Monday, June 13, 2016

For Sebastian

There is a photograph of all of us on the last day of school. We occupy the fourth floor staircase: Aisyah and myself demurely perched on the bottom row, and above us a packed gallery of the boys - grinning on every step, about to slide down the staircase rail, standing tall at the top, arms thrown carelessly around each other's shoulders. Too many to keep track of, too many to remain close to. Now when we show that photo to other people we will have to say, "And this is Sebastian, who died when we were 32."

We will have to tell people about him because he stood out so much, and the photograph is no exception. In it, he leans forward and meets the viewer's eye, a teenage boy's attempt at intimidation. In real life he was tall and broad-chested, with dark rings under his sunken little eyes, even at 13 years old. We called him the Crab, after the Little Mermaid's hassled sidekick, but he was more like some great, snorting beast of the field - a bull or bison, an intimidating sight to face down on the basketball court after school. 

Don't get me wrong. He wasn't a dumb jock. His intelligence manifested itself in his conversation. You couldn't take him for a fool, and very often he would corner you triumphantly and make you feel about two feet tall. We were all cruel teenagers then, and his presence in our after-school chatroom was enlivening - hilarious, sometimes hurtful, but he always stung the place awake. His love of boobs and upskirt views was only matched by his devotion to his Russian teen gymnast alter-ego, Godina, who spoke only in caps and frequently proclaimed her horniness in public channels. Godina tended to make an appearance whenever he was asked to be serious, or to focus on something.

Still, he couldn't hide his innate goodness, his generous sense of fair play. Once in Secondary 1 he had been teasing me all day long, and at recess I saw an opportunity to sneak up on him and kick him in the leg and run away. I forgot I was wearing steel-tipped boots for drill practice later. He hit the ground hard, howling and clutching his ankle. For a moment I had a fearful vision of the principal's office, his fractured bones x-rayed and on display. But he soon got back up and - typical Sebastian - said nothing about his massive bruise to our teachers or his parents. I guess he figured we were even.

We kept in touch after secondary school. I edited his appeal letters, project reports. He could always persuade you to do something he wanted. Once he got me to get up, go to the mall, search the music stores for a particular Kenny G album, bring it to the post office and mail it to his crush who was studying in Australia and was apparently a big fan of elevator jazz muzak. He didn't let a little thing like being confined in an army camp over the weekend stop him from what he had planned to do. He made a few calls, he got it done.

He was a real hustler. He wanted to make it big in business, though he was really happiest working on his grandfather's fish farm. He was willing to be temporarily tamed, to wear longsleeved shirts and sit in an office, because he was absolutely determined to achieve his goal of making a better life for his family, his girlfriend. We fell out partly because of his overwhelming drive. He called me when I was on my way to work and asked for media contacts which weren't mine to give. I told him no and in a huff, he hung up on me. 

He couldn't believe I wasn't willing to help him out with something so simple, and I was indignant that he could suspect me of holding out on him, after all I had done. I didn't invite him to my wedding. Quick to anger, quick to forgive: he congratulated me anyway and from then on he was always the one who made the effort to stay in touch, though things between us were never as easy as before. A few weeks before he died he tagged me in a comment, and then a while later he commented on something I had said. Both times I didn't reply directly. I was busy, I figured I'd talk to him later. Maybe when we were older, calmer, we could return to our childhood confidence, our mutual surety of friendship without agendas or competition. 

Now I and our other friends are the ones who are left to grow old, for now. Sebastian crossed over to eternal youth and twilight on Sunday, 5th June 2016. I am sad he is gone, but I am not sorry he is dead, because the alternative - life as a vegetable - was unthinkable for someone like him, who gloried so much in the physical, its labours and pleasures.

It was this fear I felt that night when I saw him in the Intensive Care Unit of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. The hallway at 10.30pm was lined with old schoolmates, his colleagues and relatives. The entire front of his room was glass and only immediate family were allowed in. I saw them framed within the ceiling-height glass panel around his bed, his father and mother wrapping their arms around his chest, crying to him in Chinese to wake up, please wake up, son. A large ventilator tube snaked out of his mouth, distorting it into an O, but it was still recognisably, awfully Sebastian - Sebastian with a terrible slackness in his pale, fluorescent-lit face, an emptiness that convinced me he was not coming back, could not come back. What a shit world we live in, when one moment you're walking to get your car and the next you're braindead, your mind and self knocked clean out of your body by a fucking taxi, of all the mundane things.

I choose not to remember you like this, in the years to come. I will remember Godina, and the time they put dry ice down your back, and your voice on the phone telling me I had to come down to the pub for the 2B reunion, I couldn't miss it, even though I'd told you three times already I wasn't going. So full of life, eager to try everything at least once, and drag all your friends along with you. On Monday they will hold your funeral. Now you are in the twilight world, gliding down dark waters in a boat - you always did love the sea - scanning the horizon for your next great adventure on that distant island all of us must visit eventually. You deserve Valhalla, Sebastian. But I'm sorry you had to get there so soon. Godspeed my friend, and goodnight.

Sebastian Kae, 1984 to 2016. Dearly missed by his friends and schoolmates from ioven69.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Because It Is Bitter

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter - bitter," he answered;

"But I like it
"Because it is bitter,
"And because it is my heart." 

- In the Desert, by Stephen Crane (1985)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Chesterfield King / Return To

We don't often think of punk being sensitive, or subtle. But Jawbreaker had a future English professor slash political essayist at its helm, which ensured that its literary lyrics were fit to be tattooed on hordes of flannel-shirted, Prozac-Nation-reading, Doc-Marten-wearing 20-somethings (now in their 40s).

Chesterfield King is first of all, a story with an introductory scene - two young people in a room, feeling some very intense feelings - and a conflict: the narrator is terrified of the change in their friendship. He leaves to ponder his situation in a 7-Eleven parking lot and encounters a homeless woman, who kisses him on the cheek when he offers her a dime and a Chesterfield King (don't smoke, kids). He tells her he's "glued up on some chick". They drink a beer and smoke while he does his thinking, then it's resolution time: he drives really fast to the girl's house and kisses her on the front lawn. Afterwards they watch TV and hold hands.

So simple, and so well-told. Very catchy, too. You get a real sense of time and place (early 90s, normcore parkas, fall, suburbia) and a neat summary of the problem at the root of every friendship-turned-relationship: "I guess I'm not a gambling type/but think of what the two of us have lost". Something always has to die, for another to take its place. It's not wrong to want a little time to mourn, before turning to face the future.

We now travel - figuratively, literally - very far away in space, time and theme from Chesterfield King. #1 Dads is an Australian band comprising one man (Tom Iansek) and a revolving cast of guest performers. I first encountered them on Triple J's Youtube channel, performing an amazing take on FKA twigs' (kids these days and their names) Two Weeks. 

Tom Snowdon's voice is eerily lush on that track, but in my opinion it's better showcased on Return To, off #1 Dads' About Face album (2014). It's a piano-shaped exercise in wintry, late-night melancholy. The lyrics are initially opaque ("There's no love in the ground for me/So I kicked all this earth downstream") but they soon turn clear and heavy as glass: "I'm just having a hard time... living without you here"). The aural equivalent of drowning in your sleep.

Friday, January 22, 2016

I Want to Believe

January is such a dry, dull month - back to work, back to school (for my students), back to healthy eating and exercising both financial prudence and eye-rolling patience in the face of the approaching Chinese New Year. At least this year I can look forward to the revival of the X-Files. (Thank God I've finally reached the age when my nostalgia is tall enough to reach into my pocket and extract my wallet. Those VPN subscriptions don't pay themselves.)

The X-Files were the highlight of my secondary school years. Wednesdays, 10pm, Channel 5. My dad - in a fit of bad decision-making - had fitted out my PC with a TV card so I could watch local programming in the privacy of my own bedroom. I often fell asleep in class, on the bus home, at tuition in the evening, but by 9.55pm I'd be wide awake and preparing my X-Files watching pod - high-backed office chair with leatherette arms I could lean against, pillow to clutch during hair-raising moments (and to hide the screen from sight, if things got really gory), lights switched off so that the room was only illuminated by the glow of my PC screen and Scully's red hair. 

The best feeling in the world was at 10pm sharp: snuggled into my nest in front of the screen with the opening credits playing - that ominous duh-duh-duh-duh starting up, heralding that iconic six-note whistle (I think the correct term is "threnody", according to the A.V. Club). Anticipation is the most exquisite form of pleasure, and that's how I learnt it was so. Everything else goes necessarily downhill in comparison.

On Thursday mornings, sleepy-eyed and even paler from exhaustion, I would look around hopefully for someone, anyone, who might have seen last night's episode and wanted to talk about it. But nobody in school had heard of the X-Files - let's just say it was more of a Channel 8 audience - save for one boy, who confessed he had only watched two episodes and wasn't really into it. 

"But you don't have to follow the alien mythology at all," I pointed out earnestly (probably pushing up my glasses with one hand). "The monster-of-the-week episodes are really the show's core strength." 

No dice, not convinced. Actually, if I had been savvier at pitching TV shows, I should have guessed that boys back then would prefer the complicated, under-lit plot mess that was the alien conspiracy Mulder worked so hard to uncover. It made people feel smart to keep track of all the ends and beginnings, Mulder's sister and Scully's pregnancy and the black oil and the Syndicate and Cigarette Smoking Man. All it did was bore me and give me a sneaking suspicion that there was very little payoff in following that storyline all the way to its inevitable rabbit-hole of dead-ends, dead characters and zero resolution. I was happy to let it provide the overall propulsion of the show's arc and Mulder and Scully's relationship, but the real fun of the X-Files was always the feral, dripping-wet monster hiding in the wall, the water, the sewers, inside a human being. The shrieks of the mother-thing under the bed from Home haunted me for days and nights afterwards. (That episode was all kinds of fucked up!) 

I stopped watching once David Duchovny quit. Of the two rather underwhelming movies, I skipped Fight the Future (alien mythology) and quite enjoyed I Want To Believe (shades of homophobia aside). I've seen early reviews of the six-episode revival and they aren't great - more of the same, dated vibes, unbalanced story-telling, etc - but I don't mind. I know that what people want is not really to see the X-Files come back to life, but to see their youth alive again, with all of the same hedonistic pleasures and dreamy, anticipatory excitement for the coming years. (Surprise - stock market crashes, global inequity, pandemics, climate change, ISIS.) People want to relive who they were when the X-Files was still on TV and wide-eyed Mulder and Scully had new adventures every week, flashlights in hand, peering into the dark unknown of age and death. There's no mystery left in the long night, but still, I want to believe. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Atlantic City

While a lot of the A.V. Club Undercover covers (awkward) are not great (too many bearded hipsters slowing the fuck down in ironic takes of 80s' hits) they have some really good moments. It took a couple of listens for this to grow on me, but I think I really like it now.

It's a classic Bruce Springsteen track off Nebraska, an album I'm saving for when I hit rock bottom. The original is obviously amazing - listen to the echoes in the chorus - but I love this cover because 1) no harmonica, and 2) you can really tell Justin Townes Earle knows what desperation feels like, first-hand. (A quick look through his Wikipedia page confirms the usual - rough childhood, drug addiction, recent sobriety.) He kind of looks like those Oklahoma dust bowl farmers in Dorothea Lange's pictures - something about the sharp lines and planes of his face, too worn out for thirty three. "Everything dies, baby that's a fact..."

In his hands, there's a sweetness to the inevitable darkness present in the song. Springsteen's chorus is hollowed out and pained, but JTE gives the words an inflection of hope, even as he makes it clear that the ending for his narrator is the same as Springsteen's. Springsteen knows that she's not meeting him in Atlantic City - and JTE knows it too, but he's bent on asking her just one more time anyway.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Waiting for Gojira

Here's a secret you (probably) already know: being alone in a well-appointed hotel room is one of the greatest, saddest pleasures of city life. The clocks here are all digital, so time flickers by in silence while night falls and I watch the office workers through their windows, a million tiny screens displaying different views, same channel. The glass is cold and reinforced, and soon I will be as well.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Elections, Whatever

I don't talk much about it on social media, but I am pretty intensely political. The past general election has been quite a ride, as most Singaporeans know. But now I'm all politicked out; sick of skimming smug analyses, scrolling down long, hostile comment threads, being held captive by ranting taxi drivers (my last taxi fare was paid to a man who insisted that Goh Chok Tong was his MP - in East Coast GRC).

As a liberal, the election results were naturally disappointing. My own cancer-stricken grandfather insisted on being wheeled downstairs to vote for the PAP - he hasn't voted in a long time, for health reasons - because, in his own words, "they gave out money this year". That might explain the 10 per cent islandwide swing towards the men in white: it's the last rattling gasp of the old. Also the sentimental: a truly nauseating meme being passed around via WhatsApp - of course I got it from my relatives, the staunch PAP supporters - shows LKY and his wife ascending a staircase, surrounded by Taiwanese-cartoon style hearts and clouds. A speech bubble in Mandarin reads: "Thank you everyone for supporting our boy Ah Loong." There are no words.

Call me Angela Merkel - or even Margaret Thatcher, if you want to be a bitch about it - but sentiment is no way to decide on your country's future. I was especially disheartened to hear several women I know using it as their reason for voting the PAP this year. They hadn't read the party manifestos, they didn't know anything about the candidates, they didn't read the news - but they voted because they felt an outpouring of emotion for the Lee family (as if the old man, were he still alive, would have given two cryogenically-frozen shits about their sympathy) and by extension, the party.

Ah well. It's all over and done with, and the next five years will be interesting to watch. There's a global recession predicted to happen, so time to batten down the hatches and get through the storm. Time to return to the fundamentals, to stay home and save money and work and think and write, and maybe - the closest I'll ever get to sentiment - to dream a little, inside.