Recently, a former colleague of mine passed away suddenly while in his prime. He was actually one of my predecessors and I always regarded him as a mentor, sorta kinda. Certainly, I learnt a lot from him and I respected him tremendously.
His sudden passing inadvertently (but inevitably) struck a chord. And so here I am, writing my next blog post, where there’s been silence for more than half a year.
You see, I could’ve been him, two years ago. And I still can be him.
In fact, my cardiologist warned me as much recently. He said, Kennie, based on your profile, there is a very high risk that you are going to have a heart attack within the next ten years. You have to be careful.
So you see, I couldn’t help but see myself lying there where he was. He passed in his early fifties, after all – and that, so my doctor intimates, is likely to be my fate.
* * *
I’ve been working hard at changing my lifestyle. I must admit that it was far easier to do this during COVID.
[In fact, I will safely say that COVID saved my life. If it wasn’t because of the lockdown, I would have gone on blissfully over-achieving like I did, and one day – stepping out of the gym after an intensive workout – I would’ve just dropped dead. In fact, I came very close to that just two weeks before I was diagnosed with a >80% clog in my most important definitely-widow-making left-anterior-descending artery. In the middle of a workout, I felt nauseous and had to lie down. Thankfully I did.]
With restrictions loosening up, it has been harder to keep to a healthy lifestyle. In the past year, I’ve been entertaining again. And unlike last year, where I kept to a very strict, pretty-much vegan diet, I’ve lapsed back into eating whatever, as though the stent never happened.
Partly it’s because I’m just tired of explaining why I have to have a special diet. For about a year, I got a kick out of telling special guests – particularly very difficult ones – by the way, do you know I have a stent in my heart? and watching as their eyes go wide open, and they go all goldfish-like and back off on whatever demand they wished to make of me.
But almost two years into the stent, it gets a bit old. And now I don’t want to be reminded that I’m a ticking time-bomb.
There’s also the stress-drinking and the stress-snacking. THAT, so I understand, is what did my late colleague in. He was notorious for stress-snacking, in particular. And unlike me, he probably didn’t invest in a full health scan.
In the past year, as restrictions loosened up (and the world changed completely, but internal bureaucracies at the workplace have not, and in fact, have gotten even worse), I’ve taken to the bottle and crisps again. Granted. I’m drinking and snacking MUCH LESS than pre-COVID-pre-stent times, but I am still drinking and snacking.
I am much better these few weeks though. I have gradually cut out the snacks, except when I’m REALLY stressed out. And I have at least one day each week where I don’t drink.
I still also only mostly drink red wine, and stop at two glasses a day. I console myself that red wine is good for the heart; the resveratrol is probably what kept me from dying pre-stent.😂
But I still have to drink less and keep to a better diet. My doctor says so. Emphatically.
And so I’ve taken to becoming a lot more reclusive. I generally decline evening events except for our own events at the museum. I decline dinners, on principle, and try to entertain only at lunch (and there’s already a lot of that).
Most evenings, I aim to cook a simple meal of fish or chicken, veggies and rice at home. I hope these simple and austere dinners balance out the more cholesterol-rich work lunches and the occasional dinners I (have to) have.
I must apologise here to colleagues, patrons and friends of the museum for my increasing reclusiveness. It’s not that I don’t support your events, or don’t want to meet with you. But you know, health is the most important thing to me at this point. I don’t want to die young.
Oh, and just as an indication, should you be kind enough to have me over – I should only be eating fish, chicken and vegetables. Carbs are good but no dairy – definitely no butter. And no seafood or red meat at all. Thank you so much.
* * *
Recently, things pretty much returned to normal, with us launching two exhibitions at the museum. We had our first (and second) launch parties since 2019 and they were hugely successful ones thronged with hundreds of guests.
Naturally, I was back to my old tricks, drinking copiously before I even got on stage to deliver my speech. It’s just that I’m introverted and terrified of crowds. And I wouldn’t have been able to work the room without the drink coursing through my veins.
But then there’s also a small part of me that enjoys the good cheer and wanted to feel alive again. I wanted to feel as though I was whole and that my heart wasn’t broken. I’m just so tired of being reminded I’m essentially an invalid, and that I need to be super-careful and watch my back all the time. I’m tired of the pity and tired of pitying myself.
And then again, I don’t want to be my late colleague, lying there in the casket in my early 50s. I know the life I used to lead before is completely unsustainable. It is no longer for me, however much I may miss some parts of it, especially the parts where I gain satisfaction by trying to achieve the close-to-impossible.
Another thing my doctor said – he is in ‘70s, fancies himself sort of like an uncle, and likes to spring apocalyptic statements on me: – Kennie, you need to invest in Life. There is no reason why you won’t live till 80. So you need to invest in good health and a good diet for 30 years, so you can make it there.
Partly I think he forgets that I’m already in my 40s – I look and behave young for my age. But seriously, if I have to “invest” for 30 years till I’m in my 70s, in order to live only a decade more till 80, is this investment even worth it?
I mean, what is my doctor actually saying??? He’s saying that if I don’t “invest”, I’ve only got some 10 years left to live right? Right???!!!
I was bothered by this quite a bit and had long chats with my therapist: about finding the right balance in my lifestyle and diet; about my mortality in general and how to take it in stride; about whether or not I should SERIOUSLY leave my job RIGHT NOW in order to preserve my life.
And then a few sessions later, I thought, what if I turned this circumstance around and saw this as something life-affirming and positive. In other words, I asked myself this question instead:
IF I HAD ONLY 10 YEARS TO LIVE, WHAT WOULD I DO DIFFERENTLY?
I decided that I would be FEARLESS.
That I would no longer be afraid of anyone or anything. That I would be Miley-fucking-Cyrus twerking till kingdom come – It’s our party, we can do what we want to… It’s our house, we can love who we want to… It’s our song, we can sing if we want to… It’s my mouth, I can say what I want to…
I mean… they’re not dying young. I am.
* * *
My mother, in typical fashion, still fails to quite understand or commiserate with my condition.
When I blithely declare to her that I am unlikely to outlive her; or perhaps I will possibly-maybe die soon after she does, her reactions are firstly and matter-of-factly, no dear, you are not going to die young, you have to take care of me. And then with some annoyance: well, I guess I’ll have to groom somebody else to take care of me, if you’re going to die young.
Or she will set herself to competing with me on how her underlying illnesses – supposedly diabetes and high cholesterol, so she explains as she gorges on siew yoke (roast pork), copious amounts of rice and goreng pisang (fried bananas) – are worse than having a mile-long stent in my heart keeping me alive.
Of course, I know she’s going to live forever, because she has the constitution of an ox on steroids, with titanium armour… oh and a metal heart.
In times past, I would be deeply hurt by everything that she says. And in fact, it wasn’t so long ago that she pulled an MIA the whole time I was in hospital having a stent put into my heart and then called me “unfilial” for calling her out on that.
These days, I laugh it off. I’ve become quite FEARLESS.
My mother notices that I don’t respond anymore when she pushes my buttons. Dear, she says, you are so calm these days. Last time, if I said something you don’t like, you would just walk out and not speak to me for a year. But now, you seem very calm.
Mama, I reply. I’ve spent ruinous amounts of money on therapy. I need to ensure some return on investment.
She too – in her moments of kindness – advises that I could leave my present position, and find some other job where they pay you lots for doing not very much.
I explained that unfortunately, I was brought up and wired to ACHIEVE and EXCEL; and that I’m not sure I’m ever going to end up in such a job, if that even exists. And even then, I’m wired to DO MY VERY BEST.
[Since therapy, I’ve learnt to recognise my own propensity to over-achieve and over-work as a PSYCHOSIS, brought on by a childhood and a lifetime of being told that whatever it is that I’ve achieved, it’s simply never going to be good enough, or even valid. And so you set unrealistic expectations for yourself, and only feel the rush of validation when you achieve on the level of the epic and herculean…]
You brought me up that way, I tell my mom. And she sighs but grudgingly agrees.
For her, I was the “ornamental” son – her words, not mine. I was good insofar as I was there to be shown off. I was there to be perfect – a vase or trophy. I wasn’t there to have any sort of human feelings or attributes. God forbid I fail in anything.
He had ten A-ONES, you know, my mom continues to randomly tell people (like her new relationship manager) these days, holding both hands up. He’s successful.
[Though how is always having to cope with crippling anxiety and a sense that everyone is out to get you a success, I wonder. AND ending up with a mile-long stent in my heart.]
But then she gripes about me being useless for anything practical.
M: What do you mean you can’t help me do the gardening? K: Mama, I’m not sure what planet you’re on in which I’ve ever done anything like do the gardening. I’ve never handled the shears. I wouldn’t know what to do. Just please hire a gardener.
M: What can you do then? K: Mama, I know how to run a large organisation, bring money in, manage people, write books, speak publicly. M: Well then, you’re useless to me.
[For context, our helper, who also kindly did the gardening, had retired; and I was being asked to take over on the gardening front…]
* * *
These days I don’t really want to stir out of my house at all. I don’t care for dinners out or parties and events. Where once I used to be suffused with wanderlust, I no longer have any strong desire to travel, whether for work or pleasure.
All I want to do is stay at home.
I love my home so much. I’ve designed it such that it is catered fully to my needs, which means it is full of nooks and corners to curl up in, with a book or with my laptop, tapping away at writing my new book.
[Oh yes, I forgot to mention that I’ve been working on my new book on THE GREAT PORT CITIES OF ASIA AND THE INDIAN OCEAN. I’m more than two-thirds of the way in now, and writing it gives me so much joy. I try to write every morning before I go to work. It helps me calm and ground myself for the bureaucratic absurdities I often have to navigate once I get to work.]
Every single room in the apartment has a cosy little spot where I can ensconce myself. So if I get bored of sitting in one cosy little spot, I pick myself up and choose another cosy little spot to be in – the balcony, the living room, the study, the bedroom, the guest room, the other balcony, the secret room…. All of them have cosy little spots. I love it!!
I’ve got everything I need at home. So it’s only natural that I don’t ever want to go out at all. I just want to stay in here forever and ever, in my little hole, hidden away from everybody, never to be found.
The problem of course, is I don’t quite spend enough time at home. My dream is to be able to spend all day every day for two weeks at home, just reading and napping and writing and cooking myself meals and gazing away into the distance.
The reality is I’m managing maybe one full day every two weeks where I can be at home THE WHOLE DAY. Something’s always up. Grrrr… 😡 And then when I’m at home I’m just frantically writing so I can finish the new book – yes, the book’s a joy but also hard work, and sometimes a pain to get through!
[My favourite thing in the world is my library – with bookshelves going all the way up to the ceiling, and books of all kinds that I’ve read, and that I’ve yet to read, and that I feel that I want to re-read. The entire universe is on these bookshelves – so what more need I have?]
My therapist and I had a long session about my not wanting to leave the home. We concluded that this was the manifestation of my finally coming to terms with, and being able to, MOTHER MYSELF.
Not ever having had a mother in the traditional, nurturing, validating, loving sense of the term – and this is something my mother herself admits, mind you – it was important that I took on the task of being my own mother, so to speak; self-care in the maternal sense, in order to move on from childhood trauma.
My new home is a perfectly safe space for me. In here, I don’t feel judged; I don’t feel I need to perform; I don’t feel I need to live up to anybody’s expectations. It is, I suppose, a womb of sorts, that I’ve created around myself, a caring, loving and nurturing space, with the carer and nurturer being… well, ME.
No wonder I never want to leave.
Funnily enough, the day my therapist and I came to this conclusion, I had a sort of minor anxiety attack because that very evening, I had agreed to go to a networking party that had nothing to do whatsoever with the museum (and so it failed the basic should-Kennie-show-up criteria), but had to do with me catching up with an old friend.
We worked out that perhaps what I should do was take a bit of myself at home along with me; and to not feel guilty about just diving in, saying hello to the old friend, and making a quick exit.
Which is exactly what I did. Oh, and I put on a favourite shirt of mine. With pink and white unicorns on it. To feel the fearlessness. 😃
* * *
So we come to crux of the problem – the main conundrum.
On the one hand, I don’t want to die young. I want to live as long as I can. Which means I need to watch myself – stress levels, diet, R & R time, social connections with friends and family.
On the other hand, knowing that I will die young imbues life with a sort of carpe-diem-ness; an un-fuckwithable, I’m-just-gonna-say-it-like-it-is mentality; an urgent sense of how important it is to do what it is I REALLY WANT to do before I run out of time.
So how do I watch myself and NOT watch myself at the same time? What does living fearlessly and fabulously really mean for me?
I think for starters, it means AVOIDING TOXIC PEOPLE & SITUATIONS. There’s so much toxin in Singapore just splashing about like ectoplasm. And if it wasn’t because I know intimately what toxin looks like, I would have allowed myself to succumb to it. As it is, I try to call it out in my own way, or just set boundaries and steer clear as much as possible.
As an example of what I mean… recently I had to show up at elaborate meals organised by one of these Super-High-Net-Worth would-be patrons – and there are many now in Singapore. I felt rather awkward about declining one meal too often and I finally confessed that I’m very sorry but I have a health issue: I have a stent in my heart.
You have one stent? came his refrain. I have six!
Yeah well. Fuck off. It’s not a competition, thanks. Don’t think I can’t see what you are. I’ve had a lifetime of my mom to deal with.
I’ve decided that I wish to CHAMPION TALENT, HOPE & OPPORTUNITY. And that this is the most important thing in the world at this point, post-pandemic, when PEOPLE have to be the focus.
As long as I’m at the museum – because I cannot be at the museum forever; I don’t want to die young – I will focus on narratives of TALENT, HOPE & OPPORTUNITY. Everyone should already know by now that who the museum and I are dedicated to are ARTISANS & CRAFTS(WO)MEN, a segment of the creative community no other museum in town is really championing.
[So please don’t come to me with a proposal for a contemporary art exhibition. NOT US, THANKS.]
I’ve had to deal with frequent comments about how “ACM only displays atas (i.e. elitist) things.”
Yeah… I disagree. Who do you think MADE these things, huh??? They were often made by humble or master artisans who spent their lives perfecting their craft, and whose livelihoods depended on being able to make these objects for patrons. In fact, whole communities had their livelihoods depend on making these beautiful objects for patrons.
Should their hard work, livelihoods and aesthetic excellence be discounted??
They were the artists of today. So a comment on the atas-ness of the objects of the museum, is a comment on the atas-ness of contemporary art too; and ultimately a statement that art/artists are non-essential.
Do you really want to go down that path???
We need more narratives of talent, opportunity and hope. Because, I don’t know about you, but Singapore society is such that everyone just tries to put everybody else down in order to make themselves feel better.
Why not let’s just celebrate each other for a change? And generate an environment of overwhelming positivity.
Not toxic positivity, which is also a HUGE problem in Singapore because nobody has a real idea of how to actually resource anything real and so they just go about spouting depressing and sometimes very patronising slogans like “do more and more with less”.
Real, LIFE-AFFIRMING positivity. That is in short supply.
Now, more than ever, we need life to be more LIFE-AFFIRMING.
I mean, it really sucked that nobody ever had my back – least of all the most important humans in my life.
So in return, I’ve decided that I will always have the backs of folks close to me and close to the museum. That I will be an overwhelming fount of LIFE-AFFIRMING-NESS – I shall puke flowers, bees, unicorns and sunlight.
Because life is worth it. And because, given I’m not going to live so long, I just want my life to be life-affirming, thank you very much.
All that giving will require shitloads of self-care… ginormous, Mariana-Trench-levels of ME-comes-first, prioritise-my-own-needs fearlessness and fabulousness.
So, I suppose the third principle of living fearlessly and fabulously is that I need to get to what I REALLY want to do; what I’ve ALWAYS wanted to achieve with my life, really really truly….
So I’m just gonna put it out there, by way of reminding myself not to forget to really pursue what I really want… because I could die anytime…
And what I REALLY REALLY want, is to stage my own musical. Yes, it’s true, I’ve written and composed a couple. And I think, maybe it’s time to seriously consider staging one of them…
I mean… you only live once. And I’ve only got ten years. So I really need to get onto it.
[Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want… So tell me what you want, what you really, really want…]
I suppose I shall take some initial steps in the coming year? I don’t know? May need to go into the recording studio. I may need some practical help and advice on staging and financing musicals…. Who knows? Maybe.
But then I’ve got my new book to finish writing – I can’t do everything at once. So I shall finish writing my book this year, submit it for editing and publishing, and then also properly launch and promote when it’s done… which would take what? 2 years in total?
And there’s also the question of the museum. I mean I still love the museum so very much, and there’s so much more I want to do. But I can’t be there forever or I will die young. My late colleague’s fate is a BIG warning sign – I don’t want to die on the job.
So yeah maybe like 2-ish more years tops? And once I secure my legacy? I feel strongly about the legacy. I also feel like I’m close.
And then it’s musicals, baby. Life’s too short. Especially in my case.
So here it is, folks. Three principles for living fearlessly and fabulously.
- Avoid toxic people and situations; instead…
- Champion life-affirming narratives of talent, opportunity and hope; and for heaven’s sakes…
- Pursue what I REALLY REALLY want – which is to stage my own musical [I give myself 2-ish years to get onto it.]
I think I can just about handle this. So I’m gonna sign off for now. Wish me best of luck.