a short note

I stopped writing for leisure around the six-month mark in the Ministry.  Writing being the source of my woes at work, it slowly became hard, maybe even traumatic, to write outside.  Worse, I started to lose control – when I finally decided to divorce the shit I wrote at work from what I really wanted to write, I found that I lacked the fortitude to prevent the sloppiness of the former from seeping into the latter.

So I stopped; that was the easy way out.  But now that I’ve decided to quit the job, I’ve to pick this up again.  I think about the days when I wrote as a way to figure out what on earth I thought about the shit that happened all around, and as a form of catharsis.  I hope these functions will return soon.


exams ended wednesday. in the ennui that followed i remarked to an american friend over dinner, apropos of nothing, that freedom was overrated; to which the response was swift and sarcastic, and made heavy reference to my being singaporean. well, i meant to say that freedom from exams was overrated, but it’s a good lesson in how one should not speak flippantly.

now i’m in houston, waiting for tom to arrive – i think from san francisco. outside it’s raining, and it seems like the weather will stay this way all through the weekend. but most of what tom has arranged for – tickets to game 7 of the rockets-clippers playoffs, food at various places, a mahler concert at the houston symphony – are all indoors. it should all work out, though that doesn’t mean that we won’t be outdoors at all.

the writing is slow and aimless today. my mind’s a blank, save for the image of a whole crowd of families in the arrival lounge, ringing bells and waving the stars and stripes, welcoming and congratulating their military kin. the joy and relief – and the pride, too – are pure. i am ambivalent about the war, but it’s good to remember that in some contexts personal opinions should matter less.

third attempt at montreal

Offloaded the train at ten this morning, carried my backpack around old Montreal, gave it up as a torturous affair – and so headed to Chinatown and ate my beef brisket soup, etc. One thing about travelling alone as an ethnic chinese is that you develop a keen eye for ‘sun yat sen memorials’ on maps posted around town – even if they don’t explicitly indicate that that’s where chinatown is, you couldn’t possibly go wrong.

Afterward, was in the train station doing long overdue work, and got it on its way after three hours. But that left me with two hours to departure – so I headed to get a drink. Patrick’s pub along rue st-denis; funny how I always end up in establishments that claim to be scot or Irish.

Anyway, long story short – waitress there made me think about being Singaporean. She was clearly québécoise, but there was an inordinate number of English speakers at the pub. She did her job with admirable ease – but there was the occasional moment where she couldn’t understand the other person, at which both just, well, went over their conversation again.

So funny, then, that everything hinges on whether you can take a step back and accept that, as your  English is slightly less fluent than your French, its perfectly fine for you to demonstrate engagement but ask for elaboration. Who cares whether you are a server – why should that matter? The fact is that a person who takes offense at another person for asking him or her to have to respond in a language not of his or her choice, could check the ego and laugh it off.

That said – should it be in the case of being demanded to speak back in that language for reasons absolutely independent of the listener – that is a different case. That often smacks of the ego of the person who demands the audience. On the other hand, if it’s about understanding in a second language, and about your deficiency in that language – absent other reasons, why not just leave it? We are all better that way.

recounting conversation (goodbye halifax)

this morning, i finally meet my airbnb host. a short interaction, but very interesting – we talk politics and hockey. my host is pretty pumped because the conservatives have just lost in alberta and the flames are still in the playoffs.

meanwhile i am very hungover. the night before is less than clear: i know i drank copious amounts, starting with a stout along with lobster lunch at the waterside warehouse, and then, in order, the halifax alehouse, argyle street pub, the loose cannon, the bitter end, the loose cannon again, the neptune theatre (having been convinced to go there by the chief mic technician i met at the loose cannon, who recommended i go watch his production of the addams family), the loose cannon, and then a pizza joint along spring garden road.
my host cannot hide his amusement.

‘and where else have you been around halifax, i mean, apart from the pubs and the theatre?’

‘uh, the citadel?’

halifax citadel

halifax citadel

‘is it open yet?’

‘nope. but it’s so much less crowded. you can walk around the ramparts without pushing an old lady to her death, or something. plus the honor guard and the artillery crew are practicising their parade motions. that’s pretty neat.’

‘true. in summer at twelve they fire the cannons. 10 years living in downtown halifax and i’m still not used to it.’

at this point i neglect to mention my one abiding thought from the citadel, which was that since the cannons are facing scotiabank, the province could just blow the roof off the scotiabank building in a demonstration of postmodern financial regulation.

‘and i tried to get into the old burying grounds because i wanted to take a picture of the grave of that general who burned the white house down, but the burying grounds are locked.’

‘ah. you know what happens in summer?’ he shakes his head. ‘people look for the graves of the titanic victims. especially jack dawson. people go there to take selfies with the headstone. imagine what he’d be thinking. i’m not fucking leonardo dicaprio. or something like that.’

‘true. you know, i just wish i could spend more time here. halifax is such a beautiful place.’

‘yeah, it’s a pity.’

my host stands up to leave – a high school teacher headed out for work, looking like a high class sort of hippie.

he shakes my hand. ‘halifax,’ he says, ‘is the lovechild of boston and brooklyn.’

halifax waterfront, by the nautical museum

halifax waterfront, by the nautical museum

go forth and conquer

pulling into halifax, the first impression was not what everyone told me it’d seem like. then again ‘everyone’ really was a very skewed sample – namely, the bostonians, who assured me that halifax was going to be ‘a canadian version of boston’. well, the way you enter halifax when you’re on the train, you run along the shoreline all the time. through truro you marvel at the number of streams and gullies, the stubborn melting ice and the bubbling snowmelt washed in all directions; sometimes you see reaches of fens and marsh, and, if you’re like me and unfamiliar with such terrain, you draw a blank. but then it all opens up and you see the container ports, and my first response is, hey, that’s a kind of singapore.

of course, that response has to be biased. but my first impression of halifax is patently not boston. it is much closer to anchorage in terms of character. a few steps out of the train station, poring over a map and wondering if i should first make a beeline for my airbnb place, a couple greet me. ‘are you lost?’ clearly i was exuding that clueless aura that i try my best not to in absolutely foreign cities – but then again i think halifax struck me – and still does – as a place where one doesn’t need to be on tenterhooks all the time. it certainly helps that it’s easily navigable, and that by that time i had figured that all i really wanted was a good meal. so i said no, thanked them, and headed off in the direction of downtown.

obligatory photo of scotch selection, the loose cannon, halifax

obligatory photo of scotch selection, the loose cannon, halifax

obligatory shaky and unaligned photo of whiskey menu, the loose cannon, halifax. seeing is believing.

obligatory shaky and unaligned photo of whiskey menu, the loose cannon, halifax. seeing is believing.

now, i think i’ve been to far more bars than the average singaporean; at least, in terms of variety and location. a two hour layover is well enough time for me to toddle out of a station and find the nearest watering hole. but this one i randomly entered still caught me off guard. i should have known, really, that halifax has a large scottish population, but a scottish bartender heartily greeting a singaporean is the last thing a singaporean can handle without some kind of mental preparation. even more so when what seems like a normal liquor shelf behind the bartender turns out to be an awe-inducing rack of whiskies, row upon row of rarities, each going at but CAD 6 or 7.50 a shot.

needless to say, i had a great time. the bartender – taylor, i believe – was skilled and knew his wares; i entirely believe him when he says that he bought 2000 dollars worth of whiskies when he returned to scotland last summer. as for the conversation, well, it was of the anchorage pedigree. in cambridge people talk about thesis and job applications; in boston people talk about themselves; in anchorage people just talk. here in the loose cannon, i suspect that most of the clientele are sikorsky affiliates or canadian navy. thus this tidbit of conversation from the two female canadian navy engineers beside me at the counter, ‘he was such a catholic… sex was complicated. he might have been a virgin.’ and then a man, ‘i’m gonna set sail for two weeks, probably. [in response to general congratulations] what’s so fun about that. i don’t envy myself at all. i can’t even drive a humvee on this ship, it’s that small.’ such conversation, really, is what bar conversation should be: a frank lack of fucks. and obviously it doesn’t exist where people by default care far too much about frivolities.

but that’s but half the story: headed out again because the bartender assures me that the only thing to halifax is nightlife. there’s martini mondays at the bitter end, followed by late night drinks at the halifax alehouse. here’s to having what already seems far too little time in this place.

[EDIT: Did not head out past one; liver and common sense won the day. I live to fight another morning.]

daylight and sleep

the great thing about taking a long distance train ride is that you never know what to expect. sadly, that can also be the absolute worst thing about it. put simply there is no certainty except that of reaching your destination late. everything else is a lottery: where you choose to pick your seat, who sits beside you, whether he chooses to talk all night, whether he chooses to talk despite all other passengers’ signs of fatigue or insouciance, and whether he can only talk about tax avoidance and communists… well, at least he got off at moncton. so i got two hours of shuteye, the full late morning sun through the train windows and onto my drooling face.

i am eating a microwaved pizza in the lounge car and contemplating life. against all expectations i have actually finished drafts of both my papers; what is left is a half hearted run through and some proper footnoting. past that i will have to write some rather perfunctory notes on three movies related to water – which i hope to catch on my trip back from halifax, engaging the wifi in the lounge car and therefore probably causing it to crash, much to the exasperation of the multitude of youngsters on this train who somehow can get the wifi to support their game of warcraft III. and then i would have done everything i wanted to do on this trip, save starting on the group paper on iga-436. but that was always going to be aspirational. never ask too much of oneself – there might come a day where there’s utterly nothing left to ask of.

so, three more hours (i hope) to getting off at halifax, and i’m feeling pretty good with myself. the view outside is all backwoods and snow – snow in may – which makes me somewhat thankful despite all the shit that was boston this winter. it certainly would take a particular kind of person to live this far away from the equator, or maybe a person well layered and well sloshed. not sure if i’m that kind of person, really, but then again my limited experience tells me that frigid places have warmer people.

lounge car

this seems like a reboot of the procrastination diaries – i.e. the diaries that i kept in my trip on the canadian from vancouver to toronto. too bad that it’s no longer on facebook. i know i have a copy of it somewhere in my computer, and perhaps i should post it on this blog sometime just so it keeps in view.

but right now i’m in the lounge car of the montreal-halifax train, where they are showing the hunger games, and where there is a queue for the bar so long i’m expecting rioting any moment now. the canadiens, i believe, have just lost, which explains the number of people who need some kind of hosing down. meanwhile there are three kids playing warcraft three in the corner, thus accounting for the ponderous pace of the wifi. at least i have wifi, i guess; but then again, a lack of wifi would have made me that much more productive, considering the 20 more pages of essays i’ve to submit in three days.

meanwhile, a short note about montreal. last i was in montreal, i was heckled three times in the course of two days – i mean rather that random people taunted me in the most random ways, but mainly for my being asian, i suspect. the taunting consisted of making funny ‘asiatic’ noises at me as i, variously, emerged from macdonalds, or the subway, or from a pub in the latin quarter. incidentally, i have never thought that to be offensive or threatening – a man that makes quacking noises could do anything else and be simultaneously more potent and less laughable. but i guess my short interactions in montreal have mostly curious.

so, to add to that, this short skirmish outside the bus station this afternoon:

man 1: give me a cigarette!
me: sorry, i don’t have any.
man 1: damnit!
man 2: speak french!
me: sorry, i don’t speak french.
man 2: damnit!
man 1: apologize to us!

for what exactly i’m still not sure, but i definitely did beat a hasty retreat. in so doing i went in the wrong direction and spent two hours walking through the streets of montreal… which is fine, i guess. redemption beckons on the 7th of march, where i’ll have a full day to roam the city again.

meanwhile, this train is inexorable, halifax in its sights.

engine troubles

Passing Montpellier and noticing the sign on the window of charlie-o’s that reads ‘please, no life stories.’ Had to chuckle at that. It’s so easy to mistake patience as kindness after the third or fourth pint, especially if you’re the maudlin type.

Last I passed this town, also in a greyhound bus, everything was white. Even the golden dome of what must be the state house was caked in snow. Today the sidewalks are full of people in t shirts and sunglasses that dominate the face. It’s warm now; or maybe everyone’s just dressing up as the others do, regardless how they feel.

Funny, then, how different everything is two months removed. This is why my instinct is to deride the tourist – what can you know being a visitor? But there is truth in the recognition of change, too, truth not found in the perceptions of those inured. And if we should have some tourist folly, better to have it in its most literal sense. For we fuck up the most when we are tourists in academia, or relationships, or in jobs… in situations where we bear no penalty even if we lose interest, and finally find it most convenient to give up.

road trip

Trains start late from central towards ashmont/Braintree – can’t believe that there aren’t any before six in the morning. But I reached south station in one piece and in time for the greyhound so that’s alright.

Will be on the road for a full day – this bus to Montreal, and then a train to Halifax – during which time I was hoping I could finish at least one of my two papers due in three days. I’m getting carsick writing in the bus, though, and the laptop adapter keeps falling out of the socket. Taken all round it seems much wiser to just catch some rest and then worry again when I’m finally stationary and awaiting the train at Montreal.

Nonetheless, it’s a great day to be travelling. New england in the springtime sun is statuesque. No doubt it is cold out – the homeless have their hoods up and the tiny dogs of the well heeled are similarly bundled up – but from the greyhound it is a soft day, one to forget easily, but only for the kindest of reasons.

the corner of a universe

fitting that i should return here on a thursday, seeing as that was the day i was assigned back when this was in full swing. i’m back because, having gotten off facebook, i still want a place to write absent-minded notes to myself.

things don’t change. i read one of my entries (breaking the habit) from a while back, which ran:

the second habit – you know substance abuse? some people might say i’m the most incorrigible alcoholic they know, but i think that’s still not enough to say with certainty that i’m a drinker to the point of abuse… but i think, if i don’t check myself, i’ll find myself there someday. if you keep to your measure that’s all good, but sometimes i find myself drinking just for the sake of it, at first seeking a high, but after that seeking nothing except the drowsy release that transmogrifies my guilt into a laughing subconscious and leaves me utterly damned when i next come to my senses.

that has to go. when i first started (cue the laughter – i don’t know when that is), it was partially because of me being fundamentally uncomfortable socialising. i know that sounds like a stretch since i talk loudest and longest at social events, but it’s dutch courage, really. alcohol is what i go to when i want bravado, wit and the silliness to kill silences with one trite or stupid comment or another. and of course, if it’s all of us drinking, it’s the good ol’ social lubricant theory. alcohol made conversation that much more fun. we could pretend not to care if someone made a silly comment, or we could pretend our comment was not silly, through the hazy camaraderie we could laugh about something up to a point. and at home, if still drunk, i could write, stare at the result, and say ‘it’s not bad’, and hit the post button before it was too late to redeem myself. but now, alcohol as the stream of my consciousness is a raging, surging river. it’s capsized the boat, it stops me cold, it cuts my arguments into shreds, it reduces my words to primal sounds. i try to make new conversation and fail, and so i fall back on my old yarns, about moscow and japan when i’m in singapore, and about tohoku and singapore when i’m in tokyo. it’s slick if you’ve heard it for the first time. after all, those stories go through telling and retelling, and after a while they’re polished beyond recognition. but nowhere in that kind of conversation do you see a lucid mind; it’s just bobbing about with what is the mental equivalent of a life float. and when you do try to muster some kind of conversation, most likely in response to something interesting you hear from your friends, you can’t rise to the occasion. it’s just a lack of knowledge and a slow instinct lending itself to awkward responses, and you save the situation by launching into your spiel again.

and so drinking – it’s got to give, at least for now (i can hear some of my closest friends sniggering in the background – ‘how long will that be? last you did it it didn’t last a week’. well, i don’t know – for as long as it takes for me to get used to the idea of drinking a beer or two and stopping there, without getting irritated or thirsty or both). one day i will go, bottle in hand, to the ball game, or i’ll be nursing it in the company of good friends, and i won’t feel the need to spend half my time spinning the latest yarn and the other half gulping liquid fire. i’ll be at ease with myself. mightn’t be comfortable with the fact that i’m still prone to silly gaffes and stupid responses, but you know, won’t feel the need to atone for it. perhaps facebook and alcohol share something in that they’re stages for me to do my song-and-dance routine, a smile and a wave, a retiring behind the curtains only to come out again seeking the next encore. that’s probably an intensely stupid analogy. but the message remains the same: i’m breaking the habit.

and re-reading it again, it’s mortifying that i haven’t changed a single bit. i’m still the same yarn-spinner, still the same person pontificating, still the person who can hold forth as long as he wants between the fourth and the ninth pint. the kennedy school has not helped; but then again, i have not helped myself either.

writing will occur sporadically on this website, quietly.