302. The World That We Live In

(double posting today because the post that went up this morning was meant to go up yesterday; except I did a quick lie-down on the sofa which ended up in me blacking out until 4.30A.M., at which time I woke up and dragged myself to bed)

Woke up this morning to the kind folks at ISSUE Magazine telling me thank you for your short story, but it’s not what we’re looking for. It was depressing, but at the same time strangely heartening to know that yes, there still are editors who give personal attention to the stories writers write, no matter how cliched or badly written or sloppily put together.

That’s not to say that rejection didn’t suck. It did. I retreated to my room, intending to cry, but ended up reading 2 chapters of Mr. Green’s The Fault In Our Stars and rolling about in bed for 15 more minutes before it was time to music practice. So off to music practice I went, and the events of the morning was soon forgotten.

I think the ability to forget is a hugely underrated ability. It’s practically a superpower in the form of a coping mechanism.

Recall a story I read in KL Noir: White about an alien race that invaded earth in the likeness of condoms, and for most parts of the story, they busied themselves with the biting off of penises. The story ended with the human race coming to an agreement with the aliens – by putting them in a pork factory where they, presumably, are free to bite off as many penises as they’d like, as long as they belonged to dead pigs.

I’m just sitting here thinking: if someone bought that story, there has to be someone out there desperate enough to buy one of mine. Or two. Or all of it.

Crime in Malaysia has been awfully gruesome in the last few weeks. A little girl was beheaded by a madman. A teenager was gang-raped by 30 men. I don’t know what would make people do things like these, and I doubt I ever will. The image of John Coffey by the riverbank, with tears running down his face and the bloody, naked bodies of the Detterick twins comes to mind.

Dyana Sofea lost the Teluk Intan elections by a narrow, narrow margin. It was like the Thomas Cup all over again, only this time I was less emotionally invested. As a general rule, one should be as emotionally distant from political happenings as possible. It’s better for the heart.

I only just discovered the wonder that is Norah Jones’ voice earlier this week. How I have lived this long without knowing about her escapes me, but I’ve been hooked all week long. I could fall in love with that voice. Maybe I already have.

Grandma is here to stay for the next 2 weeks or so. I’m able to understand, with approximate degrees of accuracy, 10% of the words she says. One day she will pass on, and I will be left wondering why I never took the effort to learn an extra Chinese dialect so I can converse with her. She is, after all, an old lady who makes wildly inappropriate jokes about death. I have a feeling that we could have been buddies, if we shared a common tongue.

The modern world of instant connectivity may have brought us all closer together, but it seems that the closeness we now share only serves to accentuate our differences. The world was simpler when it faded from white to brown in a smooth gradient. It seems that the closer we get, the more we realize how distant we truly are from one another.

What a world that we live in.

Advertisements

301. You Of My Heart

She giggled for the fourth time in two minutes, eyes still glued to the smartphone in her hands. For his part, Amir did what he had always done: make a little smile, indicating amusement, as he died a little more inside. She noticed this smile once or twice. She never reacted to it, only continued to tap away at the keypad, stringing her reply.

He went and got two cups of water from the kitchen. Hers was always warm water – never outright hot or cold, but not quite room temperature either – that he had to mix water from the dispenser and kettle in an exact ratio. It was the way she liked it, and he always remembered that. He set her cup down on the coffee table before her, and she only took her eyes off the screen for a second to look at him.

“Thanks,” she said, smiling like the sun. Her fingers grazed his forearm in a gesture ambiguously hovering between friendliness and romantic intent. His heart melted a little at her touch.

She must know what she does to do me, he thought as he watched her drink from the cup. Girls were supposed to be good at picking up subtle gestures. If that was true, then she was either deliberately toying with him, or being selectively good at noticing the little nuances in people’s actions. There was no way—no way that she had not noticed the thousand-yard stare when he looked at her, with his chin rested in his hand. Or how he had been there when she broke up with David (that jerk) just earlier this year, always ready to listen to her cry on the phone, or to go mamak together to take her mind off things, or even to hang out just so she won’t have to be alone.

He even bought her chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Chocolates. On Valentine’s Day. Was it so hard to put two and two together?

She giggled again. And then came the familiar sour wrench in the middle of his chest. Still, the little smile came to his face, already a conditioned response whenever he was around her.

“Woi, who’s that lah,” he jested, raising his eyebrows at her when she looked over, “New boyfriend ah?”

“Tch, bising lah, Amir,” she said, the goofy grin lingering on her face. Her eyes and attention returned to the phone before he could say anything in response. She didn’t say no, he thought, and the corners of his mouth suddenly felt very heavy. She didn’t say no.

She didn’t say yes, another voice wrestled back with all the strength of a beetle against a boulder. It doesn’t mean anything, the voice tried again, but weaker this time. He sighed heavily, and somewhere at the bottom of his throat, something bubbled and welled.

Who was he kidding?

It had been the subject of a hundred nightmares. Seeing her walk away with her hands holding the hands of another boy, leaving him behind. They would be talking; laughing; sometimes even singing together; and he would be left behind. Forgotten. Like a second-hand car that was only useful for as long as the shiny new car took to come around; then is left alone, or sold off for the next person to make use of.

Why do I let her do this to me?

Because I love her. Because she’s important to me. Because if a guy breaks her heart, I will break his face. Because I want her to be happy, no matter what. I only want the best for her.

She laid the phone down and leaned back into the sofa cushion, sighing wistfully. There was a faraway look in her eyes. The dimple on her right cheek was sinking in, and around it her skin was turning a soft pink color. He noticed these things.

He also noticed her fingers stroking the protective cover over the back of her phone, like she was trying to wrap her fingers around a hand that wasn’t there. She made a little laugh to herself and buried her face in her hands, completely oblivious to the world around her.

He opened his mouth to say something. He wanted to tease her for her girlishness, or even poke fun at her and make her blush even harder. He wanted to go over and pry the phone from her – she would wrestle him to get it back – and see who was this fellow who was taking up all her attention. He wanted to pull her up by her hands and get her to do a crazy dance with him in the middle of her living room.

But none of these things happened. The words that were supposed to come out got caught in the middle of his throat, and a little strangled sound came out. He masked it as a cough, even holding his hand to his chest for added effect.

She looked over at him. Pearly white teeth peeked out from behind pink lips. “What? Never see people fall in love before is it?” she teased. He chuckled and waved a dismissive hand as his heart went through a blender inside his chest.

As long as she’s happy, I’m fine, the voice in his head repeated over and over. As long as she’s happy, I’m fine. As long as she’s happy, I’m fine. But honest to God, fine was the last thing he was feeling. And despite what people would tell you, repeating a lie often enough does not, even for a second, cause it to become true. And, dear Lord, he was done lying to himself. He was done playing Éponine or Sydney Carton or that guy in the E. E. Cummings poem. He was done with pretending.

“I better head home.” His voice came out in a croak, more due to his fake coughing fit than any surge of emotions. But the emotions were there, all right. “Shower, have dinner, those things,” he said.

“Please,” she held up a hand before her. “Knowing you, you’re going to end up watching cat videos on YouTube until your dinner goes cold. Don’t think I don’t know you.”

He held up both hands in mock surrender as he got up from the sofa. “You got me,” he said. “Guilty as charged, your honor. What will my sentence be?”

She grinned wide, and then her face scrunched up tightly. “You,” she said, pointing a finger and squinting at him, “Are sentenced to an hour’s conversation with me, on Skype, later at nine-thirty, my computer’s time. For every minute you’re late, an extra hour will be added to your sentence.”

He made a dramatic nod. “As you say, madam,” he said, and headed for the door – and not a second too soon. The side of his face twitched, and he felt something hot at the back of his eyes. He heard the squeak of the cushion as she got up to show him out. He waved her away without looking back.

“No need,” he kept his voice level the best he could. “I know my way out.”

He lingered at the door for a split moment. It wasn’t even enough to notice; but as he stood there, foot ready to cross the threshold, he came to the dreadful realization that there would be no turning back. Not for him.
The moment passed and, with his heart in his throat, Amir stepped beyond the door. He was out.

“See you,” she called as she closed the grill gate behind him, watching him go. Ordinarily, he would have turned back and returned a “see you soon” of his own, meaning every word of it. But this time, it was different. He was outside now. This time, he didn’t turn back, and what he said was:

“Goodbye.”

And he meant it with all his heart, even as the first teardrop escaped the corner of his eye. He walked away and, somewhere terribly far away, a lone bird sang.

300. Saturday

(you’ll notice that I missed the post in which I was supposed to write about Friday. I will tell you that it was an intentional move: a symbolic act to show how Friday is a day of carefreeness, of having the freedom to forget, at least temporarily, about obligations. I will also be lying. I completely forgot about it and wrote about falling asleep instead)

This morning I woke up at 6.18A.M., rolled around for a little bit before eventually leaving my bed at 6.49A.M., then going downstairs to boot up my laptop and made breakfast for myself. For the first time in my life, I made scrambled eggs, cooked ham, made toast on a grill, and ate it myself before cleaning everything up afterwards. I think I have this grown-up thing pretty much nailed, with this.

For the first four day-of-the-week themed posts, I expressed surprise that I even made it that far without repeating a title. This time, I can’t believe I haven’t given up on this exercise yet. Somewhere past the 270th post, I came to the realization that I was really, really running out of ideas.

(somewhere, the hypocrisy alarm is going off)

I’ll tell you that ideas are unlimited, and that will be true. Everything that has been invented from the dawn of mankind to the present day does not even begin to scratch the surface of the things that we will achieve as a species. As far as original ideas go, they go on forever.

Unfortunately, I, Joseph Ng, do not constitute, or have the imagination of, an entire species.

No doubt any other person can look at this space and immediately point out something that I haven’t blogged about – dating, for example. Love. Sex. War. Violence. Dance. Exotic travel locations. There are plenty of things I haven’t talked about. But they’re someone else’s ideas. They’re not my ideas.

(just like how you have jurisdiction over your own children, but not other people’s children… Even though they’re all children. You get my drift?)

There are 65 more posts to go. I have plenty of story ideas left, so we can take 1 from every 7 out of that number, leaving us with 56 posts. Honestly, I’m not sure if I can keep this up for 56 more times. Heck, I don’t even have any ideas for the next 5 posts. But like in any grand undertaking, I just keep repeating to myself, “One day at a time… One day at a time…”

But hey, we’re supposed to be in a celebrative mood for this milestone, right? I mean, 300 posts. That’s at least 150,000 words posted on this site now, or the average length of a Stephen King novel. Just a little bit more, and I would’ve written enough words to rival American Gods.

(off on a tangental topic, Anansi Boys is turning out to be quite the enjoyable read. More polished the Neverwhere, and heaps more fun compared to American Gods)

So here’s to how far we have all come. You, reading this, for sticking with me – whether for the past 300 days for the last 3 minutes; and me, for, you know, writing all this crap.

The skies fade over Saturday, and Sunday is coming…

299. That Moment When…

You’re all ready to wrap up the day’s activities, head into bed for sleep after a chapter of the bedside novel, and rest your tired bones after an incredibly long day…

And you remember something that you were supposed to do earlier in the day, but it had completely slipped your mind.

That just happened to me.

There’s a call for short stories for an upcoming anthology/magazine, and the deadline is this Friday. That’s a little less than 48 hours away now. And because the magazine is based in Malaysia, so I’m not getting the benefit of different time zones. The only solution had been to write this afternoon, edit tomorrow evening after work, and submit later that night.

Right now, it seems that I’ll have to do all 3 things on Thursday: write in the morning, edit in the evening, and submit at night. God only knows if I’ll be able to make it. But try I will.

I have been awake since 5A.M. Fetched my mom to school so that she can go on her trip first thing in the morning, and I’ve been up and about since. Now it’s 10A.M. – almost 18 hours later – and if I don’t put myself to bed, I think my body might just shut down in protest, and I’ll black out where I’m seated in front of the computer until my dad comes home and sends me to bed.

Now my brother’s off to do some very loud late-night singing, and I’m stuck in that moment when I’m not sure if it’s in my best interest to write a few paragraphs and wait for him to finish, or to rush to bed and black out, then wake up earlier tomorrow morning to begin writing.

That moment when you need to make a decision fast, and your brain is too tired to think.

298. Monotony

Question: Why is it that we “launch” a career but “land” a job?

Anyway.

There’s something quite predictable about work. I mean, sure, every new project is a brave new adventure and all those things, but there’s a certain rhythm that you just fall into when you begin at a full-time job. You learn to wake up at a certain time in the morning, leave the house at a certain time, have a certain sort of breakfast, do a certain sort of morning routine, work, have a certain sort of lunch, work, have a certain sort of evening routine, go home at a certain time, and sleep at a certain time.

More or less.

I know this because I’ve been in and out of it. The first full-time job I had was cleaning up some accounts at an office situated in the heart of KL (to this day, I wonder what form of insanity possessed them into thinking that hiring me to do accounts was even remotely a good idea). I had a routine then; and when I went off to National Service, which is routine personified, and came back from it, everything fell apart. I woke and slept at irregular hours, and filled the hours in between with all sorts of unpredictable activities. One evening, I looked out into the rain, and decided to stand outside in it and get drenched. Why? Because.

And it was so for the years I spent in college/university. I had a part-time job doing copywriting and video editing for my local church, but it never put me into a routine. Then earlier this year, as I was coerced into the full-time position at that company, it’s like the clock in me starting working again, and again I found myself waking up at a certain time, doing certain things during the day, and going to sleep at a certain time at night.

But just to be sure, I had a whole month off before getting back into a full-time job where I am right now.

There’s a certain rhythm to it that’s oddly calming, no matter how upbeat it may be. You get used to the tempo after a while. And without major breaks in the BPM, it’s easy to let the melody wash over you and forget the passing of time.

Which is how, I think, some people just lose track of the passing of the months and years as they work, only to realize that their dreams have died unfulfilled while they were hypnotized by the monotony of work.

It is the 3rd Tuesday I’m spending at work. A Song For The Rain still sits at 30,000 words. I was only reminded of it when yesterday, a friend and constant reader buzzed me up on Facebook chat, asking for the latest installment of May’s adventures. I had to tell him, regrettably, that there was no latest installment to speak of.

I could shrug it off and say that I’ve been busy working on Grounded. But there’s only 2,000 words in that story – what I used to write in a single day. I fear that if I don’t force a slot for writing into the monotony that is now taking over my life, there will be no more stories to tell.

I should get on that.

I mean. I really, really should get on that.

Before it’s too late.

297. Shameless Self-Promotion

Today I attended my first class in university in almost half a year. The lecturer, whom I presume to be an American-born Russian, did the usual round of introductions, and this went down when I was introducing myself to the class of about 20 people:

ME
Hello guys. I’m Joseph; you can call me Joseph. I’m majoring in Management and Finance. I’m from Taman Tan Yew Lai – it’s this little place just off Old Klang Road, in KL. And, uh, what else do you want to know about me?

GIRL (whom I’d later know as Ravina)
What do you like to do?

ME
When I’m not in class, I’m usually writing.

GIRL
Oooh! Poems?

ME
Not so much of poems. If you add me on Facebook, you’ll see a whole bunch of short stories that I’ve written on Notes.

LECTURER
And for more information, log on to http://www.joseph.com! Thank you very much, please sit down.

Well. Screw you too, sir.

(I mean, we were having a moment there, she and I. It could have been a life-altering conversation, and you just had to go ahead and ruin that!)

But not really. He was a reasonably fun person, and an exceptionally fun lecturer to have, especially when the subject at hand is Managerial Accounting. But enough about the presumably-American-born-Russian lecturer whose name I didn’t even get, because I was out having breakfast when he was introducing himself.

(don’t judge me like that. It’s the most important meal of the day!)

Let’s talk about shameless self-promotion.

When my eBook (Death And Other Things, if you’d like to look it up) was published early 2013, I did my research on book promotion. How can I get my book out there? What are the ways to gain as much visibility as possible?

After reading, like, 3 sites, I think I qualify as an authority on the subject matter. It is apparently a unified opinion that as far as marketing is concerned, social politeness should be the last of your concerns. The folks on Writer’s Digest said so, Mr. King also said so (except in a different context, but still about the same). Get your material out there. Send it to reviewers. Give it to friends, family members, and old teachers. Tell all your Facebook friends about it. Tweet about it. Heck, go onto Myspace and talk about it there, just in case someone is still hanging around.

Except I’ve never really been comfortable about doing self-promotion. Self-depreciation, I do plenty. I mean, just look at that author’s bio I wrote for Death And Other Things (I suspect that’s one of the reasons for the poor sales). I cannot, for the life of me, say good things about myself without feeling like a total sham.

(unless it’s telling people that I think I am, beyond the shadow of a doubt, irresistibly cute)

I think the problem has its roots with me finding it difficult to say anything nice about anything. For every compliment I give, I have 10 reserved criticisms. It’s not that I hate things, don’t get me wrong; but it just comes more naturally to me to see the areas for improvement than the areas that are well-built.

I don’t know what the publishers were thinking either, putting the promotion of my book into my own hands. Man, if I was any good at doing marketing, you think I’d be a writer?

Last year in September, during the car ride from the airport to Sharon’s place, I was talking to her about the same thing: my inability to give any praise to myself. And she had this gem of sagely advice to offer: “Since you can’t, you know, give qualitative remarks to yourself, try quantitative?”

After half of the first lesson, we had a half-hour break. In that time, one of the other students (who was my group mate in a previous semester) came up and asked how was my writing doing. I stiffened at first, but Sharon’s advice kicked in, and I said:

“Well. I had a short story published in Esquire earlier in March. So that was great.”

And she flashed me a smile with two thumbs-up.

296. The Thomas Cup

When I walked into the main hall in church earlier this morning, I picked up bits of conversations about “first time in 22 years”, “Malaysia”, and “excitement”. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know what was going on, and someone had to explain to me that starting at 5.30P.M., Malaysia was to go up against Japan, in the finals for the first time in 22 years.

(I pick up bits and pieces of conversations wherever I go. One of the most frightening things I overhead was a teenage girl talking about how it’s absolutely essential to slap your boyfriend at some point in your relationship to keep him in line)

I didn’t think much about it. I had a full day ahead of me: music run-through, church service, meeting over lunch, a second practice, and a full dress rehearsal. If there was anything I’d like to spend my time doing, it was sleeping.

Plus, I’m not much a sports guy anyway.

The World Cup is coming up this year, and I couldn’t care less about it. Anything short of my getting some form of monetary gain out of the sport isn’t going to catch my attention. But when I got home, laid down on the couch and drifted off into a nap and woke up about half an hour later, my mom had taken the liberty of switching on the TV, and the first match was already underway.

It wasn’t like I was going to continue sleeping through the sounds of the TV in the background. Besides, it was just right in front of me. If I got bored, I could always just go off to read The Fault In Our Stars or Game Of Thrones or something.

(if there’s anything I’m learning about the craft from reading these two books, it’s that your prose doesn’t always have to be lyrical and avant-garde poetry. It just has to tell what you need to tell, and that’s good enough)

The short version of the story: I used up my yearly quota of emotions in the 6 hours that followed.

I’m not qualified to comment on the playstyles – I don’t even know what the word means. As emotionally invested as I was into the game, I can’t say that I didn’t stand to get something out of it. Rumor had it that if Malaysia won the Cup, tomorrow would be declared a public holiday in celebration. Tomorrow also happens to be the first day of class back in university, so go figure.

But damn, wasn’t that an exciting thing to watch.

I experience the full range of emotions: elation, intensity, dread, hope, anger, shame, jealousy (I mean, have you seen how pretty the Japanese players looked?). And when the game ended in Malaysia’s loss, it wasn’t hair-pulling fury that I felt, but a little sense of melancholia for my lost holiday, and a measure of bittersweet happiness for Japan, for having won their first Thomas Cup in history.

I imagine that there will be much sushi eating.

And here I am, still reeling in the aftermath. What a game. What a game.