Decisions After N Levels

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There are many pathways available now that you have received your N level results. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1) Promotion to Sec 5N(A)

Must get less than 19 points in English, Math and three other subjects (ELMAB3) and at least a Grade 5 for these five subjects.

Will sit for the O level exams in the same school.

2) Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP)

Must get less than 19 points in English, Math and three other subjects (ELMAB3) and at least a Grade 4 for English and Math and Grade 5 for three other subjects.

Will attend the Higher Nitec course at ITE for 2 years, and if the minimum score is achieved, will get into a corresponding poly course.

3) Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP)

Must get less than 11 points for ELMAB3.

Will study for a 1 year curriculum related to a diploma course and then proceed to that course.

4) N(T) students can go to ITE and if they get A for Eng and Math, and B or better for one other subject, they can apply to 4 N(A).

5) Those who cannot or choose not to go through the aforementioned options can opt for the Nitec courses at ITE OR repeat the N level exams.

6) Those with the means – time and money – can opt to study for a private diploma/ degree.

Now that the options are all laid out, let’s have a discussion on what suits you better. The following points are based on my experiences and discussions with colleagues. Please consider them with your own teachers, counsellors and family members before coming to a decision that will be satisfying or at least cause minimal regrets.

1) Many students will be tempted to take the O level exams. They may wish to spend another year with their classmates or their parents want them to avoid ITE. The peer pressure and social stigma can be overwhelming.

The truth is that a student who gets a 1 for N level is expected to get a B4 for O level. This is the general trend. Are there exceptions? Yes. Are there many exceptions? No. There is a sudden and huge leap in curriculum demands between N and O level exams. A student who gets 4 for a N level subject will most likely get a D7 for O level. 

For example, my younger brother was a top N level student in his school. He achieved 9 points. After spending an extra year at school, he sat for his O levels, failed badly and could only qualify for ITE. If you are sure that the 5N(A) students with whom you will be in class with are diligent, you may benefit from this choice. If your form and subject teachers hint that you should return, this choice may be apt. If you had the option of choosing between N(A) and Express streams after PSLE and decided on the former, you may benefit as well. If a school has a very strong 5N(A) team of teachers with a commendable track record, you may benefit from opting for this choice. It takes a great alignment between many different factors for N(A) students to do well at O levels.

The truth is that O level exams are more competitive because there are many more people taking them. There are, of course, former N level students who did well for O levels. Based on experience, however, most should avoid this option as they tend to fare poorly at O levels. 

2 and 3) Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP) and Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP)

If you meet the academic prerequisites, you should opt for the DPP and PFP. The truth is that the O level exams are centred on generic knowledge not very useful in real life. Being able to calculate differential equations and balance ionic equations would not be useful to most. Why not spend that extra year learning skills and acquiring information more aligned to your interests?

Do note that not all courses are available for the DPP and PFP. If you already know what you wish to study in polytechnic and are certain that these courses are not available at the DPP/PFP level, then you may have to consider option (1).

4) N(T) students can go to ITE and if they get A for Eng and Math, and B or better for one other subject, they can apply to 4 N(A).

As with all other options, consider your natural inclinations and decide on a most suitable pathway. Do note that the N(T) curriculums are vastly different from the N(A) ones and be prepared to make necessary efforts to adapt to steep academic changes.

5) Those who cannot or choose not to go through the aforementioned options can opt for the Nitec courses at ITE OR repeat the N level exams.

Between these two options, the first one of going for a NITEC course seems more appropriate. You get to pick up new skills though you may have to face a certain social stigma. The truth is that many students who choose to spend one year and repeat their N levels end up with the similar grades. Unless you are certain that you will put in a much greater deal of daily effort, it may be more realistic to go to ITE and learn new skills.

A side note: school fees can be heavy for foreign students. It may be a economically sound decision to sit for N levels again and try to get into a polytechnic course in as few years as possible. 

6) Those with the means – time and money – can opt to study for a private diploma/ degree.

Many people do end up taking degrees at private institutions even if they were to attend polytechnic courses. My cousins, my own brother, many relatives. For some of them, having a degree opens up certain job opportunities. For others, not at all. I will not rehash tired arguments about the value of a degree and relative academic prestige of various institutions.

If you have the money and are certain that a private diploma course will be useful and am willing to learn more independently, you may wish to consider this option.  

Again, please note that these opinions are derived from observing batches of students. THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS – a N level student can do well at O levels – though most are not exceptions – a N level student usually do poorly at O levels. Consider carefully if you can be one of these exceptions and make sure that it is not just wishful thinking.

Also, note that academic grades are not everything. One is more than the sum of one’s N/O level grades. If you were to run your own business(es), grades are not important at all. However, if you were to choose more traditional career pathways, grades may have an outsized influence. 

Lastly, a less appropriate decision may set you back by a year or two as well as incur an expense of time, money and opportunities. BUT it is not a life-or-death decision. Different  openings will present themselves whatever your decision.

I shall end with this disclaimer: the following points are based on my experiences and discussions with colleagues. Please consider them with your own teachers, counsellors and family members before coming to a decision that will be satisfying or at least with minimal regrets. Bear in mind that there are exceptions to academic stereotypes though not many. After all, these stereotypes exist because they have been proven true often enough. Either way, there is no easy option in choosing and in life.

All the best and choose wisely! Enjoy the break while it lasts.

Growing Heat Tolerant Cymbidiums in Singapore

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It has been a month since that day I woke up in Bangkok, half my face numb, sagging and immobile.  Now, I've recovered. My friends tell me that I look perfectly normal and there is no trace of that sudden health scare. To think that I couldn't even blink properly back then!

When I was in Thailand before the right side of my face flattened, I intended to get some cymbidiums. These orchids are elegant with gently arcing spikes of flowers. They can thrive in the equatorial sunshine.

My uncle would buy cold-climate orchids for Chinese New Year and it is such a waste to watch them wilt in the heat, petal falling by petal, tear-like, the image made more heart-rending by the fact that these cool-growing plants are prohibitively expensive.

In Bangkok, I didn't manage to find any heat-tolerant cymbidiums when I first arrived and completely lost the sense of holiday good cheer when my body felt apart thereafter.

Upon knowing that my younger brother would be visiting Bangkok, I casually asked him to get some of these orchids for me. He can be rather mean - having said that I shouldn't go out to frighten people when I was miserable with the facial palsy - and somewhat kind - buying random food goodies for the family. I honestly didn't expect him to get any for me. It would have been troublesome for him to search out these plants when he has no interest in all things green and would probably enjoy the more touristy offerings of Bangkok.

A few days later, when I was lunching at the nearby food court, he called and asked me what I want. Good question, what do I want? World peace, cooperative students keen to learn, a reversal of environmental damages caused by years of negligence and greed.

What do you want? He insisted. He was referring to those orchids that I asked him to buy. He took some photos and asked me to choose. Honestly, I felt touched by his rare act of concern, us being part of a typical Asian family with members who don't really voice words of care and concern. 


They look slightly traumatised, having been uprooted, charcoal ripped from their roots, leaves somewhat crumpled and dry. These blooms will drop off before their time. I'm hoping that they will acclimatise quickly and celebrate the next festive occasion with joy.

There's something satisfying, these things that sprout and flower and grow into spaces around them. A quiet understanding that maybe I've been marginally responsible for their growth.

Have a great Christmas tomorrow and a great year six days later. All the best with your hopes and health.
 ***
Here's a thoughtful article on tending to cymbidiums by Kobsukh:

Growing Heat Tolerant Cymbidiums in Tropical Climates
(by Kobsukh Kaenratana)

Growing heat-tolerant cymbidiums (HTCs) in tropical climates is easy, comparable to growing dendrobium hybrids, which is usually the starting point for beginners. Generally, HTCs can stand the impact of rainfall; therefore they do not need a rainproof roof.

Most cymbidiums enjoy good ventilation and moderate humidity. It is not advisable to grow cymbidiums with other high-humidity genera or under hanging baskets of other orchids. Though cymbidiums do not enjoy high humidity, they need to remain moist at the root ball. It is important that the growing medium is well-drained, yet retains some moisture well.

Pots should not be placed on the ground or closer than 18” to it as this will allow fungal diseases to infect the root ball. However, placing cymbidium pots directly on a dry clean surface, such as a balcony or terrace is acceptable. One precaution is to watch for water trapped at the bottom of the pot. To solve this problem, pots with one or two holes on the side of pot near the base are suggested. Another solution is to use pots with standing legs that prevent the bottom holes from contacting the floor. When cymbidium pots are placed in a well-ventilated location without exposure to strong & direct sunlight, growing cymbidiums is quite easy.

Light and Growing Location

In most tropical climates, 60-70% shade cloth is suggested for most HTCs. This rather heavy shade cloth will help prevent leaf burn during the hottest and driest months when the sun shines directly from above; peak sunlight in upper Thailand comes during March through May. Shade might be reduced whenever clouds and rains are more prevalent throughout even in the summer months. Less shade is also appropriate in the southern peninsula of Thailand, where heat is reduced by the nearby seas.

Growing in a home garden requires a well-ventilated area not exposed to direct sunlight in the afternoon. However the desirable intensity of sunlight for each cultivar can be quite different. It depends on the different species in the background of the hybrid. For example, hybrids with a heavy background of C. ensifolium can tolerate areas of particularly heavy shade and poorer ventilation. In contrast, hybrids with a large proportion of C. canaliculatum in the background prefer greater sunlight, very good ventilation and a drier environment.

Importantly, most cymbidium hybrids will not yield any bloom if plants are placed under other hanging orchids.

Pots and Medium
Clay pots are the best for growing cymbidiums in tropical climates as the porosity of the clay encourages evaporative cooling during hot weather. This is the real advantage over plastic pots. In addition, the heavier weight of clay pots helps increase stability for cymbidiums with large top growth. Taller pots also add another advantage as the depth allows better roots development. This increases the overall health and energy storage of the plant. In addition to the bottom hole, a few additional side holes near the bottom of the pot will prevent water from standing at the bottom, which might cause root rot.

In general, baskets are not the preferred pot for growing most cymbidium hybrids. There are some exceptions, such as species that are highly epiphytic, including C. dayanum, C. lowianum, C. aloifolium, C. atropurpureum, and C. madidum. Baskets are only suitable for those species that form upright pnuematophores (upright aerial roots). It should be kept in mind that the terrestrial root trait always dominates epiphytic root traits in hybridizing. This explains why most hybrids should be grown in pot rather than basket, as most hybrids are the combination of both terrestrial and epiphytic species.

The base of the pseudobulbs should be placed on the surface of medium as this keeps good ventilation around the bulbs, thus preventing any rot problems in monsoon season.

There always seems to have a common misunderstanding in perceiving and treating cymbidium as a terrestrial plant. Many people try to grow cymbidium with soil or soil-like medium. This almost always leads to root rot. The resultant demise will be fast, especially in hot and humid weather, but will be delayed in cool climates.

Growers should select the media that fit their local climates, something locally available and that do not break down too soon. Examples include hydroton balls, charcoal, volcanic rock, construction rock, broken pieces of new clay pot and quality pine bark. All mediums should be in the size of 1/2”-1”. Sphagnum moss is a very good choice for the mix.

In many cases, staking the newly repotted plants is essential for the success. If plants are grown in loose mediums that allow plants to shake, it will take a very long time for the plants to establish.

In areas with less rain, such as upper Thailand (central plain, north and northeast region), the proportion of pine barks can be increased or some sphagnum moss might be added at the bottom to stabilize the moisture during the dry season. When moisture is constant, roots will grow faster.

It is common that pH in a medium drops to an undesirably acidic level over 3-4 years. Low pH is harmful to cymbidium roots and this will retard growth and reduce flower productivity. Adding or mixing Dolomite with the medium when the plant is potted helps regulate the pH. The prolonged proper pH level can prevent the plant from being damaged by bacterial and fungal infections. In addition, calcium and magnesium in Dolomite will boost growth vigor and spike productivity.

For deflasked cymbidium plantlets, the agar should be removed. It is better to grow plantlets in a medium such as sand or rice-husk charcoal in trays or community pots. Unlike other epiphytic orchids such as dendrobiums, vandas, and oncidiums, cymbidium plantlets will not tolerate drought or being bare-root. They will dehydrate quickly and die.

Once plantlets are well established, they should be moved to individual 3”-4” pots with coarser media, such as small coconut chips of 0.5”-1” size. They will grow in these small pots about one year before needing to move to the final, blooming size, 5”-6” pots with regular media mix.

Diseases and Pests
Most diseases and pests of cymbidiums are common among other orchids. Basic fungicides like Orthocide (Captan) and common pesticides like Carbaryl (Savin) still work well. Herein, typical and common problems for cymbidiums are mentioned.

1) Red Spider Mites can be more common to cymbidiums than to other orchid genera because of the soft long arching leaves, which are suitable for mites to dwell underneath.
Symptoms: Plants stop growing, leaves turn patchy yellow or colorless and dry, necrosis appears in older leaves, white spider web and red mites are found under leaves.
Treatment: Spray with Propargite (Omite) alternately with other miticides such as Pyridaben every seven days and emphasize spraying the underside of the leaves.

2) Bacterial Rot can cause damage from time to time, especially in monsoon season with poor ventilation. Another possible factor is too low a pH in the potting medium.
Symptoms: Brownish, soft, wet rot occurs on new young shoots.
Treatment: Improve ventilation and raise pH by adding dolomite. Repotting with new medium is recommended. Move the infected plant away from water and rain for a week.

3) Fungal Rot is usually caused by soil-borne fungi, mainly Fusarium wilt.
Symptoms: Soft rot, but not as wet as bacterial rot; occurs on new young shoots.
Treatment : Raise pH in medium by adding Dolomite or change the whole mix. Prevent the mix from contact with contaminated soils. Improve ventilation and spray with Terachlor if necessary.

4) Virus can cause hidden problems to all orchid growers. In fact, there are many viruses that cause diseases in orchids, but the two most common ones are CyMV (Cymbidium Mosaic Virus) and ORSV (Odontoglossum Ringspot Virus). It is possible that infected plants may not show any sign of viral symptoms.
Symptoms: The most common symptom is chlorosis on leaves. This is caused by the lack of chlorophyll in damaged cells; thus that area appears colourless or yellowish instead of green. In some cases, chlorosis occurs on floral tissue where it creates small colourless patches on flowers.

Since there is no cure for a virus-infected plant, it is crucial to understand the mechanism of spreading virus so that growers effectively can prevent the spread of virus.

Prevention:
• Cutting tools must be blazed or burn or treated with antiseptic agents before use between each plant.
• Never use recycled water from other orchids.
• Keep control of viral vectors such as spider mites, thrips and aphids.
• Keep good ventilation and enough sunlight around the growing area.
• Never pollinate with pollen from virus-infected plants.
• Never reuse pots and potting mixes.

5) Thrips and Aphids can be widely spread during dry periods.
Symptoms: Receding colour or colourless patches and burns on floral tissue.
Treatment: Spray with pesticide such as Carbaryl (Savin) or Methomyl (Lannate) every 2-3 weeks.

Watering and Fertilizing
Most cymbidiums hybrids are not sensitive to less desirable water quality. They can tolerate water with higher dissolved minerals than many other orchids. This characteristic becomes more evident with the hybrids that have a large proportion of terrestrial species in the background.

Watering cymbidiums can be done every day or once every week, depending on rainfall, moisture, and the ability to hold water and moisture of the potting mix. Watering cymbidiums should not be done more than once a day even on a very dry day.

Besides spraying fertilizer weekly, slow-released type fertilizer should be applied on top of the medium. Magnesium (Mg) as an additional micronutrient can be added a few months prior the end of the monsoon season or the start of blooming season for boosting the bloom.

Taking Care of Flower Spikes
For cool-growing cymbidiums, key factors to initiate flower spike and spike elongation are low-enough night temperature accompanying with minimal 10-degree differential day-night temperature. However, these two factors become less relevant and less pronounced for HTCs.

During the period of breaking flower sheath, plant should not be moved around to many different locations. To help reduce chance of bud drop in tropical weather, plant with spikes should be moved to a shadier location or grower must provide more shade cloth.

Propagation (Division)

A sign to repot is when the plant has formed a big clump and its root ball has pushed the whole plant upward or even breaking its pot. Another less desirable sign to repot is when the plant lost vigour and blooming productivity. This is because the medium has stayed in the pot for so many years, thus pH has dropped down to too acidic level. This condition makes roots damaged and rotted.

Dividing cymbidium can follow the same rule as we do with other orchid genera such as Cattleya. Each new division should be composed of at least 2-3 mature bulbs plus one leading new shoot/bulb. Apply the cutting wound with fungicide after cutting. Healthy root ball is usually dense and well pact. Big knife or, sometimes, saw is needed to divide them.

Backbulbs can be planted in tray of sand or rice-husk charcoal. In a few months, new shoots will emerge from the base of backbulb. Then, move to 4” pot.

Dividing should be done during the start of growing cycle, which generally matches the start of monsoon season. This timing helps the plant to recover faster and will be able to bloom in the next blooming season. One should not divide and repot at the end of growing cycle period or the end of rainy season as this means a waste of another blooming year since newly repotted divisions will not grow right away after repotting.

Conclusion
A huge clump of cymbidium leaves will yield wonderful spikes of flowers. As with everything, be patient and you'll be rewarded.

Mid-Palsy Thoughts

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Like many steeped in the certainty of modern science, I've developed a scepticism of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This field conjures an image of monks amid misty mountains, chanelling qi to levitate and shatter boulders. I remember childhood comics with a lady picking herbs to fend against poisonous human toads.

Desperation, however, is more powerful than scepticism. When Voldemort was terrorising the country, people shelled out precious moolah for pseudo-protective amulets. They were willing to pay when frightened. Wealth, they hoped, would buy health.

I'm no different. If money could bring back a sense of facial symmetry-mobility, take mine, all ten million dollars I’ve in my bank account.

(Kidding. I don’t have ten millions.)

Faced with the prospect of a drooping face, I didn’t hesitate for long when my father asked me to go for acupuncture sessions. Despite inconclusive research, many have given online testimonies that TCM would help in relieving facial palsy. 

The sinseh sat there, observed and described my face with a certain curiosity. She didn’t seem to have any experience with people who suffer from facial palsy. My lips were peeling, she explained, because I didn’t drink enough water. Throughout the session, she sustained a monologue about Chinese politics, how Chinese women are more fertile and help to stem declining number of babies in Singapore, how productivity is a misnomer for more work, more the Chinese Premier is giving money left right centre to  buy power over other countries but how citizens are suffering.

At first, it felt strange to take off my clothes, put on cheap white cotton shorts, recline on a hospital bed, topless. My soft 6-pack-less belly shone in the dim lighting, accusing me of showing it to the world unnecessarily. It was surreal when the sinseh pulled part of the shorts down, exposing a butt cheek, smooth as tofu. I shivered, fearing that the hitherto innocent me might be taken advantage of. Had I wandered into a dubious settlement?

After the acupuncture – pins on my body – and a electrogel-massage – slight shocks to the face – my face became less flat. It was a noticeable change. I could finally see the contour of my right cheek and my mouth was less lopsided.

Five sessions cost four hundred dollars – equivalent to a good holiday in Malaysia – and I felt somewhat wistful. This heatlh episode reminded me that while wealth is important, health is critical. 

The sinseh reminded me to drink warm water – no coffee or tea – shower with warm water – no exercise – eat only bland healthy food – no chicken or seafood – no exposure to chilly winds and air-con. I promised myself that I will be a paragon of good health habits henceforth, only to break this promise a few weeks later.
***
At the polytechnic, I experienced the failure/ inefficiency of the healthcare system. It is unsettling, how we are bounced from place to place, wait for period by period before seeing the doctor for minutes.

The first session with a local doctor went pretty well. He stared at my face, checked to see if I had infection, concluded it was Bell’s Palsy and sent me off with a high dosage of corticosteroids.

The second session with a foreign doctor was discomforting. She told me that she doesn’t encounter Bell’s Palsy patients often and went online to search for more information. “According to this website, you should have these symptoms…Let me check… I should taper the dosage but I’m not sure by how much…Let me check…” I wondered if I would die from a misdiagnosis. A study based in America concludes that as many people die from misdiagnosis/wrong medication/unnecessary surgical invasions as they die from illnesses. Finally, she messaged a pharmacist and asked for advice.

The third session was a waste of time. I was told to make an appointment and return for a review. But what was the point of making an appointment if I had to wait for an hour? If I were to come early in the morning, I would only have waited for thirty minutes. I felt a sense of anxiety, being trapped into waiting when I knew that there was a better alternative.

After these repeated exposure to one facet of the healthcare system, I can see why people are angry at the government. When one isn’t well, the last thing one wants to face is long waiting lines and being pushed from place to place. What one hopes for are professional expertise and advice and support and reassurance.
***
It was one of those lazy mornings with nothing much to do, except work or writing. Both activities felt bland, stagnant, unappealing. I felt like moving even though my face didn’t. At the nearby food centre, I ordered two popiahs, rolls with radish, peanuts, cabbage, carrot and chilli. It was an attempt to eat healthily.

While searching for a seat, I met Mrs L, the photocopying lady from school. She is a rich taitai who stays in a condo but finds the taitai life so boring that she would rather work. I hope to have a similar problem one day. Because it was obvious that the right side of my face was sagging, I told her the diagnosis.

“This should happen to people over the age of 50. You don’t know when their legs will go straight and never bend again… but you’re so young! It’s such a pity.”

Her concern was evident, so was her curiosity. Her husband, by then, joined us at the table. They seemed covertly glad that they aren’t suffering an affliction like this and that youth is no barrier to infections and age is no guarantee of illnesses. I suppose this is one way to bring people a sense of joy this festive season.

“When would you recover by?”

“I’m not sure but I hope it’s soon.” Hope is the thing with feathers. My wish is that this ugly crippled little thing with feathers can grow – not a stillborn within an egg or swallowed by a monitor lizard before its time.
***
I tried jogging. My face twitched. My neck ached. My eye refused to blink and paid the price by becoming dry and red. See, you suffer when you refuse to do your job.

Ms Chan – the first person from my workplace to know about this health condition – told me about her ex-colleague with Parkinson’s. This neuro-degenerative disease causes the brain to rot. The patient loses control of his hands, legs, mouth, the ability to think, remember, reason. It is irreversible, this damage, bewildering for the person and the people around him. How does it feel to lose the ability to stroll in a park, to lift a spoon to one’s mouth? How does it feel to watch someone’s body fall apart, a fork damningly still on the table? During such times, we lose understanding of logic, of science and turn to the warmth of religion.

Many people are suffering worse down the street, a cubicle away, along the supermarket aisle, in a bombed city square, at the foot of a mud slide, within a home. A health scare sensitises one to pain. In the newspapers, people died when an unstable driver drove in the opposite direction of the lane at a speed of 120 km/h. People died when a bus rolled off a slope in Johor. People died when bombs fell like shooting stars on an ancient piazza. They left human-sized holes in the lives of survivors. 

I feel loss – lost? – tinged with camaraderie. What I have is merely a molehill-sized affliction but there is something about pain which opens one up, stripping away protective green sheaths. We are here on borrowed time – borrowed from whom, for how long, until when, why for – no one can be sure. After turning and searching, I am left with the truism that what we can do is to do our best, contribute in whatever ways we can and cast our hopes like fishing rods into the cosmic unknown. 

The First Five Days

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Let's see, I have some lovely brushes, some budding orchids, some rare pokemons, some pieces of fruit bread, a few anthologies and Bell's palsy.

On Saturday, after waking up in Thailand, I realised that half my face feel numb. I had experienced it before, a few times in fact. One side of my face would be slightly squashed after sleep. It would regain its senses quickly so I pottered about, planning the day's visits. During meals, rice and vegetable bits kept getting stuck at the right corner of  my mouth and I had to gurgle or hook them out with my index finger.

The merit of solo-travel would be the peace. No one to talk to, thankfully, and time to reduce mind clutter, to tidy up threads of unfinished thoughts. Maybe there's energy enough for an essay on PSLE results and how we are simply reinforcing an already oppressive power structure with stories of I-didn't-do-well-for-PSLE-but-look!-I'm-an-engineer/lawyer/professor/teacher/someone with degree(s)/someone who fits nicely into societal-definitions-of-stability/success.

It was only after more than a day - some thirty hours - that I realised the right side of my face isn't just numb, but immobile as well. There was no mirror in the hostel room so I stood in the only toilet cubicle with a canvas curtain - no doors - and a  mirror. I looked carefully - which I usually don't because ... ... ... of obvious reasons - and tried contorting my face. The left brow twitched, lovely. The right one, nope. A smile became a sneer with the left end being able to jerk up and the right end refusing to quiver. 

I knew it is wrong but I did it anyway. According to Wikipedia, there are 12 main causes of facial paralysis, with the root cause being some kind of nerve damage. Okay... more to fret about, hence less energy to fret about how to resolve this in a foreign land where I communicate by pointing and saying I'm-not-Thai-I-don't-speak-Thai-can-I-get-this-please.

Even though the plan was to visit the Grand Palace and pay respect to the king, I spent my time trawling through the internet, turning and tossing on the bed like a jilted lover, before forcing myself to sketch, read and write at Starbucks. It was a complete waste of dwindling overseas holiday time.  

Should I be composing my will? What about my obituary? Oops, no travel insurance. Does the typical insurance cover this? What does my insurance even cover? Perhaps 40 percent of my savings to my mum, 40 percent to my dad, 5 percent to the local publishing companies, 5 percent to animal charity. Does this make 100 percent? Good grace, my right eye is blurring, the muscle beneath it is twitching.
***
When my youngest brother asked about my lopsided face, I felt embarrassed, as though I was caught doing something I shouldn't have been doing.

I didn't mention my fear of it being the residual effect of a stroke or heart attack. I didn't dare to say 'nerve damage' because it seemed so severe and permanent. Hence, I said that the right side was slightly numb and that I had no idea why and all the clinics were closed and I had already been like this for two days and asked if a lopsided face would merit a visit to the emergency department of a local hospital.

By then, the scientific curiosity about this condition had faded. Even the desire to observe for the sake of writing poetry became muted. Anxiety budded like an ugly alien and I told this to Rodrigo, the first person whom I spoke to on Facebook after suffering this condition. I semi-joked about how this experience can inform my writing project. He, a treasured friend-poetry critic from a writing workshop, said that the poem could be titled Self-Portrait in Bangkok with a Half-Frozen Face.

Only the left side of my face laughed.

I didn't tell my mother because she would just flutter about in distress, wanting to show concern. I told my father once he stepped into the living room.

You had a stroke. Did you sleep under the air-con?

Yes.

Look at you, so young, had a stroke. Can't you learn to take care of yourself?

My father's brand of medicine - a buffet of multivitamins to be ingested or sprayed on - wasn't reassuring. I messaged Jolie because she is a super doctor and would know what to do. She replied for a while and went offline. Was it because I am a hopeless case?

The clinics were close for the night. I had to wait. While waiting, I fretted. Worry is like a rocking chair, a friend once messaged, it is something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere. But since I had time, I might as well worry.
***
I felt old. My back was aching. My arms were aching. My neck as well. My body was falling apart.

Dr Chan, my prof for language teaching, commented that teachers' health would fall into pieces during holidays. It was almost an instinct - work hard for months, work, work, overwork, then fall apart when there's time to do so.

While waiting to see the doctor, I looked at the old uncle holding a walking stick, sitting right in front, now hobbling past to the washroom.

In the book How We Die,  Sherwin Nuland suggests that it is only ecologically sound for deaths to occur so that life can continue. We must not hoard the earth and deplete its resources selfishly. I agree with him, really, but I want more time before re-entering the carbon cycle as ashes.

One chaperon shepherded two people into a room. They were wearing tattered clothes. Because I was trying to appear as if I weren't eavesdropping, I couldn't catch their words and accents, hence failed to deduce their provenance. There are a few stories of employers leaving their injured workers on deserted roads to die/ be saved by passers-by/whatever heaven decides.

At some point, I became tired of people-watching and my increasingly morbid thoughts. I flipped the cover off my phone and spun for pokeballs.

The polyclinic doctor - he was trying to be reassuring - said that 30 percent of all patients recover fully, 30 percent partially and 30 percent not at all. The other 10 percent, I still don't know what happened to them.

Since the odds didn't favour me - 60 percent chance of not recovering fully - I went online and searched for better odds. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke,
with or without treatment, most individuals begin to get better within 2 weeks after the initial onset of symptoms and most recover completely, returning to normal function within 3 to 6 months. 
3 to 6 months?! School would have started within 1 month. At this point, I typed out a string of expletives.

*&Q!(#^@(&^#

Okay, I just deleted those words because (1) I just reprimanded my Sec 2 nephew for using a procreation-related expression on Facebook, (2) one must conduct oneself with the grace befitting the profession and (3) there are more apt words in the dictionary.

More ominously, the website states,
For some, however, the symptoms may last longer.  In a few cases, the symptoms may never completely disappear.  In rare cases, the disorder may recur, either on the same or the opposite side of the face.
 ***
Jolie replied. She confirmed that I'm most likely suffering from Bell's palsy.

If my face doesn't regain its sensation by end December, I may have to apply for a few months' leave. Take some time off and hope that my face would flow back into position, upwards, against the law of gravity.

In a classroom, what one says, how one behaves, one's clothes, even a change of spectacles will be observed. Students are experts in dissecting adults, mainly because they have to pay attention to them all the time and it can be tiring to do so. Most don't really care about what they have seen but some might try to use their observations to further their interests. For many reasons, a minority can be cruel. Don't be surprised - if there are adults one can't get along with, there will be children one can't get along with. These adults were once children.

My face has (had?) always been expressive. I remember how Prof Lim would call me out in class, saying that I appear to disagree with what she has just said. Not really. It's just that my face is scrunched whenever I am thinking. Which, now that I come to think of it, may give my superiors the impression that I am hyper-critical during meetings. Sometimes, some students will laugh because my eyebrows tend to move about especially when discussing important concepts. I cannot imagine what they will say, when the left brow wiggles while the right brow is as still as a dead caterpillar. 

A few teachers once told me to relax, to slow down because they have seen people who leave late in the evening all the time and know that these would eventually leave the service. I used to be shocked - why would they say that to a novice - but now, I know better. 

As I type this, my right eye is tearing. I need to blink my right eye manually - push the eyelid down - and it's easy to forget to do so.

I am no longer excited that I am suffering from Bell's Palsy. Perhaps poems about this experience would come, but not now. Who is this Bell anyway? Does he chime and tinkle? (Answer: Bell discovered that damage to the 7th facial nerve can cause partial facial droop. Yes, it's probably nerve damage caused by a virus attack and it's not contagious, so thank guan yin ma.)

Being an agnostic with no particular faith in any particular god, I can only blame the vague generic idea of gods. Which is silly, considering (A) how can someone push responsibility to an abstract concept of divine guardians and (B) why should deities be blamed when there is misfortune and not thanked when there is good fortune?

My upper lip is peeling. Perhaps too dry because the right side of my mouth tends to be open unless I consciously close it. That dry sheath of dead cells irritates me and I cut it away, slowly. 

My third brother, ever encouraging, told me that I shouldn't go out and frighten people.

My elder brother kicked him.

It is the school holiday and I am supposed to be kicking back at a Bali beach with a coconut drink. But this.

I keep telling my parents that I'll recover fully within 2 months. 1 month, if I am lucky. I also tell them not to tell my relatives. My dad says this cocktail of miracle multivitamins will restore my facial dexterity within 1 week. Doubtful but hopeful.

Of course, I didn't tell them that some only regain partial use, a minority doesn't recover. The typical I-don't-want-them-to-worry filial piety (which Taiwanese 1000 episode long dramas seem to thrive on).

Probably not going for the upcoming JC class outing - felt foolish when messaging Tricia about this as in this-is-a-silly-affliction-and-I-used-to-behave-in-a-spastic-manner-now-I-even-look-(more)-spastic. May also avoid two Christmas events which I have already committed to go. There's this guilt, this shame, that I must have done something wrong to deserve this.
***
Apparently, there are  some 100 cases in Singapore every year. Most have recovered fully - hope! - and moved on.

Many suffer from worse traumas. Some lose their loved ones, some lose their sight, some lose limbs. A doctor climbed into a wrecked car to support a victim. She held the victim's head in her palm when that head fell off completely.

I suppose I should be thankful. Factually, I am not that old and would probably be classified as someone who has the capacity to contribute to the economy directly (expenses, work) or indirectly (work, procreation). If I were to apply for an extended leave - nope, not going to tussle with the future while I am down - would someone somewhere in an echelon of the Ministry be thinking, oh dear, this guy isn't paying his dues, what a waste of taxpayers' moolah.

Good/bad, light/night, right/wrong, life can't be reduced to binaries, some people claim. In the case of Bell's palsy, life can be reduced to binaries. Now I think of everything in terms of right/left.

Why the right side? Why not left? I imagine some kind of angels(?) deciding what to afflict me with in order to best occupy my holiday and enrich my life experiences.

I'm not greedy. If I can't recover fully, at least let me recover partially. If I were to recover partially, at least let me regain the use of the lower right section where the right side of my mouth is. I want to be able to smile and talk without sneering.

It seems that I prize control of my mouth over my eye. Unfair to my eye really. Also disconcerting, talking about my face as though it is a Picasso painting with distinct halves and quarters. The upper right section, where my right eye is... hmm, important as well so it is best if it could recover. There, I've said it. I'm greedy, I want all parts of my face back, I want full recovery.

It takes a health scare like this to stir up one's mind clutter. Which is what this piece is essentially, a formless cluttered mess. I can only that after the muck has settled, after the gritty sediment has come to a rest, what is important would become clear.  

A Growing Interest

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It has been a long while since the last art-making spree. Years, perhaps, since I felt the desire to draw, to ink, to watercolour. The frenetic pace of creating resources - marking - attending meetings - crafting forms - giving extra lessons - handling all sorts of administrative matters - in essence, a seastorm of work - has just washed away all other interests. Writing, drawing, reading, jogging, all these take a backseat to the call for sacrifice, to be noble at the expense of oneself.

How easy it is to be two-dimensional when work begins. All energies are poured into one's profession, leaving little by way of one's interest. The desire at the end of a working day is to watch mindless videos, one after another.

Work more, work harder, work longer, work after work hours, work on weekends. It's challenging, somewhat, to resist the relentless push towards greater productivity. Especially for a Type A workaholic. Is work the opiate of the mindless?

Whatever we choose to water will grow and whatever else, wither. Naturally. I wish that I have something more interesting to offer that this bit of dime-store philosophy. Since I don't, I might as well offer another platitude: Inertia can be a boulder, challenging to overcome.

After chatting with friends who do art and write poems - "you only need pens and paper to draw and write" - "your fears/ insecurities/ self-doubts are imaginary" - "it can't be simpler" - I understand that I've been giving myself excuses. There's always work, work, work but no one will be eulogised for the amount of work they do. And it's healthier to have interests independent of one's work.

Since October, I've been trying to rediscover lost interests. Enough with the excuses. Now, here, there's time and room for growth. 

Here's a series of plant-infused sketches: