Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Career Move

I remember the first time I told my mother I no longer wanted to be a lawyer and that I was going to be a freelance journalist.
She blinked at me several times and frowned. “I don’t understand,” she said eventually. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“It means that I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore.”
“But why? Aren’t you earning a lot of money?”
I hesitated. “Well, yes, but money isn’t everything, is it?”
Apparently, when Mother repeated this conversation to her mahjong kaki, the entire table of aunties sucked in their breaths.
“Did he really say that, May-Ling?” her sister, Auntie Wai-Ling, asked.
My mother sniffled delicately into her handkerchief. “It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. I felt like I was having an out of body experience when he said that.”
“‘Money isn’t everything’. Huh,” said Auntie Mabel, testing the words, rolling the syllables around in her mouth and if she could have, she’d have spat them out. “Where on earth did he get that idea from?”
“From studying overseas! Where else?” Auntie Wai-Ling said with firm disapproval.
To this day, my mother still has trouble accepting that her son is no longer a lawyer. Recently, she said to me that someone had asked her what I did for a living, and she was at a complete loss as to what to say. “Because I am sure there’s no such thing as a freelance journalist!” she said over the phone, all the way from St Petersburg where she and my father had gone to see Madonna in concert.
“Sure there is,” I said. “That’s what I am!”
“But there’s no such degree in any of the universities I looked at. It’s not like you get a medical degree and you become a doctor.”
“Well, it’s not a degree career as such…”
“But that’s my point! How will you get any respect if you’re doing something that didn’t require a degree or diploma or something?” The note in her voice was plaintive and I could almost see her worriedly fidgeting with her pearl necklace.
“You must stop fussing. I’ve got a great life. I work from home. I get to travel and stay at great hotels. I meet interesting people. And I’m happy!”
My mother paused. “What’s happiness got to do with anything?”
It was my turn to blink. “Well, if you’re not happy, what’s the point of it all?”
Mother sighed. “You really are a strange child with some very bizarre ideas. I wonder who you get it from. Must be your Daddy.”
I remember when I was still practicing, my firm had an iron clad rule for managing our files. And that was everything had to be kept up to date with detailed notes and current statuses so that if the lawyer ever got run over by a bus, any other lawyer could step in neatly, pick up the file and know exactly what was going on.
Of course, one day it occurred to me that this was all very well for the client who would continue to have his case looked after, but what about the lawyer who got run over the bus? Whatever happened to him?
Which then led me to think, what if that lawyer was me? What if that was me lying on the road with a tyre track rolled messily across my lovely Zegna suit and I was breathing my last breath and all I’d done till that moment was keep files up to date? What was the point of it all? What good was all that money going to do me?
For months, those questions haunted me. As I shot off letters to other lawyers threatening their clients and reading piles of obscure legal judgments in an effort to win my client’s case, I pictured myself doing the exact thing at 65. Or worse, lying on the road, having just been run over by that stupid bus.
What was the point?
And so, one day, I quit. I shut down my computer, packed up my briefcase, said goodbye to my secretary who said cheerfully, without once taking her eye off her typing, “Take care!”, and I walked out the door.
And I never looked back. Not once in the years since.
The other day, Saffy asked me if a bus ran over me now, how I would feel and I said, very honestly, “I’d have no regrets. If I’d stayed in that law firm, I’d have grown old with regret.”
Saffy patted my hand and heaved herself off the sofa. “Come on, let’s go watch a movie.”

Friday, September 21, 2012

Call Waiting

For a few weeks now, Saffy has been suffering from chronic migraine. Which, of course, only ratchets up the drama quotient by several notches.
            “It’s like Freddy Krueger has somehow gotten inside my head and is stabbing my right eyeball from inside!” she moaned recently as she crawled into bed and pulled the blanket over her head. “Oh dear God, the light! Why is it so bright?”
            “Did you take a Nurafen?” I asked solicitously from the door to her bedroom.
            “I’ve practically taken an entire box!” came her muffled reply. “If I take one more, I’m going to be in ‘Valley of the Dolls’!” Her head poked out briefly from beneath the blanket, her eyes half shut with pain. “Listen, can you call Dr Shu and tell her that I desperately need to see her?”
            Dr Shu is our elderly acupuncturist. She’s about 80 and retired, but she occasionally lets desperate patients come to her house for some treatment. We’ve been going to her for years and she’s seen us through everything from depression, insomnia and weight gain to acne and bloatedness. She’s incredible. You show up with your ailments, she’ll check your pulse, stick a few needles in you and you’re all done.
            When I finally tracked her down, Dr Shu said she could see Saffy that afternoon.
            “Oh thank God!” Saffy sniffled. “I feel like I’m about to die and throw up.”
            Later, when she returned from the appointment, Saffy looked considerably better. “It’s amazing. She poked needles in my crown, the sides of my head and my feet, and half an hour later, the pain had subsided. Really, someone should give her the Nobel Prize!”
            This morning, before work, Saffy showed up at 8am at Dr Shu’s home for her follow-up treatment. She pressed the bell.
            Then, she pressed it again. There was no sound from inside. The kitchen window was slightly open, so Saffy stuck her nose through it and yodeled, “Helloooo, Dr Shu-ooo! It’s Saffy!”
            She was met by a wall of silence broken only by the low tick-tock of the clock in the hallway. Frowning, she went back to the main door and pressed the bell again, before reaching for her phone to dial Dr Shu.
            The house-phone rang shrilly. “Seriously, that ring tone would wake the dead!” Saffy later complained.
            She stood in front of the house ringing the doorbell and calling out. At 8.30, she headed to the office where she immediately called me.
            “But she’s never missed an appointment!” I said.
            “I know, right? I’m worried. What if,” Saffy said, her voice dropping several octaves, “what if she tripped in her bathtub and is lying on the floor right now, slowly bleeding to death?”
            The image was ghoulish.
            “And she lives alone!” Saffy went on, her mental cinema now filled with horror. She called Amanda who said to call the police.
            “Really? Isn’t that a bit of an over-reaction?”
            “She’s 80,” Amanda said crisply. “She lives alone. She’s never missed a single appointment before. She’s 80! You connect the dots!”
            “This is so stressful!” Saffy moaned. “I can feel my migraine coming back! Ok, ok, I’m calling the police now.”
            Fifteen minutes after Saffy’s desperate emergency call, her handphone rang.
            “Aiyoh, Saffy! It’s Dr Shu!”
            “Oh. My. God! You’re alive?”
            “Please, lah! I wrote your appointment down in the wrong day, so I went out with my son for breakfast! I am so sorry! The police just came around!”
            It says something about Saffy’s state of mind that her next comment was, “You have a son? Is he single?”
            Saffy says she’s never been so stressed in her entire life. “I seriously thought she’d died! And the first thing I thought was that we’ve not finished my treatment! Who am I going to go to for my migraines?”
            Amanda blinked. “That was your first thought?”
            “Well, actually, my first thought was whether I would be saddled with the job of organizing her funeral. She never speaks of her family Who knew she had a son! Did you know she had a son? Apparently, he’s a plastic surgeon!”
            Amanda sat up straight.
            “Back off, Amanda, I saw him first!”
            The image of poor Dr Shu lying all alone on the floor in the bathroom still haunts us. So much so that Saffy says she’s going to be Dr Shu’s morning buddy.
            “Now listen,” she said to Dr Shu on the phone, “every morning I’m going to call you just to make sure you’re still alive, ok? And if I don’t call you, that means I’m lying bleeding to death on my bathroom floor, so you have to call the police! OK? Hello?”

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Second Chances

Anyone who’s ever dated for any length of time will tell you that it’s a perilous world out there. So many pitfalls. So many dos and don’ts (Guys, do use mouth wash, and girls, order an appetiser as the main course and don’t touch dessert). So many weirdos and perverts.
And so many liars.
People who date tell the most terrible lies.
Saffy once went on a blind date on the strength of a picture she found on Google Images. “He’s very cute, don’t you think?” she asked Amanda who peered over Saffy’s shoulder and grunted.
“Is that a yes or a no?” Saffy asked, her chest puffing up to obstruct Amanda’s view of the pixelated picture of the well-built man in Speedos on the beach.
“Hard to tell. Wait and see,” said Amanda, seasoned serial dater.
Turned out the picture was taken when the guy was still in college (“Thirty years ago!” Saffy shouted when she came home) and he was now bloated, fat and practically bald.
“I thought so,” Amanda said. “Either that, or he was gay.”
Saffy huffed. “Listen, if he had been gay, it might still have been a fun night. But he was straight, so there was nothing to talk about after the introductions!”
And there was the time this really cute guy bought Amanda a drink at Zouk, and she immediately began fantasising about her dream wedding on a beach in Bali, but it wasn’t until the sixth date that he revealed that he was about to leave Singapore and move to Hong Kong. With his girlfriend.
“Don’t you think that he should have led with that little bit of information?” Amanda ranted over a tub of post break up ice-cream with the girls. “Isn’t that just plain deceitful?”
“Did you at least sleep with him?” Saffy asked.
“Aiyoh!” Sharyn said, her eyes gigantic large behind her Coke bottle glasses.
“Not even!” Amanda moaned as she shoved a spoonful of Madagascan vanilla into her mouth. “I thought he was special and therefore worth waiting for!”
“Just goes to show,” Saffy said.
“Show what?” Sharyn asked.
 It occurred to me recently that our grandparents had the right idea with the whole thing about matchmaking. We get head-hunters to match us up for a job. We get real estate agents to hunt down the perfect house for us. Why not a marriage?
“Don’t dating agencies do that already?” Amanda asked.
“They only arrange dates, not marriages. Plus they don’t really do proper in-depth checks like they did in the old days. My grandmother said that when she got married, the nosey old matchmaker grand-dad’s family hired dug so deep into her family background looking for every piece of dirt she could. Apparently, she found a few bankrupt uncles, a mad aunt and a great uncle who went to jail for embezzling. But thankfully, they were all on her step-mother’s side, so none that contaminated her!”
“And was it love at first sight?” Saffy asked.
“Apparently, Grandmother said it wasn’t till the fifth year of the marriage that she realised she loved her husband. They were married for sixty years. When she died, Grandfather lasted another eight months. My mother said he just withered away.”
It’s such a different world we live in. Today, we expect to meet someone, fall instantly in love/lust, get married and live happily ever after. Only to wake up one day and finally admit to ourselves that we can’t stand the person we’re lying next to.
We think we know best, that we should be allowed to choose our life partner. But the reality is, we’re often the worst judges of what’s best for us. I’ve been to so many weddings now. I can count on one hand the couples who are still together. The rest are onto at least their second spouse. And of the ones who never married, they’re all still dating, convinced that each successive date will be The One.
But of course, they rarely are. Or if they are, they’re rarely given the chance to prove themselves.
Saffy says that’s a depressing thought. “So, you’re saying that all my ex-boyfriends could have been The One, but that I’m just too fussy?”
I shrugged. “It’s a thought. Back in the day, nobody married for love. It was usually an economic or social alliance between families. But out of that, love often grew. And the marriages lasted.”
This morning, Saffy pulled out her Little Black Book of Exes, turned to page 1, picked up the phone and dialled a number.
“Hello, Brian?” she began. “It’s Saffy! Yes, remember me?...”
Sharyn says this might take a while.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gold Standard

Well, the fireworks are done, everyone has packed up their bags and headed home. Yes, the Olympics are over.
Thank God.
It’s been a month of pure torture in the little flat I share with Saffy and Amanda. The first two weeks were bad enough, but then, just when I thought sanity was prevailing once more, the madness started all over again with the Para Olympics, an event I’d completely forced out of my head.
For two people who think consider the steps at Palais Renaissance too much of a physical exertion (hence the detour to the side ramp), it’s astonishing how sports obsessed the girls are.
They watched everything that was on. Even when nothing was happening like people milling about just before the start of the men’s 100-m.
“What do you think Usain’s time will be?” Saffy asked, her eyes fixed on the screen with the kind of concentration rarely seen outside of a National Geographic wildlife special on the feeding rituals of starving lions.
“Sub-10.5,” Amanda replied. Later, over drinks with the boys, I told Barney Chen that it was like being in a parallel universe.
“They won’t even run to catch a bus, but somehow, they even knew his past two run times!” I complained.
“There’s something very unnatural about women being so interested in sports,” Barney observed carelessly. “Anyway, were you watching the diving? Have I already told you about my obsession with Tom Daley?”
I sighed. “He’s barely legal. Stop it!”
Karl looked up from his beer and said Marsha, his horrible wife, wouldn’t let him watch anything, though he’d been hanging out all year to watch the women’s volleyball.
“Why is that even an Olympics sports?” I groused. “Seriously.”
Karl looked confused. “Girls in bikinis, bouncing on sand, ripped thighs. What’s your point?”
“OK, girls and ripped thighs?” Barney said. “That’s just a gross sentence.”
The worst part of it was that I couldn’t watch any other TV show. Amanda had specially signed up for a sports channel on cable and so, that’s all that was screening for a month in the flat: People running, jumping, diving, lifting, squatting, leaning, heaving. And when they weren’t doing that, there was a lot of replays and studio commentary by people that nobody remembered, so they had to be captioned as ‘Olympian Champion’.
And it wasn’t as if the girls were discriminating the way Barney was (“I only want to watch the men’s diving, men’s water polo and the men’s gymnastics!”) or Karl wanted to be (“Don’t ask me why, but I do adore those synchronised swimmers, but Marsha says she wants to watch the judo finals.”).
No, the girls watched everything.
They watched the weightlifting with the same complete lack of discrimination as they did the women’s marathon. Now, I don’t know about you, but nothing happens during a marathon. It’s just people running for hours. They look bored as they’re jogging down the streets. Nobody crashes like you might do during a Formula 1 race. There’s no loud noise and confusion as leads change in micro-seconds (ditto). No exciting pit-stops to change outfits (ditto). But the way the commentators get all excited about it, you’d think the runners were juggling five balls in the air while balancing an egg on their head and singing the theme song to ‘Titanic’.
“Look at the steady pace that Blah Blah Blah is keeping,” one commentator said. “And watch how Yack Yack Yack is coming up close behind him and, yes, Yack Yack Yack has now taken the lead! Oh, this is such thrilling stuff!”
“Are you kidding me?” I shouted at the screen. “We’ve been watching this for an hour and nothing has happened!”
The men’s cycling was even worse. Just a bunch of bicycles endlessly circling the Velodrome.  
“I want to watch ‘Vampire Diaries’!” I yelled at one stage, desperately wrestling with Saffy on the couch for the remote control. “Why are we watching the men’s shot put?”
“We’re not,” Saffy grunted as she viciously dug an elbow into my ribs. “It’s the women’s event!”
I stopped struggling and sat up. “Really?” I asked, showing interest at the TV screen for the first time. “Shut up, that’s a woman?”
Of course, you can imagine how thrilled I was when it was finally all over, though that thrill lasted for about a week before the Para Olympics started. This time, the girls just focused on Oscar Pistorius.
“My God,” Amanda sighed. “Isn’t he just the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen in your life?”
Saffy puffed up. “I would have his baby in a heartbeat!”
Me, I’m saving up to buy a TV for my bedroom.