Sunday, March 4, 2012

Keeping It Real

The other day I was at Peninsula Shopping Centre, the first time I've been back there in several years. In secondary school and my polytechnic years I spent many Saturdays wandering down the badly-lit corridors with my friends, who had to endure my whiny complaints about the smell of grease and the narrow, rickety escalators.

I haven't missed it in the intervening years, and the greasy odours seem worse than before. The shitty little shop where I bought a Rage Against the Machine sticker ($4) and a tarnished "occult" pendant 12 years ago is still there. Great.

Don't get me wrong - I still love music from the 90s', and I still keep in regular contact with some of the friends I made in secondary school. But I don't miss the cooler-than-thou posturing, the exhausting melodrama and rebellion of the teenage years. Earlier this week a 14-year-old student showed me a badge he'd bought. It said "LIFE IS SHIT", with a charming little turd to prove the point. I think he expected me to gasp and threaten to confiscate it. Instead I remembered Isaac, a kid my age who once showed me a pair of fake knuckle-dusters spelling out F-U-C-K-Y-O-U-!. We stopped outside the school gates early in the morning so Isaac could show off his new purchase. "Very nice," I told him, wishing he would leave me alone so I could get to class on time.

"Very nice," I said now to my student. "Now put it away and get back to work."

Probably Isaac - wherever he is (not jail... I think) - has long thrown away his cheap knuckle-dusters. Grown up, got a job. But I know people who still live that lifestyle, spending hours at Peninsula and sitting around on MRT exit steps on weekends or after work. Like characters in that Fountains of Wayne song - they're all saving up for that custom van, playing in a cover band. Except they're pushing 30.

Conversely, I have peers who have completely bought into the glassy white iPhone sheen of making money. They get hard thinking about Forex, annual reports and the Wall Street Journal. (Yeah, they're usually guys.) When they think about oil and natural gas, they don't consider the environmental costs. They just see rising commodity prices and opportunities to "get in early". Anything measurable is golden, anything intangible is risky and deserves to be sneered at.

To be honest, both types seem equally delusional to me. The wannabe big fish with his laptop constantly set to monitor stock prices is hollowed out, a papier mache figure painted to look like marble. As for the Peninsula kid, he's just a ghost haunting the good old times. He knows he's never going to make it, but it doesn't matter anymore. In both I see a failure to engage with the world around them, a withdrawal into something easier and less frightening than real life.

For myself, I try to negotiate a balance between the two worlds every day. Sometimes making money requires me to test my professional A-game - like during a big assignment at a corporate headquarters - and sometimes being creative requires me to bite the bullet by signing up for a workshop with group critiques. I guess I've realised that being grown up and getting to wherever you want to go is often a process full of discomfort and awkward moments, and it can't be any other way. The struggle to learn is the learning itself. (Why yes, I came up with that all by myself.)

Maybe I should have told my student, "Life is not shit - unless you give up on it." But I'm not that kind of teacher. Besides, he'll figure it out himself... hopefully without having to spend too much time at Peninsula Shopping Centre.