on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

plans for post-vaccination recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nostalgia, music, time and worth

Listening to music had always been a big part of my life. No, not classical music, but emo soppy mandarin/cantonese pop with some american/british pop (I was crazy over Take That) mixed in. I won’t pretend to have discerning music tastes – I don’t. I really enjoy listening to songs that sing of enduring heartbreak and unending yearning.

I feel lucky to have been born in the 80s’, because I spent a huge part of my formative years in analog. Life is so noisy and instantaneous these days that it is easy to forget once upon a time, it was not considered rude to not answer phone calls, because there was only one house phone shared among the entire household. There were no text messages awaiting for response, no caller ID (it was considered a luxurious expense because you have to pay both the subscription and the expensive phone), no notifications from ten different social networks. Every time I feel bad about living like an antisocial hermit now I think about my life in the 80s – everyone was almost a hermit, you have to go out of your way to hang out with friends, they were not just a click away.

I spent a lot of time reading and listening to music, because there was nothing else to do. My families (plural because I grew up in two separate households) liked watching TVB dramas and their music variety programs. I grew up on a diet of Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Danny Chan, and later on when I developed my own tastes I was obsessed with Faye Wong. My commute to school was about an hour, so music accompanied me during those long lonely rides.

We bought albums on cassette tapes, and making a mixtape was a lot of rewinding and forwarding to get to the right track, and having to manually press “record” when the original tape was playing. I guess I was lucky to have a player that had a double cassette deck (another luxury) for recording mixtapes. They sold empty tapes in 90 minute versions, which could hold up to 10 songs on each side. Yes, we had to manually flip the cassette after one side is done.

Compact discs arrived and I blew most of my pocket money on buying CDs, starving the rest of the month. Back then we had to spend $20 (SGD) on an album and hope that it was good (it usually wasn’t, only a track or two). Making mixtapes with cassette tapes became easier because we no longer had to guesstimate the rewinds to find where tracks start.

Imagine going from that to burning music on CD-Rs – we could listen to our favourite track on repeat forever. I remember saving up to buy a discman that had an anti-skip feature – because music would skip due to the lens having trouble reading the disc if it couldn’t stay in place.

Needless to say, the invention of mp3s was like music heaven, even though 5mb files took an hour to download on a 56.6k connection. I remember feeling really abundant having a 5GB hard drive.

That’s why I feel lucky being born in the 80s. I have huge swaths of memories of living in analog, yet I also experienced the magic of the dramatic leaps in technology. Once in a while I still catch myself marvelling at all things that magically happen with a click. I get tired of notifications and the sense of being forced to be available online, but I still get thrills out of sending texts to my friends thousands of miles away, and seeing them reply in real time.

Somehow along the way in the past few years, I stopped listening to my music. Part of the reason is I stay home a lot now, so there is less time to listen to music on commutes. I have also developed an attention deficit due to the magic/poison of the internet. Wanting to become more mindful, I stopped using music as a crutch during exercise. It now feels weird to slip on a pair of headphones and simply enjoy the music without doing anything else – something I used to do for hours a day.

But it was so much of my life. It comforted me all those times I was sad, depressed, suicidal, heartbroken, pining, lonely, confused, fatigued, bored. It is like a time machine: listening to certain tracks is like an instant jump to that moment in time, and all the associated emotions come flooding back to me. Maybe for some people that is not a good thing, but for me possibly because of anhedonia the provocation of the music allows me access more dimensions of my dormant inner world.

Music has discernible effects on our brain, so I am not surprised that it soothes, comforts and enlivens me. I am just surprised I forgot how much I enjoy listening to it.

So I started making my own mixtapes again, an activity that is actually enjoyable on its own. It is amazing the expanse of songs available on spotify, how easy it is to search and add to a playlist (I know I sound like an old person but I guess I am pretty old as a person). Spotify has a pretty robust recommendation engine so I discovered tracks I had long forgotten, tracks that were familiar in my childhood but I didn’t know the titles of, tracks that have gone out of print and is impossible to buy now. But Spotify doesn’t have everything, so I dug out my old backups and it made me so relieved that quite a few obscure songs that don’t exist on Spotify or iTunes were preserved in at least 128kbps quality. I felt so full to listen to them again.

I bought a pair of Sennheisers and stopped being an exercise snob: I now listen to my soppy emo music when I take walks – both indoors and outdoors. Rediscovering the dimensional experience of listening to music and the nostalgia that comes with it is making me reevaluate again my tendency for doing things that have quick feedback or short sittings.

It seems so easy to get swept up in a world full of changes, and forget what used to be meaningful or fun when things were at a much slower pace. We try to save time by choosing to do things that are available quickly, but some people including myself have observed the phenomenon that the act of trying to save time ironically makes time seem to pass faster.

There is also a perceived assigned value on what seems to be worth doing. Working for a job or business is worth doing, fervently packing our brains with new knowledge is worth doing, hanging out with friends is worth doing. But what about developing the capacity to be calm and peaceful, spending time to cook a creative dish to nourish our bodies, letting our tired brains take a break from all the stimuli we subject them to, being able to feel full while alone?

I find myself judging myself a lot when I don’t seem to be doing anything “productive”. You would think after six years on this journey I would be better at dealing with this sort of chronic ambient judgment. It affects my daily morale when I end the day feeling like I “wasted” my time. But did I really? Sometimes I think the intelligence of our brains can be quite primitive and we have to teach it consciously to recognise new values and meanings, or it will just keep falling back to the old ones.

Being able to feel a lot less anxious is a huge deal to me, but the lack of anxiety is not something noticeable compared to when we are full of anxiety. Every now and then I have to remind myself to take a deep breath, remember how I used to be, and accurately assess where I am now.

In society’s eyes I am not an productive person, but when I look at myself I see a person growing more capable of appreciating and feeling the fullness that can be derived from everyday life instead of the constant seeking and chasing I used to do. Is my life worth less now because I am less “productive”? Is it good to be “productive” in exchange for the potential of doing more harm? What makes a life valuable?

I like having small, light and less footprints wherever I go.

note: along with this line of thought I have been trying to do things that take up more time, like taking the effort to make the drawings that accompanied this post, writing this post in two sittings instead of always trying to finish it asap. Like in my previous post I think I have to recondition my brain to enjoy effort (instead of associating it with negative feelings) and the slow passage of time. Also, this post is not something I expect people would want to read, but I really want to practice doing things that are more me.

on cooking, nutrition & effort

I started cooking again. This is in line with my attempt to be fitter, and partially because I am semi-following a private migraine group’s protocol on migraine prevention by balancing the potassium and sodium ratio in my diet. “Semi” following because I am not strict about it, but it is interesting to become aware of the micro-nutrients I am eating.

I actually knew about the protocol a long while ago, but it was just too much effort. It requires religious logging of food in Cronometer – if anyone has tried logging their food before they will know how much work it is. It is also impossible to properly log food if you eat a lot of food outside because there is no way to know what they put in their sauces and the actual weightage of their ingredients.

I am learning a lot about micro-nutrients in an attempt to understand how we create energy in the body, and why it can be chronically disrupted. Recent research is hypothesising that migraines could be an outcome of oxidative stress and energy metabolism, which is closely related to the functioning of mitochondria and the ATP cycle. My own migraines are triggered by stress and hormones, so I am keen to understand how everything connects. There are so many questions. Why is the fluctuating of estrogen so closely related to stress resilience? Why is the menstrual cycle so stressful on the body? Is there any preventative measures I can take to mitigate this stress?

Do you know that thiamine (Vitamin B1) is an essential cofactor in the production of cellular energy? Without thiamine we would literally be starved of energy. But my cronometer logs told me that unless I start eating a lot of beans or liver, it is practically impossible to eat the daily recommended amount of thiamine in my diet. Is that why I’m always burnt out because there is just not enough energy for my cellular needs?

I’ve also realised how difficult it is to plan a meal that is nutritionally balanced. Thiamine is just one piece of the puzzle. To eat enough of all the essential vitamins and minerals daily is like a creative food challenge. How have I been living my life? Magnesium is another mineral that is heavily required by the body, especially for women. My research tells me that it is recommended to eat 400mg of magnesium every day. I never really took it seriously until this year. I took like 100mg and thought it was enough. This is why it is important to understand the why:

The important interaction between phosphate and magnesium ions makes magnesium essential to the basic nucleic acid chemistry of all cells of all known living organisms. More than 300 enzymes require magnesium ions for their catalytic action, including all enzymes using or synthesizing ATP and those that use other nucleotides to synthesize DNA and RNA. The ATP molecule is normally found in a chelate with a magnesium ion.


How do we fulfil 400mg of daily magnesium requirements purely through food?

There were so many other things I’ve learned about food and cooking. For example, vegetable oil is quite harmful to our bodies. But the bulk of food if we eat out is cooked in (repeatedly used) vegetable oil, simply because it is the most cost effective. I tried to ignore the information for a while, because I have a food addiction. But how do I bear the dissonance of having terrible health and yet ignoring what I know about the potential oxidative stress caused by food and cooking methods?

So I am cooking again. My partner offered to take the dinner shift while I take the brunch shift (we only eat 2 meals a day because I try to intermittent fast 16 hours to improve insulin sensitivity) so it makes it more manageable, and I really enjoy the effect of discovering what my partner would cook. I took out my instant pot because I’m trying to avoid high heat cooking (again, oxidative stress). This time I am trying out recipes instead of just making it up myself. I used to avoid recipes if they involve too many steps, but now I’m trying them anyway.

I feel like humans have a lot of pre-conceptions, and sometimes these pre-conceptions are of our selves. I thought I didn’t like doing things that take too much effort, but somehow I am slowly learning that I do enjoy the slow meditative pace of multi-step cooking. With the instant pot, lack of experience impacts the food negatively especially if we are not following recipes. Some food taste better with prolonged cooking time, some food takes less than five minutes or it will chew like rubber. I now know how to sear food without it burning the pan. I learnt to properly cut an avocado. I am now so pleased every time I cut one.

my partner‘s artist impression of me cooking in the kitchen

Sometimes I feel like a new human learning how to crawl again. I have to get to know myself instead of just making assumptions on myself. I never knew I would love cycling or running. I thought I would never enjoy my own cooked food more than the food I buy.

The truth is, I don’t really know who I am, what I like and dislike, half the time. So much of me I thought was me, was simply conditioning and/or a reaction to the input I was given. I thought I didn’t like things that take effort, but that’s simply because the system I grew up in demands effort out of me in things that were not meaningful to me. I grew up associating effort with dread and fatigue.

But effort in things which are meaningful to us, can be life-giving and actually enjoyable.

the will to be truly alive

Every morning at the park I see people of all types doing their morning exercise. People exercise for different reasons. Vanity is of course a strong motivator, some people do it because they went through health scares, others do it because it allows them to socialise in a group, some do it because luckily for them exercise makes them feel better. I started doing it because I didn’t want my brain to shrink:

“…conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain’s infrastructure. In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

Source: Spark by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman | link

Regardless of the actual reason, exercise is something that one only does if they care enough about themselves, and if their brains are neurochemically balanced enough to flip that switch to actually do something. Unlike the mainstream narrative, one cannot actually will themselves to make choices if their brains are neurologically deficient. Motivation is regulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, and one can be severely deficient in dopamine due to genetics and stress. The world would be a much more compassionate and liveable place if people truly understand this.

I guess I was born with a dopamine deficient brain, because I don’t feel the typical pleasures of living life. It takes a lot to get me excited about something, which is why I was always addicted to extremity and seeking highs (not drug highs, but career/relationship highs). It is only recently that I associated this with my sugar addiction, because sugar dramatically increases dopamine – it has the same neurological pathways as opoids.

(I asked my partner yesterday if she would be tempted to eat a plate of freshly baked cookies if she was not hungry, turns out she wouldn’t because she doesn’t like sweet stuff. ALL MY LIFE I thought everyone wouldn’t be able to resist freshly baked cookies!)

Modern research is pointing towards evidence that chronic disorders like depression may be closely tied to metabolic and stress-related disorders, and can be successfully managed or treated with the right interventions like exercise, diet, therapy, drugs etc.

But here is the conundrum. Things like exercise and diet requires effort and consistency. But how do we get a dopamine-deficient fatigued, depressed brain to will themselves into not only taking action, but showing up day after day when it is simply much easier to do nothing? Maybe using the concept of easiness is incorrect, people who suffer from chronic disorders are not even biologically capable to do anything, they just can’t. You just have to go to the hundreds of message boards / online communities out there for such people to see how much they hate themselves and how much grief and anger they feel because they cannot do anything.

That is why it is so hurtful and damaging when people tell them to just think positive, or be less lazy. Associating positive behaviour to one’s character or one’s “strength” is one of the most harmful narratives we have on earth. The brain controls everything, to deny that is to deny science, to deny all the years of evolution that made the brain what it is today.

I have no answers to my own question, on how people can motivate themselves into doing things that require more effort they can muster when they are incapable of doing so. Apart from neurological reasons, there are also psychological reasons. Some people desire to be alive, even if they are chronically sick. Wanting to be alive, to have a firm belief in the concept of life, is a strong motivator. Some others want to be alive because they cannot imagine abandoning their loved ones. There are some who wish to fulfil some purpose in their lives.

I wrote in a previous post that a personal myth is important to surviving and thriving. Our brains evolved to be motivated by rewards, so if there are no visible rewards it is difficult to make yourself do anything. Our brains need a reason to not only keep on living, but to be alive enough in order to thrive. When we receive enough (but not too much) dopamine hits due to the perceived reward, we thrive. We feel alert, confident and euphoric (that’s why people like to take drugs or in my case, sugar/caffeine).

For story-less people (or people who are going through an existential crisis because they lost their personal myth or original purpose) like me, there may be no visible rewards. Since my brain is dopamine-deficient at its baseline, there could be actual rewarding factors in my life but I find it difficult to feel and connect to it.

(The aliveness loop also demonstrates that if our actions doesn’t generate visible rewards/progress, we may stop feeling motivated. Therefore designing routines/environments with reward/progress cues in mind are important. The perceived reward also cannot be perceived to be less than the perceived effort.)

In the past year or so I found myself in a slump. It is probably related to Covid, because my dopamine-deficient brain seeks novelty, and being in a perpetual lockdown has severely limited that. It did teach me to be more self-sufficient, to co-exist with my inner world which used to make me feel low key miserable all the time because it was spouting a lot of repetitive negativity into my mind.

But now I have found myself in an emotionally neutral yet numbish state. I no longer looked forward to writing or working on this website, I ate more and more carbs as I was tired of restricting myself all the time, I stopped reading as much, stopped cooking – pretty much stopped everything because I didn’t feel like doing anything. I also exercised a lot less after I fell ill a few times. No dopamine, no doing.

It is a weird state for me to be in, because I was used to feeling sad all the time but I was no longer sad, but I was just somewhat not alive. As of now I am not sure if I no longer looked forward to all the things I used to like doing because maybe my emotional changes I went through changed me so much at a fundamental level that my preferences changed without myself knowing?

Maybe I used to like writing because it served as a catharsis, or that I subconsciously wanted to shape people’s opinions of me. But now these things are no longer important, neither is my self-image of being a creative person. Without a story everything dissipates, including activities that were so life-saving for the old me.

I got to a point when I just felt like in order to preserve my health I have to at least pretend to be interested. I have no idea whether I am nursing a severe dopamine deficit or a true existential change. But knowing how the brain works I know I need something to hang on to as my “visible reward”, even if I know it may not be true. It is literally fake it till I make it.

One day, I just got so disturbed at being slumpy that I literally said to myself, I am going to attempt to be alive again. So I again made fitness my goal. I have never been fit. I have always existed as a chronically tired and mildly unfit person. This is an old but on going challenge I never had the resolve to solve. I go on these long streaks, get tired of it, and then fall off the wagon. But I believe every cycle I get better at it, and I discover more sustainable ways instead of being so extreme.

Additionally and perhaps more importantly, I just want to treat my body better. Previously I had zero will to even live, so letting my body deteriorate was a subconscious extension of that. Also I didn’t know enough about neuroscience and metabolism. Now that I’ve read so much scientific research, I have to be very wilful to consciously ignore that each time I eat that glucose-laden meal I am damaging my body.

For me, it is philosophically acceptable to rebel against life by letting oneself slowly disintegrate, but I think it is difficult to do it without harming anyone else unless one is a true hermit. I live with my partner, so at the very least I should not let my poor health affect her negatively. If I cannot regulate my stress response (due to poor diet etc), it will inevitably impact her.

Maybe my saving grace would be my curiousity. I am curious to know what it feels like to be fit. Not just physically fit, but fit in terms of as many biological markers I can find. Am I skeptical about life because of my neurologically deficient brain – that I truly cannot physically feel the wonders of living – or is this my true metaphysical stance? Can we truly separate how our brains work and our thoughts? How much are our thoughts and beliefs influenced by our range of perceptions and senses? Is the will to be alive simply a matter of achieving true biological homeostasis?

At the end of this post, I guess I feel grateful for the fact that I still have questions. The day I become question-less, I’ll be truly worried about my will to live.

the proposal

Last week, in the midst of celebrating our 61th month anniversary I went to the bathroom. Our song, “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds started playing, and when I came out of the bathroom she started dancing with me. This is not out of the normal because we often do weird things like dance with each other in the middle of the day with no apparent reason, but I noticed a wrapped package on the sofa.

A couple of months ago she asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said I wanted a surprise. Since then she has been gifting me multiple surprises, so another wrapped package was also not out of the ordinary. But this time, the package contained:

How can I begin to describe the layers of these images? Within, there is a pair of rings, a ring holder, and a card. She crocheted the ring holder as a my favourite cake the strawberry shortcake, ordered the handcrafted wooden rings off etsy, and drew the card depicting one of our favourite activities together – having afternoon tea. The photos are staged and taken by her.

Our life is so intertwined with her nature as an artist. The art is part of the act. The act is the art. I cannot help but admire the art while I am part of the ongoing act.

She asked if I would marry her – she doesn’t have a serious demeanour for almost anything except when in the process of doing her art, so in that moment it was difficult for me to take her seriously. It felt as though we were like two kids playacting as grown ups. But her intention was evident in the way everything was put together so thoughtfully.

I didn’t exclaim a loud yes!, I let her put on the ring on my ring finger without a word, like an emotionally constipated Asian person.

We cannot get legally married here in Singapore, where it actually matters. Our country will not recognise our marriage even if we got married elsewhere. So what is the point?

I think the fact that we cannot get married legally here in Singapore sort of acted like a shield for both of our commitment phobia. Since we cannot get married, there is no need to talk or think about it. It is easy to say, oh if marriage became legal tomorrow, we’ll get married – but will we?

In many ways we are practically married. We own a house together, we plan our future and financial decisions together. We are probably a lot more married than many legally married couples, especially when it comes to the depth of our emotional and psychological bond. But it is one thing to say that we’re practically married and other thing to be actually married.

For me, the symbolism matters. Yes for now we cannot get married here, and I’m highly skeptical that it’ll ever be legal in our lifetimes. But there is a huge gap between a legal marriage and a dating relationship. We’ll probably get married overseas once we can, and at the very least it is not on us if our government (and some groups of people) remains discriminatory towards us. That is on them, that they are holding on to their archaic views.

We can only demonstrate we have done everything in our power to take our couplehood seriously. If the government is not willing to recognise our status, we should recognise it ourselves. Our marriage will at least be recognised in the laws of other countries. Should we one day decide to pursue immigration to these countries (we won’t for now, because we’re attached to our families here, but one day when it is just us who knows), she will be seen as my legal spouse. To me, that is better than simply resigning to the status quo passively.

Today while exercising, I started wondering if she would be able to collect my body for a funeral should anything happen to me. If I lay dying in a isolated ward, would they call her for our last words even if she’s not my next-of-kin?

It seems like an injustice that my supposed next-of-kin would not be the person actually closest to me. The only person who is truly with me through all my ups and downs, who have seen the best and worst of me, who validated my concerns and took actual steps to address them, who has loved me fiercely and steadily for years – this person in the eyes of the law, would just be a mere acquaintance.

When people say marriage is just a piece of paper, do they know what it is like that the law would rather recognise a relative that you meet once a year as your next-of-kin than the person you love the most in your life?

the story

I have this habit of bullet journalling on dayone every night, and it has this feature where it would show all the entries I have made “on this day”. It has been quite enlightening and many times disturbing to read entries from my past selves.

If I didn’t actively read those entries, I would seem like the same person to myself. But having a record of my thoughts have taught me otherwise. The reactions to reading certain entries have evolved over the years. Some entries used to make me feel really sad, then they became nostalgic, and slowly they have become somewhat amusing. I get to know how far I have come by observing my internal reactions to my past writing.

I mostly feel sorry for my past selves now. I see how she was always miserable, how she always seem to be seeking something, how she seemed to always be trapping herself in her thoughts and the story she wanted herself to live in.

Yes, the story. All of us have a story, which probably consists of many micro-stories. We have this story about ourselves, how we want our lives to be, who we want to become, and our perceptions of success. Our government, our family, our peers, our media, take turns to tell us stories of who they want us to become.

In Singapore at least, the predominant story is to get good grades, get into the local university, get a good high-paying job, get married, have kids, ensure your kids get good grades, retire when you are 65, and live happily ever after. Any deviation from this story may get a person negatively judged as a deviant.

My story was to break out of this predominant story and achieve success on my own terms. I so wanted to prove all my detractors wrong, not because I wanted to be right, but because I was very badly hurting from being seen as a failure and a disappointment.

This story of mine became my prison. I ended up like the people who hurt me, by judging myself harshly when I could not live up to the story I told myself about who I wanted to be. I was not capable of understanding myself, what I could do and I couldn’t do. I was doing the same thing people did to me, by making myself do the things I didn’t want to do so that the story in my head can continue its trajectory.

I had stories of how I wanted people to be, just like they have stories of how they wanted me to be. Heartbreak occurred – whether romantically or professionally – when the stories could not sync.

I was too naive to see reality for what it is. Most people are too occupied with fulfilling their own stories to care about our stories. Many of us seek out mentors or heroes, only to be vastly disappointed when they don’t live up to the stories in our heads. We expect them to be a certain way, full of honor and integrity perhaps, when they are as flawed as the rest of us, with terrible insecurities and their own hero journeys they want to live out. If we fit into the roles their stories happen to have available for us, everything will seem fine and dandy. Once we deviate from their stories, hell breaks loose.

It is the same with romantic relationships. We have been deeply conditioned by the media to believe in soulmates, prince and princess charmings. We believe true love will work like magic, isn’t that what the movies tell us, that everything will fall into place once you find the right person? Nobody told us relationships are horribly hard work and can be life-exhausting. We want our partners to be the person we need to fill up the gaps in our lives but in reality they are also overgrown children with their own neuroses and triggers. I don’t believe unconditional love exists, because human beings with an inexhaustible emotional capacity do not exist. The narrative that we can expect people who love us to do anything for us is unhealthy.

The story shapes us and shapes the worlds we live in. It gives us ideas on how other people should be treated, if people belonging to certain other groups should be subordinate or superior, or if we even see them as fellow human beings. It affects how we treat everything around us: animals, the environment, ourselves.

One of the most liberating and yet existential crisis inducing ideas is that: the story is just a story. We don’t have to live in the stories we created for ourselves, neither do we have to adhere to the stories people make up about us. We do not have to be the scholar, doctor, pianist, ballet dancer they imagined us to be, neither do we have to live in a house as big as our paycheck can afford. There are plenty of people who live excellent lives alone without a partner, they are also plenty of married couples who choose not to have children and they still lead fulfilling lives.

Yet it is also reality that stories profoundly impact our reality, as some people’s stories tell them that they have to exterminate entire groups of people, other people’s morals of their stories tell them to deprive rights from other people, some stories tell people that they can freely take things from other people as long as they have power.

Stories have power, and they can be prisons. I think our world has a chance if we get to a point where people start questioning their stories, and the stories being told to them. Where do these stories come from and why do we have to believe them? What are the consequences if we stop believing these stories?

Some time ago – I have no idea when – I stopped believing in my story. I think this is what zen practitioners mean what they say we are all deluded and we should be empty. It is only when we are truly empty that we can let life in. We start to see possibilities, not just the one we had in mind. Instead of that one path we stubbornly want to take at all costs, we may see many other paths ahead of us. Or perhaps we don’t want to take any path and prefer to navigate each step as they come.

It is scary to drop our stories. Who am I without my story? Friends may be lost as we no longer fit into their stories. Or maybe I no longer want to fit into any story.

I have become nothing, a nobody. It was frightening at first, a nightmare, to become who they said I would be – useless. But perhaps, just perhaps, to be able to stand in nothing, to endure that phase, it makes one wonder if it is really all that terrifying to be seen as nothing. Because the process to even evaluate something as nothing, is also powered by a story.

What do we mean by useful? Is a human being’s life only precious if they are useful? Was I more useful as a designer working in a startup, or am I more useful now writing posts like these? Are we born simply to be measured and tooled?

There is no happy ending to this story. I would like to write that after I emptied myself of my pre-existing stories I started to thrive, but no. The reality is that I continue to be empty and feel empty. It is difficult to live without a story, because there are no next steps, no milestones, no measures of whether I’m on the right path. There is no right path.

But in exchange I am a lot less miserable? I don’t have stories swirling round my head non-stop anymore. I stopped wondering why did things turn out badly, why did he do that to me, why did she not understand, why why why. I stopped trying to reframe events or find some karmic balance in it all.

Sometimes the truth is ugly, or it doesn’t make sense, or we want to seek meaning when there is none. Maybe there is no grand purpose, no test, no silver lining. Maybe life can be grand as much as it can be cruel, it can give you things and yet take more.

We all have different ways to cope. Some people cope by having a story they can believe in. I prefer to believe there is no actual story. We humans make up the stories: sometimes they are great and inspiring, other times they are terrifying and oppressive. To be able to tell a story and make someone believe it is a great responsibility, a responsibility I’m not sure if we were ready to bear.

Maybe believing I can live without a story in my head is also a story. People including scholars believe we need myths and/or meaning to live our lives. But who knows what will form in that empty space?

Be empty, or trapped?

the emptiness of information overload

Sometimes I think about times in my younger days, when I could spend hours reading a book or listening to music on my walkman (remember these things?). Now I can barely get through thirty minutes on my kindle before feeling the urge to check my phone. Once in a very long while I do get immersed in a great book, but they seem rare to me these days.

I feel quite disturbed, as I am finding it harder to carve out the psychological space to write or work on my website. I cannot tell if it is because my attention span is getting shorter, or that I am less interested, or I am lacking the stimuli that is required to create because I haven’t gone out in weeks. Or is it low grade despair because the pandemic has caused my already small life to become even smaller? Our brains like novelty so much that they grow (neurogenesis) when stimulated with novel stimuli and environments – now my only source of novelty comes from reddit.

I am consciously trying to reverse my shortening attention span. I borrowed a couple of fiction books from the library through suggestions on r/suggestmeabook. I have read so much non-fiction in an attempt to heal myself in the past few years that I have simultaneously become deeper, wider and yet duller. Fiction stimulates our ability to imagine, and non-fiction gives us doses of reality that sometimes can be frankly quite depressing.

I haven’t been able to listen to music purely like my younger days, when I could pop in a CD and play it on repeat like twenty times without doing anything else. But listening to music while washing dishes have made a chore seem a lot more bearable and it has even gotten somewhat enjoyable. I sing along, and my soul feel cleansed afterwards, as though I’ve been through a session of therapy.

Running and cycling helps too. Exercise is the only extended time in my day when I am without a screen. I am gradually getting aware of my brain being in a very different space when I run. It can finally stop reacting to information overload.

Isn’t it weird that I am aware that I am in more optimal mental states when I am not with a screen, and yet without conscious effort to force myself to do things like exercise, I can’t stop being with a screen? Nothing is stopping me from sitting still at home for an hour or so without a screen. Yet I succumb hopelessly to it, so sometimes I will myself to exchange a very interactive phone screen to a not very interactive e-reader eink screen. A book is basically still loading information except at a much slower rate than say social media. But my brain is already addicted to the high velocity of information that the internet provides.

I think I use information to soothe myself. I used books when younger, and the internet felt like books on steroids. Consuming information is an easy way to feel busy, or to escape the current world. But it creates a gaping hole that becomes harder to fill as time goes by, and in the aftermath it leaves an unpleasant sort of emptiness. Like any addiction.

There were periods when I was doing well with meditation, but the paradox of meditation is that it is something that is extremely valuable in times of stress, but also the most difficult to do. With stress hormones coursing through my body, it is so much faster and easier to reach for food instead of trying to sit still and not go berserk with unnamed anxiety. Something always inevitably break the momentum of my newly formed meditation habit, and it is always hard to get back into it. I can’t even get myself to read a book, much less meditate.

I feel like part of it is because we are leading compressed, uneven, imbalanced lives now. We don’t feel safe, there are tons of things we cannot do, and there are people we haven’t met in ages. Some of us are robbed of potential and opportunities as everything is in a standstill and borders are closed. It is also chronic mental fatigue because the situation is not abating.

Our psyche, our person wants to be whole, and yet we can only be fed piecemeals here and there. When there is a lot of tending needed, it is difficult to thrive. Just like a hungry person will eat anything even if it is unhealthy, we can’t expect hungry people to consciously choose a healthy diet.

I tell myself the journey is not linear, and I can’t expect to go from zero to one. So I keep picking up my book, hoping I’ll turn a few more pages each time before checking my phone, and one day perhaps I’ll be willing to let music feed my soul once again without any other distractions.

dark ages

We have been voluntarily locking ourselves down for about a week now, as local cases have been increasing in the last couple of weeks. The numbers are probably a lot better than the official lockdown last year, but it feels riskier to me with the newer more contagious variants. If doctors and nurses can get infected while wearing masks in an open-air ward while vaccinated, I personally don’t want to take any chances.

It seems ultra paranoid, and as far as I know people are still going on with their normal life and gatherings as long as it is within the latest government restrictions. But I think my addiction to the internet means I read a lot more scientific studies and news – I really don’t want to live with the virus hidden in my body for the rest of my life, as they are discovering with long-haul Covid (they are suspecting it may be like the herpes virus).

Vaccination was our hope, but it seemed to not safeguard against infections, though for now those who are vaccinated are spared from intensive care or oxygen therapy. I am sure I am not the only one feeling this subconscious psychological exhaustion as the light at the end of the tunnel keeps getting snuffed out.

Is this the end of the world as we know it? I am sure we will survive and even thrive possibly, but I am not sure if the world would ever return to where it was where a cheap plane ticket was just a few clicks away and having a hundred people squeezed into a room was not seen as a health hazard. The inability of humans to organise ourselves is quite disturbing as we go into repeated waves of infection.

I find this self-imposed lockdown more difficult than the official one last year. Back in 2019 we travelled and did a lot, so spending a few months at home in 2020 was an opportunity to introspect and spend some time developing an inner life. But introspecting and inner-living was all that I did the last year or so. My theory is that there’s always a coping reservoir, and mine seems to be drying up.

I feel like most people are trying to go on their lives as normal even if many parts of the external world are imploding. I wonder if we’re on the cusp of a new long dark age and yet we’re trying to believe it’ll all end soon. Covid is just the cherry on top of all the other ongoing issues we are facing.

I will probably try to take this opportunity to go deeper into myself again, though I am not sure if that is something I truly wish to do or rather I don’t seem to have a choice. It is not like being in despair is going to make anything better. Maybe there is a reason why denial exists as a coping mechanism.

60 months of love and pictures

How do I begin writing words about a relationship that has spanned across 60 months? Every month on this date I’d write my reflections on the relationship and publish them somewhere on social media. Once in a while I’ll publish a long-form post here. I am glad to have this practice, because I am not delusional enough to believe I can remember everything, and once in a while when I look back at them it brings me back to moment I’d written them.

Since personally I think five years is a major milestone – I had this silly idea of making a powerpoint presentation of some photos we’ve taken over the past five years like those you would see at a wedding, but since it is actually a hassle to publish a slideshow I’ll try to do something here.

The first photo of us we’ve ever taken was already one month into our relationship:

We don’t have photos prior to that, because it just felt like something that wouldn’t last. If you had known us separately it would come as a huge surprise if you knew we were dating, our worlds didn’t seem like they would intersect.

Shortly after she had to go overseas for a work trip. The time apart so early in our relationship was significant in many ways. It cemented something profound me in that lasted even till today. Her trip triggered my anxiety about abandonment, yet instead of dismissing them like many people would, she showed up. We barely knew each other, but she showed up.

late night skype calls

Getting used to a new person is really challenging, and sometimes the romance makes it harder because it obscures so much. In fleeting moments we got to see each other for who we really are instead of who we imagined each other to be. We fought a lot and hard, but somehow still managed to like each other very much. From this relationship I learned it isn’t romantic love that makes a relationship last, it is genuine liking that will tide us through.

always taking pictures of each other

Six months into our relationship we got really tired of staying out late and all the late night skyping, so we decided to rent a place so we could move in together. Even then it wasn’t like ‘let’s move in together so we can stay together for the rest of our lives’, but ‘hey let’s move in together before we break up’. LOL. We’re both commitment phobic, which turned out to work out in terms of compatibility.

barebones furniture because of commitment phobia

Play is an important theme in our relationship. I grew up too fast so I don’t know how to play, yet I knew it would be important for me as I tried to recover from burnout. She’s game to play whatever I want to play. She never once discouraged me, or faulted me for my short attention span. She’s really good at playing, and it makes me aware how awkward and clumsy I feel whenever it comes to something that requires a playful spirit.

she wins me even at lego

She started making art, and often makes hilarious comics about our relationship:

A year later we made another leap. We would “buy” (double quotation marks because it is legally a remaining 94-year lease) a public flat together. Our relationship was roughly 1.5 years old back then, so it was still a risk, but we had contingency plans in case we couldn’t last.

putting together furniture

I’d moved out since I was 19, and have been moving residences and across oceans. I’d always wanted to be a nomad, until age and burn out caught up with me. Living out of a suitcase is very liberating, but having physical books on a bookshelf without having to pack them in boxes every year is a different kind of liberation.

Co-owning a home felt like a quantum leap for both of us.

art by @launshae

One of the best parts of being with her is to continually and consistently witness the evolution in her art.

her first art sale!
she’s constantly recording

The intimacy of our relationship is sometimes reflected more accurately in her art. After all there is only so much words can say.

Living with an artist means getting to see art pop up in unexpected places too…

Seeing stuff like those around our home just enriches and deepens my life. It is not just the bright and colourful, but the dark and unseen truth too.

I can write a million words to describe how I feel, but that pales in comparison to a picture accurately capturing the sentiment.

That is how I know she sees me like no other.

It is kind of surreal going through five years of photos. We’ve both changed so much and yet so much still feels like the same. I think being able to age together is a blessing.

I’m always writing…
…and she’s always making art
her interpretation of our coworking after watching too many kdramas
celebrating 3 years in 2019
delivering food together
4 years in 2020
love in times of covid
surprise for this year’s birthday
another surprise for today!

In Singapore it is still illegal to be gay, much less be married. We often wonder if we would register our marriage if it was ever legal. Sometimes we talk about doing it in New Zealand. For me it is not so much that marriage is a romantic dream, but rather I just want legal recognition. How can someone go through so much of life with me, give me unending support throughout difficult times, and simply be a “friend”? It feels grossly unfair and offensive to me. I want her name to appear first on my obituary, no questions asked.

But for now perhaps it would be enough to be more married in spirit than some would ever be, that because we are not legally bound there is only love to bind us, the sort of love that is the outcome of being profoundly intertwined for such a significant part of our lives.

After five years, we still like each other very much.

changing the way I write and publish

Lately I’ve been noticing an internal reluctance to write and publish. I don’t think if it is a sign of ageing – that my cognitive performance is getting slower, or that the topics I wish to write are getting more complex. Maybe a bit of both.

I used to designate a specific day to sit down, write and publish in a short intense burst. It has been getting more difficult to do that as my writing ambitions become greater. I spent the last two days writing a review for one of my favourite books “A general theory of love“, and I became so mentally exhausted within an hour that I stopped writing for the rest of the day.

I realised this is partly because I am used to working in short intense bursts (which worked when I was young and sprightly). Sometimes these short intense bursts become long-drawn, and before I know it I’ve been sitting at the computer for like eight hours. It is of no wonder I burn out frequently. That is why the updates to the site and to the site’s library is so sporadic. I work on it in multiple intense bursts and then I am done for weeks, if not months.

As I age I think this is unsustainable, so I am going to try a new experiment. Though I frequently claim on this site that a leopard can truly change its spots, I am not confident in this case because this has been a chronic work pattern I simply cannot seem to break out of. But I am still going to try.

I will simply schedule an hour or two each day to work on my writing instead of trying to publish them at one burst. I may take longer to publish each piece, though in between I may publish casual, stream of consciousness pieces like this one.

Hopefully this will enable me to share more of what I’ve learned throughout the past few years. Meanwhile I am still relatively active on Instagram stories, and also occasionally I cannot help but tweet long threads:

I wanted to turn the above tweet thread into an essay, but this is an example of something that requires more detailed thought and nuance if it exists in long-form.

One of the more frustrating things in expressing my views is that it is difficult to communicate the relationships within an interconnected system:

…in a linear form like writing, but maybe this is something I can solve with time if I can manage to figure out how to work sustainably.