The last two years (2020-2021) due to covid I had been leading a mostly sedentary homebound lifestyle. My previously hard-won fitness due to cycling and running suffered, and I started feeling out of shape. I remember being out of breath after only taking a short walk to the mall for the first time after months of lockdown in 2020. I also avoided exercising too much in an attempt to prevent migraines.
My habit tracker tracking 5000 steps a day showed only 2 days of completion in March 2020 – the beginning of the pandemic – imagine for the rest of the month (and year) I barely walked (I did cycle though):
In the beginning of this year (2022) we started taking thirty-minute slow walks after every meal because we couldn’t exercise post-vaccination for two weeks. That daily habit persisted even after the no-exercise window ended.
There were days when we couldn’t go out or didn’t feel like it, so my partner suggested walking in place while watching tv, something she has been doing for a while. It is killing two birds with one stone for her. I found it difficult as I am a twitchy person, and moving my legs in one spot felt really monotonous to me.
But throughout this year I gradually learnt to slow down, and walking in place while watching tv became a lot more bearable to me. At first I walked in 10-minute spurts, then 15, and now I can walk 30+ minutes. So now, after every meal I walk about 30 minutes. Typically I watch youtube on 2x: mostly videos on cooking, food, travel, fitness, and health research. Apparently we learn better when we move, so it is win-win.
Here you can see my steps stats – filled circles for 10000 steps – in Dec 21 before we started walking regularly:
An improvement in Jan 22 – still not hitting 10,000 steps much but overall more steps and distance:
And this is last month: hitting 10,000 steps almost every day – a whopping 67 km (41.6 miles) more compared to January – except two days when I was having a migraine, and one day when we were celebrating our monthly anniversary:
It has been 131 days since I walked less than 5,000 steps:
On average I’ve been walking 5000+ more steps every day compared to 2021:
And finally I have walked more steps by now compared to the whole of last 2 years – 2018 and 2019 were major travel years sigh but if I carry on this momentum I may exceed my best year in 2018:
Apart from walking in place watching tv, I also do a fasted walk 30 minutes to 1 hour every morning after writing my morning pages. Most mornings I plug in some music while walking slowly (13+mins/km). I see it more as an opportunity to listen to music uninterrupted on top of a break from screens, putting my brain in a relaxed, harmonious state, rather than an actual physical exercise. Again, killing two birds with one stone.
The bulk of my steps still comes from watching tv. I guess I want to convey the sentiment that consistency, convenience and baby steps matter – they all add up to something significant. Just a couple of thousand more steps everyday adds up to tens of kilometres every month. Here is a screenshot of my cardio fitness trending up over the past few months:
I have been afraid to run much this year so this is mostly from my walks outdoors, sometimes briskly, sometimes on inclines, with a few flights of stairs most days. I don’t know how accurate is Apple’s calculation, but it is still interesting to observe nonetheless. At my lowest fitness this year just merely walking made my heart rate go up to 100+bpm, now it is barely in the 80s.
I am slowly ramping up my running again, so we’ll see how that will impact my cardio fitness. I am also trying to learn to strength train. But I feel comforted that there is something so simple and accessible serving as the foundation of my fitness.
I’ve been pretty disturbed by governments’ and people’s responses to Covid ever since the pandemic started. At the beginning we have very little information about this novel virus, so the misinformation was understandable. It has been more than 2 years and there is now a mountain of research, so I am more confused about the response than ever. Since I use this space to document my ongoing state of mind, I thought I should express my disturbance despite knowing it is a highly controversial topic (but it should not be?).
The study, which is based on the health records of more than 5.6 million people treated in the VA Health System, found that, compared with those with just one Covid-19 infection, those with two or more documented infections had more than twice the risk of dying and three times the risk of being hospitalized within six months of their last infection. They also had higher risks for lung and heart problems, fatigue, digestive and kidney disorders, diabetes and neurologic problems.
Many countries have already removed their mask mandate eons ago, so Singapore is not an outlier. It was probably delayed as much as possible in context to the perceived negative impact of covid measures on the economy. So are policy makers:
living under a rock so they are not reading the actual scientific research?
wilfully putting up a false front because the economy is more important than a percentage of the population getting potentially permanently disabled?
People believe their governments, so I am not surprised if they are just following the recommendations, though it is already a huge red flag that it took so long for them to recognise Covid is airborne. But seeing how in late 2022 people are still focusing on sanitisation and 1-m physical distancing instead of wearing masks, the damage seems to have been done and I am not sure if people actually do know the virus is dangerously airborne.
Yesterday I was curious about the prevalence of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV, mainly known to cause Mononucleosis) in Singapore because there seems to be a correlation between a previous EBV infection and long covid. So I did a simple google search, and to my horror EBV is known to cause nose, stomach, head and neck cancer. I have already known that EBV is now known as the potential main cause of multiple sclerosis, but to see evidence of it causing multiple types of cancer is another level of nightmare.
Mono is known as a “mild” disease, most people are expected to recover from it and get on with life. Like Covid now. Scientists are already concerned that Covid may cause cancer down the road:
The SARS-CoV-2 has developed similar strategies to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and hepatitis B virus (HSV1) to control p53 by hijacking the protein via virus antigens, and ultimately leading to its degradation (3, 4). Specifically, the Nsp2 viral protein of the SARS-CoV-2 interacts with the prohibitin 1 and 2 (PHB1, PHB2) that are primarily located in the mitochondrion and play an essential role in maintaining mitochondrial DNA activity. Their depletion triggers a chain of cell responses that lead to a leakage of reactive oxygen species (ROS) to the nucleus and oxidative damage, that ultimately provokes the impairment of the transactivation of p53-dependent genes.
We are seeing that most people are recovering from Covid quickly and are making seemingly full recoveries. So it reinforces the belief that it is mild. If it is mild and like a regular flu infection, it makes sense that they are choosing to go maskless indoors because so what if they get infected? We didn’t wear masks to prevent flu, why should we wear one to avoid Covid? There are even a large number of people who argue masks don’t work, and they are just pure theatre. But viral load matters in an infection. The larger the percentage of people masking, the lower the viral load:
If 50% of people were to wear 50% effective masks half of the time, then the likelihood of an individual transmitting decreases from 30 to 20%. If mask compliance is increased to 75% of people 75% of the time, then the likelihood of a person transmitting decreases to ~ 15%…Exposure viral load at the time of a successful transmission decreased according to efficacy of mask, particularly if both transmitters and exposed contacts are masked. With dual masking in place with efficacies of 0.6, exposure viral load decreased by ~ 1 log. With dual masking in place with efficacies of 0.9, exposure viral load decreased by ~ 2 logs.
If I know that the chance of getting disabled after getting Covid is 10-25%, I would not be caught anywhere in doors without a mask. I exist in two different worlds: one where everyone I know is living as though as the pandemic is over, the other trying to desperately warn the rest of us the actual risks of Covid:
So why are people so willing to take this 1 in 10 risk? It is one thing to take the risk to visit family, socialise with friends, travel for work etc, another thing to walk around in a potentially virus-filled air space without any form of protection. It makes me unable to understand human beings intellectually, yet I sort of do psychologically. We are all overwhelmed by the demands of our own lives and the reality is too much to bear, so it is just easier to believe everything is fine.
Can a country withstand 10% (conservative estimate) of its workforce disabled?
A study published in The Lancet, found that 22% of people with long Covid were unable to work due to ill health, and another 45% had to reduce hours worked.
Maybe we can argue we don’t have a choice? It is arguably better to have a chronically sick population than a starving population? People make fun of China and the unsustainability of her infinite lockdowns, but in five years will China have a healthier workforce than the rest of the world?
I personally think that even if it is inevitable that we try to resume life “as normal”, it is still prudent to make personal choices based on the actual data available. I am simply concerned that because of the mainstream messaging, people are deluded into truly believing that Covid is mild.
There is only so much we can do to prevent an infection, even with all the cautiousness I have I may still get infected eventually, especially now that we’re without the protection of an indoor mask mandate. But I would do everything in my personal power to reduce my risk of infection, and if I do get infected I will do everything to recover as fully as possible, including going on a supplementation protocol and avoiding any form of exertion for at least a month.
With the current level of misinformation I am afraid that people are going around risking their permanent health unnecessarily and that may have profound consequences for both individual and societal level. It is one thing to get sick because we cannot control our circumstances, another thing to invite sickness because somehow the truth is obscured. Most people simply cannot afford to get chronically sick, and yet we’re treated as a part of a percentage when a government assesses its overall risk for the country. A country can probably live with 10% of its population disabled, but a common person will be destitute if unable to work for the rest of their life. Who is going to care for such a person?
I know I am writing this into a void, but still I must write.
I wrote a blurb for our monthly anniversary this month which led me to contemplate about the transience of life. One of the reasons why I wanted to celebrate us monthly instead of yearly is because I have endured enough losses in my life to know that nothing lasts. People change, situations can happen unexpectedly, illnesses occur, etc. It is foolish to believe that everyday will be a repeat of yesterday even if it can seem so for a very long while. Feeling the rug being pulled under me is a constant theme in my life. But I am also only human, so with the chug of daily life sometimes I forget. Our monthly celebrations serve as a reminder: it makes me think about how we’ve met, how I was when we’d met, how much love seemed out of reach for me then, how miraculous it felt for us to be available for each other, to be in the same place at the right time.
Our brains are not set up to experience the same intensity of joy and pleasure every time with a recurring event. This is known as the hedonistic treadmill. We could covet something very much and obtain it some day which could trigger this spurt of intense joy, but inevitably a decline would follow until it plateaus into something that feels mundane. Many long-term relationships are like that: couples start becoming careless and rude with each other without even knowing that the decline is happening.
My partner and I fall into that trap occasionally as we both have mood swings, stressful situations occur, PMS, etc. It is easy to sweep things under a rug once the conflict is over. Love requires constant cultivation, like a garden. Every conflict needs a careful address and resolution in order for it not to become an invisible reservoir of resentment. These are probably things that can only be learnt after multiple failed relationships — it applies to non-romantic ones too. Sometimes being quick to forgive and let go may not necessarily be a good thing, as we may not be aware enough of how much something was actually affecting us until we dig deeply. That’s probably why mild-mannered people tend to have sudden major eruptions. To be able to be in and exit conflicts gracefully is a skill.
As we get older there will also be more reminders of the fragility and mortality of life. Sometimes I go into these moments when I have a sudden awareness of how everything can change in a moment. To be able to savour a good cup of coffee every morning in silence and relative peace seems so ordinary that it feels a permanent mundane fixture of my routine every day for the rest of my life.
But there have been many moments in my life when even having a cup of coffee in peaceful silence was not possible. Bad bouts of health, stressful situations happening, unpleasant environments, etc. So this morning I looked at my cup of coffee with extra appreciation seeped in this awareness. And that I am also so, so glad to be able to wake up to a space I can call home, after decades of being threatened with the insecurity of being homeless for various reasons.
One can say that it is because I lived with so many gaps in my life, that’s why I can now appreciate having what I did not have. But it is just so common for humans to stop appreciating things after the initial phase. I have found that I had to design “helpers” in my life to be more appreciative. Like writing a journal entry daily, and having the monthly celebrations of love. Slowly, I realised I was having more moments of these sudden awareness even outside of these events. The brain learns with repetition.
It can be a form of suffering to live this way. To be reminded that everything does not last, that the threat of mortality is real. This is the price to pay for being aware, to know that the inherent pain of life can knock on our doors at any moment. I went through periods when I lived with constant fear and anxiety – an over-compensation of this awareness – that something bad is going to happen. Only recently I have found myself to somewhat be more accepting: that shit is going to happen anyway. Shit just happens in life. There is simply no avoiding it. The avoidance itself can become a major source of unhappiness. I am still going to suffer when shit happens, but I will not be suffering more because I was caught unaware and unguarded.
The stoics and some schools of buddhism are known to incorporate a practice of negative visualisation. It seems morbid, but I think it does help in growing an acceptance that will never be complete and painless but it is still an acceptance nonetheless. I dose myself with a bit of grief every now and then so it wouldn’t crush me when it truly arrives, or at least I hope.
Maybe some people would think this is not a healthy way to live. But I would rather carry this painful awareness and have a constant middle-grade suffering than to have a breakdown when shit happens. This awareness is what that makes me savour my experiences now, it makes every detail more vivid and poignant: tender moments with my partner, seemingly mundane gatherings with my family, all the times I am not trapped by my migraines, all the instances I become aware that I am not having shallow breathing because of pervasive stress. My time with people are exceptionally cherished because I know they won’t be around forever. All of these contributes to a bittersweet richness in my life that would not have been possible if I had lived on mindless autopilot like before.
I smile to myself a lot these days, because I am able to know what I actually have. There are still blind spots of course, and I go into periods when I take life for granted like everyone else, but I hope I can be provoked into this awareness frequently enough.
There was this day when suddenly I felt guilty for reading. It felt like a guilty pleasure: something so idle, so static, like I was not doing anything productive or creative. After spending so many of the recent years reconditioning my self about productivity I still find my mind popping up judgements like popcorn.
The TCM physician I see now tells me my condition is due to years of stress and repressed anger. I respond: how can that be? I have been living like a nun for the recent few years. She tells me I can’t expect to reverse a few decades of damage with just a few years. I guess this applies for the conditioning I carry in my mind as well. Trying to deviate from the lifetime conditioning I had, is a moment-to-moment practice.
The difference with years of such practice: instead of believing my mind and therefore spiralling downwards about not being productive, I quickly corrected myself. I do somewhat subscribe to the concept behind the Internal Family System – even if we don’t believe it literally it is still a useful concept to practice with – that we consist of different parts and they can be in conflict. If you ever find yourself in two minds about something that would be it.
The critical judgmental part of myself used to be really loud and it would drown out all the rest of my voices. Once in a while like a person possessed my delusional, dreamy, imaginative part would take over and propel me to do unrealistic unreasonable things that people would call me crazy for (like flying to SF in 2011 with not much left in my bank). Perhaps upon looking back I could say that those two parts were actually equally dominant, so I suffered mentally because I was always wanting to do something outrageous and yet harshly judging myself for it at the same time. I wanted to do all these things yet I felt so weighed down. Imagine trying to move forward and someone is desperately clutching at your heels while criticising you at the same time. That was me, for almost all of my life.
So the critical voice still pops up every now and then, but after years of practice my other voices grew louder. I told myself that it is precisely because of reading so much, so widely and so deeply that I am the person I am today. Reading alone probably contributes to at least 70% of the writing that exists on this blog.
Maybe some people may wonder: is that important and meaningful? To be able to write weekly? Before I go on to write another essay about meaning I just want to reiterate that it is my personal belief that our lives are ours to lead, for better or for worse. We suffer most of the consequences of our decisions. When we’re alone, frightened, burnt out and sick from working too much there wouldn’t be much sympathy from anybody. In fact we would be so very lucky if there was not judgement about our utility in this world and that we are weak. Being chronically ill and tired is a very lonely, depressing journey because unfortunately in this world we are only valuable if we are useful.
There comes a juncture where we’ll have to make that choice. Rethink the way we think about life, or slowly kill ourselves by continuing the status quo. When I am sick or on my deathbed, will people come to me and thank me for making that beautiful design prototype? Would my ex-bosses be grateful for all those hours I didn’t sleep trying to meet their deadlines and expectations? Would my family finally be proud of me that I consistently worked so hard until I got sick? Would I be proud of myself only then? That I was a very useful person who worked very hard and was quite “successful” in my career till the very second I am about to die?
Maybe there are people who have different answers to these questions. I can respect that. One should definitely decide whether the adulation of the group is more important than the regard of the self. But I realised early on that being recognised as a successful, useful person at the expense of my health and aliveness is not what I would want to spend my life on. I would be reduced to bones, literally and metaphorically. I wrote about having nothing, but what is worse than having nothing is to be reduced so much that there is no spark of life left in me, passively/actively wishing I was dead all the time.
Instead, what I want is to have an enriched self. A self who is stable even with chaos around me. I want to live life, not simply let the inherent insecurity of life threaten me. I want to still have a sense of self when status and things are taken away. To enjoy the company of my self, and be in wonderment when immersed in my inner world.
The things I do on a daily basis may not seem to have a practical purpose, but they enrich me. It is like mediating. How can merely sitting quietly by yourself for ten minutes a day make a difference to our lives? Yet almost mystically, the daily practice of being capable of sitting in silence for that ten minutes will compound to form a profound inner resource.
Our brains are complex neural networks. They take everything we perceive, learn, consume, absorb and it generates feelings, thoughts and ideas from these things. If we don’t learn to manage it well, it haunts us with terrifying thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. Yet even within this mental instability it is capable of generating profound creative beauty (think about all the artists, writers, poets). If we learn to be equal to it, to coexist with it, it can be a limitless reservoir of creative resources, generated by infinite permutations of nodes.
This is the essence within us. Something melded with every self we are and every event we experience. No one’s essence can be identical with another. Something seemingly simple as the way we write is an outcome of all the interactions we’ve had in our life. We can tell a lot about the inner lives of people with what they express: writing, art, photography, projects, buildings, etc. This is what makes living potentially beautiful. We’re able to have a non-stop stream of witnessing what comes out of all these inner lives. This is not something that may be correlated to academic or career success or how much material wealth we have. The journey to enriching our essence is invisible.
What is your essence? Have you gotten to know it intimately? I know mine is expressed on this website. Everyone who visits here will perceive it differently. That’s potentially another beautiful aspect of living – to have unlimited interpretations of our essence. We also take a little bit of each other’s essences and they form ours. Us, human beings, can be a very beautiful network of living art, but. Here we are, living as utilities.
I guess part of the reason why I am writing this apart from merely expressing my thoughts – I think many people don’t take their inner lives and creative impulses seriously enough. Many people believe themselves to be ordinary, that what they think and do can be easily replicated, or their creative output is so unworthy of expression. I have peers who are great writers, but they don’t publish a word. Many friends are intrigued by art, but they don’t bother pursuing anything because they think creative output must be driven by natural talent.
Our lives are ours to lead, for better or for worse. Being creative is simply being human. We can make something that is directly the outcome of our own unique essences. We don’t have to make someone buy it for something to be creative. Whatever we make, can only be made by us. Even if it looks exactly the same as a tutorial we’re following, the thoughts and feelings we have from the making process, the learnings, the mirrored reflections, the increased self-understanding – those are ours and ours only, and will lead to a deeper enrichment. A type of enrichment that will not appear on linkedin, but it may form that part of us that will contribute to how we will feel on our deathbeds.
I’ve written a few posts about cooking before, but as I progress in my own cooking journey I discover new lessons, thoughts and feelings about it. I realised I thought about cooking as one skill but it is actually a combination of multiple skills sometimes dynamically balanced at the same time:
This is one I am still bad at. When I think of cooking something it always seems simple, and I would estimate the cooking time to be say 30 minutes. I would end up horribly wrong and it would take double or sometimes triple the estimated time.
How good one gets at managing time with cooking also involves other skills as I mention below:
strategy / mise en place
When I first started cooking I would chop and cook as I go. Big mistake. Some ingredients would turn out overcooked as it awaited my other ingredients. My kitchen would be big mess as I keep pulling out new plates to house condiments, etc, and they would be left all over the place as I would panic frequently.
I learnt that there is a concept called “mise en place” which is French in origin, which means gathering our ingredients at one go before the cooking. I end up using a lot of containers for the ingredients, but it has made the cooking process so much more linear and smoother. Instead of prepping as I go, I now adopt the wash-as-I-go mentality. I take the opportunity to wash dishes in-between when I am waiting for something to simmer or come up to temperature.
I do think there are experienced chefs who can get away with prepping and cooking at the same time, because they already know what to expect from the process and they are operating halfway from an autopilot mode. Also they can probably chop things 10x faster than me.
Apart from gathering the ingredients in one place, it is also probably better to plan meals such that the cooking process is made easier simply by deciding what to cook based on how easy it is for the entire meal to come together at similar times without having to multi-task extensively.
For example, it would be a little more difficult if we try to sear a steak and also stir-fry vegetables at the same time. It would be much easier to focus on searing the steak and letting the vegetables cook in some other automated gadget like the air fryer or instant pot.
Obviously the easiest thing to do is to cook everything in one vessel like an oven sheet meal, so I recommend starting that way for beginners because the desire to continue cooking is fuelled by momentum, and that momentum is fuelled by wins – cooking successful meals that we actually enjoy: both the process and the taste. While all-in-one meals can be very tasty, it may feel limiting after a while.
Knowing the order of tasks in order to facilitate the later ease in the process of cooking is often an overlooked point. Knowing which order of ingredients to chop can mean having to clean our knife less. I have learnt that even knowing which order of dishes and cookware to wash can make a difference.
Maybe this falls under being strategic too but one could be strategic during the cooking process but still be bad at planning for meals in advance. Like me.
If we don’t shop for fresh groceries every day then it takes considerable planning to make sure there are enough groceries to last a few meals before getting the next batch, and actually having the right groceries stocked before trying out a new recipe. There must also be the awareness to defrost food in advance, or letting something sit at room temperature for a while before cooking. I miss out a lot on the depth of potential flavours because I almost never remember to marinate my food in advance (because I also don’t plan my meals in advance). And I miss out on cooking something more complex because I also don’t remember to research recipes and buy the necessary ingredients beforehand.
These days I order my groceries online. I have a small fridge so it tends to feel like feast or famine: either too full or there’s virtually nothing left before the next grocery run. I have not found a good cadence yet. Why don’t I buy fresh groceries offline then? I try to get organic ingredients these days and they are a lot more reasonably priced online.
If one is really good at multi-tasking they can probably skip the mise en place process. I think there are people who are better at multi-tasking, because they don’t panic when multiple things are taking place at the same time, and they don’t panic when 3 timers go off together.
But multi-tasking is also about being strategic. If we’re really good at being strategic in the first place then we shouldn’t have 3 timers go off together, but sometimes life happens or we’re trying to be inventive, so we should know how to respond when 3 timers go off: which one to respond to first, potentially how to rescue things if they overcook or over-cool, whether it actually matters if something reaches its time – for sousvide you could probably let it continue for another hour without affecting its food quality and in many scenarios it is probably better.
Knowing how to multi-task also involves knowing what are the tasks that can be performed while something else is taking place. Like I probably wouldn’t do two stir-fries at the same time, though my ambitious younger self did try to. I realised this is something even experienced cooks avoid. Some things seem so intuitive but they are actually counter-intuitive.
We can argue one needs to strategise and plan well in order to multi-task well. Part of it is instinctive knowledge built up from years of experience, the other part is good planning and strategy leaves room for error, and also provides the conditions for synergistic multi-tasking.
patience and the capacity for boredom
I lump these two together because plenty of times in order to be patient we have to be okay with being bored, doing very mundane tasks for long periods of times. Washing dishes is one such task.
The other task is the patience to prep ingredients. Take chopping garlic for example. Previously I would never chop a garlic. I feel it is too hard (haha) to even peel a clove, much less chop it. So I used the store-bought pre-chopped type preserved in a container. After a while even that became tedious so I stopped using garlic altogether. My motto was the fewer ingredients, the better.
Then I started taking an interest in learning to cook better so I started watching cook shows and browsing online cooking communities. People would say things like grounding a pepper fresh is way better than using pre-ground pepper. I was skeptical but they were right. Everything is usually better in its original form and then processed right before cooking. So we need to be okay with spending that extra 30 minutes doing food prep if we want our food to taste better. There are people who use a pestle and mortar to grind spices like our grandmothers. Each time they cook.
30 minutes isn’t even that long as people are known to prep days ahead for marinades, ageing, etc. One could slow-cook something for eight hours while checking on it every 30 minutes or so. I have not reached that level yet, not even close. I’m barely able to marinate something the night before.
Things go haywire all the time in the kitchen especially if one likes trying new things like me. I cook instant pot soups for my partner quite often, and I don’t follow recipes. I dump a bunch of available ingredients and let their natural flavours come through. But sometimes their natural flavours may lack in a certain dimension, tasting flat. So it is useful to know what to add to it to enhance and round the flavours. Coconut milk, heavy creams, different types of acids, seasonings, etc (I don’t do MSG because glutamate has been linked to migraines) . Before I went low-carb, often adding a teaspoon of sugar to most things would wake up a lot of flavour.
Some meals I don’t have the capacity to plan so I have to be able to cook something palatable with the ingredients available, so that requires improvisation as well.
curiosity and desire to learn
One of the most enjoyable parts about cooking is being able to experiment with new recipes and taste new dimensions. It is possible to like cooking with rotating the same few recipes, just like it is possible to enjoy washing the same dishes.
But I think it is a much richer experience to learn how to cook something new every now and then. It is a positive feedback loop, new ways of cooking bring new dimensions to flavours, experiencing these new flavours makes one want to try more new recipes or cooking methods.
Now, maybe people will think curiosity and desire to learn are traits, not skills. But I have come to a point in my life where I think both curiosity and desire to learn are skills that can be cultivated.
They are cultivated by being encouraged and perpetuating positive feedback loops, and we have to know how to shape our environment and ourselves such that they set us up for a positive feedback loop instead of a negative one. Notice I wrote “positive feedback loop” instead of “success” because in many circumstances we can fail and still feed a positive feedback loop by having an enriching experience through failures instead of simply feeling discouraged.
knowledge of oneself
Related to the point above, it is important to know how to know our selves, and then using that knowledge to pace ourselves and shape our environment while learning to cook. Or learning anything actually. For example, we can feel too ambitious and be not very self-aware that we are sensitive to failure. So we keep trying to cook something complex, and we keep failing, and the food turns out unpalatable which turns us off cooking for a long while.
If we are easily overwhelmed with chores then it is better to start with easy recipes like three-ingredient-one-pan types. If we like a bit of a challenge then it is important to find something slightly more challenging to try next, because we may get bored without realising it. Some people like complex challenges and they think cooking is not fun because they try standard recipes and it feels too underwhelming (yes such people exist).
Maybe we’re heat intolerant then we could cook with an oven instead. I found oven-cooking to be a little too hands-off and that I enjoyed stir-frying instead, because it allows me to slowly add in layers easily. But I wouldn’t have known that. I have always thought of myself as the lazy cook.
willingness to eat failure
I mean eat literally and metaphorically. By metaphorically eating failure I mean being able to absorb failure and still be willing to try again.
There will be times when things fail and the food will turn out unpalatable, but since I try not to have food waste I’ll eat it anyway. I only eat two meals a day strictly and I really like eating, so having one meal ruined can make me feel like I should give up trying to do anything too challenging.
I over-cooked a lot when trying to learn searing, and it is quite sad to eat an overcooked steak. I am still not very good at it, but am at a considerable distance from before.
Similarly, I burnt a lot of food and oil onto the pan while learning to cook on stainless steel, and trying to clean off burnt food on stainless steel is a nightmare. The first time I took more than an hour combined time, multiple cleaning agents, and a ton of upper-body and arm strength just to get the pan back to a condition where I could use it again. It was never the same pan again. So it may be tempting to just permanently give up on stainless steel, and according to what I observe from cooking communities, many people do give up.
But now I can cook reasonably okay on stainless steel, and it can be a joy using it. I’m not sure where the joy exactly comes from though: whether it is seeing something stick and knowing it will be released, deglazing the pan and using the deglazed fond as a sauce, or being able to successfully clean a pan that looks like food is horribly stuck on it. I think it is possible that may be something perverse about liking a stainless steel pan.
If we become more comfortable with self-knowledge, improvisation, failure, plus we’re curious and have cultivated the desire to learn – we set the right conditions for the joy of experimentation.
I have never followed a recipe strictly – maybe I can call this a trait. That seems to be how I learn, even with other things. Sometimes it slows down the learning process because I am making more mistakes than I would have if I followed instructions. Other times it can give pleasant results.
What I do is to browse similar recipes to what I feel like cooking, somehow have some synthesis take place internally, then in the moment I wing it all. Sometimes it may be necessary to learn the basic skills of using a gadget properly first of course, like learning how to use an instant pot. But thereafter it is just mostly the same process, just different builds of the ingredients.
This makes it easier to be flexible with ingredients and seasoning. My partner cannot have histamine-rich foods so she can’t have soy sauce (😭) so I had to learn how to use coconut aminos. No tomatoes for her also (😭) so I had to experiment with substitutes if I want to cook her stew.
It also allows me to recreate something I miss, like this PO sandwich improvised with low-carb ingredients:
The more experience one is at cooking, the easier it gets and the more complex our cooking can get. This seems obvious but many people seem to give up too early because it feels too much like a chore. A lot of things feel like chores because we’re not very good at it. The better we get at a skill, the more we get into the flow state, the more meditative and enjoyable it gets because our mind and body starts operating at a higher plane in co-ordination. Like playing a well-practiced piece on a piano. Once some things become second nature, we free up more energy to be creative and to learn new things.
This was something I didn’t expect. Cooking looks so gentle and light-weight, that is until we try to lift a heavy 5-ply stainless steel pan with one arm to try to plate the food. I don’t even know how people use cast-iron or people who can toss food with a standard wok.
I have gained muscle just from lifting my stainless steel pan with my left arm, and I am actually working on some easy weight lifting for my arms just so cooking can be easier.
how this relates to life
I think there are lessons learnt in cooking that are applicable to life in general. For one, a lot of traits we think of as part of someone’s character are actually skills that can be developed. Anyone who has a consistent meditation practice can attest to the fact that patience is a skill that can be cultivated.
Knowing ourselves so we can enter situations with the correct conditions as much as possible is also something we neglect to talk about. We just think of success and failure as binary, the willingness to fail or experiment as natural inclinations. We don’t realise or discuss how much of these can be altered by pace, scaffolding, design of positive feedback loops, environment, supportive people, etc.
I realised for myself I failed previously at maintaining a consistent cooking practice because I didn’t know myself well enough. I kept trying to do things that were not set for the level I am at and the psychology I was carrying. Knowing how to learn in itself is a skill. Some things really just need the right self, right time, and right place. Mostly the right self, I think.
I wonder how many things people dismiss to learn or try simply because they relied too much on “natural aptitude”, or we are conditioned to be intolerant of failure – experiencing failures equate to us being bad at something. But failures are just part of any learning process. Going through a horrible, messy, phase while trying to learn something is also typical. In fact we typically go through messy phases, emerging out of it successfully, only to go into another messy phase – as part of levelling up. We should associate messy phases as a sign that we’re learning. If everything is easy, are we increasing the levels of our skills?
Last week I wrote a post about nothingness. I get well-intentioned responses every time I write a seemingly depressing post like this. That one day I will find meaning in all of this, or I should find a new purpose to give me meaning, that I will emerge from this darkness into bright light, etc. Some variation of those things.
I appreciate that they even care enough because most people are apathetic, but I guess what may be difficult to grasp is that I am not looking for meaning or purpose, neither is my goal in life to be “happy” or even fulfilled. These are things that everyone seems to seek, but I have found them to be imprisoning.
It was very difficult for me to drift aimlessly at first. We live in such a narrative-driven world that it is challenging to live without one. We need stories: to believe there is something at the end that we are sacrificing for. Like Viktor Frankl once famously said, “He, who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how”.
Having a purpose – whether it is a religious calling or something of one’s own choosing – can be very powerful. We gravitate to stories like Jiro the sushi master: stories of people honing their single craft for 80 years. We give very positive value to words like “dedication”, “tenacity”, “single-mindedness”. Jiro would not make such good sushi if he didn’t single-mindedly make sushi for 80 years. It is a beautiful thing, I will admit. I do admire such people.
But I am not such a person. After many years of contemplation I realised despite my (probably societal-driven) envy of people like Jiro, I don’t want to be one. If I was like them I would be doing the same thing over and over again for more than 12 hours of my life everyday for tens of years. That doesn’t sound appealing to me at all.
That’s the beauty and curse of a purpose. It locks us into a story. Every time we think of potentially leaving the story we are convinced to tough it all out because it is our “purpose” and we must be “focused”. It is entirely possible that one day we may not feel attuned to our purpose anymore, that it could be making us really unhappy, but we may resign ourselves to this unending unhappiness because of the stoic belief that this is our one true purpose in life. It is intoxicating to believe that we’re meant to do one thing. It is a sort of freedom, because if we believe we are meant to do one thing we are free from other things. Someone like Jiro will not think about picking up other interests, changing careers, work-life balance, meaning of life, etc. He would be free of a lot of the anxiety people face. His work is his meaning.
I was once somewhat like that. Somehow I convinced myself –because it is a beautiful story – bettering the world through design was my purpose. Only upon hindsight I realised I was miserable being a designer for years and years but I refused to even contemplate that because how could I give up on my purpose? It sounded sacrilegious: as though I was betraying myself. But in reality I was actually betraying myself by not even contemplating a life outside of my so-called purpose. I ignored my feelings, my burnout, my health issues, my relationships, the constant burning pain in my eyes — because I needed to fulfill my purpose. I had no life outside of work. I had no self. My work was my life, my self. It propped me up.
Can people now can see why I shrivel a little when they ask me to find a purpose?
We could argue that my unhealthy way of living has nothing to do with trying to live out a purpose. I can accept that. But even if I could live a purposeful life in a healthy manner, I no longer desire that for myself.
It could be a Buddhist/Zen thing I guess. But without these schools of philosophy I would probably arrive at the same line of thinking. When we keep reaching out for something and feel miserable thereafter we would start to pay attention to it, at least I hope. We become miserable when we deviate from something we are strongly driven to desire. We may become less tolerant to faults and failures. Say I pick up bicycle-building and I become really good at it. Yet I feel miserable doing it. I would probably think that it may be viable for me and the reasonable thing to do is to move on. But if I somehow believed bicycle building was my purpose, I would force myself to carry on even if I was miserable doing it. I would spend hours and hours trying to build bicycles and there would not be space for me to discover other interests or other parts of my self.
It is this space that I want. The space to move on, to tinker, to discover things I haven’t even thought of before. To be capable of giving up, letting go, quitting. I don’t wish to be fixed to something. It may give me more anxiety, but it gives me the freedom to explore and experiment.
It is not just the space. Attachment to a story and certain outcomes only brings suffering to me. We’re all invested in our own hero(ine)’s journey, we all want a good ending. We want to see light at the end of the tunnel. But life taught me that sometimes there is just no light. Sometimes there is just pain, grief and sadness. We can’t twist everything into a positive spin: that is just not respecting and giving weight to the situation. It is one thing to dwell in misery and another thing to pretend it didn’t exist or is a blessing in disguise. Not all sacrifices are worthwhile. Sometimes we just have to accept we have been wrong or plain stupid. It is a learning experience, instead of repeatedly jumping into circumstances that makes us suffer because we mistakenly believe suffering has meaning. Not everything has meaning. There are many irrational, senseless things and events in life.
It is part of reality that undesirable outcomes happen. To only believe in positive outcomes, that all clouds come with silver lining will inevitably bring a storm of repressed grief. We can consciously spin a story to anything we want to believe, but our bodies and psyches are aware of the truth. There is power to bearing witness to what it is, not what we want things to be. The capacity to bear all of this can be deepened, if we acknowledge the untoward in the first place.
I think it is beautiful if people have a purpose. But it should be valid to lead a purposeless life too. We may start seeing potentialities when we’re not fixated or something. Maybe it is okay to not pursue potential and just be okay with being. Why must there be a reason for everything?
It seems inconceivable in such a positivity-is-everything world that one will want to purposefully lead a purposeless life. There is a misconception that this is a response generated by depression.
When I was depressed, I was ruminating negative feelings and scenarios over and over again. There was only a narrow spectrum of reality I saw. But underlying the desire to live purposelessly is an openness to let in everything instead of just one thing. Is this a depressive response?
When we quit careers, leave relationships or start working on ourselves, we may neglect to consider the systemic consequences of that in our lives. Plenty of those times it is most likely because we have become or want to become a different person, so we don’t relate to what used to engage us anymore. People who liked the old us may not be able to relate to the new us.
I felt a lot of that when I left tech. Most of my friends were either from tech or in work that dealt with social change. I guess it does speak to the narrowness of my old self that I did not have a life outside of work, so I didn’t really have many friends outside of work too. I was not good at keeping in touch with people in general, so I don’t have many friends from my younger pre-work days.
It was interesting for me to observe how friendships disintegrated because I can no longer relate to my work. A large part of it was due to my own effort to distance myself, but I still observed how there used to be countless requests to meet up for coffee (sometimes to “pick my brain”) that dwindled once people realised I was no longer interested in work. I don’t mean this in a nasty way, just a matter-of-fact way that many relationships are based on some invisible form of leverage that disappears when we no longer hold some capital.
For someone like me who is sensitive to rejection because I have a lifelong fear of abandonment, it was a very lonely and difficult time. I subconsciously tried to stay relevant by volunteering for projects etc, but I soon realised I was simply repeating the unhealthy patterns I was trying to emerge from.
There was a part of me that wanted to be free of this. It took a long time, but out of the process I discovered relationships that endured the changes, including those that took place within me. I also learnt that I could lose my attachment to needing social acceptance. Not completely, but considerably lessened.
It wasn’t just about work though. I went from being a 100% accommodating person to being borderline callous because I was probably trying to over-compensate for living like a doormat most of my life. I’ve since found some middle ground (I hope) – the transition period was necessary as I was trying to learn where were my boundaries.
I am a much happier person now. I am still not a happy person, but a lot less unhappy. So much less unhappy I pity my old selves that I still frequently encounter while re-reading my journals. But I wouldn’t know this level of much less unhappiness was possible if I didn’t let go and leap into an unknown void.
As human beings, we need a variety of psychological structures to prop our selves up. We’re conditioned to use socially-approved values to measure and prop ourselves: grades, achievements, visible assets, connections with high social capital, etc. We don’t talk about this in detail and nuance, but this is why many people cannot endure experiencing some form of career failure. It is not just losing a paycheck or financial security, but it is losing the stuff that has been propping up our selves. There are a lot of things people can endure but not the perception of being useless: we live in a world where the value of a human life is equated to one’s economic usefulness, many of us only receive affection and/or respect when we make career accomplishments. We’re taught to believe that love and respect only arrives when we are “useful”.
Sadly, this is the reality for many. We do live in a world with very conditional feelings and acceptance. We don’t celebrate a human being for their personal development or creativity (especially creativity that is not “useful”), but for their explicit or implicit resume. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across some poor kid who has suicidal feelings because they didn’t do well in school. I mean seriously. Can you imagine jumping off some building because some test that measures how well you remember things had deemed that you are a failure? There is so much more to living – this coming from a chronically suicidal person – it is one thing to experience a wide spectrum of life only to find it uninteresting, and another to believe you have to kill yourself because your poor 12 or 16 year old selves failed tests that are wildly inaccurate for measuring human intelligence (if those tests were any good we would not be living in this dystopian world we are living in right now) and worth.
It is a disappointing reality, and I don’t know about other people, but I decided that I would be miserable as long as I adhered to these social expectations because I was unwilling to feel lonely.
In truth I felt lonely when I was surrounded by people and acclaim anyway. My psyche seems to know that the connections and acceptance I so desperately sought was only based on the false self that was conditioned and cultivated based on societal norms. What is the point of all those adulations when they solely hinge upon the conventional success of my career? I wanted to be loved, but I would never truly feel loved when the love is based on these material conditions. I didn’t know who I was, and there seemed to be nothing of actual substance in me. I was simply an empty person.
On the surface, my life seems to be empty and useless now compared to the high octane “successful” life I used to lead. There is nothing of note that I have done in recent years.
But I got to know my self better, and I guess it depends on whom if this is a worthy journey to take. Because I now know myself better, I am also better at making choices for myself, avoiding the heaping of misery I used to do to myself. I gained more understanding into my wounds and also those who have wounded me. I live closer to what it actually is instead of being in delusional narratives that plague society. Apart from my chronic migraines (that I am slowly learning to manage) I am healthier than ever in terms of physical fitness. I used to barely be able to walk a kilometre and now I can probably run five without breaking a sweat. I wake up without an alarm every day and go to sleep before 10pm. I was close to being prediabetic but now my blood sugar levels are probably better than somebody in their 20s. I learnt to nourish myself with actual food I cook for myself.
Are these things useful? Probably not to other people. But they are contributing a foundation I never had before – a sense of a sustainable substance that is filling me up which arises from an internal source instead of being fuelled by external validation. Do I still have issues of loneliness and self-worth? Yes. But I feel a lot less shaky as a person. I used to feel like I was breaking apart and drowning all the time. Do I still feel upset and overwhelmed with this irrational world? Yes. But at the very least I am a lot less upset with myself, and I upset myself and other people a lot less.
People fear nothingness. However in zen, we are taught to value emptiness as a source of potential and creativity. Think of it as an empty garden or an empty canvas. We have to let go to be empty, and it is in that emptiness where we can start cultivating again.
Maybe it is not an attractive proposition to everybody: to know who we are when we are empty. Maybe people are okay with living within the conditions of society. But there will always be people like me who seeks a different way of existing. That to me the point of living is not how well we follow the rules that society dictates, but to figure out what does living even mean, who am I as a person when there is nothing for me to grasp?
I realised not everybody is into such existential questions, but to me without answering these questions I would find living superficial and thin.
What is there when there is nothing? I have personally found nothingness to be enriching and freeing amongst the inevitable loneliness and insecurity. Sometimes I feel like I’m on free fall with no bottom in sight. Other times I sense there is something to be excavated. It is not a journey that may bring happiness, but it is one that will keep bringing forth discoveries within.
Sometimes I think it is somewhat of an evolutionary miracle that most humans can go on with life even with the world burning around us. Most of us just grow numb and switch off. We can only hold so much information, so much grief, so much anxiety. So we ignore everything else as though everything is fine. I think this switching-off is not even conscious for most people, but perhaps it can be observed with how they keep on choosing to indulge in ways of escapism: food, shopping, alcohol, travel, work, “love”, etc.
I switch off too, except somewhere in my programming something went wrong and I am very conscious of what I am ignoring. In fact I am hyper-conscious of plenty of things. I think this is primarily why I have been chronically depressed and suicidal since I was capable of thinking. If we start thinking about it, the world is full of suffering and it makes no sense. Even if we are privileged to avoid economic suffering and social discrimination, we still have to suffer through a society that is keen to reduce us to a robot-like existence. The “perfect” life in the eyes of most societies is to be an obedient child, have good grades, get a good job, get a good spouse, have children, spend most of your adulthood and marriage working our asses off for our children, wait for them to graduate and get a job, then finally enjoy a bit of life – which by then we’re too old and too conditioned to know that enjoying life is a practice and a skill. If we’re lucky we get ill only then, and we spend the rest of our lives depleting our savings to pay for our medical bills, watch our family and peers get ill and leave the world.
Many of us never ever get to know ourselves or who we can actually be, because there is actually no time. From pre-school more than 8 hours of time is devoted to something else. By the time we’re parents there is not enough time for sleep, much less self-discovery. For those of us who are not parents we are probably still addicted to validation so we waste copious amounts of our time on our job or our “passion” instead of having an opportunity to discover what makes us truly thrive?
Isn’t this depressing? I think for many people it is not because they survived by learning to cope with it, to not argue with reality, and they find small moments of joy in all of this societal structure. There is probably a moment probably during school when we go, “this is life” and switch ourselves off permanently. It is just too painful to be in prison and wonder what is life like outside, so it is simply better to make excelling in that prison our purpose, and believe the prison is beautiful.
I get that, especially after living in a world infected with covid and terrible politics. It is just too overwhelming to contemplate how it could be otherwise, so I choose to retreat into my own self-made prison. I go on many days pretty well, indulging myself with learning things and creative pursuits. But once in a while I go into a sombre mood and wonder if I am simply pretending to live?
Somewhere along the way I felt like it was not tenable to be passively suicidal all the time, so it is better for me to “switch off” and develop this laser focus on my inner life and individual lifestyle instead, so I won’t have time to look up. Being chronically and passively suicidal is harmful to the people around me as well, especially now that I am partnered. I can’t have my partner noticing I am gazing out of the window half the time.
Buddhism advocates for a healthy detachment to events in our life because we’re overly attached. But I wonder how many buddhist practitioners are practicing healthy detachment versus disassociation? Is there a way to tell? I keep writing in my morning journal that I don’t know if I’m detaching or disassociating.
Perhaps healthy detachment is about finding a healthy distance to care so that we don’t become obsessed about something until it profoundly affects our lives, whereas disassociation occurs at an extreme when we can no longer relate to that part of us in a meaningful manner.
Maybe we can’t have perfectly calibrated responses to the events happening in our lives. That sometimes we need to disassociate first in order to gradually find a position somewhere in the middle.
At the end, we can only do our best to survive. Life seems inherently traumatic to me, as I navigate one loss after another in various forms. I feel like in order to have some semblance of enjoyable living I have to do a lot of pretending and ignoring. Otherwise it would just be a constant anxiety and hyper-vigilance waiting for the next shoe to drop, because I don’t have that subconscious off-switch that everyone else seems to have.
I feel like I can only seek solace in the mundaneness of my everyday and continue to develop some form of forgetfulness. That I can still have this space where I can be brutally honest even just for a little bit, that this brutal honesty of mine probably seems skewed and extreme to others, but it is the reality that wraps around my mind.
I’ve been taking cold showers in the morning lately post-exercise. Maybe for most people taking cold showers in the hot and humid weather of singapore is not a big deal, but I was deathly afraid of cold water – would literally scream if I happened to get splattered with it before the water heater is ready. A cold shower here is nowhere as uncomfortable as a cold shower even in say San Francisco’s mild weather. But as far as I know most people still don’t take cold showers here because it is still uncomfortable.
But I learnt that cold showers have several health benefits, so one day I decided to take the plunge and it was so uncomfortable I did not do it again for months. Then I tried again, which then I did it sporadically once every few days. I had perpetually tense muscles, so I need my hot showers. But recently not sure if it is due to consistent exercise, nutrition and hydration, my muscles seem less angry so I don’t seem to need my hot showers as much to melt me into a functioning state.
A couple of weeks ago I started cold showering again, and since then I’ve been doing it almost every morning. It is also water-saving, since most of the time I am eager to get out of the cold. But some time along the way I started to enjoy it, and got better at enduring the discomfort because now I know what to anticipate.
Having observed how I went from dreading my cold showers to looking forward to them, it made me reflect of other routines in my life that went through the same process: starting out so uncomfortable until I give up, coming back to it again but sporadic in application, then it somehow reaches a threshold and if I am lucky it becomes enjoyable.
exercise, cooking and meditation
Exercise was definitely something that took years if not decades to reach that threshold, both cooking and washing dishes felt like such a chore I didn’t want to do it again after the initial tries, and I definitely spent my entire life trying to quit my unhealthy eating habits until I acquired my capacity to cook. Meditating was one of the most difficult habits to acquire in my routine, but in recent months we’ve been meditating almost every night before bed time. I think learning to exercise, cook, wash dishes taught me to slow down enough to be able to sit for ten minutes without feeling like my brain is about to explode into insanity.
hunger and snacking
I used to be unable to tolerate hunger too. I would get hangry, or be unable to fall asleep if I happened to feel hungry in the evening. Now I finish my last meal by 5pm and I don’t eat until 9am (I wake up at 4) the next morning. There was a period I finished eating at 3pm – was inspired by monastics lol – but I stopped not because I was hungry but because it gave me so much adrenaline that both my mind and heart were racing.
I also stopped snacking between my two meals. Initially it was really difficult especially for someone like me because I am addicted to emotional eating. I twitched in that span of hours and couldn’t stop thinking about snacking. I felt tremendous hunger and time would seem to pass so slowly until my next meal. Now I’m so used to it I don’t even think about it anymore. The body got conditioned and stopped feeling those phantom hunger pangs. I know I am not actually hungry because I measure my blood glucose.
the relationship between enduring physiological discomfort and emotional discomfort
I think there is a beneficial accumulative effect from learning to endure this sort of physiological discomfort. Learning to endure something physically uncomfortable like exercise developed an endurance capacity that opened some door in my mind: if I can gradually hold an uncomfortable feeling longer and longer, one day it may cease to be disruptive. For example, the beginning of my jogs are still physically uncomfortable no matter how long I’ve been running, but instead of thinking omg this is so hard my legs feel like stone and feeling so overwhelmed by the uncomfortable sensations that I wish to stop running at every step, I’m now thinking: my legs feel like stone but after they warm up I’ll feel like I’m gliding. So the same uncomfortable sensations become a non-issue, they become a transitory process instead of being a show-stopper.
I realised I could apply this to my emotions too. Instead of an instant angry reaction to uncomfortable feelings, I could wait them out and see if they turn into something else. The effort to increase my capacity to tolerate physiological discomfort was positively impacting my capacity to tolerate emotional discomfort, and vice versa.
The more I became comfortable with my uncomfortable feelings, the more I could contain them while I experience them, the more I could endure physiological discomfort because it becomes easier not to be a slave to my feelings.
There are appropriate times to listen to our feelings, of course. But like everything else there is a delicate balance, and I spent so much of my life wasting precious time and energy just drowning in my feelings. I was unable to do so many things because everything felt threatening and overwhelming. Being able to hold them at a distance opens spaces within me.
opening doors to new experiences
It is a form of stress to the body to take cold showers or fast. We call this hormetic stress. Similar to how we can only build muscle after experiencing stress and failure, our body is designed to become stronger after experiencing appropriate doses of such stress.
I think there is a form of joy that emanates from being able to increase one’s capacity for discomfort. Life is a constant expansion exercise: we want to increase experiences, depth, and richness. We transform internally as we accumulate these experiences, in turn it expands the repertoire of things we can create and share. It is this creative and sharing process that makes the world richer. How many of us have been positively moved by an eye-opening or mind-expanding novel experience? How many of us have used somebody’s work to make our own work better?
Being able to tolerate discomfort opens doors to new experiences that we would have avoided previously. Since my capacity to endure tedious tasks have increased, I have expanded the dishes I am able to cook. It is giving me considerably more joy in eating my own cooking. Physiological stressors like exercise and intermittent fasting have improved my health, which allows me to undertake tasks I couldn’t before.
New capacities open new doors, new doors open new capacities. I hope to be able to document more of them as the years go by. I don’t know if I have a recency bias, but I feel like I am expanding at a faster rate compared to my younger days.
Yesterday I watched a video interview with Kristen Kish, whom I discovered via Iron Chef. Apparently her mentor put her up to compete in Top Chef – she was reluctant to, but her mentor said that there needs to be representation of women chefs on tv. I found myself nodding vehemently along with that remark, especially after watching a ton of cook shows dominated by men. It was wonderful for me to see a queer asian female demonstrating her skills and passion as a chef.
It is similar to seeing Barack Obama becoming president, regardless whether we agree with his politics. We’ve been somehow taught by culture that only certain types of people can belong to certain positions. Perhaps human beings are naturally herd creatures and will only venture out of our comfort zones if there are visible roads ahead. A very rare minority blaze the trail, and we are so much better off because of them.
It is one thing for trail blazers to carve out new paths quietly, another thing for them come out to the world and say, hey I did this thing no one has done before and perhaps you can do it too. It is always sort of scary to be the first one, especially if it is a socially unaccepted situation, like the first person to come out with HIV.
I am not a trail blazer, but I seem to have a penchant for finding less-trodden paths. And I know these paths exist only because there were people who were willing to be public examples of having trodden these paths. There are plenty of subjects there were formerly socially unaccepted but now moderately tolerated at least, because of some people willing to represent these matters. I believe in a pay-it-forward system. If we have benefitted from others before, we should try to benefit people who are yet to come.
This is why I write I guess. I also unashamedly post public pictures of my partner and I celebrating our monthly anniversaries. Yes, being in love is a somewhat private thing. Yet love as a queer person can never be a private thing in a world like this. Straight people can be private because no one is going to bat an eyelid when they hold each other’s hands in public. They don’t get beaten up for public displays of affection. For people like me, the attempt to be private buries the path a little for others. It matters to see queer couples in a healthy mundane relationship, because the mainstream media likes to portray us as deviants. There is nothing deviant about my relationship apart from the fact that we share the same biological sex. We decorate our home, go on food adventures together, support each other’s journeys – just like any other couple. Representation and advocacy cannot be a once a year thing. It has to be baked into our daily lives, until no one will take a second look when they see us together.
I have made many unpopular choices in my life. I had the courage to do so only because I knew there were others doing so – however rare. Dropping out of school, choosing to become a designer when it was unpopular and lowly paid with hellish working hours, becoming self-employed at a time when it was pariah to do so, working remote in the mid 2000s, publicly writing about depression, attempting to work in SF even though I didn’t have the educational qualifications (but I did have the corresponding experience – though the process was a real pain), deciding to come back when the tech industry was at its peak, publicly writing about chronic suicidal tendencies, publicly documenting the journey of my chronic illness…It has been extremely lonely, but I continue to be driven by believing that representation matters. My loneliness in public will keep some random stranger on the internet a little warmer because they will know they are not alone.