Old habits die hard

That’s such a popular saying. It means that it’s hard to change habits you’ve had for a long time. And it makes sense too if you think about it—skills we learn as children make up who we are as adults.

One such skill I acquired, quite early on in life, was swimming. My mother, like most over-zealous parents, hoping I’d become a smart athletic one day, signed me up for a swimming club. I was perhaps five or six.

The poor instructor spent many an hour in the water, trying hard to get me to co-operate with him. I wouldn’t. About four years later, I still hadn’t learnt anything except that the canteen had delectable fish pastry and ice-cold chocolate milk.

Undeterred, my mother signed me up for the school swimming classes. It was a free service offered by a school-sponsored instructor, and it completely eliminated my potential plea about wasted fees.

I had no way out.

So I learnt to swim. The instructor was exceptionally skilled, and started us off on the baby pool. Because it was so shallow, it was so easy to wade in the water and get accustomed to kicking and arm strokes.

I even began enjoy swimming.

The school instructor had managed to achieve what the paid instructor couldn’t for years.

Not long afterwards, life happened and I had to give up swimming.

Fifteen years later, I signed up for a different swimming club. Yesterday. In Canberra.

That’s when I realised: old practices don’t just come back after all those years. I spent almost 30 minutes in the pool, too scared to swim. Memories from my old swimming club rushed into my head, swelling into my chest, reminding me of that paid instructor who never succeeded.

Today I went back. This time, I headed to the wading pool—the shallow one, equivalent to the baby pool. I practiced on my own. Replaying the old instructions in my head—powerful arm strokes, kicking, breathing in while my face is out of the water and blowing out bubbles when in. It took me about 20 minutes, but by the end of it, I’d done it. I’d recalled a large portion of my swimming lessons.

I’m not finished yet. I still have at least a few more self-learning sessions in the wading pool before I can go back to swimming properly again.

So yes, old habits do die hard. But once they die, it can be quite challenging to revive them too.

Evolution of time

When I was five or six, my school teacher instilled in me the importance of the clock. Until then it was a round face on the wall, eye-less, needles circling past numbers one through twelve. Then, all of a sudden, time played into everyday conversation, and making my own clock at home became a school project.

I sat at the dining table on a Saturday morning, moping about the impending workload, all the while outlining a kitchen bowl on crisp board. My mother drew slices of arrows, one short fat and another longer slender with perfect, pointy ends. And even though I was familiar with the workings of a clock, I never figured why they had to have “hands” or why those hands had to be one over the other—the shorter one always on top. Regardless, with a pin I pierced, securing them in place, sticking a slice of eraser at the back, for I knew well from experience why that mattered.

That took all morning, with the hour after lunch reserved for penciling numbers on the circular board. It required so much precision, that there was no way a-six-year-old would do it without complaining. Or a cartoon break.

All that hoopla came to an end when on Monday my smiling teacher, approving my effort, gave me a red star.

It meant the world.

She then used the same cardboard clock to teach us how to read the time, making us write as we read—twelve o’clock, half past six, quarter to ten, quarter past nine, 20 minutes past eight—gah, I hated the secret math involved in calculating how many minutes had past or were to an hour. It seemed an unnecessary complication to think of the first half of the hour as “past” and the next half as “to”—as if thirty was the secret number around which the world revolved. As if conspiracy theories would unravel how three with its hunched shoulders and zero with its perfect nothingness made the entire world dance to their tune.

But it was important. A child who told the time well was a child who’d succeed in life. At least that’s what they told us so we’d work hard for the test.

It soon grew far more convoluted, however. As I observed the world around me, I noticed that no one said 23 minutes to ten. They said nine-forty instead. It was’t accurate, but it was close enough. And to my utter dismay, close enough was good enough. Three meagre minutes, give or take, wouldn’t kill us now, would it? Or better yet—some said nine forty-five. Rather be early than late.

I was going berserk. People didn’t stick to the rules. As if the rules were more like guidelines anyway. No one said the time as I was taught to, or as the clock showed it.

Then one day, our clock at home stopped running. “Ma, it’s half past ten,” I called out, rather proud of myself, after breakfast on a Saturday. She was making chicken and wanted to know how long it’d had been since the bird fell in the pot.

Hours afterwards, I glanced at the clock again—the chicken now eaten and almost digested—and it was still half past ten.

Oh, the horror.

Not only were people not telling the time right, time itself no longer showed it right.

Ah, stupidity of a six year old. Some even call it innocence.

And then everything changed. From being so important in life, to life, time became… convenient. My father set his clock five minutes faster than everyone else’s. My watch matched the school’s recess bells, my mother followed our good ol’ clock in the living room, and my brother in his room, had clocks from America, UK, Australia, and India.

From being dictated by time, we had for once conquered time, manipulating it into our disposal.

One day

A great monument of our time
pictured vague in historical texts
an obligation as a child in school
who called the third world home
a land far away from the others
living life unheard of and ignored
a curious kid in skirt and shoes
with wide eyes, wondering mind
learning from cheap illustrations
and hoping, one day, of seeing
the greatest of all architecture
towering proof of bygone culture

gushing back are those memories
as I see the tower crumble, again
its flying buttresses doubling over
losing strength of years conserved
trembling, tumbles the great spire
with it does all dreams of one day

Spring cleaning

These days are difficult times
bidding farewell to the old ones

clothes I’d bought years ago
in impulsive shopping sprees
laying waste below newer ones
collecting stains and smells
as well-aged, handmade cheese

metallic keychains, rusty buttons,
identity symbols of a younger self
school life—a life now long gone
yet bloom afresh, the memories
of squabbles for those collectibles

souvenirs and FLAMES analysis
scribbled texts, empty notebooks
remaining shadows of a shady past
of classes missed—teachers pissed
some faded moments photographed

in dusty shelves surviving in silence
discarded memories are for ages

The times

We’d walk alongside each other
hand in hand, sharing a cookie
after class and during breaks
chatting away making no sense
oh, well those were the times
when life was made of exams
and score cards meant the world
when at the end of a long week
we’d rummage our bags for change
for left overs from our allowances
taking a bite off of the same
ice cream cone or a warm pastry
coating lips with smeared sauce

Oh, how times have now changed
all grown up and out in the world
selling lies and making money
engaged in talks with the board
discussing the course of many a life
once scrambling for a snack in class
now scorning at those frivolous times
then school was our meeting hub
and all classmates friends forever
now weddings be our meeting hub
and all people who were friends once