22 June 2021, Tuesday
The first thing I did the day I was scheduled to take my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine was to check my inbox. The only email that caught my eye was Dirt’s newsletter about Lorde’s latest single, Solar Power. I read it greedily. I’ve always enjoyed reading takes on pop culture moments. Partly because I want to fuel my curiosity but mostly so that I don’t have to form my own opinions. When I first read the newsletter, what stuck with me was the writer’s description of Lorde’s previous album, Melodrama:
Her music is dark but not depressing, exhilarating but not upbeat; songs about incurable malaise are rendered hypnotic, and songs about hedonism are tinged with sadness and haunted by death. She writes from a distance, an observer more than a participant in her own life, analyzing her own disaffection while purportedly having fun. “I hate the headlines and the weather,” she sings on a track about taking MDMA, “I’m nineteen and I’m on fire.” She’ll later threaten to “blow [her] brains out to the radio.”Allegra Hobbs, “Dirt: Lorde’s lobotomized pop”
Having listened to Melodrama countless times since its release in 2017, I was vaguely embarrassed that I had never considered a deeper interpretation of the songs. I didn’t register the distance or the imagery about death, just possessed a shallow understanding of Lorde’s disaffection. “Perfect Places was about MDMA???” I typed in a chat with my friend Raph. The abbreviation was not even in my lexicon until about a month ago, when I googled several recreational drugs to understand another newsletter on responsible drug use.
Then I read Raph’s latest texts to me — he had just forwarded Lorde’s newsletter to my email. Our love language is sending each other content about our favorite music artists and Lorde had released the track list for her album, Solar Power, that very morning.
The writer classified the titular track as lobotomized pop, an example of “summer songs designed to pretend like nothing happened” and we all know what happened. She points out the lack of darkness in the song, and how it made her “feel unsettled” and “deepened [her] feeling of dissonance with [her] surroundings”.
But isn’t this what it looks like to pretend that nothing happened? Wasn’t this the plan? It raises the question of what exactly we want from our artists post-pandemic, and what kind of art we want to consume. I do not want pandemic content. I do not want a novel set in 2020 New York City — I was there. I do not want pop music that references social distancing. But I am also disturbed by the lobotomized pop I heard in the last days of L.A.’s COVID restrictions, during which I narrowly avoided a panic attack while doing hot yoga in a surgical mask. I want desperately for everything to be the same, but everything is different — my relationship to my surroundings, to myself, to others, to the art and content I consume. I do not think it’s going back.Allegra Hobbs, “Dirt: Lorde’s lobotomized pop”
I kept thinking about the Dirt newsletter all day but I didn’t know why. “It’s just one song, maybe Lorde’s an observer in the rest?” was my first response to her take on the titular single. I couldn’t exactly explain why her words nagged at me like a hair caught on the back of my tongue. Then I scrolled past another newsletter that talked about how COVID-19 was likely to be endemic in Singapore, and added it to my to-read list.
My First Dose
My appointment was scheduled for 7pm, right after work ended. The car plate number of my Gojek ride was 404, which made me think of the error. When the car finally arrived after 10 minutes, the driver didn’t acknowledge me when I entered the car. He was a bespectacled middle-aged man who wore a minimalist grid shirt with black and blue lines. I didn’t recognize the route he took, although the location I was heading was not too far from my neighborhood. I thanked the driver as I left the car and he replied goodbye, the only word he spoke throughout the entire ride.
Since I had a slight fever two days ago, I was anxious about whether it would pose a problem. I contemplated rescheduling but didn’t want to delay my vaccination. The booking website said that I only had to reschedule if I was unwell 24 hours before my jab. The person stationed at the entrance of the hall checked my Safe Entry and asked if I was ill. When I told him about the fever I recovered from, he looked unsure and asked me to proceed to the next station. A friendly middle-aged lady checked my particulars and made me declare my allergies and other health conditions, before assuring me that I was fit for the vaccination.
I barely felt the needle go in. “This hurts less than I thought it would,” I said to the lady who administered my jab, who had light brown hair and a pixie cut. Maybe she heard that a lot but she obliged my attempt at making conversation with a small smile before reading the list of possible side effects. I had the Gardasil 4 vaccination against HPV about half a year ago, and both doses definitely hurt more than the first Pfizer dose. Then I sat in a chair for thirty minutes. Surrounded by others in a huge hall, it felt like I was in college again, taking my finals. I replied to texts (“No numbness yet!!”), read an ebook and took notes for the short story that I was working on.
Unsure about how severe the side effects would be, my parents made me book a ride home immediately. While I was waiting for the car by the busy road, I held the complimentary bottle of hand sanitizer and box of disposable masks with my left hand; the injection was administered on my left arm and I felt a soreness that surprised me with its intensity.
That night, I sat on my carpeted floor, against the couch, to watch Kim’s Convenience with my mother. With the cool pleather against my skin, I realized the left side of my neck had turned numb and that I had a slight fever. When I went to bed, I fell into a deep sleep quickly — an uncommon occurrence for someone who spends at least thirty minutes tossing and turning in bed on most nights. The next day, my fever was gone.
It took me weeks to realize that the reason I felt disgruntled after reading the newsletter was hiding in plain sight all along. I read almost exclusively to have my own thoughts explained to myself, and it frustrates me when words fail to grant me clarity. The writer’s dissonance bothered me so much precisely because it mirrored my own suspicions of a post-COVID world.
Of course I wanted life to go back to the way it was before the pandemic; sometimes it seems like we are able to attain some form of normalcy, suspend our panic and keep it at the edges. Singapore was in Phase 3 of our safety measures and I feel “the resumption of something like life” most strongly when the number of daily cases are at single digits; when we have the privilege of dining out; when I don’t have my mask on because I’m indoors but not stuck in my own home. Like when I’m riding shotgun in my friend’s car and the AC is on full blast and we are singing at the top of our lungs, along to the playlist she always puts on when we’re together. Still, I was apprehensive about returning to life before the pandemic.
In How to Do Nothing, author Jenny Odell talks about how being removed from the sphere of familiarity fundamentally alters the way we see the world that we return to: “Sometimes that’s occasioned by something terrible, like illness or loss and sometimes it’s voluntary, but regardless, that pause in time is often the only thing that can precipitate change on a certain scale.” (Emphasis mine.) What she doesn’t mention is the period of adjustment, during which complex feelings arise after the removal.
Regaining a semblance of normalcy often leaves me laden with guilt. We have to possess a certain amount of privilege to be able to leave the less desirable phases of our lives behind or to enjoy desirable getaways from daily living, after all. The first time I lost a loved one, I was afraid that not being enveloped by sadness and having them constantly on my mind meant erasure or even worse, that I didn’t love them enough. The last time I lost a loved one, leaving the realm of the sick behind felt like a reprieve. For a year, our days were tethered to the demands of caring for a difficult, dying body. And suddenly, they weren’t.
There’s no denying that the pandemic has forever altered our relationships with ourselves and the world. It’s unsurprising if we find ourselves fumbling in the aftermath, wondering how we can move on in the best way possible. We are reassessing our priorities, restructuring our lives, and rethinking the areas we ought to invest our energy in. I think about how vague the line “change on a certain scale” is. Isn’t all change on a certain scale? What constitutes as change that is substantial? But I do feel comforted by how the pause in time holds the possibility of positive change, however small. That’s something, isn’t it?
My Second Dose
22 July 2021, Thursday
I was not supposed to take my second jab exactly a month after my first but I received a text from the Ministry of Health, urging me to bring forward my appointment. And so I complied, after much hesitation. The day I got my second dose coincided with Singapore’s reversion to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) measures. The new clusters made a post-COVID Singapore feel like a distant fantasy.
I had my vax day routine down — I would work till 6.30pm and book a free Gojek ride to the community centre. As I sat in the booth where I would receive my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, the curtains that were closed for privacy kept billowing in my face. I let them distract me, pushing the heavy fabric away with my right arm as the jab was administered. This time, I felt the prick but the pain was still tolerable, and it vanished in a few seconds.
At noon, Raph texted me that Stoned at the Nail Salon was out and I felt clairvoyant since it was the only song I singled out in my earlier diary entry. All day I resisted listening to the new release so I could savour it during my thirty minute wait after my jab, like a reward I had to earn. And so I watched the sky from the window panels on the high walls of the community centre as Lorde crooned, “Spend all the evenings you can with the people who raised you”. I wondered if the writer for DIRT related to this single.
I read an ebook the moment the song ended, hoping it would help with my writing process. It felt comforting to mirror what I had done during my first 30-minute wait. An old uncle seated behind me couldn’t wait to leave, springing to his feet the moment a staff spoke to a group of us to check when we could proceed to the next station. His wife let the staff assist her to the next station. They spoke in Hokkien, which was comforting because the dialect reminded me of my late grandmother. When it was finally my turn to leave the community centre, I saw the full moon rivalling the brightness of the street lamps.
I wanted to be useful so I took a Gojek to the coffee shop where I would get dinner. The car that I was in smelled so delightful, I could not resist asking the driver which scent diffuser he was using. He took out the air freshener — a blackberry and cherry scent — and told me he had this conversation with many passengers. Some commented that his car smelled like grape Hi-Chew candy and others asked if it was his vape.
When I walked back home with my takeout, a beetle landed on the front of my shirt. I had no way of removing it until my father came to my rescue. Leaving the house, being surrounded by people and interacting with them made me giddy with happiness, even if the entire trip lasted less than an hour.
That night, I had a slight fever once again and felt terrible. I anticipated the wave of discomfort that washed over my body. I have been bracing myself for the side effects ever since one of my favorite writers wrote about her second vaccine dose. I, too, wanted to yield to the pain like she did. I took a Panadol but felt strangely awake so I sat in my bean bag and read till 2am in the morning. Since my skin allergy also flared up, I wound up taking an antihistamine. And there it was, a side effect that I welcomed: drowsiness. I drifted off to sleep at last. When I woke up the next afternoon, gone was any trace of discomfort, except for a slight tenderness around my injection site.
Feature collage by Sherryl Cheong