Untouchable hours

“What are you busy with after this?” he asked. I was out with a friend for dinner and I’d told him that I would have to leave by 9pm.

I’m going home, I told him. I’ve come to learn that this is an “unacceptable” reason to end a night out early. “No way, you’re coming out for drinks with me,” he said.

“No I can’t, I have plans,” I said. From the look on his face, I was sure that he’d took it to mean that I was going home to either: a) ravish my husband or b) keep to a curfew. The correct answer was… neither.

I had made plans with myself – made them official by putting it down in my calendar.

One thing I’ve always found strange is that when we make plans like that with other people, we would hesitate to cancel them. So why is it that we’re so ready to give up the plans that we make with ourselves?

How do you handle so many things at once?

If I had a FAQ page, this question would be close to the top.

At the time of this writing I am: working full-time at an e-commerce company and just about to begin a round of fundraising, producing a short film to be used as part of the pitch for a TV series, developing a web app for an online community, and working on three essays for submission.

The question “how do you handle so many things at once?” is usually followed up with “how do you find the time?”.

I don’t find the time. I make it.

Growing up, I used to spend a lot of time at a close friend’s house and her father used to say, “If you fail you plan, you plan to fail.” That saying grated on my Aquarian nerves. I’m a dreamer, not a planner, I thought.

But what I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be a good planner to make plans. You just need to find a system that works. For you.

Forget bullet journals and pretty planners. I have a reporter’s notebook and a Trello board, both of which are organised in a way that makes sense only to me.

But when I really need to get shit done, I put it into my calendar as “untouchable hours” – pre-scheduled sections of my day and week that aren’t meant to be spent on anyone else.

When I make a calendar entry, I also include what I want to work on during that time. And like any other meeting, I do the necessary prep beforehand. This means that when I sit down to start working, I have what I need to hit the ground running.

You are a workaholic, aren’t you?

Another FAQ. And my response is, au contraire.

I read an average of one book per week (more, if I end up binge reading romance novels). I watch lots of TV. I sometimes spend whole Saturdays curled up in bed. I go for drinks on weekends and have social dinners at least once a week. I get laid often.

Here’s a confession: I put these things on my calendar as well. Last weekend, I had two three-hour slots that said “Watch Shark Tank“.

My untouchable hours aren’t just meant for work; I also schedule them for times when I just want to be alone. As an extreme introvert, that’s how I recharge. (This was especially important when I was a journalist and my job involved talking to people.)

Over the years, I’ve learned that if I’m running on empty, I will burn out. And that it takes longer to recover from that.

This is how I keep going.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” (Meditations 12.4)

I often wonder why we think our time is less valuable. Why is it so much easier to cancel plans we’ve made with ourselves?

I’m not saying that my untouchable hours are immovable, but I give them the same respect that the rest of my appointments receive.

And thus far, that has worked for me.

2008

I wonder if you miss me. As you lie, lonely in your guest room bed.

Are you still sleeping there, I wonder. Or has she let you back in? And even then, do you just sleep? Or do you run your hands all over her body like you did to mine, like you did to hers before you ever laid eyes on me.

These things are not supposed to matter now. I am not supposed to care. You are hers and I am mine.

But the broken part of me looks for you. In chance encounters with strangers, in affairs (clandestine or otherwise) where I make sure that this time, no questions are asked and no promises are made. In older men, in figures of authority.

I was a child when you found me. And now, I am a ghost.

A ghost slowly coming back to life and with that life, remembering all the things I used to feel. Your breath on my neck, fingers drawing circles on my skin, tears running down my face.

I will forget you, I tell myself. But my self wants to remember.


About this piece:

At a certain age, love becomes less epic. When one is young, the end of an affair can feel like the end of the world as one knows it.

I wrote this piece eight years ago (give or take) about a person I still think of as “2008”. A part of me feels sad for that broken little girl. The other part just wants to laugh and say, “Grow up, you’ll get over it.”

Lost children

“Sometimes I don’t know what you want,” he said. He was still awake after all. I thought about continuing my pretense.

“I know you are awake,” he said. I stayed silent a while longer and then I sighed.

“I don’t know what I want,” I said.

“You have got to figure it out sometime, you know,” he said.

I sat up in bed. The covers slipped but I didn’t care. In the past, I would have pulled the covers up to my chin to cover my almost non-existent breasts. But in Andre’s eyes, nakedness was natural. He resented clothing. These days, I sometimes went without a bra. It was strangely liberating.

“I used to know,” I said. “I used to know what I wanted. I had a plan… get good grades in high school. Do sports. Do clubs and societies. Get a good testimonial. Get a scholarship. Become something… someone. I wanted to be a doctor.”

I shrugged. I rested my elbow on my knees, my forehead on my palm. It was surprising how much it hurt, even now, after all these years.

I hadn’t stuck to the plan. People had expected things of me, from me. Anything less than a PhD was a failure. I was meant for a life in academia. That’s what they told me anyway. I was too other-worldly to live in the real world. Let your brother take care of all those things, everyone said.

By “all those things”, they meant “money” and “power”. My brother was the golden boy. He would make it big in the world.

He, unlike me, had always known what he wanted. When we were six, he had said, “I am going to be a business man.” And then he had started breeding and selling fishes.

At six, I spent an abnormal amount of time staring out of windows and daydreaming.

“What happened?” Andre said. He rubbed his palm against my thigh. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. I got lost,” I said. And I realized that it was true.

“Mmm,” he grinned. “A little lost girl.” I wondered if I should get angry. I carried on the joke instead. Because laughing was easier.

“Mmhmm,” I said. “I’m waiting for Peter Pan to come and lick me into shape.”

“Lick?” he said and lifted an eyebrow. Then he dropped back onto his pillow and sighed. “Peter Pan is just as lost as the rest of the lost boys.”

I snuggled back into bed and leaned my head on his chest. His arm wrapped around my shoulders. It was an unconscious gesture. Muscle memory.

“Maybe that is what Wendy is for,” he said. He rolled his chin around on the top of my head. I moved my head away and tilted to look at his face. It was serious.

“Wendy,” I huffed. “She’s lost as well.”

“So just like that. Everyone is lost. Damn it all and be done with it.”

“Perhaps,” I said. I bit my lip. “Maybe it isn’t about finding our way. Maybe we’re just meant to find each other.”

“And huddle up for comfort?” he said.

“And huddle up for comfort,” I said.

END


About this piece:

I wrote this in 2009 as part of a personal project The Man Beside Me. It was an exercise in improving my dialogue in fiction.

It’s been almost 10 years and the editor in me cringes at so many parts. But I’m leaving it (mostly) unedited as a way to remember where I was as a writer.

Is this enough?

“I’m from Klang. Of course I have gangster friends,” I say. And even though my head keeps repeating ‘don’t say it, don’t say it’, I blurt it out. “My best friend died while I was in college.”

“Oh,” she says. She shifts and curls up closer to me. “How old was he?”

“18,” I say, waiting for her to ask what happened.

“What happened?” she says, looking into my eyes now. I run my fingers up and down her naked back.

How do I tell her this story? There are days when she thinks I don’t notice but she gives me this look and I know she doesn’t understand what I have said. How could she? With her fair skin and her ‘oh, I like Indian food. We had a maid who cooked for us’.

Like the other day when I got a press invitation to a movie, on Deepavali!

We would like to extend this invitation to the editorial team to join us for a night out at the movies on 22 October 2014 (Deepavali Day) at GSC One Utama.

“I don’t understand,” she’d said. “It’s not compulsory. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

“Yes, but it’s Deepavali. And it’s a public holiday. So insensitive!”

“So? You can reject it right?”

“That’s not the point. Imagine if they had sent a non-halal buffet invite to the entire editorial team. Or if they organized something like that during raya.”

“Okayyyy… would it have been better if they had just sent the invite to the non-Indian people?”

“No, that’s still ignorant. That’s why la, my friend says that Chinese people cannot see things from other people’s point of view.”

She’d given me this look and a smile and I’d thought, “This is why my mother wants me to date an Indian girl.”

She nudges me with her hips and I am back in the present. “So… what happened?”

“We were on the road, you know, just in the car. I was driving because my friend was slightly tipsy. Another friend was sleeping at the back.

“It was public holiday time. Should have known la… There was a roadblock and as usual, we got stopped.

“Then they want to check our car la,” I say.

“Oh my goodness. I’ve never been stopped before. One time a policeman shouted at me through the window. I took down his ID number and complained about him,” she says.

I roll my eyes. “Ya, you can do that. Chinese ma.”

“Please la,” she says, laughs. “Then what?”

“Don’t know why my friend go and show his anger. So they took him away. The other friend and I went home. Next day his mom called, said he didn’t come home.

“Then they got a call from police station. They said he died of alcohol overdose or something. But then his body had too much of bruises. After that my other friend joined a gang. Got protection, he said.”

She doesn’t say anything. When I finally look at her again, I can see that she’s troubled. “I don’t understand,” she says. “How could you let something like that happen? How could you let them get away with that?”

“That’s the problem, babe. We don’t let it happen. It just does. There’s nothing we can do.”

She lifts herself up and leans back into the pillows. “No way,” she says. “I’m sure that there was something you could have done.”

Her eyebrows are bunched together in a frown and I can see the gears in her head turning, probably thinking about that ‘I am the master of my fate’ poem she spouted at me the other day when I complained about how unfair things were sometimes.

Before she can say anything else, I do the only thing that’s still keeping us together. I pull her close and kiss her. “Don’t worry about it, babe,” I say, moving my body over hers.

She doesn’t understand so many things, but her body understands mine. “Maybe this is enough,” I think. “Maybe…”

END


About this piece:

I wrote this in 2014 as part of an assignment for UnRepresented KL. We were meant to write something inspired by a documentary about race-related police brutality.

At the time, the ending of the story felt contrived; one of the characters did something that felt “out of character”. I moved on and wrote other things.

Lately though, I’ve been thinking about the issue of race (especially in Malaysia) and remembered this story. I’ve edited the ending but hopefully, preserved the theme.

This is that.

A round-up of and casual commentary on things I’m reading, listening to, watching or thinking about.

Eating is overrated.

Every time I eat a meal that’s supposedly “really good”, I think about Kate Moss’ famous quote: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

Foie gras, 10-course molecular gastronomy, a delectable Sunday brunch – all of which totally amazing when in the moment – weigh me down post-consumption. Everything feels too greasy, too heavy, too rich.

There is a much deeper satisfaction in a small bowl of plain oats, biscuits dipped in Milo, a cube of cheese.

“Ugly” is relative.

We often think that the story The Ugly Duckling is about an unattractive person coming into his/her own ie. transforming to become something beautiful. We think it’s a story about appearances.

However, could you really compare the beauty of the duck, to the beauty of the swan? They are both beautiful and/or “ugly” in their own way.

I like to think that The Ugly Duckling is a story about finding your tribe, the people who can appreciate and embrace your “ugly”. It’s a story about finding a place you belong.

Losing is learning.

I finally had the opportunity to catch up on the third season of Food Wars, a Japanese anime in which the protagonist Yukihira Soma wants to become the top chef in an elite cooking school.

The thing about Soma is, he has no raw talent. Compared to some of his other classmates, he doesn’t have a superb sense of smell or a “god tongue”. And yet, he has no fear of losing.

He keeps pushing himself, understanding that losing to someone better, means that he gets to learn from them.

Being a “proper” Chinese: Lesson #1

In this lesson, you will learn one of the rules you must follow to be a proper Chinese. What do you mean are there rules? Of course there are rules.

The first rule of being Chinese: When it comes to things like house work, paying for a meal or gift giving, if the other party says “No”, you “have to insist”.

Say you’re in a relative’s house and you’ve had a meal. Since your host cooked dinner, the polite thing to do is help to clean up. Clear the table and take everything to the sink, even though your host will definitely tell you, “Just leave everything there lah.”

Put everything in the sink and at this stage, your host will again say, “Just leave it there. I’ll wash everything together.”

This is a trap. The polite thing to do is to switch on the tap anyway and start washing up.

Wash up all the dishes, even the ones that were already in the sink. As you’re soaping the dishes, your host will say, “Eh, I’ll do it lah. Just leave it.”

Do not make the mistake of listening! Keep washing those dishes. If you must say something, it has to be along the lines of “no worries”, “please [let me do it]” or “you cook already, I must wash up lah”.

If your host is following the correct protocol, he/she will no longer ask you to “just leave it”. Three times is the ideal number of times to indicate refusal.

Two times is too few. It tells your guest that you didn’t really intend to clean up yourself (even though this is really the case).

More than three times is too many. Having to insist more than three times will make your guest feel awkward and heaven forbid that happens.

In cases of gift giving, the receiver will probably say something to the effect of “eh, no need lah”. As always, you have to insist.

Some receivers might even go as far as to push the gift back into your hands. If this happens, you have to engage in a push back and forth battle until the receiver accepts it.

Contingency measures:
If the receiver folds his/her arms so that you cannot push the gift back in, you should leave it behind when you leave the place (even if it’s a public restaurant). This way, the receiver of the gift knows that you are really sincere in your gift giving.

Similarly, if you have eaten out and you want to pay the bill – you should always pay the bill because this indicates social superiority (unless you’ve just eaten with your boss; it’s more polite to let him/her pay) – you have to get physical and force your money into the waiter’s hand.

If the other party wins, you should leave money on the table (equivalent to or more than the billed amount). If you want, you can even reinforce your actions with words like “if you don’t take it let the restaurant have it”. Trust me, no proper Chinese will just leave money lying there.

For more information, feel free send your questions to: [redacted]

Challenging authority, going against the grain

A round-up of and casual commentary on things I’m reading, listening to, watching or thinking about.

“You want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.”

I’ve had a casual interest in cryptocurrency and blockchain tech for more than a year now. And diving deeper into decentralized tech has made me want to go back and read Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. I finally got around to doing it and was able to appreciate it even more this time around.

In this YA novella, the protagonist, Marcus goes against a government that’s become obsessed with “catching terrorists”. The book explores themes like government and human rights, as well as provides an entertaining introduction to cryptography, privacy and decentralized technology.

If you’re looking for a fun, weekend read, you can download the book (released under a Creative Commons license) on Doctorow’s website: Get the ebook

“What we do going forward defines who we are.”

At the end of last year, I requested book recommendations on Instagram and Wool from the Silo series was on the list. The blurb at the back of the book was not very informative so I had no idea what I was getting into.

But by the end, I was loving it.

My key takeaways were: 1) Whatever I know of the world is tiny compared to how gargantuan it really is; 2) The adventure cannot start until you step outside your known world; and 3) a question: does authority always “know better”?

Don’t operate heavy machinery when listening to this!

I’m always on the lookout for new podcasts to add to my library. Although My Dad Wrote a Porno has been running for about three years (and isn’t all that new), I only recently looked it up.

It is hilarious!

The podcast is hosted by Jamie Morton and his friends – Alice Levine and James Cooper – and was created after Jamie’s father wrote the erotic novel Belinda Blinked.

In each episode, Jamie reads a chapter of the book, all the while being interrupted by James and Alice. Not surprising, as there are many WTF moments and inexplicable scenarios.

I’ll admit that I listen to this mostly when I’m driving (that’s my podcast time) and it’s not a good thing. I’ve missed turnings, forgotten things and been honked at while listening.

If you still want to have a listen, episodes are available on their website: My Dad Wrote a Porno

There’s more than one way to the top!

There’s a period before I fall asleep, after I’ve done my reading. That in-between time when the lights are out, that’s my Netflix time.

The other night, I rewatched Monsters University and fell in love with it again. It’s not one of the greats, by Pixar standards but I am always inspired by its ending.

Monsters University is a prequel to Monsters Inc, where the two characters Mike and Sulley are partners and “top scarers” at Monsters Inc. The company converts the screams of children into energy that powers the monster world.

[spoiler alert]

Long story short: In spite of their final achievement at university – together they manage to scare a group of adults and create enough scream power to fill up a room full of storage tanks – they are expelled due to their earlier behavior.

And yet, they never give up on their dream – to become scarers. They start from the bottom, in the mailroom and work their way up.

I like to think that’s how Sulley was able to take over as CEO in Monsters Inc. He’s not just a scarer; he’s been on the ground in a bunch of other departments and he knows how the company works.

Sometimes, bad situations are only bad if you see them that way.