1. Just because I survived Crummy Monday and a weekend of flu and report writing!

    Song: Happy by Pharrell Williams

     
     
  2. This video of 牧歌 (The Pastoral Song) as played by 呂思清 (Lu Siqing) was what I was learning before I stopped my violin lessons in end January. My teacher had set aside the exam music scores and taught me this because I mentioned to her before that I like this song a lot. I love listening to it while commuting to work—it transports me from the crowded trains and escalators to some faraway pasture. I was so surprised to find this video: The image is almost exactly the same as what my mind had imagined!

    Work and study have left me with little time and inclination for practice. And the fact is, I simply cannot learn music by myself. It feels too lonely. So it’s really funny that just a week after I told my music teacher that I wish to stop my lessons, my former classmates (who had dropped out months ago) suddenly decided to come back to class again.

    I’d be lying if I say that I missed it a lot. But I’d be lying too if I say I didn’t. That I stopped just as I was learning a favourite song makes me hope that this pause is more like a dash than a full stop. I had told my teacher I will come back after a year. I sincerely hope I would. 

     
     
  3. On the first day of spring, they cut down my trees. 3 of them. They were not like the usual roadside trees, being twice as tall and thrice as wide. They were probably here before me, and somehow, looking at their exposed roots in their fallen state, I feel they have a better claim to the land than us too. 

    The trees were part of an old school campus (Hai Sing, I was told), which had been used as a temporary home for a few schools. After that, a couple of private educational institutes took over the place but they never lasted long. The campus was left empty for a while, until the government decided to build HDB flats on the land. The school building was demolished, which made our cleaning lady sad, because that was her primary school. But they left the trees standing, which gave me hope. But now, the trees had to go too. 

    I love trees. But I had never properly photographed them in all of the 23 years they were in plain sight, just outside my window. And it was not for want of thinking. Often, while setting off for work, I would pause and look at them. Look at that. Look at the light of the morning sun filtering through them. One day (probably a weekend morning), I would grab my camera and take a photo of that. 

    But somehow, the angle was never good enough; the sky was never blue enough. Or I never woke up early enough. And why try, when the real thing is so much more beautiful than any image I can make?

    I was able to take a few photos of them while they were being pushed down by a bulldozer only because I happened to be working from home that day. Even then, one had already fallen.  

    I feel sorry for the birds, who hopped around and lingered over the fallen trees. They seemed to feel as bewildered as I am. How can something that stood so firm and tall for decades be fell in a matter of minutes? 

    I now draw the curtains in my room because what’s there to see but dead wood on the ground and concrete blocks? But in my mind, I can still see them swaying, green and alive, in the afternoon breeze. 

     
  4. I was making my way to the train station after interviewing a teacher at the secondary school. This tree, which is just outside the school, stopped me in my tracks and I quickly pulled out the camera I brought along for the interview. It’s one of those rare moments when I encountered something photo-worthy and actually did have a camera with me.

    Taken in Singapore, July 2013

     
  5. Someone recently quoted Robert Capa at me, who said something about how “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.” I dare say it applies to plants and flowers. The closer you look, the more fascinating they become. 

    Taken at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, February 2014

     
  6. Spider Chrysanthemum at the Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

    Taken February 2014. 

     

  7. Hector and the Search for Happiness

    Earlier in January, I had to study 10 chapters of a psychology textbook for an exam. At the same time, I was reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a psychology professor and Nobel Prize winner. It was a little too much psychology. What I needed was a dose of good ol’ fiction. And so when I spied a slim volume on the book shelf at home, with a cute cover of a man with geeky glasses holding on to a bunch of colourful balloons, and the word “Happiness”, I thought this is just the kind of light, fluffy stuff that I need. 

    So imagine my expression when I turned over the book to read that the story is about a young psychiatrist! It was something like this: -__-“

    Anyway. Hector was doing OK, with a thriving practice and many affluent, “well-dressed” patients. Most of these people had no real disorders or misfortunes. Yet, they felt dissatisfied with their lives. Listening to these patients who were “unhappy for no reason” wore him out.

    Hector decided to go on a holiday in China, Africa, and the US. But because he’s a conscientious young man, he decided to try to understand what makes people happy during this trip, so that he can become a better psychiatrist. 

    The story is written like a parable for adults, and the language is quite whimsical and sometimes, gently teasing. I was enjoying the easy read until the part when he went to China and slept with a prostitute without realizing that she was paid to sleep with him. Not parable-like at all, that part was. He fell in love briefly with the Chinese girl, and felt at one point that happiness was being able to love more than one woman at the same time (He had a girlfriend back home in Paris). One must remember that the author Francois Lelord is French. 

    So our well-meaning but naive Hector came up with a list of what he thinks happiness is. I shall not list all 23 items and affect the book sales (2-million-plus-1 copies and counting) but will list just the first 5:

    Lesson 1: Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.

    Lesson 2: Happiness often comes when least expected. 

    Lesson 3: Many people only see happiness in their future.

    Lesson 4: Many people think happiness comes from having more power or more money. 

    Lesson 5: Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story. 

    Many of the lessons are common-sense, but I suppose there is some scientific evidence behind the list, as Lelord is a psychiatrist himself. A few were just whimsical, like Lesson 6: Happiness is a long walk in beautiful, unfamiliar mountains. What stood out most for me is perhaps Lesson 16: Happiness is knowing how to celebrate. I think this may pertain more to Asians, but sometimes we feel that we have to be modest about our achievements or the good things that happened to us. We can be happy but not too much. Goodness knows how often our lives are littered with daily defeats, so if there is cause for celebration, why not? 

    Would I recommend this book to friends? Only if they are looking for a light and quick read—say, something to occupy themselves during the daily commute. There’s more where that came from: Another novel called Hector and the Secrets of Love. But I think I’ll pass. 

     
  8. Another new year resolution fulfilled—I’m a happy girl. Especially because I read somewhere that the failure rate for new year resolutions is 88%

    As part of my new year resolution to whip up a dish every month, I was to compile all the photos and recipes and turn them into a family recipe book. That part of the deal, I’m afraid, isn’t done and will have to roll over to next year. In the meantime, the cooking continues!

     
  9. Bangkok doesn’t feel like an adventure anymore as I’ve been there a couple of times. Still, I visited some new places this time. One is Nonthaburi, which is outside of Bangkok. It’s a city in its own right, but much less hectic. It was quite a nice break from chaotic Bangkok—a short afternoon of buying snacks at the stalls, peering into those small shops and bakeries and coffeeshops and also walking through the local market.

    Taken in Nonthaburi, Thailand, December 2013

     
  10. "There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence.

    ….

    Then there is the other kind of Christmas with presents piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—’Is that all?’”

    John Steinbeck

    The sacrifice that Steinbeck talked about was probably that of a monetary kind, where one had to scrimp and perhaps give up something to save up enough to buy a loved one a nice present.

    This doesn’t seem to apply much to those around me. But reading this letter still gave me a little jolt. Instead of money, the more precious currency now is time. This Christmas has been such a rushed one—I wish I had taken the time to be more thoughtful in choosing gifts for my family and friends. Hopefully the next Christmas will not see me so distracted and stressed.

    Taken in Bangkok, Thailand, December 2013

     

  11. This is the best tribute to Nelson Mandela that I’ve come across so far. Thanks Eugene for sharing it on Facebook!

     
  12. Everything in life is relative. Running 10 km may seem like an easy jog around the block for a seasoned runner but to me, it’s a new year resolution that I had been chasing after, night after weekend night, at the neighbourhood park for more than a year.

    But the reward was worth it. What I felt as I ran the last km was a mix of joy and thankfulness that I had arrived safely.

    And it’s true, the cliche that says the things you treasure are the things you worked for. I count this as one of my major achievements in 2013. :)

     

  13. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

    image

    Reading this book took me a while—4 months to be exact. It isn’t a self-help book, but more like a voyage into different realms of psychology, philosophy, ideology, culture, history and the arts. So rich is this book that I had to put it down at times and read other lighter stuff for “fun”.

    Not that this book is boring (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist from the University of Chicago, is a superb writer. In fact, better than many professional writers and journalists.) but it does require that you pay attention. 

    Incidentally, attention is key to flow. Flow is the state when we’re so absorbed in what we’re doing that nothing else matters. Time is suspended and our minds are free from distractions and worries and are only focused on the activity at hand. 

    But it isn’t the same as achieving a “high”. An optimal experience is neither passive or relaxing. It’s not mindless fun, but challenging fun. It happens only when we’re “stretched” in some way and we grow as a result, into a more complex being. 

    That came as a surprise. “Complex” holds a negative connotation for me, as opposed to “simple”. But oh well.

    Humankind has come a long way since the age of the emperors and tyrants, but why aren’t we any happier, asks Csikszentmihalyi. As he puts it, with the great advances we’ve made in all fields of human endeavours, we’re making Roman gods look like helpless children. But we’re no closer in our pursuit of happiness. 

    Frustrations and chronic dissatisfaction stand in our way. Humans are stuck on a treadmill of rising expectations: The moment we’ve achieved what we dreamed of, we want something more. Add to that the fact that the universe, contrary to popular belief, is a hostile and chaotic place, you have a whole bunch of anxious people who feel that their lives are beyond their control.

    Even though we try hard, total control over external factors is next to impossible. What we can control is our consciousness, and our experiences. Csikszentmihalyi tells us to emancipate ourselves from social control and even our genetic programming so that our inner life is free from outside rewards and punishments, and biological urges. You can see how this definitely isn’t a step-by-step, self-help sort of book. 

    In fact, it’s not even a book just on flow. It’s about having mastery over our lives (“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” as Invictus goes.) 

    Flow is total involvement with life. And a way for us to achieve happiness is to experience flow as often as possible. But to do that, we have to gain control over our experiences. 

    Csikszentmihalyi’s research yielded eight hallmarks of optimal experiences:

    1. We are confronted by a task we have a chance of completing.

    2. We’re able to concentrate on what we’re doing.

    3. The task has clear goals.

    4. It also provides immediate feedback.

    5. One feels a deep involvement without everyday worries and frustrations.

    6. We exercise control over our actions.

    7. Concern for the self (self-consciousness) disappears.

    8. Sense of the duration of time is altered. 

    Csikszentmihalyi invites us to convert our jobs, relationships, and hobbies into optimal experiences using his blueprint. The point is, I guess, to not go through our lives on autopilot, but to turn everything into a challenge that can help us grow. 

    Curious fact 1: People experience flow more often during work than leisure. Yet, we consistently prefer leisure over work. Csikszentmihalyi concluded that people are ignoring the evidence and instead buy into the popular notion that work is a burden. I beg to differ. Jobs are both the main source of stress and flow, and I suspect stress happens more often. 

    Curious fact 2: It was strange to be reading about ‘The Pain of Loneliness’ and ‘Taming Solitude’ in a little tea cafe during my solo trip in South Korea (which itself feels like an optimal experience). I guess it only illustrates the fact that experiences which lead to flow vary vastly for different people.

    Csikszentmihalyi is particularly critical of the way we fritter away our leisure time by passively consuming what mass media are feeding us. (To which I say, hey, a well-made movie can do a world of good to a tired soul! Case in point: Gravity).

    TV is a big no-no while literature gets a hat tip from him. While he thinks that knowledge about controlling our inner life isn’t cumulative (Which is why we haven’t progressed very far. It’s not enough to just study it, we must experience it for ourselves, we must cultivate it.) and must be reformulated every time our culture changes, literature, religion, philosophy are replete with lessons and wisdom earned by those who tried. 

    The book was a birthday present to myself and I’ve to say I picked a pretty good one. I feel like I was reading the work of not just a psychologist, but a polymath. Csikszentmihalyi illustrates his theory not just with research findings and statistics, but with historical facts, Greek mythology and Taoist writings. 

    It’s an impressive read all right, although I feel that optimal experiences make up only part of our happiness. Sometimes we’re happy just to stare out the window at nothing. It’s OK to enjoy that mindless Hollywood blockbuster after a stressful week at work. 

    Certainly they do nothing for our long-term happiness the way challenging, optimal experiences can, but sometimes simple pleasures can be happiness too. 

     
  14. I can’t decide if a concert is the best or the worst time to experience (and even fall in love with) a song for the first time.

    Worst because you may never get it as good again.

    But best because you never see it coming until it hits and envelops you in a fury of sound and sight. The stage lights flood your eyes. You can’t hear anything else. Its beat takes over your heart’s.

    OneRepublic opened their concert with this song at their concert at the Coliseum at Hard Rock Hotel last night. As many have commented, this sounds so much better (a)live.

    Song: Light It Up by OneRepublic

     
     
  15. A feel-good sculpture near the Metro Hotel I was staying at in Myeongdong. 

    Taken in Seoul, South Korea, Oct 2013