I’m now in Bangkok – my last trip was in Oct 2019, so that makes it slightly more than 3 years since I’ve last travelled. When covid first descended upon the world I thought it would be an episode that would last months, and then with disbelief I thought it wouldn’t be more than a year…and now it is just never going away is it?
We’re trying our best to avoid getting infected by wearing 3M n95s and using nasal sprays, though these days I feel resigned about our chances. What made me change my mind about travelling even though to me objectively the risks of getting infected has not changed: I think the risk of getting infected in Singapore is now similar to travelling in most Asian countries with good mask-wearing etiquette. Apart from the plane itself the Thais seem to be more on the ball about masking than us Singaporeans even outdoors, and they have way more outdoor dining options, so I would argue that the risk of getting infected here is lower. We brought along our CO2 monitor and they seem to have much better indoor air quality here at the newer malls compared to Singapore.
It has been more than a decade since I last visited Bangkok. It has changed considerably, and yet the same in many ways. I couldn’t help but going back and forth in my memories about my younger selves who were here. I have changed so much too. Bangkok was only about shopping to my younger self. I don’t buy much anymore since I wear the same black tee wherever I go, but I have found it very enlivening to find and eat good food.
Weeks before the trip I spent quite some time researching vlogs/blogs and studying google maps. It is paying off as we chalked off one Michelin Bib Gourmand place after another, experiencing a whole new dimension of Thai food that I have never encountered in my life before, even though I have been to Thailand more than a dozen times. Who knew pork noodles can be so delicious? Singapore has bak chor mee, but they just have a different taste profile here with their different range of spices.
I am usually on a low carb diet but decided that time is limited and I am not sure when I can travel next so I wanted to experience the great food here. Thankfully the portions are usually small and I still avoid rice as much as possible. My Oura ring scores have been terrible since I’ve been here though. I am not sure if it is the carbs or the oxidised oil or all the walking or all of the above. I think of it as the price to pay for this aliveness.
What I don’t really understand is that my migraines would miraculously disappear during my travels no matter how badly I am eating or how much stress my body is undergoing. Back home, even just a little deviation can cause days of distress. Am I just existing on dopamine and adrenaline now? Will I have a very expensive price to pay when I get back?
I don’t really know. The older I grow the less my decisions are black or white. These days I am more like I am not sure what is the right thing to do, but I am going to do this and hope for the best. I accept that sometimes I may suffer for my own foolhardiness. But I think this is all part of life, to navigate knowing that it will be uncertain.
Travelling is a continuous journey of letting go, a much more condensed version of life itself I guess. There are many surprises along the way and also disappointments. It can be a lot more enjoyable if one is creatively flexible. I have learnt from this trip that I am not very flexible, but just being here makes me want to loosen up more. It is difficult to be flexible when I have to manage a chronic illness so tightly for the past few years but there is always the cliché: the tighter we hold on to sand, the faster it seems to slip away.
Because of some rich billionaire people have been trying to download an archive of their tweets without much success – I was lucky to download mine just shortly after the sale went through. I saw some people online criticising the rush to download one’s archive: what is the use? It is not like we are going to analyse our past tweets?
Thanks to timehop I do access my past tweets every day – a very enlightening exercise. I didn’t keep a private journal when I was younger, and even when I started I wasn’t filling it up regularly, so my twitter archive is the only source of my past, on top of my public writing.
As I’ve written here I have been exercising regularly, and I love my exercise so much it pains me whenever I have to stop. It is easy to believe that this has always been the case, because it has been the case for a very long time as far as I can remember. But see, it is: as far as I can remember.
My tweets remind me otherwise, and it has been very amusing for me to see them whenever they pop up:
I’ve been tweeting about exercise for more than a decade, and I have never had a successful attempt at establishing any regularity until I started swimming every day sometime in 2016.
Layered on top of timehop I started keeping a private journal on dayone sometime in 2013:
I’ve also used 750words.com on and off. All together they provide me with a rich picture of my past selves. A while ago dayone started to serve “on this day” entries like timehop, so I started reviewing them daily. A few days ago this popped up:
There were many stops and starts but it took me five years since to be able to run 5km non-stop every day.
It is the same with cooking. I cook almost all my meals now, and it is hard to imagine I had so much trouble with it. But just a year ago I was so desperate to start cooking that I called it the last frontier (yes I am dramatic I know):
I think one major improvement I can do for myself is to cook for myself. like seriously. I feel like in general I have done well for a lot of things, like exercising everyday even if it is a 30 min slow walk, eat less carbs in general, etc etc, cut down things like using a powdered creamer…cooking is like the last frontier.
…and here I call myself a baby because I find myself relatively skill-less in terms of actual living – I make another reference to cooking:
just had this epiphany that I’m feeling so empty because I’m still relatively a baby when it comes to my inner world and I haven’t built up the skills to lead a full, rich, life yet. I’m still in the process of untangling myself from my old world. and there are a lot of things I don’t yet know how to do for myself. like cook.
I can be very repetitive, which I wouldn’t know if I wasn’t journalling. I had a similar-themed “epiphany” back in 2018
just now while reading I had a sudden realisation hit me (or may re-realisation I dunno) — that it is liberating to know I’m still so bad at being human, that I’m absolutely learning how to walk, that I know I’m right at the beginning, that this journey is so new — I’m almost excited at the potential ahead because I know I’m just starting.
I think it is interesting to me to observe how I used to think, the tone I had used, if I still think the same way. There were plenty of instances I was genuinely surprised with the thoughts from my former self.
In software development there is a concept of a changelog, which with every updated version the developer releases some notes that document what exactly has changed since the last update. I see all these archives of my thoughts and psyche as keeping a personal changelog. They document what has changed in me since.
Maybe to many people this wouldn’t be useful. But I tend to have a poor memory, and my mind tends to be stuck in time from years of being chronically depressed, sometimes like a broken record that plays the same tune over and over again. Reviewing my past allows me to see myself clearer. Without my documentation I would truly believe I am the same old helpless boring person who is in constant despair, but my writing tells me otherwise. There were so many things I wanted to do and learn, and I have this impression of myself that I am not good at following through, but my personal history has demonstrated that I did eventually follow through, but sometimes it took many, many years. But what matters is that I did what I set out to do, eventually.
Why is that important? Because we need accurate mirroring to know who and where we are. If I keep having a poor impression of myself, perhaps I may end up not even trying anything. Why try when I seem to be always unsuccessful? But now I have evidence and a sturdy knowledge that I can improve, and that I have changed things that seemed stuck in the mud forever – it gives me the confidence and esteem to try new changes, to believe I can at least try going where I want to be.
Repetition really helps. I believe that because I kept writing about what I want to do, there is an unconscious buildup in the eventual will to do it.
Most people read the autobiographies of other successful people to try to emulate their success. I find it valuable and meaningful to learn how my past selves has transcended themselves. There are so many psychological factors involved in personal change, our psyches will never be close to whoever we want to emulate: the inner strengths, resilience, demons they may have. But I can tap into a reservoir of my personal history and see what was already there. If something once bubbled out of my unconscious, the chance of it bubbling again is pretty high.
All I need, is to be reminded of it.
As a meta note: this is why I am trying to backfill this website with all this stuff from other platforms. So I can form clustered themes of my history in one place. Perhaps one day I could make dynamic queries of them.
Last week I decided to try walking longer distances because I was unable to run due to the government advisory that we should not exercise post-vaccination for 2 weeks. For one of my first attempts I tried walking this loop I’ve always been curious about the actual distance it would take to complete it. I now know it takes 9km and roughly 2 hours at moderate walking pace:
I was really tired by the time I hit roughly the 7km mark, but there was this gladness I have finally completed it at least once. I used to walk more than 20km before for food delivery, and would regularly hit an average of 15km per shift, but I have lost that walking fitness since. There is also a difference walking this distance at one go versus the constant breaks I would get while delivering food because of all the waiting involved.
I have learnt that my ideal distance for now is somewhere between 5 to 7km. I would like to be able to walk for longer distances without feeling this deep ache in my hips. Somehow my bones ache more than I was running?
Along the way I would frequently take photos of moments that would stop me in my tracks. There is beauty in noticing that the same scenes can look completely different even if I walk the same route everyday. Here are some scenes I took using my iphone without any processing done:
Same spot, different day:
One of the reasons why I love walking so early in the morning is that I get to see some magnificent sunrises:
They last only for a few seconds, inspiring me to write this haiku:
sometimes i chase a sunrise in moments it’s gone like an invalid imprint
I also enjoy watching people exercise for some reason:
There are always thoughts running through my head: who are they? why do they wake up so early to exercise? why do they care about exercising? why do they choose to exercise in a group? Sometimes I start my walk/run at 5.30am in the morning expecting to see no one at the park, but there are already people walking home post exercise.
It makes me glad to see people with their pets too – mostly dogs of course because cats will not walk with you lol. Once in a while someone cycles with a parrot perched on their bike.
I usually walk with emo music plugged in. For a while I was very purist about having no music, but I came to realise that music helps to put my brain in some form of harmony. Listening to songs I love, used to love, or songs that were so much part of my journeys in my younger days – can be a very bodily experience. My morning exercise is also probably the only part of the day that is screenless.
After wearing different types of footwear my current favourite is a pair of Teva sandals. They let me focus on walking the most without drawing attention to the sensations in my feet. I would love to try a true zero-drop pair of footwear some day.
This morning I walked past a particular bridge, and I thought how even cycling to this part of the park felt like this huge distance before. And now it is just simply part of my daily walking routine.
There is this parallel between my exercise journey and how far I’ve come as a person. Walking used to be such a chore: I was the person who would always choose the escalator over the stairs, and any walk longer than 5 minutes felt too far. Now I’m plotting further and further distances away.
I was inspired by Craig Mod’s 15-20km photo walk each day, and these days I have started to wonder how feasible would it be if I were to do something similar in Singapore. There are too many traffic junctions here beyond the parks, and the weather usually is not very friendly. I could start out small though, like 5km in the CBD area early morning so I can avoid the heat and humidity.
Initially I thought I’ll only be walking because I cannot run, but since starting these long morning walks I realised this is something that I want to do continuously in my life. Walking is just so simple, so anywhere. I don’t have to be in special clothing or footwear. The slowness of it makes me notice my environment more, and I am more in tune and connected with the universe, whereas cycling and running envelopes me in my own world. It feels like a superpower to be able to walk non-stop, to be unafraid of what’s ahead and how much is left. It builds a different kind of endurance from running: it is less of a physical or aerobic endurance, more of one that builds a relationship with slowness, time and patience.
There was a magical threshold where I stopped incessantly wondering how much distance is left and started thinking: I could go on for much longer than I expected.
I started running again for my metabolic health which is closely tied to my chronic migraines. So far walking seems like a decent substitute when it comes to blood glucose management and stability. Running depletes more glucose and its effect lasts longer – as I see from my post-meal glucose numbers from breakfast and dinner, whereas my morning walks tend to impact my breakfast only just based on absolute numbers alone. But running is still stressful for my body and I always have to be worried about triggering a migraine. I could bring out my actual camera for a walk, or walk to discover new eating experiences.
I wonder how I’ll mix them all up when I am able to start doing intense exercise again? It has been a treat (yes this is my idea of a treat) seeing my metabolic health improve quite dramatically over the past few months and the gradual lessening of severity for my migraines, with the help of tcm of course. Will I be able to lead a migraine-free life one day? I dare not hope. But I’ll continue to work towards it, as though it can be a possibility.
It was actually a misunderstanding. I picked up the book, “Born to Run” because I thought it was a book on the science of running – how we are naturally evolved to run. It turns out it is a book of dramatic stories around ultra-running. I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway and there is some science about running. I am sure there are criticisms about the book but I am just going to share my impressions.
The book is centred around a tribe called the Tarahumara – which is probably familiar if you are into long-distance running. But I had zero interest in running for most of my life so the book is the first time I had encountered them. They are known as the running people, and even their grandfathers and grandmothers can run over tough terrain with crazy inclines over ultra long distances faster than most people in the world wearing skirts and sandals. Their first winner in a commercial 100-mile ultramarathon (1994 Leadville Trail 100) was a 52-year old man, and yes he won it wearing sandals.
He’d seen every single Leadville runner for the past decade, and not one of them had ever looked so freakishly … normal. Ten straight hours of mountain running will either knock you on your ass or plant its flag on your face, no exceptions. Even the best ultrarunners by this point are heads down and digging deep, focusing hard on the near-impossible task of getting each foot to follow the other. But that old guy? Victoriano? Totally cool. Like he just woke up from a nap, scratched his belly, and decided to show the kids how the big boys play this game.
If you told me this in real life I would probably dismiss it as an exaggeration, but thanks to technology you could now search youtube for amazing scenes of the tarahumara running:
ultramarathons as an alternate universe
I learnt quite a few new things from the book. Like ultramarathons are different from typical running:
At its essence, an ultra is a binary equation made up of hundreds of yes/no questions: Eat now or wait? Bomb down this hill, or throttle back and save the quads for the flats? Find out what is itching in your sock, or push on? Extreme distance magnifies every problem (a blister becomes a blood-soaked sock, a declined PowerBar becomes a woozy inability to follow trail markers), so all it takes is one wrong answer to ruin a race.
…and that unlike regular running and marathons, the ultramarathon is the race where women and old people can dominate:
Ultrarunning seemed to be an alternative universe where none of planet Earth’s rules applied: women were stronger than men; old men were stronger than youngsters; Stone Age guys in sandals were stronger than everybody.
I was very amused and intrigued by this anecdote about Ann Trason:
One Saturday, Ann got up early and ran twenty miles. She relaxed over breakfast, then headed back out for twenty more. She had some plumbing chores around the house, so after finishing run No. 2, she hauled out her toolbox and got to work. By the end of the day, she was pretty pleased with herself; she’d run forty miles and taken care of a messy job on her own. So as a reward, she treated herself to another fifteen miles.
Imagine the reward after finishing all your day’s tasks is a 15-mile run?? One of the more important points McDougall was trying to make, is that to get really good at running, especially at long-distance running, one needs to truly love running:
For them, running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans: get on the scale, get depressed, get your headphones on, and get it over with. But you can’t muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it. Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving. And once you break through to that soft, half-levitating flow, that’s when the moonlight and champagne show up: “You have to be in tune with your body, and know when you can push it and when to back off,” Ann would explain.
I can relate a lot to this, even before I ever read this book. I treated running as a chore – one of my everyday streaks to complete, but there was this magical threshold I breached and running became enjoyable to me. It makes a whole world of difference between dreading it and looking very forward to it.
But there are horror stories about ultramarathons as well. Apparently it is known that people can start hallucinating:
One pacer got a little freaked out after she saw her runner stare into space for a while and then tell the empty air, “I know you’re not real.”
…and of course people can get lost in trails, become dangerously dehydrated, and develop enlarged hearts due to chronic long-distance running. A regular marathon is already known to induce kidney damage, I cannot imagine the comparative risks of running 100 miles vs 26 miles. I have zero-interest in running any kind of marathon – unless you consider 10k to be a marathon distance – but I admire the human spirit to run one.
evolved to run
Which according to McDougall (basing his work on many other people), the reason why marathons are so popular despite the intellectual idea of running tens of miles for no apparent reason seems really unpleasant, is because we have naturally evolved to run.
For a long time it was believed that human beings are terrible at running. Actually that belief is pervasive even till now, as running is often believed to be a damaging activity for our bodies (I think it can be if it is not done correctly). The logic is that since we keep getting injured from running, our bodies are not meant for it.
But McDougall argues otherwise in his book. That when comparing us to chimps who share 95% of our DNA, we have an Achilles tendon and an arch which they don’t:
Common chimps were the perfect place to start. Not only are they a classic example of the walking animal, but they’re also our closest living relative; after more than six million years of separate evolution, we still share 95 percent of our DNA sequence with chimps. But what we don’t share, Bramble noted, is an Achilles tendon, which connects the calf to the heel: we’ve got one, chimps don’t. We have very different feet: ours are arched, chimps’ are flat. Our toes are short and straight, which helps running, while chimps’ are long and splayed, much better for walking. And check out our butts: we’ve got a hefty gluteus maximus, chimps have virtually none. Dr. Bramble then focused on a little-known tendon behind the head known as the nuchal ligament. Chimps don’t have a nuchal ligament. Neither do pigs. Know who does? Dogs. Horses. And humans.
…not only do we have springy feet, we also have an almost infinite aerobic capacity:
A jogger in decent shape averages about three to four meters a second. A deer trots at almost the identical pace. But here’s the kicker: when a deer wants to accelerate to four meters a second, it has to break into a heavy-breathing gallop, while a human can go just as fast and still be in his jogging zone. A deer is way faster at a sprint, but we’re faster at a jog; so when Bambi is already edging into oxygen debt, we’re barely breathing hard.
So I learnt from this book that we’re possibly the only animal that can run forever because we can sweat, whereas other animals must expel their heat through panting:
Actually, Dr. Bramble was surprised to find that all running mammals are restricted to the same cycle of take-a-step, take-a-breath. In the entire world, he and David could only find one exception: You…we’re the only mammals that shed most of our heat by sweating. All the pelt-covered creatures in the world cool off primarily by breathing, which locks their entire heat-regulating system to their lungs. But humans, with our millions of sweat glands, are the best air-cooled engine that evolution has ever put on the market.
This is not the first time I’ve learnt about our superior aerobic endurance capacity, but the book makes us sound like magical creatures.
zest for running
I had already developed this strange love for running, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. I wanted to read and learn more about running. The book gifted me with a new appreciation for my body and the relationship I have with it. It also increased the zest I have for running. Midway through the reading the book, I went for my morning run with a new lightness and joy. The ultramarathoners in the book truly enjoyed running. I may not ever join a marathon, but I wanted to run like them, to run as though my body can carry me everywhere and anywhere.
barefoot vs cushioned shoes
From the book I have also learnt that cushioned shoes may be causing more injuries than preventing them:
Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University:“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.”
The book was published in 2009, but till today people cannot agree whether cushioned shoes are better or worse for running. I think do whatever it takes to avoid injury. I did a 9km walk with my flat-sole shoes this morning, and I am not sure if it was my imagination but walking in flat sole shoes made the base of my feet more uncomfortable but it made my body less tired overall? It felt like the cushioning in my other pair of shoes cushioned my feet but exerted more pressure on my calves and hips.
The rough theory is that our feet are sensorial and they get confused when they cannot feel the ground directly, causing the body to exert more force onto the ground ironically. In contrast, they are able to adjust more dynamically when allowed to feel the ground.
I don’t know yet, I am still experimenting. I am keen to try running with minimalist/barefoot shoes when I can get back to running. I do think there is some truth in using what we’re given but it has to correspond with the right running form.
Sadly a few days ago I had gotten my second booster, and the advisory here is no exercising for two weeks after. I am compensating by doing long walks instead. Even my relationship with long walks has changed: I’m walking with the spirit that this is what my feet are meant to do. The idea that I can walk perpetually is very liberating.
But I’m still anticipating my next run in roughly 10 days.
I was very disorganised and messy when I was younger, and I often could not get things done. I was also very unfit – who wants to exercise when one can lie horizontal in bed and do nothing? I only realised in recent years that these are all symptoms of being chronically depressed and basically having nothing to live for. I believe that we are only truly interested in being healthful when there is a baseline amount of self-love. There must be an incentive to want to be more alive.
As I got older I learnt how to use the concept of habit streaks to incorporate activities I didn’t really want to do in my life but knew they were important – like exercise. So I did things like run 60 days in a row, only to learn much later that taking breaks are important for recovery.
I am on one of my healthiest periods of my life in terms of physical fitness. This did not come easy as it took me months of strictish dieting and a slow gradual buildup of exercising to get to a point where I can jog for 5km almost everyday without hurting my biometrics and triggering a migraine. It seems all good, except I become extremely anxious and fearful if I have to deviate from my routine. I journalled about this every morning. I think this behaviour is an over-compensation for the lack of discipline in my youth – which I wish to clarify that it is really never about discipline but finding the right motivation and incentive to do something, on top of true emotional healing. Messy emotions result in messy actions, or it may manifest in their other extreme as an obsessive compulsive complex: a desperate need for order.
I feel like I have come a long way in terms of emotional healing, but I am definitely not healed. I am not sure if I’ll ever be healed, or if human beings are capable of walking around in a non-wounded state since everything seems to be wounding in this world. But I know I am not healed, because I am aware that my responses to the world are not reasonable, measured or regulated. I still feel disproportionate emotional pain to the most ordinary of stimuli, like a conflict with my partner over whether to make a certain purchase.
In many ways I am afraid to unravel like a ball of yarn, afraid that if I step out of my routine I may never find the inner strength to resume again. It has take so much momentum and energy to get here. I see that this is partially a matter of trust, do I trust myself enough that I will still be capable of making the correct choices over the easier ones?
I realised that being too disciplined has a negative effect on me. I have become rigid in my thinking, unable to exercise flexibility or creativity in my life. I became anxious when I have to eat out or stop exercising for a day, in a very disproportionate way. This sort of rigidity underlies other parts of my life too. I was too dysregulated aka spontaneous when I was younger, now I am over-regulating myself but this is still masking my dysregulated emotions.
An emotionally healthy person (if you can find one) treats hiccups in life lightly, they would probably see it as a minor inconvenience and move on; a person like me sees every hiccup as a major roadblock and as life threatening.
I am trying to break out of this rigidity. Some times I feel like I walk round and round in circles until I finally breakthrough, then I wonder why I made myself suffer so much for holding on to something so tightly in the first place. Other times I am not even aware I was being rigid until many days of repetitive journalling. Sometimes it takes extraordinary effort to walk on a certain path so we want to keep going, only to realise later that it was time to switch paths instead. I think most of us are very stuck in the throes of daily life and it takes something to jump out of the water we’re swimming in and take a good look around.
How can I get better at noticing this rigidity, that many times I am not seeing things from a wide enough vantage point? There are some things that have to be evaluated from the grand scheme of things, and then there are other things that have to be considered in the present, because the passage of time is not guaranteed. I am still developing the wisdom to discern.
When I get confused I ask myself: what is the sort of life I want to live? I still want to be more alive first and foremost, so to achieve that I do need reasonably good physical health, but it cannot be so much of an obsession that I limit the spectrum of life I am leading. What is the point of being in hyper-optimal health when I feel dead inside?
I think about seasons. A certain approach may work in a certain season – we just need the flexibility to know when to change approaches when conditions change. Through all that journeying I have also become a different person, but I still install guardrails around myself as though I am guarding against my old selves.
A good therapist would probably point all of this out to me at appropriate times and I could have saved myself a lot of grief and confusion, but they are rare, especially here in Singapore. I need to think of ways that can provoke me to keep reevaluating my life choices. Perhaps once a month I answer some designated questions designed to evaluate whether I am still spiritually aligned to my decisions?
I go into these phases of low moods – at least they are phases, they used to be a permanent feature – my partner would ask me why. Most of the time I would try to give her a reason. PMS, fatigue, people issues, triggers. Recently however I told her it is actually the opposite: to feel low and pessimistic at this point of time in the world is the reasonable response, to be otherwise takes quite a bit of psychological energy, at least for me.
I mean, look at everything right now. The pandemic is never-ending and doesn’t look like it will end, the way policy makers are handling the pandemic is frankly quite disturbing, the way people are responding to the pandemic is even more disturbing, wars are being fought in some parts of the world and other potential wars may be looming, political leaders are generally still acting like they are fighting over toys instead of the overall well-being of the species, we still believe that the suffering of other people is justified just because they are different – I guess I can go on and on.
I am reading Ernest Becker’s “The denial of death“, a book which is heavily criticised of course, but whether we agree with it or not I think there is some truth in his premise: that human beings are is terrified of the inherent terror of life that they would do anything to deny it. For Becker, the choice is somewhat binary: either choose to put up all these psychological defences and live as a false self; or be true, face reality but become potentially insane, because the weight that comes with seeing life for what it truly is, is too heavy to bear.
I succumb to this sort of purposeful ignorance myself, or how do we go on? It is not like there is anything I can do to change the direction the world is going, and I have also discovered it is almost impossible to change the direction of one other single person too. People will think and do anything to justify their preferred way of life, and to try to change that is to break their version of reality.
Once in a while I still post medical research on social media to try to persuade people to be less cavalier about getting infected, but I feel like I am rubbing salt into their wounds. Most people are simply trying to live “normally” but couldn’t avoid getting infected anyway, because normality means meeting people, eating indoors and in recent times, not wearing a mask.
My partner and I have basically given up our in-person social life, not that we had much of it in the first place. We also don’t dine indoors, and we don’t enter elevators with unmasked people. My parents have not seen my full face for over a year. We are privileged because we didn’t have to work in offices with swaths of unmasked people. These are what it took to avoid infection, but how many people can live like us: to choose to not dine with friends and family for years?
So there is not much of a choice. The pandemic will go on and on, unless we come up with better vaccines and treatments. I wish to be optimistic about this, because I am not sure how long more I myself can live like this. It is not just about the measures and choices we are taking, but it feels very tiring to bear the whole psychological weight of being so cautious and adverse all the time, to keep rejecting people whenever they ask us to gather, to miss out on many activities we used to love doing pre-pandemic, to exert that sort of control when temptation occurs. I miss dining indoors, I am not a saint or a nun.
I tell my partner to brace ourselves for getting infected anyway despite everything we are doing. There is only so much even n95s can do. I’ve been pre-comforting myself by telling myself that I cannot expect to escape a generational fate. Or maybe I can, if I am willing to not leave our residence.
I am very hermitish compared to the average person, I think I have spent more time at home than everybody I know. Again I make up reasons to comfort myself. I am developing my inner world instead. But I am not trying to reach enlightenment like buddhist monastics, I don’t really want to stay in a cave alone for years, I still desire for external experiences to play a part in moulding my interior world too.
I know this is not the first time I am writing about these sentiments. But this is a public documentation of my ongoing psychological state, and these sentiments have been ongoing too. There is only so much I can write about things I do to distract myself from reality. I can write about food, cooking, fitness, books I read, my learning experiences, projects, etc – but none of those will truly change the reality I am facing and the response I am having. What is the point of writing about everything else under the sun except the one thing that bothers me the most?
Some days like today I don’t even know what is the point of documenting these feelings and thoughts in this very public manner. People generally avoid negativity, and I acknowledge it is depressing to read my writing.
But perhaps for me this is one of the few things I know how to do, and in times like these I can only do what that keeps me somewhat going. Just the mere fact I am doing something, instead of becoming mostly unresponsive to the world.
It takes energy for me to be like most other people. To have fun, learning, experiences while trying to ignore the existing wrongness. But I guess historians will gladly remind us that there is always wrongness, and humanity has survived, thrived even. I keep seeing our denial mechanism as a bug, but maybe it is a feature. And somehow people like me are born without this feature.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to meet people where they are. As I was typing this, I realised the concept of being at a place may be a little abstract for some people. What is this where we are talking about? We often tell people, “I am not at a place where I can do this”. Where does this place exist?
I guess I will loosely define this as a metaphorical location in our psyche that maps to a composite of who we are as a person, our circumstances and psychological state at that point in time. We are never the same person at any given moment, but somehow we believe we are. The same obviously goes for other people, and so our interactions with them should be highly dynamic, yet we are surprised when the outcomes are different even though we may be doing the exact same thing. One of the clearer examples may be a couple in a long-term marriage where one spouse behaves exactly the same way after ten years, but gets totally shell-shocked when that same behaviour triggers a divorce. Or think of a moment in life when you felt like doing something only to not feel so in the next moment. We think of this as being flaky, but as highly dynamic creatures why are we so surprised when our psychological states are dynamic as well?
Who we are as a person is shaped by so many complex inter-playing factors. Our family, our environments, our societies and their resulting culture, the global psyche, the circumstances that unfolded while we are developing, our peers, etc. But somehow the way we manage our interactions and expectations is as though everybody is the same. This is especially painful and apparent in most of our education systems. We treat every child as though they develop at the same pace, learn the same way, have the same interests (yeah let’s not pretend we care about their interests), are given the same learning opportunities, time and caregiving. The school has to be efficient in training hordes of people at the same time for future participation in the “economy”. We test their abilities the same way, respond to their successes and failures the same way, condemn them to future restrictive paths if they don’t do well in this restrictive system.
This world is an inherently traumatic place. I know for many people they reserve the word “trauma” for only serious events like murder and physical abuse, but isn’t it traumatic that the world insists on shaping us in boxes, and in order to survive we have to cut off what is different about us? How much of us do we have to kill and bury in order to be “normal”?
Most people don’t realise they are chronically traumatised, because trauma only happens to unfortunate victims of extremely rare events. But we don’t see what is really happening when we lose our aliveness – the light in our eyes – when we chronically hurt other people including the people we love and our selves, when we cope with numbing and addiction which includes buying things we don’t need, going into unnecessary debt because we want signal we are worth something by being able to purchase that more expensive apartment.
We don’t realise we have limited psychological capacity to deal with all of this, since we’re so used to it. Life is never fair, we tell ourselves, we don’t always get what we want. So we continue to push ourselves into these boxes, and continue to cut off pieces of ourselves and then repeatedly say: we have to be grateful. We are consciously fine or so we think, but our bodies and psyches know. There will be points when we can’t deal with all of this, so we start leaking our anger and distress to other people. We pat ourselves on the back for doing well in this system so we want our kids to do well in this system too. Some of us inevitably fall ill and/or have breakdowns.
One of the less obvious outcomes of this system is narcissism. I don’t mean narcissism in the way it is portrayed in the media, like a narcissist has to be someone with an obviously grandiose ego and keeps praising themselves. Narcissism occurs when a person is unable to consider factors beyond their own feelings. A more subtle form of narcissism is when people think they have empathy because they have a lot of feelings about other people’s circumstances, but in reality they are projecting: they are experiencing the feelings of putting themselves in other people’s shoes, but true empathy is about trying to understand what it is like to be others, not them in the same shoes. I don’t mean this as a criticism or judgement, because we cannot blame fish for not climbing trees.
This sort of pseudo empathy becomes damaging when people in positions of power make systemic changes believing they are doing good without actually considering what people actually need. Or when someone tries to help their friend using tools and advice that worked for them but may not work for their friend. The helper becomes distressed and potentially disappointed because the helpee is not responding or is perceived to not want to help themselves, when in reality the helpee is at a different place altogether and needs something else.
Think of us as computer systems. We are all installed with different software so we need some sort of translation protocol to interact with another person, but we blindly assume we are the same so we keep using our language on other people. Plenty of times we are installed with faulty software ourselves but we are not aware of it because how can we truly see the water we swim in? Then we try to impose this faulty software on other people because hey it “worked” for us. Grit worked for our ancestors so we try to make our kids the same kind of gritty without realising the landscape has totally changed. We make evaluations based on the boxes we are in despite the world being so much wider with so many different shapes in existence. This is harmful even if we don’t mean the harm, because we make policies and interact with our loved ones based on these evaluations, resulting in people having to kill and bury more of themselves in order to meet our expectations.
All of this applies to how we interact with our selves as well. Many people has this ultra-wide gap between understanding who we are, what we truly need – versus who we expect ourselves to be. There will be inevitable suffering if we aspire to be someone we admire when we never had the opportunities they had, or it is very possible what we truly want and need is a quiet stable life, but society keeps telling us we need to be someone. In this case we’re the ones who will keep pushing ourselves into these boxes, self-sacrificing the parts of us that stick out, and be perpetually disappointed with our selves because we are not meeting ourselves at where we are.
To know where we are, we have to first know who we are. But we’ve been stuck in our boxes for so long that we believe the boxes are who we are. So we have this misunderstanding that we know ourselves very well, when in truth it is the box that we know very well. Then we get confused when we get depressed or unhappy because we are who we’ve always wanted to be and have everything we can supposedly want, but why is there this deep uncomfortable feeling of being empty?
This sort of emptiness is not the same as the zen emptiness. It is a hollowness, as though something is missing. Of course something is missing: our actual selves.
I guess this is a very longwinded way of explaining that it is very difficult to meet people where they are, because we don’t even know where we are as we don’t know who we are. Everything is so deeply buried: it may take years or decades to excavate our selves. And if we do so eventually, we may find it even more difficult to meet people where they are because by then we would have radically different software installed in us, resulting in a dramatic difference between the languages we speak.
All in, this makes life very difficult to live. It may be easier when we’re all stuck in boxes trying to speak the same box-language that society tries to instill in us. Everything will be fine if we believe in the same definitions of success and wellness. We may not even notice the hollowness, the disconnect, and the dissonance. Every time we reach a society-defined milestone like getting that bigger apartment and that coveted career promotion we have a burst of adrenaline. That sureness. That confidence. Some people may lead their entire lives that way, pursuing something until their very last breath. Maybe that is okay if it doesn’t cause too much harm? I am not in a position to say.
But the original intention I had when I first started writing this is to point out how difficult it is to actually communicate and relate, especially across generations and cultures. We may not even relate to our peers very well, or to our own siblings who are born barely a couple of years apart, even if we are raised in the same family and environment.
There is a lot of suffering because we spend our lives expecting something that may never come. We want people to truly understand and love us. But can they? We try changing people to meet our expectations. We attempt to change ourselves. There is disappointment, frustration and even heart break.
It is the same when it comes to the expectations we have of this world. We want people to be kind, empathetic and ethical. We want governments to consider us as people, we want leaders and fellow citizens to “do the right thing”, whatever that means. But can they? Can this world with these entrenched systems raise human beings who can be who we want them to be? What would it take for us to start truly getting to know our selves and prioritise educating people as human beings, not as though we are factory-made robots designed to play a narrow role in our economies? Is this even possible in the context of survival and global competition? I fear we keep looking for answers in the wrong places, because we are not asking the right questions.
But I am not criticising this world, no matter how I sounded. I think it is difficult to ignore the legacy of a species with fragile bodies thrown to survive in the wilderness faced with existential threats at every moment. I can believe we have done whatever we can, given the circumstances. This is my way of trying to meet the world where it is.
Trying to understand and accept the psyche of human beings including ourselves is simply being realistic, and not carrying fantasies that will inevitably make us suffer. There have been too many instances we take things too personally when it helps to understand what is happening on a systemic level. I don’t believe there is a lot of agency in people’s actions, as though they are purposefully choosing their decisions. I think most of us are only capable of making decisions shaped by the boxes that imprison us. It is a difficult concept to accept, especially if we think of evilness and criminals.
But it takes a village to raise a child, and the last time I checked, we probably never really had a village to raise any of us. We have put too much responsibility on individuals, when every body is having difficulty coping with living in these systems. Some people react badly when they have to cut off pieces of themselves, and they respond by believing they have to cut off pieces of other people. It is their own screwed up form of internal justice? Others believe they have to cut off pieces of others in order to remain safe in their boxes.
To contemplate that we have very limited agency in our choices is a very depressing idea. We all want to believe we can change, we can change other people too, and therefore we can change the world. Hence we repeat history over and over again, doing the same things over and over again expecting different results. The starting point is already flawed, because we are trying to solve problems which we don’t understand why they become problems in the first place.
When we can see truly who we are, what we are truly capable of and what is unrealistic to expect, I think that is when we have a chance of solving our existential issues: peace, war, harmony, crime, communication, progress, evolution. Else, I think we’re primarily the same people, with better technology. And this will continue to perpetuate hurt.
This is the same whether we are thinking about the world at large, the way we relate to others, and the way we relate to our selves. We cannot expect people to see beyond their boxes when they don’t even know they are in a box. It is not they don’t want to see us, it is simply because they cannot. We cannot remove barriers when we don’t acknowledge they exist, and to acknowledge that they exist we first have to see that there are barriers. We have to first learn to see, but preceding that is to even have that awareness that our sight is impaired.
So how do we become aware, and can we make other people aware, especially if they are not at that place to be aware? Is it harmful to force that awareness on people if they are not ready?
My partner has gone through multiple creative phases in her life since I’ve known her. For a long time she was uncomfortable with the idea that she was not devoting her craft to one speciality, like most artists seem to do. My perspective was that we just have to listen to the call of our subconscious. Some people are called to do just one thing and it feels natural for them, whereas people like us are called to find ourselves across entire spectrums of possibilities.
I am biased towards variety to be honest. Life is short, wouldn’t we want to know ourselves and what we’re capable of in as many permutations as possible? But I guess that is exactly the sort of thought a mind like mine would think of. For others, going deeper and deeper uncovers something they seek.
So my partner has been on a fabric craft phase lately, ongoing for about two years now. Once in a while I tell her I miss her paintings – especially because I see them hung all over our apartment. This past week however, she wanted to try oil painting because she was inspired by the kdrama “Little Women“.
She asked why I particularly like her paintings. I said I like looking into her interior world. I get to know and experience her in a different dimension whenever she paints or draws something. Her fabric art brings out something of her too, but her paintings are of another world entirely. Looking at her fabric art, they are typically full of vibrance and colour:
Then we see something like this in her drawing:
I’m almost always surprised every time.
The person I first knew six-ish years ago was a very different person I know now. I would say I am 25% of my true personality if you meet me in real life, 50% if you read my writing. But for her, she was like 5% of her true personality when I first met her, I get to experience 25% of her after six years of unfolding together, but most people would still experience only 10% of her true personality if they were to meet her now.
Her expressions onto a canvas gives me insight to her interior world, a shard of the rest of the 75%. Like the painting below, we have our own omelas we bury deep inside ourselves in order to function in this world.
Once in a while, she helps to express what I cannot:
…and our relationship:
…and I also thoroughly enjoy how she interprets what she sees on our travels on the canvas:
…and occasionally it is like where did these things come from?
Again, I am sure I am biased but – look at the range. Imagine what would we be missing out if she believes that she had to stick to just one thing?
Her interior world is still a vast mystery to me, even after living with her for six years. I can never predict what she’s going to output with her hands and I enjoy being surprised. Sometimes I get fascinated by watching her in the process.
Without these I would only know and experience 25% of her. She would probably know a lot less of herself too.
Though this is a post about my partner’s interior world, my ultimate intention is to draw attention to all our interior worlds and their potentialities. What are we missing, not seeing, not knowing? From our selves, our partners, our family, our peers? Who are they beyond their surfaces?
It is not just about what we already possess within our selves, but what else can we accumulate for the rest of our lives? How do our interior worlds affect others? How else can we explore and express these worlds? Are you curious about yours?
I used to think art was worthless, due to my utilitarian upbringing. But it exposes entire worlds that would be unseen, it uncovers qualities to our lives that is so much more profound than the material world. It demonstrates that our lives are not just about the wealth and statuses we accumulate. At least for those of us who want more out of our lives beyond what society compels us to have.
I am uninterested in life in general, so much so that I am passively suicidal, always wondering what is the point of my existence. But sometimes, just sometimes. I could be convinced being able to experience the interior worlds of human beings is something that makes life worth experiencing.
It is like alchemy: we express something into existence, it transforms us and transform the witness, and it enriches the next thing we make – the cycle goes on, if we’re lucky.
a multi-part series of questions by my partner, @launshae
What are your earliest memories of when you first started writing for yourself?
I kept a physical journal when I was 8 or 9. I was a very sad kid with unspeakable feelings – feelings I could not confide in anyone in my life, so the journal was an outlet I desperately needed. I think I stopped journaling as a teen, which was a mistake on hindsight.
Digitally, I started “weblogging” when I was 19-20. There was a free software called greymatter which I installed on my website. I mentioned the software because back then (around year 2000) it was not easy to create a blog. So it was the free software that enabled my writing.
If you’re referring to writing for myself versus an audience – I guess I’ve always written for myself. Back then it was difficult to get traffic, so no one would read your blog unless you invite some friends to do so. For many years I was on Livejournal, and there were strangers who would follow you. But the primary mode of Livejournal was like its name: a journal – so people would write very personal posts instead of the commercial-markety posts we see these days. I still miss it a lot.
I did try for writing for an audience for a while maybe in the mid 2010s, but I realised I quickly lost myself. I didn’t feel good after writing those because to write for a general audience the writing has to be inevitably diluted, so eventually I stopped.
Though I write primarily for myself, I also write in hope for resonance. Ironically I think one has to write for themselves if they want true resonance.
How has your writing evolved since?
I am not sure if the way I write has evolved – it has always been sit there and the words will spill out, most of the time. I as a person has transformed greatly, so has my range of interests, hence the content of the writing has evolved due to the width and depth of my interests and how they intersect. Language wise it may have devolved a little, I don’t attempt to write well anymore. I just try to write as directly from my consciousness as possible. I realised sometimes all it matters is that the writing is accessible.
Was there a time in your life where you didn’t write?
I can barely remember writing much during my teenage years, with the exception of school work and some love letters. Like I mentioned above, it was a huge mistake on hindsight. I was just too busy trying to keep afloat. Writing would have helped tremendously.
How is it that you never seem to run out of things to write? Where do all these ideas and thoughts come from?
I do consciously run out of things to write. But since I’ve committed to writing every Sunday since 2013 – there were periods when I could not be regular or I experimented with a difference cadence – sometimes I just sit down and start writing. It could literally be a journal-like entry, like what has happened in the past week since I’d last published, and/or what has been weighing on my mind. Since my mind is weighed perpetually, I have countless worries and anxieties I can write about. It is just whether I am afraid to sound repetitive – which I was at times, but now I don’t. I realised my public journal is a public documentation of the state of my mind, so if my mind is repetitive then the published outcome would be repetitive.
Other than writing about my anxieties, everything else is from the stuff I consume: mainly books. So the more diverse my reading is, the more complex my writing becomes. It ebbs and flows though. There are times when I don’t have the mind space to read, and my writing becomes more mundane. Which is not a bad thing, depending how we see it.
What is your writing setup like, in terms of tools, space?
I have a standing desk and a mechanical keyboard. Some days when I want to protect my eyes or write in a distraction-free environment I use an e-ink tablet instead with a mechanical keyboard. I really love typing on the mechanical keyboard. Some days I don’t feel well so I write on the sofa. Most of my drafts are these days written at our dining table because it is spacious and quiet in the wee hours of the morning. But I finish them on the sofa in the living room or at the standing desk in the study.
Do you write when inspiration hits, or do you have some form of a routine?
I used to write when inspiration hits, which as you get older and busier and perhaps more boring as a person you’d realise inspiration is difficult to come by. So since 2013 I simply write every Sunday. But if inspiration hits me every now and then I’ll note it down somewhere and still write on the Sunday, unless it is a complex post which I may write in multiple sittings throughout the week.
How do you decide if it should be a note, journal or essay?
Notes are newish on my website. It is a format I included because there were shorter, more stream-of-consciousness type of stuff I felt didn’t warrant an entire post on the journal. Sometimes I just want to share my excitement or wonder about a link.
Due to the history of my journal – it makes me feel like there must be a certain weight and meatiness to what I publish there, so the notes section gives me the space and permission to post everything else that doesn’t fit. It is also the meaning and interpretation of those words I guess: what does someone think when they come across the word “journal” versus “note” versus “essay”? “Notes” are usually scribbled down without much thought, so I decide something is a note when I don’t want to think too much about it.
Journal entries are usually way longer in actual word count – but I have known myself to write a really long note, so the differentiating factor is whether I want to put more thought into the actual writing. Journal entries come from a deeper level of my consciousness.
Essays and journal entries are quite grey. I wanted the essay section to have more serious pieces – pieces that are truly carefully thought-out and perhaps researched, with proper references, and multiple rounds of editing etc. There were pieces which were done that way – very untypical of me actually. But my journal entries became more complex in recent years and they started becoming more essay-like. I have been thinking whether to just fold them into one, but somehow I still feel like there should be some separation? Ideally the journal entries are more time-sensitive, like the writing is more relevant nearer to the time of publishing, whereas the ideas in an essay are more timeless.
I guess I spend too much time thinking about these things. But the general idea is that when people click into those sections, they know what to expect in terms of complexity. And they can choose to read a never-ending stream of those things uninterrupted without noise from a different dimension of writing.
How long does it normally take to write something up?
It could be anytime from twenty minutes to multiple weeks. So far I haven’t written anything that took months, yet. Or years? The posts on my interactive experiments probably took the most effort.
I notice that you have been supplementing your writing with your own illustrations and diagrams for a number of years, but more so in the recent months. Why did you decide to do so?
I realised I do enjoy the meditative process of illustration. But in general, I will add an image to the post only if it adds to the content overall. I still refrain from doing it simply because of grabbing attention. Most of the time if I add an image, it is because I believe it helps to explain the message of the post visually in the shortest time possible. There are certain ideas that do not come across as well in words no matter how much you try.
Take one of my favourite pieces. I was trying to explain how much more richer would life be if it constitutes a wide variety of experiences, like a tapestry (this was before I discovered Carole King). This was what I wrote:
The past year, I have been learning to look at my life as a piece of fabric. I do not wish to be an expensive, coveted piece of silk or cashmere, but rather a weathered, multi-textured pieced-together patchwork.
But the thing with metaphors is that it is subject to interpretation and limited to one’s imagination and experiences. So I take the work out and illustrate it as starkly as possible:
I don’t like adding images for the sake of attention, but I must admit it is a very powerful way of communicating. However I do believe the reverse is also true, there are some ideas and concepts that will do better with words versus any imagery. A beautiful poem, for example.
To answer the original question: I think I consciously avoided adding images previously because I didn’t want to participate towards the algorithms of social media or people’s inattention. But I gradually overcame my own bias and did what I think was best for the post. There are posts which I don’t actually want images because I think they can distract from the content. Then there are some sundays when I can barely finish the words, so I don’t have the energy to think about imagery.
This is an on-going experiment by my partner @launshae, and will probably be published in a multi-part series. Let us know in the comments if you have any feedback or any questions you want answered!
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.