273. Patterns

“One person is an enigma. A group of people is a statistic.”

I read that before in a book, I think it was from the Elementary Statistics textbook. But when I tried to look for it on Google, Google insisted that it did not exist.

(that said, I didn’t bother to check the second page of results…)

The more people you meet, the more you’ll grow to realize that there are certain “types” of people. There’s the incessant joker, the tech geek, the shopaholic, the know-it-all, the cook, the comforter, the leader, the dreamer… When you gather people in a group – be it in a casual circle of friendship or a predetermined project team – you’ll observe that people begin to fall into predetermined roles. In a group, people act differently than they do when they are alone.

Every man’s a mystery. Every group’s a statistic. There are infinite layers of depth to each individual, yet when you group these impossibly complex individuals together, you begin to see a pattern forming.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. But when something is a hundred men’s meat but only one man’s poison, I think it’s safe enough to bet that it’s meat. This is why people should be encouraged not to have a singular hero or role model, but to have them in the plural. When we zoom out and observe the group, we begin to see the patterns. We are able to note the indicators of success and the warning signs. We can use this to our own advantage, to carve out our own success from the successes of the past.

That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Getting success. Not just for the sake of it, but so that through attaining it, we can be happy.

Forget the billionaire dropouts: they have succeeded despite their academic failures, not because of it. Forget the accidental, or overnight, successes: to try and replicate their methods is to fall error to the survivorship bias. Everyone has to find their way in life, and as a general rule, what works for the everyman has a good chance of working out for you.

The tenets of success, I think (and I stress I THINK, because I’m far from it), are these:

Be hardworking. The idea is to produce more than what you’re being paid for. That way, you will always be undervalued. That way, you will always deserve to be paid more. That way, people will start paying you more. And even when – especially when – people have started paying you, continue to be hardworking.

Be patient. Success is built, like houses, brick by brick and block by block. You don’t want your contractor to build your house in haste – neither should you be impatient in building your success. It will come. Keep working. Keep building.

Be respectful. In essence, don’t be a prick. You know what I mean. Success is bestowed upon you by people, and nothing makes people feel quite as good as when they’re respected.

Be fresh. More than producing fresh ideas and concepts, bring fresh enthusiasm and spirit to your work. There are days when, like your car keys or your phone, you won’t be able to find your passion – make sure you find it and bring it with you before you head out, or be prepared for a very inconvenient day ahead.

Be clever. This sometimes gets in the way of being patient and being respectful, but that’s arrogance. Be intelligent about your work, and know your way around people and events.

You’ll be fine.


272. Back To Work

My non-productive streak that started late last Thursday came to an end earlier this afternoon.

It didn’t come without foreshadowing. Last Saturday, before a meeting for an upcoming church conference, I was reminded that Thursday is a public holiday, and I’ll have to come into the office on another day to make up for it. Since the office doesn’t open on Mondays, and Fridays are out of the question, the only day left was Tuesday.

The second and final metaphorical nail in the coffin came yesterday night, around 9.30P.M., from the boss herself:

“jo… can come in tmr after lunch?”

And so my dreams of slipping away from work and playing Skyrim all day were crushed.

While I was working, I repeatedly told anyone who would listen that all I want is a good, long break so I can do all the things that I wanted to do: sleep late, write, sit at home, read, play computer games, watch TV series, catch up on movies that I’ve missed. Except I found out that unemployed does not necessarily mean without work. It just means that no one’s obligated to pay me to do work.

The true bumming around only started last Thursday, I guess, when I even stopped writing the mandatory 2,000 words a day for my various writing projects. (I still updated this space, so it wasn’t REAL bumming… But close enough.) In that time, I discovered a couple of things about my troubled relationship with work.

Work makes me productive. It’s true. Just like how you have to apply pressure for the toothpaste to come oozing out of the tube, I need pressure to churn words out onto the screen. As much as I’d like everyone to get off my back about responsibilities, I also need to realize that without them, I’ll never get anything done.

Also, work gives me purpose. Even “meaningless” work like sending emails, compiling names, sorting out logistics… The boredom at monotony reminds me to put effort into the things I value. When I had all day to write, I spread the act out over the day, writing in bursts of 100-200 words with hours in between them. When I busied myself with work, I had an average of 2 hours at night to write in between dinner and sleep. I made those 2 hours count. Writing was purposeful.

Lastly: work gives me security. It sounds like a bad thing to say, but I don’t think I’d be able to live with the uncertainty of whether I’ll be able to stretch my finances until the next paycheck or not. God knows that there are people who thrive on living that way, but I don’t think that it’s for me.

(it’s why I hope to attain celebrity status in the writing world – so that no matter what kind of work I manage to hack out, there will always be a market for it)

Today is the first day back to doing things. I may or may not resume the writing for A Song For The Rain later tonight. I have, at the very least, gotten some actual work done today.

It feels good.

271. I Love The Rainy Night

Well I love a rainy night
Well I love a rainy night
Watch the lightning
When it lights up the sky
You know it makes me feel good

-Rabbitt Eddie, I Love A Rainy Night

It has been raining – no, pouring – over the Klang Valley and its surrounding regions over the past few weeks or so.

It’s funny that just a few months ago, we Malaysians living on the peninsula side (more west coast than east) were complaining about the unforgiving drought that came at the same time as the haze. Since then, there had been a water shortage all across the Kuala Lumpur region, and heavy rains have been showering down over these parts incessantly.

I don’t know about the rest of them, but my area is strangely unaffected by the water rationing enforced by the government. While everyone else had been busy storing up water like acorns to last the winter, I have been taking regular showers and using water indiscriminately.

(all over social media, everyone’s trying to make some clever remark about the irony of having a water shortage in the middle of the wettest season of the year, always along the lines of, “Raining every day, and we still have no water??”. Listen, guys: when everybody is being clever, nobody is)

What I’m really enjoying, the uninterrupted access to water aside, is the refreshing chill that came in with the rain.

Earlier today, I spent the latter part of the afternoon curled up underneath warm blankets with The Green Mile in my hands, while the rain fell in torrents outside, and the cool wind came whistling in through the gap in the door.

(okay, the wind didn’t exactly come whistling in – but allow me to be romantic about the whole thing, okay?)

The downpour persisted from 4P.M. until probably 6P.M. I fell asleep somewhere around 5.30P.M., so I cannot say for sure. But what’s important is that when I woke up near 7P.M., the rain was gone with the heat of the day, which basically guaranteed that the chill would linger in the air throughout the rest of the evening.

There’s something innately romantic about the rain. Also about the night. It’s probably why so many songs have been written on the two subjects.

I think what connects the two is the feeling of isolation it brings: in the night, you’re left to the darkness as everybody else retreats into slumber; and in the pouring rain, you’re left to be alone as people take shelter and the sounds of the rain drowns away the bustle that usually surrounds you. It’s like bring transported into an alternate world, where you get both the comfort of familiarity and the freedom of solitude.

Even as I write this, a gentle breeze is carrying in the cool air through the open door. If there’s anything to be said after a day of doing next to nothing besides reading a little, writing a little, and playing a lot of Skyrim, it’s that I love the rainy night.

(song continues to play in the background; slow fade out as chorus repeats)

270. Food Poisoning

Yesterday night, 9.30P.M.:

Hmm, I’m feeling pretty hungry right now. But this curry has probably been left here since afternoon, and will give me terrible food poisoning in 12 hours’ time. I should order something else, to be on the safe side. But man, I am REALLY hungry…

Today morning, 9.30A.M.:


And I wonder why Eve was dumb enough to eat the forbidden fruit.

(people like to say that hope, love, and faith are all part of the human condition. It’s true, but they’re also missing out on one crucial element: stupidity)

I mean, what’s the deal with food poisoning, right? Look, I understand if you get some hydrofluoric acid on your skin, it’s going to burn like the fires of hell, and you’re going to have to treat it with water and medicine immediately. But come on, stomach: you contain acid potent enough to liquefy the human body inside out, and you can’t handle a little bit of dirt? Some bacteria?

The skin laughs at you. But that’s only until it comes into contact with hydrofluoric acid.

Really though, stomach: I don’t feed you, you’re not happy. I feed you, you’re not happy. What do you want me to do? I’d fire you for being an uncooperative member of the workforce, but your role is too central to maintaining life as we know it.

(oh, you thought I meant digesting food? No, no, that’s secondary. The stomach’s main function is to create shit. It’s part of the human condition too)

Since we’re using corporate analogies for the human body: as I was seated upon the toiled bowl, bent in half with my hands pressed against my tummy in a vain attempt to control the pain, sweating profusely and trying to suppress the need to puke; in my delirium, I found myself saying, “Look, guys. I know there’s a lot of shit to go around, but just keep sending it down, okay? Don’t send any of that shit back upstairs.”

I found myself thinking about how well that sentence applied to corporations as we know them. That is, until I started puking. That was when all thoughts were immediately directed and devoted to how awful I felt at the moment.

So that was how I spent pretty much my entire morning writhing in pain, the first half of the afternoon lying down (because sitting up caused the cramps to start anew), and the second half of the afternoon alternating between playing Skyrim and staying in the toilet. The toilet trips continued on for long after that, of course – the last one I had was no more than 30 minutes ago. But I rest in the knowledge that Skyrim will go on for much longer than that.

But some good did come out of it: during the 2-3 hours of the afternoon that I was immobilized on the couch, I managed to get started on a brand spanking new short story set in prison, titled Sleepwalker. Mostly because I’ve been reading Mr. King’s The Green Mile for a while now, and as the law of production goes, what goes in must come out.

Just like food, I guess.

269. Wasting Time

(post number 269. Heh heh heh heh– I should really grow up)

I haven’t written a word for A Song For The Rain since Thursday.

There are a lot of things that I could say. I’ll tell you that I was all down and depressed after my failure to make the cut into the Scholastic Asian Book Awards 2014 shortlist. I’ll tell you that work has been piling up, and the deadlines are not getting any further away. I’ll tell you that I worked out so hard over the past few days, I couldn’t feel my triceps for 48 hours.

But we all know that the real reason is because I’ve been playing too much Skyrim.

(that reminds me… *boots up PC*)

I’m good at wasting time. I’m spectacular at it. I don’t like people wasting my time for the same reason I don’t like people trying to feed me: I can do it well enough on my own, thank you very much.

Patience is one of my virtues. I once listened to a girl (whom I have just met) talk about herself for 4 hours straight. It was one of the NaNoWriMo writein sessions, and I thought I’d meet up with the local literati and see how they were doing, at the same time get some writing done.

As it turns out, the local literati weren’t terribly interested in me, and I barely got to write anything. Because this lady, she started talking, and she just refused to stop. I exhausted my variants of “mmhmm”s, “ah”s, “really?”s, and “I see”s, and she still went on. Then again, I found out that she worked as a book reviewer, which I imagine must be a terribly lonely job. That was probably a year’s worth of human interaction for her.

Back to topic: patience is one of my virtues. But as my ex-boss told me, “Your greatest strengths can turn into your greatest weaknesses if you’re not careful.”

(there’s some zen wisdom to be found there)

Which is true, as I reflect. How you treat others is really a reflection of how you treat yourself. By my patience with other people and their various shortcomings (God knows there are too many to keep track of), I have also come to become very accepting of my own flaws, even those that are perfectly within my power to change in order to better myself.

But I can’t help it. Wasting time feels good. You want to talk about retail therapy? I raise you time therapy. Where you don’t burn money on meaningless items, but burn time on meaningless items. People do it all around the world: they clean their houses, they modify their cars, they compile codes, they write books… Whatever it takes to distract them from whatever it is that they are supposed to be doing.

(it’s like drugs. Just, you know, cheaper. Or more expensive, if you subscribe to that idea of “time is money” and throw opportunity costs plus a good dose of slippery slope argument into the mix)

Now excuse me. I intend to game for an hour before going to sleep, and Skyrim calls for me.

268. Notes From A Haunted House

Notes found from a haunted house, found in the dusty space between an old wooden desk and a wall:

There are ghosts in this house. They were here long before any of us, they will continue to be here. They are the tenants, and we their guests. Most of them are shy. We learn to cohabitate.

They come out at night only when the lights are out. If you leave the lights on, they won’t disturb you; they will go to the places where the lights are off. Remember to switch on the lights before entering any room, more for their sakes than yours. If you find yourself working late into the night with all the lights on, you might hear some noises in the walls. Don’t be scared – they are just getting restless in the space between the old bricks.

If you wake up suddenly at night and see the shadows move, don’t scream. Don’t shout. That will only upset them, and they might scream right back. Just pretend like nothing has happened and go back to sleep. If you find the shadows staring back at you, clear your throat a little. This usually reminds them to go away.

On the subject of being polite: sometimes you will hear a sound like marbles in the corner by the foot of the stairs, or like a marble falling down the stairs. That will be the little girl asking you to play – she’s friendlier than the rest. You may ignore her, and she will go away after a while with her marbles. Or if you are so inclined, you may play with her, using your own marbles.

When you reach the top of the stairs, you will find yourself facing a small toilet. Keep this door closed at all times. If you want to use it, it is not enough to just switch on the lights – also knock three times and say “Please” before entering. There is a boy with a green face inside. You might see him if you leave the door open, or walk in without warning him.

If you have an infant or a toddler, do not leave them unsupervised in the first room on the right upstairs. The ghosts in there like babies, and they like to pinch. They tend to leave bruises.

The ghosts in this house are friendly. The ones outside are not. It is important to know the difference.

In the first room on the left upstairs, you will see a dead tree just outside the window. The tree is also visible from the second room on the left. When you turn off the lights to sleep, and you see a figure perched on the branches… Lie down and try to sleep, or at least pretend to.

The backyard is pitch-dark at night, and the kitchen sink faces it. If you see an old lady passing by, close the windows, turn off the lights, and head to bed. Do not talk to her. Do not open the door for her. Do not accept anything from her. She might start to cry in pitiful, wailing sobs. Do not, under any circumstances, interact with her.

Every July, there will be a sound like a puppy yelping, and frantic scratches against the back door. Again, do not open the door. After a while, the “puppy” will begin to howl, its cries becoming more and more desperate as the hours pass. I repeat: do not open the door.

There is a black cat that wanders in through the front door sometimes, if you leave it open. The cat is fine. The ghosts like her. She might mewl at the shadows, or appear to be staring at something right behind you. Leave her to her own business. If you like, you can feed her with a saucer of milk (only cow’s or goat’s milk; none of that instant formula or powdered sort).

That should cover it. Remember to close and lock all the downstairs windows and doors if it’s past eleven at night. This has nothing to do with the ghosts – lizards, cockroaches, frogs, and all sorts of bugs will invade the house if you leave them open.

Have a good stay.

267. Disappointment

The shortlist for the 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Awards had been announced a couple of hours ago.

Johann’s Fantastic Adventures Through Time did not make the list.

But you would’ve guessed that. Otherwise, this post would be titled very differently, wouldn’t it? We’re smart people. We know how to make educated guesses based on past experience and the limited knowledge that we have. When every person’s intelligence and focus can only go so far, it’s really a wonder how far we have come as a species.

We’re smart people. We know whether the odds are in or against our favor. When I was hacking away at the words and scenes for the story, putting in the hours and the concentration to make it work, I thought that my chances were pretty good. I thought that the sentences flowed well, that the story was solid, that it was overall a good piece of writing. I thought that the odds were in my favor – I might be bestowed the honor of winning the award, but I might at least have a shot at the shortlist, right?

But I guessed wrong.

It’s part of life, you see, this business of making mistakes and being wrong. Sometimes, you get it right, and it’s all fine and well. But most of the time – the times you wish the world would just crumble and disappear away – you get it wrong. Most of the time, things don’t turn out the way you want it to, and you begin to wonder what gave you the audacity to hope for so much.

It’s one of them moments. I’m wondering what made me think I stood a chance against the great writers of Asia, when I’m not even a contender in the local scene. But that’s foolish thinking. I’m not sure why it’s foolish, but I’m sure it is. There’s a gap of information there just waiting to be filled, but maybe another day.

So yes, disappointment. I know its bitter taste. I’m familiar with the dull pang deep in the center of my chest. I felt it in 2008, when I flipped open the school magazine’s pages and didn’t find my story inside. I felt it in 2012, when my script wasn’t selected for the Short + Sweet Festival in Kuala Lumpur. I felt it last year, in 2013, when my short story didn’t make it into the Manchester Fiction Prize’s shortlist. Eh, I felt it earlier this year, when not one, but 2 of my stories didn’t make the cut into 2 different anthologies.

Mr. King, ever a source of good writing advice, told of his first rejection experience: he wrote the rejection down on a piece of paper, hammered a nail into the wall, and stuck the paper onto the nail. He did this for all his subsequent rejections. By the time the rejections were so heavy they took the nail right off the wall, he was already making good headway as a professional writer.

See, I don’t think disappointment should ever be a reason to stop hoping. There are some who would believe that. They’ll tell you that when you expect nothing, you don’t get disappointed with anything. But I think that’s a terrible way to live: what is there left when you have nothing to hope for? Disappointment is a byproduct of it. It puts a real dampener on your mood, yes, but I think I’d rather continue on hoping.

If you’re going to get disappointed 9 out of 10 times, let me tell you this: when that one time comes that your hope actually pays off, you’ll realize that the 9 disappointments were really just potholes along the way. No one, I think, have ever reached the finishing line of the marathon and told themselves that the last 42 kilometers wasn’t worth the triumph. In fact, they’ll tell you that pride comes from overcoming the obstacles. We love the light because we know the darkness. We rejoice in victory because we know the taste of disappointment.

What I do have now is a 42,500-word manuscript just waiting to be polished up, and I think it’s plenty good for a manuscript submission somewhere else. Maybe not Scholastic Asia – they’ve already made up their mind. But so many people out there – I’m sure someone would appreciate it.

As for myself, nothing I can do but keep writing.