Unboxing the Box of Pen Addict Awesomeness (BOPAA)

Guess what package came in the mail?

It could have been my Planck keyboard, or my order from iHerb, but I don’t think their shipping label looks like this:


In case you hadn’t heard, Brad Dowdy of The Pen Addict became a full-time stationery person a few weeks ago, and launched Pen Addict memberships (I tried to make a “refill” joke, but couldn’t come up with a good one). One of the perks of being a Pen Addict member is the chance to win some “monthly giveaways of awesomeness”, and I have the honour of being the first winner of the Box of Pen Addict Awesomeness (BOPAA):

I’m not going to review the BOPAA in detail item by item — I don’t have a reviewer’s patience or meticulousness, and that’s what we have Brad and all the other amazing stationery reviewers out there for. However, as the recipient of the first-ever BOPAA, I feel it is only right to share the fun around a little.

Are you going to use that Field Notes?

Yes. I am.

I’m a recent Field Notes subscriber — I only subscribed from Winter 2015, so Snowblind is my first Colors edition. There’s a reason for that: until very recently, I hadn’t worked out a good pocket notebook system.

I’ve kept pocket notebooks for years, but I’ve tended to go for a smaller form factor than the 3.5” by 5.5” notebook, because that size gets beat up too much in my pocket. I tended to go for the really small Moleskine or Leuchtturm hardcover notebooks, which held up better than Field Notes.

A few months ago, I got myself a Fodderstack XL. What I really wanted was a Brasstown and a regular Fodderstack, but Nock Co had the Brasstown and Fodderstack XL in a limited edition Sky Blue/Bluejay colourway as a package, so I decided to get that — and it was the Fodderstack XL that found its way into my pocket, not the smaller Fodderstack.

A Word. Notebook ordered through Grouphunt, a caddy I made to hold Post-it flags and memos, and a Cold Horizon Field Notes that I picked up at some random shop that has since closed down, with a Pilot Metropolitan and a TWSBI Diamond 580 in the pen slot.

A Word. Notebook ordered through Grouphunt, a caddy I made to hold Post-it flags and memos, and a Cold Horizon Field Notes that I picked up at some random shop that has since closed down, with a Pilot Metropolitan and a TWSBI Diamond 580 in the pen slot.

So — with that problem solved, I am now very much a Field Notes user. And so, the Packet of Sunshine Field Notes will join its fellow pocket warriors in waiting:

Everything to the left of the index cards (Nock Co. DotDash) is partially used, and everything to the right of the index cards is new. See the leftmost Field Notes? That’s why I stopped using Field Notes for a while — I wore them down too much before I was done using them.

A stash of notebooks on my desk, ready to be called into action.

A stash of notebooks on my desk, ready to be called into action.

Are you going to use that Blackwing 1138?

Yes. I am.

This one is a much less straightforward answer. When Palomino announced the Blackwing subscriptions, I seriously thought about signing up — but while the Blackwings are easily my favourite pencils, I am not a frequent pencil user.

“Be reasonable,” I thought to myself. “What are you going to do with 48 pencils a year?”

“Use them,” said the devil on my shoulder.

I did not subscribe.

Palomino came out with the 725. I play a Fender Stratocaster.

I gritted my teeth and did not subscribe.

Palomino came out with the 211. One of the last things I got into before I left New York City in mid-2014 was hiking, and I joined a hiking club, Wild Earth Adventures, because I didn’t drive and needed a ride out to the trails. “Yadda yadda yadda John Burroughs yadda,” Charlie, our guide, would say. “Yadda yadda yadda John Muir. Look, there’s a deer footprint in the snow.”

I. Did. Not. Subscribe.

Palomino came out with the 1138. I groaned. I’m a filmmaker by training, if not by profession, and the 1138 was begging me to buy it. So I had a stern conversation. With myself.

“You are a user of things, not a collector of things!” I said sternly. To myself.

I thought I heard my collection of unread books, unused pens and unopened notebooks sniggering quietly.

The last time I remember having this conversation (with myself) was mid-January, and I went to bed feeling quite proud of myself for demonstrating such self-discipline and force of will.

The next morning, I opened my email and found this:

Ugh. Now what? Do I sharpen the pencil to use it, or do I keep it and admire it and show it off to visitors? “Let me show you one of my most-prized posessions!” I could say. I could open my drawer, gingerly retrieve a solid beechwood box and unclasp it to reveal…

“It’s just a pencil,” my visitor would say.

“No, it’s a Blackwing 1138!”

“Well, it sure is a fancy pencil…”

“Do you know who gave it to me? Brad Dowdy!” I’d say.

My visitor would look awed and amazed.

“The guy from Mr. and Mrs. Smith?”

“… Yes. Yes, that’s it,” I would say, and then excuse myself, sit on the toilet and cry.

Long story short, I got myself a Blackwing subscription, so that I could have my pencil and use it too.

My Blackwing 1138 in its rightful place, among its fellow pencils in a sea of pens and Sharpies. Pinocchio pencil just casually hangin’ out.

My Blackwing 1138 in its rightful place, among its fellow pencils in a sea of pens and Sharpies. Pinocchio pencil just casually hangin’ out.

Enough with the grandmother stories, loot please!

Okay, okay.

What’s great about this BOPAA is that a lot of this is stuff I’d love to try, but that I would never have bought for myself. The Rhodia ColoR pads, the Sailor Storia inks, the markers — you don’t need me to tell you this, but Brad has great taste in stationery.

(Except for what you said about the Staedtler 925-25 in Episode 152. What is wrong with you?)

Loot time:

I don’t really use pigmented inks, but I can definitely get behind a good purple. Violet pride!

Steady hands. No tripod. Depth of field is probably 3-4 millimetres. 

Steady hands. No tripod. Depth of field is probably 3-4 millimetres. 

I’ve used a Propus before, so this one isn’t new to me. At the speeds I highlight, the Propus window isn’t terribly useful, but it does work. Personally, my highlighters of choice are the Pilot FriXion Light series, which kind of obviates the need for a tip window.

I got a bit too excited and tested most of the loot before I took pictures of it, so you see some staining on the Propus highlighters.

I love the smell of notebook in the morning.

I love the smell of notebook in the morning.

I don’t know what you do with a notebook that you’ve never tried before, but what I do is put it through its paces with my most regularly-used writing implements.

Here's my Palomino Blackwing 602 at the Steinbeck stage. I think I bought this at Foyles in London, nearly two years ago. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me nearly two years to get one pencil to the Steinbeck stage. I promise to use my Blackwing subscriptions more diligently than this.

On the other hand, it’s got an orange eraser.

I scanned the test page into my HP Envy 4500 printer, and here’s what the scan with default settings looks like:


Forgive the weirdo Jinhao Frankenpen line, I’m still learning how to flex a nib. The Sailor Storia Magic Purple acquitted itself admirably — it’s easily the best ink I’ve used with my glass pen, which may or may not have to do with the fact it’s a pigmented ink. I’m going to have to find some excuses to use it now.

The five highlighted lines were written with the Tactile Turn Mover, so that’s Pilot G2 ink that’s smearing.

What is really impressive about the Rhodia ColoR pad is what's on the back of this sheet:

Other than a couple of tiny, tiny splotches thanks to my poor flex nib control, there is zero see-through and zero bleedthrough. Of all the writing paper I’ve tried, this is the only one that’s had this result. I’ve managed to bleed through Tomoe River paper with my Jinhao Frankenpen, so this is some crazy paper.

All right, it’s time to put the toys away. The highlighters and markers will go to the little designated spot for highlighters and scrapbooking stationery on my desk:

Meanwhile, the Sailor Storia Magic Purple will go in the ink cupboard until it gets called up for duty:

Nothing personal, I like the Magic Purple just fine, but only a few inks get refilled often enough to stay on my desk. Kon-peki, Yama-budo and Heart of Darkness are the only inks with permanent spots, and everything else is negotiable. As you can see, Magic Purple is in some mighty fine company up there in the ink cupboard.

So that’s it: that’s what I’ve done with my Box of Pen Addict Awesomeness.

Thank you, Brad. May all future BOPAAs be as awesome as this one.

A Place That Will Stay Within Me

Flying between SIN and JFK takes 21 to 24 hours, depending on which direction you're flying in and which airport — LHR, FRA, DXB — you stop over at. In this dead time zone I would transform myself from a Singaporean to a New Yorker, from a New Yorker to a Singaporean.

I am typing this at Changi Airport, IATA code SIN. I am not flying anywhere. I am just overnighting at the airport for peace and quiet, to have some time and space to think and write and work. I've done this for years, since before flights were a regular part of my life. In those times, I would look at the departure board and feel in my flesh the poisonous malaise of unfulfilled wanderlust.

One of my first breaks home from New York, I remember telling a friend that Singapore felt different. Not that it was different or that I was different, but that Singapore felt different -- the humid tropical air no longer felt so oppressive, the mass of people no longer felt so soulless, the daily routine no longer felt so tinged with quiet desperation.

This, I decided, was because I now knew I had somewhere else to go. I had another city waiting for me.

I was afraid of coming here to overnight. I remembered what it was like the last time I came to the airport to do work without knowing when I would next leave Singapore. I remembered the peculiar hopelessness of feeling stranded on my own island, the urgent need to be somewhere else, the sensation that my destiny lay elsewhere and that it was slipping away from me.

My misgivings are unfounded. The despair does not grip me anew. I ask myself why.

After four years of shuttling between Singapore and New York, I thought I had mastered the art of keeping the minutiae of my Singapore and New York lives separate. I had a Singapore wallet and a New York wallet. I had a Singapore phone and a New York phone. I had a set of New York keys and a set of Singapore keys. I had a Singapore accent and a New York accent. 25 June, June 25. Colour, anodise, grey. Color, anodize, gray. Pavement, traffic light, pedestrian crossing, road. Sidewalk, stoplight, crosswalk, street. Lift, toilet, dustbin. Elevator, bathroom, trash can.

Every time I flew back and forth, I played a little game: how quickly could I rid myself of the appearance of having just stepped off a plane? How soon could I settle into the rhythm of each city? How easily could I begin to behave as if I had never left?

If you're flying to SIN on SQ, the transformation back to Singaporean happens prematurely, whether you mean for it to or not.

It begins at the gate, when you glimpse a fellow red passport, and then another, and another. Stepping on the plane, the flight crew greets you in the unmistakable lilt of Singlish, the first shock to the system. You greet them back, the unaspirated obstruents and shortened vowels feeling at once foreign and familiar.

Settling into your seat, you open the duty-free catalogue and find yourself looking at a watch with the words "kan cheong" and a spider on the watch face. At mealtime, you ask for the roast pork and get a tray with the main dish labelled "char siew".

Some habits seep through the insulating barrier of space and time. I have developed a brazen willingness to fling limbs at closing lift doors, and it takes an inordinate amount of discipline not to waltz across an empty road when the traffic light is against me. I walk aggressively close to cars, stationary or otherwise. Koping seats with my bag now feels like an unnatural act of trust in the universe — when I remember to do it at all.

Then there are the habits of mind that no one knows but me. I notice myself adding time instead of subtracting it, wondering if 7-11 does cashback, reaching for $20 bills that don't exist.

I have a confession to make. I have yet to eat bak kut teh in Singapore. The first time I had bak kut teh was in Penang, and all the other times were in New York.

I can't explain why, but bak kut teh became my comfort food in New York. I would order it from Nyonya whenever I was sick, upset, or plain meh — a large bowl’s worth delivered to my New York apartment would last two meals.

The strange thing, of course, is that now, all bak kut teh reminds me of are cold winter nights in New York City, nursing sniffles and a warm bowl of home.

"How's home?" asks my friend.

"Home is strange, it feels really familiar, and then the littlest things jump out at me, like the fact we don't have $20 notes," I say.

"Huh. $20 for - oh, like bills," says my friend.

Four years suddenly stretch to infinity in my mind as I try to remember if I have ever referred to a bill as a note to my American friends.

One day, on a too-crowded MRT train, a thought imposes itself on my consciousness.

I miss the subway.

I told my mother that if she wanted chilli sauce in New York, she would have to bring it from Singapore. Sriracha is an inexact substitute.

Two mornings ago, I stumbled out of bed and asked for a comfort-food lunch of instant noodles with egg and chilli sauce.

"We don't have any chilli. Left it all in New York," my mother said.

At Books Actually I spot the book for John Clang's exhibition, Being Together. John Clang is a New York-based photographer and — as tends to happen with Singaporeans, what with being a small country and all — an acquaintance of my ex-roommate. In Being Together, he shot photos of Singaporean families divided by landmasses and oceans, projecting Skype video calls with geographically distant family members to form family portraits.

I rifle through the pages looking for one photo -- just one. It has to be here. I can't find it. I look at the index and I see that it's in the book, somewhere, but it doesn't tell me where.

I flip through it again and this time, right on cue, the book falls open to the photo I'm looking for.

It's not my photo. It's a photo of another family, one I don't know. I study the photograph and notice the window blinds look similar to mine, even though they weren't the same — the tenant in the photo took the blinds with her when she moved out. I see she had an AC — an aircon — and I remember her telling me that there was no AC in the room. She took that with her, too. I look at the bed pushed into the corner, the desk with the flatscreen TV, the laundry basket by the heater. It's configured completely differently, but I recognise it; I know every dusty corner of it, the way the window doesn’t completely shut, the sharpness of the sunlight that filters in on summer mornings.

This is my room.

This was my room.

On the train, I am engrossed in some news item or another on my phone, earphones in my ears, tuned out from everything around me. One word pierces my personal bubble and by a four-year-old reflex, I pull my earphones out, look up, and search for the voice that said the word "Singapore".

Then I realise where I am. I'm on the MRT, not the subway. It was just some random college student talking about local current affairs.

I spent much of the lead up to my O Levels in 2005 camping at the Funan McDonald's mugging away, eight hours or more a day, with my friends. When the A Levels rolled around, we returned to that spot and saw out those exams there too. When I worked in the MICA building, I would go to that McDonald's and wait out rush hour before heading home. During winter and summer breaks home from school, as if for old times' sake, my friends and I would often end up there to chill, hang out, get some work done.

This time, upon returning, I do my rounds as I usually do, making a mental note of everything that's changed. At Funan, the realisation doesn't hit me immediately — it sinks in slowly, washes over me like a wave, emerges in a chuckle.

McDonald's is gone.

In its place stands — of all things — a bak kut teh restaurant.

Whenever I am feeling low I look around me and I know There’s a place that will stay within me Wherever I may choose to go…

At the airport, I look at all the people going to other places, leaving, travelling, passing through.

Something clicks. I get it.

Once, New York was a place I needed to go to. It was a place that existed in the distance, and it was something I desperately needed to be a part of. I wanna be a part of it…

Now, New York is a part of me. It is in my feet as I weave through a crowd, it is the momentary wish to dabao a meal I cannot finish, it is the way I pull out my earphones to listen when the muzak of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York comes on over the speakers at Changi Airport.

I left New York, but I didn't leave New York behind. It came home with me.

First published on POSKOD.SG.

On Attending Pink Dot

I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. — Desmond Tutu

I am heterosexual, I am cisgender, I am a Christian, and this year, for the first time, I will be going to Pink Dot.

While the core of my opinion of homosexuality and the church hasn’t changed, my view of the public discourse surrounding homosexuality has shifted considerably over the last few years. I have always felt that what consenting adults do behind closed doors is between them and God, and neither the church nor the state has a right to legislate that.

Theologically, it seems to me that the church tends to operate from the assumption that homosexuality is a sin worse than all the other sins, which is doubly dangerous: if you believe that homosexuality is a sin (and I’m not sure it is my business to judge what sin is or isn’t, I barely know what it is myself. Adam and Eve ate a fruit they were told not to eat — a sin — and Abraham was on the verge of killing Isaac, which he was told to do — not a sin), you cannot possibly believe that it is worse than any other sin. As a result, I am not sure why the church has such a problem with gay people when it has no problem with everyone else, as if everyone else did not also sin. As if God had any phobias, as if anything we did could surprise Him.

I think that the hand-wringing over “tradition” and “marriage” is pointless, and it would be far more helpful if civil unions replaced marriage in secular public life, with “marriage” only being used in private religious contexts. If people privately want to recognise their union as a marriage in God’s eyes, then they should be free to do so, but from the state’s point of view every marriage should be a civil union. This, of course, is a more extreme position than necessary for progress towards equality, and developments in the last few years have made it clear that we are going the way of the same-sex marriage rather than of the opposite-sex civil union. At the end of the day, this is a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. I note it here for consistency's sake.

While I have always been sympathetic to the cause of LGBT rights, I’ve never felt that it was my battle to fight. In a way, I’ve never felt that I had a right to fight it. It seems silly to say it now, but I suppose it felt presumptuous to assume that my help was needed. What has changed this year is that, for the first time, I have felt that the Protestant Christian voice in Singapore has begun to presume to speak for me in a way that I am not comfortable with.

I am not comfortable with the idea that our “national values” involve the systematic oppression of a group of people whose “crime” I can’t even define, while these same “national values” tear apart families who disown their gay children, cause indescribable suffering to those forced to remain in the closet, and prevent what might very well be loving families from being formed.

I am not comfortable with the idea that we have a government that allows the descendant of an archaic 1534 law to stay on the books ostensibly for reasons of symbolism, promising not to prosecute anyone under it, conveniently neglecting to acknowledge the fact that as long as 377A is not repealed, there can be no progress with LGBT rights (which is surely the symbolism of the act in the first place). An entire community will remain discriminated against in real and tangible ways (ahem HDB), while they enjoy the “privilege” of not being prosecuted under a law that still considers them to be criminals.

Most of all, I am not comfortable with knowing that if I do not plant my flag, state my stand and claim my own voice, others who have stated their intention to be loud and vociferous in their opposition to Pink Dot and LGBT equality will claim to speak for me. To quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu for a second time:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

At the end of the day, I am not looking for arguments for or against, theological or social or political. This is not about who has the most logical argument or the most consistent theology. I like to think that I do not let institutional loyalties sway my own convictions, and I would sooner leave a church than pretend to subscribe to beliefs I cannot hold. (Don’t write to me saying “your pastor once said…” I know. There is no church in the world that can precisely match an individual’s personal theology; the question is, what is most fundamental to the theology and do I agree with it?)

In any case, it is not for a church functionary to decide whether or not to excommunicate me from my relationship with God for choosing to stand with the oppressed rather than the oppressors.

This is simply about obeying the dictates of my own conscience.

See you at Pink Dot this Saturday.