Yoga Class


Namaste!

Inner-hale, exhale.

I close my eyes

to the instruction of the guru’s voice

and try to get in touch

with my breath.

 

The Caucasian man next to me

Sounds as if he’s

hyperventilating

as air wheezes nosily out of him.

I wish he’s not settled next to me –

far too close for comfort.

 

We move into cat-cow

as the nymph in sheer tights

thrusts her butt onto my face

tight and taut,

twin globes of muscles

gagging me with envy.

I clench my double sagging behind

without much success.

 

Downward dog provides a

new perspective:

Hey sexy lady behind me,

yes you with the skimpy bra

your breasts are protesting

to be let out of the constraint.

I see my neighbour notices it too.

 

Tree is my favourite pose

for I’m strong in balancing on one leg,

unless it’s the dreaded dancer pose

then I regress to a hippo

among the graceful flamingos,

which brings a grin from my neighbor

showing more sympathy than empathy.

 

The voice moves out of his Buddha seat

and swirls around brave warriors,

now frozen to the count of eight.

My eyes follow as the guru

mumbles encouragement into

sexy lady’s ear which earns him a smile.

He passes me with hardly a glance,

as I wobble and sway,

to straighten my neighbour’s arm.

 

I hate the nymph,

as she rises to an elegant bow,

her hands clasping her ankles

her chin high in proud glory,

while I deflate like a rubber dingy.

My neighbor grunts,

like he’s about to expel a baby,

the way I did while giving birth.

I return his empathetic grin.

Don’t think he appreciates it.

 

From a bridge to the wheel,

I pant and push

to get at least a pose

worthy of an Instagram post.

At last I get it,

as I collapse into Savasana.

I’ve known all along,

I am but a corpse living a lie.

Namaste!

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South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami


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Unbelievable, but I’m being influenced by my eldest son into reading Haruki Murakami. Unbelievable because when he was younger, I had the most problem getting him to read. His two younger brothers devoured books and scored in English, but he just had no interest. My uncle told me he could be a late bloomer. Indeed.

Now, being the kaypoh (busybody) aunt that I am, I felt my nine-year-old nephew, Seb,  is also not reading enough despite the library of books available to him at home,  and his parents are rather sanguine about it. Last week, I passed him a book by Murakami which I felt he would enjoy and whatapp-nagged him into reading it. His father told me he forced Seb to read it and Seb finished it in 20 minutes, crying in the process from the frightening story.  (https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2018/01/11/the-strange-library-by-haruki-murakami/) Although his father was skeptical if he really read it, I am happy that Seb did as we had a discussion about what was so frightening about the story.

Murakami like long long titles to his story and so do I. My MACW teacher feels I could better title my story, and I agree I could learn this from Murakami. This title is taken from two sources – South of the Order from the song by Nat King Cole, and West of the Sun, from an illness hysteria siberiana allegedly suffered by Siberian farmers who drop dead and dies from being literally sicked of the ritualistic boredom of their farming life. This is according to Shimamoto, the love interest of the protagonist Hajime, as she sprouted the title of the book during an illicit tryst in Hajime’s cottage in Hakone.

The story documents Hajime’s relationship with the opposite sex, starting when he is twelve, that’s when he meets Shimamoto and they develop a bond because both are single children, rare in those days. They separate when both go on to different high schools, where he loses his virginity to Izumi, yet breaks her heart when he starts having sex with her cousin because ‘he knew he had to sleep with her’. As a young adult working as a textbook editor, he meets his wife Yukiko, whom he has two daughters and runs two successful jazz bars financed by his father-in-law. Along the way, he has a few flings while his wife is pregnant because he just wants someone to sleep with. He is satisfied with his life, until he meets Shimamoto again and realises he can’t live without her. But she is an enigma who, irritatingly, drifts in and out of his life, making him and this reader frustrated. I wonder what is it about Shimamoto that can fill the void in Hajime’s life, which he is prepared to give his life up for her- his bars, wife, and children, just to be with her, without knowing anything about her.

Although I like the beautifully lyrical romantic prose, I am incredulous the way Murakami portrays love, and how Hajime treats women so frivolously, so much so that I pity his wife, Yukiko. Although he is remorseful about his treatment of his wife, he’s just a jerk with a warped idea of what love is.

Or perhaps men and women really view love differently. And also perhaps I am beginning to learn a thing or two about Japanese men’s notion of romance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro


Don’t you just love the title of this book? The title is taken from the last short story in this collection, where Munro writes a biography of Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician novelist from nineteen century. The story is limited to the days leading to her death, with flashbacks to her earlier life. Unfortunately, although it is fascinating to read about a talented mathematician and how she navigates her fame since getting an award from Stockholm (not Nobel Prize), I didn’t enjoy the story. Sophia is viewed by both genders as more of an outcast than admired, and so she learned, that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements. It could be brimful of occupations which did not weary you to the bone.

Thankfully I enjoyed some of the other stories, filled with honest observation of the human psyche and often ending with a twist that I need to re-read the final part to understand.

I really like how most of the stories are based on ordinary characters with certain flaws – like a facial birthmark on Face – that has inspired her. Child’s Play describes two girls who did something to a special need girl during a summer camp. The incident haunted one until her deathbed, but is forgotten by the other.

Reading Munro gives me many inspiring prompts to what I could write – an excellent mentor to a newbie short story writer like me.

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The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami


My son Andreas has an interest in Haruki Murakami’s book and borrowed this when he was searching for another of his book. I suspect this is written for children although it’s placed in the adults section.

The book is short and is accompanied by many full page coloured illustrations, almost like a picture book for third graders. I found the story amusing and am curious what my nine years old nephew would think of it.

A boy goes to return a book at the library and is directed to a strange room for assistance when he enquired about some books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Strangely, the old man in the room finds the books he wanted but locks the boy up as a prisoner, and will only free him when he finishes the book. Although he pleads to be let go, as his mother would be worried and his pet starling might die, the old man refuses, thus begins the boy’s adventure as he plots with the other prisoners – a man dressed in sheep wool and a beautiful girl, to escape.

I thought this book is a wonderful book to introduce Murakami to my nephew as well as a simple reminder to me on what constitutes a good short story – a likeable protagonist with an active purpose and beautiful proses filled with details and metaphors.

I could also identify with the boy’s mother, whom he describes as the type of mother who when something happens she imagines the worst, and it snowballs from there. Just like me. When my husband failed to return to our Penang hotel room at 1am one night, I imagined the following scenario -him falling into a drain and being unconscious (he often falls on holiday), he’s robbed of everything including his phone (this is Malaysia after all) or he’s murdered by the robbers.

This was, of course, my imagination running wild.

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Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage


The long title of the book throws me off at first but after reading the book, I realise that the title actually gives a good summary of the story.

Tsukuru Tazaki is the protagonist of the book. As a teenager in high school in Nagoya, he was part of a close-knit five-member clique who volunteered in a primary school, consisting of friends who names have the colour character in them, all except him – Aka (Red), Ao (Blue), Kuro (Black) and Shiro (White). His name does not have a colour and thus he feels deficient in a way – colourless. The second part of the title is taken from Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” from his Years of Pilgrimage suite, which the protagonist refers to in the story often. (‘Le mal du pays‘ is translated as “homecoming or melancholy, or more like ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.’)

You might be interested to know that someone even made a YouTube video of this piano recital and this book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0n3S1xCVLvk

Tsukuru (which means create in Japanese) Tazaki is a 36-year-old engineer who knew he wanted to build railway station from young. The group dynamic in his 5-member gang was so precious that the three males and two females tried not to destabilize it by not getting romantic with each other, even when Tsukuru went away to Tokyo to pursue his study, leaving his friends behind in Nagoya. They continued to remain close, until one day, Tsukuru found himself ostracized by the group for no apparent reason. He became suicidal but recovered and became a changed man. Sixteen years later, he is urged by his girlfriend Sara to seek the answer from his four friends, to heal an emotional blockage which is hindering him from forming a lasting relationship.

Murakami makes full use of the colour metaphors to describe his characters. Like how Sara describes a friend she once knew: ‘I’m not sure how to put it, but she seemed faded. Like something that’s been exposed to strong sunlight for a long time and the colour fades. She looked much the same as before. Still beautiful, still with a nice figure…but she seemed paler, fainter than before. It made me feel like I should grab the TV remote to ramp up the colour intensity.’

His prose is filled with metaphors and some are really nice, like these examples:

Jealousy was the most helpless prison in the world – not a place he was forced into by someone else, but a jail in which the inmate entered voluntarily locked the door, and threw away the key.

A distinct half moon hung above, like a battered piece of pumice stone that had been tossed by someone and gotten stuck in the sky.

During rush hour, that (JR Shinjuku Station) maze transforms into a sea of humanity, a sea that foams up, rages, and roars as it surges toward the entrances and exits. Streams of people changing trains become entangled, giving rise to dangerous, swirling whirlpools. No prophets, no matter how righteous, could part that fierce, turbulent sea. 

Other than educating readers about Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays”, Marakumi also shows off his knowledge of the workings of train stations and a glimpse of Finland in the book. What I find interesting though is that the diet of the protagonist is mainly sandwiches and coffee. I would have thought ramen and bento.  (I so love Japanese food.)

And I also find dissatisfying about this story is that although readers are reminded of how another character outside the group of five, Haida (Gray field- another character with colour, so noted Tsukuru), who made an impact in his life, also left Tsukuru suddenly, there is no resolution for us.

 

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2017 has been a great year


Tomorrow is the last day of the year and last days are usually melancholy for me – regardless if it’s the last day of work, of school, or of year. Last day signifies a time for change, and that’s always daunting. Last days also mean goodbyes – to people, to routines, to lost opportunities, wasted times.

However, I’m not going to be all negative and sorrowful this coming last day of 2017. I’m determined to be grateful for all that has been given to me in 2017 – the good, the bad and the mundane ordinariness that has helped me put things in perspective. (Luckily I’ve recorded most of my life on Facebook so I don’t forget.)

2017 has been a year of new experiences which I can broadly summarize into four categories (as was in 2016 when I started full-time work after more than a decade at home) which now as I look back, I’m filled with of awe.

Back to School – Going back to school for my Master of Arts in Creating Writing (MACW) was a surreal experience which I had, on many occasions, needed to explain to others what I do and why I am doing it, which at the same time is a good way to convince myself that it really was happening – all these textbooks needed to be read, and the damn critical essays needed to be submitted, even if I didn’t know exactly what I was criticising. Going back to school meant meeting a whole new group of people – classmates and lecturers. Who was the wise guy who claimed that making friends at my age is hard? All nonsense. I got along fabulously with the younger folks, some barely older than my sons. What was interesting was that they were so diversified – in gender, race, accent, culture and even sexual orientation. I am no longer mixing with my in-group of middle-aged women and I am enjoying the interaction.

Despite my less than stellar grades,  I would like to think my writing has improved. I had the opportunities to experiment with poems, plays and screenwriting. I thought I did pretty well in all these genres. The playwriting module also nudged me into taking part in Theatreworks 24 hours playwriting competition, which I would never have done otherwise.

School, or my lecturer Darryl Whetter, in particular, gave me the platform to read my work in public. I used to hate public speaking/reading but I am now more comfortable doing it and even beginning to enjoy it, especially when I hear the applause at the end. (Imagine reading five poems at the George Town Literary Fest and getting five rounds of applause.)

Being in the MACW plonks me into the Singapore literary scene and I get to meet local authors, poets, and playwrights. I look forward to the day when I am in their league too.

Yoga – All that sitting and studying for school accentuated my stiff back and I decided I should do more yoga. And so on top of my regular yoga classes with Denjz, I enrolled in a yoga studio with unlimited classes which I had vowed to fully exploit the expensive membership fee. In the studio, I have the opportunity to be an ‘aerial artist’ by flying in a hammock. I confess I used to envy the circus acrobats as they fly with the ribbon-like satin fabric in the air, twirling with graceful flair. I am not like that and have no aim to do that. For now, it’s just fun showing off the few stunts on social media. Still, I have noticed a vast growth and improvement in the last year. I’m stronger, leaner and more flexible. I can’t wait for the day (in 2018) when I can do the split with ease and a handstand.

Yoga has also allowed me to meet friendly folks who share the same interest, and I’m glad to say, folks with the same physical inflexibility. I look forward to classes so that I can meet them. Familiar faces try to match schedules and time so that we could do yoga together. Today I received a sweet note from my yoga classmate, WT, who is trying to persuade me to go back to Denjz’s class which I’ve decided to leave in order to more fully exploit my membership at the yoga studio before it expires in five months.

It warms my heart to know I’d be missed. Now I’m wavering on my decision. See, it’s always the people who make the experience so memorable.

Family – I’ve been busy but I try not to neglect my family, especially since I went to so many wakes last year as friends and classmates start losing their loved ones, which made me all the more cherish mine. I’m relieved though that I did not have to bother much about my sons, all of whom did well in school. Second son Ivan spent six months in the Netherlands on an exchange, eldest son Andreas graduated and found a job within a month.  There were some scares though, like when youngest son Aaron got appendicitis on his last day of A’levels, or when my 92-year-old Grandma fell and broke her hips. I’m happy to report both are recovering well. My in-laws are not coping as well, with depression and dementia, and that is a wake-up call to me that I need to start preparing myself well if I want to age well. 

Grandma and Me

Reunions – 2017 is a year of reunions as long-lost classmates got reunited, and there was a bash at my alma mata’s 100th year anniversary. I find it amazing how I can chat like old friends during the celebrations, with schoolmates whom I had never spoken to when I was in school, just because we share a common link we now cherish. I also met many old teachers, many now frail, and hope the meeting with their old students gave them a satisfaction that they have left their legacy behind with us.

Some good gatherings happened in the last few months. I can’t imagine how we traced my sec-two classmate Jasmine who married an Indonesian and a sec-four classmate Ajara who married a Taiwanese, but we did and had a wonderful time catching up.

Sec 2 reunion

Sec 4 reunion

 

Outside, the rain pours, reminding me that it is indeed December. It’ll be the last day of 2017 in less than half an hour. As I write this, I am filled with a fuzzy comfort that it’s been a good year.

I’m not sure what I am going to do when I graduate in April and although I worry, I am prepared to go with the flow, as I’ve always done. (The Guided Autobiography Workshop I did in October was a good reminder on this.) I’m a planner and having nothing planned sometimes makes me anxious. But I shall live one day at a time. And tomorrow, I have a whole day of yoga planned, starting with Sunrise Yoga at the Botanical Gardens. Now, isn’t that a good way to end the year?

 

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If You’re so Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy/ by Raj Raghunathan


I had taken a MOOC by Prof Raj in 2015 before he published this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. The course is one of the most popular courses in Coursera and I highly recommend it to you. I also helped vote for the title and the cover photo when Prof Raj was preparing to launch the book. This book is a good accompaniment to the course, much like a textbook, with links to psychological tests (he is a psychology professor) as well as video – interviews with other experts that were conducted throughout the course. Exactly like in the course, there are exercises to complete each week to improve your happiness level, which I didn’t do since I have already done it before. (Excuses…)

If you read my review of the course, (See my review here: https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/a-life-of-happiness-and-fulfillment-by-isb/). you would get a good summary of the book. What I want to highlight though, is given that altruism is one of the seven habits to cultivate for a happier life, Prof Raj was asked why didn’t he give out the book for free. As he had a publishing contract, this was not possible (do note that the course, with the same content and is interactive, is offered free). He has, however, used all his advance for the book to help defray the cost for those who can’t afford to pay the full price by paying it forward. That means that when I purchased the book, someone had already paid the book for me and I can literally get it by not paying, but that would, of course, decrease my happiness, which you’d have found out if you have done the course.

If you are interested in buying the book, click on https://www.happysmarts.com/book-chain/ and ‘pay it forward’.

This book has been sitting on my shelf collecting dust, like so many its companions. I am a book hoarder (I’m not sure how that will affect my happiness), but I started reading it two weeks ago for a writing project and found it wonderfully refreshing. I thoroughly miss the daily emails I used to receive from Prof Raj, with questions reminding me if I have done my part to prioritise my happiness. (The list of question is stuck up on my wall but I confess I have neglected it.)

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m reminded by Prof Raj why so many smart and successful people around me are not happy. Happiness is a difficult concept to grasp and measure and is often replaced by other by tangible goals like money and external control.

As I crack my head to write my essay, I have to remind myself of the sixth habit of the highly happy: Dispassionate pursuit of passion, ‘which involves having a preference for certain outcomes over others before they occurred, but being nonjudgemental about them after they have occurred.’

See, it’s not so easy being smart and happy.

 

 

 

 

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