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embrace of the dead
I wince at the discordant notes sounding from the piano when she slams her hands against the keys.

"Stop, stop," I insist, sweeping her fingers off the keys. She ignores my protests and even has the absolute audacity to blow smoke rings in my face, all the while banging on the piano, like a child desperate for attention. I cough and wave away the glittering purple smoke and dust purple ash off my thighs.

I do the only thing possible in situations like these — I yank the cigarette from her lips.

"Hey!" she yelps and reaches for it, but as our arms are equally short, and I'm pushing her away with an elbow, her efforts are for naught. I take a long drag of the cigarette, blow the smoke in her direction and stub the cig out on the edge of the piano.

"That was my last one, you freak," she says, deflated.

"Oops," I say in the most insincere tone I can muster. With her meddling hands off the piano, I raise my hands to the keys gingerly, the shape of my hands curved to play the major notes within an octave.

I hesitate.

I haven't played in years.

She watches with half-lidded dark-brown eyes, head tipped to the side as my hands sag. My wrists thud on the edge of the keyboard, the pads of my fingertips slide down the keys, the rich mahogany sheen of the piano, down to my lap.
"I'm more partial to the guitar," I offer by way of an explanation, or excuse, depending on which way you look at it.

She arches an eyebrow, clearly not impressed.

"Practise makes perfect, you know."

She leans closer, her lips grazing against the shell of my ear. The ends of her long hair — an identical length to mine, for once — brush my arm. I smell the whiskey on her breath when she speaks, her voice light and mocking.

"Such a shame that perfection bores you."


I've just finished reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. The content is rather interesting, although the book can be condensed, I feel. There are a few topics which I find extremely fascinating, such as the art of deliberate practise. Deliberate practise is a term used in performance psychology, and is apparently the secret that sets the expert apart from the layman. Before I delve deeper into the link between deliberate practise and deep work, we have to examine the neurological foundation behind deliberate practise.

Myelin is a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurones. Myelin allows the cells to fire faster. As one focuses on a specific skill and hones the circuitry more and more, more myelin grows around the corresponding neurones, increasing the efficiency of the circuit and "effectively cementing the skill".

The key word here is focus, as intense and uninterrupted concentration is necessary in deliberate practise, in order to isolate the relevant neurones involved in the specific skill. This means that distraction, such as flitting between social media or texts from friends, has no place in efficient learning.

"To learn hard things quickly is an act of deep work."

What I find so remarkable about this is the capability of our abilities to grow with us, for us to improve.

You wanna get better at something, like maths?

Just practise.

It's as if your brain is telling you, hey I can see you trying really hard, here, let me wrap some sweet myelin around yo neurones as a reward.

It's so encouraging, as if one can learn anything, do anything, if one puts her heart into it.

One very popular phrase about cultivating regular habits is don't break the chain, coined by comic Jerry Seinfeld. An aspiring comedian asked him about the secret of his success, and he simply said to write one joke a day, mark it off your calendar and not to break the chain. The logic behind it is consistency — as the chain increases in length, you'll find it harder to give up.

"Do hard things consistently."

Armed with this knowledge, I started a weekly habit tracker in my passion planner in January. I started out with eight habits, but I've pared them down to one, because I've cemented the rest already. The habit that I'm the proudest to accomplish is to read the news every day. It's one of the first things I do in the morning at weekends and when I reach home after work on weekdays.

I like being updated on current affairs, I like to know what's going on around me, and I find that some parts of the business section help me in making sound judgements regarding my financial investments. I particularly like reading the opinion pieces of current affairs.

The last habit that I'm struggling with are my dailies — a suite of exercises (e.g., push-ups, squats, planks) that I've promised myself to carry out on non-gym days. It's still a bit rocky because of my lack of discipline on some days.

Something to work on for the coming weeks.

I've fallen in love with structure and schedule. 

People hate the word schedule, they think of it as something limiting, constricting, rigid.

It’s funny, because there are other worse constraints that people place themselves under.

The goal of having a schedule is knowing what you should complete for the day. It's not about controlling your actions, but it's about thoughtfulness and prioritisation. Having a schedule is useful, but flexibility is important since last-minute meetings and tasks can pop up during a busy day. That's fine, because then you can ask yourself this question: "what makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?

It's a lot harder to answer that question if you don't have a schedule.

Scheduling things helps me to wrestle back control of my time, which does tend to slip away in the blink of an eye.

That's why I really, really love scheduling things.

But it's gotten to a point that I have to schedule every single thing into my to-do list, if not I'll be at an absolute loss. Sunday nights are my schedule nights, where I look at what I would like to accomplish for the month, break it down into weekly tasks, break that even further to daily bites, and then slot the tasks into my daily plans, so that every morning when I enter the office, I know what I have to finish by 6pm.

I schedule my free time too, tell myself that hey, I need to finish writing so-and-so scenes, finish reading these chapters of my book, going to the gym, before I can feel that I've had a good, productive day. When a handful of my friends heard about this, they went huh? even free time you also schedule. Not tired meh?

On the contrary. Their points are valid — scheduling duties at work makes sense, because you have to justify your salary, but isn't free time different? Isn't it better to keep your free time completely unstructured and flexible, in order to relax and recharge fully?

Sure, I guess so, but the pattern that I find recurring is that when I don't plan my free time, I spend the entire day in bed surfing YouTube.

Oh, YouTube is such an excellent productivity killer for me.

Planning your free time and hobbies grants your commitment to them. Especially since one of my hobbies is writing, a task that requires deep work. I need that structure to tell myself to sit down and work on my novel in this time-frame. This act of making the meaningful choice of setting aside time to do something, proves that I am in control of my time, effort and energy, and this control helps to generate motivation.

It goes something along the lines of this: I could spend the next three hours on YouTube, or I could spend it to finish this scene that I've been struggling with. You know what, I'm gonna work on this scene. So what if this scene isn't working too well for me right now, I have to finish it, if not it's gonna be a major roadblock and I'll gradually stop working on my story. That can't happen, because I have to write, I have to finish this.

I want this.

Last time, it was this focus that made me so inflexible at times, but I've learnt to get around it. Some days, when I deserve it because of the consistently hard work I've put in for the past week, I just give myself a rest day, leaving the entire day open to do whatever I feel like doing, including not moving in my bed at all, because I could be on YouTube or immersed in a really good book.

Only if I deserve it, though, as a reward.

I've also taken to tracking my time, both at work and at home. I write down what I do over the course of the day, and then align my actions with my goals within the month, and subsequently the year. This helps me to bridge the gap between reality and my goals. People track their money and their budget and treat it with respect, so why don't people track their time, which I feel is more precious than money?

You can die anytime.

At the end of the month, I congratulate myself when I've accomplished all of my goals, and tell myself it's alright if I fucked up.

It's alright if I fucked up.

Do you know how long it took for me to make peace with that statement?

Because for the past few years, I've removed my expectations from people around me (because people disappoint you, anyway) and planted all of it on my shoulders. Whenever I fucked up, I'd sink deeper into my blazing hell of brimstone and misery, break out the champagne and cake for my pity party.

I'm so fucking tired of doing that, of punishing myself for being human.

I learnt how to pick myself up, forgive myself and move on, which is what I had to do after January and February, because I didn't do jack-fucking-shit those two months. I fucked up the first two months of the year, but that still leaves me ten months to do good work.

I hit all of my fucking goals in March and April.

This insight is probably my favourite, the most enlightening part of Deep Work.

It's about meaning in life.

Recently, a close colleague — known for her wit and candour — asked me: What do you have to live for in life? What do you look forward to? You don't go out much, you don't indulge in fancy meals or things, you don’t have to travel. It's like your life is just work, gym, writing and things like that. You know, that's it.

That got my hackles up, her using those words, in that brash manner and sharp tone. I was tempted to bite out that's 'cause if I kill myself then who's gonna do museum programmes?

Everyone has a different trajectory in their path in life; different people envision their ideal life in different ways. Who are you to judge how I should live my life? The mainstream ideal life would be to get a good education (check), not get involved in some sort of seedy scandal (check), get a steady, well-paying job (half-check, my job is relatively steady), find someone decent to settle down with (haha, not too bloody likely) and push out a few babies to fulfil the national requirement of a birth replacement rate, work until you retire, live a happy life with your spouse when your young have flown the nest, and then it's time to die.

Any deviation from this would be a disappointment to the societal standards of an ideal life.

At this point in my life, I think my meaning in life is to create things that matter.

Sure, that sounds pretty damn impressive and everything, but the fact of the matter is that I'm not working on a bestseller novel; I'm not even getting any money or widespread recognition for the hours and effort poured into my work. I write fanfiction, and half of the time when you mention fanfiction to other people, that immediately discounts you as a writer in their eyes.

I bristle at that, because I've read fanfiction that can rival original, published fiction.

My apologies. Maybe I should have been clearer.

My meaning in life, right now, is to create things that matter to me.

It's the process of writing that brings meaning to me.

Yes, the end-product — 15-20 chapters, probably going up to 250K words in total — is the end-game that I strive to achieve, the finish line that I envision to motivate me. 

But it's the process of employing deep work to transmit the scenes — so vivid and real that each action drips from my fingertips like tears and blood — playing out in my head into paper; spending days losing myself in a different world; that sense of achievement whirling around my heart as I sit back after a productive writing session and look at my work in awe hey, I wrote that. My brain created that.

Of doing something I know I was born to do.

Flow is a term I've stumbled across before, but Deep Work does a pretty good job in linking flow to depth. One is happiest when one's "body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."

This is flow.

The "more such flow experiences occur, the higher the subject's life satisfaction."  

That is why deep work — writing, in my case — gives rise to meaning.

Since early March, I've accomplished the following:

1) I've figured out the entire plot and characterisations for my novel and slotted them into their respective chapters and scenes. I’ve sketched up a rough timeline for the story. This is something I've been putting off for a whole fucking year because I used to be pathetic like that.

When I finished it, I felt so deliriously happy that I could have conjured a Patronus.

I wrote the first scene of the first chapter on 10 April, and since then, I'm churning out one chapter a week. Chapter 1: 10,954 words. 2: 14,029 words. 3: 11,262 words. 4: currently 8,215 words (still left with one last scene), bringing my total word count to 44,460 words.

I'm so close to finishing Act 1.

This is such a major milestone for me.

The more I wrote, the more I practised the skill, the easier it was for me to continue doing it. The momentum propelled me forward, easing me on to the next chapter.

It's exactly the same as going to the gym. Once you've fallen into the habit, it's so much easier to continue rather than stop for a long time and then fall under the curse of inertia and getting over that annoying activation energy.

The transition between reality and my fictional world is more seamless; I can just simply sit at my laptop and pick up from where I left off. Last time, when I didn't write as often, I would usually take longer to shift gears to get myself into the mood of writing.

Deliberate practise.

2) I'm still continuing my regular trips to the gym. I hit 5km on the treadmill a few weeks back, a new high, and I've been consistently encouraging myself to hit at least 5km each session, and this is a record that I've maintained up till now. It's often the most tiring halfway into the run, but once you hit the home stretch (which for me, is around 3km), it's like my body eases into the language of running; my heartbeat, breathing and limbs moving in perfect sync.

It's always your mind who fucks things up by exaggerating your exhaustion, but if you were to listen closely to your body instead, it's telling you hey, I'm fine. I'm fine. Just hold on to the end of this song, to after you pass that tree in the scenery in the treadmill video, hold on until you finish this minute.

Just hold on.

Deliberate practise.

I have friends that can easily run circles around me, but I'm not interested in comparing myself with them, because that's the way disappointment and inadequacy lies.

I've given up on that a long time ago.

I compare myself to when I first started out at the gym, when my maximum distance was 3.9km. If I want to go way, way back, I used to consistently fail my 2.4km run during secondary school. I've steadily improved, and I'm only interested in comparing myself with how I used to be. 

3) I took one full week (evenings after work and full weekends) to clear and clean my room. I was the most ruthless this time round; there are big gaping spaces in my drawers and cupboards where shit used to be.

Locked my withered heart up in a corner, threw what I didn't need/use away, left little room for sentimentality and vowed to buy even lesser things this year so that I don't need to waste so much time and effort packing my room next year.

4) Increased the stocks in my portfolio. I'll have to spend some time in May sorting and updating everything again.

5) Started oil painting class with jingxiang. We're painting sunflowers as a still life, and hey, I'm not as bad as I thought I would be.

I think the key lesson that I've learnt these two months is simply to just start.

The devil emerges when you doubt yourself, when the stray voice in your head pops up and says hey, just open YouTube and laze on the bed for a bit. You're tired, you've had a bad day at work.

No. Push that voice down and just start, be it opening Microsoft Word, grabbing the post-it detailing my dailies or having the fortitude to not disembark bus 96 when it reaches my house, instead staying on the bus until it drops me off at my gym.

We have to start somewhere — be it the first sentence of a novel, the first kilometre of a run, the first push-up of a set of exercises, the first brush on the canvas.

Just start now.

Because if not now, when?

If it's not your voice telling your story, then who?

We have abandoned the piano and are now leaning over the bar table to trace childish patterns — smiley faces, squiggly words and stick figures — on the foggy glass. She licks the chocolate off her fingers and laughs when I draw a whale, complete with a large ribbon, on the glass. 

She's drained her coffee dry, while my Earl Grey sits in my teacup, steadily cooling. An open tin of chocolate biscuits sits beside me, and our table is strewn with crumbs.

A storm is out in full force, raindrops splattering against the pavement, the howling wind bending the branches of trees, the roar of thunder and harsh flash of lightning showing no mercy. Outside, the world dissolves in a wash of colour and shapes, blurred by the rain lashing against the glass.

There's no one else out there, just like how it always is, and will be.

It's the end of the world, and we're the only two left. 

It doesn't matter, because I'm with her and she's with me and we're inside, warm and safe and cosy. 

We sit alone, in the sparkling city of stars — as empty as the jagged shards of loneliness, but yet as hauntingly beautiful as a sorrowful piano ballad playing in a dark, vacated room.