Saturday, April 29, 2006

Jackie, when she sizzles

It was an ordinary day. The sun was insinuating itself into my sinews (it's called melanin Mom, some of us have more of it than others), crowds of people hurtled into each other, the snatch thieves on motorbikes were going their merry way, dragging victims along stony pavements, while others watched and sighed. A very ordinary day.

Suddenly, a man in a grey trench coat sidled out of the shadows and growled at me:

"There's a number out on one of your molars!"

Huh? Apart from anything else, this is Malaysia and people don't wear trench coats.

I swallowed nervously and squeaked: "Um, what do you mean?"

But he had sidled back into the shadows from whence he emerged.

I dropped on one knee, clutching my aching tooth and declaimed passionately:

"Yet never, never can we part,
while Memory holds her reign,
Thine, thine is still this withered heart,
Till we shall meet again."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Confessions of a Lonely Millionairess with a Penchant for Red-Faced Young Boys with Hard Luck Stories

It's the Big M's birthday. I was wondering what to get her when this young boy appeared at my gate sweating. (Does that sound dramatic? It really happened!) He rambled off something in Malay and I listened patiently, wondering how to fend him off politely. After all I was just about to get started on my trip back to Johor Bahru, the lair of my Big M. But he was young and charged up and insistent. Also, he was only 15, working part time after school and sometimes during school to support his deaf mother. His dad, a Singaporean had taken off and was not to be heard off again. I gave him a can of soda and took a minute out of my terribly busy schedule to hear his sales talk. (Am I the humanitarian or what? Didn't I tell you I liked people?)

A lot of exciting things ensued. For instance, I found myself driving him back to his office which was in the boondocks (in other words, Kepong) taking out RM3,000 (no, he didn't hold me up at gunpoint, although I feel a little trampled) and buying a whole load of stuff I neither wanted nor needed.

Except that this was not how it was couched. He gave me a card, I tore it open, and he expected it to say "Terima Kasih" as in thank you for trying. Instead, it stand a chance of winning something today. The humdinger would have been the Toyota Altis.

I could win a car? Hey, I could win a car!

Second prize, was a Perodua, not quite as impressive, but still not bad. I mean, Julie wanted a car. Money for jam. Hahahaha. Of course there were other possibilities - a large fridge, a micro computer oven, a 43-inch screen tv... but I was focussed on the car. Wow. Wouldn't it be cool to have a new car just fall into my lap like that. Certainly didn't expect this when I woke up this morning.

Of course there was a catch. If I won any of the five goods, I had to buy three of their things - a foot massager, a water purification system and a turbo cooker (don't ask). All for a cool RM3,000. Which the young red-faced chap assured me was still a 50 per cent discount on the original price.

I could see myself in that car. It was mine. A cool RM100,000. Money for jam, I say. And I mean even the lesser prizes weren't bad...I wouldn't mind that 43-inch tv. Anything but the...

You got it. I got the micro computer stove. Aaarrrggggghhhhh!

Well, the bright side was that my Mom really needed a new stove. And this was a funky one that used electrical heat (no fire) and you programmed stuff into it. Dunno how Mom will like that as she knows just enough to play Spider Solitaire, but still. And I got to swap the turbo cooker (I never really found out what it was) for a microwave oven.

The dark side is I just got paid and have spent three quarters of the cash on these doodads. I mean to say what?

So Mom is getting the stove and the foot massager. And Dad (whose birthday it was this month too) is getting the microwave oven and the water purification system.

Some days you wake up and think, gee, I'd like to spend all my money on electrical appliances.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Law of Attraction

It's funny but I'm attracted to most of the people I meet, most of the people I choose to work with. I look for something in them that resonates, find it and spark! I'm in attraction.

I used to mistake this for sexual attraction and wonder why I had a crush on such a large number of people. Acting on this attraction, however, was always a huge mistake. It destroyed the delicate balance, forcing the relationship into an area both coarse and sordid.

This form of attraction has really nothing to do with sex (except in that sex and creativity share a chakra). I think it's that I am searching for a way to relate to the people I have to deal with, and, being a journo (or an ex-journo at least), most of the people I met have been out of the ordinary.

People like being liked. They respond to genuine attraction.

So let me just say, I really really like you.


Monday, April 24, 2006


More and more people I know today are freelancing. Chucking dead-end jobs which shrivel their souls for a life of choice, a chance to map out their own futures. It's a ridiculously frightening (and heady) feeling, stepping off into the unknown, without the security of a monthly salary to see what else is out there; to chart one's one course rather than living on automatic, brain on idle, heart shut off.

I remember taking this course after 11 years in the same job. It had become increasingly unpalatable, toxic even, and I remember once when I was ill continuously for about six months; one of those low-level colds that never seemed to get better. Not life threatening, but enough to make me miserable a great deal of the time.

Something had to give.

Stepping out in the unknown, in my case, involved going off to do a degree long postponed. A degree most other people could not see the use for, and which I, to tell you the truth, sometimes had doubts about.

Why was I doing it? It felt right.

That's not a responsible way to think? Responsible to whom? I was my own mistress, I could take off at a moment's notice if I wanted to, and frankly, what was I sticking around for? Did I think things were going to get any better?

A life bounded by grey horizons is no life at all.

Before I could go, I got tested all round. I had enough money to fund about three semesters (but what about the other three? where was that going to come from?). I usually like all these things hammered out in the beginning because I hate the insecurity of not knowing where the funds for tomorrow are coming from.

Here, my family came through for me in a wonderful way. I guess the Universe tests you and if you're serious about what you want to do, it steps in to help. I was incredibly blessed, but I do feel that having faith that it would all work out had something to do with it. If I had accepted my lot at face value, I would never have had the courage to go ahead. I would have remained in my job, miserable, sickly, feeling sorry for myself.

Another challenge was that I had no idea how I would fare in an academic situation. I had been out of school for so long, and my last encounter with it was not fortifying, to say the least. I had flunked my Form 6, the first time in my life, I flunked any major exam. I was just not a science student, and I remember the exact moment I gave up. I was busy writing one of the physics papers and I remember glancing at my watch and willing the time to hurtle ahead. I didn't want to be sitting in this chair, doing this. If I never saw another physics paper in my life, it would be too soon.

When the results came in, I was not very surprised, although my Mom, who could always count on me for coming in with a eleventh hour "save" was devastated. She decided that if I didn't want to study I could go out there and get a job.

So when I was all ready to go back to school, I wondered if maybe, I was not good enough. My first class which had to do with literary theory, confirmed my suspicions. I didn't understand what the hell it was all about. That week, I read five books to try and catch up and understand what that first chapter was. Unfortunately the chapter was on New Criticism, which of course, was too old and dated a theory to merit even a question for one of the essays, to say nothing of the exams. But it was a good exercise. Having read up on it, I realised that even if I was not yet up to par, I could always catch up. No sweat. I was good enough.

Anyway, the long and short of it was that I worked very very hard and aced nearly everything.

Then it was time to come home and I was filled with apprehension. Would I fall into old patterns? In Australia it was easy to wake up early and have a day filled with meaningful activities. Hours were not wasted in a million little nothings like battling traffic. What would it be like when I came back?

It was bad. And not. I remembered the traffic and had forgotten the people I loved. They were still here. Rooting for me. As for the rest, I would just have to learn to shut them out.

Naturally, the first thing everyone wanted to know when I got back was what I was going to do. Which newspaper? Magazine?

The thought of delivering myself up to one of those prisons of the spirit stopped me in my tracks.

So I told them I would be freelancing.

Freelancing? What a cop-out! Freelancing? How do you mean freelancing? Who are your clients? Freelancing? You mean freeloading. How long do you think your poor parents can afford to support you...

But the moment I started looking for work, I found it. I simply picked up my Rolodex and made a few calls. I had built up a reputation before I left and all I needed to do was work that reputation; reintroduce myself into the market.

So there I was, moving gamely ahead, getting immersed in my new projects, my spirit retreating to some grim corner. And someone called out to me.

He didn't ask why I had chosen the freelance route, insecure as it was, but affirmed that it was the best for someone like me.

"Yes, I understand that for people like you, it's about the time to do the things that matter - reading, writing, thinking. Don't think you could get that on a nine-to-five."

Indeed. And this from a venture capitalist!

I felt ashamed. I had decided to freelance because I wanted to free up my time for what mattered. And my days were simply filled with a lot of rubbish that didn't.

Crimson is the tide in my veins and it surges and ebbs. I want something I cannot have. I want something, something, something and I grow so big I disappear into a great steaming mass of longing.

Nobody sees the shadow in the mirror.

Or the people who draw skeletons in the sand.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Hindsight: Always 20:20

It's weird but sometimes I look back and find clues that I knew the right thing to do all along. I just ignored it.

I was surfing the net, looking to see if I could find anything new on a particular author I liked) and I found my old blog, nicely cached, because naturally, it's been removed from the net. (My ex-boyfriend was hosting it, long story, some other time).

I re-read some of the entries with amusement and then came across one that dealt with a dream I was having at the time. It stunned me. I mean, oh my God, with the blessing of hindsight, it is so obvious what the dream meant, although at the time I just thought it "weird". I was flailing in the dark, unhappy but refusing to acknowledge why.

I have to explain that I was in a relationship at the time, engaged to a person who made me desperately unhappy and who, I in turn, irritated and baffled. We had a few oases of peace, but our association was becoming increasingly turbulent. Things came to a head in Malaysia, where he had accompanied me for a holiday, and we broke up the day before he left. I grieved of course, because no matter how bad a relationship has been, there is a modicum of sadness when it ends (I think some people even miss their tumours). But there was this feeling release and relief. I would not have to marry him. I was free. And my third year in Australia was the best I ever had.

Anyway, here's the dream:

I have been having some way intense dreams lately. I listen to my Holosync meditation tapes and fall asleep just after breakfast and I dream I am on a bus. It's supposed to take me home, but instead, it's going the wrong way; miles and miles the wrong way. Instead of hopping off, I figure that when it gets to the other end, I can take a bus back. But something is happening to me. I am going blind. I try to keep my eyes open but I cannot - it's not sleep, it's blindness. Whenever I do succeed in forcing my eyes open, I am staring at the bedroom ceiling outside of the dream. But then my eyes force themselves closed again. So there I am, on a bus heading miles the wrong way, blind as a newborn puppy. How's that for a metaphor to whack you in the face?

No bystanders in hell

When I was little, there was this show, Combat, I think it was every night (at least it felt like it was every night). My three-year-old brother watched it hungrily and spent the rest of the day pretending to be Vic Morrow (was it Vic Morrow?) and telling anyone who would listen that he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up. If I said this show glorified war I would be guilty: of damning with faint praise.

As for me, not being equipped with a Y chromosome, I used to bury my face under the pillow (we would be sleeping out in the hall) and ask for the tv to be turned off. I could find no romance in the grievously wounded men.

When I was about four, M*A*S*H* appeared on our horizon. We were too little to comprehend it really, but loved it anyway. It had the best theme music of any of the shows going and we thought Klinger was hilarious.

Fast foward many years when they bring it back to tv and we finally start to understand what it's about. A comedy? Well, you would have to overlook a hell of a lot to call it a comedy. Most of the episodes, we cried as much as we laughed. And what happened to lovable Henry, I mean that is up there for me with Bambi's mother and the penultimate scene in Life is Beautiful.

Over the years I have come across a few people (who have never watched an episode of this show) who condemned it for glorifying war. My ex-fiance's dad never let his children watch it. And he was horrified when he heard I really enjoyed the show. I don't know how to act in front of such decent and upright folk. I think in future, I'll just stick to my own kind. And let me just add that M*A*S*H* glorified war the same way Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 did. And you must have heard of Slaughterhouse 5.

Anyway, here's something for anyone who has never watched the show, with my best compliments:

Hawkeye: I just don't know why they're shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread, transplant the American dream; freedom, achievement, hyper-acidity, affluence, flatulence, tension, the inalienable right to an early coronary sitting at your desk while planning to stab your boss in the back; that's entertainment!

Hawkeye (to Radar): Don't you know how much this place stinks? Don't you know what it's like to stand day after day in blood, in the blood of children? I hate this place and if I can't stand up to it to your satisfaction, then to hell with you!

Hawkeye: Wounded?
BJ(nods): Klinger says a lot.
Hawkeye: I don't care. I really don't. They'll keep coming whether I'm here or not. Trapper went home and they're still coming. Henry got killed and they're still coming. Wherever they come from, they'll never run out.

Hawkeye (weeping): I've watched guys die every day, why didn't I ever cry for them?
Henry: Because you're a doctor.
Hawkeye: What's that supposed to mean?
Henry: I don't know. If I had all the answers, I'd be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this look like the Mayo Clinic? Look, all I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war and rule number one is young men die and rule number two is doctors can't change rule number one.

Fr Mulcahey: Well you know what they say, war is hell.
Hawkeye: No, war is worse than hell. Who goes to hell Father?
Mulcahey: Well sinners, mostly.
Hawkeye: Right. There are no bystanders in hell.

The wounded keep coming. The common denominator is blood. It's all red. And there's an awful lot of it leaking out around here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Dark and stormy night-ish

Hello my loverlies! It's half past three in the morning and Jenn is high on dexies (OK not actually dexies, not quite anything so interesting and drug-worthy because this is Malaysia and I am a huge coward and I wanted to try all this stuff in Australia but didn't get around to it as even coffee messed with my brain to say nothing of a single glass of wine and this is the longest parenthetical aside ever)

I am high. As a kite. I just finished the second article I was contracted to do. And I did it in record time. Yeah, really, I did. And I think it's super good (fingers crossed the client thinks so too) and I have all this energy left over for some other creative activity.

Which reminds me, I have a dark and stormy night story for you. It was a dark and stormy night, winter winding its icy tresses around my fingers as I typed away in my uni's megalab. It was four in the morning and I had just finished my folio - two stories, three poems (the poems weren't really serious, just me dealing with creativity overload), the culmination of a whole semester of voracious reading, walks to figure out plots, morning pages (ala Julia Cameron), the whole creativity she-bang.

And I loved, simply loved what I wrote. It was my first ever creative high. I cycled back through icy streets to my unheated room and dropped onto the mattress on the floor. I couldn't sleep. Too buzzed. And I would have to be up by seven the next day to get to uni in time to hand up all my various pieces of work. Folio, beautiful folio.

I was up with the birds. Really. I didn't even feel sleepy. I moved slowly through this enchanted space, as if I was moving through warm amniotic fluid, the world dreamlike, magical.

I handed in my folio and got my coursework returned. The highest mark in class. He (my completely adorable red-headed former football player tres hunky tutor) used words like "excellent" and "you write very well" and "again, very good". I was in heaven.

I glided off to have a coffee and a soft warm (Mrs Fields-like) cookie (little did I know that this was the last time I would have this particular cookie, my staple, my mouthful of chocolate joy, as the vendors were moving out).

The high lasted for three days. Never, never, never, never, never (as Lear said about Cordelia coming again) have I ever felt anything close. Not even when I was in love. I decided then that this filled a deep part of me. This writing thing. Who needed men? Or love? Or sex?

Yeah right. Who indeed.

So anyway, I feel a smidgen of that now. Not who needs men (although by the bye, I had my first sort of lesbian dream last night, not that I did anything, even my dreams are censored, but there was this knowing that she was the was lovely) but I feel happy with something I've done, I did it in record time and maybe the client will say, cor blimey Jenn, you always exceed expectations...we want to hire you indefinitely.

And I am OD-ing on Avemano by Era. Mark gave me the CD. I love Mark. I will always love Mark. And the music is beautiful.

Too many things to be happy for, I'd better sign off before I give you cavities or worse, diabetes.

Goodnight my loverlies!

Friday, April 21, 2006

Some things last forever

We meet for a coffee and you look so tired. Drained. All this has taken too much out of you. And now there's me to add to an overfull plate. Eager beaver that I am, I try not to breathe, take up too much space, too much time. I compress myself and eagerly scribble down the pearls of wisdom that fall from your lips.

You look unbeautiful in your exhaustion, but I still have a hankering for...did you just touch my hand? No, no, that was just a fly. I swallow nervously. This is not turning out like I thought it would. We tiptoe around each other. Actually, it's nice. Sex is so sordid. This is pleasant. Me listening, you pretending to talk.

Your phone beeps and your next appointment is waiting. You drain the bitter cup and I hold my breath. Maybe a kiss goodbye? No, not even that. We smile. Shake hands. Thank each other. Part.

Some things last forever. This is just not one of them.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Joy in the morning

I don't know if anyone remembers Perfect Strangers - Balky and Cousin Larry. Our favourite part was always when Balky said: "Now we're so happy we do the dance of joy." After which they would proceed to do it.

My two little sisters came up with their own version of it (Balky's dance of joy being a little impractical for any but professionals as it requires one to leap into the arms of another....ahhh Bronson Pinchot) and they used to do it for my amusement. I miss those days. There's nothing like a sister to entertain and share goofy things with.

Happy things add up, to whit:

1. An email from a client who said he was happy with the 300th draft of an article. He said: "No changes to add. Well done."

2. An email from my favourite lecturer. He is all of 60 and taught Shakespeare and I was desperately in love with him all of last year. Parting is such sweet sorrow...

3. I met my favourite cousin's fiance and liked him very much. And she is all better now from the nasty attack. I saw her yesterday and she was positively glowing.

Excuse me while I do the dance of joy.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

When books sing

A book was singing. Which book, I didn't know. I got up and stumbled out of bed, waving my hand vaguely at my side table, willing the noise to stop. It didn't.

I glared sternly at the higgledy piggledy pile on the table. Or at least as sternly as I could in my dazed, three-hours-of-sleep-is-just-not-enough state. Still that annoying tune. I opened and closed the books, figuring it was as good a way as any to silence the offending item. To no avail.

Finally I started flinging the books to the ground (something my mother always told me never to do) in an attempt to get the offending tome to shut the fuck up! My sister unclosed one eye and looked at me. She had also been awakened by the racket and hoped I would put a stop to it, whatever it was.

I decided that this was an exercise in futility. The problem was too large for me to handle in the dark. I stumbled over to the switch at the other end of the room and shed some light on the matter. Ah, illumination!

It was not a book singing. It was the phone ringing, singing, blasted alarm!

I switched it off, shot my sister a goofy, apologetic grin, gazed at the books on the floor and climbed back into bed.

I could clear up the mess later.

Monday, April 17, 2006

A lost love

"I'll never see you again. We'll write a few notes as a graceful gesture of futility but I'll never see you again."

Hawkeye Pierce.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

New Life, Old Death

She loved colour – her walls were a deep shade of rusty red. Being Catholic, she had a number of Sacred Hearts on the walls and other pictures of Jesus gazing down mournfully, scattered throughout the apartment. They gave her comfort, but her husband found the stare unnerving. In fact, he took down the one in their bedroom and placed it on the floor, face turned towards the wall. It did not endear him to her as the red walls had not endeared her to him. He had wanted green.

Everything in the apartment was either floral – like the curtains or the sofa - or lacy – like the tablecloth. It was all too feminine and claustrophobic for him and he longed to escape to the cool green spaces of his native New Zealand. KL irritated and unnerved because there were too many things and people crowding him out.

In the hall, was an impressive hi-fi system – her first Christmas present to him; it had taken her nearly a year to pay off. He left it behind when he took off, claiming rather cuttingly that it was not good enough. Cheap stuff. He could get something better at home. He'd never allowed her to touch it and now the intricate tracery of knobs and controls overwhelmed. It sat in her living room, covered with a crocheted doily, large, impressive and useless. Kinda like their marriage.

She loved angels – there were angels throughout the apartment either tiny Christmas decorations, hanging from the door of her bedroom, Raphaelean prints smirking from the walls or sparkling crystal statuettes on the occasional tables around the apartment.

On one wall, proudly displayed, a house blessing crewel-stitched by a friend she no longer talked to. It read:

May this house be a place of peace, rest and love.

Her dressing room had a console table (also a present) with the pictures of her nieces and nephew and her collection of quartz crystals, from her brief fling with the New Age.

The bookshelf in her bedroom overflowed with cheap romance novels, a little strange for one with a bachelor's in English and a master's in linguistics, but she lived in those stories, always dreaming of some dark, brooding, mysterious stranger who would appear one day, see her for who she really was and sweep her off her feet.She went back to those novels very quickly after her marriage, disappearing into dreams to better handle her growing disillusionment with the real thing. Similarly, her collection of VCDs seemed to run to gaudy Bollywood effusions – colour and drama and emotions spilling out all over the place. Nothing for quiet reflection; that would have been too painful.

She had a cordless phone, as her size made it difficult for her to run to the phone every time it rang. Her husband never answered the phone, unless she was not there as it was seldom, very seldom, for him. He had no friends. She had plenty. One of them, observing the drama at her apartment one day, gave her the cordless phone for her birthday. She clung to it like an umbilical cord, her only connection to the outside world in her increasingly solitary existence. Her husband did not like her family or friends coming over and made it pretty obvious. They stopped coming.

Her apartment was spotless, vacuumed at least twice a day. She had asthma and dust always bothered her. The constant drone of the vacuum cleaner got on his nerves and soon she had to cut down on it to prevent the armed neutrality from erupting into a full scale war.

“I feel like a stranger in my own home, I can’t even clean it when I want."

Everything was arranged with an eye to comfort and taste – the effect was warm, motherly and embracing. But there was no bassinet in the corner and now there never would be. Her husband gone, her uterus shot to pieces under an avalanche of medication and any sex these days, only virtual. The apartment was full of things and empty of all that mattered.

The warm, red, pulsating walls closed in as she curled up on the sofa, weeping at the latest Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster. She wept that he was dying of heart disease and would not be able to marry the girl he loved. She wept at the unfairness of life and how alone she was. How alone she would always be. She wept for the absent child who would have given her increasingly solitary existence some purpose and meaning. She wept for her lonely womb.

April, the cruellest month.

A month for new life, old death.

Friday, April 14, 2006

I was robbed. Actually my cousin was. The Jennifer J. story.

I guess we forgot to be scared when walking along the side of the street. I guess we forgot that this is the land of the snatch thieves and it does not matter where you are or how safe you feel or if it's broad daylight, you had to remember that the snatch thieves were ubiquitous (the three things you could depend on were death, taxes and snatch thieves) circling for victims, keeping an eye out for the less-than-vigilant, with a hope of making a killing.

Eve was walking a little ahead of us, chatting away on her cool new mobile. Her handbag (with its very short strap) hung merrily on the side of right side (facing the road). I heard the motorbike come close and instinctively flinched. I have been robbed before. I saw it slow down beside her, and this expressionless guy with a moustache grab her bag and hold on while his partner took off, zig-zagging across the length of the road to throw her off.

People always say, when your bag is snatched, just let go, it's not worth getting killed to save a few dollars, a compact, a lipstick and all your personal documentation. All I have to say to these people is, "YOU TRY IT!". Most times, you are unaware of what has happened when you find yourself being dragged on the street, aware of people screaming all around, and the bag is stuck to you. There is no way you can simply "let it go".

Anyways, there she was, almost vertical, being dragged across the length of the road. She looked like she was taking a real beating (in fact, the whole thing was so shocking it actually looked ridiculous, something out of America's Funniest Home Videos). Then the strap snapped and the bastards took off, leaving her poor, battered, bruised body to us. We had been chasing her (of course, to no avail) screaming (which alerted the neighbourhood but did little else) and when she was finally released, we rushed up to her. My friend Mary, half carried her to the sidewalk. Eve's face was grey and she was shaking.

"Mary, my skirt?" she asked. Eve, an extremely modest young lady, was aware that the whole street was converging upon us at this time and her skirt had ridden up. She didn't want all these open-mouthed bystanders to have an eyeful of her underwear. Mary, pale with shock, pulled down the skirt and sat with her arm around Eve. I sat on the other side and between us, we held her trembling body, trying to come to terms with what had just happened.

"Are you OK?" Stupid question, I know. But it's one of those you have to ask. Eve is a tough cookie. She never shows emotions in public and there she sat between us, trying to pull herself together. The people crowded all around. Three guys who had been standing close by and witnessed the whole thing, (one of them had a walking stick which he tried to poke into the wheel of the criminals' bike) came up to us and started to call the police. They had made note of the number (it was a fake licence plate). Another old bhai auntie came up to us and made sympathetic clucking noises.

A Chinese lady who lived nearby got her maid to run in and get some plaster and antiseptic, which she then applied to my cousin's feet (the skin on her toes had been ripped off) and put plasters (you would call them band-aids) on the affected areas. Another brought back her shoes that had flown off during the skirmish. The lady looked at the shoes and shook her head.

"It would be better if you didn't wear those now. They will just increase the pain." She then instructed her maid to go to her house and get a new pair of slippers, which she then presented to my cousin. The black leather shoes were put neatly into an MNG bag presented to us by a young Punjabi girl, who took out her own stuff first. Cars slowed down and stopped, offering us rides to the police station. Another lady shot off and brought back a glass of water for Eve.

In the course of a few minutes, we were subjected to such a great outpouring of love and concern that it took my breath away. This was the Malaysia that I had so cynically dismissed?

While this was happening, I asked my cousin what was in her bag to decide on our next course of action. Thankfully, there hadn't been much cash (although when she went to replace the documentation, like her identity card, driver's licence and bankcards, she would have to fork out a lot more). I called up Information to get the number for her banks to cancel her credit and ATM cards. It was all done in a matter of minutes. Whatever those bastards had got from her, they wouldn't be able to use her credit cards. And all that drama for RM40? The only really valuable thing that would have been in her bag was the new funky Motorola. That had remained in her hand through the whole ordeal.

I walked back to Mary's house (we had just taken a stroll down the road to go to a nearby restaurant) to get the car and as I drove up I was conscious of a traffic jam, as one driver after another stopped to offer help. When they got into the car (Mary sat at the back still holding Eve) everyone waved us off, having helped as much as they could. Frankly we were quite overwhelmed.

As the shock receded, Eve turned to Mary: "Did you know all those people?"

Mary shook her head.

"Boy, you have some pretty fantastic neighbours."

A little later we were in Mary's house and she had just made a cup of hot sweet tea for Eve. Eve doesn't drink anything with sugar but I told her rather bossily to gulp it all down as it would be good for the shock. Suddenly we were aware of some young boys (they had been playing football across the street when the snatch theft occurred and had made their way over to see what they could do). We overhead one of them saying that if he ever saw that snatch thief again he would "belasah" him good. (Roughly translated: beat the crap out of him). The young boys had led the police car that had finally shown up, to Mary's house. Eve remained inside while Mary went outside to make a statement. She was not alone. It seemed that the whole neighbourhood came to help tell the story, as well as share some of their own anecdotes about crimes that had taken place there not too long ago. A taxi driver who had driven up to us (thinking we wanted a ride) and witnessed what had taken place, had chased the thieves but lost them at a petrol station. He came to make his statement too. A police officer came to the house to speak to Eve. He told her we would have to go to the Brickfields' police station to make a report.

The rest of the night passed like a dream. We repaired to the station in question, went through the interrogation. The officer who took down my cousin's statement was both sympathetic and hopeful. A few years ago when I had my own bag snatched, it was standard operating procedure to harrass the victims. A stupid officer who had no business being there when I made my report, read it over his colleague's shoulder and started scolding me for "carelessness". I stared at him in disbelief and my sister, who was with me at the time and very much shaken up by everything started to cry. What I should have said (hindsight makes us all wise) was that the reason people like me got mugged was that creeps like him were not doing their jobs. But I was young then. And in shock.

In Eve's case, the nice police officer told her not to worry. These guys would be caught (although maybe not at once) and they would have to pay for what they had done. As we were not allowed to be with her (only victims are allowed inside to make statements) I started to get upset. There she was, hungry, in pain and all shaken up, and why was this taking so long? Finally, I stood at the window and started to glare at him. A little while later, he beckoned me in. "Do you have anything to add?"

"Such as?"

"It's strange. There were three of you there and you couldn't even get the number?"

This time around I was not gonna stand for any bullying. "When something like this happens, you are in shock. We were looking at her not at the bike!" I snapped. My cousin toned my words down and tried to explain this calmly.

Finally, he let us go, giving us his number for any further developments.

Mary and I linked our arms on either side of Eve and marched out. There was a vague Indian dude walking behind us (this was still in the police station but we were that jittery) so we turned around and glared at him, till he walked past us. Suspicious of everybody now.

We went across the road for a meal. The restaurant was dark, only illuminated by candlelight, which would have been kind of romantic, except that it was as a result of a power failure, rather than to add to the ambiance. Some food in her, the colour started coming back to my cousin's face. We started to chat about other things, work, Mary's parents (lovingly referred to as the old boy and the old girl). Mary told us that the old girl (who is all of 87) insists on listening to the entire BBC news everyday, even the economic portion. One day, the old boy happened to switch it off before the business news was over and she got upset.

"Why did you do that for? Now I don't know what the price of crude oil was today."

Mary was stunned. None of us (business reporters though we were) gave two hoots about the price of crude oil. Eve and I screamed with laughter. The next day, Mary read that the price of crude oil was US$65 a barrel for that day and told her mother, half jokingly. The old girl listened seriously, head cocked to one side, nodded in a satisfied manner and went on cooking.

"Heh. Your mom is smart. She knows that the price of crude oil affects the price of her vegetables," Eve offered.

"I tell you, if I ever ran a tv news show, I would hire the two of them like a shot. They really are very good and uptodate about everything," Mary said. We all nodded, having had the same experience with our own parents. They actually read the papers, while all we did was just work in them.

We traded stories about possible job opportunities, discussed Eve's upcoming wedding, my new job, and frankly except for Eve's slightly battered appearance, it seemed like just another meeting of the 3K Production. (We named ourselves 3K, short for Tiga Keling or Three Keralites). Part of me was amazed by how quickly things had sort of gone back to normal (or were we all pretending?)

She didn't want to go to the hospital for a check-up (I feel fine, really you guys, just tired, I'll go tomorrow) so Mary and I drove her home and prepared ourselves to face her Mom (my aunt) whom we hadn't called to tell, only because she would be climbing off the walls if we had.

We woke her up (we had to, Eve's housekeys were in her bag) and as she staggered downstairs, drugged with sleep, she came awake as she realised that it was not only her daughter standing there waiting.

"Auntie, I think you'd better sit down."

"Why? What is all this Jenny?"

"Mom, I was mugged. They dragged me along the road."

Her eyes widened in disbelief and it was only then that she took in her daughter's bedraggled appearance. "Oh my God, are you alright?"

She sank into her seat and as is usual when one is mugged (the experience is so common over here that there almost seems to be a procedure to it), she discussed her own experiences and that of her friends. This friend. That friend. How this one was injured so badly. Eve listened, nodding tiredly. The kid was just about done in. Her eyes were red and it was obvious that she badly needed a hot shower and to crawl into bed.

"Have you been to the doctor?" her mother demanded sharply.

"No. I'll go tomorrow."

"We wanted to take her auntie, but she wanted to come home."

Her mom rose to make us all hot drinks. She then gave her daughter a couple of Panadols and some water. Mary and I took our leave soon after, after charging Eve to go sleep and call us tomorrow if she needed anything. I left instructions about how to get to the JPJ to do her driver's licence, telling her to come over to my house and I would drive her, if she needed to.

Then I drove Mary back and when I finally fell into my own bed, it was nearly two in the morning and I was just about done in. Before I fell asleep, I remembered the kind faces of all those people we didn't know, people we would probably never see again, who had come forward to help.

This was Malaysia? I felt curiously warm as I snuggled down under my duvet.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

At Your Own Valuation

People tend to take you at your own valuation. If you think you're worth nothing, they'll think so too, and pay you accordingly (whatever the coin). I have known this for a long time but I have just come face to face with it again in a rather startling manner.

I have a friend, let's call her Simonetta. Now Simonetta has years and years of experience in both broadcast and print journalism, is really good at her work and I don't think I have ever met anyone as conscientious or diligent. All good.

But Simonetta also has a very low opinion of herself. When I first came to know her, she used to look out at me with large desperate eyes, begging for help on this, that or the other. In the rodeo that was our office, this was not acceptable behaviour. If one had a weakness, one strove to hide it and brazen things out. It was OK to know nothing. It was not OK to know nothing and show that you knew nothing.

Anyway, we did not hit it off. She found me hard and angry (everyone found me angry at that time) and I found her a wimp. Then, towards the end of her stay in my newspaper, I actually got to know her. There was so much more there than originally met the eye. I started to like her just as she was about to leave. And when she left, I found myself missing her. Calling to catch up.

Anyone, as unlikely a pairing as the two of us were (one militant, the other self-deprecating) we became the best of friends. Part of each other's support group. When I was first in Australia, going through landlord crisis after landlord crisis (I stayed in three different houses in my first semester alone), she was the one I would call and howl to. She would listen, make me feel better, at least well enough to fight another day.

So there she was at the other end of the table looking tired and slightly out of sorts. She was treating me to lunch (for my graduation) and there was some quality of joy missing from her. Slowly, it came out. How a friend had contracted her to do research, underpaid her for the work and was npw refusing to pay expenses. There was a lot of resentment on her part (this friend is a millionairess in her own right, while Sim is a struggling freelancer) and it was easy to see she was feeling ill-used. She wanted to forget about it, chalk it up to experience but it was obviously a difficult situation to swallow.

We went through it from every possible angle and I finally asked her if she had a clear idea of how much she wanted to earn a month, freelancing. She hemmed and hawed and told me how little she needed to actually survive (her life being so very basic and close to the bone).

"I didn't ask how much you needed to survive. I asked how much you wanted to be comfortable, how much you think you're worth. Come on, name a figure and let's decide what you can do to earn that a month," I said.

"OK, I can get by on X amount of dollars. I don't want to kill myself working for twice as much."

I was staggered. This was a woman with 25 years of experience and she had named a figure that was close to what my little sister, a new graduate, was pulling in. "You don't have to kill yourself to earn that much, or twice or three times that much. Come on, let's work out an acceptable goal for you and write it down."

She was obviously uncomfortable. Finally I took the notebook from her and started scribbling a rough draft of a possible goal. When I named a figure in there I saw her flinch, as if from a blow and I could actually feel her stomach clench. She told me later than when she saw the figure I named (which was not extravagant by any means) a voice popped in her head, remarking sardonically: "Who do you think you are? You think you're worth that much?"

Anyway, I handed over the notebook to her and said: "OK, come on, you edit what I just wrote, to your liking. All I ask is that you do not change the figure (unless you want to increase it) or the time frame."

Simonetta looked at me, her eyes troubled. There was no way of getting out of this (you have no idea what a martinet I can be) and she had no choice but to put pen to paper and work out something acceptable. The thing she most wanted to change (the figure) was, according to me, sacrosanct.

To ease the process I told her a few stories I had picked up along the way. About how people only value something when they have had to fork out a hell of a lot for it. Exorbitant equalling quality, whichever way you looked at it.

For instance: I have a friend who runs a hobby store. She wanted to clear some spools of thread, so she had them marked down by 50 per cent and placed in front of the store. For a week, customers came, hovered nearby, picked up a spool, looked it over, glanced at the price, noticed it was cheaper than other embroidery thread, and moved right along without bothering to make a purchase. Fed up, she doubled the price from what it had originally been. In a few days the thread was sold out. In relating this story to me, my friend the shop-owner had said: "Typical Malaysian mentality. Unless you pay a lot for something, it ain't worth nothing."

Then there was a plastic surgeon that I met on the streets of the Champs Elysee. He took me out for a delightful dinner and told me the story of his life. There was a time when this man, who was relatively wealthy, had lost all his money because of some bad investments in real estate. He said many of his "friends" had gloated over his downfall, but he was unfazed, having decided to become the best plastic surgeon in all of Canada, and many times as wealthy as he had been, before he lost all his money.

"How do you become the best plastic surgeon in all of Canada?" I wondered aloud.

"You charge about five times as much as everybody else. I upped my fees tremendously and lost all my old customers. But I made a deal with this plastic surgeon in the US. Whenever he had a patient who wanted to do a particular type of surgery, he would say, yes, I can do this for you, but the best in the world at this, is in Canada. Only I have to warn you, he's very expensive. And I would do the same for him. We found that at least 50 per cent of our patients opted for the other man, the supposedly "best in the world"."


And what do you think? In a very short time, he was all wealthy again.

Simonetta softened up, listening to these stories. (Have you ever found that people generally do? Maybe that's why the Chicken Soup series is so popular). She started writing. And an amazing thing happened. When she actually started focussing on the words, she came up with possible jobs she could do, based on her experience, which she could charge premium rates for. Smiling at her, I leaned over and crossed out the figure I had written, and wrote down another one. Almost double. "Sorry Sim, but if you're gonna be doing that kind of work, you're gonna have to up the income. If you don't want the rest of the money, you can give it to me, no problem."

She played around with it until she came up with something she was comfortable with.

"Right then, can you copy this out about 10 times after you wake up?"

She was already buying into the idea now and so agreed willingly. The second day, after performing her little morning ritual, Simonetta felt something burgeoning inside. She was not going to let her friend get away with taking advantage of her. If nothing else, she would place her displeasure on the record.

Sim called her friend and in a calm voice, explained her reservations about having to take the expenses for the job out of her own pocket. Her friend, as expected, started to object: "But you agreed..."

"Yes, I know I agreed. Sometimes I'm stupid. Sometimes things don't hit me till later. But it was not fair for you to suggest I take the expenses, which are no little sum, by the way, out of my own pocket. You said you thought the use of the library in question would be free. It was far from it. You don't have to do anything about it, because as you said, I agreed, but I just wanted to let you know how I feel."

There was silence at the other end of the line. Then her friend came through: "Look, I don't want to jeopardise this friendship. I'll pay you the expenses. No problem. Would you prefer a cheque or cash?"

And that's not all. About 20 minutes later, her friend called again: "Look, you said just now you were undercharging for your services. Just for the record, I'd like to know what you think is a fair price?"

Sim named her price and her friend agreed. "Fine, that's what I'll pay you. I may want to use your services in future and it would be better if we started out on a good note."

And 20 minutes after that, another call: "I budgeted for 20 hours, and although you did it in 18 hours, I think I'll pay you for 20 hours, OK?"

So, after two days of writing down her financial goals, she made an extra RM900 in the course of an hour, just from one conversation. Sim called me after that of course, totally jubilant.

"You see, you see what happens when you change your mind about your value? When you open up your mind to the possibility that you may actually be worth a hell of a lot?"

"Yes, yes, thank you, I feel so happy now. And now I look back on it, I actually find I enjoy such work. Haha."

"Yeah, there's nothing like proper compensation to motivate you."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Hello Bonzo

Hi Bonzo,

It's me again. I was thinking today about violence. And how we're supposed to control our feelings, and remain calm. Even when we're seething inside. At least, that's the message that has been transmitted to me through various sources, supposedly authoritative.

You know what, Bonzo? I think it's a load of bollocks. I think when you get angry, you should let fly. Ya know why? Cos if you don't you get cancer. Either that, or you store it up and when you finally release, one of you ends up in hospital.

Take my friend Sam for instance. For years, he tolerated his mixed-up, spoilt, good-for-nothing little brother. He kept reminding himself to be patient, as his brother pissed away (or snorted) about a thousand dollars a week and then lived off their mom. He held himself in when his brother went out with him, a student not earning barely anything, taking it for granted that big brother would pay. He talked to him, tried to help, but inside, Bonzo, inside, there was all this resentment built up.

"You really shouldn't treat Mom like that."

"Who do you think you are, big bro? Piss off."

Well, you get the picture. Anyway, it all came to a head one day when they'd both been drinking. Dick, the little brother, convinced big brother to go to the corner bottle shop for another bottle of whisky. Then Mom showed up, because Dick had called her to pick him up, on the sly.

Sam: "Oh hello Mom, whatchoo doing here?"

Mom: "Dick called me. Said he wanted to be picked up."

Sam: "Oh, OK then. Bye."

Dick: "Nah. We just got a new bottle. You can wait until we finish it. Go rest in Sam's bedroom or something."

Sam (turning red): "You can't talk to Mom like that."

Dick (retreating behind Mom): Aw piss off you big fucking idiot. I'll talk to her however I please."

Sam reached out over his tiny mother, who barely came up to Dick's chest and took a swing. And once he started, he pounded the scrawny drug-addicted alcoholic loser (if you think I'm biased Bonzo, I am) into pulp. He also practically pulled Dick's arm out of its socket. An hour later, their Mom (who had called the police) drove Dick to hospital.

He was stitched up and is now obliged to go for physiotherapy once a week. For his arm.

Sam was telling me this story over a wine. His eyes lowered, he expected me to be shocked. But you know what Bonzo? I wasn't. And as far as I was concerned, Dick had it coming.

"So did it feel good?"

Sam looked up, his sombre expression lightening considerably: "You know what? It actually did."

"You and me, Sam, we're one of a kind. We store things up until it has to explode and it's always ugly, isn't it?"

"Yeah," he shook his head ruefully.

I know I am supposed to muse on the nature of violence or something, but tell you what, you do that for me, OK Bonzo. Only I have to warn you, if you get too preachy, I will delete what you say.

And if you should happen to fling a few Bible verses at me, I will forgive you, for you know not what you do.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Be it ever so intricate

I spend a lot of the time with my head in the clouds. The rest with my heart in poison. Sigh. There must be a middle ground. I was thinking about charity today. Charity, as in love. Charity, as in do-gooding. Charity, as in something sustainable that really makes a difference in the life of another person (rather than the hit-and-runs to make oneself feel good for the moment).

My little sister is fantastic at it. She saves her money every month, and when she has collected a whole heap (once a year) she gives it to a friend who has a mission in Kenya. He runs a small school in a little village. He also collects clothes, shoes, etc. which he gives to the women of the village to sell, the women, being the providers in the family. Before this (when I was in Australia and she had my car) she used to also visit the doggie shelter once a week and clear out the cages and take the dogs for a walk. There are Myanmarese refugees nearby who help out at the shelter and she became friends with them. For Christmas she made up two baskets of goodies for them (food, wine, cigarettes) and they were so touched. Nobody does anything nice for them. I only get these stories out of her by persistent questioning. She is very, very quiet about what she does.

I, on the other hand, throw myself into projects and then I run out of money, or my enthusiasm peters out. I stopped going to the doggie shelter because it broke my heart. I was supporting a kid in Mongolia for about a year, then had to stop, as I went back to school, which meant, no income. Sometimes I see a person on the street who looks hungry and I go buy some food for them. Unlike my sister though, my efforts are sporadic. There is no follow through. And most of the time, instead of counting my blessings, I am churning with fury, it grows and grows until I can't breathe.

Yesterday, in the shower, it struck me that charity, true charity, is the function of maturity. It is something you made a commitment to and followed through on, regardless of emotion. A very wise friend, Alexandra, once told me that the problem with most people (here she gave me a penetrating look) was that they based their decisions on emotion rather than logic. But hang on, aren't we supposed to follow our hearts?

"Following your heart and submitting to your emotions are two very different things. Sometimes you know in your heart that something is wrong, but your feelings get the better of you. Emotional blackmail wouldn't work if you didn't go by emotions," she pointed out.

True. And now that my "real life" is starting again, I have to figure out what causes I want to support and follow through. I have to figure out what I, rather than the ubiquitous they think of as worthy causes.

Animals. The environment. Education. Marginalised women. Creativity. Hope to those on the cusp of despair.

There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

Life, be it ever so intricate, is really very simple after all.