Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Periodic Table

People are always asking me what it’s like living with two girls. I always reply that it’s like being stuck in an endless episode of ‘Sex and the City’. But without the glamourous clothes, two inch Manolo Blahniks, sound-track and neat half-hour resolution of issues.

And it’s unbearable when it’s that time of the month.

When I was growing up, my mother would refer to the occasion as ‘the friend’. As in, “I think my friend is coming.” This was usually the hint for my father to suddenly have late night conference calls in the office and early breakfast meetings the next morning. As he once explained to my brother and me, “It’s not a good time to be around your mother when her friend visits.” To which my sister Michelle mumbled that when it came to Mother, it’s never a good time.

For the first two days, she would retreat to her bedroom in a foul temper with a hot-water bottle and every so often, she would send a message through the maid to one of us to pop down to the chemist to buy more pain-killers. Occasionally, we’d hear sharp yelps from behind closed doors and this would usually be accompanied by the sound of our father’s retreating footsteps as he scurried for the front door.

And when Mother eventually emerged from her room, looking pale and wan, we’d eye her cautiously, our emotions ranging between concern and barely retrained panic.

And you always knew that her ‘friend’ had packed up and left the house when she weakly lifted the phone to call Auntie Wai-ling to find out when the next mah-jong session was.

The funny thing was that I never heard any other woman use the term ‘my friend’ till I moved into the little flat with Saffy and Amanda and my beloved adopted mongrel dog Pooch.

One morning, not long after we moved in together, Amanda drifted out of her room, her hair limp and listless and her normally bright skin a shade duller. “Oh God,” she moaned as she slumped into the dining table chair. “I think my friend is here!”

I froze.

See, here’s the thing. It’s one thing to agree to live with two girls, but it’s quite another for them to become so comfortable with you that they’re able to discuss freely with you – at the dining table, no less – their assorted bodily functions. I mean, what’s next? Communal waxing sessions?

So, there and then, I decided to nip the problem in the bud. “We don’t have a guest-room,” I muttered as I got up and hurried into the kitchen with my cereal bowl.

Apparently, Amanda later said to Saffy that they had just moved in with a Neanderthal. In turn, Saffy is reported to have replied, “Ok. I don’t really know you all that well, Amanda, so don’t take this the wrong way, but if you’re going to call your period your friend, I’m going to have to seriously reassess our living arrangements.”

“But I hate the P-word!” protested Amanda, effortlessly betraying her convent school education. “It’s such a terrible word!”

Saffy’s bosom puffed up. “And ‘friend’ is better? Are you serious? There’s nothing friendly about something that comes every month and gives you crippling cramps, nausea and migraines! If men got periods, they would have killed themselves and the human race would have died out in the Jurassic period!”

Amanda later said that the fiery look in Saffy’s eyes prevented her from pointing out that humans were actually not around during the Jurassic period.

What followed was a curious four months as the two negotiated a mutually acceptable term to apply to what I still referred to everyone as “that time of the month”.

“Aiyoh, why they so cheem, one?” Sharyn complained. “By right is called menses, right?”

“Oh really, Sharyn,” I said urgently. “Don’t talk to me about this. Please.”

One night, I came home to find the girls sitting triumphantly on the sofa while toasting each other with a glass of champagne. “We’ve found a mutually acceptable term for our periods!” Saffy crooned.

I grunted, already making a beeline for my room. “And meanwhile, we’re in a war against terror. But that’s a small side show compared to this summit!”

Saffy giggled. “Oh really, don’t be such a baby!”

“It’s just too much information!” I pleaded.

Amanda sniffed. “We’re going to tell you anyway. As of now, our former friend is called our moon cycle!”

Saffy added, “It celebrates our woman-hood.”

I couldn’t help but think that they never had this kind of dialogue on ‘Sex and the City’. If they had, the show would probably have died out with the dinosaurs.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Word

I had a revelation the other day. And it took place in, of all places, my bathroom.

Imagine the scene…There I was in a hot, steaming bath, frothy with bubbles and squeezing a squeaking yellow rubber duck that belonged to my flatmate Amanda, all the while happily singing a show stopping, but admittedly off-key rendition of Barry White’s ‘You’re My First, My Last, My Everything’.

There is something about the comfort and sanctuary of lying in a tub of hot scented water, the steam fogging the bathroom and the world’s worries put on hold for a while. (Though I have to admit I stopped taking baths for a couple of years after watching Michelle Pfeiffer in ‘What Lies Beneath’.)

Anyway, in a bath, the muscles loosen up and the body relaxes. All is blissful. Bubbly. Comforting. And funny things happen to the brain. It begins opening up neural paths that are usually shut down for permanent repairs and maintenance. Must be the heat or something. Not surprisingly, the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes came up with the theory for buoyancy while he was soaking in the bath.

And that afternoon, in my bath, I had my Archimedes moment. One moment I was crooning, ‘My kind of wonderful, that’s what you are…I know, there’s only…only one like you…There’s no way they could have made two…’ and the next, it occurred to me – completely out of the blue – that I had a favourite word.

Out of all the hundreds of thousands of words I knew, I realized that there was one word that I loved above all. A word that, like a bowl of laksa, made me happy and forced my facial muscles into a smile.

“Celebration?” my flatmate Saffy said later that night at our dining table. “Why is that your favourite word?”

“It makes me happy,” I said. “Celebration. See, I’m smiling!”

“That’s a nice word,” our other flatmate Amanda said as she speared her pasta. “I actually think it reflects your personality.”

I was pleased. “Really? You think I have a celebratory personality?”

“Well, you wouldn’t know it when you wake up in the morning,” Amanda mused, “but I think there’s something to this. Hmm, I wonder what mine is. Let me think about it in the bath. I hope you cleaned up after yourself,” she added as she got up from the table and disappeared into our bathroom.

“What’s my favourite word?” Saffy wondered to the world at large. “Stupid? I use ‘stupid’ a lot. Dumb-ass? Is that two words? Does that qualify? Crap! Ooh, ‘crap’! Maybe that’s my favourite word? But it’s not very glamourous, is it?”

When Amanda eventually emerged from the bathroom, dense steam billowing out before her as she emerged like Tina Turner at a concert, she had narrowed her list to two candidates. “I’m thinking it’s a toss-up between Chanel and Dior!” she said dreamily. “I always get such a warm fuzzy feeling when I utter those names.”

“Ooh, that’s so you, Manda!” Saffy cooed. “My turn in the bathroom!”

The subject of our favourite words fully occupied our attention for days after. And to her eternal distress, despite taking multiple baths, Saffy was unable to come up with a meaningful selection. “All the words on my list are hateful words!” she complained, her impressive bosom trembling with self-loathing. “Strangle. Pain. Diet. Spit. I love the sound of them, but I mean, these are not words that I think should reflect my personality, do you? How come you get to pick ‘celebration’? It’s so unfair!” she moaned.

“Bitch!” said my friend Barney Chen immediately when I asked him for his favourite word.

I coughed into my coffee. “That’s your favourite word?”

“Yes,” Barney said firmly, shifting his muscled bulk on the chair and winking at the cute Toast waiter. “It’s very moi.”

“Uh huh, interesting.”

“Mine, hah?” My office manager Sharyn pursed her lips and concentrated. “My favourite word. Doh-no, leh! How about ‘Increment’? Oh, no, no! I like ‘Bonus’!” You could practically see the capitals glowing in the air.

“Sleep,” said my friend Karl, whose wife has just given birth to twins. “It’s definitely ‘sleep’.”

And Amanda was right. The emotional beam of the words that my friends chose as their favourite bounced off their personalities, shining a bright light through the polite, public fa├žade – to uncover what lay beneath. With one word, a tiny capsule of compressed images of that person spun off into the world.

Meanwhile, Saffy continues to struggle with her selection. “I like the sound of ‘thin’,” she said worriedly this morning. “What do you think that means? I think I need another bath!” she decided and wandered off mumbling. “Fat? Food? How about food? Ooh, I hate this game! Or things related to food…Cheese! No…”

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Die die must try

I like to think of myself as a fairly calm guy. Theoretically, nothing ruffles me. There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule. Several, in fact. Oh, alright, many things annoy me. But other than that, I’m generally fairly calm.

Since we’re on the topic though, can I just say that one of the things that really bugs me is those dumb-ass ‘1000 Places to See Before You Die’ books?

First of all, who has time to visit 1000 places before they die? The unemployed sure don’t. They’re too busy trying to feed a family on a dollar. And I know for a fact that Donald Trump doesn’t. He’s running a real estate empire, flying around in his helicopter and firing people.

So that leaves people like me. And let me tell you that these days, I don’t have time to pee.

“I’m sure they don’t mean it literally,” Amanda said the other day at Borders as she tried to hide behind her copy of Vogue while I furiously waved a copy of ‘1000 Places to See Before You Die’ at her.

“It’s ridiculous!” I said, flipping through the book. “Look at this…the Ring Road in Iceland? A country full of bankrupt banks! Who goes there?”

“Uhm, I hear it’s quite pretty,” Amanda said vaguely.

“And look at this,” I went on. “Doubtful Sound in New Zealand! Seriously, would you go anywhere that had ‘Doubtful’ as part of its name?”

Saffy says she’s with me on this one, but her beef is with books that are titled ‘1000 Movies You Must See Before You Die’ or ‘1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die’.

“Does anyone realize how expensive the whole exercise would be?” she snapped recently. “At $20 per album, 1000 albums is $20,000, and just like that, we’re looking at a down-payment for a retirement village!”

“I don’t know why you two are getting so upset,” Amanda said. “They’re just gimmicky books. No one takes them seriously.”

Saffy took a deep breath and puffed up. “Yes, but these books are deliberately written to make me look dumb! And that’s unacceptable. They always include obscure things on those lists that no one has ever heard of. If I wanted to listen to a Nigerian acapella group, I sure wouldn’t wait for you to write a book to tell me about it! I want to listen to Spice Girls and are any of their fabulous albums on the list? No, but Rachmani-bloody-koff is, though!” Her bosom inflated dangerously at the musical slight to Posh and Baby.

And there you have it. The problem with these books is the assumption that someone else knows better than we do about what we like and what we should read, watch and listen to. And the fact that there are apparently a thousand books, movies and albums that we’ve not heard of only serves to make us feel guilty.

Saffy, for one, is not having any of it. As she points out, if she’d listened to all those dumb-asses who told her that ‘Titanic’ was a crap movie, she would have missed out on what she insists is one of the most moving cinematic experiences of her life. “Though,” she recently conceded at a Harvard cocktail party which she attended as Amanda’s plus-one, “I probably should have listened to them about ‘Rocky Balboa’, but that’s so not the point!”

Amanda says it’s a good thing that Saffy has such an incredibly high self-esteem that she can feel intellectually superior even in a room full of Harvard professors.

“I don’t know what the big deal about Harvard is,” Saffy sniffed recently, and noticing Amanda’s hurt look, she hurriedly added, “But not you, Amanda! Not you! You’re a big deal!”

“Shut up, Saffy!”

The other day, Saffy rang me in a state of excitement. “I’ve got a great idea that will make us an obscene pile of money!” She drew in an audible breath. “OK, we should write a book called ‘1000 Crappy Books You Should Not Bother Reading Before You Die’! Huh? What do you think? And then when we’re done, we can move onto movies and music! We’d have no problem getting material. There’s just so much junk out there!”

“It’s a catchy title,” Amanda later admitted. “But aren’t you afraid people may sue you for saying their work is crap?”

“Let them!” Saffy huffed. “It’ll be great publicity! Oooh, who knows, we might even end up on Oprah’s Book Club!”

And in spite of myself, I’m getting excited about the idea. Amanda thinks we’re nuts. Saffy says we’ll see who’s nuts when Oprah comes calling.