Humour, life, Writing

I was born a gamer. I will die a gamer.

Baud

A moo-dy selfie.

I played my first computer game when I was around five years old.

It was one of those puzzle games that ran off MS DOS.

Grandpa often played the game on the IBM desktop in the study room. He usually did so when Grandma was busy preparing dinner. I suppose that was the only time he had a reprieve from her constant nagging. But as precious as those quiet moments were, he never once refused to let me take over. He’d place me in his lap and teach me the ways of beating the computer.

I have been a gamer ever since.

When I entered primary school a couple of years later, my parents bought an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System to keep my younger brother and I entertained. The console came with a game cartridge containing 40 games. It was awesome.

Battle City, Bomber Man, Ice Climber, Kung Fu and Tag Team Match MUSCLE were among our favourites. We would spend most of the day playing different games during the school holidays, to the point when everything because a little blurry.

After all, that was the only time we were allowed to play the NES.

Mummy later bought us this game called Cobra Triangle where you control a speed boat that could fire big grey pellets. It was a very challenging game and we really enjoyed taking turns to play it. We never got to complete it, though. It just stopped working. I remember how we would say a little prayer before puffing into the bottom of the cartridge. Nothing worked.

The next console we got was a SEGA 16-bit. It was a long-term loan from our uncle. My brother and I always played Bare Knuckle (Japanese version of Streets of Rage) together. Though we were a little older then, and the sibling rivalry had gotten stronger, those two-dimensional streets where pixelated gangsters roamed was the place where we could put our differences aside and work toward a common goal.

“Hey, you’re running out of life. Eat that chicken! I’ll eat the apple instead,” I would tell my brother.

“There are too many bad people! Should I use the special power?” he would ask.

We must have completed the game more than a dozen times. But each play-through felt like a new adventure.

Our gaming exploits were not limited to the SEGA. There was a PC game called Uncharted Waters which we were crazy about. I once accidentally saved over my brother’s game in which he had amassed a fleet of ships armed to the teeth with the best cannons.

Nearly on the verge of tears, he yelled at me and stormed out of the room. He did not talk to me for two days.

When I entered secondary school in 1994, the Playstation became one of our main sources of entertainment. Every one in school loved playing King of Fighters. Mortal Kombat was fun, too. I especially enjoyed Ace Combat.

When my close friends went on a trip to New Zealand during the school holidays, I spent most of my time at the home of another friend playing Resident Evil. We would take turns controlling the character and reading the game guide he purchased. We laughed and screamed and cheered. Fuck, that game was scary. Especially when the lights are switched off.

We became pretty good friends.

Back then, Winning Eleven was a far better game than FIFA, even though the names of the players were in Japanese, which we did not understand. Every Saturday, a whole bunch of friends would come to my place to play virtual and real football. Those were great times.

I hardly played console games during my polytechnic and national service days. During this period, I mostly played PC titles like Warcraft, Starcraft, Command and Conquer, Counterstrike and Battlefield with my pals at LAN centers.

As an officer in the army, I was given charge of the e-learning lab in camp. It was probably one of the most embarrassing postings to be given. After all, most people wanted to be able to train or command a platoon of men. But here I was, assisting a captain with his training duties and making sure the computer lab ran smoothly.

It was a great job to have, by the way. The corporals under me knew their stuff so I never had to check on them. The only time I was required to step in was when I caught wind of an imminent inspection.

“Guys, the captain will be coming to check on us this week. Make sure you aren’t playing Winning Eleven or Command and Conquer in the server room. And stash those controllers,” I would tell them.

“Yes Sir! By the way, we just installed Tiberian Sun. You wanna have a go at it later tonight?”

“Fuck yeah. Count me in.”

Many of those who had to stay in camp during the week days tried to get chummy with me in order to get access to the computer lab. I was a friendly dude. I allowed everyone to play whatever they wanted after office hours. Sergeants, lieutenants and captains from other wings all came to join the party.

To me, gaming during these times was all about bonding.

A 13-year love affair
My first year in university marked the start of a love affair with World of Warcraft (WoW). It was probably not the best time to start playing such an addictive game – I spent more time playing the game than studying, and as a result nearly failed one module. While I didn’t make many friends in Sydney where I studied, I made a number through the game.

I was a Tauren Warrior. I thought it was silly to pick a cow but that was the biggest character available. Everything else just seemed scrawny and squishy. I chose to be a warrior because I like charging into a crowd of enemies and smashing their faces in.

The first guild I joined was Absolute Dragons, which was started by a group of Asian American dragon-boaters based in San Francisco. I thought it was pretty cool to have an Asian woman as the guild leader. She played a shaman and seemed really authoritative over Ventrilo. Her sister seemed like a much nicer person. Maybe it was because she was a priest.

There was also a female huntress in the guild that I thought was gorgeous in real life. But every time I tried to chat her up in the game she would just feign death.

What I loved about vanilla WoW was the 40-man raids. That was seriously intense. The learning curve was pretty steep and almost everyone needed to bring their A-game if the raid group was to kill the boss. I remember trawling through the Auction House in search of fire resist gear. Because we need a minimum amount to qualify for the Molten Core raid.

I really enjoyed the teamwork and the boss fights. The one thing I hated was how those Pauldrons of Might never dropped for me. I had saved all those damn DKP points just to buy it, but when it did finally drop, I wasn’t in the raid.

“Wait for five sunders. Don’t pull aggro if you’re not the tank,” the guild leader would always call out before the boss fight. Back during those times, the tank determined the pace. These days, the new kids in WoWjust pull everything and expect the tank to deal with the mess. Self-entitled brats. Fuckin’ millennials.

When damage output was found to be lacking, the raid leader would call out: “More dots, more dots.” I loved that phrase. It made me imagine bosses to be covered in polka dots. It made me chuckle.

It has been 13 years since WoW was released. I’m still a subscriber. I don’t have any friends I play with anymore, but I still enjoy the game. It’s no longer about getting into raids to get the best gear or making new friends. These days, it’s all about discovering the storyline and just decompressing.

Before I got married and was living with my parents, my mother would often come into the room when I was raiding and exclaim: “Aren’t you a little too old to be playing computer games?”

“Would you rather I be out drinking and smoking and doing drugs?”

Yup, always worked.

A few months ago, a Taiwanese friend who was at my apartment saw WoW running on the laptop and said: “Playing games at this age? You’re really quite a zhai nan (宅男) aren’t you?”

I think that terms refers to being a geek. Well, I’m not a geek.

You know, gamers are really misunderstood people. Those who don’t game on a regular basis think that we are:

(a) socially awkward
(b) nerds
(c) losers
(d) immature
(e) all of the above

And that’s really the furthest thing from the truth. I might be a little bit of an (a) at times but I generally love having a few pints while meeting new people.

I’m certainly not (b), while (c) and (d) can be pretty subjective term.

Am I immature? Well, how do you even define maturity? The size of my epeen? The wrinkles on my face? The fact that I play games? It doesn’t even make sense.

One can never be too old to be a gamer. Many people seem to think gaming is something only kids do. They believe that being a certain age means having to do certain things that fulfills the criteria of being that old.

Oh, you’re 28, it’s time to be a husband.

Oh, you’re 30, it’s time to be a father.

Oh, you’re 33, you should be focusing on your career and making lots of money.

Oh, you’re 50, time to think life after retirement.

No. We don’t have to follow these goddamned pre-determined routes in life in order to be happy. If you like gaming, you like gaming.

Gaming is a religion. RNGesus is our God. You don’t need to be a certain age to accept a religion.

My wife doesn’t find joy in playing games. That’s cool. Her psycho-motor skills suck anyway. The only game she was decent in was Candy Crush. When she tried to play WoW all she ever did was spend my gold on new clothes.

She told me that reading is a much more enjoyable hobby. She’s really good a reading. She can blitz through a 500-pager in one day. Me? Sony would’ve released the Playstation 10 by the time I’m done with a book this long.

Reading doesn’t appeal to me that much because I find it hard to get immersed. I always feel like a spectator.

Some people get satisfaction from completing a book. I get satisfaction from that glorious ache in my hands after an intense boss fight.

The beauty of gaming
I also love gaming because I love a good story. I mean, I’m a writer. Or an aspiring one, anyway. Gaming allows me to experience a story differently.

It allows me to be in the story. Sometimes, I am the story.

As such, I can still vividly recall all the scenes that took place in the games I have played.

I remember shaking my head in disbelief at how beautiful the ending to The Last of US was.

I remember sobbing when Mordin Solus sacrificed himself in Mass Effect 3.

I remember gasping in horror when Sephiroth impaled Aerith in Final Fantasy 7.

I remember feeling a mixture of sadness and awe when Thrall killed Garrosh in Warlords of Draenor.

I remember getting a hard-on when Morrigan bedded my Warden in Dragon Age.

More importantly, games have showed me what good storytelling should be – emotional, honest.

A reflection of life
When I was feeling depressed in the months followings my big move to Shanghai, Hearthstone taught me some important lessons about the RNG-ness of life. Like how sometimes you’re just dealt an atrocious starting hand and there’s little you can do about it.

Really? Drawing three 6-mana cards when I only have three 6-mana cards in the deck? Seriously, RNGesus. What the fucking fuck?

On other occasions, the cards you start with allow you to win within four moves, because everything just connects, and because the opponent just so happened to have a really crappy draw.

I once lost 12 ranked games in a row. Nothing I did went right. I could knock someone down to 5 HP only to lose in the next three moves. Shit happens. And that’s the world for you. Everything is uncertain. If RNGesus decides to fuck you up with a bad draw, you just learn to deal with it. When you lose, all you can do is pick yourself up and just go at it again.

 

What we can do, though, is set ourselves up for success; maximise our chances of not fucking up. Build a deck is suited to your ambition, your play style. Determine if this play style is suitable for the context you are in. Anticipate what the opponent might play. Have a contingency plan.

When you’re done building your strategy to life, experiment with it. Win a couple. Lose a couple. Go back to the drawing board. Revise the deck. Improve on it. Go out there again and play.

No, this isn’t what gaming or a fantasy card game is about.

This is what life is about.

My name is Alywin. I turn 35 in October. I am a gamer. And I’m damn proud to be one.

So, why do you game?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Humour, life, Singapore, Writing

Siao ah, leave Shanghai for what?

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Some people say Shanghai is like a dystopia compared to Singapore. But hey, I fuckin’ love it.

So, on the cusp of my 3rd anniversary in Shanghai, I reckoned it was time to do some reflecting.

My opinion of both cities has not changed but my outlook to life certainly has since the moment I set foot in China.

And this was only possible because I forced myself to take a step back to deconstruct everything I once believed in; to reset a life perspective that was molded by my 32 years in Singapore.

Okay, recap. In Singapore, I was an ambitious go-getter, or at least that was what I thought of myself to be. I was eager to be well-known in the tiny industry. I was eager to make lots of money.

I thought that checking emails during holidays meant that I was hardworking. I thought that having to leave a meal to take a fucking con-call was cool. Because busy is good. Because busy means I am constantly striving for progress.

I needed to live life in the fast lane. I looked down on those in the slow lane who were content to stay in their shells. I balked at those who refused to ride the never-ending waves of new trends. I stepped on people’s toes and refused to admit I was wrong.

I chased the Likes on Facebook, the followers on Instagram. Because they buoyed my sense of confidence. Having lots of friends meant having a big network. Having a big network meant more connections.

Connections are very important in life. Because meritocracy is a farce. Knowing famous and influential personalities is a much more efficient and effective way of getting things done. Singaporeans are renowned for our efficiency.

Yes, this modus operandi was correct, I assured myself. It had to be.

But deep down inside, a part of me silently protested this approach. And so I shut it out. Because I needed to be single-minded.

And then somewhere along the way all this toxicity exploded within. Just like how your stomach protests after you consume a whole bunch of stuff that don’t agree with one another, my soul started to lao sai.

It was a sign I needed to get the fuck out of Singapore. You know, detox a little.

I started this blog to track my self. I was intrigued with what living abroad could do to change perceptions of life.

My first year was horrid. You can read more about it in the other blog posts. I was essentially still in Singapore-mode. I was still chasing the same things in life.

But I got to learn one incredibly valuable lesson – that failing is okay, that we needed to just get up, move on and not mull over it. Because life’s too fucking short to be spent wallowing in self-pity.

Year 2 outside of Singapore was when the self started to change noticeably. It was no longer willing to just be a silent bystander. It wanted to be heard. It wanted to denounce those that was not like it.

I developed this desire to stir the pot and as a result learned that people don’t like to lose. I learned that in the midst of an argument, when emotions run amok, your ability to make sense of things gets compromised. I learned that you lose all objectivity when you go Hulk-mode. I learned that you end up trying to assassinate the other person’s character instead of clearly articulating your point of view.

I don’t apologise for my view that athletes are obliged to talk to the media. I still believe they are. But I guess I could’ve been more articulate and clear that it was MY stance, not the IOC’s.

I do apologise for being condescending to those who didn’t agree.

I know I only managed to learn all these things because I was not busy chasing fame and fortune.

Year 3 started with a life-changing trip to the Tibetan plateau. It showed me that we don’t actually need much to live, that simplicity was the key to happiness.

You know, it was actually bloody ironic – it took a luxury camping trip for me to realise I don’t need luxury.

I sought to declutter my life after that holiday. I began to see things for what they really are. I started to view us humans as a bowl of boring noodles that’s desperate to be filled with ingredients so that we look and taste better. Pork lard. Chives. Meatballs. Mushrooms. Lettuce. Fishcake. Vinegar. Chili.

Ok, yes, I’m describing bak chor me.

Anyway, I learned that there’s nothing wrong with plain noodles. What’s the point of having all these tasty ingredients if the noodles taste like rubber?

I learned to ignore so-called added value. A bag is just a storage tool. Clothing is just a means to cover up your body. A $20 bag from the pasar malam does the same job as a $20,000 one designed by some fashion icon. A $20 pair of denims from a Chinese retailer on Taobao covers your legs the same way a $400 pair does.

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Sometimes simple is just more charming.

We willingly pay so much more for well-known brands because we associate it self-worth and identity. Okay, fine, sometimes we spend more because of aesthetics. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re really not that discerning.

I also learned that social media is not an extension of the self, but a projection of what we think we want others to think of us. I once asked a friend, “So, why did you like this particular post. Do you think she did a great job with the project? She sure got a lot of likes.”

The friend replied, “Actually, I don’t know what the project is about. I just liked it.”

Yes, that’s how many of us operate. We sometimes click on “Like” or “Heart” or “LMAO face” not because we actually appreciate the content. We do so because we like the person. Because we admire the person. Because we aspire to be like them. Because deep within the darkest recesses of the mind we secretly wanna fuck some of them.

So, yes, meritocracy is a farce. But I no longer attempt to convince myself that this is the way to approach things.

I only have 679 friends on Facebook. I can’t be bothered to add more. I’m more interested in surrounding myself with like-minded people and growing the way I wanna grow.

I JUST WANNA BE MEE POK.

The people I met on the Tibet Plateau also showed me that everything in life is relative. The American dude who gets paid a paltry stipend every month loves being there even though he can make a shitload of money back home – he’s an MIT graduate.

There is a Chinese phrase that goes 不同人,不同命, which literally means “different person, different life.” The way I comprehend this is that everything is relative and there is no point constantly comparing ourselves to others.

I once met a Yunnan farmer who on a good year earns $2,000. Some new graduates in Singapore earn that in a month. Top footballers earn £200,000 in a week.

Does the farmer deserve to earn more because he has to work in harsh conditions? Or does a footballer deserve that pay because he’s so good with balls? How to compare? You can’t.

Yup, what the fuck. 不同人,不同命. Just move on.

China has been an amazing learning experience. Apart from whatever I have mentioned, it has taught me that everyone behaves the way they do because of their culture, their society, the things that surround them.

China has a bad rep for copying. But copying is not entirely frowned upon here. I learned that those who copied, improved the original product and succeeded were revered. That’s just how it works. There’s a particular Chinese brand that many people like to say is an Apple copycat. Well look how well they’re doing.

Chinese people love to treat their VIPs to massive dinners. Yes, this results in crazy food wastage, but this to them is the definition of good hospitality. I suppose in light of the state of the planet we should be encouraging them to cut down on wastage. But we should in no certain terms chide them for their way of life.

Because I believe there’s no right and wrong. Because like a friend recently said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

I suppose one of the most important things I have learned since being in China is that we need to strip away all the layers of bias when dealing with others. Just because the person is mainland Chinese doesn’t mean he is uncouth. Oh come on, we Singaporeans aren’t exactly angels. Look at what we’ve done to damn Ofo bikes.

We need to view people for who they are – as humans. Not as gays or lesbians or Chinese or Malay or hipsters or believers of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’m all for equality, which is why the decision to barricade Hong Lim Park during Pink Dot upset me.

Seriously, after all that talk about making Singapore a more inclusive and empathetic place we go ahead and do this? It’s like wearing a condom over a condom. Kanina, no feeling liao lah.

So, no. I can’t to return Singapore yet. Because I know the vacuum will mold me and turn me into that person I don’t want to be. But why can’t I maintain this state of mind and be in Singapore?

I guess I’m just not ready.

By the way, I just extended my contract by another year.

 

Pen to paper,
the deal is done.
I might be a pauper,
but damn, I’m having fun.

 

 

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sports, Writing

The wild dreamer turned hurdles king

 

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Omar McLeod loves being in the spotlight, and he’s not shy to admit it.

“Ever since I was a kid I knew I wanted to be famous,” he laughed.

“I wanted to be a TV personality. I wanted to be an Olympian. I wanted to be a gold medallist. I used to be a wild dreamer.”

Like most Jamaican kids, he was a student of the country’s national sporting: running. Like everyone else, he was inspired by the exploits of Usain Bolt, the eight-time Olympic gold medallist who has been immortalized as the greatest sprinter mankind has ever known.

And so McLeod ran. On anything. Over everything.

He used to set up buckets and trash cans on the road and challenge his friends. Every time he saw a speed bump on the road he just had to vault over it.

“I loved hurdling. It was like I was born to be a hurdler,” he said.

Whenever his mother sent him on an errand to buy groceries, McLeod and his cousins would take up starting positions outside his home before racing to the store, running on dirt tracks, tarred roads and through grassy fields. There were no medals for victory, just sweets.

Just like Bolt’s Olympic career, McLeod was undefeated.

“I ended up winning all the sweets so my aunt told me I had to share with the rest of the kids or I would get lots of cavities,” he chuckled.

McLeod went on to run for Manchester High School and Kingston College before moving to the United States. There, he lit up the collegiate athletics scene with the Arkansas Razorbacks, becoming a four-time NCAA champion in the 60m and 110m hurdles as well as the 4x100m relay.

The man loves his discipline. Each hurdle, he said, reminds him of the struggles he went through in life. The death of his beloved aunt in 2014 is the most significant one of all. She was only 27 years old.

“When she passed away, I was reintroduced to myself. It was one of those redefining moments that got me thinking about what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

“I realised that life is short – I really had to go after what I wanted.”

And go for it he did. The next year, he clocked 12:97 to beat Hansle Parchment, the national record holder of the 110m hurdles, at the 2015 Jamaican Championships. In April 2016, he posted 9.99 seconds in the 100m sprint at the John McDonnell Invitational in Fayetteville, US.

No other living being on this planet has managed to run the 110m hurdles and 100m sprint in under 13 and 10 seconds respectively.

Just like Bolt, McLeod had feats he could truly call his own.

His stock was now rising. But he knew he was far from perfect. Technique is something he knows he has to work on. He knows he could probably learn a thing or two from the Chinese.

“I know China is famous for their technical events. Last year when I was here I got to see how a Chinese athlete warms up. He was just doing a bunch of stretching exercises but his technique was amazing. He made the rest of us look really bad,” he laughed.

“Liu Xiang’s technique is just sublime. He never hits hurdles. He never falters. He always gets the job done. There is no hurdler in the world who does it like Liu Xiang.”

Moments later, McLeod couldn’t resist wresting the spotlight back from the Chinese legend.

“He reminds me of me. We don’t lean into the hurdle as much.”

His Achilles’ heel, ironically, is his explosive pace. He approaches the hurdles faster than he can react. He crashed out of two races before the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But the bruises he suffered were merely superficial. A few months later, on sport’s biggest stage, McLeod made history by becoming the first Jamaican to win the 110m hurdles at the Rio Olympics.

His childhood dream was now fulfilled. He was truly famous. He confessed that he took his time with the victory lap, savouring every bit of adulation that went his way.

“I just didn’t want that moment to pass. I ended up going back to the hotel at two or three in the morning,” he said.

“I spoke to my mum when I got back to the hotel. We started crying as soon as she called me.”

Has this fame gotten to his head? McLeod claims it hasn’t, saying the quotes from the Bible he frequently gets from his family and agents help to tame the beast named Pride. He claims that his child-like personality has a nullifying effect on egotism, too. He admits to playing a lot of video games and watching Pokemon. He also sings regularly in the church choir.

Ambition, however, is his biggest anchor.

“I’m still young, there’s so much more I have to accomplish – that’s also what keeps me grounded,” he said, before citing the Bible verse Luke 12:48.

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

This is turning out to be a good year for McLeod. In February, he broke Jamaica’s indoor 200m record. In April, he became the new record holder of the 110m hurdles at the Drake Relays in Iowa.

His latest 110m hurdles triumph came last Saturday at the Shanghai Diamond League. Again, his pace threatened to derail his race. He sent the second hurdle crashing to the track. But he was unfazed, never once losing the lead in a tight race that saw Spain’s Orlando Ortega breath down his neck every inch of the way. But it was also this power that sealed the win in the final three meters, allowing him to peel away from the Spaniard to finish 0.06 seconds quicker.

Despite declaring that he was the man to beat at Saturday’s meet, he knew better than to be smug about his status as Olympic champion.

“Ortega is one of the best. There was no time for complacency. I didn’t get to control the race the way I wanted to but I felt him and all I wanted to do was maintain my composure,” he said.

“I knew with my speed and technique I would get to the line first.”

If anything, the pressure of being at the top has amplified his hunger. He wants to win the world championships in August. He wants to focus on training for his favourite event, the 200m, next year.

But what about the 100m? McLeod knows he’s got the pace but he isn’t a big fan of the blue ribbon event.

“There are so many technicalities involved in running a 100m that I didn’t know about. I used to think that you just go into the blocks and run. But when I ran it, I ran it like the hurdles. It was so much harder. There is no drive phase, no transition. I told my coach: ‘Man, this is hard!’” he laughed.

“You get some leeway for the 200m. You can back off a little bit and make your move. I love the event. I actually like it more than the hurdles.”

Breaking the world record held by Aries Merritt is also on the cards, but McLeod is in no hurry to do so. In reality, he has all the time to do so. He is only 23.

“I’m still a learner of the sport. I think people forget how young I am. I want to break the world record when I’m ready. If it’s not this year, that’s fine. But that’s a career objective for sure.”

McLeod paused when asked what his secret is. He doesn’t fancy Jamaican yam like Bolt does. He settled for something a little more visceral, saying it was all about “just being myself.”

Then he grinned, his eyes lighting up. It was fried chicken.

“Actually, I think my secret would be Popeyes. Yeah, I love Popeyes.”

The rising star has already been compared to Bolt, the legend he has revered since childhood. Only a few athletes in the world get to enjoy such an honour, but that isn’t quite enough for McLeod. He’s not interested in living in someone else’s shadow.

Because he loves being in the spotlight, and he’s still not shy to admit it.

“I do not want to be Usain Bolt. I want be my own spark to the sport,” he said.

“I want to be Omar McLeod.”

 

 

Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com 

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Writing

Dreamers

There is a world out there. A world meant for just you. A world that’s beyond comprehension to everyone but you. But you can’t help but try, as hard as you can, to bring others in, to show them the marvel you see, the technicolour storm clouds that billow and morph into creatures that have no name, the stars with moons for smiles, the confetti as large as pine trees, the giant lip in the sky from which the symphony of the soul overflows.

Because you know not, or refuse to know, that these outsiders, as loved as they are by you, as irrelevant as they are to you, will eternally be blind to this whimsical realm only you can exist in. And so the gravity of the aching heart pulls you down into a crouch, head bowed, gazing at the spot in the ground where the light doesn’t reach, wondering the purpose of this loneliness, cursing this fate that has commandeered you.

Yet you must continue, to enter this world, surrender to it even, because it is not a matter of desire but need; an inner voice from beyond shadow and light that seduces and frightens at the same time calling out to you to conceive from this dimension a being that can transcend the different planes of reality and be visible to all.

So to you, the writer, the poet, the actor, the painter, the thinker, the swimmer in the waterless ocean, the runner in the clouds, embrace this abyss.

Live it. Breathe it. Spiral freely into it. Smother its soil all over yourself and dance to the rousing beat of its trumpeting heart.

Dream, dream.

Dream.

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Short Stories, Writing

Make-belief

childhood

By the time I had moved into Normanton Park, my father had already left the army and the estate was no longer an exclusive abode for military officers. He used to be a captain in a combat engineer battalion, and I didn’t know what these type of soldiers did as he never talked his army life.

I imagined combat engineers as warriors who fought with screwdrivers and spanners and wore those yellow hardhats.

The only remnants of his military life were a wooden replica of a bolt-action Enfield rifle and a ceremonial sword, both of which were hung on the largest wall in the living room. The sword was heavy and the rust made it difficult to unsheathe so I wasn’t very keen on playing with it. I stuck to playing with my plastic katanas instead.

The rifle, on the other hand, was something I was fascinated with. I occasionally fiddled with the bolt, imagining that I was loading a bullet and squeezing the trigger that didn’t budge. Eager to role-play as a soldier after watching a World War II film, I once lifted the gun off the hooks on the wall so that I could drag it back to my room. It was so heavy that I lost control of the object, sending it crashing into the porcelain vase on the pedestal next to it. My father got angry. Very angry.

When he was mad at me, the world around me would shake. He had a very, very loud voice, the kind I imagined could shatter glass windows and awaken a person who’s been in a coma for the past twenty years. Even the discipline master in school, who loved shouting at the naughty kids in school, sounded like a meek mouse compared to my father.

He bought me a toy rifle a few days later. I suppose it was his way of telling me never to touch the replica again.

Though my father was no longer in the army, the way he approached things in life was still very military-esque. He would scold me for spilling any of my food on the table, even if it was just a small drop of sauce. I had to be in bed by 10 pm. Not a minute later. If we had to leave home at 6 pm for dinner, I was expected to have my shoes on by 5.58 pm and waiting by the front door.

Strangely enough, my father left the corporal punishment to my mother. I thought maybe he decided this was the best way to go about things because he might end up killing me if he had to get involved. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because my mother was pretty vicious with the cane.

My parents didn’t fight often. But when they did, things tend to get destroyed. My father never once hit my mother, but he did hit a lot of other things.

He once pounded his fist on the table so hard that one of the legs cracked. He once threw a paperweight so forcefully at the wardrobe that he obliterated a section of the door. Our maid spent half the day removing all the wooden shards from our clothes.

My father was a man of few words. He didn’t like answering questions either. One of my favourite dinner dishes at home was pork slices braised in a dark soy sauce and sesame oil and topped with shredded ginger. One evening, I asked my father what exactly it was we were always eating.

“What is this?” I said, pointing to a piece of meat between my chopsticks.

“That’s meat.”

“What is meat?”

“Meat is meat lah!”

I didn’t dare question any further. For a good six months I kept thinking that pork was simply called meat. It was only when my Aunt Margaret intervened that I realised I was duped.

“Hey, what are eating?” she said during one of the family gatherings.

“I’m eating meat, auntie.”

“Yes I can see that, but what kind of meat?”

“Meat.”

“Yes, but is it chicken, pork or beef?”

“It’s just meat. Don’t ask silly questions. My father would’ve scolded you!”

My father taught me how to swim when I was seven. Many of the other kids in the estate took lessons at the swimming complex in the estate but my father said such things were just a waste of money.

“I’ll teach you how to swim in half the time and at zero the cost,” he proudly declared before ordering me to change into my trunks.

Before I learned how to swim, I spent nearly every weekend waddling in the shallow pool. I loved splashing around and re-enacting scenes from martial arts films where the characters would be using their inner powers against one another. I loved the feeling of hitting the water surface whenever I pretended to be hit by a bullet.

That slight pain when I fell flat on my back was invigorating. It made my make-believe scenario seemed a little more real.

The day I learned how to swim was also the day I almost drowned. I heard that some kids learned how to swim by getting dunked into the deep end of the pool.

I dunked myself into the deep end of the pool.

After teaching me how to tread water with my legs, my father left me sitting on the rails at the side of the pool and told me to wait as he wanted to do a couple of laps. He was a big fellow, with arms so large and sturdy I could hang on them like how I would on the monkey bars at the playground. But despite his size, he swam rather gracefully. I was envious.

Looks really easy. Just swing your arms and flutter your feet. You can do this.

Before my mind could thoroughly process that thought, I jumped back into the water. I knew what I was supposed to do, but my mind didn’t seem to be in sync with my body. Water started swirling down my throat and nose as I desperately flailed my arms like a crab that just had a chopstick shoved between its eyes (my grandma killed crabs this way).

“I told you to wait, didn’t I,” he said sternly as lifted me above the water’s surface.

“I thought it was going to be easy.”

“You think you know how to swim just because you learned how to trap water for a few minutes?”

I coughed out more water. It felt like a really long worm was wriggling in the passage between my nose and throat.

“Son, you cannot just skip the steps. You have to work for everything in life!”

My parents always repeated that last phrase. I assumed this thing called “work” was really important because my father had to occasionally leave home after dinner to go to work. My mother was a manager in a factory that sold bedsheets and she often had to do overtime too.

But I liked it when she had to do overtime, because that meant I had more time to play. She would always make me do assessment books or revise what I learned in school whenever she was home.

To keep me occupied, my parents plied me with books. They said that reading was good. I had no qualms with that. I loved reading. Sometimes my father would even scold me for doing nothing but reading. Adults were just so hard to please.

The bookshelf at home was filled with Enid Blyton books and my favourite was the Mr. Meddle’s Muddles series. I could not believe anyone could be as silly and kaypoh as Mr. Meddles. The other book I liked was The Secret Seven. I had always been a fan of detective stories. Uncovering mysteries excited me.

My favourite author was Roald Dahl. George’s Marvellous Medicine was such a delight to read that I finished it. Thrice. In three days. I wondered if I could create a concoction and feed it to my grandmother. I would of course alter the recipe so that she doesn’t disappear. I just wanted to mute her. I think my grandfather would’ve agreed.

The book that left the deepest impression was Matilda. Though she was a girl, I could imagine myself in her shoes. We were both scrawny kids. We both had a nasty teacher in school we hated. For me, it was Mrs. Alphonso, a bespectacled, white-haired lady who loved scolding the class and pinching students who misbehaved. She also looked exactly like how I imagined Agatha Trunchbull to be. I once forgot to do my homework and she flung my jotter book at my chest. Sometimes she would pull my ears like how farmers milked cows. My tears would instantly fall.

But unlike Matilda, I was not capable of telekinesis. I know because I tried. I had stared at a ping pong ball for twenty minutes, willing it to move. My maid thought I had gone mad and quickly phoned my mother in the office.

“Are you okay? Why are you in a daze?” asked my mother over the phone.

“I was trying to be Matilda. You know, the girl from the book. She managed to move a cup using her mind.”

“You siao ah? Stop staring and go do your homework.”

“The teacher didn’t give us homework today.”

“That new maths assessment book I bought you. Do the next section. I’ll check your work when I come home.”

I thought adults were such boring creatures. It seemed like the only things in life they knew were work, homework and housework.

“If you want to live a good life, you have to work hard,” said my mother.

“But what if I work hard but still don’t have a good life?”

“Nonsense. If you work hard you will definitely have a good future. Don’t argue with me. If you are not hardworking, you won’t get good results in school and one day you’ll end up sweeping the roads. Do you want to be a road sweeper?”

I guess I didn’t want to. Sweeping leaves didn’t seem like much fun.

I didn’t like studying but it was worth it, because in exchange for As and Bs at school, I got toys. Getting a B average for exams and major tests in school got me the cheaper toys that cost between $10 and $20. These were mostly action figures.

Scoring As got me the big-ticket items, like the huge pirate ship from Lego, the awesome Starmax Bomber from Starcom, and my most prized possession of them all – the massive Devastator robot that was made up of a bunch of smaller Decepticon robots. I held an open house for three days just so my friends could come to my place to play with it.

By the end of Primary 6, I had so many toys that my mother had to buy two huge wooden crates to store them. Lego, MASK, Batman, Exo Squad, Terminator, He-Man, Starcom, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Swamp Thing, Captain Planet, Spiderman, X-Men.

You name it. I had it.

Well, except Superman. He looked really stupid wearing his red underwear on the outside.

Toys utterly fascinated me because my favourite heroes were here in the real world with me. I could touch them and manipulate their every move. I could decide who they fought against. I was the commander of their fates. If I didn’t like how a particular scenario in the cartoon played out, I would act out that same scene on my table and change the ending.

I could make it my story.

I liked putting heroes like Batman in fights he could never win. He would have to fight Bebop, Rocksteady, Swamp Thing, He-Man and Captain Planet before eventually losing to The Joker.

I didn’t like how the good guys always won the day.

I hated how there’s only one type of ending.

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Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Smoking kills

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The one thing from my childhood I remember the best is the smells.

In the mornings, the scent of freshly baked bread from the confectionery store across the road would assail my nose when I was waiting for the school bus. In the afternoons, it was the smell of food from the hawker center, in particular, the sweet scent of fried carrot cake, the kind doused with a saccharine black sauce.

At another corner of the neighbourhood it was the aroma of spices that came from a shop selling flaky, triangular curry puffs. In the evenings, the neighbourhood was always filled with the smell of home-cooked food and burning joss sticks.

Every day around the time my favourite Aksi Mat Yoyo variety show was screened, Grandpa would plant three joss sticks in this bronze container that hung outside the window of the living room. I was always fascinated with this container – it looked as if two mythical creatures were attempting to charge out on either ends before its heads were fossilised by a sudden downpour of rapidly cooling lava.

When Grandpa was done with this, he would plant more joss sticks into another container in the cabinet above the television that also housed some sort of deity. Then, without fail, I would hear him light up a cigarette in his room. Around this time, Grandma would be nearly done with her cooking. We would know because she always yelled for Grandpa to set the table.

The tantalising scent of sesame oil, the aromatic but pungent smell of sambal belachan, the dense and slightly acrid smell of incense and the strangely comforting odour of cigarette smoke would then begin their dance, each twirling around one another as they vied for my attention.

I learned to associate this smorgasbord of smells with happiness. It meant that the day was winding down. It meant that night was about to fall. And all the fun things usually happened at night, like the free mobile clinic that my Grandparents used to take me to all the time. I used to suffer from asthma.

I found great joy in stomping on the narrow metal steps that led up to the entrance of the white medical trailer, as if I was adding drum beats to the droning buzz of the nearby diesel generator. Inside, I revelled at the sight of the countless medication bottles that came in all sorts of colours.

I also found the smell of medication very calming. It made me feel safe. It made me feel that everything was going to be alright. Well, at least that was what Grandma kept telling me.

“Sir, are you still smoking in the house?” asked the doctor, a diminutive Chinese man who had spectacles so large and thick it seemed like he was wearing goggles.

“I know you are. I can smell it from here,” he continued, without looking at Grandpa.

The doctor’s eyes were magnified by the lenses, which reminded me of those weird mirrors I’d come across at the monthly fun fair in the open field. I giggled to myself but ended up in a coughing fit.

“Second-hand smoke is not good for your grandchild, especially since he has asthma,” said the doctor, who was busy scribbling words onto a small white card.

Grandpa did not say a word. He just nodded.

“And you should quit. Smoking kills, you know?”

Grandpa and I left the trailer shortly after with a small plastic bag containing a bottle of cough syrup and slender tubes of black liquid made from medicinal herbs. On the way home, we bumped into Grandma, who had just finished perming her hair at the salon two streets down. She looked like Ronald McDonald, though I never did dare to tell her that.

“So what did the doctor say?” asked Grandma.

“Take the medicine on time. Quit smoking.”

“Not like you’re ever going to quit.”

He just shrugged his shoulders.

Grandpa was a man of few words. My interactions with him were generally non-verbal. I liked it when he lifted me up from behind and placed my two feet onto his before walking around the house. I felt like I was character from Exosquad and he was my exo-skeleton. Together, we were invincible. He also liked to pass me phone cards that could be used at pay phones, knowing how I was utterly fascinated by his massive collection, stored on the shelves hidden behind the mirror at the dressing table.

Once every few days, I’d swing open this mirror and take these cards out to admire all the different designs. I would also pull a cigarette out from his golden packet of Dunhill Red and run it along my nose.

I loved the sweet seductive scent of tobacco. This was my favourite smell during my childhood.

“Can I try one, Grandpa?” I said.

“No. You’re too young.”

I hated the answer. I didn’t understand why people had to be of a certain age before they could do things. It was silly. I was desperate to grow up and be an adult.

“The doctor said that smoking kills, is that true?” I asked.

“I’m still alive, right?” he sniggered.

I guess that made sense. After all, things only died after they were hit on the head with a slipper, like cockroaches and wasps. No one in the Ninja Turtles ever died. Not the heroes in a hard shell. Not the bad guys like Shredder and Krang. It was the same for He-Man. And Tom and Jerry. And Mighty Mouse. I suppose people just get bruised. Only insects died. I’m not an insect. And neither is Grandpa.

One day when Grandpa went across the road to buy TOTO and 4D, I revisited his collection of phone cards. I laid them on the bed in a 10 by 10 square and stood back to admire the grandeur of the scene. I then took a cigarette and placed it between my lips. Then I struck the matchstick against the dark brown side of the box. Nothing happened. I struck it again, creating tiny sparks that looked like how the National Day fireworks would during the last few seconds of the show. The third strike produced a flame.

As the end of the cigarette started smouldering, I held the stick just like how Grandpa normally would, with the tips of his thumb and the “rude” finger, and sucked on it. The taste in my mouth was nothing like the smell I was used to. It made me cough and retch.

“Ah boy, why are you coughing again ah? I told you not to drink cold drinks, right?” said Grandma as she walked into the room

Yao mou kao chor ah?!” she shrieked.

I didn’t know if she was mad at me for messing up her bed or being topless (it was a really hot day). But I had never seen her so mad before.

She snatched the cigarette from me, left the room and returned within just a few seconds, with a cane in hand. That was the day I found out that smoking came with painful consequences.

But despite the searing sensation on my arms and legs, I lived. Just like all my favourite cartoon characters, I survived. Just like them, I had bruises to show for my exploits. I was still alive.

Grandpa was right. Smoking doesn’t kill.

But boy oh boy, I reckon Grandma could.

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Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Mr. Samy the barber

 

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Between the ages of one and five, I spent the weekdays at my grandparents’ public housing flat in Eunos Crescent.

There was a barber shop across the road called Bugs Bunny that grandma and grandpa would take me to once every few weeks. The place just smelled like talcum powder. Lots and lots of powder. I thought that must be the reason why most of my friends hated having their hair cut.

I didn’t really fancy Bugs Bunny. In fact, I hated carrots. But I enjoyed my haircuts.

Because the barber named Mr. Samy would always put up a show.

Near the end of every haircut, he would dip a small but stout brush into a cup of water before dabbing my sideburns with it. The experience was always somewhat unnerving. The water was always slightly cold. It always made my hair stand. It always made me cringe.

I hated that feeling. But I always told myself to bear with it because the performance was up next.

Mr. Samy would then swing the razor blade around like those villains from Hong Kong movies. He would do so exactly three times. The sound of the blade entering and exiting its sheath was like a drumroll indicating the imminent arrival of the pièce de résistance. I loved it. I lapped it all up.

His face bore no expression when he swept the blade across his palms. Left, right, left, right, left, left, right, right. It was always in this order. He would then plant the thumb of his left hand firmly onto the side of my head before the cool blade worked its way down. The noise of hair getting displaced sounded like trees growing, their branches slowly fanning out in all directions before the trunk suddenly shot toward the sky.

Mr. Samy never once bled from this outrageous feat. He reminded me of the triceratops, one of my favourite dinosaurs, which I learned from cartoons had incredibly tough skin. I wondered what type of skin I had.

One day, I decided to find out. While grandma was chatting with Mr. Samy, I got off the chair and sneakily opened the drawer in front of me. I turned around as I reached for the razor blade, checking to see if the two adults were looking. They weren’t. I remember grandma complaining about the new price of the haircut and how Mr. Samy just laughed.

I seized the opportunity and ran the cold blade down my palm, and it made me wonder if it was a magical blade that only Mr. Samy could wield. I watched with intrigue as the flesh parted and blood oozed out. It looked exactly like how the paste within my favourite red bean bun would flow out when I tore it in half.

By the time Mr. Samy and my grandma realised what had happened, the blood was already dripping onto the floor. One drop fell onto the pristine white school shoe on my left feet as the barber frantically stuck a wad of tissue paper over the wound. A dull ache echoed through my palm as he applied pressure. My grandma was now squatting on the pale green ceramic floor as she wiped the blood off the surface. When the bleeding stopped, Mr. Samy took a plaster out from the wooden cabinet at the back of shop and handed it to grandma.

Five minutes later, it was business as usual. Grandma stuck the huge plaster on my palm as I sucked on a grape-flavoured Hacks sweet that Mr. Samy had given me, probably in an attempt to prevent me from crying.

But I was never going to cry. I was jealous.

“Tell me, why do you not bleed?” I said.

“It’s a secret. You’ll understand when you’re older,” replied Mr. Samy.

 

The next day, I found grandpa outside the toilet in the kitchen, applying a layer of white paint to the stained school shoe. He patted my head as I stood beside him and took in the second hand smoke from his Dunhill Reds.

He was meticulous about the application of the white paint, rotating the shoe in every possible direction to ensure that every part was evenly coated. When he had used up the final drop of paint from the bottle, he carefully ran a shoelace through just two holes in each shoe and tied a knot with the two ends before hanging them on the laundry pole.

I wondered if a wind would blow the shoes twelve stories down. I wondered if the wet paint would drip and splatter on someone’s face, and how that someone might think he just got hit by bird poop. I giggled to myself.

“I heard from Mama you cut yourself with Mr. Samy’s razor last night,” he said, passing the empty bottle to me and pointing to the rubbish bin.

I nodded.

“Did it hurt?” said grandpa as he tapped the end of his cigarette into a tin can that used to contain luncheon meat.

“Just a little.”

“Well now you know not to do it again, right?”

I nodded. I looked at my palm. The plaster that was around it had already started to lose its grip. I cautiously peeled it off to see the wound. It tickled more than it hurt. Grandpa gently took my hand and examined the wound before sticking the plaster back on.

“Don’t take it off yet. Keep it covered. The plaster keeps bad things away,” he said.

I wanted to ask him what he meant exactly, but a sound from the living room interrupted my train of thought. I smiled and took off. The next episode of He-Man had started.

I loved that cartoon so much I always demanded for a new action figure whenever my parents brought me out during the weekends. The only one I didn’t get was Sheila.

Girls were just irritating. And she wore a snake over her head. I hated snakes and everything that resembled one. Lizards were gross too.

I would often act out scenes from the cartoon and pretend to be He-Man. My sword was a roll of cellophane paper and my uncle’s bolster would be Skeletor. I liked to pretend that I was losing the fight before yelling “By the power of Greyskull, I have the power!” and turning the tide of the battle.

Saying that line made me feel as if I was indestructible like He-Man, a hero that will never bleed.

And then it struck me, Mr. Samy was He-Man.

A few weeks later when it was time for my haircut again, I sprinted to the barbershop and left my grandpa trailing behind. I wanted to tell Mr. Samy that I didn’t need to grow that much older to discover his secret.

But Mr. Samy was not there. I wondered if he was out fighting Skeletor and saving the universe. Or was he on a date with Sheila? Why he would find her pretty was really beyond me.

I noticed that Grandpa looked distressed while talking to the other man in the shop, sighing and shaking his head every few seconds. He then carried me onto the barber chair.

“Mr. Yazid will cut your hair today, okay?” said Grandpa.

“But I only want Mr. Samy. Where is he?”

Grandpa and Mr. Yazid looked at me, then looked at each other.

“Something very bad has happened to Mr. Samy so he needs to see the doctor. I will cut your hair today, okay? I’ll make you very handsome,” said Mr. Yazid.

Dejected, I slunk back into my seat and let the barber do his work. There was no performance this time around. The water that he used to dab my sideburns felt icy cold and the blade he used felt coarse against my skin.

When grandpa was paying the barber, I opened the wooden cabinet at the back of the shop and grabbed a bunch of plasters. Before I left, I tugged at Mr. Yazid’s khaki pants and passed them to him.

“Oh. Thank you. But why do I need them?” said Mr. Yazid.

“It’s not for you. Can you give them to Mr. Samy? My grandfather said that plasters keep bad things away.”

I never saw Mr. Samy again.

I always thought He-Man could never be defeated.

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