Selected Ambient Work #1

We’re in the evening of the vaccine, which, like every palliative gesture before it, we’ve been quick to equate with full freedom. I think this shows how desperate we’ve become, and just how silly humans are, that we just rush right into every glimpse of freedom we get. When the CMCO and RMCO were announced last year, we returned straight to acting like things were normal again, like waking up from a bad dream and forgetting all about it by the time you’re brushing your teeth. As such, everyone who’s been cautioning that the vaccine may not be the end of the pandemic we hope for is just stating the obvious fact while ignoring the obvious pretence, which is the definition of being a party pooper.  People will believe whatever they want to believe. We are all such silly and stupid creatures who never really learned our lessons, not after burning ourselves on the hot stove-top the first time, nor the second time, nor the tenth or hundredth time. Throw us in confinement and when we come out, we’ll still be the same unrepentant, juvenile children who just want to run around and be free. So let us be free. 

The weather has been unrelentingly hot lately, washing everything in bright white. A few weeks ago, I bought myself a bicycle off a friend, and I’ve started going cycling with P in a local park during off-hours, when everyone’s at work and it’s too hot to be out anyway. I barely have a job now. I’m just hanging real loose, but of course these types of people are the ones most tightly-wound, but more on that later. The more spiritually anxious I am, the browner my arms get. 

Cycling has been a great respite, I mean insofar a respite as a novice like me can get from cycling around and around the same park a couple times per week. Since I never really cycled before, my skills are still pretty rusty, and I can’t go up slopes yet or make very narrow turns. Sometimes when the sun feels like it’s hanging right above me like a personal vendetta, and my sunscreen starts melting into my eyes, and my legs get like jelly, sometimes I still lose control of the bicycle and swerve into a DBKL-tended shrub. My legs are now a constellation of bruises. Soon enough, I’ll just turn yellow-green from the waist down. But when I’m cycling, I get to enjoy the freedom of acceleration (all the kids out there who grew up riding their bicycles will read this and think, “duh”) in a way that’s different from being in any other vehicle, where you’re just transported along without having the direct bodily connection to the accelerating energy. It makes me think that the real fusion of man and machine happened way before the advent of modern technology, and that the Futurist perfection had already been attained in the form of the bicycle. (This also reminds me of that Black Mirror episode with Daniel Kaluuya where they have to power their Matrix by cycling on a stationery bicycle.) But I suck at driving anyway, so it’s not like I would know about being “at one” with one’s car. 

Even though we start our cycling sessions early in the morning, it always turns into a whole-day affair. Once we’re done cycling, I’m famished and lightheaded, so we go get lunch somewhere and end up drinking a lot of mango milkshakes and talking and just existing outside of normal time. The stragglers we encounter at the park in the noon sun, the people dining alongside us at whatever odd hour we’re eating, I imagine they’re all strangelings like us, lost in time and untethered from society. I usually get home around 2pm, and I shower, and then I have a nap, and before I know it it’s already evening time, even though my day started at 8am. 

I know it’s very uncouth to say as much, but the truth is that I haven’t been making much money lately. It gets so tiring to answer when people ask how I’ve been doing and whether I’ve got any new work on the way, because the truth is that I don’t, and I could just be honest about it when people ask me, but the problem isn’t that I think people will judge me but that I just don’t want to talk about it. I can’t stop thinking about money, I’m obsessed with money. The other night, I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a long time and the first thing I blurted out was, “Hey man, how are your stocks doing!” To which she replied, “My stocks are not doing too well honestly, but my crypto’s pretty good right now.” I have no idea. A few nights before that, I was with a group of much older, approaching-middle-aged men who were playing cards and talking about their Stocks and it made me really anxious; one guy was like, “Hey, there’s this stock I think you’d be interested in. It’s called Fuho.” [Fito? Futo? It was called something.] And the other guy took his phone out to look at it on his stock app, and said, “OK, I’ll buy it when I get home,” like he was talking about making a ciggie run to 7-11 or something. The only people I talk to regularly are all unemployed or freelancing unsuccessfully, like me. These are the only people I can have sustained conversations with. Right now I can’t relate to employed people nor care about what they have to say, since I’m too anxious that they’ll start talking about stocks or some other topic that reminds me of how ephemeral the value of money is. It’s not them, it’s me: if your stocks fluctuate that much, then I, who can barely even understand what you’re talking about, must be some worm.

One day, a friend called me while he and his friend were tripping and asked me to come get him because he was feeling really uncomfortable. I went over and got him and his friend and we all went back to his friend’s place, where they just lounged about while I walked in and out between the balcony and the living room, smoking bored cigarettes. It started to really pour, with great cardiac-arresting thunderclaps, but my friend just stood out contemplatively in the rain, getting drenched, in a meditative pose with his hands clasped behind his back, while his friend just laid on the floor tapping his feet vaguely to the music playing. As someone who’s basically only a conservative when it comes to sex (I’m a monogamy supremacist) and drugs (they’re a social menace!), I didn’t find this even an iota enlightening. One of them told me to go buy them a “vegetarian soup” and I went to the restaurant downstairs and bought them a noodle soup with fish and chicken in it because that was the only thing around, and when we got back to their flat, he poured it all out in a bowl and took one sip of the broth, without touching the noodles, before going back outside to stand in the rain. Lately, more and more of my friends seem to be on substances. I can’t remember the last time I talked to a sober person. Well, and also a few nights before this incident, my lockdown-sobriety low-tolerance ass got drunk way too fast off Tiger and this Malaysian whiskey called Timah, and I started yelling at a guy almost twice my age. It’s a good thing I’m surrounded by people who are mostly better people than I am. I had to go walk up and down a few flights of stairs until I cooled it. Anyway, lately more than usual, everyone is getting drunk and getting high to unknown ends. 

I had ordered them the soup noodle, and a tray of pai tee for myself. When we got back to the flat, I motioned to my friend’s friend to come eat, and I said to him, “Hey man. Look. Pai tee,” and he said, “Ok,” and just laid down on the floor next to the food without touching any of it. And I just ate all the pai tee for myself — it was really good, with a warm, savoury, umami taste. We stayed in our respective positions for a long time. I just sat on one of those colourful tiny IKEA kids stools and read a book I’d brought, and intermittently texted with another druggy friend to ask his advice on how to deal with druggy friends who are having a weird trip. I just shuttle from one druggy friend to another to ask them to explain the various mysteries of human behaviour to me. One thing I can say for drug users is that pretty much all the ones I know are really kind and understanding people, maybe even the kindest out of all my friends. Not like me at all, with my boozy jokes and outbursts. 

Eventually, one of my friend’s friend’s housemates came back from work, and I took that as my cue to head out. Another sober guy was finally in the joint and everything was cooling out into a soft balmy mist, the rain had stopped, and it seemed like the high was making its slow way out of their brain-fog. I stood up and announced my departure and everyone thanked me. Later that night, my friend texted me to say, “You’re my saviour.” I literally had not done anything except for everything they’d told me to do, like buying soup, which they only sipped at once. The part of me that’s a sneering, conservative old man was thinking, “These drugged-up hippies, man” on my way out, but the part of me that’s the nice old lady keeping the old man in check was thinking that these times are so shitty and all drug users are really just vulnerable children who want to lie on the floor all day and tap their feet to some invisible beat and look up at what their inner vision is projecting onto the ceiling. 

I find myself these days getting more and more absorbed into the minutiae of capitalist variety. You know like how one of the “checkmate, communists” arguments for capitalism is that it promotes diversity and “innovation”, an argument that commonly uses food as an example, like how we have so many cool restaurants and ten thousand fast food chains now under super cool capitalism whereas the stinky Soviets only had their workers’ cafeterias where they’d eat their daily rations of the same un-branded bread. These days, I’m so bored out of my mind that I allow myself to be absorbed by these detritus of capitalist “innovation” which are like a child’s idle imaginations — strange but nonsensical things that just float up out of the ether, but which, unlike a child’s imaginations, actually materialise themselves as commodities. My infrequent grocery store visits are prolonged by the time I spend just looking at all the weird and unrecognisable things on the shelves, like multicoloured vegetable pasta, or durian-flavoured milk tea, or “health chip” flavours in lentil, kale, black bean, and quinoa, and all the kinds of cereals and peanut butters that exist. Except it’s not really like a child’s mind at all: when a child daydreams, they imagine seeing dinosaurs with swords terrorising the skyline outside their window, but when adults daydream they just try to fit all the pegs into the same hole, like any health food just gets turned into a chip flavour now. I bought a bag of kale chips, because I am such a gullible loser, and they tasted so bland and awful. I’m hypnotically drawn into watching the surreal grotesquery of capitalist variety play out, like when I was a kid and found out about medieval torture devices or the Bermuda Triangle for the first time.

At one point I got really bored and just downloaded a bunch of phone games and deleted them after playing a few minutes of each, but I kept two idle games which have long lost their fun but which are alright to distract myself with every few hours or so. You realise real soon that the whole point with these games is just to watch ads and click a few things, and each ‘gaming session’ really only lasts 10 minutes max. before you run out of things to do (another thing to add to my intermittent “phone breaks” which I imagine as taking just 5-minutes — just enough to watch a couple Instagram Stories — but which inevitably turn into an hour-long affair). To get money on these games, you literally just have to watch ads. So maybe about 1.5 minutes of every 5-minute fidgeting you waste on the game is just spent watching advertisements; that’s the real point of the game. Advertisements for phone games/apps are also another world unto itself, another hamlet of surreality and bewilderment in the slums of capitalist variety. Most of the time, I click on the button for free coins and once the ad starts playing I leave my phone to go pee or something, but sometimes I end up watching the ad and then, if the game seems really weird, clicking through onto its app page to read the reviews about it. I do all this for no reason. When the world is caught in limbo and there’s nothing to do, all I have left to explore are these corners where dirt has piled up. The Internet allows you to go fast while staying in the exact same spot for months on end. I’m just like some guy turning over all the dead leaves on the road hoping to find some interesting garbage; a lumpen Adam Curtis. 

In the same vein, I’ve also started reading more human interest stories in The Star and tabloid outlets like, whose articles make everything sound so simple and straightforward. The other day, I read about how a guy in Labuan started seeing blood dripping from his ceiling, and when he called the cops, they discovered that his upstairs neighbour had died, and that the decomposing body was leaking fluids, including blood. In The Star, there was a really grisly picture where you could see blood and pus in thick swirling pools all around the dead man’s apartment. It gave me this creepy feeling like those experienced by the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, who comes back home from his elite boarding school and spends the summer reading creepy articles about violent murders and accidents up and down Los Angeles. I read articles about husbands who strangle their wives and them hang themselves, about pedophiles, about bizarre car accidents that happen in the dead of night the same way I watch the advertisements for random phone games, wondering about the type of people who’d make these games or commit these murders, and then the people who are drawn to them, and how boring or bad things would have to get before something would happen to me. The real trip is realising that you live in a world full of other people who are also grotesquely alive.