Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Idol Pursuits

Is it possible that we’ve just reached the tenth season of “American Idol”? I can’t believe I’ve been watching this show for ten years now. Which if you stop to think about it for a bit, actually adds up to a whole lot of time.

Let’s see. Each season has about 42 episodes of an hour each. (And before anyone jumps down my throat, yes, I have factored in the fact that the bumper audition episodes at the beginning of the season kind of get evened out for the shorter elimination episodes.)

So that makes it a grand total of 420 hours of my life that I’ve spent sitting in front of the television, gripped by the human drama of big dreams, middling to awesome talent, shredded nerves and plenty of acid putdowns by Simon Cowell.
And 420 hours works out to nearly 18 days of non-stop television.

For which I have been paid…nothing. And that’s just one show. If I added up all the hours I’ve spent over a lifetime of watching TV, I could have learnt to speak fluent Eskimo, Swahili and Tagalog by now.

Meanwhile, Simon Cowell has made hundreds of millions of dollars, and I’m still living in a tiny flat with two girls and an increasingly neurotic dog.

And yet, somehow, none of this matters much as I settle down each Wednesday and Thursday night and that familiar theme song and flashy graphics slide across my screen and Ryan Seacrest says, “This is Aaaaa-MER-ican Idol!”

The auditions this year have been entertaining in a kind of bad comedy way. Simon isn’t around anymore, so the whole thing seems a bit tamer. I miss his foul temper, eye-rolling and exasperation.

But the upside is the fun of watching new judge Steve Tyler and wondering just how much plastic surgery he’s had.

“You think?” Saffy asked the other night as the man flirted madly with a girl half his age.

“Oh, totally!”Amanda said firmly. “Just look how tight the area around his eyes is.”

Saffy sighed. “He is such a dirty old lecher! I can’t believe this man produced that gorgeous Liv Tyler. And yet, I'm madly attracted to him. How is that possible?”

But the biggest surprise has been the other new judge, Jennifer Lopez. Until “American Idol” came along, I’d never really given the woman a second’s thought, but now, with each episode, I find myself unaccountably adoring her.

“You’ve never given J. Lo a second’s thought?” my best friend Karl said. He looked astonished. “Are you crazy? She has always rocked!”

“Well, what I mean is that I’ve never thought of her in a human kind of way. She’s always been this, you know, super glam unapproachable super star who appears on MTV and Gucci ads. But in the show, her fun side comes through.”

“She’s so sweet. I want to marry her!” Karl growled. “She’s the only reason I’m watching.”

And that was the word I was looking for: Sweet. The woman sits there, hair immaculately done, perfectly made up and wearing more money than some people make in a year, and somehow she comes across as…sweet.

And she does it so much better than Paula Abdul ever did. As Saffy puts it, Paula always had this scared look on her face which Amanda said was probably caused by an over-tight face lift before adding that it was clear that Jennifer Lopez was all natural.

“She’s authentic!” Amanda pronounced, sounding remarkably like Oprah.

“I’m sure it’s all an act,” Saffy said. “No one can look like that pretty and still be so nice!”

Amanda coughed discretely, but Saffy with her notoriously short attention span had already moved on.

“Can we also talk about how cute Ryan Seacrest is? I seriously don’t think he’s aged at all. I wish we could establish once and for all which team he bats on!”

“And how, having that information, is your life going to change?” Amanda demanded.

Saffy’s famous bosom inflated. “Well, at least if I know for sure he’s straight, then when I fantasize about him on cold lonely nights, I don’t get distracted by a sudden image of another man coming into the picture!”

Amanda pursed her lips. “Isn’t it odd how women don’t get all excited by the idea of two men together the way men get all hot under the collar about two women?”

Of course, that question now haunts us whenever Ryan Seacrest pops up on the screen to tell us about the AT+T and Cingular call charges when he wants America to vote.

The other night, as another tuneless contestant got onstage to sing, Saffy sighed, “We really need to get a life.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Cooking the books

Until I moved out of home, I didn’t know how to cook. Could barely boil water, to be honest. I mean, in theory, I knew how to cook, but I never had the nerve to actually turn on the gas and start stirring.

It’s kind of like if you’ve seen someone like Spiderman leap across gaps in tall buildings a million times, you kind of know how it’s done, but that doesn’t mean if a gap ever presented itself, you’d have the nerve to actually jump it.

But then the day after I moved out – basically, moved countries to Singapore to be precise – I found myself standing alone in my brightly lit, new but empty kitchen and looked at my lonely pan and the tin of tomatoes next to it. I’d gone to Cold Storage, looked at the rows and rows of food and panicked. I grabbed the nearest thing to the checkout – in this case, the tin of organic tomatoes – and made a run for it.

And now, in that quiet kitchen, I had no idea what to do next.

Years later, when I recounted the story to my best friend Karl, he said the exact same thing happened to him on his first visit to a porn shop when he went to London to study, but in his case, he grabbed something that he later discovered only worked if he was a woman.

That’s the first thing you did when you went to London?” I asked. “You went to a porn shop?”

“That’s what happens when you grow up in a strict family! You do crazy things.”
That was some time ago. These days, I’m a reasonably competent cook. The other day, I even surprised myself and made a soufflĂ© omelette.

My two flatmates, on the other hand, are like stunted tadpoles in the kitchen. Saffy once nearly burnt our kitchen down because it was a complete surprise to her that you needed to put water into the rice cooker. Amanda, who is a lawyer and therefore makes more money than most small African nations, operates under the assumption that money can buy not just Prada, but also a three-course dinner, so why bother even stepping foot into a kitchen unless it’s to say hello (and goodnight) to the chef?

And then a few days ago, during a very boring telephone conference call in the office, Amanda was idly surfing the net when she came across Jamie Oliver’s TV programme on YouTube.

As she later told us, she put the conference call on mute and spent the next hour and half glued to “30 Minute Meals”.

“It’s insane! The man makes a three-course dinner in thirty minutes! It’s all done in real time, too! I know, because I didn’t believe it, curse of a lawyer, and I set the timer on to test it, and it was bang on thirty. Incredible. Not that I would ever do it myself,” she added.

“I used to think he was super cute, but he’s put on so much weight!” Saffy said, managing to derail yet another conversation. “No, it’s true! Why are you two looking at me like that?”

None of which prepared Amanda and me when we came home last night to find the kitchen in a state of pandemonium. Every single pot we own was on the stove or in the sink. A colander had spewed half its pasta onto the floor while something was burning in the oven.

And in the middle of it all was an increasingly hysterical Saffy shouting at her laptop. From the kitchen door, I could just see the small YouTube image of Jamie Oliver scuttling about the kitchen yakking on about how beautiful the smell of balsamic vinegar was. “No, no, no, no!” Saffy yelled. “You said to put the heat on ‘full whack’! Those were your exact words and…and…then you said I had to put the tarts in the oven, but you didn’t say I had to keep an eye on the sauce…and…sniff!…everything is burnt now!”

“What are you doing?” Amanda said, somewhat unnecessarily.

“Cooking one of Jamie Oliver’s freaking 30 minute meals!” Saffy screamed. “I started two hours ago and the sauce is burnt to charcoal and the dessert is disintegrating in the oven and I still haven’t got to the salad!”

We pulled Saffy out of the kitchen and sat her down on the sofa with a super strong gin and tonic. It took us an hour to clean up the mess and in the background, Saffy kept muttering, “It’s a good thing I never bought his stupid cookbook! I’d be at Borders right now demanding a full refund!”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Law and Order

Growing up, I was so envious of other people’s mothers.

Paul Henshall’s mother used to bake him fresh chocolate chip cookies on Mondays and brownies on Thursdays. Walter Szymakowski’s glamorous mink-coated Polish mother would show up each afternoon in her BMW to collect him. And when David Cunningham got caught for shoplifting (a bar of chewing gum from our local newsagent), his mother sat him down and had a long heart to heart conversation with him.

It seemed to me that everywhere I turned, I encountered mothers who seemed so cool and understanding.

My mother, on the other hand, was a benign tyrant who saw nothing wrong with cracking the cane, all without pausing a moment in her daily mahjong session. And as my sister Michelle said when David Cunningham got nicked, if that had happened to one of us, Mother would have thrashed us to within an inch of our lives. And then Father would have taken over.

Once, when my brother Jack was getting a beating for failing his mid-term Maths exam, Mother said, over his bleating yelps, that the beating was hurting her more than it was him. “We only want the best for you, and the best will not happen if you fail exams!” she said. Michelle later said she could have sworn that while Mother was administering the beating, she was admiring her new 10-carat diamond ring that was our father’s 15th wedding anniversary present to her.

Years later, she would say it was an absolute miracle that the three of us grew up to be as normal and well-adjusted as we had. “Why, we could so easily have turned out to be homicidal maniacs! You read about this kind of thing all the time in the newspapers!”

There’s a new book out by Amy Chua, an American Yale law professor, called ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’. To save you from buying and reading the book, its basic message is that Asian kids do so much better in school and in life because of tough love, Chinese parent-style. No molly-coddling and excuses. Failure is met by punishment. “An A-minus is not a good grade!” she trumpets.

By various means of discipline and military supervision, Chua forced all her children to become top of their class in every subject, but relaxed her rules when it came to drama and gym. For instance, she once made her daughter practice a difficult piano piece for 10 hours without a bathroom break. Apparently, the kid ended up winning the piano competition and was forever grateful to her mother.

But then the kid would say that, wouldn’t she? I mean, if she had said what she was really thinking, which was probably: “Because my psycho Chinese mother forced me to learn how to play that bloody Bach sonata, I now have a life-threatening urinary tract infection”, can you imagine the domestic consequences?

Meanwhile, Western parents are apparently appalled by Professor Chua’s book. Some actually think it’s a literary prank. But here’s the thing, when I heard about the book, I thought, “What’s the big deal? That’s how my mother forced me to learn my multiplication tables”: Through a combination of abject terror (the cane), self-preservation (“You are not having dinner if you can’t recite the eight times table!”) and sheer repetitive boredom (seriously, after you said “eight times eight is sixty-four” for the fiftieth time, it’s not likely you’re ever going to forget it again in a real hurry).

This might also explain why I was able to carve out a reasonably successful career as a lawyer. Remembering the details of those numerous torturous law cases was never much of a problem for me.

As for Jack, he ended up being the youngest vice-president in the history of his bank. Turns out he actually likes numbers.

Meanwhile, Michelle, forced by Mother to learn French in school (“It’s the most stupid language!” she once screamed at Mother just before her exam on subjunctive tenses), has, to the envy of all her friends, only ever dated sexy gorgeous French men and she gets the best service every time she walks into Louis Vuitton in Paris.

Just the other day, I caught up with an old school friend on Facebook and, of course, I asked him whatever happened to our pals. “Well,” he wrote back, “Walter Szymakowski is a second rate drag queen in Sydney, David Cunningham is in gaol for embezzeling and Paul Henshall just had a stomach bypass after he got so fat he literally couldn’t fit through his front door! I don’t know what the hell happened to those guys!”

I do. They didn’t have a tyrannical Chinese mother like Amy Chua. We did.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Second Chances

If you ever needed proof that men and women come from different planets, look no further than my friend Joanne.

A year ago, Joanne was happily engaged to Wen, a rising banker in an investment bank that couldn’t have been too badly hurt in the financial crisis because it was still giving out healthy bonuses – some of which ended up on Joanne’s neck in the form of sparkling diamonds.

“My God, he gave you Tiffany princess cut diamonds for your birthday?” Amanda said when she bumped into Joanne at the Ion.

“Aren’t they pretty?” Joanne said. “Eighteen carats, some more!”

“I hate her,” Saffy said that night. “How did she manage to hook such a smoking hot rich banker? Meanwhile, I’m still spending my Saturday nights dancing at St James with you two!”

As Amanda later said to me, she should have felt outraged at Saffy’s insult, but she just couldn’t find the energy to disagree. “It’s so depressing.”

You can imagine the frisson of excitement that swept through our little flat when a few months later, Joanne called Saffy and told her in ascending notes of hysteria that she and Wen had broken up.

“He was two-timing her with the sister of his brother’s best friend!” Saffy reported the minute she got off the phone with Joanne.

“At least it wasn’t with the mother of his brother’s best friend!” Amanda said with a pinch on her pretty face as she remembered the saga involving one of her ex-boyfriends.

“What gets me is why, if you were fooling around with someone else, you would even bother to give your girlfriend such expensive diamonds?” I asked.

“According to Wen, that other woman was just a mistake,” Saffy replied with the kind of authority that comes only after years of practicing relationship post-mortems, “and that Joanne was really the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. But Joanne isn’t buying it for a second because the day he gave her those diamonds, he’d just come back from a romantic weekend with the other woman in Bangkok! So clearly, the diamonds were a guilt buy!”

Amanda gasped. “Men!”

The following months followed the predictable course whenever girlfriends suffer a traumatic experience. It was an intense period of tears and maudlin dissections of the failed relationship as Joanne waded through the pain while Saffy and Amanda rose magnificently to the occasion as priestly confessors.

“So now, Joanne is looking at all the presents Wen’s given her over the years with suspicion,” Saffy said grimly. “She thinks they may all have been given right after he’d seen the other woman.”

“Assuming it’s the same woman!” Amanda added darkly.

A year has since passed and Joanne still bears the end of the relationship with stoic calm. Through mutual friends, she gets updates on Wen though Saffy and Amanda have tried to tempt her with other men. But no one was prepared by the recent bombshell delivered, by of all people, the woman Wen had cheated on Joanne with – the sister of Wen’s best friend.

Apparently, they’d bumped into one another in Gucci and the sister had suddenly burst into tears right next to the latest handbag collection.

Within an hour, I was getting text messages from Saffy and Amanda.

“OMG!” said Saffy’s message. “Guess wot?”

“OMG!” Amanda’s message pinged. “Wen is engaged to his sister’s best fren! He was cheating on the girl he cheated on Joanne with!!”

Needless to say, Joanne is devastated. “All this time, I was hoping he’d come to his senses and come back to me!” she wailed.

Saffy is impressed that while Joanne was pining for Wen, not only had he dumped the second woman, he’d met a third woman and convinced her, in less than half a year, to marry him.

“I cannot believe he moved on so quickly!” she said. “It’s only been a year since they broke up! How do you guys do it?”

“It’s like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie all over again!” Amanda said, a Hollywood parallel never far from her imagination.

“What about me?” Joanne shouted the other night during a speaker-call with Saffy and Amanda. “That bastard! I need a man, too! I need some loving! Do you know it’s been a year since I’ve been with anyone? I have needs!”

At which point, Saffy put the call on mute and turned to Amanda. “Seriously, I haven’t been with a man for two years, but do you see me making such a song and dance about it?”

“Some people can be so self-absorbed,” Amanda agreed.

“Hello?” Joanne’s static voice asked. “Are you girls still there?”