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Aug. 7th, 2009

little bird

what it means to be twenty / thinking too much or too little

I am twenty this year, now, and even though I don’t feel any different, sometimes I feel I should.

I turned twenty in March. It seems so long ago: I don’t recall doing much to celebrate it. I remember only that I started my birthday absolutely furious at being tasked to clear out an ancient, overgrown storeroom thick with mouldy, rotting cardboard boxes and old beer mugs on my own, that as I dug ream after ream of files into trash bags I was angry enough to kick out at the walls. I remember smashing the mugs to pieces with my broom, possessed by a manic glee, just so that I could sweep the shards up; I remember saying, ‘they take up less space this way,’ to Peter, the handyman, who looked very alarmed to see me shattering beer mugs so happily. I also remember meeting Dr Beng for the first time on my birthday (the day I turned twenty was also the day my army life was to take a turn for the surreal), that I went home after all that to my mother, my brother, and a chocolate cake. There is a photo on Facebook – I am quite fond of it, because the lighting is suitably moody and I look good in it. I had just had my hair cut, I remember. Upon perusal of my notebook, I am reminded that I also spent my first Sunday as a twenty-year-old at Of Montreal’s gig, taking in their crazy symphony. I suppose that is a celebration all by itself, but not a very specific one: otherwise, the weekends preceding and following my twentieth birthday must have been like every other weekend, indiscrete and unmemorable.

This year I didn’t get any birthday presents, except a book I coerced Hongyu into giving me, a boxful of things from Clara and, in the mail later, a Fred Perry polo tee from her. When I was a kid I looked forward to my birthday; it was one of the few days I could get something nice and new and update my wardrobe. Now every other week I feel compelled to purchase something wonderful – as if it were part of growing older, like my friends’ newly acquired obsession with girls and cars. Somehow it’s legitimate that we’re (at twenty) interested in the interests of other twenty-year olds. After all, vanity, or a sense of the aesthetic, is tied up with self-consciousness, and self-consciousness is perhaps the surest sign of age.

Meanwhile five months have passed, and they feel like forever. In these five months, of course, I’ve reapplied for my university courses and been rejected for each one. My job scope over at my unit has changed almost completely, and instead of taking care of cadets I sit in on meetings about the future of our soldiers’ healthcare. I’ve gone from watching my debate juniors to coaching them, fulfilling my old dreams and my obligation to ‘remember the source’. All this seems curiously temporary, somehow impermanent. Sometimes I wake up and ask myself, I’m twenty, what am I doing? is this it? If these are meant to be the best years of our lives: I would wish them to be more memorable, if not more meaningful.

Often I am filled with this strange fear, the fear that months will fly by and I won’t be able to remember the changes. To be honest: I can’t remember now what I did in March, or April, or May, or even June. It scares me through and through. It scares me that events seem now to take place in a timeless vacuum, that there seems to be no continuity between them, that I can’t pin anything down in relation to the context in which it happened. And it scares me that maybe next year or the year after that I won’t be able to remember what I did when, in these years, these bright years of youth. It scares me that the brightest years of my youth are already starting to blur about the edges and turn muddy, that I won’t be able to look back at what I did in high-definition. Instead all we’re left with are the vague recollections of nostalgia and old persons.

The year sloughs by and more of us are turning twenty. We are escaping our teenage years, leaving our past lives behind like a snake sheds its skin. I want to remember and I want to be aware of each day and its passing. If we are to crawl along in the dust, I need to know that the trails we leave behind will be preserved: that we are marking trails out on a windless moon.

Aug. 3rd, 2009

scary tog grin

parable

There was one evening I was on office duty. I was sitting at the bench outside the ops room eating the food I had just collected from the cookhouse and thinking about what Hongyu had written about cookhouse food, about eating one inedible meal after another. I looked at the food I was eating. There was a strange dish of chicken, cooked with raisins and long beans. The raisins looked and tasted like fat, grey grubs. The long beans resembled segments cut from a worm or snake – the insides of the bean were dyed blue-black. I pushed them into my mouth and chewed slowly, thinking over ‘the relief to be able to choose your meals’, as he had said. I choose my meals every day, from the canteen at HQ NCC or NUS Science, but often (oh, ingrate) I think there is relief in not having to choose at all. There is relief in not having to decide between one poor choice and another, in not having to decide for the umpteenth time whether to have claypot rice (never filling, insubstantial) or chicken rice (consistently mediocre) or curry (oily, spicy, disgusting), in being able to just walk to the cookhouse server and have your meal for the day dictated to you.

Back on Pulau Tekong or back in SISPEC I had never complained about bad food, or about food at all; now I expect more from my food, I expect it to taste good and make me happy. Invariably I am never satisfied. I always finish my lunch in a few minutes, almost as if it were an obstacle to efficiency and work and other daily routines, and I always feel vaguely cheated by the experience. As I chewed on my chicken unthinkingly, I thought to myself: if food is merely functional, choice is no longer relevant.

Jun. 26th, 2009

little bird

an open letter to my sec threes

(an open letter to my team, and the rest of the club.)

I just wanted to tell you guys my thoughts about debating (in general) sparked off by something I read today that bothered me.

It's from ACJC's school blog, written by one of their school debaters, about this year's JC nationals. It's a long extract though, so I won't reproduce it here. Instead you can read it here. (Please don't go and comment or do anything silly like that.)

There are acceptable limits to wanting to win or lose, especially in something as insubstantial as debating; to think that a sport/art/activity like this can be reduced to the sum of victory and defeat is unreasonable to me. I don't want you guys to come away with the idea that it's okay to question the judges' biases (competence is a different thing, though), or the idea that losing doesn't exist, or the idea that it's okay to crow about your victories (looking at you, NG LI KI).

Remember, always respect your opponents, I'm not telling you to love them or be their friends, I was never very good at that either (until I retired) but always be aware that they are good, also, and that they can beat you. When you win, it shouldn't be cause to rub it in their faces; when you lose, it isn't reason to cry. These things happen. Be gentlemen. Win with dignity and lose with grace.

I don't believe in the mindset that the judge decides who wins or loses. You do. As debaters, you decide the verdict. If you're better than your opponents on the day, you win, and if you're not, you lose... for me, it's as simple as that. At almost every point in the debate, there is an opportunity to win the debate with a brilliant speech, to swing the momentum of the debate in the favour of your team. If at the end of the day you don't win, ask yourself - why didn't I do that? why didn't I give that speech that I knew I had in me? That's the real question, the statement 'we should have won but...' means nothing to me. Invariably my answer is, but you could have done better. Do that. Do better.

Please bear in mind that the issues we research and discuss and debate are real ones, important and complicated ones, and that minds far greater than our own are thinking over them, without clear answers or resolution. Therefore it's inevitable that teams can't win all the time, even the greatest sports teams don't, and that what we should really aspire to is not (just) beating what's put in front of us, but improving ourselves - improving ourselves in the SKILLS that debate is about, not just as debaters. I hope that over time you guys will start to think more clearly, gain the confidence to speak your mind, learn the nuances of international issues as well as social concerns, be able to present yourself well to other people, things like that - I hope that you always remember that it's not about the debate, it's about the wider issues that you're debating.

Because like it or not, debate is not important. You can't be a debater forever (like you can be a footballer, or a basketballer, or a chorister, or an actor). Debaters grow up and graduate to become lawyers, politicians, diplomats, businessmen, the people that shape our world. that's what our craft is grooming us for - so always remember this, and don't be caught up in the petty details of this competitive region we call the 'debate circuit'. Think big, believe in yourself.

(just think about it.)

Jun. 1st, 2009

sleeping

fear

In a surreal postscript to this entry, at five-thirty this morning suddenly I sit up in my bed, wide awake, and run my fingers across my face. There is something dry caked against my left cheek.

I turn the light on (one light bulb left burning, out of five) and stand in front of the mirror. There is a streak of dried blood across my left jaw and my lips. There are red stains on my hand. The corner of my pillow is thick with blood. My mind reels with the shock of incomprehension, a sudden horror. I wash my face and hands frantically and check for cuts. I take my shirt off, check my arms and chest, my neck, my nose even. There is no hint of broken skin, no hint of injury, except a tiny black line on my lower lip that refuses to wash away - but surely a cut lip could not bleed so badly?

Shaken, I turn the light off and sink back into sleep: an hour later, I wake up. It is late and I am rushing to return to camp. The bloodstain on my pillow is stark, like a mark of guilt.

May. 18th, 2009

scary tog grin

tigers



In case anybody kind of likes this pair of shoes and fits a size US9... I will be glad to move them on 'cheaply' (obviously, cheap is relative) - they are a little tight on my feet, sadly

May. 5th, 2009

in the glass

the unconsoled

A harrowing dream: I check myself into a small hotel in a strange city. It is a narrow white building and there are rows of public-works greenery in the vicinity, as well as convenience stores and bicycles. Inside, it is not spacious, even to the point of being claustrophobic, and all the walls are white. On each floor there are two rooms, white-doored. The white paint does not glow or shine, as it might when new, but seems to have yellowed dully in parts. There are only two ways up and down the building: the lift, which does not seem to work, and a staircase which doubles as the fire escape. On the way to my room I do not encounter any other guests. The furniture in my room is the colour of plywood. The only ornament is an old phone directory. At this point I am made to realise that the hotel is in fact a rehabilitation centre of sorts, an asylum for the depressed or disturbed.

At the lobby, there is a very young girl who bears a passing resemblance to Dakota Brookes. She appears to be staying here alone. She is asking the receptionist about her stay here. The receptionist is a corpulent, sagging man with thick and curly hair; he looks more like a dirty newsagent than a receptionist and reminds me of a zombie. I realise that he is the only staff member I have seen so far. In the day, he says, you sit and enjoy the peace and quiet. At night our staff will monitor you and run the necessary tests. As you sleep, the receptionist says. As you sleep? There is something strange in his voice. Unbidden, some scenes present themselves to my mind's eye, as if I were a moviegoer watching a collection of still cuts. Cameras in the ceiling, blinking over the sleeping girl. The white door opening slowly. The girl, asleep, surrounded by shadows and men in white coats. The girl splayed out on a table, stabbed full of syringes, a cross between a jellyfish and voodoo doll. A white-cloaked figure slicing her stomach cavity as other shadows gather to observe a strange lack of colour, or blood. The girl, suspended by manacles, her chest and stomach open and empty. The girl, whole again, with a cock forced into her mouth, or bent over and taken from behind. The floor is slick with some black, oily substance.

Suddenly the images cut. In the lobby, the girl looks like she has just woken from a dream; her eyes go momentarily blank and then readjust themselves as she shakes her head as if stunned. She thanks the receptionist and walks up the staircase. As I step out to visit the convenience store I see a Caucasian couple walk in and register at the counter. They are blond, blue-eyed, fat, I am not sure what they want from this place.

The next morning I wake uneasily. I check myself for cuts, or stitches: none. I pass the girl in the stairway. In the sunlight, she looks pale, paler than I had remembered. The Caucasian couple walks by; seeing the girl, they smile weakly at her. Through the windowpane, the sun is bright and unforgiving. I wake up.

May. 4th, 2009

scary tog grin

two-liner

'...I have John Donne for my seminar later,' the other girl said.

'What, has he taken us for class before?'
scary tog grin

one-liner

'it's v romantic': whatever is romantic for the couple is lonely for the individual.

Apr. 13th, 2009

scary tog grin

to all my young second lieutenant (YSL) friends

variations on a theme of UNORIGINALITY... this is a short story about 'patriotism'.

yukio mishima, PATRIOTISMCollapse )

Apr. 9th, 2009

scary tog grin

hi-definition

In the absence of words, we still have music and pictures... this is all kinds of awesome.

Mar. 6th, 2009

little bird

march

This month is completely frightening. In a week's time I will be twenty; in a week's time I will have served one full year in the employ of the Singapore Armed Forces. In half an hour's time the class of 2008 will collect their results, and I hope nobody has to feel like I did on this day a year ago: comfortably numb, uncaring, narcotised. I wish all my juniors the best of luck, and the best of justice.

Feb. 23rd, 2009

scary tog grin

so nice. so smart

Letter-writing is becoming a painful art: as soon as we read anything deliberate written in the personal sphere, it immediately seems contrived, as if such work belonged exclusively to the domain of work and 'serious' writing.

Our cleverness manifests itself as an appreciation for irony and a rejection of everything else. The native skepticism of our friends tends to develop itself as a quick-witted dismissal of anything that seems constructed, like most serious writing is. After a while it is too easy to deride certain blog entries as 'emo' or 'whiny' or 'why is he thinking so much'... instead we're left with funny stories and very laconic writing, which is good but can't be all there is to this craft.

Maybe some of us have been too well-trained by the classes we've taken. If seven years of formal education spent in an environment that encouraged us to question whatever we read wasn't enough, we then went on to read Knowledge & Inquiry for two years and spent them doing 'critical thinking' passages, where we took pains to unpick whatever was presented to us. Under our critical knives and ice-picks the most reasoned of articles turned into a series of assumptions and assertions.

It's almost as if we've seen through the magician's methods, so the tricks no longer impress us.

Feb. 19th, 2009

scary tog grin

oh, crazy

The danger of cool things: stuff I should not be trying to afford but want anywayCollapse )

Feb. 10th, 2009

arsenal fc

films about ghosts

So somehow tonight I chanced upon a telecast of Manchester United's 1994 home game against Barcelona whilst channel-surfing over dinner. This was Johan Cruyff's Dream Team, trying to rise from the ashes of a 4-0 defeat to AC Milan in the final of the European Cup a year before, playing against a Manchester United team caught in transition between the old guard of Paul Ince and Mark Hughes and those teenagers who later became 'Fergie's Fledglings': Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, the Neville brothers.

I recognised several of the names, but from a different context. For Barcelona Carles Busquets started in goal, Ronald Koeman and Miguel Nadal in defence, Jose Bakero and Josep Guardiola in midfield, and Txiki Begiristain on the right wing. Today Begiristain is Barcelona's sporting director, Busquets's son is playing in central midfield for his father's club, and Guardiola is the manager behind Barcelona's most statistically successful season, ever. So the traditions of this club continue, as does the influence of Johann Cruyff, for better or for worse. As for the other names - Bakero and Koeman became coaches at Valencia, for a while, and of course Rafa Nadal, the world's best tennis player at the moment, is Miguel Nadal's nephew. There must have been a little bit of Miguel Nadal in Rafa today. He is strong, uncompromising, willing to play himself into the ground, just as his uncle did against Mark Hughes, old 'Sparky', winning almost every header against the notoriously tough centre-forward. Today's Barcelona could still do with a defender like him - or with Koeman, for that matter, who pinged perfect pass after pass for his wingers from his position inside his own half. Then there was Guardiola, madly adventurous in central midfield, always trying to spring his team onto the counter-attack, always trying for the pass to put his teammate in the clear - it almost did not matter that he got it wrong half the time.

Time tends to make fools of us all, and we speak of the 1994 Barcelona as we do of legends, but watching them play they were imperfect, just like the teams we watch now. In between the periods where Barcelona were imperious and careful in possession, letting the ball go back and forth (high and low) between their players, Guardiola was giving the ball away every now and then. Hristo Stoichkov, who looked like an old alcoholic despite his youth, ran down blind alleys too often. Romario's touches were sometimes careless, Begiristain was anonymous. Watching these games, ten years back, it is striking just how much space and time the players seem to have, especially in midfield; I can't say if the modern game has suffered for it, but every player today has to have an exceptional touch in order to create anything with the time he has on the ball.

Roy Keane started for United in that game, at the age of 22. Already he was driving forward, rushing players off the ball, but also contributing more to the attack than perhaps we have memories of him doing. Scholes was 19 then, a pale, bright-haired boy, coming on as a substitute in front of the Old Trafford crowd in a big European tie; out of nowhere, he caught the crossbar with a chip after he had dispossessed Guardiola just outside the Barcelona box. Busquets clapped in relief, maybe in admiration, as the ball went over. And perhaps United fans of this age have no time for Paul Ince or Lee Sharpe, spoiled as they are by two generations of star after star at their club, but in the 80th minute Ince won the ball outside the penalty area and left Koeman leaden-footed with a quick pass to an overlapping Keane, who crossed low for Sharpe to let the ball run across and behind himself and his marker before flicking it into the net with his heel. One wonders what today's media would make of Cristiano Ronaldo had he scored that goal.

I can see it now: there is an evening in the future where I am 30 and sitting in front of my television, watching Xavi and his Spain side win the European Championships, wondering why the colours look so strange, following how he keeps the ball, thinking about how David Villa looks just a little piratical with his goatee.

Jan. 24th, 2009

scary tog grin

bonus for misery!



blame gold cat.

Jan. 23rd, 2009

in the glass

if you take her hand/you'll get much more than you bargained for

I could have wished for simplicity, and peace, and contentment: such rare commodities.

Today I spent most of the afternoon walking up and down Portsdown Road in the blazing heat and a black t-shirt. I miss the days when I did these things by choice, not circumstance, not in the absence of anything better to do; also the days when I didn't have to blog about myself all the time, in the first person.

It is awful how I have to shrug off all these comments about my posting in the army, it's almost as if I am at pains to point out what I've gone through. It must be wrong that I am embarrassed to announce it and feel obliged to explain matters. As if there were anything to explain. It is not congruent for an infantryman to be where I am, at the cadet corps headquarters, that is ALL. I wish I could believe it; it is very unpleasant to try to be happy about something you're not proud of.

Tomorrow afternoon I'm flying back to Taiwan for this Lunar New Year - back next Friday. It is yet another suspension, I should be looking forward to it but it is getting harder to derive meaning from little things...

maybe I'm just going blind, slowly, slowly.

Jan. 7th, 2009

little bird

you don't say a single word of the last two years

This is a song for this November, or December, or next February, or next March: it could be any of our stories, parts of them are all the same.



(and you will try to do what you did before:
pull the wool over your eyes for a week or more...
let your family take you back to your original mind)

Dec. 30th, 2008

in the glass

lost!

This should not be how the year ends: for the first time in a long while, I feel completely unable to make sense of my life.

It's funny; so much has happened this year and yet it's so cheap and easy to toss them aside in these big recycle bins labelled ARMY and OVERSEAS UNIVERSITIES and try to return to last year. I want to be free of the past but it is so sticky, like barnacles, like jellyfish.

For what it's worth, I'm really glad to have experienced what I have in the army, especially those five short months in the School of Infantry Specialists; I sweated and cared too much for them to be just a fairy tale. Outside the jungles of these memories there is not much left of this year. I've listened to a lot of music, I've been thrilled but not comforted. I've tried to care about clothes and run myself out of money and ideas, and conviction. I've drifted from here to there and I'm searching for constants: myself, my love, my friends, my family, I need them and I want them to be certain.

I don't want it to end like this, so despite everything... love. I feel like I'm closing one door behind me and opening another and I don't know what lies beyond. We are stepping off into space, into the stars, and it is scary and beautiful all at once.

Perhaps I need a stiff dose of metanoia, or just hope. I'd buy a bottle of hope, this year for the next.

Dec. 14th, 2008

sleeping

voc: inf ldr

You know you've spent enough time in the infantry when:

1) you watch the latest Army recruitment video on television (THE STEEL WITHIN) and your first thought is

'damn, this place looks familiar'

2) and realise that there are so few people who actually know what you're talking about.

sigh. Those bright memories.

Dec. 9th, 2008

little bird

only overjoyed



the ting tings, january 13th
anyone interested? (should I go?)

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