Month: July 2010

So you think you can dance…a tale about online-offline dissonance

All I wanted was to dance with my husband. Nothing fancy- just shuffle around the dance floor. I knew he would never agree if I asked him about it, so I signed us up for a class at a nearby community center without asking him. He was livid, but I held firm. He pleaded, and I pleaded right back. We went for the class. But I was the one who walked out first.

I had signed up online based on the information provided on the website. “Saturday, 8.30-9.30, Beginner’s Ballroom Dance”, it said. I filled in the registration form and paid the money online. Then we went for the class. Poor guy actually got off a flight from Bangkok that evening and still dragged himself along with me. It was weird. When we got there, it was like walking into the middle of a class. Everyone was Chinese (not that that in itself was a bad thing, but everyone stared at us like we had daisies growing out of our heads or something) and the instructor just ignored us as he minced around the room trying to look sophisticated (phew- trying to write objectively when you are annoyed is VERY hard!).

So anyway this lady came up to us and suggested we might like to join the 7.30 class instead. Apparently the 7.30 class segues into the 8.30 one, because it’s all the same people doing both. And get this: all of  them were not beginners. But why, I asked (as you might expect), did they then call the class a beginner’s class? Are you ready for the answer?

Because it was the beginner’s syllabus, but all the people there were doing it for the second time. They had gone through one whole round and then wanted to do the same thing ALL OVER AGAIN! But okay- they were all older people, and maybe they just needed a refresher, or maybe they were afraid to go on to the next stage. I don’t want to judge.

The point is that this should have been reflected on the website! How smoothly they took my money, as though everything were part of a well-oiled machinery. Online I looked all set to put on my dancing shoes and be swept off my feet by my husband. Offline I was the one who swept him off his feet- right out of the class I yanked him. We were going home.

He took pains to remind me that he had come along, and that I had walked out. I am SO going to be asking for my money back.

I am more than the sum of my devices

I have been on a hiatus ever since the end of my Masters course in June this year. This is not the same thing as being completely free. There are projects I am involved in and stuff I have to read and write. But the one thing missing is the face-to-face social interaction that I have been so involved in all my life. Strangely enough even when I was at home with two young children I didn’t feel this isolated. I had my kids to talk to. And even if they couldn’t form the words, they were communicating right back at me. A hug, a kiss, a giggle, a wink, and lots of words from me…these were the components of many hours of delightful conversation. Anyone who has ever looked after a two-year-old will know that even though the kid can’t talk much, he can still have a long-running argument with you which can make you want to tear your hair out. So no, I didn’t feel isolated.

But my kids are grown up now. My best friend- my husband- travels a great deal. And I am now starved of that which I have come to realise is almost as vital for my survival as breathing and eating: talking face-to-face.

My work is mostly on the computer. I communicate with most of my friends online- Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, chats, Skype and discussion boards. Some of them are on the telephone. There are a couple I only have BlackBerry chats with. So yes, I am in contact. Technically. On the move I have a POFCP (plain old-fashioned cell phone) and a BlackBerry.

But there are times when this just is not enough for me. WAIT! I want to scream. I AM MORE THAN THE SUM OF MY DEVICES! I am a living, breathing person who needs human contact. Today I was trying to express my sense of isolation to a friend on google chat. She typed in: that’s it. I’m calling you. And she did. She would have come over, but Serbia is kind of far away.

The phone call helped. It still was technologically mediated, but it was a step up from a text chat. My friend asked me about Singapore- “don’t you find people in the library to talk to?” Apparently in Serbia people are very friendly. It took me a while to explain to her that in Singapore we even avoid eye contact with each other, to say nothing of starting a conversation with a stranger. Even when people are waiting for the bus, they are on their smartphones or handheld games. Gone are the days when you can strike up a friendship based on a chance meeting. I sometimes wonder if online social networking has made us less adept at forming offline friendships except those based on compulsory regular contact in places like schools and offices.

Come January I will be thrown into a whirlwind of new face-to-face experiences. For now, there are times when I want to switch all my devices off. It will be an experiment. If I am offline, will I still be alive?

Now, forever, and everything in between

I have a very important anniversary coming up. The 24th of July was when my husband and I went on our first date. It was nothing very romantic. We sat just outside the Engineering canteen at NUS eating soupy noodles from plastic bags, and he listened to me patiently as I railed at him about the repressive power of culture. That day is even more significant to me than my wedding day, because it was the first time I knew what it meant to be cherished. Here was someone who saw me at my aggressive worst, dressed in scruffy jeans and t-shirt, slurping from a plastic bag, spouting naive nonsense. And yet looking at me softly, indulgently. Two days later he told me he wanted to marry me. Again no violins and fancy preparations. Just a quiet declaration of honourable intent.

That whole first week stands out for me in my memory, even though it happened so long ago. I remember every single thing we ate, every outfit I wore. I remember that at the end of the week, I was to meet him at 7.30 on Orchard Road. I told the folks at home that I was meeting my friends at Holland Village (I hadn’t told them about the guy in my life for various complex reasons that I won’t go into here) and had minor cardiac arrest when they insisted on driving me there. It was sweet of them, even though it wasn’t where I really needed to go (though they weren’t to know that of course). From Holland Village, it took me ages to get a cab to Orchard Road. And when I finally did get one, there was a huge traffic jam along Orchard Road. I don’t remember how far away from our meeting point I was when I finally decided that sitting still was killing me slowly. I paid the cab driver, jumped out of the cab and raced down the sidewalk, heart pounding, hoping against hope that he would still be there. He was. Even though it was an hour after 7.30. As I sweated and apologised, expressing my fear that he might have left, he said something that captured my heart more than any diamonds could have done: “I will always wait for you.” It wasn’t just the words. He had proved it with his actions. That night he kissed me for the first time, and my life was transformed.

Every couple in love tells each other: “I will always love you”, “I will want you forever”. They use various terms of endearment like “baby”, “darling” and “sweetheart”. When we are in the NOW moment, it seems as though forever is a given. But anyone who has ever had a broken heart will know that promises made in the heat of the moment mean little. When someone says “I love you always” they really mean “I love you NOW”. Forever takes time.

If you want to know how much a man loves you, it is all the little things in between now and forever that you must take into account. When he braves encounters with your family because he thinks you’re worth it, when he waits ages for you to make up your mind about something, when he calls you during the day just to tell you what he is doing because he knows you think about him, when he teaches your children how to express their love for you, when he goes out of his way to protect you from all the things you fear, when he reveres you as a mother yet gets turned on by the way you look in a certain dress, when he urges you to follow your dreams, when he takes your every wish as his command, when he actually likes to hear the things you have to say, when he holds your hair back while you throw up because of morning sickness, when he massages your feet just because you like it, when he gets angry with people who hurt you, when he gets the car serviced because he is going to be travelling and he doesn’t want you to get stuck somewhere…

That is when you know he loves you. It happens between now and forever. I don’t know if I can do a mad sidewalk dash again, but I know I don’t have to. Between then and forever, I have learned to trust that he will always wait for me.

Spontaneity gone mad

This discussion is a spin-off from a Facebook post, because not everyone I interact with is on Facebook (though it seems like almost everyone is) and I wanted to flesh out the point a little.

There is a motivational statement that goes : “Work like you don’t need money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like no one’s watching”. On the face of it, this looks like the sort of advice guaranteed to lift your spirits in an instant, and to urge you to live life with passion and spontaneity. There is nothing wrong with that if you are so depressed that you cannot squeeze even one iota of joy out of your existence. But most of us have a lot of joy mixed in with all the dissatisfaction in our lives, and know that there is a thin line between spontaneity and irresponsibility. Being passionate about your work is good, but you DO need the money, especially if you have a family to support. Loving deeply is good, but sometimes people don’t love you back the same way. What then? Dancing with abandon feels good, but you have to face people the next day who may have witnessed your performance and found it lacking. The point is that all our actions have consequences, and sometimes I find that we are in more danger of forgetting this than we are at risk of depression induced by low spontaneity.

This is especially clear when we move into that realm of micro-drama: the Internet. Everyone is a celebrity for at least the 5 seconds that it takes someone to read your status update. Our conversations are watched by many. I am too mired in Internet research to engage in either utopian rhetoric or moral panic over the Internet, but the fact that discourse in cyberspace is complex has been well established.

Recently I saw this updated version of the above-mentioned motivational quote on Twitter: ‎”Dance like the photo’s not tagged, Love like you’ve never been unfriended, Tweet like nobody’s following!”

On the face of it, it is the same as the original in spirit. Yet on careful observation, you recognise in it a lesson in circumspection. If the photo IS tagged and the wrong person sees it, you’re doomed- especially if you can’t dance for nuts. It’s worse if it’s a video. If you have ever been unfriended, you know how awful that is. This is made worse by your experience of unfriending other people- you know why YOU did it. Experience should teach you something. Disregarding the lessons learned is childish, and ensures that you will perpetuate the self-sabotage. And lastly, my own research has shown me that audience on the internet is a very complex and transitional concept. You NEVER want to assume no one is watching!

But do we really want to live our lives always looking over our shoulder in fear and missing what lies ahead? I think that, as with all things, balance is crucial. We are born looking ahead. We are told to look behind. It is our life experiences that teach us how to set up mirrors around us that help us keep an eye on both. Every person you come across, every event you encounter, sets up a new mirror that provides views both refreshing and reassuring. You see yourself from more and more angles, and as you learn about yourself, you learn about your environment. I have known both pain and joy- sometimes they have chased quickly on each other’s heels in intense bursts within a short period- and have cried and laughed in quick succession. I was born impulsive, and learning to deliberate my thoughts, actions and words is still work in progress. I HAVE worked as if I didn’t need the money, I HAVE loved like I’ve never been hurt, I HAVE danced like no one is watching. But I DO need the money, I HAVE been hurt and people ARE watching me.

And therein lies the lesson for me.

Buying gum in Singapore

For the first time I bought chewing gum in Singapore today. My stash usually comes from Malaysia or anywhere else my husband travels, but probably the less I say about that the better.

So interesting! You have to get it from the pharmacy, and they make you fill in a form with your name, i/c number, and the quantity and brand of gum you’re buying. I was very taken with this whole procedure. What is it that all this information is supposed to DO? If someone stickes gum on an MRT door am I going to get a visit from the police because my name is on The List? How funny.

I must say that we’ve taken legislation to new and refreshingly ridiculous depths in Singapore. Who came up with this?

What am I REALLY going to get out of this?

In the TODAY paper’s (Tuesday, July 13th 2010) health subsection, there is a notice about a talk on breastfeeding, entitled “be prepared for breastfeeding”. The text starts with the sentence “learn how to breastfeed with confidence”, which sets up certain expectations.

When I had my first child, I did all the reading. I was convinced that I wanted to breastfeed. Yet nothing prepared me for hard the act itself would be. Apart from the aches and pains post-delivery, there was the very distressing crying from the little scrap of humanity that I was willing to suffer any amount of pain for. Or so I thought. One week of screamingly sore nipples and many tears (mine!) later, I gave up. The look of relief on my son’s face as I plunged the bottle into his mouth cut me to the quick.

When my second one made his appearance, I was more prepared. By then I had had two years to figure out that improper positioning had led to the breastfeeding fiasco. I knew all there was to know theoretically about breastfeeding, but I still did not know how to actually hold my baby and put him to the breast so that he could latch on the right way and suck the way he was meant to. I made sure this time that I had some time with a lactation consultant who actually taught me some useful tips about holding the baby and positioning him. It worked because I had my baby in hand. Right place, right time.

Without a culture where breastfeeding is done openly, we cannot learn from watching the way our predecessors did. On-the-spot training is the next best alternative.

But to get back to the notice in the paper. It went on to state “A lactation consultant will talk about the benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child…”. Really? Why? Isn’t that preaching to the choir? Is this part just because it has the most strongly institutionalised rhetoric and is therefore the easiest to put across while looking like a socially aware expert?

It follows with “…and address common concerns which new mothers may have on breastfeeding particularly in the few weeks after delivery”. Sure, I understand that there are concerns. But the objective stated in the beginning: “learn how to breastfeed with confidence” will not be met by this sort of FAQ list.

What is needed is more help just after the delivery. And more accurate information about just what a talk is going to achieve. It is distressing when you don’t get the sort of help you need at the moment that you are best poised to receive it: baby in arms, consultant at hand.