Selected Ambient Work #2

Day 4 of Malaysia’s third movement control order. All economic sectors are closed except for essential services.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes (including boiling the pasta)
Movie run time: 2 hours
Eating time: < 5 minutes
Cleaning up time: > 5 minutes 

And so it goes, the interminable self-subsistence that will last for at least another two more weeks (most likely longer, perhaps months longer) as the nation enters its third (or is it fourth?) “full” lockdown.

Well, it’s not all bad. I get more time to sit in bed reading before I start work for the day. (If I do indeed start work at all.) I get to watch more movies and amuse myself with little new interests like, for example, Shakespeare. I’m currently reading James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, after having watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Ian McKellen’s King Lear by the RSC, Roman Polanski’s and Orson Welles’s productions of Macbeth, and a local production of King Lear on Zoom by the KL Shakespeare Players. I like to watch interpretations of these two stories over and over because their poetic violence offers so much for actors, directors, and stage designers to work with, and I also tend to like things where everyone ends up dying. One interesting thing I discovered from reading the Shapiro book is that, even as late as the 17th century, people were still disembowelling traitors in public and sticking their heads up on stakes, exactly like in Roman Polanski’s production. I had thought that his version of Macbeth, made in 1971, was just particularly violent because the 60s was over and his wife and child had just been slaughtered, and that Macbeth’s 11th-century setting had offered him an excuse for barbaric catharsis, when in fact people still retained all these medieval rituals even up till the 1600s. Next on my watch list is Throne of Blood.

I was never taught Shakespeare in school, and I’m discovering that Shakespeare is one of those perfect things to get lost in when you’ve got way too much time on your hands, because there’s already such a glut of content related to him, from the extensive original source material to the ever-expanding amount of interpretations. When people ask what I’ve been getting up to, I tell them I’ve been watching movies. When they ask what sort of movies, I say samurai movies. Saying that I’ve been watching a bunch of Shakespeare productions sounds not only nerdy but also kind of juvenile: oh, you’re only having your Shakespeare phase now? 

Anyway, aside from that I just bought one of those ergonomic laptop stands, the ones that will prop up your laptop so that you can look straight at the screen instead of bending your neck too much. I got it in pink, just to feel something. It cost RM 7 on Shopee, it would have been more with shipping but I used one of Shopee’s infinite free shipping vouchers (their vouchers are an entire stable of gift horses, and it feels immoral). It hasn’t arrived yet, but, buying it, I felt like a total loser — buying anything ergonomic feels like a concession to techno-capitalism’s global enslavement. I wish I could be a hot underaged TikTok star and never send an email or open a laptop ever again.

Two weekends ago, I ordered fried chicken and it arrived in an oily mess, the fries had spilled out of their fry holder and gone everywhere, they were crushed. I didn’t ask for a refund, but I did write a review on Grab: “Received in an oily mess. Fries everywhere. Unsure whether fault of driver or vendor.” It doesn’t and won’t do anything, but I am running so short on feelings that I just pick up on any little thing, just to hold on to it for a moment. Just to talk to someone, maybe. The other day, I sent an email to an editor of a newspaper, which I’ve never done before. I feel like a deranged castaway, marooned on a desert island, turning over rocks to talk to the insects. 

People have written about the depression of lockdown, the one that stems from being separated from the emotional support of your friends for a long, unnatural period of time, and people have also written about their experiences of paranoid anxiety at the thought of re-entering the world again after lockdown, but I haven’t stumbled upon an article yet that combines the sentiments of the two to talk about how lockdown, whether you support it or not, actually creates a depressive ecosystem that makes you never want to re-enter the world again. Not for fear of the virus. I guess a separate article doesn’t need to be written about it, because this is an obvious defining feature of depression, which is a dull cycle. All it takes is not leaving the house for a few days for you to never leave the house again, to not even be capable of imagining leaving the house again. It’s as if you’d been born here, and you’d always been here, really: everything else, all the other moments had just been lies, fantasies to help you cope, when the truth is that you’ll always be here even if you’re somewhere else, and eventually you’ll realise this, stop chasing all those illusory elsewheres, and give in to your fate, which is here. Sometimes I feel bad because I haven’t made any effort to check up on any of my friends since this lockdown started, not even by replying to their stories. But then I realise that nobody’s asked for me either, and I feel a sense of relief.

I actually like lockdown, I wanted it. When the cases were climbing up to 5000, I echoed what many people in the comments section on The Star’s Facebook page were saying, that the country should go into lockdown until the case numbers come down. Isn’t it the case that you always want things to be another way, and then when things go that way, you wish they could go back to the way they were before, etc. I never learn from all this. But I’ve experienced enough lockdowns to know by now that I’m an inconsistent dumbass and I should just admit that I like lockdown, and I enjoy this stagnant depression too, it’s calming and mechanical. Days pass without event, sometimes I go an entire day without saying more than one or two words. My brain is a gentle confused fog. I have more time to read books, watch movies, and to just spend time alone with myself. I don’t feel anything towards any piece of breaking news or fresh conflict happening around the world, I don’t have “takes”. I’ve really cut down the amount I post to my Stories now. There’s not much I care to say. 

Before the lockdown, I went for a last cycle with P — gentle P, another friend of the abyss. We get along well because, at the end of the day, we’re both very lonely. Sometimes a successful relationship just depends on understanding that, and not asking anything from each other beyond that understanding. 

I arrived late, I left my house at 10 when I said I’d arrive at 10. When we set off, it was probably already approaching 11. Right behind P’s house is an entrance into the sprawling Kwong Tong cemetery compound, and we walked our bikes up because the incline of the hill leading there is way more than I’m capable of. Sun was out, no sign of rain on the horizon: a late morning that’s testament to how nice the weather must have been just a few hours earlier, if only I’d bothered to wake up earlier. 

The cemetery is the biggest Chinese cemetery in Malaysia, acres upon acres of headstones as far as the eye can see; and then the Kuala Lumpur skyline beyond a horizon of trees, with the awkward, brutish PNB and TRX buildings sticking out. Yap Ah Loy is buried here, and he has a great big black marble commemoration plaque where his grave is. The graves have pictures of the deceased on them, some have many Chinese words on them, some have illustrations that represent the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. Some of the graves are larger than others, practically pavilions really, and better maintained. Some other sections are just thickets of tall grass and weeds that scratch you when you try to walk through. There’s a narrow road for cars, and it’s fringed with a number of interesting trees and shrubs. Frangipani, hibiscus. I’ve been to the cemetery multiple times with P, but each time I feel like I discover some new section of it that I don’t remember noticing before. Near the edges of the cemetery, where it opens up onto the Japanese War Memorial and Alice Smith School, there’s a building that looks like a ramshackle old mini mansion, seemingly unoccupied, except that there used to be a little cafe operating from the corner where some friendly Chinese folks would sell you cold beer in bottles. It was called the “Graveyard Bar” on Google Maps. That bar is closed now though the building still stands, and dogs fill the compound, barking at you if you cycle too close. I just followed P blindly and I still don’t really know where all everything is, and we were the only living people around except for the occasional Foodpanda rider. 

It’s hilly and bumpy up there, with a bunch of minor potholes. Each time I pushed myself up a slight hill I would be rewarded with the smooth decline on the other side of it, and then P would turn around because we’d reached some dead end, and the decline that had been my friend now became an inimical incline. We made a few circles before I ran out of breath, and the entire time P hardly broke a sweat. I love cycling, and up in that cemetery among the mottled sunlight and the rows of still grey stone, utterly alone, I felt like I was in Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo when the moon-change of tides turns the entire city into a Paleolithic forest. It was peaceful and regenerative, the breeze upon my face felt clear and pure. 

To tell the truth, the intermittent lockdowns have hardened my heart, and I go through the days not feeling anything except boredom and some low-level despair. I don’t miss seeing my friends much, my soul is too tired to miss anything or to hope for anything. But I miss cycling. 

Signing off for now, ‘As a cyclist’,

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