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30 April 2014 @ 12:12 am
"In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!"
- Sweet Hour of Prayer, words by William Walford

10 years ago today, I remember being sick and stuck and home, assignments piling up; it was the era when I still actually cared about hockey, and I was worried about a must-win A Division hockey match with St Andrews looming after AC's disastrous 3-0 loss to Raffles; perhaps worst of all I had just come out on the bad end of a short relationship - the one that crashed and burned over hockey training and one bad mistake - the one that would define all my other relationships for the next 8 years - and it was like stabbing myself in the throat: hurting and hurting like hell.

10 years ago, on 29 April 2004, I had a very terrible birthday.

April 2004: AC hockey team training camp at Bandar Penawar, Johor, Malaysia

Sometime in between then and the SAJC hockey match, I remember flipping a Bethesda hymnal and I seeing the hymn 'Sweet Hour of Prayer'. Ever since then, I don't think I've even sung it once in any congregational service, and my memories of the tune are at best hazy. But for the 18 year-old who played hockey and breathed literature with every waking breath back in 2004, those words, especially the last four lines of the first stanza, were good poetry. They reminded me of the best that faith could offer, even if faith (and God) seemed absent and hollow during those dreadful few weeks of at the end of April 2004.

It's now 2014, a decade from those very simple days of JC. In the meantime, I've been to NS, university, graduated and got a job. Life went on. (For reference, I recovered, AC beat St Andrews and through the long-sighted wisdom of the friend I wronged, we salvaged the friendship, she became a Christian and is now happily attached to a great guy).

It's tempting to take all those milestones (successes) from those 10 years and wear them as badges of honour. Celebrate your successes, my boss always reminds me, because you never know when they'll dry up. But the truth is, I felt that everything has been quite accidental. Or if you're a faith-believing person like me, accidental is perhaps a flipside of God-directed.

Essentially though, nothing has changed. I still worry and fret about things that will probably be insignificant in a year's time. I admit I've become a bit of a blaspheming questioner when it comes to all things religious, being purposely self-depreciating when no compromise can be reached. And I still live and breathe obsessions - it's just that they're no longer hockey and literature (running and fiction replaced them).

February 2014: NUS cross-country 'old birds'

But it's been 10 years. When the day has come and gone, I will sit down and read the last four lines of the first stanza of William Walford's hymn. With an entire decades' worth of reflection, these words are at worst just good poetry. At best, they've been a bittersweet victory song.

(On reflecting on this photograph that Ben took at Kelvin & Stella's wedding on 26th March)

When evening wraps its arms around your eyes,
smoothens your back, massages your feet -
when time persuades you to turn aside
to rest, to recover, to finally step to sleep -

let everything be just music to your dreams:
the pop and spit of shoes on dry grass,
the slippery clap when someone from our team,
sweeps past you in a rashing, reeling rush;

the shuffling struggle of breath drowning in lungs,
the willing whisper of wind on your face,
the careless chatter of waterless tongues
the gunfire of applause at a race;

the sluiced stutter of sweat-stained clothes,
a stopwatch's programmed whine,
the warnings of cars sawing down roads
the tattoo of someone's chasing feet behind.

Listen when every voice falls out and away,
and silence coasts in like an enormous bird -
under its wings hear the last things we say -
the lush landscape of our shared words

here in the wisp of water, the lapping of loose waves,
where the sea communicates with land,
while you and I, together, try to save
our memories, buried in the shush of silted sand.

(For all the NUS crossers, past and present, I've had the opportunity to run with)
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24 March 2014 @ 12:16 am
"You should make make amends with you,
if only for better health.
But if you really want to live,
why not try to make yourself?"

- Make yourself, Incubus

"I guess everything seems more clear here on the other side."
- The other side, Tonight Alive

NUS varsity christian fellowship invited me back to speak last Tuesday. I had to answer some questions about career and life, to give my Arts juniors advice on how to navigate university life and what's beyond.

Besides me, another of my close juniors who had just graduated (Shermaine) was also speaking, along with a soon-to-be-ordained Methodist minister who graduated about a decade back (Winston).

These sessions are illuminating only because the teacher can immediately be the one being taught. Even though I had the benefit of going first, several minutes into the whole thing it seemed clear that I wasn't the best person to give advice. Some of the personal experiences I offered were very specific, and to not confuse them I deliberately left out talking about the intersection of my cross-country and Christian experience (something that even I have yet to fully understand). The recent thrill of living 'a second undergraduate life' in the last months, dinner-ing and hanging out with my team's juniors, is perhaps a crucial indication that I'm yet unable to see things maturely. Or objectively.

Perhaps it was good advice to some people. But I don't want to think too much about something I can't control. Instead, these are things I thought were useful:

1. People worry because we fear loss. People fear uncertainty even more, because we fear perceived losses or missed opportunities. (Because Winston was referring to the Bible, he mentioned it's not very productive to see life in terms of gains and losses, but rather to reach the position the apostle Paul reached in his letter to the Philippians)

2. An Arts education is helpful because it's flexible in the skills one chooses to accumulate. But it's still better to accumulate virtues, not just skills.

3. In life, there will always be struggle. But struggle never ends.

4. And struggle is good. It helps us deal with expectations, perfectionism and irresponsibility. In doing so, we find our finest moments in struggle.

5. The biggest problem with the working world is: performance is too often conflated with character.

6. Classes and paper degrees can only prepare you so much. Experience is still the greatest teacher.

7. That said, dealing with bad grades is no different from dealing with bad results at work.

8. Learn to distinguish between true guilt (screwups you make) and false guilt (screwups outside your control).

9. Lastly, Winston's closing remarks on calling: "Live however you are living now in God's presence." (i.e "live wherever God leads you.")

After everything was over, there was a short moment when we were all supposed to go for supper. It's a typical Singaporean student thing - you go for supper even if you had dinner an hour ago for the company. But I declined. There can be only so much of a life you left that you can revisit. 
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18 March 2014 @ 12:45 am

Trying to write everything down before I forget this.

Three things happened today. First, Singapore's two-month long drought was finally broken by a tropical storm of epic proportions. So after weeks of browning grass, wilting trees and record low levels at McRitchie reservoir, we get an hour on non-stop rain. It seemed like the perfect answer to Saturday's passing drizzle. When the thunder came and the heavens opened, I was having brunch at Changi Village, thinking the beating of raindrops was someone playing very loud club music.

Then, because of this rain, I ended up getting stranded in a hut along Changi beach for almost 45 minutes as I watched nature unleash wind and rain on this drought-parched landscape. The palm tree beside the hut was getting bent sideways. Later when the rain died down, I walked along the rain-lashed beach to the final bus-stop along Changi Coast Road. Everything had turned a wet, soppy grey. The water bullied the seawall. In the fog, Ubin and Tekong looked like reclining monsters with green backs. Watching the rain is serene. It cleared my head, washed away a squatting dread.

Last, before the rain and thunder, I was at the Passion North East Run at Pasir Ris park. Ke Wen and I ran two rounds around the park in what I felt was the most chilled out race ever. In total, there were probably less than 800 people, and the organisers seemed to think that men are more important than women (a men's veteran category, but no women veterans; prizes for the men were more than for the women). As usual, there was a mad rush at the start and I lost Ke Wen.

But then a god-send: two runners came by and I hung on with them for almost 10km. We played surged, traded leaders, kept so close sometimes I nearly stumbled over their feet. I paced behind and they kept me from the headwind by the open beach. Together we chased down at least 6 others who started ahead and all the women elite runners (save the top two) who started one round later. In photographs, the three of us are everywhere, a blue pack stuck so tightly together we obscure each other's faces. It's funny how when you're competing so hard you have a sort of unspoken understanding with people who are both your competitors and friends.

(Only later, reviewing photographs posted on Facebook by race organisers, did I realise I was actually pacing Kek Hong Ling, one of the masters of local distance running).

I lost the blue pack just right at the end. And so, for the last two kilometres, I was in that special place: still moving but tired as hell, trying to enjoy the scenery but knowing there was someone chasing me, just cruising along. In short: in a state of near bliss, in prayerful mediation to my Creator for being able to reach such a state of being a well-crafted machine. 
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28 February 2014 @ 01:12 am
I'm having a second undergraduate life. Instead of growing up as an adult and taking all the trappings of being a breadwinner and whatnot, I return to NUS after work and go running. Sometimes I join my former team for intervals; sometimes I head to the hills for some quiet time. But without fail, I have dinner with those who want dinner. And no matter where we go, our conversations stretch long into the night. We contemplate why some track-and-field world records have not fallen, the wisdom of running while having all sorts of dreadful ailments and why we all are such [insert negative sentiments here]. Then on the way home, I'll accompany one of the guys (it's always guys - my guess is that most of the ladies won't want to join us for such late-night dinners) halfway home and I stew in deep, philosophical thoughts all the way home.

I'm trying to enjoy this for as long as it lasts.

Because work is always work, and even recreation is getting predictable. But this secret life of former runners, some champions, some salarymen, some stubborn owls, was completely unplanned. And when good comes from unplanned things, prior experience tells me it doesn't last. So enjoy it.

In the meantime, because a new rule at work has carved up my lunch hour into ungodly stay-in-office shifts, here's a video of what I watch when I have to eat in - everyone's favourite singer Shila Amzah completely own a Mandarin song that she's memorised from scratch at a Chinese reality TV singing show:

09 February 2014 @ 06:52 pm

Tossing yu sheng at Roy's for the Lunar New Year: wishing for PBs, bonuses and results for races

It's been a long, exhausting Lunar New Year week. Coming on the heels of yet another Police reservist call-up, I feel that everything from the 20th January till today has been a drawn-out reunion with people from various times of my life.

My 7th call-up to the academy over the last two weeks of January was memorable only because it will be my last at Thomson Road. The iconic, 100 year-old academy will be vacated by all police forces around May, and I will next report for duty at Still Road base. I will miss the trees and stillness of that place.

After my reservist I had a meet-up with famous six at Kembagan. Six of us began meeting after we ORD-ed, and since then our group has been defined by halves. Half of us no longer serve in the same unit. Half of us have earned enough to own our own vehicles. By the end of 2014, half of us will be married. I belong in the latter, the holding-still-for-as-long-as-possible group: still in the same unit, still taking public transport, still single. But no matter how far we are in life, it's amazing that six guys can still sit down and have dinner for 4 hours beside a mosque and laugh ourselves silly joking about each other's misdemeanours committed years ago.

But the highlight of the weeks was the cross-country seniors gathering at Roy's house. I've long left my university days behind, but I still find myself comfortable in the presence of these people. I've trained alongside, competed against, argued with, and prayed together with some of these guys and girls on-and-off for more than seven years now - and we continue to do what we do best, which is mostly getting together to eat and remember. Every meeting brings new faces, seniors and juniors alike, because of crazy work schedules. Unlike the groups that I formed in other social settings like church and class that insisted on continuity, we are haphazard and randomised.

Every meeting of cross-country seniors is an exercise in wistful nostalgia and measured future planning. True, we have our disagreements and the usual interpersonal shit. It's a place where, for a short moment, we pull each other to our feet and remember when we first met and throw cards for how we'll turn out. Particularly poignant: as we tossed yu sheng yesterday, we realised that everyone present still is single.

Why do I cherish these gatherings with people I may see once in two years so much? Perhaps it's because I accept that these people will always be better than me. All the cross-country seniors at Roy's house yesterday have - without going into details - been through some personal trauma, and has emerged stronger. The passage of time has hardened their craft and bodies. So that I'm constantly in the presence of runners turned triathletes, dragonboaters, competitive cyclists and swimmers (or in my case, runner turned PR person/ writer, although it's a bit weird talking about writing to this bunch) It's humbling - extremely humbling - to know that the senior/junior who I paced for an entire year around the track has reinvented him/herself into something bigger and better.

Competition binds us, pain refines us, reinvention finds us and, always, a good meal unites us.

In the presence of giants, I choose to follow their shadows until, by the trick of light or the toughening of my own resolve, I'm standing thick in the straight line of people who block out the sun.

18 January 2014 @ 10:59 pm
“Let everything happen to you -
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final”
- Rainer Maria Riike

It's been an interesting first few weeks of the year.

1. As usual I've put some points for the year down on paper, and I've gone ahead to start to get them done. If you keep a record of things that need to be done over the years (like me), you realise how these so-called resolutions reflect your inner life. Some of the things I want to get done this year reverse objectives I set for myself in 2011 or 2012. Seeing two completely opposing goals doesn't mean all the effort has gone to waste. It just shows that nothing's perfect and that I'm learning.

2. The cold hard reality of 2014 is dawning, falling like a heavy fog. It's good to dream, but the responsibilities that come my way have wiped off some things I really wanted to do this year - travel, study among them.

But I find something positive to this: at least I know disappointment early, and will not have to suffer second-guessing intentions for the rest of the year.

3. Was it a conversation about goals with my boss that sparked a slender line of discontent? After missing what was the most important event of the company's working year - the past-year's performance meeting - because I ostensibly had to mop up work before I go on reservist, I suddenly realise that, ugh, why am I putting up with shit? I appreciate a lot of things that come with working on a regular job, but an envious, unsatisfied part of me always compares with my peers. And of course I feel bad when I come up short at the end of the month.

Money isn't everything, I was advised. This was excellent advice. Because for two years it helped me live outside of the rat race, content. But recently, because of some puzzling decisions my family made and just a general shift in worldview, the cash has become paramount. It won't solve my problems. But when you don't have enough of something, getting more always seems like a great idea.

My only consolation is that I'm in this for the long run. And that the things I really want, can't be bought.

And as someone who works in public relations, I'll never say that I dislike or am not content with my job. My response will always be several shades more grey than the truth.

4. At the end of the day, I understand that you can only rely on yourself. It doesn't matter if you've ran along, respected and prayed with someone. They ultimately fall short. Maybe I just have high expectations. But solitude is a gift, a generous offering, a talent that only you can master. So screw the team, forget that collaboration. Sit down, write that novel, plan a trip on your own and go running when it's still dark so you don't have to face the complications of failing in front of others. In the forest, I've learnt, it's just me, God and the trees. And on the beach, just me and God's creation. Find a pace you're suitable with. Drift away.

And I will get off Facebook and do something useful.
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31 December 2013 @ 10:36 pm
Trying something a little different this year. I try to come up with a soundtrack for the year that's just passed (haven't done it for two years already), but this time around I felt there are some thoughts and experiences that even music can't explain. As a result, on this wet New Year's Eve, I'm going to list 23 things that made 2013 worth remembering.

So, in no particular order:


1. Getting published - It always starts somewhere. After writing for close to 17 years, in February I decided to send out something to a small, sports-oriented fiction magazine. And they took a chance on me. Many thanks to Julie Webb, the fiction editor of Stymie Magazine, for giving a ghost story originally written for my friend Patrick a home. The first time is particularly special, and this first acceptance gave me enough motivation to send out more.

2. Saga - Still trying to process and document the experience. But this year I managed to self-publish, get my words out and sell them. I'm still amazed that people are willing to buy, and so I thank everyone who's purchased a copy of Saga and who've supported the six of us. After the afterglow of the book launch, I'm now learning that selling a book as an independent author/ publisher is the hardest part of writing. No wonder the pros have agents and reps.

3. Getting a central depository account - You know you're an adult when the extremely administrative act of getting account to trade shares on the country's exchange is significant. But yeah, this is, as well put by my advisor, "diversifying my portfolio." The most exciting part of this was going to the swanky offices at Raffles and imagining myself as a big bad shares trader.

4. Stepping down - After enough months of distance, I can safely say that leaving YF was both the best and worst thing that happened this year. It's freed me to do things, but I've felt that there's this huge gaping hole in what I do. After leaving, the inertia to do anything related to serving in a ministry is so high that I've spent most the time since September procrastinating what should be the next step forward. So at the time of this writing, I've come to a compromise: I help outside of official channels, and maintain relationships only because burning bridges with people is immature.

People/ Groups

5. Runnat - The good folks of the Christian running ministry Runnat have welcomed me into their fold with a lot of love and patience. Thanks to them I began organising runs under the Runnat banner and had great conversations with fellow runners with a similar passion to do some good in the world.

6. Pasir Ris East Writing Interest Group - is the only thing that's currently forcing me to crank out new stories and poetry. They've helped me polish all the stuff I wrote this year. As Si Min says, a regular schedule helps with creative output (I fully agree). Now only if more people would join us...

7. Project "Dean's List" - Saga was made possible only because five other people kept coming, writing and exchanging feedback. This year I had the privilege of working with seasoned veterans like Leroy and Chester, and people who were more of my standard, like Geraldine, Reggie and Samson. The highlight of every session: waiting for Chester to return from his smoke break to shoot down all our ideas with raw, high-quality precision.

8. The overseas Singaporeans - Jit Tian and Emilia (in Vancouver) and Aggie (from Salt Spring Island), who made my Canadian trip in May worthwhile.

9. The Neon Genesis Evangelion fan community on Evageeks - warm, snarky, demanding, overbearing but ultimately appreciative of good work. To more high-level story exchanges in 2014!


10. Hiking the Baden-Powell Trail in North Vancouver in May - Alone, with the possibility of bears, without a map, wearing jeans and track shoes for 14km, and getting dumped upon by a huge cloud of hail - a perfect summary for the biggest (mis)adventure of the year. And was it Jit Tian who said it wasn't a good idea? It perfectly summarises my travel philosophy: plan, but when things go bad, just go with it.

11. Running the Taipei-Fubon half-marathon in the rain - It wouldn't have been so epic if Siew Kim (who never did a 21km in his life) wasn't there; it wouldn't have been so crazy if it didn't rain; it wouldn't have been so great if we didn't have that mix-up in registration. What I learnt: screw-ups, setbacks and numerous uncontrolled factors affected the event that I had been waiting for all of 2013. Yet, these things made the run more than just a run.

12. Hospitality - There have been so many opportunities this year to host friends and family visiting Singapore, but I'm still learning to repay other people's hospitality.

13. Doing it alone - I spent the entire year training on my own. Sometimes, I had the company of others - Kewen, Chun Meng, Patrick, GC, Alexis, Roy and random strangers on the street. But it was mostly alone. I never got back to the team who wanted me to join them in August. What does this mean for the next year? Probably that I will get more introspective as I continue with this obsessive sport of mine.

Books & Reading

14. Holding Still for as Long as Possible (Zoe Whittall) - It's not a new book, but I enjoyed it because it's got a fresh look at young adult life. Most representations seem trite and overused, but sometimes young adult life is as much about staying in the rut you're in as much as it is about reinvention.

15. The Places in Between (Rory Stewart) - In 2002, Rory Stewart did a walk across Afghanistan as a prelude to his work for the British Foreign Office in Iraq. The details of his trek are found in this book. It's part travelogue, part observations. The most amazing part of this memoir is his account of how he walked into and left a Taliban-friendly village, presented in alternating dialogue about religion with those villagers.

16. The Affairs of Others (Amy Grace Loyd) - Has to be the novel of the year. Its musings about privacy (very apt, given Wikileaks and the NSA) are straightforward and simple: everyone wants to be left alone, so do you intervene when you know someone's doing something that you know is wrong and detrimental to her own good. It has a really unexpected twist near the end.

17. Brief Encounters with the Enemy (Said Sayrafiezadeh) - My favourite short story collection this year. Everything detail in these stories are stripped - why the weather is always bad, who the people are fighting - to bring out the very sad and haunting personal details of life: a soldier only encounters the enemy at the very last moment of his last tour, a disabled man's only shot at romance takes place because everyone else gets drafted for war, a jealous co-worker signs up to be a soldier just as the war turns ugly.


18. Bill Watterson's 1990 graduation speech at Kenyon College [link] - Since I write speeches for work, no other graduation speech has had so much meaning and significance than this one. Creator of the famous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Watterson's values on art and not selling out make great advice.

19. Welcome to Nakhchivan (Vice.com) [link] - Vice.com does great travelogues, but this is one of their greatest this year. It's got all the ingredients: an obscure breakaway province, weird takes on culture and great writing. A good essay provokes a of heated debate, as the comments on this piece show.


20. Archie [link] - So I discovered EDM this year, and I've become addicted to this Russian producer called Archie. All his mixes are free, and how he makes such high-quality music without profit still confuses me. But this, I guess, is why EDM is so appealing, because there's a song for every occasion.

21. We're the Kids (Parade of Lights) [Youtube] - Catchy, random song I listened to while working on a deadline. Has stuck in my mind ever since.

22. Light (Love, Robot) [Youtube] - For all the confusion, loneliness and pain. Condense it into one song, and you have a place to vent and wonder at why things don't always work out. Still, I always feel better listening to this.

23. I See Fire, by Ed Sheeran (remixed by Kygo) [link] - To end 2013, I think there's nothing more fitting that this Kygo remix (ugh more EDM) of that-song-at-the-end-of-that-second-Hobbit-movie. It's been a year of crazy rushes, first-times and lots of fireworks, but it all makes sense when you reflect back on it, super chilled, with a good background mix.

I would like to say thanks to all friends, family and strangers who've helped me through this year. Above everything, praise God that we're one year closer to His purpose.