Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Soul Of A City, Part 2

Singapore houses four million people, but no two of them live in the same city. A city isn’t made of tall buildings; it’s made of the people who live and work and play in them. You might walk among the same buildings as I do. But for every person you know that I don’t, for every person whom you speak to that is a stranger to me, your city is different from mine.

So my experience of revisiting Singapore this week wasn’t really about going back to familiar places, it was about returning to familiar faces.

Stretch the thread of a relationship over a great distance, and it starts to fall slack. It’s a delicate thing, that thread, and easy to neglect. You don't notice the neglect until one day you try to pick it up and discover that it’s lost its suppleness. It’s a sharp and instantaneous realization when that happens. You listen to your conversation turn polite, you recognize the palpable disinterest that’s impossible to hide, and in a flash you realize that you now have one less friend and one more acquaintance.

I was pleased to come away from Singapore without any new acquaintances.

The best friends help you learn something new. This week I found out I can enjoy art even when it is disconcertingly abstract. I discovered the quiet pleasure in sharing an afternoon with a friend and their family, just watching them be a family. And in a single evening I realized that friendships may be born in many ways, but they are shaped and defined by the vulnerabilities we choose to reveal to each other; that you can tell how important someone is to you by how bad you feel because you weren't around to help them; and that it's useful to have a shrinkable head.

I'm back in the US now. But I can feel each taut thread of friendship that pulls gently at me. One end is in Boston, and the other end is in a city that I once lived in.

Monday, 27 October 2008

The Soul Of A City, Part 1

Singapore surprised me. I arrived here a couple of days ago for a short trip, four months after moving away. I expected to fit back into these familiar surroundings like a hand sliding into an old, snug glove. But I didn't. As familiar and comfortable as the city felt, there was something missing, something that made me feel like I was in an old haunt rather than an old home.

That sense of absence faded on Saturday evening while I was at Sentosa Island. I was at the beach, and the sound of the sea gently murmuring against the beach sands temporarily soothed my sense of being there-but-not-quite-there.

The same thing happened on Sunday. During the day I felt like a visitor even as I strolled through the lanes of Holland Village for the thousandth time. In the afternoon I looked out across the grounds opposite City Hall and I could not convince myself that I'd seen them before. But when night fell I was watching a movie at the Botanical Gardens. The screen was set up in the middle of a lotus pond. The light from the projector bounced onto the water in a gentle, reassuring glow. And for a couple of hours I felt once again like I belonged.

That feeling did not last very long. It was gone again this morning as I helped one friend buy a Chairman Mao t-shirt and helped another friend not buy a picture-book of "artistic nudes". But in the afternoon I waited in line for a taxi while the heavens opened up with rain twenty feet away from me. I heard the dull rumble of water falling on the road then, and I remembered it again several hours later.

I remembered that roar again several hours later as I sat in a little garden in my hotel. I heard that roar echoed in the sound of the waterfalls in that garden, and in the lapping of the pond that the waterfall poured into.

That's when I realized how much of my sense of Singapore has to do with water. Whether it's falling in a deluge during a rainstorm, or ebbing and flowing through the tidal rivers, or simply splashing in waterfalls and fountains all across the island, water is as much a part of the experience of Singapore as air. Even the absence of water is part of that experience, inasmuch as that absence reminds me that something's missing.

And now that I understand, now that I've seen the rains and listened to the waterfall, now I feel like I've visited home again.

Monday, 13 October 2008

And That's Really Important Because...?

I don't understand how people can get upset at work, about work. Over the past weeks I've been in numerous business discussions where a remark expressing an opinion would incite a retort that would flare up into an intense argument between colleagues. And all that intensity would be about stuff that sells in supermarkets.

I understand that people's jobs are important to them. I do think that people who can immerse themselves into their work are lucky. Heck, I'll even confess that I often have fun with what I do for a living. (Yes, that statement is deliberately open to interpretation.) But let's be honest here, what we call work is stuff that is so unpleasant that we wouldn't even do it if we weren't paid.

And yet I've found myself sometimes in the same passionate conference-room arguments that, when I look back on them, they bewilder me. My current theory is that we each have a spring of emotional energy inside us. And if it does not find a meaningful outlet like art or helping people, well then it will find a meaningless outlet; such as choosing the most effective design theme for a Powerpoint presentation.

Our office towers are ivory towers and we glide through their corridors like so many fairy-tale princes and princesses: graceful, privileged and clueless. We have the luxury of getting upset about things that don't matter because we have no need to be upset about the things that do, like survival. A few days ago I left office late because an unplanned meeting lasted about an hour longer than it deserved to (the meeting was an hour long). On my way home I stopped at a toll-booth to hand over my dollar and change to a tired-looking man. I'd have been embarrassed for him to know that while he'd been sitting there inhaling exhaust fumes, I had spent my day listening to grown men debate what project name would best inspire the grunts working on it.

There are some things that are obviously worth getting worked up about. War, for instance, or famine, or love. Occasionally even football deserves a shout. But the forecast for next month's department store sales? No thanks, I think I'll save my hormones for a rainy day.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Larger Than Life

Every time I think I'm used to the bigness of America, something new comes and slaps me in the face. This time it's Ohio.

Yesterday we had four hours on the road. Flat fields of corn stretched out endlessly. Every couple of miles a 50-foot tower marked the spot where a McDonald's or Wendy's sat. But none of those prepared me for the sight that awaited me at the end of my journey - Lake Erie.

Standing by its shore, it's very hard to believe that it is in fact a lake. The dull roar of the waves creates a compelling illusion of an ocean, one that's reinforced by the sight of unbroken water stretching out to the distant sky. I thought at first that I could see a low, jagged outline of land on the horizon; but when it shifted in front of me I realized it was just enormous waves silhouetted against the sky.

Lake Erie is so big, I have to admit it is a little bit scary.

So it's fitting that in this landscape of bigness, sits a monument to the one art form that embraces excess like no other.

Visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a great thrill. They had lots of supercool memorabilia, much as you'd expect. Michael Jackson's single white glove shared a stage with David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust costume. Elvis' purple cadillac was surrounded by his grotesque jumpsuit, pictures, and a pair of handguns from his collection.

The exhibit that I liked the most was a psychedelically painted Porsche that Janis Joplin once owned; it was an ironical counterpoint to my all-time favourite Joplin lyrics:
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends

Janis recorded that song on October 1, 1970 in Los Angeles. Ten days later her Porsche was found in the parking lot of her hotel, shortly before she herself was found dead in her room from a heroin overdose.

I think Janis is the one individual who represents everything about rock music, the bad and the good. She was attention-seeking, depressive and self-destructive. She was passionate and as one writer described her, could "sing the chic off any listener".

I can imagine her sitting on the shore of Lake Erie, slightly dishevelled, singing from the belly, in a plaintive voice that would carry above the sound of water foaming on the pebble-strewn beach. I bet she would not have been intimidated by the vastness of the lake.

So here's to Janis. Here's to the big bad world of Rock and Roll. And here's to this crazy landscape that inspires its inhabitants to live life large.