Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Employment benefits

At this time of the year, I usually like to do a stock-take of my life. Kind of a spiritual, financial and emotional check-up to see if all is well and that I’m track to becoming the kind of calm happy person that Gwyneth Paltrow would like to hang out with.
The thing is, after years of carefully reading Goop – Gwyneth’s ‘look how amazing my life is’ blog – I’ve also realized that the kind of calm happy person that she would like to hang out with is usually someone so incredibly wealthy that they wear organic cotton, drink soy wheat shots, and fly in private planes to remote jungles for three week detox retreats.
            And they usually tend not to work the way most normal people think of as work. Scrolling through Goop, you see that Gwyneth’s BFFs tend to be relaxed mothers who look fabulous in their pristine frock and smiling happy blonde children. Or else, they’re part time actresses who, when they’re not filming wildlife documentaries, dabble in interior design or write New York Times bestselling books on how to get children to eat vegetables.
            In other words, it’s the kind of life I aspire to. Which is why each year, in January, I take a moment and try to visualize into reality the life I want.
I imagine that I am happily trotting from my perfectly coordinated and accessorized life straight into an airplane where I always turn left into First Class. I imagine candle lit dinners with other happy people and I’m wearing a Tom Ford suit and no one ever pays for anything. On weekends, my perfect life includes a stress free session at the gym where after a few sound-tracked seconds on the elliptical machine, I have the body of Usher and the face of David Gandy. In the evenings, I can be found laughing with friends in a breezy beach-club sipping cocktails while in the background, thin gorgeous girls with lots of hair and perfect skin frolic on the sand.
In other words, I visualize an American Express commercial.
            That’s what you visualize?” Amanda asked the other day.
            I shrugged. “It’s important to have goals. You think Oprah got to become Oprah without some kind of goal visualisation?”
            Amanda looked doubtful. “I’m not sure Oprah ever visualized herself in an American Express commercial.”
            “She probably owns American Express!” I said.
            Saffy says it’s much easier visualizing jobs that she couldn’t see herself in.
            “Like I would make the worst taxi driver,” she said this morning at breakfast. “I have absolutely no sense of direction. Plus all those bossy passengers would just drive me straight into road rage.”
            “I’m not sure I could sit on those beaded seat covers all day,” Amanda added.
            “I would have trouble on account of my needing to pee every ten minutes,” I said.
            Saffy shuddered. “Imagine being stuck in a traffic jam on the MCE and needing to pee!”
            “You’d have to pee in a bottle,” I said.
            “But what if you’re a woman?” Amanda pointed out.
            So that much has been settled – none of us is ever going to make it as a taxi-driver.
            It turns out that being a lawyer or a banker isn’t really high on our list of visualizing topics, either. Sure, you get paid lots of money, but as Amanda points out, what’s the point of having all that money if you’re always at work and stressed? Of course, she speaks from experience having dated many bankers in her serial dating life and being a lawyer herself.
            “It’s why I’m the least ambitious person in my firm,” she said. “Who needs partnership? The only people who get to enjoy all that money are the kids and the wife who spends her whole day getting her hair done and gossiping with David Gan!”
            “Which is what Fann Wong and Zoe Tay do,” said Saffy, lifetime reader of 8DAYS. She paused and thought. “We could be actors! That looks really fun and fulfilling.”
            “Except when you lose at the Star Awards to your arch-frenemy, Sharyn,” Amanda said. “Plus you have the worst memory. How would you ever remember your lines?”
            “I don’t have a six-pack,” I said sadly. “All these actors seem to have six-packs.”
            “Plastic surgeon?” Saffy suggested. “Woffles Wu always seems to be having a good time.”
            “God, imagine if you nicked a nerve and half the face collapsed?” said Amanda, veteran reader of US Weekly’s grisly wrap ups of celebrity face lifts gone wrong.
            This morning, Gwyneth sent me the latest edition of Goop where she ate oysters, went shopping in Beverly Hills and chatted with Jessica Seinfeld.
She must be such fun to be with.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Doggy Position

Scientists are crazy people. Though my mother would say that they have far too much time on their hands. When my brother Jack was fifteen and suddenly announced he wanted to be a scientist, she put her brand new Ferragamo pumps firmly down and said, “Over my dead body!”
            Scientists, she went on, were just busy bodies who had nothing better to do except meddle in things they had no business meddling in. And to make things worse, they never made any money at all. “Show me a rich scientist,” she challenged.
            My sister Michelle was outraged. “Excuse me, but who do you think came up with all those creams you slather on your face each night to keep yourself looking young? Scientists! And who came up with the pill that stops your headaches? Scientists!”
            “And who, young lady,” my mother shot back, “is clothing you and feeding you and sending you to ballet classes and giving you an education that allows you to talk back to your mother in such disrespectful tones? A banker!”
            Years later, Michelle would say that a banker was also sending her into weekly therapy sessions. “Honestly, it’s amazing we’re not more damaged than we actually are!”
            Anyway, about those crazy scientists.
            Sometimes, they’re busy building massive nuclear bombs that could potentially destroy the world a thousand times over. At others, they’re peering diligently into microscopes and spinning test-tubes trying to find a cure for cancer for people their colleagues down the corridor are trying to eventually blow up.
            Then there are scientists who spend a lot of time looking at dogs poo.
            The other day, we were all at the breakfast table completely ignoring each other and reading our morning briefings. By which I mean, I was utterly absorbed in US Weekly’s picture profile of Kim Kardashian’s weight, Amanda was staring at a $5000 Prada dress in Vogue, while Saffy was scrolling through her Facebook page.
             Suddenly, Saffy gasped. Her eyes widened as her thumb scrolled down her feed. Our phones pinged.
            “I just sent you two a link to this amazing article! You have got to read it!” she said, her formidable bosom trembling like perfectly set jelly.
            Turns out a group of twelve German and Czech scientists have spent the past two years watching dogs poo. And 1,893 poos and 5,582 pees later, the team has reached one incredible finding and I quote: "Dogs prefer to excrete with the body being aligned along the north–south axis."
            Saffy was astonished. “Isn’t that amazing?”
            “It sure is,” Amanda said. “It’s amazing that someone actually paid 12 scientists to spend two years watching dogs poo and pee!”
            Saffy spluttered. “But…but…don’t you see what that means?”
            “Some people have too much time on their hands?” Amanda said channeling my mother in a tone that indicated that she actually didn’t want an answer to that question. She went back to flipping through Vogue.
            Undaunted, Saffy turned to me. “This may explain why I have chronic constipation! Maybe our toilet bowl is facing the wrong direction!”
            “Uhm…” I began.
            “It makes complete sense, no?” Saffy went on. By now, her bosom had inflated to a dangerous volume. “It’s like how I can’t sleep when there’s a full moon. Maybe it’s all because I’m so attuned to the cosmic rhythms of nature!”
            “Yes, maybe…” I said slowly.
            “So which direction is our toilet facing?” Saffy wanted to know, her fevered imagination firmly gripped in a James Cameron Avatar fantasy in which she was some Earth Mother who was out of sync with the universe’s energy.
            At my blank look, Saffy turned to Amanda. “Hello! Which direction is our toilet facing?”
“How the hell would I know?” Amanda snapped. “I'm not a real estate agent!”
Undeterred, Saffy rushed out to buy herself a compass. Which of course is a lot more difficult than it sounds. She arrived at VivoCity to discover that the National Geographic store had shut down leaving no forwarding address.
Fuming, she schlepped back into town only to be told at The Planet Traveller that the last one had just been purchased but that new stock was on its way.
“But I need that compass now! I need to poo!” Saffy told the shop assistant who slowly backed away, no doubt imagining that Saffy was about to squat down in the travel gadgets aisle. She pointed a trembling finger towards the exit and said, “The toilet is just around the corner, miss!”
“Does it face north-south?” Saffy wanted to know.
My mother says it’s a tragedy that Saffy’s father wasted all his money on her education.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Letter Perfect

It’s difficult to explain to someone who was born in a year beginning with ‘2’ just how people used to communicate with one another. Before Twitter, e-mail, SMSs, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Facebook, if you wanted to tell someone more than five metres away from you something, you had to either physically get up out of your chair and go over to them, pick up a telephone to call, or you had to write them an actual note.
            And if you were sent away to school, you waited patiently for the weekly mail to arrive in the post from home with the latest news of family friends, neighbours and other gossip.
My letters from home were invariably written by my mother detailing everything from the maid stealing toilet paper to her ongoing feud with her sisters over something one of them might have said thirty years ago at a party nobody now remembered ever attending. And at the end, there’d be a little paragraph from my father telling me to study hard, that all was well at home, and that I should let him know if I needed anything.
In turn, every week, we’d all write home with news of exams, friends we’d made, sporting triumphs and disasters, with the occasional hints that we might need more pocket money, the last bit invariably ignored in the reply letter the following week.
Nobody would have dreamt of actually telephoning because you only did that if something horrible had happened. Like the time I got a call in the middle of the night from my mother weeping that she’d gone skiing with my father and the diamond in her wedding ring had fallen out.
“Oh my God, I thought one of you had died!” I shouted.
“Choy!” Mother sniffled, so distraught over the loss of her Cartier diamond that she decided to overlook my rude tone.
And the thing about letters is that they were so permanent. My parents kept all the letters their parents had written them over the years. And when my mother’s father died, a few years after his wife, we discovered among his possessions all the letters that Mother had written them.
We spent weeks putting the letters back into chronological order, one letter replying to another, from the first postcard Grandpa wrote to her from Paris to the last letter Grandma scribbled just before she died. Piles of letters, all neatly tied with a ribbon into bundles for each year. Letters, one after the other, down the years like a literal chain letter (which, again, all you kids born in a year beginning with ‘2’ will have no idea what I’m on about).
When it was all sorted, we had the letters bound into several leather volumes.
One evening, not long after, Mother disappeared into her room with the letters and didn’t emerge for two days. Father was banished to the guest room. Every so often, we’d put our ear to the door and listen. My sister Michelle reported she heard pages turning, but Jack and I, both suffering from a lifetime of tinnitus, couldn’t hear a thing.
When Mother finally reappeared, her eyes were red and puffy.
“I am exhausted!” she announced as she hugged each of us in turn. “And if you ever give me the same kind of trouble I gave my parents, I will just die!”
“Really?” Saffy later asked me over lunch. “She really said that?”
“Uh huh,” I said. “And she never let us read those letters either. They’re all locked away somewhere secret!”
Saffy looked wistful. “I wish I had that kind of relationship with my parents. We’ve never had a conversation!”
“That’s because you do all the talking!” Amanda pointed out as she speared a cucumber from her rojak.
Saffy’s formidable bosom inflated as she opened her mouth to protest, then let it deflate. “Yes, that’s probably true, too,” she conceded. “But you know what I mean. I don't have any correspondence like that with my parents. When they die, there’ll be no real record of our relationship. Not like Jason’s grandparents with his mother. How depressing. Say, is anyone going to finish this rojak?”
That evening, I dug out all the letters my parents have written me over the years. There are hundreds of them, all neatly bundled, one bundle for each year. A lifetime of confidences, hopes and daily news.
I pulled out the bundle for the year I first went away to school.
The first letter began: “My dear son…”
The memories came flooding back as I read late into the night. The next morning, I pulled out a piece of paper and, for the first time in years, wrote my parents a letter.


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Date Line

Saffy was spring cleaning the other day and came across an old diary.
“My God, it’s a record of all my dates!” she reported. “Ooh, look, here’s the entry on Tandip Singh! Here, listen. ‘Met a lovely man today on the train to work. His name is Tandip.’ Let’s see…27 June… ‘Tandip called!’ And I put, like, ten exclamation marks after that!”
And just like that, the years rolled back.
“Yay! I’m going on a date with a restaurateur and a businessman!” Saffy had said grandly, blithely re-branding a Serangoon Road roti-prata shop, and a a tiny fabric boutique into a Fortune 500 outfit.
“I like the fact that he called the day after,” she’d added, radiating approval. “Some guys play this stupid game and wait three days before they call, just so you think they’re not that keen on you. They must think we were born yesterday.” 
“Shameful,” I agreed politely. I remembered one of Barney’s lectures on the rules of dating.
“You do not ever call for a date the day after you exchange numbers,” he’d instructed. We were at the gym and he was holding court from the stair-master. “The industry standard is three days. Doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight. You must wait three days. If you call too early, it only shows you’re desperate, and that is never a good look,” he noted with the satisfaction of someone who had never called earlier than the three day mark. “But if you call after three days, that’s just plain rude, which is even worse than looking desperate! Unless, of course, your Mother died or something in which case you have a very valid excuse, but frankly how often does that happen? Touch wood, touch wood!” said Barney who adored his mother. They went for facials and massages together.
“So what are you wearing?” I remember asking Saffy. I had learnt very early on that this is an important question to ask a girl on the eve of her date.
Saffy looked grateful that I’d asked. “I haven’t a clue,” she began. “I really have nothing to wear. I want something that conveys the impression that yes, I would sleep with him, but at the same time, it must also stress that I am not cheap and that sex is not happening on the first date. And right now,” Saffy said with a deep sigh, “there is nothing in my wardrobe that even comes close. Everything I have is too slutty!”
It occurred to me that guys have it easy by comparison. We just slip on whatever looks the least crumpled and no one would think to comment. Girls, on the other hand, take two days to get ready, and another two to change because the first outfit makes them look fat.
“But something’s been worrying me,” Saffy went on, smoothing on moisturiser onto her arm. “His surname is Singh. So that makes him a Sikh. I, on the other hand, am not,” she added, somewhat unnecessarily. “So do you think that’s going to cause problems? Because isn’t a Sikh supposed to marry another Sikh?”
“I think that’s a Kaur,” I said.
“As in the Irish band?” Saffy asked perplexed. I spelled it for her.
Saffy was impressed. “Really?”
“But are you planning on marrying him, Saf?” I asked. “Jumping the gun aren’t we?”
“Well, not right now, obviously. But every date is a potential husband, so if it’s never going to happen, why bother in the first place? My eggs aren’t getting any fresher, you know!”
And there it was: the secret fear of every woman, that nameless shadow that hides behind every bright smile, every purchase at the cosmetic counter, every facial appointment and every second spent on the treadmill. The reason why, despite all the disasters and dashed hopes, they still pick themselves up, freshen their lipstick and head out for another date. And that was the unspoken dread that, perhaps, this was as good as it was going to get.
For once, I was at a loss for words. What could I say that would have made any difference or, for that matter, offered any comfort?
Barney Chen’s voice loomed up in my memory. “Listen,” he told me once. “Sometimes, there is just nothing you can say. Whatever you do, don’t offer any advice! The best thing is not to say anything!”
In that still silence, I reached out and offered an awkward pat on Saffy’s back.

And much to my surprise, as she lifted her head and smiled wryly, I realised how much that helped.