Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Maybe Tomorrow

Maybe tomorrow things will be different. Maybe tomorrow they will see what a wonderful person Sue really is. Underneath it all. Sometimes, she tries to affirm her reality. I am here. I have a name. I breathe. Then she pauses. But what is it I do? Why do I matter? If I were to disappear tomorrow, who would even notice? She does not have a job. She does not have a partner. She does not even have friends.

Ten years ago: It's her sister Clara's 16th birthday party and everyone is standing around as she cuts the cake. Sue is crouched in a corner pretending to read Pride & Prejudice. She hopes someone will notice and call her to join them. But they don't. Tears glide silently down her cheeks.

If only she weren't always so tired. If only she could wake up before noon. But she has nothing to wake up for. Nobody to talk to. Nowhere to go. She exists in a world of whispers and shadows. They have forgotten about her.

Seven years ago: Sue fails her university entrance examinations and her parents tell her to get a job. She becomes a clerk at an import-export firm. It is undemanding work and she doesn't earn much but at least she can say she's gainfully employed. Her six siblings troop off to university and soon she is unable to join in their scintillating conversations.

When people don't notice you, you cease to exist. How can I occupy all this space and not exist? Sue rolls around on her bed. It feels hot, lumpy, uncomfortable. She considers rising, but it would be too much of an effort to throw off the pungent covers and have a shower. She needs to, though. Her bladder is at bursting point. She doesn't exist but she could still stink up the bed. And let's face it, the bed is foul enough as it is.

A year ago: Sue reads an article in the local newspaper where the writer tells amusing stories of his futile search for a bride. The woman he likes is much too sophisticated to tie herself down. The one who wants to marry him, pestering him with calls, letters and presents, is only a clerk in an import-export firm - silly, cheap and inconsequential. He pokes gentle fun at her, before moving on to the next candidate. Sue quits her job the next day.

She pads over to the bathroom in her tiny studio apartment and squats over the white ceramic bowl. Her life has shrunk to its two basic functions - eating and excreting.

Her parents are livid. They threaten to kick her out of the house. She, the last remaining "child", despite her age. She walks out and spends an interesting night on a tree. When she returns the next day, she finds them suitably chastened. They tell her they understand that she may need some space and let her to move into one of their investment apartments to keep her off the streets. And allow her $50 a week. Same reason.

Itching all over, Sue finds she really has no choice. She will have to shower. She stands under the steaming water, limpid as plasticine, until her skin wrinkles. Then she makes her way back to bed. Still itchy. She throws off her bedclothes and replaces the sheets. Ahhhh... this is more like it.

Six months ago: It's another birthday party and as usual Sue wanders around feeling lost. She tries to join a group of cousins, but they ignore her and go on with their conversation. She feels stupid and miserable and resolves never to go for another family function.

She still can't get to sleep. She reaches in the fridge for a Snickers bar and it explodes in her mouth, a mess of chocolate, caramel and nuts. Satisfied, she licks the roof of her mouth and gets back into bed.

She didn't attend her brother's party and her own birthday passed by unremarked. No card, not even a phone call. Maybe she has actually disappeared. Like Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense.

Her head is full of voices. She reaches under her bed for her latest journal, powder blue with a picture of a lighthouse on the cover and starts to write:

My life is a lingering sob. Nobody loves me, I wish I were dead. But why give those bastards the satisfaction? I'll show them. Tomorrow, I'll get up early, work out, look up arts courses, make a start towards a new life. Tomorrow I will get a part-time job, find love, start living.

Yes, it will all happen tomorrow. Maybe. She chucks her journal aside and goes to sleep.

Monday, November 28, 2005

You Say I'm A Bitch Like It's a Bad Thing

"Self-help books!" Terra spits the word out at me in disgust. "Honestly, Jenn you should write one. You'd become an instant millionaire. There's plenty of stupid people out there who needs some unqualified idiot to tell them what to do. They need to see it in print before they can recognise the bloody obvious!"

I squirm uncomfortably. Like Bridget Jones, I have been known to search for life's answers in one of these learned tomes. They helped me through seriously horrific patches. I passed on the wisdom to others and hey, light came streaming in through our murky windows. We held hands and danced naked around campfires, chanting the old hymns: Live your dreams. Follow your heart.

Terra doesn't notice my discomfort. She is on full rant mode: "All the idiots in my class swear by this book. But everything this guy says seems to be so damn obvious, I tell you ah, I can't believe that we were that stupid at their age. A hot guy is a hot guy, but if he treats you like shit consistently..."

"Um, which book is this exactly?"

"He's Just Not That Into You.

Inaudible sigh of relief. Am not guilty of this one. "So what's the problem with it?"

"OK, there is this girl in class. When she goes out with her friends, her boyfriend invites himself along. But when he has plans with his friends, he never lets her come. Not once. And they have been going out for a year. Then she reads this dumb book and it's like a fucking lightbulb goes off in her head and she says, Terr, he's just not that into me. And I say, well duh, haven't I been trying to tell you that for months?

"And there is this other girl. Attractive as hell but really dumb when it comes to men. She goes out with this army guy who takes her to meet his parents and then tells her to back off, because she's started to act like his girlfriend. And she says, but you took me to meet your parents, what was that all about? And he says, I take lots of girls to meet my parents, it doesn't mean anything. She too, had to read that bloody book before she realised he was not that into her. I mean, come on, there are limits to stupidity, right?"

I laugh with her, but am wondering all the same: Did I need to get permission from a book to quit my dead-end job? Um, yeah. Quitting my job went against conventional wisdom because, although it starved my soul, it allowed me to suffer in relative comfort. And the flak I got when they heard I was taking a degree in writing (Writing? are you crazy, what kind of job will you get from that?) Loads of well-meaning advice from people who wanted me to realise that life was a serious, serious thing and that my misery was par for the course.

Where would I have been without Martha Beck? Or Sonia Choquette? Or Julia Cameron? I'll tell you where; stuck in some sad corner of the office, trying to find new ways of writing about venture capitalism. Or biotechnology. Or (God-help-me) photonics.

So sometimes even though it seems fricking obvious to the rest of the world, I guess I just need the external validation to be found in the pages of these books. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Follow your heart. Live your dreams. Follow your own North Star.

I'm trying Martha, believe me, I'm trying.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


The long slow mourning has begun
And the air resounds
with the gentle sounds
of someone weeping.

It's my last week in Australia.

All the nice people who have drifted (or stormed) into my life are now taking leave, with mournful eyes, bowing out into the blurry past. I watch them leave and a heaviness begins in my centre and spreads out to infinity. We go for one last lunch, one last tea, one last dinner and they hold me close and tell me, with tears in their eyes, keep in touch, keep in touch, I'm gonna miss you.

And I say, of course I'll keep in touch, don't worry, I'm very good at keeping in touch and I am gonna miss you terribly, so terribly and I am gonna miss this place and this peaceful feeling and the smell of flowers and the taste of the sunshine and the cafes in Fremantle and the vegetables in Subiaco, the quiet pavements, and walking around Hyde Park, listening to the music of running water.

And there they are, all these people I never knew before who have come to mean so much to me. Aged 21 to 83. Except that I tend to forget their ages when I'm with them. It's just like one big extended family. My people.

I have people I love back home. I do. And I will be happy to see them. It's just...

Friendly bus drivers, who say hello when you step on the bus and have a nice day, when you step off. Cheerful teenagers at the supermarket cash register who ask you: "And how are you today?" as if they really want to know. Strangers nodding and smiling at you on the street: "Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening. Lovely day, isn't it?" Neighbours who stop to chat, invite me over for coffee or tea or dinner. Comfortable people, everywhere I turn.

Goodbyes are flavoured with coffee and Cabernet Merlot. Triple chocolate muffins. Vindaloo and rendang. Double fudge frosted brownies. And Corica's apple strudel, the best in the world.

I have been mourning Perth for a whole semester now. Feeling the goodbye tear through my body. I know love is always only a fleeting moment and we have to let these moments go. And I am trying. But, beginnings are my forte. I have never been good at endings.

So Susan, Charles, Christa, Katherine, David, Brendan, Chris, Sydney, George, Marguerite, Barry, Simon, Hui Hua, Corey, Marcella, Zaven, Cynthia, Shelly...goodbye. I love you. I will miss you. Thanks for everything. I will try to stay in touch.

You were never mine,
But I don't know
how to let you go.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Beauty: Mind of the beheld?

"I want to be beautiful. I want to be really beautiful. In fact I want to be goddamn stunning."

"Um, but you are beautiful. I think so anyway. You look sort of...interesting."

Ella tosses me a disdainful look. "Oh interesting! Everybody tells me I look interesting. Interesting is not beautiful. I want beautiful."

I have never seen her like this. Her voice hard, her face, almost flinty, haggard from a week of continuous vomitting, because of a demoralising visit from the people who made her paranoid in the first place - her family. I went over because I happened to be in the city, and that's where she lives. Now I am wishing I hadn't. Her superhuman self-control is down, and I see the trapped creature inside. It looks out at me with starving eyes, clutching at words, seeking reassurance, believing nothing.

Beauty is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying...?

Ella shows me a picture of her sister. Her sister is dazzling. Hollywood beautiful. Her sister has this wonderful new man in her life. A man who's a saint, by all accounts. And Ella wants such a man in her own life.

But all relationships peter out into nothing and her latest lover has found a new love. He didn't bother to tell her it was over. She found out at a dinner with someone who, not knowing her connection with Mr Flawless remarked casually: "What a lovely, lovely man. And his girlfriend is simply gorgeous."

"Er, what exactly do you think you have to do, to be beautiful? I venture tentatively. Since there is not an ounce of superfluous flesh on her, I'm thinking it will be plastic surgery. At this moment she seems crazy enough for anything. I consider playing Unpretty by TLC or suggesting that she read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, but desist. The way she's feeling now, she might actually slug me.

For a while Ella is silent.

Then: "I need to accept that I am beautiful."

"Phew." I let out a sigh of relief and smile inadvertently. "Just that."

"Just that? You think that's easy?" Her face hardens once more. Oh God, this is like walking on eggs. I don't seem to be able to say anything right.

We talk a bit about desperation. And how trying too hard pushes whatever we want away. And about how she may have chosen to be alone at the moment to sort certain things out. And how her life is really very rich and fulfilling (ordinarily you need to book weeks ahead to see her).

But they're all words - and behind the words, there's the insistent: "I need to be beautiful. I need to be dazzling. Like my sister. I want men to look at me, the way they look at her. And nothing you say is gonna make a difference. That's just the way it is."

Fast forward two days: I am having dinner at a food court with my friend Cyn. We're both scarfing sushi like it's going out of style and Cyn is telling me about some of her latest conquests. Her air is one of tolerant amusement rather than conscious pride.

"I tell you ah, that fler is mad. I mean, I say I'm not interested and he thinks I'm playing hard to get. I drop him off at his place and he leans over and kisses me. On the lips. Now if was one of our Malaysian guys, I wouldn't take it seriously, you know what jokers they are. But these Indian Indians. So I say, Savi, look, I'll sleep with you, no problem, just as long as you don't think it's going to go anywhere."

We erupt in laughter. I say: "Gosh Cyn, I can't believe you said that. How'd he take it?"

"Aiyah you knowlar. Thought I was joking. Finally he became so heavy-handed that I had to start ignoring him to get him off my back. Don't like to be mean, but if they can't get the picture when you tell them nicely..."

Lately, she has acquired a stalker who sends her obsessive SMSes, shows up at places he thinks she might be and keeps telling her: "You're the kind of woman I can see myself with." "Which part of no don't you understand?" is lost on him.

Everytime I run into her at uni, at least five guys will stroll over to chat. There is just something so irresistible about her.

I wonder at this. Of course, Cyn is an attractive woman, but she's not that much more attractive than Ella. The difference is that she takes all the attention for granted. There are no destructive tapes playing in the background telling her she has to prove herself. She attracts attention effortlessly because frankly, she doesn't give a shit.

There is a lesson here of course. But it's not one that can be transmitted to anyone who really needs it. Those who feel the desperation will go on feeling it. They will starve themselves, overdo it at the gym, search for salvation in a $500 moisturiser, spend five hours a week at the hairdresser, simonizing, simonizing, simonizing the paint job.

It wont work. It never works. But that's OK, try it anyway.

After all, what doesn't kill you can only make you weaker.

Monday, November 21, 2005

I'm Sorry

Well she did it. I never thought she would. I figured it was all threats and drama. Because she was all threats and drama. Her life was a hysterical Tamil movie, complete with histrionics and swollen emotions and tears. So many tears that you stopped noticing them. So many tears, you were afraid of going out with her in public. So many tears that her brother said, "bitch, for fuck's sake grow up."

I hadn't spoken to her in a year. There was no quarrel, no blow-up, just a long overdue recognition that this friendship served neither of us. 13 years is 13 years. But there were too many favours demanded, too much taking for granted, too much:

"Jenn, where are you? Can you come pick me up and take me to ..." I was tired. No, I was fucking exhausted. And when I got away, I left her behind. Betrayal. She wept and held on and grew cold and then colder. She spoke in monosyllables and then she stopped talking altogether.

I was hurt, but heck, if that's the way she wanted to play it... a year went by. I didn't send her a greeting for her birthday. Not a phone call, not an email, not anything. The first time in 13 years.

And I didn't care. Or thought I didn't. You never know you care terribly until...

The cold dark silence in your soul when you hear the news. And the guilt. Oh the guilt. If only I had known. Maybe I could have done something. I should have guessed that she was this desperate. I should have guessed where she was heading.

The goodbye we never said bleeds out into the cadaverous silence.

There are no echoes.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Some of this is real

He was a maker of lists. He liked to have everything neatly ranked and categorised. As he looked across the table at his date, he didn't see a person, just a candidate to be subjected to this rigorous interview process. And crossed off a list. Or not.

"Firstly, you have to like Dr Who. That's non-negotiable!"

"Excuse me?"

She was already beginning to regret meeting this guy in person. Just because he had been funny and personable over the Internet didn't mean he wasn't a serial killer in real life. Her first impression hadn't been good. And things were not getting any better. She had never met anyone so abrupt. And he didn't even fit into the usual stereotype of the brash, self-assured guy. They were usually jocks - handsome, well-built and conscious of the fact. This guy was thin, knock-kneed and weedy with darting goggle eyes. Baggy, cheap, shiny suit. Clip-on tie. Maroon shirt. Ugh!

Meanwhile, he was running on oblivious, filling her on his expectations of a girlfriend. Or even, a second date.

"Look, do you have a form or something? Maybe I could fill it out to save you all this trouble."

He nodded, beaming. "Actually I do have a form, though I usually fill it up myself based on my subtle interview process as well as personal observation. I assign a weighting for each criteria. For instance, looks would probably carry a weighting of about 25 per cent while intelligence would rate 30 per cent. Similar interests - yeah, that would have the highest rating. I want to be with a geek who's into Dr Who and Buffy. To fill the time between sex." He guffawed loudly.

"And what do you do with the results?"

"I assign a number to each girl and plot in on a graph." He was on a roll. Having mentally dismissed this girl as unsuitable - too short, too plump, does not like Dr Who, rolled her eyes at the mention of Buffy - he was more than eager to share his brilliant matchmaker programme.

"Are you for real?"

"Yes, why?"

"I can't believe it. Have you looked in the mirror lately? I don't know who you think you are, but someone who looks as gawdawful as you do, would be lucky to score a crack whore. I'm leaving, I've had enough." She pushed back her chair and swept out of the restaurant, just as the waiter arrived with the menu.

He sighed, took out his palm pilot and calmly crossed out her name.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Sweet like Chocolate

I am working my way through a deluxe box of chocolate creams. Really. All by my ownsome. It's been a long time since I did something like this. But then, an elderly gentleman, who didn't know that people don't do suchlike these days, gave me a box of chocolates.

I reacted with that usual pull of guilt in the gut. Like, oh my God, all those calories, all that fat, fat, fat, fat, fat. What was I gonna do?

Fortunately I was reading Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth at the time. And Kim Chernin's Womansize. Throw in Cathie Dunsford's The Long Journey Home and you have, well, me. I realised that I had been worried about my weight from the time I was 20. Which means I have spent more than a decade worrying about my weight.

Yes, self-loathing definitely factors into it. So much so that earlier this year, I actually went on a juice diet for a month. I had nothing but fruit and vegetable juices twice a day for all that time. Life lost all its flavour, I withdrew into my room and talked to nobody and I developed a permanent stitch in my side. And my jaw and gums ached continuously. I stopped watching my favourite shows like The Waltons because nearly episode had the family gathered around the dinner table at last twice a day. I avoided shopping centres because I couldn't take the smells. All my waking hours, I was looking through recipe books and dreaming about food. Dreaming about the taste of blood on my tongue. Dreaming about biting into something adequately satisfying.

Yeah, so I lost about 10 kg in that time, and could fit teenage jeans sizes, so what? I lived a half-life and was constantly in pain. It amazes me to think that somehow I thought I was doing something good. So when I read through Wolf's wise words on hunger, it was like something went off in my head. How can skinny be attractive? Women's sex hormones are stored in fat. So no fat, no sex drive. Hahahahahaha! What an irony.

Both Chernin and Wolf talked about how women grow larger as they age - and how it is OK. In fact, studies show that women who are 10-15 pounds over their supposed ideal weight according to life insurance companies, lived longer. As long as they hadn't screwed their systems up with dieting.

Then I read how thin had suddenly become fashionable in Nigeria, a place they used to send brides-to-be to fattening farms to bulk up before marriage, after Agbani Darego won the Miss World 2001. Most of the older Nigerians were stunned. They didn't find her beautiful at all. Too tall. Too skinny. Now thin was in. It was lepa. Oh dear.

Or how the rate of eating disorders in Fiji had quintupled in 38 months after the introduction of television, according to a study done by the Harvard Medical School. Girls, fed on media images, had started to lose weight. Before this, if you started to lose weight, the elders would gather around you and medicate, convinced that you were suffering from a wasting sickness. Suddenly, it was OK to be wasting away. Oh dear.

And then there was Cowrie, the protagonist in Dunsford's lesbian, postcolonial novel. When a young dyke called her fat, she responded poetically, talking about the beauty of making love to a large woman, which she compared to entering the face of a giant hibiscus. There was something about an exploding frangipani in there, which was all very sensuous, but since I don't have the book with me, I can't quote verbatim. She said, after all this, who would want to lie down next to a blade of grass. Who indeed.

So that is what I think of as I work my way through this box of delicious chocolate creams. True, it has hurt my tongue and I now can't taste much besides, and I feel tired and cranky for no particular reason, but goddammit, I am making a point here.

Stay tuned for developments.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Art of Death

A few years ago I started collecting suicide notes. I thought it was interesting, the last thing a person chose to write, just before they ended their lives. Those sad, powerful, touching words, blasting you away with their intensity. This particular obsession was sparked off by The Hours. Much of the plot seemed to be centered around Virginia Woolf's suicide note, and as I listened to it, I thought, tears in my eyes: "How beautiful, how unutterably beautiful."

Of course, I had a lot of material to work with. Or so I thought. I mean how many artists, writers, singers out there have committed suicide? A bushel and then some. But surprisingly, even the most eloquent, articulate writers on death didn't seem to have left a note. Like Ernest Hemmingway. Or Sylvia Plath. So for the Sylvia Plath entry into my album of suicide notes, I used Lady Lazarus.

Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.

With Anne Sexton, I was spoilt for choice. Of course, there was the only Suicide Note she left, where she declared:

But surely you know that everyone has a death,
his own death,
waiting for him.
So I will go now
without old age or disease.

And her obituary for Sylvia Plath which swung wildly from sadness:

Sylvia, Sylvia
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes and keeping bees?

to envious anger:

Thief! how did you crawl into...
the death I wanted so badly and for so long.

to a tired resignation:

and I see now we store him up
year after year,
old suicides.

And she invokes the fraternity of self obliteration in the poem Waiting to Die:

Suicides have a special language
Like carpenters they want to know
which tools.
They never ask why build.

And then of course, there was Virginia Woolf's own suicide note to her husband Leonard, which I dug up from the Internet:

If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.

And Kurt Cobain's:

Thank you all from the pit of my burning nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the last years. I'm
pretty much of an erratic moody person and I don't have the passion anymore.

Surprisingly, one of my favourite suicide notes was fictitious. It was the one Marcus's mother writes to him in About a Boy. I remember sitting in MPH and surreptitiously copying it into a notebook. As I don't have my suicide album with me now, I can't give you an excerpt from that.

But of course, it was not enough to read other people's suicide notes. I had to write my own. So one dark winter's day, in the holidays, when I felt lonely, isolated and suitably depressed, I penned the following. I am happy to say it freaked my poetry lecturer out:

Maybe I would start with
I am sorry,
(but am I?
if I was,
I wouldn't)

Then I would say
but I can't go on.
Life is not worth living.
It's not that I feel too much,
(although sometimes I do)
It's that more and more
I feel nothing
Nothing at all.
Like there is a scar,
where my heart used to be.

Even pain can't hurt me anymore.
Isn't that terrible?
Even love can't make me feel.
But what am I talking about?
There is no love.
Only lovers,
And sooner or later
they all merge into one.
The one I don't want to be with.

And maybe I would say:
I am sorry to do this to you,
to leave you with this grief,
these questions.

But who am I kidding anyway?
Let's make a deal,
I won't pretend to be sorry,
and you don't pretend to cry.

What I am sorry for is the embarrassment.
Suicides are always embarrassing,
If I knew how to do this quietly,
so there would be no body,
I would.

But as it is...

Don't bother with a funeral
No open casket with the curious
breathing into my skin.

Burn me instantly.
And scatter my ashes anywhere.
I'm not particular,
Maybe on a vegetable patch
So I could fertilise tomatoes
or broccoli.

I could end by telling you I loved you,
in spite of it all,
And that I would miss you,
but let's keep it simple, shall we?

Good luck with your life,
Hope it turns out better
than mine.
And if it doesn't
you can spend your time
perfecting your own suicide note.


And that's all I have to say about that.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

You Need Do Nothing

"Having my parents here after not seeing them for five years has been wonderful. And challenging," her voice was faux upbeat. Underneath the bubbles, there was a current of pain and exhaustion, which communicated itself over the phone line.

Shelly was the type pf person who would never tell you when something was wrong. Tiny, birdlike and piquant, I met her at a poetry reading. We were strangers and yet, when I saw her, in her tights and baseball cap (she has just been for a run) there was this blue streak of recognition. I had never met her, but I knew instinctively that I knew her. It was like meeting a member of your tribe, those rare individuals that you resonate with almost instantly, and wonder why that is so. I overheard her tell someone she was a "practising idealist" and was intrigued. Who was this woman?

I was struggling through a carrot cake with walnut icing, and when she sat at my table, I grinned and asked her if she would like to have some. To my surprise, she accepted willingly, so there we were, two strangers, working our way through cake. And that is how we became friends.

As a practising idealist Shelly always sounded positive. I took this at face value and imagined her life to be all sorted out. How far from my own.

Today, however, it was clear something was wrong. Her parents had been visiting and it was the first time she was seeing them in five years. She had been so excited to have them over and I simply assumed that everything had gone swimmingly. Silly me. Five years is a long time and people change while expecting everyone else to remain the same.

Slowly, she let a little of the story unfurl. How he father, angry at the way a conversation was going, jumped out of their moving car. How her mother looking around critically, asked why there were no young men in gunsight: "You're not getting any younger, honey. Your little sister is married. Why do you have to be so picky?" How they both hated Australia, because if was different from America. Because their daughter had given them up for it. Or so they thought.

As is her wont, Shelly bent over backwards, trying to please them, while struggling to retain her own identity. Now, as they were packing and she was getting ready to take them to the airport, she was feeling shattered. The way she used to feel after being on call for 78 hours back in the day when she was a surgeon, and hard work, almost her religion.

"I tried so hard, you know," she sounded broken.

"I know." I hadn't known her for long, but I could already see what a perfectionist she was. "Maybe you don't need to try so hard. Maybe it's OK to just be."

"Oh dear. I try too hard." she sighed and I could feel the sheer weight of her thoughts. Another imperfection to work on.

"Hold on, let me read you something. I got this from a Dan Joseph (http://www.danjoseph.com) newsletter and I think you will be able to identify.":

Perfectionism is a socially approved trap. It may sound reasonable to "always aim for the best" to "never settle for second place" and so on. But in the end, perfectionism is a hopeless game. It is like endlessly chasing a carrot on a stick.

On the deepest level, you could say that perfectionism is a futile search for self-worth. "If I do this one thing better," perfectionists say to themselves, "then I’ll be worthy. Then I’ll be a good person, and people will like me. I just have be better than I am."

It’s quite tempting to pursue that goal – after all, what a reward! Do this perfectly, and you’re granted worth, acceptance, and love. Just do it perfectly. But of course, the brass ring always stays just out of reach. Tempting, calling – but out of reach.

So what’s the alternative to perfectionism? Some people say, "I’d rather be perfectionistic than lazy and apathetic." But those aren’t the only choices. In fact, the true answer to perfectionism lies at the heart of many spiritual teachings.

"You are a child of God. Nothing can change this. And because you are a child of God, you are perfectly loved, perfectly forgiven, and spiritually perfect forever. Accept that truth about yourself and others."

This attitude, of course, is the opposite of perfectionism. Perfectionists say, "I’m not perfect – far from it. But perhaps if I work harder, or do this better, or improve myself in this way, I have a chance to redeem myself. I just have to try harder."

Again, the spiritual teachings respond by saying, "It’s impossible to ‘make’ yourself perfect. Don’t even try. Instead, be willing to reach deep down into your heart, and into the hearts of others – into your spiritual core. There you’ll find the perfection that you’re seeking."

Lofty ideas! And sometimes hard to accept. For these ideas begin to dismantle the whole thought system of the human ego – the thought system that says, "I can earn my worth. I can acquire love. I can make myself acceptable." The spiritual teachings say, "No – worth, love and acceptance are yours not by your efforts, but by the grace of God. You need do nothing but accept them."

There was silence at the other end of the line. I think I could hear stifled sobs. It was a release.

And all I want to say is, you're beautiful as you are Shel. You're already perfect. So relax.

You need do nothing.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The babe, the bitch and the bimbo

"What's the difference between a slut and a bitch?" he asked, eyes twinkling.

"I don't know," I shrugged wearily. "What?"

"A slut sleeps with everyone. A bitch sleeps with everyone but you."

"Hardi har har."

It was late and I really wasn't in the mood. The extreme misogyny of this place was getting to me. When we moved from from the protected environs of the the training centre to the "floor", otherwise known as the cesspit, we suddenly found ourselves labelled "fresh meat". The more attractive ones would get lascivious invitations over the internal messaging system:

"You've been on the floor for a month. It's time you spread your legs for all the guys." And that was mild. Some girls succumbed to depression and could be found weeping in the toilets. One, gave in her resignation, before the harrassment was investigated and put a stop to.

There were several ways of dealing with these guys. One could evolve into a babe or a bitch. For the bimbo, these jibes were like water off crystal. Nothing penetrated that haze of deliberate stupidity.

The babe exuded a quiet strength. She never got drawn into trading obscenities with the other reporters or giving tit for tat. She managed to hold herself aloof without giving offence (a very delicate task, as male journalists have fragile egos). She was intelligent and professional and built up her contact base pretty quickly. She never traded on her good looks to get her out of work but she did use all her assets to get her the best stories. Naturally, not everyone liked her but they respected her. In our office, at least, she was very, very rare.

The bitch gave as good as she got. She would laugh at the men, hold them up to ridicule, if they tried to mess with her. Extremely aggressive, she was an ace reporter who stepped on anyone she had to, to get what she wanted. It was not a good idea to encroach on her territory, because you found yourself with a formidable rival who would train a laser gun, and make like a Dalek from Dr Who: "Exterminate, Exterminate". Once the male reporters cottoned on to her type, they usually gave her a wide berth.

The bimbo was not necessarily dumb. She just had her brain on suspend mode, because she was not too concerned about the job. It was merely a stepping stone to her real object - a nice fat businessman or politician with loads of moolah. She was necessarily shunned by both the babes and the bitches, who saw her as a disgrace, embodying the worst female stereotypes of stupidity and helplessness. My favourite bimbo story, one that had passed into apocrypha, was one about a TV3 newscaster who had come to my newspaper on attachment. The girl had been sent to interview the Sime Darby head honcho, and such an important interview required careful preparation. Her mind cheerfully empty, she simply asked the questions already prepared for her by the editors. These questions, mind you, had already been faxed to the chairman and his PR machinery had drafted the answers. All went smoothly until the "journalist" decided to try her hand at ad-libbing, towards the end. Convinced that she would make a fantastic impression, if she asked a really "hard" question, she fluttered her eyelashes and fired the following salvo: "So Tan Sri, when does Sime Darby think of getting listed?" His mouth fell open and a few minutes later a call was put through to my office:


You have to understand, asking Sime Darby when it was thinking of getting listed was like asking Jack Welch, if General Electric had any plans of going public. It was the kind of obvious mistake that called for colossal ignorance. Long eyelashes notwithstanding, she failed to make an impression.

So what's the difference between a babe, a bitch and a bimbo? I don't know really. Ask me tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

I love you. You're perfect. Now change.

It was one of those days. There were more than six dishes to get through and so far, I had only managed dessert (though not the sauce for the dessert). And there was still some shopping to do. The lady at the fish market picked out a suitable fish (don't ask me what, my knowledge of all this piscine is abyssmal) and shovelled 600 grams worth of tiger prawns into a plastic bag. She looked at me, hopping from one foot to another:

"Dinner party?"

"Yes. Someone I really need to impress. Dunno if the food will turn out OK though."

"Look love, when someone cooks for you, it's always delicious. Don't worry so much about it."

"Yeah, thanks," I nodded, not believing her.

I am a chronic worrier; I guess you could say that anxiety is my normal state of mind. I worried as I was on my knees on a very grubby bathroom floor, scrubbing away. I worried as I made the special paste for the fish, rubbed it deep into the fillet, wrapped it in a banana leaf and shoved it in the oven (what if it didn't turn out, what if he didn't like it? Even worse, what if his wife didn't?). I worried as I made a mistake with the butter prawns (I put in the grated coconut before the Chinese wine and the soy sauce, rather than after). Aaaaaarrrrggggghhhhhhh! I worried as I fried the parathas which insisted on coming apart in my hands. And the papadams, which kept burning.

I kept glancing at the clock. Oh dear, only an hour and a half left. And I knew, I just knew he would be incredibly punctual. Back home, when you say six o'clock, you would be lucky if your guests rocked up at 6.30. Here, it was punctuality to the minute. His classes, for instance, always started on the microsecond.

With an hour to spare, I had a quick shower, blowdried my impossible hair (thank God I had it all chopped off recently) and changed. No costumes, although it was Halloween. I opted for a black turtleneck (but let us be conservative, or die). By this time, there was only about a half hour left and I had started to squeak as I shoved the table into the hall (student house, what can you do?) and tried to set it.

It was groaning under the weight of the dishes - Portuguese baked fish, butter prawns, Italian-herbed potatoes, creamed broccoli, nasi kemuli (a Nyonya wedding rice), roti paratha (onion and plain), papadams and there was a glistening sticky toffee pudding on the kitchen table for dessert. There was hardly room for the plates.

Like I expected, he arrived with his wife on the dot. This, my favourite lecturer. 60-something, grizzled, and often cantankerous, but brilliant, funny and surprisingly warm when you least expected it. His wife was a tiny, vital person with short hair and flashing eyes. As I expected (despite his professed MCP proclivities) she was a fighter and would not let him get away with making a sexist remark. I knew he wouldn't have married a pushover, no matter how he ranted against feminists. Another tick on his list of perfections. My other guests arrived (actually there was only one another, my friend Lisa, who took his classes as well and liked him) and it was time to begin.

We dug in. I was too nervous to eat, having dined off the smell the whole day. I held my breath and watched them out of the corner of my eye. Lisa was ill but even she was managing to tuck something away. As for my year-long crush, he was eating, complimenting and asking for seconds. I was ecstatic.

"The food is really delicious. Where did you learn to cook?"

"Back home. I decided to, when I couldn't take my boyfriend's cooking one minute longer. His philosophy was 'everything but the kitchen sink' and all the dishes were so incredibly rich they had me running for the bathroom almost instantly." Hahahahahaha.

Did I imagine it or did he look a little sad when I mentioned a boyfriend? (of course, it is an ex I'm talking about, all my boyfriends are exes)

Amici Forever was playing softly in the background and I saw a faraway look steal into his eyes as he zoned out. I leaned over and whispered, there's also dessert to come, you know. He turned to me, coming back to earth and said, sorry, I just know this song, it's Ungrateful Heart. Yes, I grinned, nodding cheerfully, it is. Another sigh of relief. He liked my music selection. You may think I was being overanxious, but this was one fussy professor. An Elizabethan scholar. He disliked nearly everything contemporary - finding them brash and vulgar and just plain dumb. I fell in love with him over Shakespeare and Socrates.

After dessert, we watched the Othello bits in Stage Beauty. When I first watched Stage Beauty I was riveted. At the startling denouement I remember being pressed into my seat, hardly daring to breathe, going no, no, no, no, no! Of course I had to know what he thought of it.

"I loved it, but then I am easily pleased, wouldn't you say?"

He flashed me a look, suspecting sarcasm. We watched the beginning, where Desdemona died "beautifully". We watched the end, where she fought for her life. My other guests were as riveted as I had been. I stole a look at my lecturer. What did he think?

"That was really good. It was also very historically accurate, you know, the way the stage was set up and everything. They obviously did a lot of research. That was supposed to be Edward Kynaston?"

He had obviously heard of Kynaston. And when I mentioned Nell Gwynne, he nodded sagely: "Yes, the king's mistress." That's what it's like having an Elizabethan scholar watch bits of a period movie with you. They know all this stuff before you tell them. "What's it called again, Stage Beauty? I will have to get it out. Looks very good."

It was nearly eight and the two of them had to leave. His wife said: "We have to be up at the crack of dawn."

He said: "And these girls need to prepare for their exams."

We went out to his car to say goodbye. He thanked me for the lovely meal and the lovely evening. He opened the car door for his wife and saw her safely in. Then he came around to say goodbye and gave me a hug. It was long and satisfying. And I felt sad all over again.

I thought I was over him, but I guess I'm not.

I love you. You're perfect. Don't change.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Babe in Total Control of Herself

It was all about having the right comeback at the right time. It was all about keeping your knives sharpened so that the microsecond you were insulted, you could respond. Sometimes you practised in front of the mirror. It was that important. Timing was everything.

Rana was a star. She had her own column and civilians actually wanted her autograph. People knew her from her photo byline and she would be stopped in the street by fans who panted adoringly: "Are you the Rana Weera?" She wrote about being the most beautiful woman on the planet. And how a perfumer told her she had so much personality that she should host a talkshow. And how this extremely delectable black man addressed her as "Hey Gorgeous". And she was. Beautiful, that is. Just not svelte beautiful. And if you know anything about Malaysian men, you would know they insist on svelte beautiful.

It was an ordinary day in the office. The cheerful clatter of reporters pounding on stone age PCs. Hot and heavy flirting going on through the internal messaging system. One young recruit ducking under her table when she saw the news editor looking purposefully around, long press release in hand. Another one, with five files on her desk, on the phone, with her brow furrowed in concentration (she was talking to her mother).

Rana strolled over to Bubbly's desk to get a name card. Bubbly, who was working on a cheerful little piece on suicide, flashed her a million-dollar-smile and started rifling through her Rolodex. They were good friends but Bubbly was svelte beautiful. And she didn't have to write about being much sought after. She actually was.

Rana, tapping her foot impatiently: "Look, if you don't have it, just say so."

Bubbly, in saintly tones: "I don't like saying no to my friends."

Rana, with a sarcastic sneer: "Yes, rumour has it."

Bubbly's head snapped up. A loaded pause as she let her gaze wander over Rana's Rubenesque form.

Then: "At least I say yes and get somewhere."

Like I said. It's all in the timing.