In many parts of the world, 2012 has begun. Over here I’m still lagging behind, but nevertheless, what’s the hurry.

Decided to go slow on the last day of the year. Get a cup of pike place brew by the seaside and watch the last 12 hours of 2011 go by. Need to give my ACL a breather too; I guess it must be starting to protest after all the hiking and biking in SF. Age is evidently catching up huh, or maybe some things just don’t heal no matter how much time you give it.

2011 has been quite a milestone. I think coming to the US has changed me a lot, and made me grow a lot. You’d figure how much you take the little things in life for granted, and how much of this world you have yet to see and experience. You start fighting with yourself over decisions you have to make at the crossroads. And you learn the pain of compromising because you can’t always have everything you want. Life isn’t a happily ever after fairytale ending; it’s the chapters that come after. Reality can be cruel and merciless. You can take it in your stride, but it isn’t always easy to swallow.

But life isn’t always a doomsday scene from Hollywood. I’m pretty sure we will still be here after 2012, so there’s really no need to get all depressed (or happy — well that’s severe depression actually) that the world is going to end within the next 365 days.

I think my biggest takeaway from this year is finding (or sometimes self-creating) happy spots.

Many of us are already experts in manufacturing grief. Open your photo library from way way back, reminisce the old times, play that nostalgic tune, read those old diary entries. Tear your heart out over those times you wished you could return to, replay those old emotions that you consciously preserved somewhere in the depths of your heart. I do that sometimes, and I’d feel terrible. Objectively speaking, it’s pretty morbid isn’t it? It’s no difference from self-torture, yet we seem to like to do that to ourselves. It’s the biggest irony in human psychology, I think, to compete in feeling the most miserable. I’m sure you’ve witnessed an episode like that.

And so I figured that perhaps it might be better for a change and not be such a psycho and indulge in self-torture. Also known as emoing in today’s lingo. We are have such fantastic cognitive abilities that we are capable of creating our own illusions that’s real enough to fool ourselves. So if we can put ourselves into grief-mode, I guess it shouldn’t be that hard to create happy vibes. And it really isn’t that hard, if you stop craning your neck and squinting your eyes to find that happiness you thought resided in the distant future.

For an extrovert, I find it ironic that I find happiness in solitude. (Hear me out before you lay judgment that I’m crazy.)

Solitude is actually very hard to deal with. Extroverts get an extremely hard time, because we are naturally engineered to talk, socialize and interact. We struggle being alone because not reaching our daily yakking quota drives us up the wall.

But talking in excess isn’t always good. They say moderation is key, and I guess that applies to extroversion. In the right circumstances, I talk lot. Always had and I predict I always will. But sometimes when you keep talking you don’t listen. And you miss out a lot when you don’t listen. You tell people your side of the story but you stop hearing others’. You are used to flooding your mind with words and thoughts that you don’t know how to control them when you lack a channel to output. And when that happens you feel the urge to find someone or some way to let out your thoughts before they drown your soul.

It takes time and I guess a tad of determination to quieten your mind and let it rest. Like how our bodies get tired after physical strain, our minds need a break too from mental processing. When you can finally stare into nothingness and let your mind empty out, it’s really a nice feeling.

I think solitude helps you empty out all those old crappy lingering thoughts more easily. It’s hard at first when your mind keeps filling up and its contents have no where to go except swirl round and round in your thought space. But once in a while those thoughts find their own escape routes and clear out from your mind, and you’d feel like there’s suddenly a lot more room up there. When there’s less clutter and more space, you welcome happy feelings a little more easily. Or at least that’s what I get. It’s nice to let those burdens go once in a while and make room for happy feelings. The truth is that those burdens will always come back sooner or later, and reality will always come knocking on your door no matter how much you’d try to ignore. But that doesn’t mean you have to torture yourself by carrying all that heavy thoughts with you 24/7. To put it in a crude and sarcastic way this is nothing more than escapism. Then again, who cares? Escapism beats the gravity of reality, so I’ll gladly opt for the former.

My new year resolution is to be more honest with myself and not to live with a heavy heart. Life sucks sometimes, but there is always a happy tomorrow after a good night’s sleep.

Happy new year people.


Point Loma

I found my zen city. Or at least a zen part of a city.

Point Loma’s a tiny neighbourhood harboring the coast. It’s just a stone’s throw (okay more than that) away from the airport, just within one afternoon I’ve seen at least 5 planes taking off and close enough proximity to figure out that at least 3 of them were Virgin America (purple planes, lol).

After a good hour of walking around the area, I concluded I found my happy spot. Peaceful neighbourhood that gives you enough quiet moments to hear your thoughts aloud in your head. Yet not the spooky/dead-town kind of quietness that you would give you the immediate creeps. It’s almost like a huge beach resort area — shops and residential housing not running higher than 3 floors, moderate traffic, cool breezes and sunny (till the fog came in) skies.

People here feel down to earth and real. You don’t find anyone clad in dressy clothing or expensive accessories. You see parents walking down the sidewalks with their kids in tees and sporty shoes, youngsters biking down the street or taking their skateboards out for a spin. You see a father playing baseball with his teenage son at their front porch; you see schoolkids running across the street, laughing.

Despite being a small community, it’s pretty much self-contained. There’s a school, public library, convenience stores, dental clinics, places of worship, a post office (sent my Starbucks cups back!), and practically every other kind of amenity you’d ever need. And I thought there wouldn’t be much apart from a touristy sorta beach area and stores out there to rip you off. Seems like there’s not a lot of tourists but more residents and the local community people, which is really cool. Staying in downtown or touristy areas sometimes (most of the time, actually) don’t show you the true colours of a city or town area. More likely than not you’ll probably be greeted with a commercialized facade that’s there to tell you, oh this is how awesome our city is! Sure, most cities have their awesome bits, but you’ll never get the real stuff till you sink yourself into the local scene. I’m glad that I’m seeing some of it already.

Without the clutter of a bustling city, your thoughts can find so much more space. Need a reason to convince yourself to travel solo? Here’s one: no one’s next to you to distract you from yourself. I realize that I don’t pay attention to tonnes of details when I travel with others because as great a multi-tasker you may be, you can’t be focusing on a conversation and catching that scenic moment at the same time with equal intensity. Silence can be very deafening, but solitude can be very beautiful. We spend so much time and energy listening, talking and involving ourselves with others; we spend so little time listening to ourselves and our inner voice that’s been dying to speak. I think that listening to yourself is an important part of understanding who and what you are. Don’t neglect that.

Lands End, probably the most gorgeous place I’ve ever witnessed. It’s almost like at a digitally drawn art piece, with colours so perfectly balanced, every tree, rock and stone placed at its position with precision and the sunny skies that magnifies the already present grandeur.

I can’t remember how long I stood at the top of the Lands End trail head, trying hard to absorb every inch of beautiful detail. It’s like there’s suddenly so much colours, tones and shades that your eyes just can’t seem to keep up with.

I knew that Lands End is one of the popular hiking/biking trails in San Francisco, and that it boasts awesome scenery of coastlines and the Golden Gate Bridge from afar. But I didn’t expect it to be so, so gorgeous. I can’t even find sufficiently appropriate adjectives to describe that place. I think I took something like 200 over photos just during that few hours when I hiked the trail, though I know viewing a million shots of Lands End can never substitute being physically there. (I’ll deal with those 200 photos tomorrow, or maybe the day after.)

At the trail head was the Sutro Bath Ruins, and to get down there (it’s seriously steep) you can take this seemingly unlimited flight of stairs, or well, slide down the spongy grass. The latter sounds crazy, yes, but I saw kids (like tiny ones) happily sitting on the grass and sliding down the grass to the area below. For a moment I panicked when I saw a couple of kids going down. That slope is insanely steep, from where I was standing, within half a second those kids disappeared into the green mash below. And their mom just sat there and watched. I didn’t know if I found admiration for the mother or for her kids.

Never in the right mind would I ever do something like that. It’s scary even just looking down from the edge, never mind treating it like some Big Splash ride. And those kids did it without harboring second thought.

I realized how brave we all used to be when we were kids. Like when I was in Seattle I was thinking the same thing while watching little kids ice skate at Seattle Center’s skating rink. Kids, though so tiny in size, have such huge courage. It doesn’t seem to bother them that learning ice skating means falling down a lot and falling down could hurt. They skate a little, fall, get up, and keep trying over and over. Some fall so hard that bystanders at the outskirts of the rink get startled, but they just pick themselves back up like it was really no big deal.

Somehow as we grow older, we lose that big courage we once had. We think and speculate what-if scenarios before even doing something, imagining worst-case scenarios and planting self-manufactured fear into ourselves. More often than not, many of the things we fear as adults are irrational and silly. We fear heights, we fear animals, we fear authority, we fear our bosses, we fear losing friendships, we fear death, we fear love, we fear heartbreaks, we fear losses. Yeah, sure we had our share of fears as kids. We feared our parents, our teachers, going to school.. But somehow we seemed a lot more resilient and brave than we are now.

I wonder if our greater capacity to think has done us more harm than good; precisely because we are more able to think, comprehend, and analyze, we end up indulging in unnecessary thought processes that complicates every component of life. They always say that kids are more easily contented. That they attain happiness a lot faster than adults. Maybe that’s because as kids we didn’t think that much. When we got MacDonald’s breakfast, we were happy. We didn’t think about that impending load of calories entering our body system. When we felt sad, we cried. We didn’t think about how crying might make us look emotionally weak and vulnerable. When we thought about something, we’d say it out loud. We didn’t think about whether what we were going to say would have repercussions on people around us, or if it would contradict the external image we were trying to upkeep.

As kids, we didn’t care as much about the world; we cared a lot more about ourselves, and we were honest with ourselves. Maybe that’s just all we need to be happy — a little bit of selfishness, and a little more honesty.

So the city came back to life. It’s so scary that the world can be gone in one day and come back the next. Like some mega vacuum cleaner landed on Earth and sucked everyone away and later realized they got the wrong stuff and threw everyone back. Okay that’s a crappy illustration.

I think you can fall in love with every city and say they are all nice but each city has its special definition of nice. I’m not being very objective here, yes I know, but coming from Seattle you can’t help but make comparisons.

San Francisco gives you an older city feel. Buildings, streets and transport systems here honestly seem a little less aesthetically pleasing, like the city has gone through wind wind rain rain (do direct translation to Chinese). It’s like San Francisco’s this big brother city that has gone through and seen more of the roads of life ahead. Nevertheless, that’s first impressions. Maybe I’ll correct that after 4 nights here.

I love San Francisco’s street cars (or maybe street cars in general). They make you feel like you’re on some retarded roller coaster ride. You can close your eyes and almost imagine the car suddenly diving down a steep drop. I like the sound of the street car wheels screaming against the metal tracks when the car turns around a corner. The clanky sounds are like those you hear from old-school bumpy roller coasters. Add that to the fact that I got myself a Muni pass, so I practically spammed street cars all day long.

I realized that all I need is to visit just one awesome place and that makes my day. I could chiong 10 attractions in one day but that has no meaning if none of them made my heart smile inside out. Traveling to me isn’t about ticking off iconic, must-see attractions that you’d find within the top ten To-Do’s on Trip Advisor from your list. I could just visit one special place, even if it’s just one street, and I’d feel like this trip was a blast.

Visiting Lombard Street totally made my day. That street has an insanely steep incline, probably 45degrees, and the famous zig-zag street down Russian Hill was crazy. I think that would be the ultimate course for a driving test. Kudos to the urban planners of that area. Living up there must be like being at the top of the world.

Seattle’s one of those cities which you somehow feel its friendliness genuinely coming through to you. I know it isn’t exactly fair to judge a book by its cover, but the first train ride I got on from Seattle airport made me like Seattle already. The kind of place that you could possibly feel at home, even as a visitor.

On the first day I was here I stumbled upon this restaurant at Pike Place that serves insanely fresh seafood and looked over the pier. I liked the place so much that I went back for dinner on the second day (merit of staying near Pike Market) to grab another dose of fresh food. Seriously deprived of such tasty stuff. Anyway, on the second visit I got exclusive customer service cos I was their last customer of the day and the boss (presumably) came by when I was done to ask me how was the dining experience. Old guy, ah-gong sort of age, been running the place for eons. He was asking me that if I were to compare, would I choose New York or Seattle. And I found no hesitation at all to say Seattle.

I kinda understand why people move here, it’s one of those places that gives you the homey vibe. You feel safe walking down the streets and people greet you with the kind of sincerity that comes from within. It was fun just standing and watching the guys throw fish at Pike Place Market. I don’t know for sure if they really enjoy their job or if it’s an act for all we know, but it’s really quite admirable that people lead their lives with such zest. And I guess it would be tough to put on an act every day; even acting every day ought to get some of that positiveness rubbed into you. That’s the difference between the US and back home. I envy that people actually enjoy what they do everyday on their job. It’s like the holy grail in Singapore (and many parts of Asia).

The transport system here is awesome. Their light rail trains are like miniature Singapore MRTs, plus a lot more stylish. Saw one today entirely covered with colored ads, like it’s been candy wrapped. For a US city, you’ll really appreciate that you can actually get accessible transportation that takes you to most places. Well maintained and not the sluggish kind (think Pittsburgh). Bravo, really.

There’s seriously a huge number of homeless people in the US. I think if you were to put them all together in one place, you’d probably have enough to form a country on its own. Typically they camp around the suburbs and out-of-town regions, but oddly in Seattle you see them mostly downtown. And that’s because of the free-ride region in downtown area which you can basically hop on any public transport for free. Who says free lunches don’t exist?

I think I will miss Seattle. It’s a lot more cheery than I thought and I seriously think that its gloomy reputation doesn’t do this city justice. Hopefully, this won’t be my first and last time here.

Merry Christmas.

I expected to be greeted with gloomy skies when I came to Seattle but it has been surprisingly sunny these few days. It’s kinda hard to imagine that this city has one of the highest suicidal rates, because it seems completely otherwise.

You get the safe/clean-city vibe the moment I got out of the airport and onto the light rail. Vastly different from New York City, which even though it was my second time visiting, it’s not that easy to feel at ease.

The lifestyle of New York is just like Singapore. Everyone’s always in a hurry, everyone’s always chasing after something. While you walk down the streets you unconsciously end up walking as fast as everyone else, even though there’s really nowhere that you’re going. It seems impossible to take a stroll down times square at night (not to mention if it’s Christmas week). It’s like even if you wanna stop and smell the roses, the world around you doesn’t seem to welcome that idea.

People are generally well-dressed, at least in Manhattan. It’s a place with pretty buildings, pretty lights, and pretty people. But you’d see the extremes – working class people clad in branded businesses wear, and the homeless begging for change loitering along the same streets.

To me, NYC’s an impressionistic city. Materialism is everything, packaging is priority. You feel compelled to dress well. It’s like a pretty city hiding behind a facade.