28.3.22 – Thoughts

The term ‘brain fog’ has been—pardon the pun—on everyone’s mind lately, no thanks to COVID. Although not an official medical condition, enough patients have reported similar symptoms to warrant research, like this one by Chinese researchers which seems to show persistent impairment in sustained attention in patients that have otherwise recovered from COVID.

So what is brain fog? Popular health website Healthline describes it as:

A type of cognitive dysfunction involving memory problems, lack of mental clarity, poor concentration, and the inability to focus.

Aside from a possible lingering effect of COVID, there can be many other causes to brain fog, including stress, lack of sleep, hormonal changes, and chronic fatigue disorder.

So.

I now have a term for something that has been affecting my life for the past two years.

Even before I got COVID a couple of weeks ago (which only made it worse), I’ve been having all the aforementioned problems: I can’t seem to concentrate or focus on anything unless I force myself to do so to the point of exhaustion; and I tend to forget what I’m saying mid-sentence, especially if someone interrupts my train of thought. This from someone who’s only in her early 30s lol.

I think initially, a lot of it had to do with stress and burnout: the pandemic back then seemed never ending, the husband was stuck in the Philippines, I had to deal with family issues which brought out internalized trauma, and I was in a job with little to no progression in terms of stability and growth. It was also very isolating — I was the only employee left in the Malaysia office, my husband could only offer me emotional support through a screen, and I had no one to talk to, basically. It felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, but as someone who grew up doing almost everything on my own, this inability to take things on made me feel like a failure.

Fast forward to 2022 and things have been looking up the past couple of months. Husband finally got here to Malaysia, and I landed a new job that’s pretty challenging but with lots of room for growth. Fam shit is the same, with some added challenges thrown in, but I’m trying to work through it. And hey, 2/3 is still a pretty good deal, right?

Wrong.

I’m still feeling stressed and burned out, and now I have feelings of inadequacy thrown into the mix. Maybe it’s because I’ve been stagnant for so long, my brain now seems incapable of focusing or thinking properly. It’s like a never-ending sea of mental blocks that require monumental efforts to jump over—and it leaves me exhausted, even though I feel like I didn’t do much. Which is frustrating, because it never used to be like this and I can’t comprehend why I can’t just work through this shit.

Even blogging has lost its sparkle. I post less these days. I used to be super excited to pen down my thoughts, but for the last two years, it has been an uphill struggle to find the same joy in writing for myself — because I allocate so much of what mental capacity I have for work, I’m left with nothing at the end of the day.

I also find myself ‘calculating’ and filtering things subconsciously. Back then, I used to post whatever I felt like, because this is my personal space online, where I could truly be myself. These days, I tend to go, “Would people actually find this useful? Do they really want to read about my random thoughts? Why does this sound like an angst-filled teenage diary? Should I really post this? Would I offend anyone? People don’t find you funny or engaging, stop embarrassing yourself”. I know these are unhealthy thoughts that are a manifestation of my emotional struggles, but I can’t stop myself from having them.

Maybe what I really need with my blog right now is to go back to how it was before. Just posting my thoughts without inhibition, without feeling like I need to filter what I say, without overthinking about whether what I’m putting out is productive/useful or whether this or that content adds value to other people’s lives. Maybe that’s what I need to find pleasure again in writing. And maybe that would help with the brain fog too; act as an outlet for catharsis.

You know what the irony is? My blog traffic has actually doubled in the last year or so, because people find some reviews and guides helpful (I guess? lol). Which is great, and I’m happy that those posts are useful. I know people don’t want to read about “whiny shit”, coz everyone has their own problems, and they’re only turning to articles/blogs online to solve a problem/entertain.

But if this is what it takes to get my mojo back and help my process of healing, I guess you’ll all just have to put up with my emo sht for awhile.

You Don’t HAVE to be a Social Butterfly.

Human beings are social creatures. We crave validation and acceptance from our peers; if not to be liked, then at least to feel accepted. This need for inclusion could be biologically wired from our time as hunter-gatherers, where being part of a group or a community provided protection and a higher chance of survival. 

But even though our days of wooly-mammoth hunting and huddling around fires in caves against wild animals are long over, why do we still have an innate need to belong? I mean, how many times have you been peer-pressured into doing something that you wouldn’t otherwise, simply because you didn’t want to offend a friend, or didn’t want people to think you’re a spoilsport? We force ourselves to conform to a group dynamic, because we need this sense of inclusion and the feeling of being liked.

Unfortunately, this can be a problem for those who are not naturally attuned to act in ways that groups see as the benchmark for ‘likable’. Think of a party, and describe the people who would usually be at the center of attention. Words that come to mind may include ‘open’, ‘friendly’, ‘funny’, ‘interesting’, and ‘charming’, to name a few. Now think about the people who usually hang out in the corners at the same party, and the words that pop up now are “quiet”, “shy”, and “anti-social”.

The bottomline: group 1 = good, ‘rewards’. Group 2 = bad, ‘ostracized’.

I’ve always fallen into the latter category, no matter where I’ve gone. It’s not from a lack of trying–despite social gatherings being out of my comfort zone, I genuinely try to listen to what people say and push myself to approach or talk to others, especially new people. What I’ve observed, however, is that this tends to end in failure: talk often peters out because our conversations won’t jive, or people turn to their own cliques and ignore me completely. I’m often left wondering what I’m doing wrong, and why.

The thing is, I don’t think I’m bad at communicating. I have friends who hang out with me and (I’d like to believe) enjoy my company, and I’ve never had problems vibing with colleagues, some of whom have become my friends for life. 

The problem, imo, lies in the dynamics of group behaviour. 

In social situations, we are hard wired to act or behave in certain ways, which includes how we gravitate to certain individuals within the group.

Take Obama, for example. Eloquent and confident, you feel his presence as soon as he walks into a room or goes up to a podium. Social butterflies tend to have this magnetic energy, and other members feel drawn to everything that they say and do, whether or not it has substance. 

Obama to me is an example of a naturally charismatic, likable personality. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On the other end of the spectrum you get the broody ones (like me). A colleague once told me I have resting bitch face, and that she was surprised to find that I’m actually pretty easy going once she started talking to me. (We ended up becoming close friends even after our time at the company. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding). 

With most large social gatherings, conversations tend to be superficial, and people form quick and judgy first impressions because the group is so big that they don’t want to waste time ‘chipping away’ to get to the meat of someone who seems reserved and shy. Others might feel more comfortable with familiar faces, so they form cliques–it’s also easier to talk about familiar topics with people you already know, as opposed to roping in a stranger and having to explain the group’s jokes or bring them up to speed to the clique’s collective knowledge. 

Unfortunately, aside from being polite, engaging, and showing interest in others beyond what I’m already doing, I cannot emulate the charm that comes naturally to other people, short of completely overhauling my personality. Which brings me to my next point: 

Sometimes, the solution you want might not be the one you need. 

There was a point in time where I believed the problem was mine to solve, and no one else’s. I should take the initiative to be more open and friendly, and if I felt left out, it was because I wasn’t doing enough to make others feel comfortable with my presence and personality. The flaw in this logic that I’ve recently realized is that I will never be like those people, no matter how much I try. 

  • I will never be naturally charismatic. 
  • I will never be a social butterfly. 

And if the negative effects of forcing myself to conform to these group dynamics in order to be well liked causes me more suffering and anxiety, I am better off without it. I don’t have to join stuff I don’t want to join, but I can be open to situations I’m comfortable with. It doesn’t make me a spoilsport. 

I guess the main takeaway is try your best, but if it doesn’t work, it’s okay: you don’t have to beat yourself up over it, because sometimes, the problem isn’t you. 

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Who Is David Hockney and Why Is His Latest Work Getting Dragged by Londoners?

Up until this week, I had never heard of David Hockney.

“Preposterous,” I hear you huffing. “How can you not know one of the most influential British artists of modern times?”

Well, pardon me for being an uncultured swine, but while I like and appreciate art, it’s not exactly necessary knowledge for me to pay my bills. So yeah.

But I digress.

To the uninitiated, David Hockney is an English painter, widely considered to be one of Britain’s most celebrated living artists. His early works often featured swimming pools in Los Angeles — where he lived in the 1960s — and they were his signature for a long time. In 2018, a 1972 artwork dubbed “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” broke records at a Christie auction by selling for $90.3million (RM3.7bilion) — making it the highest price at auction for a work by a living artist.

To put it into perspective, the Selangor state government of Malaysia (where I’m staying) had a revenue of RM2.32billion in 2019. Which means that Hockney’s one piece surpasses the revenue that the richest state in Malaysia makes in an entire year. (**If you want to see how a $90.3 million painting looks like, click here.) In recent years, Hockney has transitioned to creating whimsical digital pieces using his iPad.

Over the years, there have been numerous debates on why Hockney’s works are so famous, and whether or not they’re worth the price they’re paid for. Now, I know that art is a very subjective thing — what you like may not be appealing to others. Personally, I do like some of Hockney’s works — they have a very Picasso/Matisse-esque quality to them. But I also know how the art world can be… biased in their way of valuing things (more on this later) — and there comes a point where as an ordinary person, you seriously question if some of these artists (and those in the art society) aren’t just… you know. Trolling the masses.

Recently, London’s mayor unveiled Hockney’s latest work at Piccadilly Circus as part of the #LetsDoLondon campaign, to revive domestic tourism and encourage Londoners to get out and support local businesses. It certainly got people buzzing — but not all of the noise was positive:

British people had a field day in the responses. (Swipe right for more)

While the majority took the mickey out of the painting, there were also those that thought it was a smart and provocative move. Yet others believed that people were making much ado about nothing.

Meanwhile, young artists have also joined the conversation, calling the entire campaign a ‘missed opportunity’ for the mayor’s office to not only help struggling artists and businesses, but also showcase London’s diversity. Some have shopped works of their own onto the space where Hockney’s works are currently being displayed. *Look up the hashtag #letsdolondonbetter — there are some seriously amazing artworks here!

While Hockney’s piece was apparently done for free, the mayor did spend £7million on the entire campaign — which no doubt included marketing and the engagement of an agency and what not to a) promote and b) put up the posters. Which, to many artists whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic, is a double slap to the face because Hockney has not lived in the UK for a long time (he’s based in the US). Perhaps the only possible good reason for choosing him over everyone else is the clout that Hockney has — so in a way I guess the work achieved its purpose to create conversations, because like I said: I didn’t know who Hockney was until recently.

This brings me to the next point which I mentioned earlier: how we value art today.

If you’ve ever watched the horror/thriller movie Velvet Buzzsaw starring Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s a brilliant satire of the art world today. In the film, Gyllenhaal plays a seemingly independent art critic, who gets pulled into the world of price fixing after his girlfriend — who works for a prominent art gallery owner — discovers cache of haunted paintings by a dead artist. They decided to display the paintings, to great success, but as greed and avarice take over, the trade off becomes deadly.

While the story’s plot is pretty outlandish, its portrayal of price fixing — and how critics, gallery owners, and buyers are basically complicit in ‘valuing’ how much an art piece is worth — is accurate imo. Take Mr Hockney’s latest piece for example, and this article. It is well written, full of praise like “a great piece of public art” and seemingly thought-provoking points like how public art usually adheres to ‘safe, sterile taste of private developers keen to bring artistic flair to artificially created public realms void of people or life’. And it makes you think, hey, maybe there IS more to this. They sound like valid points.

But I guess if you asked a child what they would see — without the pomp and flair and fancy words — they’d tell you like it is: it’s a doodle. One that they could probably make, given the right tools and materials. Eg: 5-year-old Rob makes a painting. Parent: “It shows how artistic he really is. Look at the composition. The brilliant pairing of colours. It’s sublime and it expresses the human condition.”

“Why’d you make this piece, Rob?”

5-year-old Rob: “I dunno. I just like it.”

Anyway, what this environment creates is a small, select group of ‘elite’ artists whose works are considered extremely valuable, and you have the rest of the artists — whose works by the way are no more or less than others — but are undervalued and taken advantage of. I personally know artist friends who struggle to make ends meet despite how talented they are, because there are clients who constantly want discounts, aren’t paying them fairly, and think that art isn’t ‘worth’ anything. These same clients would gladly pay thousands for a prestigious piece from an artist who somehow managed to market themselves better.

A sketch I made. Value: priceless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the art world as we know it today has lost its true meaning and purpose. When they say art can be anything, I didn’t think these people would literally take it to heart and spin in that way lol. There’s that artist Maurizio Catalan who duct taped a banana to a wall and someone paid $120,000 for it. There are also a series of paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that comprise of completely white pieces. According to SFMOMA’s website, the primary reason for the artist’s creation was to “create a painting that looked untouched by human hands”. The site later goes on to say that they have an important place in art history as precursors of Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Yeah… you keep telling yourself that, buddy.

Maybe I’m dumb. I’m not a professional artist or an art critic. But what I see are blank paintings, and a lot of ways to describe why they’re revolutionary, ground breaking, amazing. It reminds me of the story of the Emperor and his New Clothes, where everyone was too afraid to call out that the emperor was parading around naked; instead clapping and applauding because everyone around them was doing so. It took a child’s innocent eyes to call it for what it was.

What do you think about Hockney’s work, and art today in general? I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree with my views, especially if you’re an artist. Let me know in the comments below!

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Why It Can Be Hard To “KonMari” Your Stuff

This month has been pretty bad for blogging – it’s already the 17th and I’ve only made two posts. Partly it’s because Malaysia is currently undergoing another ‘lockdown’ due to the rising number of cases (and deaths, which is worrying), so I haven’t been able to go out much; but it’s also because I’m in a writing slump again.

We had a four-day weekend for Hari Raya, but celebrations have been subdued as people have not been able to go home to visit their loved ones, some for the second year in a row. As for my fam and I, we took the time to rest. My mom has been very worried throughout this entire pandemic, and with cases on the rise, she won’t even let us go out to buy food unless it’s absolutely necessary, preferring to cook all of our meals instead.

But enough gloom and doom – I did something productive over the break, ie cleaned my workspace!

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I am currently working from home full-time, so having a proper workspace is important. But I’m also not the most organised person in the world and my workspaces (even when I had an office) tend to get messy with bits of paper and notes. To tidy up, I took some of my books to the shelf outside so there’d be more space, wiped down the dust, and put away smaller accessories that were contributing to the clutter. Also gave away two Apple mouse units that I’ve been keeping for the office (company told me to get rid of them coz they didn’t want to ship it to Singapore, but I didn’t want to throw them).

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While cleaning up, I sorted out my accessories and trinkets, thinking to throw away the older ones that I no longer use.

I ended up keeping everything lol.

A couple of years ago, there was a lot of hype over the KonMari method, attributed to Japanese consultant Marie Kondo. In her approach, Kondo advised people to keep only the things that ‘spark joy’, and let everything else go.

The thing is, all of these things have sparked joy to me at one point in my life, and in some small way, they still do. I still feel nostalgic and happy when I look at them and think back on the memories associated with each object. I know some people would call it silly and sentimental, and maybe it is, but it’s also vulnerably human.

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Some people enjoy collecting fridge magnets or keychains as souvenirs from the places they’ve traveled to. For me – and I did not realise this until I looked over my ‘collection’ – I apparently enjoyed collecting accessories. Some of these were given as gifts, which makes them even more meaningful.

On the left is a bead necklace that was gifted to me by my hosts on a trip to Siniawan, aka the Cowboy Town of Borneo. The ‘town’ is really not more than a dozen traditional wooden shoplots along a main street, a town hall and a nearby temple – but I enjoyed the experience tremendously. I got to ride a sampan across the river (which has crocodiles, by the way!), experience a Gawai festival with the local Bidayuh community, eat amazing kolo mee that was just RM3 ffs, and take in the sight of a gorgeous pink sunset for a few nights in a row.

On the right is also a bead necklace, which I bought from Auntie Sina Rang at the Bario longhouse where I was staying. This trip was an unforgettable one because I got stuck on a hike for 11 hours in the Borneo rainforest, and the longhouse residents were so worried they sent a search and rescue team because it was already dark and we were supposed to have been back like 6 hours ago lol. You can read about it here.

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Me and my fellow members of the media before everything went to hell (for me).
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Hardcore hiking
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Siniawan, the Cowboy Town of Borneo.
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Also from the Bario trip: woven bracelets which I bought from a visiting Penan tribe. They are nomadic and only come to the longhouse occasionally so it was fortunate timing!
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Coconut shell bracelet from a 2014 Bali trip. It was my first time visiting Indonesia. Since then I’ve been to Bandung and Yogyakarta. Can’t wait for the pandemic to be over so I can travel, to different parts this time.

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Decorative necklaces from Venice, from my 2012 graduation trip to Europe. Venice was gorgeous in is own way, but it was also extremely crowded with tourists, and the canals smelled. Still glad I got to see it in my lifetime, before the city sinks.
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A brooch from Fuhu, Genting. Also a Sarubobo doll from Japan, which Japanese grandmothers make for their grandchildren for their safety and wellbeing. On a trip to Tokyo, I got to write my own well wishes for the sarubobo’s clothing and pin it onto the doll.
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A Catholic necklace with wooden crosses and a carving of Jesus, which I got from a shop outside Antipolo Church in the Philippines. I was there with my ex on Ash Wednesday, and it was interesting to see the rituals and sit in on mass. I didn’t get the necklace because of religious reasons, but because one of the ladies manning the shops insisted we buy something, I didn’t know how to say no lol.

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A necklace inspired by Aboriginal art. Got this from the shop at Tower Hill Reserve in Victoria, where we saw a bunch of koalas hiding in trees, and encountered a rogue emu blocking the van that we were travelling in.
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Of course, travel memories aren’t the only things that makes it difficult for me to throw stuff away. I also have a lot of random accessories that I have fond feelings for – like these wooden bracelets. One of them is falling apart, but I can’t find it in me to just dump it because it was my favourite bracelet to wear in college and through the early years of my adult life (back when lots of accessories were a thing).

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The evolution of my earrings – from a sharp, rebellious-looking stud in my college days, to the ‘elegant’ ones that I wear for social outings today. By today I mean like two years ago, when we could still go out for gatherings. lol
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And other, assorted bracelets.

So you see, it’s not easy to KonMari your stuff, when there is so much to reminisce on each time you look at them. I think this is also why people find it difficult to let go or throw things away. They are all reminders of a happier time, and form a part of your life’s story.

I guess I’ll be holding on to some of these things for a bit longer.

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Book Review: Today Will be Different by Maria Semple

Buying a new book is kind of like going on a blind date. You judge them by how they look, you read their profile to see if you find them interesting, and you listen to other people say good things about them. Then you go on a date; get to know them. Sometimes you find them perfect at first glance, only to realise it’s all a flashy front. Other times they might leave a bad first impression, but you find more and more things to like about them as you go along.

There are also those that you just can’t quite bring yourself to like from start to finish – not because they’re bad, mind you – but simply because you don’t quite gel with them.

Sadly, for me, this was Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different.

It has been awhile since I did reading of any kind (blame it on electronics and my super short attention span these days), so this was a double let-down. I had very much wanted my first foray back into reading to be a good one. Today Will Be Different seemed to have held so much promise, from the bright orange cover and the “100 Notable Books” stamp on the bottom right of its sleeve, to the heaping praise on its back and in the first five pages of the novel (“Hilarious, heartwarming” – Dana Getz, Entertainment Weekly; “Deliciously mucky mayhem” – Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle). Oh, and apparently Maria Semple is a writer of renown, having written the critically acclaimed “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (which I haven’t’ read. It was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett).

It wasn’t as if Maria didn’t warn the reader though. The protaganist herself, Eleanor Flood, does it in the opening: “You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white people problems?” Not being white, nor raised in the West, I found it difficult to relate to any of the characters in the book – which is perhaps the main problem. I am not the book’s target audience, which I assume to be other white women, like Eleanor herself.

Now, if I had heeded this warning, I might have saved myself three nights of reading, and spent it with another book. But by the time I realised I wasn’t going to like this one, I was in too deep to give up. (The irony is that in the book, Eleanor is basically faced with a similar situation with her ‘friend’ Sydney, whom she can’t stand because the latter is ‘boring’, but can’t bring herself to cut off because she’s already invested and it would be rude and mean.)

SYNOPSIS

Eleanor Flood was once a high-flying animation director in New York, before she left her job to settle down in Seattle with her husband Joe, a hand surgeon of renown. The pair now live with their eight-year-old son Timby (spelled with a B, because rich white people have to give their children quirky names like Audio Science and Bear Blaze) and a pet dog, Yo-Yo.

The entire novel takes place within the span of a day and opens with a proclamation of sorts by Eleanor, that “Today will be different”, followed by a list of small, positive what-have-yous you often find in self-help books, like “no swearing”, “be my best self” and “attend yoga”. Of course, the day will be different: just not in the way Eleanor imagines it to be. Things start off well enough; she sees the husband off to work, drops Timby off at school and meets her poetry teacher for her regular poetry recitation – through it all, readers are given bits and pieces on Eleanor: how she used to be the animation director for Looper Wash, a popular animation series, and how she’s now working on a project called Flood Girls, a personal memoir about her life growing up with an alcoholic father, for a publisher.

Eleanor’s charming day starts to spiral out of control when Timby calls in sick from school, and she has to drive him to the doctor’s. Stopping by her husband’s office, only to be told by unsuspecting staff that he’s on vacation, Eleanor goes on a manic quest to find the whereabouts of her husband, and in the process, spiral completely out of control. A chance encounter with an old acquaintance dredges up ugly family secrets and past hurts, mostly revolving around Eleanor’s estranged sister Ivy. And like a typhoon on a warpath, Eleanor descends into a manic state of chaos, dragging her poor son along as she tries to deal with the hurt and betrayal of her past, her insecurities and her fear that Joe might be cheating on her.

VERDICT

I did not know wtf was going on throughout most of the book. Okay, maybe I did, but like Eleanor, it was so all over the place I had a hard time keeping track of things and the parade of ‘quirky’ characters who were all quirk and no true substance. The flashbacks felt like they were plonked into the middle of the story to give context to Eleanor’s trauma and why she is the way she is, but it feels forced and disrupts the flow of the story – I often found myself flipping back to see where the story was before it got interrupted. I also didn’t quite understand the choice where Semple switches to write in the third person in the middle of the novel.

To be frank, Semple has a certain charm to her prose, but her main character is just so unlikeable that I found it very difficult to sympathise with Eleanor’s bad choices and bizarre behaviour. Like leaving her son alone while she runs off to chase her poetry teacher whom she left hanging after receiving a phone call, stealing a young mother’s car keys because it happened to have the same name engraved on it as the name of her estranged sister’s daughter, then trying to sneakily return them by dropping them into the school charity collection box but dropping her own keys into them instead. Oh, she also leaves her dog tied outside a grocery store and forgets all about it while she’s trying to track her husband down.

I suppose these are all meant to be ‘funny’, in a “look at the kooky,middle-aged white woman! Aren’t we all sort of like that on some days?” Uh, no. Eleanor is a danger to herself and her son, and it’s amazing that this is a character written as a mother. If I had a mom like that I’d check myself into child services. Timby is more responsible than you! Stop acting like a goddamn brat!

Her manic energy and the way her train wreck of thoughts are translated onto the pages is not endearing (the best way I can describe it would be how I imagined a dog would be like when chased after something and saw a butterfly. Like woof woof angry postman bark oh look blue flying thing wow). It’s infuriating. More than once I have felt like throttling Eleanor, and that’s saying something, wanting to throttle a fictional character. If Eleanor was a person I knew in real life, I wouldn’t go near her with a ten-foot pole.

In most books, flawed characters have a redemption arc, but Eleanor doesn’t seem to take anything away from her experiences. She’s broken, yes, but she doesn’t rise above her past, she simply throws herself headlong into the next chaotic mess with reckless abandon, selfishly screaming about how hurt she is and how broken she is, while not caring about what happens to people she claims to care about.

The ending was truly bizarre as well and was not at all satisfying after slogging over the book for three days. But for those who want to read the book, I’m not going to spoil it.

I don’t think there are bad books, simply people who aren’t meant to read them. And Today Will Be Different was simply not for me. But hey, don’t trust me: trust the glowing book reviews from established publications. I’m just a nobody with a blog.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.
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Celebrating Chinese New Year In The Middle Of A Pandemic

Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year, is set to fall on 12 February this year. It marks the beginning of a new year according to the traditional lunar calendar, and heralds the arrival of spring. 

Here in Malaysia, Chinese New Year is a pretty big thing, since people of Chinese descent make up more than 20% of the population (about 6 million people). If this was any other year, CNY decor in malls would have already been up right after Christmas. There’d be cookie displays flooding bakery shelves; Padini/Uniqlo would be packed with shoppers buying new clothes on sale, and we’d all be subjected to the torture of loud, repetitive dong dong chiang music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week across all TV and radio channels. 

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Unfortunately, we are in the middle of a pandemic – and like all the other people who made sacrifices last year for Christmas, Deepavali and Hari Raya, it is now our turn to give up the freedom that we often take for granted: the ability to travel home to see our loved ones.

On 13 January 2021, the Malaysian government implemented a second targeted Movement Control Order (MCO), restricting travel to and from red zone states. Workers in non-essential services are required to work from home, travel is restricted to a 10 kilometre radius to buy groceries and essentials, and eateries are only allowed to run on a take-away/delivery basis. Of course, celebrations of any kind are no longer allowed, as are things like weddings and other events. (Adding to the whole hullabaloo is the national Emergency which was declared by our King because of political in-fighting, but that’s for another entry lol.) 

The last time we had an MCO was back in March 2020, and it lasted for two months. Although the current MCO has only been announced for the next two weeks, many people are foreseeing an extension, at least for a further two weeks. With thousands of cases daily in Malaysia (at the time of this writing, there have been over 100 deaths in the last two weeks), most (sane) people understand that this is necessary to break the infection chain and ensure public health and safety. 

Since no events are allowed and travel is restricted, many of us will have to make do with a quiet celebration at home this year. While we won’t be able to observe certain traditions, I think that technology has allowed us to adapt (and innovate) in ways that would not have been possible 20 or 30 years ago – and we can use that to make CNY 2021 a memorable one. 

Reunion Dinner 

The reunion dinner on the eve of CNY is an integral part of CNY celebrations – some even consider it to be even more important than New Year’s Day.Traditionally, it’s when everyone gathers to feast and wish for a prosperous year ahead, whilst enjoying dishes with auspicious meanings (usually fish, pork, prawn and chicken – since back in the days meat was difficult to come by and would only be eaten on special occasions).

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Fam reunion dinner from 2018

The food for reunion dinners used to be prepared at home by the women folk. More than just preparing a meal, it was a way for people to bond. When my grandparents were still alive, the kitchen on CNY eve was a battlefield, and my grandma commandeered it like a general: slicing, dicing and supervising her helpers (my aunties). I kind of missed that after she passed away. In the last few years, eating out has become a trend, since nobody wants to go through the hassle of cooking and washing up for 20 people. Now that there are once again dine-in restrictions at restaurants, perhaps it’s time we went back to the drawing board and rediscover what it means to cook, and eat, together. 

For those who aren’t able to attend the reunion dinner night, I think it would be a good idea to set up some sort of Skype or Zoom call with family, so that you’d still be able to ‘eat’ together –  sort of like what I did with the hubs for our anniversary last year. It won’t replace being there in person, but in these unprecedented times, we have to make do with what we can – and it will hopefully stave off some of the loneliness that people who live away from home will undoubtedly feel during the festive season. 

Ang Pau Mali

Another tradition synonymous with CNY is the giving of red packets (ang pau) containing money to unmarried members of the family. As a kid, I was always super excited to receive ang paus (RM100 was a lot of money for a kid in the 90s). Funny thing though: at the end of each visit, the money would go to my mom, who’d keep it for ‘investment’…. And I’d never see it again lol. (Just kidding, I love you mom.) 

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Now that I’m married, I’ll no longer be on the receiving end, sadly. Under normal circumstances, it’s understandable not to give an angpau if you’re not visiting a particular relative. Unfortunately for married folk, the emergence of e-wallet apps and e-angpaus means that some of us won’t be able to wriggle out of it with the in absentia excuse: your nephews and nieces will probably say, “Aiya auntie, send it through e-angpau lah!” 

In With The New 

People usually buy new things for CNY (especially clothes), as it signifies a fresh start. Many clothing retailers are not able to open their brick and mortar shops, so more have gone online to provide for their customers. You can also find nice clothes on platforms like Shopee and Lazada for super cheap.

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There are pros and cons to shopping online. While it’s certainly more convenient and safer (no hour-long queue to get into the changing room, no fighting with another auntie for the same shirt you both have your eyes on at the sale rack), it can also be challenging for people with unusual body shapes/sizes, since they can’t see or feel the material/ cutting prior to their purchase. (Like yours truly. I have huge… shoulders. winkwink.) If you’re going to buy stuff online, best do it early to avoid disappointment, in case your item comes late in the mail. 

Chinese New Year foods in Malaysia

*Photo: evelynquek, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Buying gift hampers for associates, or cookies / treats for friends and family is another long standing CNY practice, and again, online shopping makes it convenient to have your items shipped directly to the doorstep of your recipient. As for treats for personal consumption, if you have the time, it might be a good idea to try your hand at baking/making your own. If you’re enterprising, you can even make a larger batch to sell and earn some extra money on the side. 

Cleaning / Decorating the House

People often underestimate the importance of decorating one’s personal space to elevate the mood. I believe it’s crucial; not to show off, but to re-centre yourself and your frame of mind. It’s one of the reasons why I wear office clothes even while working from home, because it kicks my mind into ‘work mode’. Lounging in pyjamas all day is comfy, but it also makes me more inclined to go roll around on the bed every 10 minutes. Similarly, just because no one is visiting for CNY doesn’t mean your house shouldn’t be clean and tidy.  

Unfortunately, technology has not yet evolved to the point where I’m able to kick back with a nice cup of coffee and a book, while my robot assistant does everything for me. So, manual labour it is.

CNY in 2021 will certainly be different, but if you put it into perspective, it’s not all doom and gloom. Traditions are meant to be kept and preserved, but if that isn’t possible due to circumstances beyond our control, then perhaps it’s time to innovate some new traditions. 

That being said, McD’s Prosperity Burger is back on the menu. 

Some things just never change. 

If you enjoyed reading this post, consider giving me a figurative angpau. Contrary to popular belief, I do not make big moolah from writing – and this will go towards hosting fees and ensuring that I can continue to deliver authentic content for your reading pleasure. Thanks for stopping by!

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The Sales and Marketing Trap – How Companies Get You To Buy More Than You Actually Need

Ah, capitalism. 

No matter how vigilant we try to be against the tricks of the trade, I’m pretty sure we’ve all fallen victim to seemingly ‘innocent’ marketing traps at one time or other. It’s the .99$ promos, the membership discounts, the buy-1-free-1 deals. We think we’re getting a bargain; that we’ve outsmarted the game. In reality, we’re all just suckers in a system designed to separate us from our money by playing on our wants – and turning them into ‘needs’. 

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Case in point: despite being well aware of all of the above, I still fell victim during the recent year-end sale. I didn’t NEED a bunch of body butters in various scents when I already had some at home that would have lasted me for at least two months. I just FELT like I needed them, and because “it would be a shame not to buy them at a discounted price”. But the loser at the end? Me. Because I ended up spending more. Score one for corporations, zilch for Eris. 

So how exactly do companies get you to, in sales speak, ‘go through the purchase funnel’ ? (ie buy their stuff) ?  Let’s take a look: 

Relentless Advertising

Ever searched up something online, then got constantly bombarded by advertisements of related products and services? This is because despite all the assurances of privacy and etc., companies DO collect data about you and your browsing habits – to be used or sold to potential advertisers to create targeted ads. Some websites give you a heads up that they ‘collect cookies’, but it’s all just a show to appear transparent – because many of these sites do so without asking for permission anyway, and there is no way to regulate this. This is probably why you’re seeing a lot of hotel deals on Facebook, after looking up airfares to Langkawi. They can wrap it in fancy terms like  ‘tailoring a more personalised experience’, but I’ll call it what it is: digital stalking. And they’ll keep showing you ads – until you finally cave in. 

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I recently shopped for items on The Body Shop online, since they had a promo and were giving away freebies (another way of sucking you in to buying stuff…coz who doesn’t like free stuff?). For the next few days, I kept seeing ads for body creams, lotions and fragrances. Inadvertently, it weakened my resolve – and I ended up buying more items from Bath and Body Works, which I did not actually need. Was it my fault for succumbing? Partly yes – but that’s how companies target your psyche, and ultimately push you into action. 

Free, But…

Behold the magic word. 

Malaysians love freebies and discounts. It’s the reason why many of us don’t mind lining up for hours on end just to get a free bag which would probably have cost 5 bucks. Was it actually worth it? Maybe not, but hey. It’s free, right? 

But is it really? 

Here’s an example, again from my experience at The Body Shop. So aside from buying online, I also bought from their physical store, to get Christmas gifts for friends. The sales person suggested that I sign up as a member, which would entitle me to a 20% discount. But to be eligible for a member, I had to purchase a minimum of RM80, and my gifts were like RM20 short. I ended up getting body butter for another 80 bucks. -___- 

Did I actually NEED the body butter? No. But my brain basically rationalised the purchase, saying ‘Hey, you got that for a 20% discount!’ 

Upgrades

Related to the above. I also commonly see this at Starbucks, where the barista will ask if you’d like to upsize your drink for an additional 1 or 2 bucks. Question is, do you actually need to drink that much ? Or are you just upsizing because you think that you’re getting much more ‘value’? 

“Unbeatable” Deals

I can’t remember where I read this, but I once came across this saying that companies don’t sell products; they sell FOMO, or the fear of missing out. Buyer’s psychology is such that we feel the need to one-up, to get (or at least believe that we got) the best value from our purchase.

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The sales tactic works extremely well for this. The end of the year is especially brutal, what with the 10.10, 11.11, 12.12, Christmas and new year’s sales. Yours truly can testify, having held out for all of them except for Christmas, and more recently, Bath and Body Works new year sale (bought another body butter and a candle for RM39 each). Speaking of which, the .9 tactic is another way companies make you believe that you’re spending less, and that you’re getting a deal. Because again, buyer’s psychology is such that RM39 seems much more appealing than RM40, despite it being just a RM1 difference. 

While I’m sure many people are well aware of all these little marketing traps, it can still be difficult to resist at times – especially in this day and age where we’re constantly exposed to marketing messages of buy more, spend more. Unless, of course you have a willpower of steel.  For the rest of us, we’ll just have to be more conscious about our purchasing habits, and be more intuitive in our spending. 

Now excuse me while I go apply some of those damn body butters I don’t actually need.

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If you enjoyed reading this, please consider supporting my website. Contrary to popular belief, I do not make big moolah from writing – and this will go towards hosting fees and ensuring that I can continue to deliver authentic content for your reading pleasure. Thanks for stopping by!

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Big Bad Wolf 2020 – Malaysia’s Largest Book Sale Goes Online

Since 2009, Malaysian bibliophiles and book hoarders have made their annual pilgrimage to the Big Bad Wolf Sale, which is held every year around Feb/Mac or Nov/Dec and is touted as the largest book sale in the region. The last time I went in 2018, they had over 3 million titles!

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Buang balik #2018

Due to the pandemic, many events have had to be cancelled – so the BBW won’t be held physically this year. They are, however, having an online sale, so you can still shop for books from the comforts of your own home. The sale went live at midnight on Nov 4, and will run until Nov 11 (which is shorter than the usual BBW which usually runs for 2 weeks).

Now, although BBW and BookXCess (BBW’s parent company) has been around for some time, they’ve always been more of a brick-and-mortar business – as evidenced by their bookstores, which are all beautifully designed as ‘lifestyle hubs’ where you can sip on a coffee, work, study, etc. There is of course nothing wrong with this; I personally prefer physical bookstores and the joy of finding an awesome book hidden in a corner shelf , getting to inhale the smell of paper, touch the sleek edges of the page. Hmm.

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The BookXCess store at Tamarind Square, Cyberjaya is the largest bookstore in Malaysia, and it operated 24 hours a day (pre-pandemic)

But we are living in uncertain times, and many businesses have had to accelerate their digital processes and shift to a more online-centric model to cater to shifting consumer needs/demands. BBW’s first online sale will be a test as to how well it’ll be able to cope. So far, there seem to be a lot of teething problems.

Since going live at midnight, many users have complained that the website is inaccessible – probably due to the sheer amount of web traffic which is overloading their servers. When they do get in, some have problems creating an account, while others can’t browse because titles are not showing up on the pages. Still others have said their cart turns up empty after they’ve selected the items they want to purchase, and some users haven’t been able to checkout at all.

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I’m part of a local book group on FB, and these are just some of the frustrated comments:

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Curious, I went to the website myself at around 11AM today. It loaded fine at first…

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But upon trying to register for an account:

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Tried again at 12.40PM and managed to get a form to fill up, but after filling it up and pressing ‘create account’, it cleared my data and requested for me to fill up my details again.

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BBW has at least acknowledged they’re having problems on their page.

Now I’m not trying to be mean here or say that they’re doing a shit job – I’m sure their IT department is working round-the-clock to resolve these issues, and despite how some people have commented that “Oh you should have been prepared knowing that there will be many people surfing your website”, I know Murphy’s Law applies – you can prepare for every possibility in the world, but things that will go wrong will go wrong.

But I also understand the frustration on the consumer’s side – one comment said it took them an hour to register an account, an hour to browse and select their books, and another hour to checkout because they had to keep refreshing the page – a total of four hours. In a digital-savvy world of instant gratification and convenient online shopping, four hours just doesn’t cut it.

That being said, there are also customers like these – which is when you know you’ve done something right with your brand:

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If you do manage to get in, BBW 2020 does have great discounts, up to 90% off on 40,000 titles and with over two million books on sale. They also provide free shipping on orders above RM180. If you’re buying above RM300, you’re entitled to a further 10% discount with the code BBW10% off.

Anyway, I hope they manage to sort things out soon because I do think that they are doing a good thing – which is bringing books to customers. There are also many pros to going online, namely avoiding the crowd of shoppers and the massive traffic jams that are a signature of BBW sales every year.

PS: I initially wanted to browse some of the titles, but perhaps this is for the best seeing as I have a TBR pile from AS FAR BACK AS 2013 LMFAO I HATE MYSELF WHY AM I LIKE THIS LOL.

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These were from 2018. I have only managed to finish the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time wtf. Kill me.

Have you ordered books from the Big Bad Wolf Sale 2020? How was your experience?