on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

Carole King, and discovering the magic of sound

As noted a while ago I went into a deep rabbit hole after wondering if the Apple lightning to 3.5mm dongle affects audio quality. So there is a chip inside the small dongle that converts the digital audio signal to analog. In case you’re wondering, apparently the $15 (SGD) dongle is pretty good for its size, and people are speculating that Apple may be taking a loss on those dongles.

Anyway, that made me extremely curious so I started exploring these converters – known as DACs. Before you know it I now have a desktop DAC that connects my mac mini to speakers, and also allows me to connect regular wired headphones. I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to hear the difference, but connecting the speakers directly to my mac mini’s audio jack was audibly worse to my untrained ears.

I wanted to understand more about audio quality, so guided by the hive mind of reddit I started exploring this B&W list of 50 albums, adding them to my streaming service. Their write up for this particular album was particularly intriguing for me. Keywords: female singer-songwriter, iconic, masterpiece. Imagery: Hippie, barefooted, ordinary woman on cover. Wow.

I am ashamed to write here that in my 40 years of life I haven’t really heard or known of Carole King. Only upon consulting Wikipedia I realised I’ve been hearing her songs (for herself and for others) all my life, I just didn’t associate them to a single person.

I played different albums recommended by that B&W list, plus some others recommended on reddit. But for some weird reason I am not even sure I can put my finger on till now, I kept coming back to Carole King’s Tapestry. I am not sure if words can articulate why I am enamoured but I’ll try. The music was surprisingly well engineered – I am a complete audio n00b but they made my ears tingle – I tend to associate 70s music with muffled mono-sounding music. The instruments and the vocals were simple, not heavily electronic like the music these days. I also love the piano.

I discovered she did a performance at Hyde Park in 2016 at age 74, so I promptly ordered a bluray/cd combi. I just watched half of it this morning, and I couldn’t stop crying?

Carole King Live at Hyde Park
Carole King: Live at Hyde Park blueray/cd

Again, I don’t really know why. Sometimes things just move us, and it is a very direct, visceral experience. She was just so alive on that stage, at age 74. She has like ten times more energy than me at almost double my age. Her voice sounded a lot more raspy, but she still hit the notes perfectly (a lot better than some much younger professional singers going out of tune these days singing live), accompanied with very energetic piano playing.

It transported me into another plane, where I was contemplating how amazing music recorded in the 70s can still be thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated forty odd years later, that we can record hi-res video and enjoy the energy and expression of a concert till the end of time (or as long as we’re still alive and possess energy and resources like chips).

I also wondered to myself what is the point of watching a concert where the artiste is just sitting on her piano playing and singing without much visual fanfare. Why not just listen to the CD? But I think to me that is the whole point. She is just sitting there playing her piano and yet it was extraordinarily beautiful to me. In chinese we have this phrase: “台风”, which loosely translated to stage presence. I think for her it wasn’t necessarily stage presence per se, but a sort of beautiful aliveness that is somewhat provoking? It makes me ask myself, how can I be like that?

In the liner notes of the bluray she described the effort and detail that went into the recording of Tapestry:

‘Often Lou and recording engineer Hank Cicalo handled the preliminary stages of mixing and then had me come in with fresh ears. After they had spent hours experimenting with where to put the cymbals and percussion in the stereo pan in relation to Danny’s rhythm guitar and my piano, I’d come in and say, “Try bringing the reverb down on my lead vocal at the beginning of the first verse”, and then other things would fall into place…As well as listening through the Altecs, Lou often listened through headphones so he could hear the discrete left, right, and center separation more clearly. Years later, when I asked Lou why he used the headphones so much he said, “I always liked hearing your voice and piano in the middle of the top of my head.” As we got closer to the final mix we switched alternately to smaller speakers as the Auratones perched on the bridge of the console or the tinny, monoaural car radio speaker durectly in front of us that replicated the conditions under which most people would be listening. If a mix sounded good through all four systems, we took it to the next level: the “over-night listen” in which we brought acetates home, played them on our respective stereos, and got further input from friends and family members.’

I guess it was no accident that the album sounded so good even though recorded in the 70s, and then I can’t help but feel impressed that they involved her in the process and took her seriously. I mean, it was the 1970s after all.

She added more observations on the ordering of the tracks:

“On analog vinyl albums and casette tapes there was an interval approximately midway through, during which the listener had to turn the product over. Until CDs made that interval obselete, an album sequence had to take that pause into account. Knowing that pacing could make or break an album, I suggested several different orders for Lou to try, but we always kept coming back to his sequence. Now I can’t imagine it any other way.”

There, I’d learnt something new today again. I had never thought about that pause that used to exist. Or that order mattered that much (until recently Adele made a fuss over disabling shuffle mode on Spotify). I knew quite rarely order mattered because an album was telling a specific story, but to be honest most albums’ tracks just sound random to me. This makes me think about the little details we may neglect.

We’ve been spoiled by the convenience of music streaming, and the power of making our own playlists with single tracks. I have not listened to entire albums for a long time, probably since I discovered mp3s and that Faye Wong went into retirement. I’ve not bought a CD for eons prior to this exercise. I’m delighted to rediscover this experience again. I can’t help but wonder what else has technology and convenience has taken away from us (but technology has also allowed me to watch a concert in HD quality and listen to hi-res music online so I am not complaining)?

So the Apple dongle opened up a whole entire world for me. I feel lucky that I can discover 60s-70s music now in year 2021, and it is like a whole new experience for me. I am an 80s kid so I am very unfamiliar with anything before 1985. I think it is really cool that something that is so old is something that is so new to me.

They were not joking about the sound of these old records. I’ve only just discovered classics like, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Pet Sounds”, Miles Davis, Steely Dan, etc. They are classics, but they sound like a new genre to me, which is mind boggling. What art.

I thought the Apple earpods/airpods or the Bose noise-cancelling headphones I used in my old job were of good sound quality (I don’t like heavy bass), until a pair of IEMs that costs 1/3 of the Apple airpods stunned my ears and mind. I didn’t know sound can be expressed across so many dimensions. Instead of listening to music as a mixed whole now I am noticing the details.

Somehow I feel that there is some metaphor for life hidden somewhere here. That perhaps when we reach a certain age we think we know a lot of the world and of ourselves, but there are entire hidden, intricate worlds out there, if only we veer off the mainstream path just a little bit. Maybe most people will never question the standard audio jack that comes with their phones, or the little dongles they use. Everything seems to work as they should, and that should be good enough. But a little curiousity can open up so much. Sometimes I think what we experience in the mainstream is just the tip of the iceberg, and all the deliciousness of life are hidden in little niches.

working with seasons

Jerry Seinfield, apart from being famous for his sitcom, is also well known for popularising the concept of the “habit chain“: you complete one thing you really want to accomplish for the day, mark a giant X on the calendar, rinse and repeat everyday. Soon enough you’ll have a chain of Xs which makes you not want to “break the chain”.

I was a big fan of this concept, and over the years I used apps with this feature to track the habits I wanted to form. I managed to swim, read, write, run for hundreds of days in a row without a break using this tool. It really helped me to have structure, which made me feel grounded.

However, a migraine would disable me for days. Even so I would still try to do things like run because I didn’t want to break the chain (or streak). So I would drag myself to the park and try to run through the pain. On hindsight, that was extremely silly. But I didn’t know better. I would blame myself for breaking the chain even though I was sick, so it made things worse.

But in recent times I deviated. I grew more aware of how I felt with my body, made sure I journalled about my symptoms every day to see if there were any patterns before an attack. I was most prone to a migraine a few days before my menstrual cycle, during the cycle, and when I am close to ovulation. I don’t actually know the scientific reasons why – googling doesn’t help much either – but the body seems extremely stressed out during those times. It takes so much energy to expel the lining and to release an egg that it kicks me out of homeostasis and impairs my other bodily functions. My glucose metabolism goes haywire, I become extremely dehydrated and fatigued, and my body aches like I just ran a marathon.

On “normal” days my body seems to self-repair and maintain homeostasis pretty well. During cycle-related days every little amount of stress makes it go berserk. It doesn’t matter if it is physical or emotional stress.

I used to be stressed everyday so I didn’t actually know I was stressed. I only became aware of how stressed I was because I started to have non-stressful days. I am not very good at knowing where are my energy boundaries. I don’t know how to take breaks and rest when I am tired, because I don’t know when I am tired. I was used to being tired all the time, so being moderately tired and very tired felt the same to me.

Doing things through fatigue seems to be the norm. People still run and work when they are tired. In fact it seems to be like some invisible test where being capable of working through tiredness seems to be one of the most validating things you can do as a human being. If something matters so much to you, you have to do it regardless of the state you’re in right? That’s a sign of mental strength.

See, that’s why we have people burning out and going into depression. Even dogs know how to lie flat on the floor when they are tired.

I don’t know when it started, probably around this year, but I started to experiment being a lot more careful with my energy levels. I think the last straw was when I broke into an extremely debilitating migraine after I went out for a consecutive few days (something that wouldn’t trouble a normal human being). I started to wrap myself in cotton wool thereafter. I track my cycle, so each time I am close to “danger days” I take slow walks instead of any intense exercise, I try to stop being so demanding and judgmental of myself. I try to understand my body is going through something taxing.

chasing a streak vs being flexible

This is not something that is easy for me to learn. I am still learning to watch for signs every day. Things that seem innocuous like taking the train for thirty minutes or so can have a detrimental effect on my fatigue levels. I believe I have undiagnosed sensory processing difficulties. Writing uninterrupted for hours can be enough to trigger a migraine.

I think it has been an interesting journey for me to experience how traditional “productivity” hacks or advice may actually be unhealthy or unsuitable for me. I still love keeping streaks: I have an unbroken daily bullet journalling streak for almost six hundred days and I love it. But I have to be aware what are the things which I am capable of doing, which of these are worth doing, and when to have recovery periods.

These days, even athletes modify their training according to their bio-signals like heart rate variability. I do use my own HRV data as a guide to make decisions on my exercise regime, but through my own experience the data still has to be viewed with the context of my cycle. For example, my HRV tends to be really high during the first day of my cycle, which my apps would interpret it as a good day to do intense exercise, but I now know it is because my body is extremely stressed and my parasympathetic system is trying to calm it down. How do I know this? Months and months of trying to live my life as per normal during days of my cycle and ending up with a migraine at the end.

It is a lot of trial and error, a lot of self-denial also. It is difficult to accept that I can’t have the same routine, energy, health or creativity every day. The week before my cycle I am almost useless. It would have been much better if I had simply accepted it and design softer activities for that week instead of trying to brute force myself into doing things. It is hard when there is a ongoing momentum – like I had a couple of good weeks on working on this website so I was so excited for it to continue, only to be feeling unwell the next week.

Our metabolism is considered healthy if we’re metabolically flexible: we can easily switch to burning fat or glucose anytime without repercussions. I think it is the same for mental/creative flexibility – to not be so fixated on one particular way of doing things but to switch quickly according to the situation and context. I spend too much time feeling bad about the things I cannot do.

So I am trying to learn to be more flexible. It is not easy because I realise I can be quite set in certain ways of thinking. Think of traditional farmers working with seasons. They plant, harvest and rest according to the seasons. They don’t insist that the crop grow during winter. It is just unrealistic. But why do I insist on trying to do the same things everyday? We’re organic creatures with organic rhythms, but somehow we insist on treating ourselves like robots.

breaking the doom scroll

7 days ago I changed my morning routine: previously I would doom scroll with my morning coffee, but for the last week I’ve been writing my morning pages instead. I had the idea to do this for the longest time, but it is difficult to move myself out of a deep-rooted habit, until I came across this tweet:

I sort of know this already, that the semi-conscious state of the mind in the morning is precious (especially for spiritual development), but who wants to write 750 words the first thing in the morning? Most people don’t desire to do things that are valuable for us in the long term: exercise, eating better, reading books, etc. I think about this phenomenon a lot. I desperately want to be healthier, but I cannot resist things that make me unhealthy, especially food. It is very strange to be living with such a contradiction, yet it is very much part of the human condition. To know something is very different from applying it.

I was tired of doomscrolling. I suspected it was sapping my mental energy (duh), but when things seem so dire around the world, watching cute dog videos are soothing. I was desperate to look for things that are funny, inspiring, heartwarming, or something new I could learn. I could relate so much to this tweet:

For me the question was, out of say a hundred social media posts, how many are truly interesting to me? I have to scroll past a lot of noise or consume quite a bit of garbage information (like fast food, they can be quite delicious and addictive) for the few posts that brighten up my day or my soul. By then I would have been mentally exhausted, and if I’m not careful I’ll end up with an additional eye strain. The irony is, the more mentally exhausted I become, the more I doom scroll.

So I thought I’ll just try it for one morning. In parallel I am also trying to recondition the way I think about my self and the things I do. I recognised the value of simply wanting to try, even if it fails. The spirit of wanting to try is not something that is easy for me to cultivate, because it is just so much easier to roll over and give up.

Finding a true motivator

I know I’ll not be able to convince myself to do things if there wasn’t a deep enough reason for them. It wasn’t enough for me to exercise because it is supposedly good for my health. I had to educate myself on how exercise affects hormones and brain growth in order to truly keep convincing myself to do it.

Writing my first morning pages in years that day, I had a sudden insight on why I keep repeating certain behaviours even though I rationally do not want them. The part of me that is constantly seeking instant gratification is simply a small but very dominant part of me. It is that part of my brain that wants to be quickly soothed. Our brains prefer the path of least resistance, even it is not good for us in the long run. It is probably unable to evaluate results for the long run. All it cares about is to survive now. Survival now means trying to get over nasty feelings. Who cares if the brain and body becomes dysregulated? The body only knows how to send primitive signals like pain and fatigue when things go wrong. It doesn’t have the capacity (yet) to warn us that eating that donut repeatedly will lead to diabetes and heart disease one day.

When I kept reaching for reddit or that delicious carb I wasn’t making a choice. They were a consequence of automatic, default, conditioned behaviour, a consequence of the primal part of the brain. But I am so much more than my primal desires or fears. I want to be able to make choices on behalf of my whole self – the self who has aspirations, hopes; a self who desires to be physiologically well because the rational part of the brain knows that physiological fitness is the key to fulfilling those aspirations and hopes. Do I want to soothe the part of my brain who is always mistakenly believing that it is in danger, or do I want to empathise with the self who wants to live as her whole self? I don’t want to be someone who is always defined and limited by her default responses.

Developing the muscle to make choices

That is where meditation comes in. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why was meditating useful. I did find that it extended my patience and that alone added value to my life. Of course, deep breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, and that can have multiple cascading health benefits. Some schools of meditation teach practicing the ability to observe and analyse your thoughts. From observing thoughts we can start to see patterns. When we become aware of those patterns we can try to intercept them. Building that capacity to intercept our unhealthy patterns – that is what I consider as the true ability to make choices.

Part of meditation practice is also developing the ability to bring ourselves back to that present moment. What does that mean in pragmatic terms (the “present moment” always sounded so woo woo to me)? It means that we can start to notice that we’re time travelling (thinking about the past and future), or that we’re letting our automatic responses rule us. It is interesting because we’re either obsessed with the past or future, or we are so taken by the immediate desire that we are blind to the true impact of those actions.

To be honest I barely meditate, at least in a traditional manner. But I’ve gone through long enough periods of regular meditation before, and I seemed to have developed something from them. I apply the principles of meditation to my daily life, whenever possible. So before I reach for my phone to doomscroll, I try to find that space to ask myself: do I really want to do this, and why? Even hesitating for a split second instead of defaulting to that patterned behaviour seems to be meaningful enough for me to try to divert my attention to where I really want it to go. I hope it is like a muscle I can build upon.

Working with instead of against

I used to approach trying to change my maladaptive behaviour as though I was an Asian parent trying to discipline my child. It was either through brute-force or guilt-tripping. It is of no surprise that they were unsustainable. Now, I’m trying to see it as trying to make choices for my whole self instead of that narrow part of me who is having so much difficulty with resisting instant gratification. My whole self wants to thrive, to know what it is like to feel well. That self wants to have the capacity to contain and sustain different things. I want to find room for more.

I also think it is important to have compassion for that part of me who wants and needs to be soothed. Instead of self-blame, I try to understand where are the feelings coming from. This is not easy because again, self-judgement has been my default response for most of my life.

Observations for the first week

The first day felt weird and difficult, but the following days felt easier. I thought it would be much harder, but it seems like I just need some separation to disengage my automatic behaviour. I was expecting to crave but I mostly did not.

I didn’t have extreme rules: I just didn’t want to doomscroll first thing in the morning, so I told myself I could do it if I wanted to after I’m done with the morning. The plan is to do the more mentally-taxing stuff in the morning, and once I get my meaningful tasks done I can do whatever I want.

It turned out I didn’t even reach for my phone until late afternoon, and when I did try to doomscroll it didn’t seem as interesting as before? It reminds me of how I used to add extra sugar in everything and now everything tastes too sweet to me.

I did get a lot more reading done, and also I managed to work more on this website for the first time in many months. It turns out that my hypothesis that doomscrolling was mentally exhausting me (duh) was right. I had a lot more mental energy to work on stuff, at least for now. But I need to be careful not to burn out or develop a migraine, so I am trying to take a five-minute walking break every thirty minutes with a timer on my menubar.

Will this sustain? I do not know. I’d been hopeful and enthusiastic about several budding habits but I couldn’t sustain them. Most of the time it is because I lose momentum due to a forced change of routine or a relapse of health issues. But I’ve also successfully changed several of my deeply-rooted behaviour. I think just having a spirit of experimentation – trial and error – would help. For now, I’m just pleasantly surprised to observe the differences.

every day now

This pandemic has not been good for my nervous system (I wanted to write “mental health”, but I think that is potentially a misleading term because it makes it seems like actual biological conditions are just “mental”, as though it is a pure product of the mind). I already had generalised anxiety pre-pandemic, so for almost two years I’ve just been even more worried, stressed and anxious.

The vaccine held some hope, but with more recent data it seems some people are still getting pretty ill – anything that doesn’t require oxygen is considered “mild” but you can still feel like shit for weeks and also risk long covid – with breakthrough infections and older people with underlying conditions are still at risk of serious illness. The risk is lower of course, but it is still there. The underlying conditions are diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol which most people above the age of 40 probably have some form of the above because of our national carb-heavy diet with high stress levels.

People close to me have been getting non-covid related illnesses, and everytime they need to visit a clinic or hospital it stresses me out, because the probability of getting infected in these places are higher. Some of the elderly live with unvaccinated kids or people who have to regularly expose themselves due to work, so that worries me too. I can’t stop worrying.

I am already pretty lucky in terms of what I have to deal with compared to many other people, yet I’m still so stressed and anxious. I cannot imagine what it is like for other people.

On the other hand I see many people trying to go on with their lives as per normal, because what else can we do except to try to survive? But the pandemic for me and probably some of us is not just about the uncontrollable virus situation. It is also about how much we’ve witnessed over the past 1.5 years: the competency of politicians, people being severely misled by misinformation, the lengths people go to defend their own beliefs and “sovereignty”, how people are harming others because of their own unchecked psyches.

The world is in chaos, but we’re trying to tell ourselves everything is fine and please carry on. We’re going to feel the repercussions of this for years to come, on top of dealing with climate change. I am not sure what to do myself except trying to cherish whatever time and peace I have now.

It still feels wrong to try to do fun things in these times when so many people are suffering. My pace of writing here has suffered, because each time I write something it sounds like this. Half the time I feel like I am an unlikeable wet blanket, the other half I feel like I am only expressing the reality I experience.

I “console” myself by reminding myself of the inherent absurdity and suffering of life – no one is spared the pain of existence, going through the process of living, ageing, getting ill, and eventually dying. People from former generations have been through wars and great famines. Perhaps we’ve been lulled into a false sense of safety for the past few decades, with promises of unbridled technology advancement that were supposed to solve all our existential problems. But can technology nourish our deprived psyches, our propensity to harm?

Every day now I mentally brace myself for bad news, like the ancient stoics. Every day that goes peacefully without drama I silently thank my lucky stars. I know I am living on borrowed time, because I know each time something heartbreaking happens a part of me dies.

I think the pandemic has changed the world dramatically permanently, but we’re still trying to believe it will go back to where it was. At this time I find buddhist philosophy helpful, even if I know it is simply another narrative for me. There is no other way, except to tell ourselves whatever stories that will make us feel better.

the long haul

There are many people online who are unhappy with the government for not opening up as promised when we reached 80% vaccination in Singapore. They want us to be like the UK, where people are going about maskless, even though there’s like hundreds of people dying everyday. That’s less than 1% of their total daily cases – seems like an acceptable statistic. After all, the narrative is that only the elderly and the ones with pre-existing conditions are dying.

This is what happens when we are taught to think about life and death in terms of probability and statistics I guess. There are elderly and immunocompromised people in my life whom I care deeply for, and I don’t wish for them to be part of that 1%. But I understand the tradeoffs in terms of the economy – how it affects people’s livelihood and mental health. It is still disturbing how callous some people sound when they are like “only the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions are at risk”.

My partner and I are virtually hermits since March 2020. We stopped having a social life, because we don’t feel safe meeting people in situations where we all take off our masks. We all have our own family and friends, and we have no idea where everyone has been and how much potential exposure there have been. We wear a mask even when visiting our parents in their homes.

This probably sounds extreme. But I am a person who has been dealing with chronic illness since 2015, and I know what it is like to be a shell of my former self. My chronic illness has stolen my life away from me. I can say I am grateful for all the lifestyle changes I have made and all the things I have learned since then, but it doesn’t take away the grief I feel when I know I am not a person who is able to do anything she wants. Right now there is no light at the end of the tunnel, every so often when I get a migraine attack I seem to have to start at a negative again. My strength and life force gets zapped away, I have no will nor motivation nor strength to do anything.

It is incredibly isolating, because most people simply do not relate to having a chronic illness. I am tired of giving reasons why I don’t turn up for things, or why I seem so unreliable. I am unreliable even to myself. I break promises I made to myself all the time, because I suddenly get sick, my plans for myself get derailed, I take one step forward and suddenly I find myself ten steps backwards. I often get accused of imagining my illness, or being demanded of things that can only be demanded of a healthy functioning person.

I read accounts of people having long covid and I relate so much to them, though whatever I’m going through seems so trivial compared to them. I have good bouts of days, perhaps at least a week every month. Sometimes when I’m lucky, I enjoy three good weeks. People with long covid suffer every minute of their lives. I know what it is like just to suffer the loss of myself for a mere couple of weeks every month, and the thought of suffering even more everyday is enough to make me a hermit for the rest of my life if that is what it takes to retain some sanity. I think people who have not been seriously ill before tend to have a cavalier attitude towards health. It is something you don’t truly know what you possess until the day you lose it.

Since Covid is relatively new, and the delta variant even newer, there is not enough data for me to make an informed decision. There is not enough data about the probability of getting long covid for vaccinated people. Right now it seems like the odds of getting long covid is one in four people, and for the vaccinated is cut by half, and the chances of having a breakthrough infection with the pfizer vaccine seems to be 40%. So my bad math tells me the probability of me getting long haul is about 5%, which still seems too high for my personal comfort.

There is also not enough information about how people are getting infected even though we have a strict mask mandate in Singapore, with social distancing implemented everywhere except for public transport. Are people getting infected even though they are wearing masks? Or is it only in situations where masks are down, like during dining?

There are so many unanswered questions. I have some hope in medical technology. It is always advancing. Perhaps long covid is an outcome for some nutritional deficiency? Just in case you think I am joking, there is sufficient evidence to suggest bad outcomes of Covid-19 is co-related to Vitamin D deficiency.

For now, we’re choosing to do mostly outdoor activities (japanese youtube video on how aerosol spreads indoors), and we eat at places where we can dine alfresco. Even though it seems bleak right now I am hoping that as much as it is part of the human condition to self-sabotage, it is also very much part of the human condition to continually make new positive leaps and discoveries. Maybe it is too difficult to survive if we have to imagine the alternative scenario.

coping with loneliness

Since as far as I can remember I have been feeling lonely. I was so lonely that for long periods of my life it was tempting to believe I was an alien abandoned and forgotten by her mothership. This sense of loneliness – that I was all alone in this world with nothing for me to relate to – plagued me my entire life even till now, and it probably contributed to my chronic suicide ideation and depression. For many people, the worthiness and meaning of their life is not something they even need to think about, because their reasons and desire to live are so obvious to them.

For me, it is a life long search.

I am not sure if there is something neurologically broken in me, or multiple experiences in my early childhood left such a deep imprint in me that all the love I can have now doesn’t seem enough to mend this deep gaping hole. You would think that having a partner who loves me like her entire world would make this go away – which it did, some of it – but even when I am safely tucked in her arms the profound sadness exists. It makes me feel like I am such an ungrateful person, to have so much and yet feel so lacking, which makes me feel even worse.

It doesn’t help that I have been pursuing a non-mainstream way of life. There are two contradicting parts of me: one part wants to feel accepted and approved of, the other part of me feels that it is of utmost importance to carve out a life which is of one’s own. I didn’t realise it earlier, but now I see that one of the persons who makes me feel the most unsafe is myself, because I force-drag myself to unchartered territories all the time and make myself embark on risky experiments. I am not one of those people who thrives living life on the edge. I am pulled almost hypnotically to the edge, but it makes me stressed and anxious. (This phenomenon can probably be explained well by the Internal Family Systems model or the inner child model, conscious/unconscious etc, depending which metaphor one prefers.) I live a very boring life now, because I am so tired of everything I put myself through.

Since this sense of loneliness can cause me to feel profound sadness, there are plenty of times when I feel like I want to give up doing the things I do. Like stop writing this blog. Stop publishing on social media. Psychotherapists would probably find my behaviour common and expected due to my history: I would rather abandon than to feel abandoned. Sometimes I feel no one ever reads this, so why should I keep on writing?

I think the human psyche is made to crave feedback. I mean, without this sensitivity to feedback human beings would be wiped out by now. Intellectually I think it is more important to do the things I feel are important even if I don’t get feedback, but emotionally I crave for the feedback, just like any other human being. I know of many people who are brilliant writers or artists but they would rather not publish or make anything than to open themselves up to feedback. Then there are other people out there who create things based only on the crowd’s feedback, and it shows in their work, for better or for worse.

I think life is very short. Every day now I am reminded of this. I consider myself again split: one part of me is severely ambivalent to the value of life, the other part of me does not want to waste it. I think it is shortchanging ourselves if we stop doing the work we are called to do or want to do because we don’t get the feedback we crave for. I hate to bring up the cliche here, but even Van Gogh died a sad, lonely, angry man because no one cared about his art, but we all know now how much less this world would be if he stopped painting because of the feedback he didn’t get. Most of us are definitely not Van Goghs, but it doesn’t mean that one’s work must be universally recognised in order to be meaningful. Maybe all it does is to allow ourselves to express just one tiny part of ourselves in the most authentic manner we can muster. Isn’t that meaningful enough? To get to know ourselves?

In a way, because of my wide ever-changing interests, I will never really have a stable audience. One moment I am writing about chronic depression, the next I am writing about interactive experiments, and then before you know it I am writing about bicycles and cameras. Who knows what’s next? Existential philosophy?

It is the same for my instagram account. It is like rojak (a type of fruit salad, in Singapore we also use it to describe something that is wildly mixed). Now that I’m posting street photography I was wondering if I should keep that and my personal pictures separate. But I want to be a whole person, just like this website which went from one website to like five before I merged everything together again. Society likes to split things up and make everything its own tiny category with gatekeeping, my own psyche is split up by different entities wanting different versions of me, I am frenzied and flustered because different parts of me want different things.

I want to be whole and integrated. I don’t want to have five websites and five instagram accounts. Maybe I feel lonely because I can never seem to feel like all of me can belong together. There are parts of me I feel self-conscious about, like they shouldn’t exist. I judge myself before anyone else.

Putting parts of myself online is a part of my healing process. I told published that I was gay on a geocities website when I was 15. Everything that I could not tell to a real person, I wrote them online. Modern social media can make people feel extremely lonely, but it was the traditional blog that made me feel that pieces of myself can exist somewhere.

People often tell me that I am brave for writing so vulnerably online. The truth is if I didn’t I am not sure if I would still be alive now. It has made me less lonely and more lonely at the same time, because through this medium I have found strangers who resonate, yet people who know me in real life may start to relate to me differently once they get a glimpse of my inner reality.

So for me it is a practice and commitment. To make the choice to be whole, again and again. I continue to write and publish my photos regularly, less so because I want the attention or feedback (the attention and feedback is still nice nonetheless), more so because I need to see pieces of myself somewhere. If not, I’m not sure where I’ll be repressing them, unconsciously ashamed of pieces of myself.

This is how I feel less lonely, to learn how to be at ease with myself. To go against the mainstream tide of splitting ourselves up, to warm up to that uncomfortable sense of loneliness that comes up everytime I put something online. Maybe this is a pervasive feeling that stemmed from all those times parts of me felt rejected and abandoned when I tried to express myself when I was young.

Once in a while, somebody leaves a comment on this blog or on social media. Half the time they are strangers. Some are colleagues or friends I haven’t seen in years, decades even. These comments warm me profoundly, in the opposite direction of my sadness. These are comments people would probably never say to me in person. The anonymity and distance of the internet has made plenty of people say nasty things they would never have the courage to say in person, but it has also allowed people communicate at a level of psychological intimacy that would rarely exist in physical reality.

Whoever you are out there, thank you for making my existence a less lonely one.

the value of a seemingly ordinary moment

I happened to chance upon a quote in the movie, “Up”:

“Sometimes, you will never know the value of a moment.
Until it becomes a memory”.

It coincides with what’s on my mind in these recent times as I cope with illness, ageing, people I care about ageing, climate change, covid. My journal app regularly serves me memories of the past, and almost everyday I see old photos of before. Before – when walk through crowds and eat indoors without fearing for your life, when we did not wonder if that was the last time we’ll ever get to see our friends living in other countries again. What of now will be the “before”, in our future?

The other day I visited a neighbourhood I grew up in, and I was excitedly telling my partner what a rare huge open air carpark it still has. Only to find out that they are probably demolishing it soon, replacing it with a multi-storey carpark. I get that land is scarce here so we don’t have a choice, but I cannot help but feel a sense of loss over the remaining open spaces. Is this what our parents and grandparents felt when they were “encouraged” to move out of their kampungs and into high-rise apartments?

Over the past couple of weeks I went around taking pictures in older neighbourhoods. I felt the pre-emptive grief as I took in the nostalgia and beauty.

Chinatown Complex / instagram

I submitted to a local street photography community for feedback, and the couple of feedback I received was that the subject was not big enough, the background was too distracting, the photo should be in black and white, the subject is not interesting enough, that if I had to explain it then it is not good enough, etc.

the photo I submitted

It was a very interesting internal experience for me. I didn’t agree with the feedback, and I worried that I was being too defensive. But I thought about it for an entire day, and I realised that while I may agree that the composition or crop or colour editing could be better, I really felt deeply that the particular photo was beautiful, at least to me. I love the blue skies, the arching tree, the unexpected pastel beauty of the neighbourhood, the gravitas of the person.

I realised in that moment that with regards to my photography, or to any creative output really, the philosophy is the same as my writing:

I submitted the photo in the first place because I am new to photography and was curious about people’s perspectives, yet I learnt from that experience that I don’t want to necessarily get better in the classical sense, I just want to take pictures as me. To share the beauty I see through my eyes. I cannot make people agree that everything I see is beautiful, but I can honour my own creative vision, no matter how obscure (if you’re reading this post, thank you for appreciating my equally obscure writing). I also do not want to argue with people over the definition of street photography. I just like taking photos and want to continue taking them in a free, joyous, lighthearted manner.

Upon deeper introspection, I also realised that I have an unconscious desire to document things that seem ordinary. To me, clear blue skies are a luxury that we should really enjoy and appreciate now. People walking around freely even with masks is something that is precious (think about what is happening elsewhere in conflict-ridden zones). Shops that are essentially an outward expression of the shopowner’s personality are so hauntingly beautiful. People, seemingly ordinary people – people who carry a lifetime of memories, experiences, trauma, happiness, this is the invisible yet tangible energy we see and sense with the way they carry themselves. If we’re lucky enough, we could capture that in a photo.

I am developing a respect for the way people are going about doing their things/jobs/chores despite the harshness of this world. I am starting to find people beautiful (albeit from a distance).

Five guys / instagram
Changi village / instagram

There is a commonality in both of the things I love to do these days: cycling and photography. They both take me out of my regular autopilot semi-zombie mode, expanding the opportunities for me to notice the depth and width of the world. I just want to hold on to every ordinary moment I can possess, for as long as I can, before everything only exist in memories.

getting to know myself through a camera

It all started when my partner wanted to acquire a camera because she wanted better pictures for her art. I thought she was being picky, and that her iphone took pictures fine. She kept telling me that her iphone (SE) has a wide angle lens, and that makes her art look distorted. I couldn’t see the distortion, and I still can’t.

I did some research for her – we looked at youtube videos together on different types of cameras and sensors, and eventually settled on a basic Panasonic micro four-thirds (m43) camera with interchangeable lenses. Prior to this I had no idea what is APSC or m43 or what does a mirrorless camera even mean. I have been happy taking pictures with my iphone ever since I’ve gotten my first, and they say the best camera is the one with you. I dislike weight, and I could not imagine carrying a camera around. I do take a lot of photos, but that’s because I am obsessed about documenting my life, and capturing memories.

(Yes, I spent over 20 years as a professional designer but I work with text, colours and shapes, I place photos as part of my work, but I have never been into the actual photos themselves.)

My partner likes tight crops and the bokeh effect, so we had to look for another lens on top of the kit lens. I am embarrassed to admit: I had no idea what is the f-stop, neither did I know why it affects the depth of field. But I picked it up along with the research process of buying a new lens. Our new 7artisans 35mm (70mm equivalent) f1.4 manual focus lens arrived, and it was while tinkering with it that I first sensed the gradual widening of my curiosity. This was one of my first photos I took with that lens:

photo of @launshae / instagram / 70mm equivalent f1.4

So it is quite funny: my partner wanted a camera to get better photos, I made fun of her for being picky, and it turns out I became the obsessed one. I discovered the world of prime lenses, zone focusing, exposure metering, sensor dusts, etc. When my partner first introduced the concept of a prime lens to me I was thoroughly confused – why limit yourself to one focal length when you can have zoom? (It is interesting why I felt confused because the iphone had a fixed focal length for a very long while, discounting the digital zoom.)

Thanks to youtube and multiple blog posts, I learnt why people use prime lenses, but my personal favourite reason is the creative constraints that come with it. Instead of thinking whether a subject is better zoomed in or not, we let our body and intuition do the work. It restricts the spectrum of pictures we can take on one walk, but that restriction forces us to be more creative with the possibilities and potential of the frame. (I was astounded that people are willing to pay $7k SGD for a Leica Q2 that has a fixed 28mm lens.)

My partner asked me which focal length is my favourite, and what type of photos do I see myself taking. I was really glad to tell her I do not know. I like being part of a mystery that is still in the process of being uncovered.

instagram / 28mm equiv. f2.5
instagram / 28mm equiv. f2.5

What makes a photograph? What makes a good one? Of everything that we can capture, what makes us capture that particular frame? I think we can tell a lot about a person by observing the photos they choose to take, and I am constantly in the process of discovering who I am with the photos I am taking.

instagram / 40mm equiv f1.7

I don’t know whether my photos are any good in an objective sense, but I do feel like I’m looking into a rorschach test of myself. Every photo has reasons why I think they are interesting, beautiful or meaningful, but I can’t articulate them with words. It is a sensation I feel in myself when I look at them.

I have been publishing words online for multiple decades, and the written word has been such a huge part of my personal expression. Using a camera not as a documentation tool but as a medium to express myself feels strangely foreign and yet enlivening. I go through phases so I am not sure how long this phase is going to last but that does that really matter as long as every journey I go through brings me closer to knowing who I am?

on living in a long goodbye

So I did not suffer any significant side effects from the second dose of the pfizer vaccine apart from a sore arm, but five days post vaccine I did have a bad migraine. This coincides with my PMS, so I think the stress from the vaccine exacerbated my PMS symptoms. This morning (11 days post-vaccination) I went for a slow morning walk and I felt slightly short of breath and my heart rate was slightly higher than usual, so I am going to try building up my cardio fitness slowly again.

I did not meditate at all (why is it so hard), but I did bring out the camera for practice. It is interesting how my awareness and perception changed when I am intentionally looking to take a picture, even though the environment is the same. I started to notice things I didn’t before. Photography, like cooking and cycling for me, is a meditative activity, because it forces my brain out of its habitual patterns. I couldn’t help but compare it the process of photography to life itself: perhaps instead of waiting for beauty and interestingness to arrive and sweep us off our feet, we can instead learn to develop the capacity to notice the beauty and interestingness that is already around us.

I still have difficulty doing things I used to love, like reading and writing. I still think it is related to the ongoing chronic pandemic. We need time away from things, even if it is things we love. Time is needed for ideas to accumulate and stew. We also need different types of stimuli, situations that would provoke us in different ways. But day after day I am like Sisyphus performing almost the same routine, and the things I loved to do no longer felt like a much needed respite from my daily life when they now have become the only things I can do. Like the air that is stagnant when it doesn’t move.

I am aware of how lucky I am to be safe, so I am not complaining, just writing it out as matter of fact. I am also aware how much denial is in action when the world is very slowly melting down because covid, climate change and feeling the effects of terribly designed societies – but I still try to find peace and beauty in the mundane of my life. It feels wrong to try to not suffer when other people do not have that choice, and it also feels wrong to walk around trying to take pictures when there is so much suffering. But if it is all going to end badly anyway, I would like to fill up my life with more moments of not-suffering. All my life I have been suicidal because life just felt like nothing but suffering to me, and it is only the recent years that I have begun to experience otherwise. I will need these moments of not-suffering to tide me through when shit really hits the fan.

I feel like I am living a long goodbye: to the elderly people in my life, to my youth, to the world as we know it. Every day I live the dissonance of knowing things are very wrong, and yet I am in my Sisyphian bubble of my little daily routines. There are waves of grief but I try not to let them distract me from being present, of trying to still cherish everything that still exists before they are gone.

When this whole virus situation started it felt depressing that it was going to last more than a year. Now I just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is going to take years, if at all. We just cannot sit still enough to solve problems, and we are terrible at delayed gratification. It is not that the virus or climate change is unsolvable. It is our deep-rooted psychology that is unsolvable.

I don’t really get too sad when terrible things happen anymore. I used to feel really affected by any devastating event, even if they happened at the other side of the world. I felt sad because these events felt like they were against the natural course of events, but now I feel like apart from entirely preventable or unlucky accidents, everything else that is happening is only an inevitable outcome of our psychology.

We as human beings, have never really figured out to love and cherish ourselves. Enough to let go of all the shiny things that prop us up artificially but do not truly matter. We want to feel safe at all costs, at the expense of working towards true safety, because it is just too difficult to tolerate discomfort.

plans for post-vaccination recovery

I am getting my second pfizer dose later this afternoon, and I am not looking forward to the side effects – fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be worse than some fever and chills. I’ve been reading people’s accounts on their abnormal heart palpitations post vaccination, and it is not helping my already-existing anxiety. But all of that seems better than the chance of getting long haul covid. I am not sure how am I going to go through life with brain fog, loss of smell and taste, 100+ bpm heart rate and unending fatigue. Maybe I’ll take the small chance of temporary heart inflammation over those symptoms.

The government is now advising people to stay off strenuous exercise for a week, though I wonder if exercising on day eight is really safer than day seven. Since I am much more paranoid than the average person, I’ll probably not exercise for at least ten days. I’ll definitely be monitoring my resting heart rate and heart rate variability during sleep to help me determine whether my body has recovered from vaccination stress. I am glad to have such tools at this point of time.

Since I’ve been incrementally trying to build my fitness, I was somewhat disappointed that I have to break my journey at this point – would probably have to rebuild my cardio fitness all over again when this is over. But I thought I could use the opportunity to work on other stuff instead, like meditation. Instead of spending an hour exercising I could split two thirty-minute meditation sessions instead. Meditating is so much harder than going for an one-hour jog. I’ll rather be huffing and puffing than facing boredom, which is precisely why I should meditate.

I have been progressively discovering the delight of simply slowing down. I think a lot of my unhappiness comes from wanting to complete things fast, or expecting things to happen the way I want. It would do me so much more good to simply be able to pause, or to build the capacity to dissolve preexisting expectations through calm logic. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I can stop chasing distractions that are helping me to escape from some ambiguous existential anxiety?

My partner acquired a micro four-thirds camera, and my curiousity got piqued while helping her research. I didn’t even know what “micro four-thirds” meant. I have always believed I would rather use the camera with me – my phone – than to carry a separate camera. But I have been slowly changing without even being aware of it myself. Preferring to take pictures with my phone: that is a symptom of wanting everything to be fast and easy. That in itself is not wrong per se, but it could reduce the spectrum of things we can potentially experience when time slows down. I took her camera out while cycling a couple of days ago, and I found it interesting how I was looking out more for interesting moments versus the autopilot mode I was on typically when cycling. It was a hassle to take out the camera, undo the lens cap, turn it on and figure out the right settings to take a picture. With my phone it is just phone, frame, snap. But I am starting to like that pause, that extra step, that additional time frame.

I discovered I am really not good at taking pictures. I’ve always taken okay looking pictures purely on visual intuition and I never really bothered to learn how to take better ones. With an actual camera there is so much more to tinker, to see what affects the shot even with the same frame (yes I am aware of halide on the phone but it is not the same). Will I have the patience to learn from ground up? I don’t know?

I also have a bicycle mechanic class coming up in October. I half wonder if I would regret it, because it is an intensive six full-day course split across two weekends. Would it feel like too much work?

My entire life I have been afraid of too much work, because all I do is burn out when things get overwhelming. It is an interesting experience for me to start learning things on my own terms, just simply out of pure curiousity versus necessity. The last time I truly enjoyed learning something was making a website at age 15, but that turned into work.

I guess I can use all that vaccination recovery time to learn things that are not physically strenuous, like how to use a camera and edit its pictures properly (the iphone and its photo editing apps have handicapped me). I just have to be careful not to burn my brain out which I have done countless times before. Hopefully I am better at regulating myself this time around.