Thursday, March 28, 2013

Busy Bee

When I first embarked on my second career as a freelance journalist, I would get very irritated by the patronizing looks and comments some of my lawyer and banker friends would give me whenever we caught up.
            “Oh,” said one particularly obnoxious friend whose name I immediately deleted from my phone as soon as I left the restaurant. “That’s a nice cushy life, isn’t it? Staying in your pajamas and watching TV all day?”
            “Freelance journalist?” said another as she air-quoted the words. “Is that what they call it these days?” I deleted her as well as I walked to the bus stop and tried to hide in the shadows as I watched my friends zoom off in their Mercedes convertibles.
            “They’re just jealous!” Amanda said soothingly when I came home venting. “I’d give anything to have your life! But I know I can’t afford my Gucci and Prada on what you’re making, so basically I’m trapped!”
            “I do work very hard, you know!” I yelled at no one in particular. “I’d like to see them go knocking on editors doors to ask for jobs and slaving over a stupid story about some stupid new restaurant and…”
            “Oh, you cannot give up that gig,” Saffy commanded as she walked into the dining room. “I adore being your plus one at those restaurant reviews! There’s nothing better than being taken out for a nice dinner and not feeling obligated to put out afterwards!”
            “I also say,” said Amanda who was at the time dating a string of losers on account of her being in the ‘off’ phase in her long running on-off relationship with The Cockroach.
            It was all so disheartening.
            Needless to say within a year or so, almost all the friends from my former life as a lawyer dropped away. And whenever I bumped into them on the street, inevitably, they’d say, “Oh God, I’m so incredibly stressed at work! I have to prepare for two trials, I’m pregnant, my mother-in-law is now living with us, I’m trying to gun for partnership at the firm, there’s just so much going on! So…” and here, they’d pause expectantly, “how are things with you? Are you still eating for free at restaurants and going on free trips?”
            It comforts me enormously to report that after all these years, yes, I’m still being paid to eat at restaurants and go on all expense paid trips to exotic locations where I meet and experience things my pregnant, busy, living with her mother-in-law, stressed friend will probably never be able to do, let alone find the time to do it.
            And that’s the thing. People are always so busy these days. Have you noticed? They’re always running to a meeting. Or running from one to another one. They can’t meet for dinner any day this week because they’re so stressed about a particular job, but maybe they could meet late next week, but could they confirm on the day itself?
It’s almost like they’re incredibly proud they’re so busy and have no time even for coffee with a friend.
            Even children are busy. One of my friend’s kids has a Blackberry to keep track of his piano lessons, appointments with Chinese tutors and gymnastics practice, and study time. And his entire schedule is backed-up onto his mother’s Blackberry so that she can work it around her week while dealing with her office workload.
            And when I told the kid that when I was growing up, my favourite part of the day was playing five stones with my friends during recess, he looked at me blankly. At first I thought it was because he had no idea what five stones were, but later, as I watched him drive off with his mother to his violin lessons, it occurred to me that maybe it was because he didn’t actually play with friends.
            “Or have any friends to play with,” Saffy observed sagely as she looked up from her iPad where she was checking movie times.
            “No one has a nice work and play balance anymore,” Amanda said. “We’re all so busy running around that we’ve lost the ability to just relax and not do anything. Which reminds me, I need to schedule a spa treatment for the weekend. My nails are a disgrace!”
            “So which movie are we going to watch?” Saffy piped up as she scrolled through her iPad.
            “Anything not involving vampires or old people dying of an incurable disease,” Amanda said. “Preferably something with exploding cars or Ryan Gosling. Or both.”
            “And after that,” Saffy said, “Jason can take us all out to dinner.”
            A thought occurred to me. “Can we just not take the bus to the cinema, though?” I asked.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Saving Grace

They say you never really appreciate what you have until it’s gone.
Like the friendly old uncle who made the best rojak down at our local hawker centre before he suddenly dropped dead while waiting in line to buy 4D. (His daughter who took over the business is a surly ugly cow who could have learnt a thing or two about customer relations from her dad. I’m just saying.) Or the days when you could find a taxi easily without suffering a nervous breakdown. The excitement and anticipation of settling down to the next episode of ‘24’. Your mother’s special chicken congee. Wrinkle-free skin. I could go on.
            Of course, sometimes, when you’re deep in the middle of a crisis, it’s difficult to see the wood from the trees. Like the time Saffy spent a whole afternoon bitching to her friend Marianne about how much she hated her job, how boring it was being poor, and how she wished she had enough money to buy her own flat. A few months later, Saffy learnt that Marianne had been ill since the beginning of the year and was having chemotherapy for it.
            Saffy was appalled. “My God, I can’t believe I was going on and on about my stupid job and there she was, so sick and she didn’t say a thing! I feel terrible!”
            “You see, lah!” said Sharyn cryptically. She stabbed firmly into her cake and stared owlishly at Saffy.
            Saffy paused. “See what?”
            “You tell me!”
            “Seriously, Sharyn, sometimes you drive me insane!” Saffy’s bosom inflated.
            “Yah, and den one day, hor, I die, confirm, you will miss me, one!”
            Due to a combination of factors, one of which included her guilt over the whole Marianne affair and the other being her monthly hormonal surge, Saffy’s emotional bank spilled over and she burst into tears.
            “You know I love you, don’t you?” she wailed, fat drops of tears falling onto her chocolate slice.
            Sharyn flapped her napkin at Saffy. “Aiyoh, please, lah, you don’t so drama, can or not? Aiyoh, stop crying! I'm only joking!”
            Saffy says Marianne was a much needed wake up call. “Whatever is wrong with my life, other people have got it worse!” she declared.
Ever since, she has made a conscious effort to be a little more positive. She does this by waking each morning and saying out loud, “Today, I’m grateful for…” Some days, she’ll be grateful for her health, or all her teeth. Other days, she’s grateful she doesn’t have a big black mole between her eyebrows like the cleaning lady in her office. The other morning, she told us she’d given thanks for char kway teow.
“You’re kidding, right?” Amanda said.
“What?” Saffy said defensively. “It’s a perfectly acceptable thing to be grateful for.”
“What about world peace?” Amanda pressed.
“Not my problem. That’s up to the Pope.”
And on other days, usually the morning after watching ‘Dexter’, Saffy will be grateful that she’s not being stalked by some crazy assed serial killer.
“I tell you, there are so many things to be grateful for!” she told Amanda the other day.
“You don’t say,” Amanda replied. “I was just in Gucci giving thanks that I could afford everything in that shop!”
“Well, that’s rather superficial,” Saffy said in a superior tone.
“Saf,” Amanda sighed, stirring her coffee, “when have I ever been anything but?”
“Yes, that’s true,” Saffy agreed amiably. “Well, if that’s the case, then today, I’m grateful for the incredibly low taxes I pay in Singapore!”
“Amen to that. Imagine if you had to live in the UK with 50% tax!” Amanda shuddered, images of all those Gucci bags she would no longer be able to afford flooding her retail-fueled imagination.
“Or America with all those guns!”
“And Justin Bieber!”
Saffy paused. “Hang on, I thought we liked Justin Bieber.”
“Unofficially we do. Just not in public.”
            By the time I got home, the two of them were busy congratulating themselves for having had the foresight to pick the world’s best country to live in.
            “Love the MRT!” Amanda said, completely oblivious to the fact that she takes the MRT about as often as Fann Wong.
            “Love my CPF!” Saffy sang.
            “Love Changi airport!”
            “Totally! The best. Oh, oh! Love the Prime Minister!”
            Amanda’s eyes shone with the kind of manic devotion you rarely see outside of an episode of ‘The Following. “A-dore!”
            Of course, Sharyn thinks both Amanda and Saffy have completely lost their marbles. “Lucky Woodbridge got space!” she said cheerfully when I had coffee with her, before adding maliciously, “Dey probably also best in the world!”

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bad Education

They say you never really get a true measure of a person till you’ve seen how they react in a crisis. And, again, by ‘they’, I mean, of course, me.
            I bring this up because it recently occurred to me that among the many mistakes that parents make when bringing up their children, sending them to school is probably way up there on the list. As my brother Jack is always telling people at parties, he came top of his class in maths at school, but he can honestly say that he has never, in his entire life, needed to use calculus, let alone solve a quadratic equation, in a real life situation.
            “Ever!” he’ll emphasise as he gets progressively drunker.
            Meanwhile, my parents forced me to do economics and physics on the assumption that I would become either a banker or a scientist or both, as in the case of our hated, over-achieving cousin, Wei-min.
As it turned out, I became a lawyer for all of two seconds and then became a freelance journalist who writes fluffy stories about hotels and stuff that no one ever reads.
I should have spent all those years of high school and university napping. It was all such a waste of time. And my youth.
What our parents should have made us learn instead is practical stuff like how to punch someone who’s bullying you, or better yet, pinch a nerve and send them into a coma. Or how pick a lock and hotwire a car.
The other thing that they should have made us learn instead of useless things like ‘what’s the capital of Angola?’ is first aid. Which brings me back to my original point about people in a crisis.
So, a few days ago, Saffy went over to her best friend Sharyn’s for lunch.
“What are you making, Sharyn?” Saffy had asked when she arrived.
Sharyn looked at Saffy. “Hah? You think I cook, ah? Seow! I buy chwee kway from Tiong Bahru market and bah kut teh!”
Without missing a beat, Saffy, the original hawker whore replied, “Fabulous!”
As they set the kitchen table with food, Sharyn said Eric, her husband, had been sick with the flu for a couple of days.
“I hope he’s not joining us for lunch!” said Saffy, her compassion set to zero.
“No, lah, I buy him chicken congee, I give him now, but you eat first,” Sharyn said as she walked towards her bedroom with a steaming bowl.
Saffy says she’d barely had her first bite of the char kway teow when there was a crash of crockery in the distance.
“Aiyoh! Eric! Saffy! Help! Help!”
Saffy came running into the bedroom to find Sharyn staggering under the weight of Eric in her arms. She immediately started screaming. “Oh my God, oh my God, what happened, is he dead, oh my God!”
“Aiyoh, you don’t scream so loud, can or not? He just fainted. Ay, don’t stand there. Help me, lah! I’m about to drop him. Wah, so heavy! Must start diet!”
Very gently, they lowered Eric to the ground. Sharyn immediately tipped her husband onto his left side and told Saffy to get the Tiger Balm from her dresser.
“So what happened then?” Amanda later asked.
Saffy’s bosom expanded to a dangerous volume. “She dabbed some of that Tiger Balm under his nostrils and Eric came to eventually. Oh my God, I thought he’d died! I didn’t know what to do. I swear I was freaking out, but Sharyn was just so calm and collected like she was just having a manicure or something!”
“I don’t think I would have known what to do,” Amanda said with deep admiration.
“Well, she told me to call the ambulance and I literally had no idea what the emergency number was.”
Amanda hesitated. “Is it 911?”
“If you’re American!” Saffy said. “Then I thought maybe it was 000, but then remembered that was Australia and Singapore is 999, but by the time I’d figured all that out, Eric had woken up and was in the kitchen having his congee!”
“Well, that was useless!” Amanda pronounced.
“They should teach you this sort of thing in school!” Saffy said stoutly. “‘What to do if someone faints!’ Isn’t that a lot more useful than learning what six times six is? That’s what calculators are for! Imagine if Sharyn had stepped out for more chilli sauce and then he’d fainted!” Her bosom trembled in horror at the prospect. “She was just so calm! I’m still a complete emotional mess!”
Amanda says we need to pray hard that Saffy never needs to look after us in our old age. “Can you imagine?”

Thursday, March 07, 2013


Regular readers will know that one of the great regrets of my life is that my parents never sent me to tennis camp when I was a kid. I could have been sitting on a few Grand Slams, not to mention several multi-million dollar Rolex endorsements, by now. Well, I could have, if it weren’t for the slight problem of my non-existent hand-eye coordination.
Instead, our parents kept my brother and sister and me at home during our school vacations and forced us to prep for the following year’s syllabus. All our lives, my siblings and I have nursed a simmering resentment at the waste of our potential.
“I can scream just as loud as Maria Sharapova!” my sister will tell complete strangers at parties. My brother Jack thinks it’s tragic that Michelle remains clueless as to why she leaves these parties with so many phone numbers from intrigued men.
The other great regret in my life is that my parents weren’t more encouraging about sending me to film school. Some people grow up wanting to become an astronaut, while others dream of finding the cure for cancer. One of the kids I was at school with was obsessed by computers. Annoyingly, he ended up writing an anti-virus programme that’s made him a bazillion dollars.
What is the point of going to film school, you ask? Well, for starters, I would be watching movies and TV all day. And being paid for it.
“Is that even a career?” Michelle asked once.
“Sure it is,” I said with authority. “That’s all the film critic at 8DAYS does all day! She flies all over the world to attend film premieres, and gets to meet all the movie stars and then she gets to trash the movies in her scathing reviews. It’s the best job ever!”
“I’ll tell you what’s the best job ever for you,” Michelle said. “Being a security guard on the night shift.”
            I paused. “Uhm, why?”
“Well, you’re an insomniac and you love watching TV, so what’s not to love?”
I was impressed. “God, I could watch all the TV I want, while I was working!”
            “Exactly. In fact, it’s even better than being a film critic because you don’t have to actually write anything because your real job is to press a button to raise and lower the security barrier!” Michelle looked radiant.
You can tell that despite our fatally expensive education, our parents raised three children with very low expectations when it came to job satisfaction.
Meanwhile, it looks as if I’m slightly over-qualified to be a security guard. So I’ve done the next best thing. The other day, I signed up for Netflix. For a ridiculously low monthly rental, I get to watch all the TV and movies I want at any time of the day. It’s so amazing. It’s like being a diabetic who’s let loose in a candy store. I don’t think I emerged from my room for the first 24 hours that I signed up.
Which is quite apt because I spent the entire time watching ‘24’.
“Uhm, isn’t that like a million years old?” Saffy said as she watched me drag myself to the fridge for some milk for my cereal. “Your eyes are all bloodshot and you’ve got these really ugly dark bags under them.”
“Oh my God, what have I been doing the entire time while ‘24’ was on air?” I moaned. “It’s such a good show! Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
Saffy’s formidable bosom inflated. “We have been trying to tell you, but you kept insisting on watching ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’!”
“Yes, but that’s good too!”
“I know, but there’s nothing like a mounting body count that hits all the right spots,” said Saffy, amateur serial killer. “And I die every time Kiefer Sutherland talks! His voice is incredibly sexy!”
With shaking hands, I carried my cereal to the dining table and lowered myself gingerly onto the chair. “It was terrible. I thought I would just watch one episode. But it was such a cliffhanger ending that I had to see what happened next. And then I was watching another. And another. What day is it today?”
“By the smell of your bedroom,” said Amanda as she walked past, “it’s laundry day. You’ve got some really ugly dark bags under your eyes, Jason.”
“That’s what I said,” Saffy said proudly.
Sharyn says it’s horrific to think of all the time I’ve wasted watching TV. “I hope my children don't become like you! I want them to become lawyer or doctor!”
Saffy says it’s such a shame some mothers just have no imagination.