USP Lives: Wearing the Last Skin

Buyer, climber, dreamer beware: it feels empty at the summit.


I went to collect my graduation gown today. It was a rather uneventful experience. You turn up, tell them your name, they look up the sizes you had previously indicated prior to the collection day, you try on the gown – die a little inside because the pink chevron of the BACHELOR OF ARTS just looks painfully jarring – check the gown as obsessively as a laojiao NSF who has signed one too many extras as an armskoteman who did not hand/takeover properly – and then you walk out the place. It’s as simple as: turn up, try on, take over, walk out. The whole procedure took me less than 15 mins.

It was strange, trying on these floppy clothes. Looking at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t help but cringe a little. It felt a little like being in Hogwarts, except that the blue of your gown was a little too gaudy, except that you still felt like you’d just matriculated yesterday. Except that it didn’t feel like i was finally about to graduate – about to finally don the mantle so often seen in the family portraits of other obnoxious relatives, or the framed picture of my father I’d once seen, so handsome in his graduation gown.

Except that it all felt like an anticlimax.

Commissioning a Double Vision

The last time I was subject to such a double vision had been about five or six years ago, about a month before I commissioned as an officer of the Singapore Armed Forces. If you have ever attended a Singaporean military parade – or a National Day Parade, since the two are almost similar because the military figures so largely in both –  what you often see are rows of men decked out in very immaculate and dashing uniforms. The white gloves, high collared white tops, black pants and shiny, clacky shoes all help to make the wearer look very grand and very charming. There’s a lot of pomp and ceremony that goes into the commissioning of the officer. Is it necessary? I’ll leave that to the taxpayers and the angsty uncles at the coffeeshops and the parliamentarians and the senior officers to decide. It certainly was nice to see and be seen, I will grant that.

But at the end of that day of solemn celebration, at the end of all the photo-taking and reminiscing, the question that haunted many of our hearts and minds was: now what?

After nine months of lessons, trench-digging, basic infantry training, basic artillery training, live firing, fire direction lessons, IPPT, navigation, ranging (5.56mm and 155mm) – now what?

Summiting a Double Vision

It is a strange thing, to finally arrive at the summit of a mountain. After many weeks of training and planning, after many hours of walking and climbing, after many minutes of anguish and hoping, you often break through a clearing, or climb past the last overhang, to realize you can go no higher. You have reached the highest point: the top of the mountain, the tip of the iceberg.

Now what?

Sure, there is the deep sense of satisfaction. There are a few minutes of elation, maybe even some tears, for all the months spent dreaming and plotting and striving, hoping against hope, trying against trial – all the blood and mud and sweat and tears and mud that it took to get to where you are now. It is a powerful, gripping moment, to finally arrive at the summit.

But it is a strange thing, to finally arrive at the summit of a mountain. One experiences a double vision too – to have finally reached the end of an obsession, emerging from a tunnel which could have been hours, if not months long.

But the price of getting what you wanted is getting what you once wanted.

The problem with reality, which one does not often encounter with story, is that it goes on remorselessly, without pause and without ceremony. Whether calamity or celebration, the sun still rises, the planet still turns without the smallest jot of sympathy for one’s achievements and failures.

What happens next?

Wearing a Double Vision

As I stared at myself in the mirror – looking silly with baggy clothes and a square-shaped hat, and an embarrassingly bright-pink chevron on my chest – I couldn’t help but be struck by an abject sense of anticlimax.

Sure. It had taken four years. They were not the easiest four years (which years of our lives are, anyway, when we think hard on them?). I had grown up a lot in those four years. I had seen and done things and met people I had always wanted to as a child. I could now write pretty coherently, and think relatively well too. I had learned from some of the best, and realized how true Socrates had been, when he said that all he knew was that he knew nothing. I had explored many horizons. I had tasted of the fruits of many trees, regretting some and revelling in others. They had been a rather splendid four years, despite the occasionally bumpy road.

Now what?

I suppose the motivation behind this post stems from an overwhelming sense of not just anticlimax, but ambiguity. Que sara sara, the future’s not ours to see, blahblahblah – but with each end the question that hangs, often unsaid, in the air is  – what does the future hold? A year from now, where will we be, what will we be doing? I have a strong distaste for routine, but ensconced in the University, life became predictable and safe. 4 years of safety and predictability. Even if you had to write new types of essays, think in new ways, consider new perspectives, you more or less knew, at least, the direction of all that novelty.

When you reach the summit of the mountain, the only direction is downward. As Ed Viesturs, the fifth man to have summited Everest without supplemental oxygen once remarked, going up is optional, but coming down the mountain is compulsory. You climb the mountain, and you get on with life – but back to the city, back into the flow of the deceptively routine everyday.

But how does one chart the contours of the future? How does the little leaf plot a course in the raging river? The one thing formal education hasn’t directly supplied us with is a course in life cartography (a course in HOW TO WRITE A CV and WHAT TO SAY IN AN INTERVIEW doesn’t count, much as it was useful).

Where are the coastlines, where are the coral reefs, where are the whirlpools marked ‘HERE BE DRAGONNES’? And more importantly – what lies beyond?

The ambiguity and the anticipation – i think that’s what scares us most, isn’t it, more than the monster under the bed, or at the end of the corridor? Paulo Coelho once pointed out that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. I’d have to agree. The injection was never as painful as thinking about the injection. Same for exams. Or booking in. Or preparing for a 14-day outfield in the dry Thai heat – simply because one does not know.

Ambiguity & Anxiety

And so, as I sit here on my final night in Cinnamon College, typing this meandering little post out, there is a sense of emptiness. Not of a distinctly nor directly negative nature, no. Of course, there is a melancholy. But I am so fed up with melancholy and goodbyes at this point that I’m just ignoring that background dirge now, which has become grey noise.

This emptiness is a numbness – a stark blankness where one would anticipate some other emotion. A vast, blank slate. Usually I pour anxiety and fear into this lake of questions, because that is my default, kiasu Singaporean mode, staining the scenery with terror and sleepless nights. But tonight I am weary of weariness; tonight I finally see the banality and terrible boredom of pain. Having delved deep into this strange feeling, i realise now that it is ambiguity –  an uncertainty at what the future holds, and thus an uncertainty at what I am supposed to feel, to delight in, to fear, to hope; to dream.

Old Skins

The top of a world can also be its end. As I tried my graduation gown on for size today, letting the purplish “dark blue” cover me in the future, in potential, I realised I had come to the very stratosphere of a planet I had once called home.  This awkward gown, an artefact of an outmoded colonial antiquity, was a symbolic spacesuit, a passport into a brave new world. It was a burial shroud, it was the last colour of a chrysalis we had almost outgrown, the last skin to shed before the nymph became (Kafka’s) cockroach…

Of course, I invest these things with too much meaning. I dramatize. I allude. I oscillate between hope and despair. But why not, when the future is so uncertain, unsure, a blank slate? To realize that one can tomorrow tear up any contract signed in stone; to realize that we could simply walk out of our lives tonight, if we so chose; to realize we stand upon the nexi of a thousand different possibilities; to realize that we are truly free – that can be a terrible and terrifying realization indeed.

Tonight, sitting at the sharp, myriad edges between then and tomorrow, past and prophecy; gazing upon the vast, rolling plains of possibility, there is no joy, but also no fear in me. Is this a function of my weariness? Or merely a spiteful apathy towards the oncoming mantle of Adulthood?

I contemplate my flowy, impractical spacesuit. I gaze out into the innumerable starfields beyond the now-claustrophobic snugness of the undergraduate life. I remember the blankness I felt upon mountaintops. I remember the parade square after the parade, quiet, glimmering wet as any concrete space after a rainstorm. How do I feel, now that these 4 years are over? I’ve gotten terribly bored of saying goodbye. Ghosts, both the anxious and ambiguous kinds, can be dreadfully dull, past a certain point.

I suppose you were hoping for some despair, or some uplifting message, from a weathered old bird at the end of his four years. Tonight, after the fashion of bland “arthouse” flicks which want to act like they have a Hidden Meaning behind their dreariness, I similarly offer you only my apathy, arising from ambiguity.

The world turns. The sun rises again the next day. You still have to bathe and go home after the mountain, the parade, the convocation, no matter how much you zhng yourself up.

Now what?

Who knows?    


[I thought I’d take a break from putting up excerpts from my thesis today, because I think it’s gotten to the point where people are realizing how boring  academic academic writing can be. I myself have felt like a spark, an angry vitality has gone out of my writing of late. I suppose it has to do in part with wanting to lie a little lower after my tirade critique of the rather mindless and rather tasteless and rather thoughtless NUS Open Day posters attracted an unnervingly high readership numbering in the thousands. In part because I still want to graduate, and am regretfully not a brave enough dissident, my entries have been a little blander since, a little more uncontroversial. The limelight can be intoxicating, but I am afraid of becoming an alcoholic.]

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