Climb Every Mountain – The Early Days

I now had one-and-a-half years to prepare for Mt. Rainier. Well, we had.

“Plenty of time!” said David. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you there.”

I wanted to believe ‘cos I was so nervous and unsure. This really was going to be the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Did I really say I wanted to climb a mountain for my 40th?

The first order was to have our fitness assessed so the team can design an individual training programme for TH and I. “Oh joy,” I thought. Not only will I have to embarrass myself in front of supreme athletes, I’ll also have it on record about how poorly I’m doing. TH, on the other hand, was all pumped. He saw it as a chance to further improve his fitness and get some handy tips on how to work his ‘problematic’ calves.

On the day of the assessment, I was feeling edgy. Not because of it but ‘cos BDE was taking part in a Singapore Specials contest and she’d have to show a talent. I had no idea what this was going to be as BDE only knows a few basic commands and she’s not liable to do them on command. I was plagued by the thought of standing on stage in front of a crowd addressing a dog determined at times to do her own thing. I’m not sure if that affected me but the assessment didn’t end well. Everything was fine till I completed a set of back extensions. I stood up and the room spun. Then I started to feel nauseous and my head started throbbing, my saliva thickening. I was finding it difficult to swallow. It felt like the onset of a migraine but I knew it wasn’t. I didn’t know what it was though. I told our trainers I wasn’t well and we wrapped up. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to get home, as I was feeling worse by the second. I took some painkillers and climbed into bed clutching my head, trying to breath normally and whimpering. I wanted to chop my head off! Exhausted, I fell into a fitful sleep, all the time worrying about the contest. After a couple of hours, I managed to recover sufficiently to take BDE for her competition and to our surprise and delight, she took first prize. First prize!

BDE looking cool

BDE posing with her trophy

We were so proud of her, so extremely proud of her. Best! Dog! Ever!

Till this day, I don’t know what hit me. I think it was a combination of things.

I'm marginal

I’m marginal

When we received the report from the team, I was classified as ‘marginal’  and my goal was to reach good or high performance. I had 11 strength training exercises of 3 sets each with 8 – 12 reps on top of cardio work. Back extensions were part of it but I’ve never done them since.

Looking at the programme, life, as I knew it, wasn’t going to be the same again. For a start, I’d have to exercise consistently. In fact, the right word is train. I would need to factor in the time and really block it off, no excuses whatsoever. I would need space in the wardrobe for a whole new set of clothes. There will be sacrifices and pain. I had to develop healthy living habits – eat better, sleep earlier. I needed a new life!

Once I thought it all through, I was psyched. I felt ready to embark on this great big adventure except no one sent the memo to my body. My first gym workout was a disaster. I could barely run for more than 10 minutes and I was lifting weights that felt heavy though in reality read 3lbs. It wasn’t even the pain after the session or how tired I felt that killed. It was the pain the following day and the day after that, and after that. And somehow I had to motivate myself to do it all over again?

I moaned and whined to TH. Fortunately he understood and patiently explained the ins and outs of starting a training programme, especially for novices like me. You know what I learnt at 38 years old? That everyone feels pain, even pro athletes. They’re not immune contrary to what I always believed. Honestly, I found it comforting. I don’t know how or why I thought that people were either born able to do all this sports stuff or not. It never occurred to me that people struggle initially. Anyway, TH suggested ways to better manage each session and egged me on.

The gym became my second home

The gym became my second home

So I kept at it. The first few weeks were difficult. I couldn’t see the benefits of training and I wasn’t feeling any buzz from exercising. Where’s that feel-good factor that everyone talks about? Then one day, snap. Without realizing it, I was running longer and feeling less tired, I was able to complete my weights training comfortably and I felt goooooooood. Slowly, I was able to increase the weights too, one bar at a time. But I won’t lie; it wasn’t all up, up and away. Some days were rough and my training went back to square one. Groan. TH assured me that this was perfectly normal.

We were reviewing our progress with David and Ed one day when they said: “We think that you guys should climb Mt. Kinabalu this year. It’s a good test for your fitness and adaptability in high altitude. It’s 4095m, close to Mt. Rainier. July will be good.”

What?? It’s now March.

“There’s time. Don’t worry,” David said calmly.


(Note: Timelines are off for this series of posts as they were meant to be published in the last quarter of 2013)


Climb Every Mountain – The Big Bang Moment

“Climb every mountain!” implored Julie Andrews in Sound of Music.

Thanks, but no thanks, Julie. I want to climb just one mountain.

Two years ago, I made the decision to celebrate my 40th birthday with a bang. But this wasn’t going to be an ordinary ‘bang’. No lavish meals, extravagant holiday or pampering day at the spa. It had to be a big Bang. I ran down a list of things I had never done before and came upon mountain climbing or what I thought would be walking to the top of a mountain.

I assessed the idea for a few minutes and felt I’d hit the nail on its head. It’d be awesome, right? Challenging, tranquil, fulfilling, far, far away. BANG!

I chose Mt. Rainier immediately. Mount RainierIt was an obvious choice to me for several reasons. I wanted to visit the Pacific Northwest in the summer, we’d be able to spend time with friends, I found it familiar from years of watching Grey’s Anatomy, TH mentioned an ex-colleague who had climbed it and I thought if she can, so can I, and lastly, I saw ‘Climb Mt. Rainier’ on one of those list of things to do before you die.

See? Obvious.

What was not obvious to me at that point was what it really meant. In my head, a summer climb = a trek up. Walking shoes, trekking poles, bag with food and water. Period. Then I did some research and realized my bag would need to weigh about 18kg and it may be summer, but there’d still be snow. I panicked. Big time. Years hunched over a keyboard staring at a computer screen have left my neck and shoulders permanently sore. I can barely carry a shoulder handbag now. And what do I know about snow? It falls when it’s cold, it’s white but can turn brown or black from dirt and it can be slushy or icy.

What do I do? What do I do? I had already declared my ambition in a note on Facebook and friends had commented on it. Yeah, but who’s going to remember a silly FB note? Nobody. I could even delete it and there’d no longer be any evidence of it. The only problem is I would remember. I would know what I did one summer. I had made a commitment to myself and I knew that if I didn’t try, it’d eat away at me. So really, what was I to do? Sign-up with a mountaineering guide service of course – this part was easy. But how do I go from zero fitness to mountain fit? You know back in school when you had to do a yearly physical fitness test? Every year, I either failed or was awarded the bronze cert, and the only way I managed a bronze was when I cheated. This part would require herculean effort, and I could only think of one person who might have a clue.

I hadn’t seen my high school friend, David, since errr…high school. In the 20 years that had passed, I had contacted him only once to get the phone number of my ex-roommate whom he dated for a few years after we left school. How would I find him? And then I finally realized how useful FB can be. Not only would I be able to find a lost acquaintance, I could hide behind a message and not deal directly with the awkwardness of seeking help from a stranger.

As luck would have it, David and his friend were just embarking on a venture – an adventure consultancy that takes clients on incredible journeys (incidentally also the name of the company), and their specialty? Mountaineering! Among their many accomplishments, I learned that David was part of the Singapore Antartica Expedition, and his friend and business partner, Ed Siew, was the first Singaporean to summit Mt. Everest. I found the right help, and I was relieved.

When I met up with them, the magnitude of what I was trying to achieve hit me. This was no Mt. Everest to be sure, but it wasn’t going to be some walk in a national park with a trek up a mountain like I thought.

I was awed and terrified; and this was just the beginning.

(Note: Timelines are off for this series of posts as they were meant to be published in the last quarter of 2013)

Daring to venture

I had wanted to take a MOOC on Coursera since it started but many of the courses that fascinated me also intimidated me. I was afraid I wouldn’t understand the subject and would fare badly on the tests and final exam, or worse I’d give up.

When I received the last e-mail, I was prepared for that familiar feeling of curiosity, want then fear and disappointment (at myself and not being able to participate). I opened it and yes, there they were slowly washing over me. Curiosity and Want. As I clicked on each course, read the description and watched the video, there was Fear and ultimately Disappointment.

But something different happened when I looked at Change, Innovation and Creativty. Fear was still there but instead of Disappointment, Curiosity and Want stood in the way. (I think exercises and project work helped.) Before I could rationalize further, I signed up.

We’re into Week 3 now and I’m enjoying various moments of discovery and action. Last week, one of the exercises we could do was Ventures. To put it simply, it required listing two things to take on and declaring that “I give myself permission to try…” and “I will play at these ventures, learn rapidly…have fun.”

Sounds easy but I had a hard time with this one. I have several things I’d love to do so I decided my first step was to list them all down. This in itself was a challenge. As I discovered in Week 2, even though I understand the concept of divergent then convergent thinking, I tend to do divergent-convergent thinking. This meant that truly listing all the things I want to do is difficult as I’m self-censoring before I even start evaluating. After some struggles, I finally managed the task, picked my two ventures and completed the exercise. (Which reminds me, I gotta finish this quickly to start one of them today.)

Too lazy to cook dinner that night, TH suggested having a salmon sandwich with salad and sweet potato on the side. I wasn’t peachy keen but couldn’t think of anything better. I figured I could add eggs to make the sandwich more interesting. Specifically, scrambled eggs. The problem is I can’t scramble an egg. My attempts have always ended disastrously so much so that the last time I tried, I told myself not to bother again ‘cos it’d be better to go without than ruin a good egg. I considered fried and boiled. Nope, no can do. And the least desired – without. Argh. Then it popped! I can make this a venture – my third one. Several things I’ve learned suddenly came to the fore.

It was a sublime moment of pure discovery and joy, and I felt eager and up for the challenge. Out came the cookbook and frying pan. I will play, learn, remind myself that failing is par for the course and most importantly HAVE FUN!

My first venture wasn’t a success but it’s closer than I’ve ever been to scrambled.Image

The day I found my voice

I listened to two talks over the last two days. One by a monk, another by a musician. Before we get to that, let’s go to the beginning.

Two weeks ago, I received a text from TF. It read: You should listen to a talk on Bowing and Repentance by Ven Heng Sure…at the temple down the road from you.

My defences went up immediately. I seethed. Texts from TF are rare and most times it’s logistical in nature – when is the next gathering at grandma’s, what time we’re meeting for lunch, where to go for dinner, etc. The tone and type of message of this particular text was typical of our relationship though, and what I view to be his opinion of me. I felt very certain that as an educated man, he knew what his intention was and chose those words deliberately. But after I calmed down, I decided that I’d reply without prejudice.

I asked: Why? Are you going?

TF replied that he’d like to listen to the talk. I left it as that and took it to mean he wanted some company, so we made the necessary arrangements.

On the day of the talk, I picked him up and headed home as it was still early. The car ride started out well. I told him I attended a friend’s wedding the night before, possibly the last among my friends. We ran down a list of friends and relations and he concluded that certainly, there’s a cousin who would never be married as he’s intellectually disabled.

I asked: “Why not? It’s possible.”

TF ripped in. I defended my position – just ‘cos someone is intellectually disabled, it doesn’t mean they can’t understand, want or find love. Presumably, his parents and the girl’s parents would have an understanding of how it’d turn out. It’s difficult but not impossible. He thought I was mad and derided my ‘modern’ opinion, then said: I suppose you think gays are fine.

I replied: “Yes, of course.”

A snort and I knew that was the wrong answer to keep my peace and calm. I stayed mostly silent during TF’s blasting of gay people even though I was screaming inside. It’s what I do to keep myself out of the picture during times like these, as anything I say has a boomerang effect coming back to hit me. No, let the gay people be ignorant in this case, let them bear the name calling. Far better for me to stand back and preserve my sense of self.

The evening had one other incident installed for me but its details aren’t important. I would only say that I often disagree with TF’s point of view.

So two talks, two days, two very different careers, two very different people, two very different topics. Upon reflection, I realised that they shared something similar – both speakers started at the same point. Both of them wanted a voice to send a message to the world.

I told TH that I think people like Master Heng Sure and Dave Grohl are born to lead, to be heard. It’s their destiny. They recognised at a very young age what they had to do. What of the rest of us? As I thought more about Dave Grohl’s keynote at SXSW, I began to entertain the idea that perhaps I too have a voice, even though I’ll never be singing nor giving speeches in front of a crowd.

There is no right or wrong. There is only, YOUR VOICE. Your voice screaming through an old Neve 8028 recording console, your voice singing from a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner, a cello, a turntable, a guitar, serrato, a studer, It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that it’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone. Because every human being is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last . . .

It’s there, if you want it…And, as a proud father, I pray that someday that they (my insertion: his daughters) are left to their own devices, that they realize that the musician comes first, and that THEY find THEIR VOICE, and that THEY become someone’s Edgar Winter, THEY become someone’s Beatles, and that THEY incite a riot, or an emotion, or start a revolution, or save someone’s life.”

Many years ago, I made a promise to myself that no one I interact with should ever walk away feeling like I made their day worse, even if they were horrible to begin with. I’m a glass half empty person and I’ll be damned if I make someone else’s the same way or worse, empty. I don’t know if my voice will ever inspire, start a revolution or save someone’s life, but I recognise now that this is my voice: It’s one of fairness, kindness and understanding. A voice of reason and free of judgement. It will not be pushed to accept dogma nor to believe in the shallow constructs that others make of me.

I will nurture it and make it stronger, and hopefully one day I won’t be silent.

A dog is just a dog but it isn’t just a dog

Tomorrow (08/03/13) marks BDE’s third year with us. As she lies on her bed looking at me, like a statue, I remember clearly the first time we saw her at the SPCA.

BDE kept looking out towards the door

BDE kept looking out towards the entrance

She stared out of the kennel, unbothered by and displaying no interest in us. How things have changed since.

Getting a dog was my idea, cooing at strangers’ dogs – me, imagining my future dog’s name – me, reading books about caring for dogs – me. Wary of animals – TH. But he gave in to my constant hounding. So although he was very much involved in the process of choosing our dog – he went along for puppy viewings and also chose BDE – when she finally came home, he had no idea what to do.

The weeks and months that followed were not difficult really, not by a long shot compared to what many new dog owners face. TH though couldn’t figure how to connect with BDE. He couldn’t get her to do what he wanted and she seemed afraid of him, which made her listen and respond even less, which of course made him angrier, which made her more fearful and so the cycle went. Then one day, he got it! He finally understood her, on his own terms, and began building his own bond with her. Don’t get the wrong impression – I’m still Alpha.

Over time, as BDE settled in and opened up, a few things became evident. BDE is obsessed with food. Obsessed. A lot of people say their dogs are greedy and that most dogs respond easily to food. BDE is a cut above that. When there’s food around, she goes into a frenzy. She’d approach strangers, plead, jump on them, follow them like the pied piper and I’m all forgotten. So it follows that BDE has no loyalty. Feed her and she’s yours. BDE dislikes being physically close. Hug her and she stiffens, lie next to her and she turns away. You can literally see her discomfort. But she would come to us for pats. She’d rest her head on our laps and look ever so lovingly. And the second we reach out to pat her, she’ll turn around and sit, giving us her back. BDE mostly does her own thing. Any command needs to be given as a command. Say it nicely and you might as well be talking to a wall.

I have no stories to share about BDE sensing my moods and comforting me. When I freak out over my number one horror, she runs away. A friend once remarked that her new dog is “just a dog”, unlike her previous dogs which she determined had superior qualities. It occurred to me I could say the same of BDE. This revelation hit me and honestly, I felt somewhat disappointed. Yet, I know better than that. BDE may not have great doggy-human senses and there will be no tales of heroism or undying love, but she’s not just a dog.

BDE's happy smile

BDE’s happy smile

BDE makes us laugh with her antics, she helps diffuse stress and tension with her constant seeking of pats, her smile puts a smile on people’s faces, she is an ice-breaker. She brightens up every single moment.

In fact, I could say that of all dogs who share a bond with their human. You won’t see a scowly, grumpy owner and dog on their walks. Can’t say the same for parents and their kids.

One day, TH and I were talking about stuff when he said: “Let’s clone BDE so we’ll never lose her.” It’s funny how many of us would accept the death of a person. It is after all inevitable. But when it comes to our dogs, I know many wish they could clone theirs and hold on to them forever.

Happy 3rd Anniversary BDE!!! We’re so glad you’re in our life. We call you the best dog ever but you’re so much more than that.

What Steve Jobs meant to me

Today, Apple employees are honouring their late co-founder. I’ve no idea what they’ll be doing and it’s not a public event but figured I too could be part of the celebrations by writing and posting my tribute to him.

Two weeks ago I turned on the television while having breakfast and decided to watch the news. It’s not something I do daily as I find it depressing to wake up to news – it’s always bad and there’s hardly anything that’s positive and inspiring. How true on that morning of 6 Oct. As I watched the coverage, I cried.

I cried for a man who didn’t know I existed, a man whom I’ve never even seen in person. I looked to the web for comfort, reading every article about Steve Jobs that I came across, and its ensuing comments. Oh I felt silly for all the emotions that I felt that day and the days that followed – I didn’t know the man, how ridiculous to be grieving. It was only with distance from the sadness and online chatter that I was able to understand why Steve Jobs’s passing affected me so.

It was 1996; the time when the Internet crept into the minds of ordinary citizens in SG – ISPs were aggressively signing customers up and exchanging e-mail addresses among friends was all the rage. Once online, I couldn’t get off; I was enthralled by this new world. Feeling that I had to be part of it, I sent my resume to my ISP provider, never mind that I was no programmer or computer engineer.

There was no job for me at my ISP but its parent company had several others Internet companies that were hiring. I joined a media company that was building several lifestyle portals – imagine that in 1996! On my first day, as my editor gave me a brief orientation, he asked, “Can you use a Mac?”

“No. But I can learn.” came my confident reply even though I wasn’t feeling too sure.

Turns out I had little to be unsure about. From the get go, everything was a breeze. It was easy to use, programmes and the Internet looked beautiful, it never crashed on me, and on top of that, I was able to customise anything that I wanted. My e-mail app was a sultry Marilyn Monroe called (fe)mail. With all my colleagues on Macs, I saw beautiful personalised desktops and witnessed the production of amazing work. Perhaps all of this was possible on a Windows run PC but I’d never seen it before and certainly wouldn’t have been able to work it out on my own.

When I left the job eventually, I promptly bought my own Mac. They weren’t pretty looking in those days – more like a super deep dish pizza box – but there was something about it that drew me in and I couldn’t go back to a PC.

As my love affair with the Mac grew, so too my love affair with the company, and along the way, Steve Jobs became my hero. His vision, his ideas, his public persona spoke to me. He didn’t know this but he mentored me from a zillion miles away. Every presentation he gave made me realise how every one I gave sucked and I can do better. Every product and service he introduced made me conscious of how design shapes the world we live in and why it’s singularly the most important aspect of business, even life. Yet so many companies fail to see this, thinking they’re only providing telco solutions, selling books, manufacturing, delivering goods, etc. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve written into companies offering my thoughts on how they should structure their bill, their website, their feedback process, and the like.

Then came the Stanford commencement address. If I knew nothing about Steve Jobs, that alone would have won me over. To know his achievements was to add a new dimension to this already great man. I admired him even more. In fact, I think ‘hero’ isn’t even fitting. How would you describe someone who shows you how life – professional and personal – should be lived? I don’t know the word but Steve Jobs demonstrated that life should be, no, needs to be filled with stubborn desire to do what you love and to fill it with a passionate drive to change the world. (OK, in my case, my community.) Traits which I grew up believing to be unattractive and have suppressed were traits Jobs possessed and used to maximum effect. If I had known and learnt earlier how to harness them, I think I’d be much further along in my personal development. Above all, he told me (OK not directly) to trust myself and listen to my own instincts because I know what is right; to not give in to peer pressure, popular sentiment or rules; that I should live the life I want ‘cos my time is limited. It was comforting. Deeply comforting.

Several articles that were published following his death lampooned the grief people displayed and to them I say: how dare you. Some people are fortunate to have a parent, a senior colleague or a family friend to guide them. Others don’t and look to public figures to fill in the gaps. Jobs filled in those gaps for me in areas no one around me has been able to fill. He epitomised the life I hope and want for myself at the highest level, and that is worth a lot to me.

Steve Jobs was one of a kind and I’ll miss his genius.

Step up, Singapore!

Now that election fever is way, way, way over, the hard stuff begins for the SG government. And boy is the work hard. Neither the issues nor sentiment towards the ruling party have abated. In fact, they’ve probably escalated over the past few weeks with reports about all things foreigners, record pricing for public housing, problems in the health care sector and floods; all of this not helped by perception that the PAP is back to its old ways.

I wasn’t expecting an overnight change in the system, but I believed that as Singaporeans experienced political awakening and discovered alternative points of view, we’d see ideas, debates on ideology and positive movement. Instead of considered points of views and constructive feedback and suggestions, a good number of posts and comments on Temasek Review and occasionally The Online Citizen are now angry rants and dribble that fuel negativity on already sensitive topics.

Reading those sites, you’d think Singaporeans are racist and xenophobic, and the country is on the verge of a violent revolution against the government and foreigners (the source of all SG’s problems, so it seems). I guess access, truth and online anonymity set people free; unfortunately a lot of them aren’t mature enough to handle it nor understand that freedom still comes with responsibility.

Much is to be desired with the system and the ruling party. Their policies haven’t worked for a long time contrary to what SG looks like to a visitor. It’s fair to blame the government, it’s right to feel angry, but where does it stop? Heaping complete responsibility onto them and not taking any is tantamount to agreeing with what they’re doing no matter how much you complain online.

Recently, a newly elected MP paraphrased JFK’s famous line: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. That he should’ve delivered it in a better manner shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s a good wake-up call. Singaporeans need to start doing things for themselves. Only then, will SG become the place they want to live in. In case you’re in doubt that you need to take responsibility and can make things happen, here’s a post by Robin Sharma, one of the world’s top success coaches.

Do Your Part

Big question for you: “What are you doing to help build a new and better world?” Don’t blame the politicians. Don’t blame those around you. Don’t blame your parents or your background. Doing so is playing the victim and this world has far too many people playing the victim when they could be sharing their brilliance and making a profound difference. Mother Teresa said it so much better than I ever could: “If each of us would only sweep our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.”

Blaming others is excusing yourself. Telling yourself that you – as an army of one – cannot have an impact is giving away your power. After a hurricane a while ago, a couple of college kids got their hands on empty school buses and drove them into the ravaged area when everybody else said the city was impenetrable. A little man in a loincloth named Mahatma Gandhi freed an entire nation. A woman named Rosa Parks sparked a civil rights movement because she refused to sit at the back of a bus. Ordinary people really can do extraordinary things. I love what Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, once said: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.”

Live by what I call the Jennifer Aniston Rule. In an issue of Vanity Fair, Aniston said that she gives herself one day to play victim after experiencing a challenging event. After that day of feeling powerless and sorry for herself, she wakes up and takes ownership for the way her life looks. She takes personal responsibility for her part in the problem – even if that only amounted to 1%. That’s personal leadership in action. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from. “The ability to triumph begins with you. Always,” offered entertainment superstar Oprah Winfrey.

What don’t you like about your life or the organization you work for or the country you live in? Make a list. Write it down. Shout it out. And then do something to improve things. Anything. Start small or go big. Just do something. As you experience your power to choose, guess what? Your power grows. And as you work within your sphere of influence to make things better, guess what? Your sphere of influence expands. So do your part. Today. Now. The world will be better for it.