this word into every instance of “difference”, and you’ll be more or less on the right track!

This is what your sentence sounds like without “dichotomy”: There is a profound difference between the ways men and women function.

This is what your sentence sounds with with “dichotomy”: There is a profound dichotomy between the ways men and women function.

‘Nuff said.

4. Academia

This one refers to the academic community – which includes professors, researchers, students, lecturers – pretty much everyone that you will try to impress with the amazing size of your vocabulary in this lifetime.

And finally-

5. Verbiage

Definition: speech of writing that is overly long-winded or unnecessarily complicated.

Which would pretty much sum up the style of your writing after you have used all 5 words described in this post. If you have done it right, your work should sound something like this:

“Dear members of academia: this verbiage highlights the dichotomy between decorum and frivolous behavior.”

And there you go! Suddenly everything sounds so smart and worthy of study. Be sure to scatter several more instances of these words that you have just learned in other parts of your work, just to show the reader that you really do know how to use this words – and they will be undoubtedly impressed with how exotic your vocabulary is.

Just pray that your paper never passes through Samuel.